Fall Light

Step into the light of autumn.

(photo: Pixabay/CC0)

There is something about the light of October.

God’s first gift to man was light. True, the cynic jeers at the simpleton who wants to find a literal cosmology lesson in Genesis 1: recall the scene in “Inherit the Wind” when, during the Scopes Trial, Clarence Darrow puts fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan on the stand, asking him to explain how there was light on the first day when God didn’t get around to creating the sun, moon or stars for three more.

But for the “look-see” world of the ancient Israelites, the answer might have been relatively simple: even when it’s cloudy and the sun cannot be seen, the difference between day and night is still one of light.

Only people who can click a switch to dispel the darkness take light for granted … and only as long as their local power company does not plunge them involuntarily into blackness. The child who is afraid of the dark is not irrational; he betrays a basic human instinct that acknowledges with joy the first words of God in Sacred Scripture: “Let there be light.”

Still, there’s something special about the light of October.

Walking to the local store this Saturday evening, I noticed the softness of the evening light in a still blue sky scalloped by some cirrus clouds. In his poem, “October,” the 19th century American poet William Cullen Bryant describes October light this way: “And suns grow meek//and meek suns grow brief” as the sun sets ever earlier, until daylight saving time ends Nov. 3. If the “meek will inherit the earth,” then the lambent light of fall conquers the world by beauty, and the world acquiesces in its meekness. In “Autumn Woods,” Bryant celebrates fall light as the sun’s “quiet smile//the sweetest of the year.”

Growing up in northern New Jersey, one of my favorite things to do was to take the train or bus to or from New York City during the evening commute. While some might not consider the New Jersey Turnpike the most aesthetic backdrop, both I-95 and New Jersey commuter rails wend their ways — especially between Newark and New York — through a maze of wetlands called the “Meadowlands.” The setting sun gilts those waterways and marshes with a golden tint, enhanced by the contrast of their cattails, brown in the autumn chill. The light show lasts for but a few minutes for a few days in fall, but while it does, it’s majestic. One will sometimes see a heron winging its way in those wetlands — and come to marvel at the beauty that bears witness to God amidst even the grit and grime of a very urban landscape.

[I’m also struck by the majesty of light coming back at night from New York. There’s a certain point as I-95, just between Jersey City and Newark, when a whole light show comes into sparkling, panoramic vision: New York on one side, the lights of Newark Bay and the arch of the Bayonne Bridge, the lights of the multi-lane turnpike and of Newark Liberty Airport and of that city. The first time my wife saw it, she commented that it was a sign of prosperity. For me, it just says how good is light].

Among the works in his new collection of poems, The Hundredfold, Anthony Esolen ponders light. When Jesus gave sight to the blind man, what was his experience? Was it a sudden blast of glory? Or was it more like sparks, like falling stars or snowflakes, shooting through his darkness until, like the creeping glow of the dawn, “there was light?” And now, seeing the ground in the light, could he not now fly? After all, a blind man must scrupulously pay attention to the surface beneath his feet, minding the cracks and gaps, lest he fall. But a man who can see can leap like a stag. He is no longer tethered to the ground. The light lets him fly. The light “bears him on His, lest he cast his foot against a stone” (Psalm 91:4).

As soft and meek as the light of the autumn sun may be, I also marvel at another light of fall: the Hunter’s Moon.

The full moon closest to the autumnal equinox is called “Harvest Moon.” The next full moon after Harvest Moon is called the “Hunter’s Moon.” This year, Hunter’s Moon fell Oct. 13.

What distinguishes the Harvest and Hunter’s Moon is that they are (a) unusually bright and (b) rise almost immediately after sunset. Again, in a world that can flip a switch to illumine a room or go to the nearest grocery store offering foodstuffs 24 hours, the quick rising full moon might seem but an astronomical curiosity.

But, in earlier times human survival depended on “bringing in the sheaves” before frost came, and then stockpiling enough meat to last through the winter (including the celebrations of Christmas and New Year and, for Americans, Thanksgiving). The light of the full moon brightly shining right after sunset automatically extended the time farm hands could gather in their crops and, later, hunters could stay out in the woods after game. One can call it a celestial quirk — or see it as part of the design of a Providential Creator who created “the sun and moon to mark the times and the seasons,” and to serve man who received dominion over them.

Thinking of those game hunters in the woods, I am also reminded of one of my favorite Bryant poems, his “To a Waterfowl.” In it, Bryant celebrates Providence, not (just) in the movement of the heavens but in God’s creatures, which teach man something about His Providential care. Written over 200 years ago when Bryant was a young man, on his way to another town late on a December day as he was about to launch his career, he noticed a bird winging its way to its nest, its body dark across the twilight sky. He reflected on some of those hunters that might still be in field and stream, out there to bag some extra food, but — echoing again the words of Psalm 91 — “vainly the fowler’s eye might mark thy distant flight to do thee wrong.” The marksman’s aims are futile, because another “Power” leads the waterfowl — the same one leading the author. “He, who, from zone to zone//Guides through the boundless sky thy certain flight//In the long way that I must trace alone//Will lead my steps aright.”

You can learn a lot from a duck. So step into the light of autumn.