Edge of the World – Next Light

That’s what the sign should have read Thursday morning. I got to the edge of town and faced a white wall. Once past the last stoplight, the world disappeared into fog. It wasn’t as thick as earlier this fall, where I could not see more than five feet ahead of the truck (and where having the “Kyrie” being sung to the Barbor Adagio is not conducive to peace of mind . . .) but it was distinctly odd. One minute there’s a world and lights and civilization of sorts, and then foomp! Grey-white and only hints of the possibility of something beyond the edges of the road.

We’d had just enough moisture overnight to cool the ground, where it wasn’t paved. My part of town has a relatively large amount of greenery compared to blacktop, and we had some mist and heavy dew, but not the wall-o-fog. As I headed west, the sky overhead stayed clear, and even the big part didn’t show much mist or fog. It lurked, waiting, “something lost beyond the streetlights” to paraphrase Kipling.

The fog hugged the land, only twenty or so feet thick, a white blanket over the world. It pooled more heavily over the now-dry lakebeds, snagged in the tall grasses and water plants. The fog’s texture appeared different, denser than just “fog,” as if I would touch something tangible should I park the truck and get out and pet the air. Even as I drove, the mist thinned here and there, allowing glimpses of fast-moving red tail lights on the distant interstate and on county roads. I heard a few western meadowlarks calling in the damp quiet, but no birds took wing.

Anything could have been in the fog. Had I caught sight of a herd of shadowy bison grazing in a playa, or seen other phantoms of the past, it would not have surprised me. By the time I got to St. Angus in the Grass School, the eastern sun threw rose and crimson over the mist, while streaks of gold rose over the world.

Some mornings are like that.

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Autumn Skies . . .

A strong cold front with a howling low for a chaser lumbered through on Thursday and Friday. Ahead of the storms, the skies became rather striking, especially with the fall colors. The cottonwoods peaked here this past weekend, where there are cottonwoods. The Bradford pears have not quite gotten red yet.

That’s the actual color of the sky. The photo above didn’t catch the depth and the variety of blue, white, and grey overhead. It had been even more dramatic when I went out, but by the time I returned to the house, got my phone camera, and went to a location free of cars, happy hounds, and flying footballs, well . . .

It’s hard to say which is more dramatic. The locust trees in color, or the bare branches against a full moon, or against heavy, white clouds . . .

The Shadows Are Black

Yes, this is self-evident. Except this year, having trees and other things cast black shadows is a novelty. Allow me to explain.

Going back to June, I noticed one afternoon, as I glanced out my window on one of our many sunny days, that the shadows had soft edges and a reddish cast. The sky was not obviously smoky, as sometimes it has been, but soft blue and just-a-whisker hazy. The sun cast reddish shadows where black ought to be.

And so it continued all summer. With a few exceptions, usually the morning after a storm, reddish shadows stretched and contracted as the sun crossed the sky. No air-quality warnings (except when fires in CO and NM sent smoke right over us), no red skies (like 2019 and 2020), but the light lacked the usual edge that cut crisp lines of black and white, or black on green. Something muted the sunlight, which also explains why tomatoes and the like failed to truly thrive. High smoke and a solar minimum dimmed the light and the plants just didn’t thrive. We had heat, but not clear light.

That began to change three weeks ago, and really shifted this past week, when a very strong cold front and rain lumbered through, drenching everything in one of those cold, damp weekends perfect for curling up with a good book and hot tea, and not doing outdoor chores. (So you can guess who needed to take out the garbage, and do outdoor chores.) On Tuesday, as I drove home, I was gazing at the brilliant orange and gold trees rising above their still-green cousins, and thought, ‘What’s different about the light?” It wasn’t just that the colors are so striking and richer this year than last, or that everything seems to be changing all at once. No, the very light and sky struck me as harder, clearer, sharper than before. I’d gotten so used to the smoky sun that undimmed light surprised me.

