Ode to Joy in progress,
illuminated by winter sunlight.
The Quality of the Light
In the deep dank
dark of a winter in the woods
on an island in the Salish Sea, it poured
all night and blew till the light, and the creek
was high in the day. From the bucking of the
trunks and the roaring on the ridge, we
thought we were in for a long one.
The drumming on the roof
But the quality
of the light was incredible by
afternoon. Sunshine, streaming
to a sculpture I’m carving, angle
low, through winter windows.
No artificial source
can touch it.
Crystals leap to sight,
forms snap to mind, and the colour
of the stone is unbelievable. The quality of
that light is not to be believed, however,
but to be experienced by anyone
who attends to it.
At Grizzly Lake,
sunset was special for us
because of the alpenglow across
the lake. For a few moments at the
end of the day, oranges, pinks, purples,
bright, intense, and fading, domi-
nated our entire world.
when the sun had gone
and dark was in the hollows,
the sky still glowed the
deep neon blue of
stark in silhouette,
unique as individuals,
each offering sights and
insights less accessible at
other times and places.
I drew trees when I
could barely see
Here I was
special time, especially while
I wore my “scientist’s hat”, was after-
noon in a meadow above camp, facing
east, away from the sun. The meadow
is steep, up to 37 degrees
around 4 pm in late July,
when meadows on the other side
of the cirque would still be
sunny for hours.
rays parallelled the slope,
skimming the tallest plants, the
entire hummingbird economy we
were studying shifted radically
for a few minutes, trigger-
ed by the quality of
It was a new
day for a few minutes.
Bright red columbines
popped! against dark back-
grounds, their features vividly stark.
Insects ordinarily invisible stood out
and I could see them well enough to
watch the individuals fly.
the flying insect
watching was spectacular.
And the best part for me was
that the hummingbirds
could see them
the balance between nectar
and meat, so they went
for the meat.
did what I was doing, and their
bill-twitches told me what they
were looking at. Sometimes it
was the same bug I’d been
aerobically, they ‘hawked’
insects from the air, flitted quickly
from bug to bug to bug to bug, perched
briefly to swallow, then returned to the
air while the light was right.
Meat was cheap
when the light was right
so they went for it. Then
they went back to
The name of the game
for the hummingbirds, who were
migrating to Mexico at the time, was to gain
40% of their body weight in fat as fast as they could,
right there in those meadows. As soon as they were
fat enough, they were off on the next 500
or 600 miles of the way to their
From dawn until dusk it was
nectar, nectar, nectar for the hummingbirds.
They scratched and scrambled for advantage,
used those advantages as wisely as they
could, and packed away fat
as quickly as they
careful shoppers, though,
they took a bug break
If they’re smart,
lucky, and female, hummingbirds
may fly from Alaska to Mexico and back
13 or more times in their lives. That’s
a lot of heart beats and wing
beats to fuel!
early morning in the same
steep, east-facing meadow,
where sunrise and sun-
set come early.
flows over cold stone
from snowfields above when
hummingbirds arrive. It is
nearly light enough
to see them.
all your clothes to keep from
shivering. The hummingbirds are
cold too, and wear all their own
clothes – – spherical, feather-
fluffed little butter-
for the cost of keeping
themselves warm, they collected
more nectar before the sun came up
than at any other time of day. We could
hardly wait for the sun to come up, and
tracked it slowly down the mountain
toward us, and the humming-
birds tracked it too.
When the very
very tips of the very very tops
of the very tallest trees around us
had the tiniest bit of sun, those hum-
mingbirds were up and outta
there to bask in it.
They left their
perches, left the territories they’d
invested so much time and energy to win,
left the flowers that produced the nectar that
made them fat, abandoned their guardian-
ship of their land, and headed
for the sun.
They spent the
next 10 or 15 minutes
basking, preening, paying no
attention to each other. Drifting
into mininaps, as humans do,
warming and soaking
every hummingbird in the
little meadow left for the sun
at the same time, came back
at the same time, and
honour among thieves.
more like snakes a few minutes later,
warm, ready for the day, and ready to resume
the business of gaining fat for the journey. Nectar
harvest rate dropped immediately when they
didn’t have to eat so much just to keep
warm, let alone gain enough
fat to get to Mexico
Special light in special
times and places.
heard of the luminous quality
of the light in the south of France. Van
Gogh and his friends made it famous. Painters
like north-facing windows in studios because
of the quality and constancy of their
light throughout the day.
fictional account of Michelangelo
selecting marble at Carrara by the first
rays of sun, said to penetrate to the core of
the block, revealing inner qualities that
otherwise would be invisible. I see
no reason to believe the
myth, but it makes a
makes a good point
In Graphing in
Science and Sculpting I discuss the
value of graphs like this in understanding natural
economies like the early morning one above. That one
graph says everything the story says, except where
they perch, how they get warm, and
where they find their
The hummingbirds in
this story are those I described
in a TV interview as the “Meanest,
Nastiest, Territorial Squabblers
of them all”.
with each other for a few
minutes in morning and afternoon,
and rufous hummingbirds are definitely not
known for cooperation. Their sunbath is
more like a truce, and it serves them
well to agree on it.
They tell about
the same event, but from
different perspectives and in other
ways, and they emphasize
Here, the point about
insects in afternoon is that the
quality of light for seeing matters
to hummingbirds. It varies greatly
over the day, and they pay close
attention to it all
does the quality of light vary
in the real world. So does its quantity.
At the other end of the day, its direct radiant heat
affords geting warm for cold hummingbirds
and I guess Gibon might say that calling
a truce for a few minutes affords
getting warm or getting
Grizzly Lake Story was
part of a full-length dance performance
choreographed by Gail Lotenberg and performed by her
company LinkDance Foundation and developed in collaboration
with four behavioural ecologists. As Gail explains eloquently in
this video, the objective of Experiments was to express
the essence of scientific discovery in dance.
Speaking of hawking
from the air, The Wind Hoverer
is also about that. In that case, the hawks
were in the air, the air was turbulent,
and their prey were hidden
in grass on the
When I saw my
drawing of trees and sky at dusk in
Grizzly Meadow while editing, it reminded me
of a picture in a publication on an early biological
expedition into the Trinity Alps, I think led by
Joseph Grinnell from Berkeley. It may
have been 1919, which was a
In an image of that scene,
taken from near where I drew that drawing,
I compared individual trees with the same trees
in one I took on my first backpacking trip to
Grizzly Lake after 7th grade, 36 years
later and whenever I came
It would be
interesting to compare
my drawing with a series of
photos of the same skyline
in different years.
everyone who hikes up
that trail takes a picture from where
Grinnell took his, so there should be lots
of pictures to compare. The report is in a
publication of the Museum of Vertebrate
Zoology, entitled “Trinity Alps
…..expedition….” or some
thing like that.
that one skyline change
would be like watching a century-
long clip from a time-lapse movie of the
life of the wilderness and the forest.
It could be an interesting
First published in the Vancouver Observer.
Edited March 2021