On any given day, you could look at a gentle Eastern Shore landscape and say to yourself, “That’s quite lovely; we’re lucky to live here.” But if you’re fortunate enough to catch that same landscape in a moment of luminous light, the words will just stick in your throat, you’ll stop and stare, marveling in the quality of the light that transforms a scene you know well into someplace ethereal, other-worldly. Maybe the light lingers or maybe it’s gone in a heartbeat, but in that moment, you know you’ve been a witness to wonder.
That happens a lot over here. There was a time when I believed that our luminous light was a function of all the water surrounding us, but I’ve seen the phenomenon happen in sere environments, too, so water can’t be the only cause. In photometry (the science of light), luminosity is a measure of the wavelengths emitted by a light source in a particular direction. The human eye—sensitive miracle that it is—is somehow able to calculate and receive subtle changes in the luminous intensity of light, changes that transform the mundane into magic.
I like science, but sometimes, it doesn’t go far enough. Scientific explanations often seem to stop at the border to wonder; they’re unable or unwilling to explain (in plain language anyway) the emotional impact of something I’ve seen or heard or felt. Like many others, I have been mesmerized by the images coming back to us from the James Webb Space Telescope, pictures that prove, in the words of one of the project’s directors, that “there is no such thing as empty sky.” Through the JWST’s unblinking eye, we can now literally see back to the very beginning of time, what one person working on the project called the “let-there-be-light” moment. That’s stunning enough, but what stunned me even more was the thought that although we can now see literally hundreds of thousands of galaxies we’ve never seen before, we only know about 5% of what makes up the universe. The rest is “dark matter,” and science is at a loss to explain what that is. We know it’s there; we just can’t see it.
But, fortunately for us down here on earth, we can observe luminous light, not always of course, but at least from time-to-time. That luminous light appears so suddenly, so unexpectedly, so out-of-the-blue, makes it all the more miraculous. Nothing has changed: the scene is the same as it always was, but then suddenly something shifts and everything is cleaner and clearer, each blade of new spring grass, each budding leaf is bathed by a light so soft and gentle that the whole world shimmers and shines. Stop; take it in; savor it, lose yourself in that moment because all too soon, it fades.
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendor in the grass,
of glory in the flower,
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer who lives in Chestertown. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy Magazine. Two collections of his essays (“Musing Right Along” and “I’ll Be Right Back”) are available on Amazon. Jamie’s website is Musingjamie.net.