No smoke. No dust. The shadows had crisp edges and pure black centers. Light poured down from a clean-washed lapis blue sky that faded to turquoise, not hazy white-blue. Feathers of white touched the heavens here and there, but didn’t block the light.

Fire-season’s not over, not until snows start to fall into Colorado, but the air has cleared. Even with masses of high clouds blanketing the sky, the light remains white, not reddish-tan. The world is a little closer to High Plains normal, for now.

It’s officially fall. . .

I wore tweed for the first time this academic year. New tweed, too. One of two pieces of tweed I got in Edinburgh. Because if you are in Scotland, and don’t do kilts, then why not tweed? Especially since THE great tweed and sporting shop was literally up the hill from my hotel. With a second nice tweed place just down the slope from Shop #1.

Tweed is interesting stuff. it is a relatively rough, heavy woolen weave, dyed in greens, browns, russet, and black. The goal is to blend into the background of heather, gorse, and grasses. Most Americans don’t think of tweed as camo, because we don’t hunt in heather and gorse. And tweed in the US is generally associated with England, academics, writers (bonus points for suede patches on the elbow), and the like. But note how the gent below matches the lower plants around him. I’ve seen better matches, worn by serious hunters. Tweed works.

Hoggs Bowmore tweed breeks. Taken from Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/354728908132262436/

However, I’m not trying to blend into gorse and heather, because we don’t have any of that down here, and they don’t make tweeds for “short grass prairie pheasant hunting.” Besides, I’d have to wear blaze orange over the tweed, which undoes the “disappear into the background” aspect. So my tweeds tend to be traditional browny-green, or in this case, blue-grey. Tweed works with multiple colors, since it is a color blend, although I have one jacket that I have to be careful with. The green is somewhat yellow, and that means a lot of other greens do not work at all. On the other hand, I wore a blue tweed with a teal-brown plaid skirt and blue-grey shirt and it looked great. I’m also confident enough to wear it in the first place. Tweeds can be a bit like hats that way.

Tweed also requires a bit of a tweedy personality, which I have in spades. 😉 I got my first piece of non-borrowed tweed as a gift while in grad school. Waistcoats are my preference, but I good fitting tweed jacket is a lovely thing. Especially when on clearance.

Alas for me, most women’s tweed is a modern cut. I sighed over an A-line skirt at Tweed Shop #1, but it only reached just below the knee. I wear mid-calf or longer. Most tweed skirts are even shorter, sort of pencil-skirts, to be world while following the hunt. Women who do hunt wear breeks [knee breeches] like the men do. I also oogled the jackets, but I ended up getting a lovely waistcoat in a charcoal blue tweed with deep blue-purple lining.

Down the street, literally, was a shop that had lighter, non-Harris tweed things. A car-coat sort of garment in the window caught my eye. I went past two or three times, then succumbed to the lure and went in. Oh boy. It seems that car-coats and similar are the shop’s specialty, and they had all sorts of traditional shades as well as very modern colors. I tried the one from the window, but they were out in my size. Then I found a darker one, also blue-grey. It fit perfectly, has lots of interior and outside pockets, and was reasonably priced. The gent was a bit amazed. “I’ve never seen someone find what she wanted so quickly*, Miss.” He was pleased that I was happy, and I departed with a new mid-weight dress coat or long work-jacket.

I’m sort of a bookish, tweed personality. Now, I just “need” the $$$$ shotgun to go with said tweed . . .

*I call it tactical shopping. Find location, find target item, confirm fit and color, pay for item. I don’t enjoy loitering around shops and getting in the way.

“You Darkness that I Come From . . . “

Darkness, night, dark nights of the soul, following a star in the heavens, comets as portents . . . What does it mean if all of that goes away? Both in terms of astronomy and interesting people in star-gazing and studying the heavens, and in the sense of culture and religion? Those were some of the topics batted around at one of the FenCon panels.

