Oct 7, 2010

Fall Light

[A version of this piece was published in 2002 in my Rappahanock News nature column, "Backyard Happenings," after another long, dry summer.]

After the long, hot, dry summer, many of us in Rappahannock County wondered if our normally spectacular fall would have any color at all, or if the leaves would merely turn brown and drop to the ground unceremoniously. Then, with its usual unpredictability, nature turned around and dumped a load of rain on us, accompanied finally by seasonably cool weather. Instead of brown, we got to enjoy one of the more spectacular fall leaf-turnings.

In Rappahannock, fall color means more than local folks being able to enjoy aesthetic appeal. Our economy depends on tourism as well as agriculture, and both would have suffered tremendously if the drought had continued into fall. Not to say that it’s over, but the recent rains have put a pleasing dent in the water deficit and given us the fall color that we’re famous for.

The incredible shifting in light in the last week, as fronts and rain came and went, made me stop what I was doing more than once to admire the show. It reminded me of of the rain that finally came in fall after a drought in 2002. One image sticks out in my mind particularly. The clouds were racing across the mountains early one morning, they suddenly opened up to create what in Southeast Alaska (where it can rain 365 days a year) is called a "glory hole" – a break in the clouds that lets the sun shine through and light up a small area of the ground below. The term came from mining, referring to an open-pit mine, alluding to the treasures that lay beyond it. This glory hole opened up over Thornton Gap down to Sperryville. With all the moisture in the air, the light had a soft, glowing luminosity that reminded me of the nineteenth-century painters of the Hudson River School of art.

“In the Mountains,” by Alfred Bierstadt,
one of the best-known Luminist painters
These painters used light effects to dramatically portray such atmospheric elements as mist and sunsets. This technique became known as “Luminism.” (For more on Luminism, including examples of Luminist paintings, check out the online Art Encyclopedia.) The National Gallery of Art has some of these paintings in its permanent collection, but several years ago it featured a show of just Luminist paintings. As someone who gets spine tingly anytime light breaks through the clouds during a storm, or when mists diffuse light to create a soft, magical glow, this show was heaven (no pun intended) for me. Today the style would be considered overly romantic, but the real show in nature can be as spectacular – as it often is after a rain in Blue Ridge country.
While I’ve seen glory holes open up over Alaska, the Rocky Mountains, and myriad other magnificent natural settings, the quality of light when they occur in the Blue Ridge is somehow different. The light manages to be intense yet soft, more of a caress of the landscape than a sudden shock of light. In the fall, the combination of this soft light and the glowing fall colors can be an unbeatable combination.

In Alaska, when hikers meet on a trail, they often acknowledge their shared love of that natural wonderland they’re hiking through by saying “another day in paradise.” When a glory hole breaks open during a fall rain in Rappahannock, we could easily say the same.

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