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The Light In August Turns Personal

By Ralph Gardner Jr.

Ralph Gardner Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County, and who writes commentary for WAMC Northeast Public Radio. You can read more about him in our Rural We column.

There’s something about August light that makes it superior to the light at any other time of year.

I realize that’s a large claim to make. Why should one month be any different or better than another?

Every month, every day, each hour potentially has its moments. Wouldn’t the quality of light have at least as much to do with the weather – if it’s overcast or clear, sunny or rainy. You can also never discount the influential role clouds play, either. They play bass to the band’s lead guitar, or something like that.

I’ve had the opportunity to spend time in Italy in August. And I used to the think the mellow light – if one wanted to attempt poetry you might go so far as to describe it as antique—was peculiar to that country and its Renaissance culture.

That what made the light noteworthy had less to do with the time of year than what it was illuminating – ancient churches, towering campaniles, fields of Tuscan sunflowers.

But the light – not that I’m competitive or anything – is just as amazing come August in the Hudson Valley, and for all I know in the Appalachians, Colorado, and the California coastline.

I tried to do a Google search for “light in August” hoping to find some scientific explanation. But, of course, William Faulkner’s novel by that title dominates the search results. “August light” fares hardly better.

But while searching I came across an excerpt from “The River In Summer” by Maury Haraway. Mr. Haraway, according to an Amazon description of his 2013 book – the work tracks nature across the seasons and the North American landscape – is an expert in comparative psychology and animal behavior, and an avid birder.

And he writes, “Light in August is the beginning of the light of autumn. Something to do with the slanting of the light, with the angle of the Earth in its tilt versus the Sun. The light becomes more golden and acquires a purer quality.”

I can see how birding might qualify you to generalize about the light, if only because you’re spending lots of time outdoors and observing. But come to think of it, comparative psychology might also serve as a critical credential.

Because there’s something psychological about the light in August. I think I might be forgiven for assuming the light was particular to Italy because that’s where I happened to be at that time of year.

But what makes it special is that it seems a peculiarly personal kind of light. I don’t typically think of the gothic light of November with its low clouds; or the white light you wake up to after a January snowfall; or the bright, budding green of May as something that belongs to me.

But August light has a way of making you turn outward and inward simultaneously. It’s reflective light, no pun in intended.

I first started noticing the change a few days ago, admittedly still in July. Maybe because this summer seems more lush than the average one.

And while Mr. Haraway detects autumn in its fine print – I don’t disagree – the light by no means encourages you to throw in the towel on summer and start thinking of things like the fall, school supplies, and Thanksgiving. God forbid.

It’s a light that encourages you to give nature, and perhaps yourself, a second look. To take stock and appreciate your good fortune – your good fortune, if nothing else, to possess the apparatus to bear witness to nature, to contemplate its beauty. Because the light seems to flatter just about anything.

I happened to be somewhere over the last few days – at the moment it’s not coming back to me but my recollection is that it was an urban setting – and while it didn’t look great it looked as good in late afternoon as it was ever going to look.

And when the light happens to bestow its grace on things like trees and rivers and mountains in this part of the world it’s hard not to believe you lucked out by choosing to live here.

Last night, as I write this, we had dinner with friends who recently moved to the area. The high point of an altogether lovely evening came when we took our drinks to the top of a hill, as sunset approached. Several lawn chairs were waiting for us in a freshly mowed spot. We chatted as black cows in an adjoining field casually grazed amid the green grass, as if they hadn’t a worry in the world.

You couldn’t help but feel that the animals were appreciating the light just as much as we were.

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Posted by Lisa Green on 08/14/17 at 11:04 AM • Permalink