The title phrase comes from one of Ranier Maria Rilke’s letters to a young poet, in which he (Rilke) muses about preferring darkness to firelight, because night includes everyone, while light shuts out those beyond the glow. I confess to having always been one “acquainted with the night,” as Robert Frost phrased it. I grew up star-gazing, taking walks after dark, going on Owl Prowls at the nature center, and so on. I prefer to keep lights dim, even as my aging eyes are less sensitive to light in general. I grew up understanding all the star references, and learning celestial navigation, and so on. But what about generations that can’t see stars, or anything dimmer than the quarter moon, because of city lights?

For astronomers, to lose the stars is both sad and a professional problem. Who will pick up the mantle after the current generation retires, if younger people don’t learn to look up, and are not fascinated by the wonder of “what’s out there? Why does it look like that?” Light pollution is a serious problem for migrating birds as well, in some cases. It can be a real pain for pilots, because finding the airport in a sea of lights is Not Easy if you don’t already know what to look for. Especially if you are not on an instrument approach with everything set to get the radio beacons or GPS fixes. There’s a runway down there. Somewhere. Or is that I-80?

Some people reply to the plaints with “There’s an ap for that!” You can point your phone or tablet at the sky, or ground, and get a star chart for whatever you are aimed at. Hubble and Webb telescope images are far more colorful and detailed than what you can see through a 6″ backyard telescope or binoculars. And some places still have a planetarium, to simulate going out at night without the bugs, traffic, light pollution, stiff neck, or risk of mugging. Who needs real stars?

We humans do. We need darkness to properly rest. We need to be reminded to things outside of our ken, of worlds greater than ourselves. There’s a sense of wonder and amazement kids and adults get from seeing the stars and identifying the patterns and shapes, the nebula and galaxies and planets, that even a great planetarium can’t quite match. There’s no ap that will reveal the heavens in their glory on a cold October night in Yellowstone, when so many stars filled the sky that I couldn’t identify constellations or planets. The Milky Way cast shadows, it was so bright. Or out at Black Mesa, Oklahoma, as the summer stars marched across the peak of the heavens and a coyote or ten called back and forth.

Darkness stands for evil in many religions. Darkness is when bad people lurk, and thus when heroes do their thing. Humans generally don’t see as well at night as by daylight, although there are a lot of variations on “not as well.” We don’t see color, and discerning patterns and “is that a shadow or a hole” becomes a bit more challenging. Not that it stopped people from working, traveling, or doing things at night in the past. Today, we flood the night with artificial light to make travel (in vehicles) safer, to discourage footpads and robbers and other mischief makers. We fear darkness more than in the past. Which came first – not going out into the darkness, thus leaving it for evil to use for shelter, or evil growing in the shadows and chasing “good people” indoors when the sun sets? Yes?

St. John of the Cross reveled in night, in his extended poem and meditation “Dark Night of the Soul.” Night brought the lover (G-d) and the beloved one (the mystic) together. Night is for lovers, for philosophers, for socializing. Night holds sweet secrets, conceals private pain from those who would mock or minimize what is very personal and real. Night is greater than we are. Darkness and stars, the moon and planets, remind us that we are tiny creatures in a big, mysterious, wonder-full universe. Who made the moon and hung the stars? What are the stories of the shapes in the night sky?

Without stars, we humans lose both astronomy and spiritual wonder. At least, that’s what the panel and those present eventually drifted toward, although no one said it in those words.

Breaking Summer’s Back: The August Norther

Earlier in the month, Dorothy Grant and I were commiserating about hot weather and maybe the big rain maker that was chugging along would break the heat for a while. Alas, it wasn’t the one, although it did drop temps from 104 F to 84 F, which was a welcome change. The rain was even more welcome, for those who got some.

The big August system came in last weekend up here, and dropped things from the upper 90s to the upper 60s. For high temperatures. That’s the sign. Indeed, temperatures have stayed below the 30-year average for the past week, and seem to be remaining low. Oh, they’ll bounce up again in September, because they always do during the Tri-State Fair (just like it used to rain during FunFest every May when that was still held), but the worst seems to be past.

