A certain slant

Put it off all you want; there’s no escaping the pull of the blank page. We writers stare into it the way, in ages past, a body might have confronted and tried to befriend its own mortality. It was considered greatly enlightening, in fact, to acknowledge one’s “inner death” that way, back in those benighted centuries before the gospel of unlimited Growth unseated the old values of poverty, humility and hospitality.

Mid-afternoon a few days before the winter solstice and I’m up at the spruce grove at the top of the field. The air is as clear as it gets and the view out toward the east is spectacular, but I’ve seen it too many times to become entranced. Mountains and rivers without end, big deal. But turn around, go into the grove. Look: a small patch of sunlight on the needle-covered ground illuminates an otherwise invisible, glistening tapestry. Marvellous!

I kneel before it, run my fingers along the ground to make sure this isn’t some kind of wintertime mirage. A few threads bend to the pressure of my fingertips, but most of them somehow escape my touch. They are extremely fine, and stretch right across the surface of the ground: the ruined webs, I suppose, of what I always like to think of as handkerchief spiders. They are too taut simply to have fallen from the trees, I think. The whole network trembles in this barest ghost of a breeze, while all around the unlit ground looks bare and ordinary.

Then a few minutes later at the so-called vernal ponds along the crest of Sapsucker Ridge, another kind of revelation: three flat, white spaces on a forest floor otherwise free of snow, blank pages for the tracks of coyote and white-tailed deer and the long shadows that stripe them from end to end. I stand and stare at the largest one, contrasting its present opacity with my memory of how it looked on my last walk here a week ago. It was a few hours closer to dusk, and I stood watching the dark outlines of tree trunks shake and shimmy against a reflected sky for so long, I almost managed to convince myself that I was being given a glimpse into some other time, some other forest.

Now this frozen and snow-dusted pond in the woods is the opposite of a looking glass. But with the sun so bright and the sky so blue, its surface offers a sneak preview of coming attractions one or two months away. The long shadows will be just this shade of blue, yes, and in between, the granular surface of the snow pack will glisten, just like that. I will time my walks and set my course so as to head as much as possible into that “certain slant of light,” alert for anything that gleams. I remember how my friend Crystal Dave used to walk when he was out searching for quartz in a freshly bulldozed site of a future subdivision, head down, hands clasped behind his back. “You just go along blinking into the sunlight,” he said, ever the night owl, “and look for that one stone that winks back.”


There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of cathedral Tunes –

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference –
Where the Meanings, are –

None may teach it – Any –
‘Tis the Seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –

When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –

(The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition, R. W. Franklin, ed., Belknap Press, 1998, # 320)

A contribution to the Ecotone wiki topic Solstice Place.

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