A Long Stretch of Somber Tint


“To light a candle is to cast a shadow.”

Ursula K. LeGuin

Autumn is here. At least the calendar says so. In Nashville, our trees are not yet dressed in their fall color, but autumn is a tease of a season. Through the green, she peeks out here and there in a splash of yellow and a dash of orange before fully emerging in her grand red and gold. Leaves are beginning to drop, one at a time, but it won’t be long before they shower down as autumn whispers a windy, “Shhh!”

Autumn is a good time for shadow-watching as the sun angles southward for the season. Last week my toddler grandson discovered his shadow. We were visiting our local botanical gardens, and as we strolled down the sidewalk, our elongated shadows strolled ahead of us. We paused in the middle of the sidewalk and waved at our shadows – and our shadows waved back. Of course, they did. But standing there with a toddler, I was struck, once again, with the wonder of shadows.

You can’t catch a shadow or hold it in your hand. It’s there, yet it’s not a thing. It’s a silent, visual echo. Its presence is caused by absence – the absence of light. Yet the absence is caused by a presence – of something that blocks the light. A shadow doesn’t appear unless there’s light somewhere. That’s my grown-up wonder. A toddler’s wonder is simple delight in the experience of discovering shadows. And I’m there, too.

If you’ve followed me for a while, you know that when I see an interesting shadow, I grab my camera. Even then, I’m often too late to catch what I saw. Shadows change so fast, going from sharp to fuzzy to not there at all, melting into full light or into full darkness, shape-shifting, sprawling across a lawn and into the street, falling over a house like an embrace. They crawl across floors and up walls. They’re even in pasta pots. Last night I heated a pot of water for rotini. As the water came to a boil, I added the usual salt and olive oil. The oil, floating on the surface of the water, created an amoeba-like shadow on the bottom of the pot.

Today I took a painting class and spent part of the time working out hues and values of shadows, which are not usually gray or black but contain color. “[T]here are surely colors that exist within darkness and shadow,” says Yuko Nagayama, who paints in watercolor. And the painter Paul Cezanne said, “Shadow is a colour as light is, but less brilliant; light and shadow are only the relation of two tones.”

That relation holds true even when we use the word shadow as a metaphor. “Every life has dark tracts and long stretches of somber tint,” said Alexander Maclaren, a Scottish preacher in the 1800’s, “and no representation is true to fact which dips its pencil only in light, and flings no shadows on the canvas.” Still, colors exist within shadow, so when we feel like we’re living in “a long stretch of somber tint,” we might do well to look for the beautiful tints and tones to be found there.

And if the shadows seem monstrous? It’s worth considering that maybe what’s casting the shadow is not that large at all – like the elongated shadows of me and my grandson on the sidewalk. As the saying goes, “Worry often gives a small thing a big shadow.”

This week, notice shadows, big and the small, spiked and curved, indoors and out. And enjoy!

“There is strong shadow where there is much light.”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe


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Text and photos © 2018 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.