The August Norther, or Grey Norther as I sometimes call it, is the first really strong cold weather system to come down the plains during late summer. It starts as a wind shift, from the common southwesterly winds of summer, the dry, hot winds from the desert. Instead the windsock swings around to the north and northwest, sometimes northeast. Moisture comes in as well, the humidity creeping up from bone-dry to slightly damp. People start looking north, and checking the weather reports from places like Guymon, OK, and Dalhart Texas, up to the north of us. If they start getting cool, with light rain (or sometimes with heavy rain and storms), and Kansas and Colorado are also cool, then you know what’s coming. People with weather joints like my hands grit their teeth, because it hurts. Change is coming, even if we can’t see it and we don’t get restless like we do in thunderstorm season.

Clouds begin to mass on the northern skyline, low and dark or towering and ferocious. Either way, the cold air flowing south down the plains churns up the air, making clouds and scattering moisture over the landscape. Sometimes it is a cool, steady rain that lingers for hours and soaks everything slowly, perhaps flooding low places if things are just right. Otherwise it is a snarling, crashing storm line that drenches the world and sends streams out of their banks as low-water-crossing signs start to go under water in town and the usual places have street flooding. The rain is always welcome in August – nothing is ready for harvest, the winter wheat has not been planted, and the cotton and sorghum are still growing. Ranchers like the rain because it gives the grass a boost to start it growing again, or to keep it growing.*

The next morning wakens sluggishly as low clouds cling to the world, hiding the sun. The wind has faded a little but cool or even cold air continues to ooze down from the north. Instead of the 90s, 50s and 60s dominate the temperatures. Light drizzle may fill the air. It won’t soak you through, but it chills you if you don’t have a windbreaker or light jacket on. Joggers rejoice, and dog-walkers brace as old dogs gain new life from the cool air. The smell of dust is gone, replaced by mist, perhaps by the scent of drains in need of more flushing. Your glasses spot up, especially if you face into a cool, water-rich wind. Hot, spicy tea tastes very good when you come back indoors, lightly damp and a touch chilled. You can open the windows and let fresh air in without baking or getting dirt blown all over everything. The world looks greener already.

The clouds might burn off, thinning before revealing the sun. Or they might win the battle, hugging the ground and hiding the sky. People hunt for jackets long ignored. No one complains, though. The cool air is welcome. This past weekend didn’t bring as much rain to town as people had hoped, but other places got a gracious plenty, places that missed the previous round. Everyone relished the coolth. Not until two and a half days after the first clouds raced in did the sun appear, too late to heat the day.

Three days in the 60s and 70s, followed by humid, cool mornings and warm but not baking afternoons, that’s a sign. Summer’s back has been broken. The worst is past. Heat will return, but not the weeks of water-stealing desert wind, not the nights so warm the land just simmered in the darkness as people sweltered. The days grow shorter. The sun has moved far enough south that sunbeams peep into my office windows in mid-afternoon, still muted by the leaves on the neighbor’s tree, but present.

The seasons always turn. Everyone knows that in our heads. But when June fades into July bakes into August, our hearts need a reminder that the rains will return. Cooler days will arrive, easing the strain of summer. The Summer Triangle is moving farther and farther west each night, and Sirius has begun to appear in the east. Autumn will arrive. Our hearts know that now. The richest part of the year, the cool, prosperous time of harvest and warm spices and good things.**

Summer’s time is past. The wheel turns.

*Depending on what kind of grasses you have. The native grasses are “warm season” and start later in the spring, then keep going during summer and go dormant fairly early. Cool-season grasses like to die in summer, and thrive in earlier spring and the autumn.

**I’m leaning on tradition. Wheat harvest here is in June, cotton can stretch into December, but the fall seems like harvest because of the fair and other things. Winter can be lethal out here, but autumn is the time everyone waits for.

