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posted on January 29, 2010 | Sculpture and Art
The Quality of the Light was Incredible

Ode to Joy in progress,
illuminated by winter sunlight.


The Quality of the Light
was Incredible

In the deep dank
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
and the roaring on the ridge, we
thought we were in for a long one.

The drumming on the roof
was incessant.

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,
ut to be experienced by anyone
who attends to it.



At Grizzly Lake,
sunset was special for
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.

Minutes later,
when the sun had gone
and dark was in the hollows,
the sky still glowed the
deep neon blue of

Trees stood,
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
the paper,

Here I was
looking north
from Grizzly
at dusk.



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
in places.  

Sunset was
around 4 pm in late July,
meadows on the other side
of the cirque 
would still be
sunny for hours.

Exactly when
rays parallelled the slope,
skimming the tallest plants,
entire hummingbird economy we
were studying 
shifted radically
for a few minutes, trigger-
ed by the quality of
the light. 

It was a new
day for a few minutes.

Bright red columbines
popped! against dark back-
grounds, their features vividly stark.
nsects ordinarily invisible stood out
and I
could see them well enough to
watch the individuals fly. 

In short,
the flying insect
watching was spectacular.
And the best  part for me was
the hummingbirds
could see them

That shifted
the balance between nectar
and meat, so they went
for the meat.

From their
perches, hummingbirds

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

Aerobatically and
aerobically, they 
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 

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
wintering grounds. 

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
from nectar
at 4. 

If they’re smart,
lucky, and female, hummingbirds
may fly from Alaska to Mexico and back
13 or more times in their lives. 
a lot of heart beats and wing
beats to fuel!



Imagine early
early morning in the same
steep, east-facing meadow,
where sunrise and sun-
set come early. 

Cold air
flows over cold stone

from snowfields above when
hummingbirds arrive.  It is
nearly light enough
to see them. 

You wear
all your clothes
to keep from
shivering.  T
he hummingbirds are
cold too, and wear all their own
clothes – –
spherical, feather-
fluffed little butter-

To pay
for the cost of keeping
themselves warm, they collected

more nectar b
efore 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
up sun.

Each morning,
every hummingbird in the
little meadow left for the sun
at the same time,
 came back
at the same time, and

nobody cheated.  

It was
honour among thieves.

Butterballs before,
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
have to eat so much just to keep
warm, let alone gain enough
fat to get to Mexico
on time. 


Special light in special
times and places


Everyone has
heard of the luminous quality
of the light in the south of France.  Van
Gogh and his friends made it famous.
like north-facing windows in studios because
of the quality and constancy of their
light throughout the day. 

Irving Stone’s
fictional account of
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
good story. 

It also
makes a good point
about quality. 


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
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 “
Nastiest, Territorial Squabblers

of them all”. 

They collude
with each other for a few
minutes in morning and afternoon,
and r
ufous hummingbirds are definitely not
known for cooperation. 
Their sunbath is
more like a truce, and it serves them
well to agree on it.

I tell the cold
morning story in the video
Grizzly Lake Story, and relate it
to other hummingbird stories
A story for Twyla

They tell about
the same event, but from
different perspectives and in other
ways, and they emphasize
different things.

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
day long.

The psychologist
J.J. Gibson would have said
that the quality of the light at that time
of day 
affords flying-insect-seeing.  Other
psychologists say that’s what makes
it clear and salient to them. 

Not only
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
flying insects.

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
century ago. 

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
back later. 

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

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