Lights at night, from a distance

4 January 2017

I arrived in the East Woods today during astronomical twilight, still dark enough out to see the stars clearly, but I could see the day brightening as I walked in. From the furthest bend of the road going through the east woods, the lights of the suburbs and the business park to the north and northeast reminded me of coming into Las Vegas at night 25 years ago. I was 21, sitting in the back seat, a hitchhiker with a tall eastern European medical student who was also hitchhiking, living on white rice and raw bacon and ketchup and cream cheese (an unlikely but delicious combination), scouring used book stores for medical texts he couldn’t find back home; a 17- or 18-year-old kid from Texas, our driver, who was out to see the world before heading off to the military; and his German exchange student, who was sharp and a bit exasperated. I believe the boy’s parents had sent him and the exchange student off with the car and a gas card to see the west. He was nostalgic as all get out, compulsive, young. It was dark, and I had just caught a ride out of the Canyonlands and Zion and Arches. I was in the state you feel coming off the trail when you are suddenly back in the car, and your campsite of that morning is locked up instantaneously in the past, inaccessible to you, and you are a little stunned. What were we doing going through Las Vegas? I can’t tell you what I was feeling the second before we saw the city, but I remember the feeling of buoyancy as we came up over the hill to the east of Las Vegas on I-15, and I suddenly saw all those bright lights in the distance, orderly stars crammed into the gridwork of the streets and sidewalks. Peering over the shoulders of the guys in the front seat, I was flying through the west. I had once previously experienced this feeling, in the foothills of the alps in southern France, watching the lights of the houses on a far slope grade almost indistinguishably into the stars above. Both times, I felt I could jump and land among the lights with just a little push off.

I biked to the trail that leads west from the Big Rock Visitor station and walked the remaining way into the visitor center. I had in mind to start making observations of the woods today as a backdrop to a book on the American oaks – I think every year of my adult life has started with some vague plan of this sort – but I hadn’t reckoned on it being so dark. Trails stretch out when the sun goes down, and everything looks new and strange. I like walking in the woods, and I think a part of me will always have faith in a romantic fantasy that my senses will pick up where my eyes leave off, and I’ll be able to just sense the species I’m walking past. That of course is nonsense: the only way to make that move from one sense to the other is through work, taking the time to learn an individual during the day, get to know it well, then come back to that individual at night. At night, I find I am much more taken by the woods as a whole than I am by individual trees. A few individual trees grab my attention as I walk by, but I more impressed by the sound of the bike wheels rolling over the frozen chips, the structure and texture of the woods around me. I stopped at a bench overlooking one of the little ponds that appeared on the east side after the drainage tiles were smashed around 2005 or 2006. It was now what they call nautical twilight, and the early morning breeze was moving frozen things around a bit. Birds were still: I thought I heard something calling in the distance, but only once. It was only 12 degrees Fahrenheit, but I still expected to hear a bit more.

I walked on toward the visitor center, came up over the hill by Marlin Bowles’ lime prairie at the corner of the geographic collections, and off across Meadow Lake stood the illuminated trees that the Arboretum strings up each year. I was looking toward the west edge of the lake, to the very spot where three nights earlier my family and I had been standing, and my sons had gotten into a conversation about whether or not the lights constituted a work of art. One claim was that strings of lights should not, under any condition, be thought of as art; the counterclaim was that hung in the bedroom, those lights would just be lights, but out here, strung across the lake and up in the trees, they became art. I stayed out of the argument, but this morning as I walked the remaining quarter mile to my office, I watched the trees in front of the visitor center as I approached and then walked under them, and I was struck by what the lights accomplished. The lights so carefully track the architecture of the trees that they bring out some essential aspects of the structure that I would not have seen in the daytime. Like a fluorescent dye administered by a doctor, or a stain used by a cytogeneticist, the lights highlight the trees’ structural essentiality. From a distance, the artificial colors (blue, white, electric green) reveal one person’s understanding of the tree’s essence. Like the lights of the suburbs, or of Las Vegas, or of a village on hillside, the lights on the trees provide an insight into the architecture of the world that is harder to put our fingers on in the daytime. A walk at night, for me, highlights the structure and texture of the landscape much more than a walk during the day, when individual trees continually distract me.

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