Storms and Promises

At six AM, the forecast promised rain within the hour. It all went west of town. I live in a heat island, and the effect has been notable this year. Shining storm towers build to the east, grey walls amass to the north and west, and the city gets three drops and a spitter, or at most half an inch while everyone around us is wading. Unless we get a big, juicy, tropical air mass, or a cold-front strong enough to overcome the hot spot, the city is drier than the surrounding area. So I was not surprised when the morning storm skirted past. I walked dry headed and dry footed, under rippled clouds that turned into undershot pink waves. Kites called and soared, and a few doves and other birds voiced their opinion of the morning. The morning cats slunk their way along the houses. Two joggers panted past, intent on their mileage. Without wind, any scent of rain remained under the distant showers. Town smelled like town.

However, come seven thirty, lower clouds began filling in over town. I shrugged and finished skimming e-mail and getting ready to go to work. I needed to grab a few things before my first meeting and to go through books and review papers and so on. It’s that time of year. I heard rain on the leaves outside my office, and rain on the skylights, but just light pit-a-pats, not steady rain or the pounding of a storm’s deluge. The pavement gleamed, but that was it. Another shrug, and I patted the cat and set out.

A brilliant double rainbow filled the sky to the west and slightly south! Black rain hid what lay beyond it as the sun undershot the showers to the east. The inner bow arced completely across the sky, from ground to ground, while the outer one only made it a third of the way, from the southwest up toward the northwest. Both were clearly visible, and glowed. I’ve not seen a rainbow that solid in ages. It was amazing. Enough so that I gave in and sang “Rainbow Connection,” because why not?

When I pulled into my errand, I noticed workers coming out, looking at the sky, then going back in. It turned out that the manager was sending folks out in batches so everyone could see. I trotted in, got what I needed, and trotted out. Both rainbows still gleamed. Traffic moved a bit slower than usual, especially westbound, and I suspect the colors in the sky played a large role. The sky remained blue-black to the west. I almost pulled over to get my camera out of my bag, but decided to wait until I got out in the country on the way to Day Job. Alas, the storm continued at Day Job, so no rainbows.

“Rainbows are visions/ They’re only illusions/ and rainbows have nothing to hide,” says the song. So why was everyone watching, and pointing, and smiling? Well, we need beauty. Rainbows are rare here, especially ones that bright, and doubles rarer still. They began the day on a good note – rain, cooler weather, and colors that sang against the dark background. Even if you are not a follower of Judaism or Christianity, the idea that rainbows are a gift and a promise still has some appeal.

Since the Rain . . .

“Oh, things look so much better, darlin’.” (Ian Tyson, “Since the Rain)

The part of Texas north of I-40 was blessed with two and a half days of rain, culminating in a huge rain shield that covered everything from the interstate north to Kansas and that left between two and eight (!) inches of rain all over. It was a tropical sort of system, bringing steady rain for hours on end, without much wind, and only a few embedded thunderstorms. They were what the Navajo call “female rains.”

I’m far more used to “male rain:” thunderstorm rains that explode, dump rain and hail for a short period of time, and then move away or collapse in place and stop raining. Most of the area’s moisture now comes between April-June with that type of storm. Sometimes storms “train,” forming lines that move over the same area over and over and flood a small patch or strip of territory. Others look like chicken-pox on the radar: a bunch of little red dots that give small patches of land a good drenching. And there are three-inch rains. A few drops three inches apart, usually preceded by flying mudballs.

The first day on Hadrian’s Wall, the morning was overcast. Then the misty cold rain began, blowing sideways as I picked my slow, panting, flat-lander’s way up onto The Sill to walk more of the route of Hadrian’s Wall. It was the sort of weather I’d expected Yorkshire and Scotland to have, and while it wasn’t fun, it was a very nice change from the 100 F + heat back in Texas. Instead of the veils and streamers of blue-grey I usually see when there’s good visibility around showers, it was grey and hazy where the rain fell. I never got truly drenched, but dampness soaked into my trousers and spotted my glasses.

