Vegas For Nature Lovers and Other Winter Miracles
In which we visit a strange festival of lights and remember how to catch the sun
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You could say my sister and I are photosensitive. Our father was a photographer and hence, conscious of the quantity and quality of light in the same way other people are about money. Growing up, my sister and I wished our dad worried more about whether we had enough cash to buy groceries than whether we were losing the light.
But if we had to choose, we'd probably still want to be the kind of annoying people who will stop mid-sentence to point out that the sun has just gone soft and low and now a frozen field looks like gold velvet. Or tell you how a band of light slipped through the blinds that morning illuminating a child’s face in an almost holy way.
I’m sure Dad was right, good light is worth chasing. Wait, and things will get interesting, he'd say. The light will shift. We learned the tandem principles of luminosity and geometry. Noon sun can be cruel, but the gloaming is usually kind. And I’ve learned that I can look 41 or 73-years-old on the same day depending on the angle and ferocity of the sun.
This is the time of year when light and time merge into one scarce commodity. The holiday countdowns are relentless, and dusk steals in at 3:30 or 4:00 pm. We eye the grey-purple sky and think, how is it so late already? I still have so much to do this afternoon, this year, this decade.
But after two years of watching January predictions and plans become gambles and hopes, there is probably only one thing we all dare count on: With each day, we'll get a few minutes more of sun. Spring will come. The light will change. Things will get interesting.
Meantime, we keep baking and eating and gravitating toward brightness—anything that’ll hold a reflection or cast a shadow. Some of us even buy those alarm-clock lamps that simulate the gentle onset of dawn as early as we want, like tiny electronic Gods.
And so Christmas night, my sister got us tickets for a winter lights walk at the Meadowlark Botanical Gardens in Virginia. We packed up our grown and half-grown kids and drove out in the disturbingly warm weather. The rain let up as we arrived, leaving a humid halo around string lights that had been shaped into rabbits and silhouettes of wolves, deer and owls, and many unidentified creatures. There were disco Christmas trees next to fields of summer flowers made of tiny bulbs. Streams of blue lights on the ground were populated by illuminated fish.
This garden was like Vegas for nature lovers. Toddlers stood motionless, bewitched by the glow of LED frogs leaping into the darkness. We ran through green tunnels and stood under blue trees laughing at our alien selves. My older kid had an old-school film camera and I took photos with an iPhone. I was the screen-ager who cheated by futzing with contrast, cropping, and posting. The Gen Zer doggedly navigated the science of night photography, manual focus, and oh-my-god, not knowing for days if they got the shot.
My sister and I take a fair amount of glee in watching our kids crave and seek brightness and worth in their own ways. It’s so clear that this next generation has a lot of our father's sensibilities. And they know that you have to keep the aperture open for longer if you want to catch the light in December.
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A few images from the week that was.
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It’s Not Just You by Susanna Schrobsdorff is essays, recommendations, advice, weekly delights, and, most importantly, a community of thousands of readers around the world. So please consider supporting it with a paid subscription.