It was rather more gloomy than this exposure suggests. New Lanark, from the famous viewpoint.

The only other day of serious rain was at New Lanark. It had showered on us the afternoon before, when we walked from the mills up to the falls on the Tweed and back. The trees broke up most of the rain, and it’s supposed to be wet in Scotland, yes? The next morning, a steady drenching poured down from low clouds. It was a good morning to be doing museums and poking around the gift shop (great if you are a knitter or do needle art, or like to read about knitting and needle art.) From there we drove almost due west, toward Ardrossan. The rain surrounded us, very heavy and dark, with mist devouring the rolling green landscape. The thickest fog and low cloud met us at Louden Hill.

Louden Hill, where a lot of history and prehistory happened. Creative Commons Fair use. Original source: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/19773685844081178/

The clouds almost skimmed the base of the mound. It was distinctly eerie, not that my imagination needs much help. We were passing the cold front. Just past Louden Hill, the sky abruptly rose, and bits of blue had started to appear when we pulled up to the ferry terminal at Ardrossan.

Departing Ardrossan harbor . . .

It’s easy to see why large swaths of Britain are so green and lush. Now, all I want back here is “clear blue skies—and eighteen inches of rain!” (Ian Tyson, “Eighteen Inches of Rain)

How to End Rehearsal Early

Open-air summer theater is popular in Germany. Productions range from local history to sort of “Ren-fest” to US-style musicals (Grease appears every summer, Candide is well liked.) The town of Schwäbish Hall is no exception to this. The long, curved stairs leading from the Marktplatz (market plaza) up to St. Michael’s Church form a good backdrop and stage, and shows are held four or five nights a week, weather permitting. My hotel room faced part of the steps, but unless I wanted to pay for a ticket, I was supposed to close the drapes and not watch. And yes, someone with binoculars kept track of rooms occupied vs. rooms occupied and with ticket. I kept the drapes closed.

The church and steps. Creative Commons Fair Use. From: https://monkeysandmountains.com/destinations/travel-europe/travel-germany/

The weather that summer was cool and somewhat damp, with light rain every few days. This deterred neither the actors, who probably appreciated the cooler temperatures, nor the audience. Apparently it did reduce beer consumption, which the Biergartens [beer gardens] didn’t like, but “It’s not as bad as 2013.” (It stayed in the 50s-60s F well into late June. Some Biergartens never opened.) The show went on, although some dance numbers had both dry-weather and wet-weather versions, to allow for the slicker footing on wet stone and wet wooden platforms.

I’d been out and about in the morning, visiting museums and poking around all over the place, especially those corners where tourists didn’t go, starting at around 0530. The joys of June in northern latitudes, when sunrise comes very, very early. That afternoon, as I explored St. Michael’s church, it started to rain. Then storm. Frog-strangling, small-stream-flooding, garbage-can-floating rain. I finished in the church and raced across to my hotel, wrung out in the foyer under the watchful eye of the older woman at the desk, and retreated to my room to write and dry off. Did I mention it was pouring rain? No wind to speak of, but very heavy showers.

The cast of the musical was blocking the next show, despite the rain. The director had a large umbrella, under a small tent. I watched as I wrote. The young singers/dancers walked through several scenes, growing wetter and wetter, clothes plastered to them, hair wet. Still, rehearsal went on.

Crack BOOOOMMM! I jumped and the cast of the musical ducked. The thunder echoed a little off the stones of the square and church. After a moment, the actors got back to their feet and resumed.

CRACK BOOM!

The sound person waved his hands frantically. The director waved her hands back. The cast scattered for cover. After a brief pow-wow, the sound person sealed up the sound booth, lowered the tent flaps, and fled like the sensible person he was. Something about electricity, lightning, and being higher than many of the surrounding buildings.

Storms continued to roll through that night. No show. The risk of electrocution and lightning-strike overrode the lost ticket sales.