Seeing in the Dark: A Meditation on Science, Art and Human Nature…part 1

I was walking the other day, as I like to do (it’s a way of thinking and breathing at the same time), when I felt myself walking into something and, you know, I knew the place. I walked right on… into where I already was.


That’s right, the hill above my house. A bit of sagebrush, a few skritches of bunchgrass, a saskatoon bush, snow everywhere (cactuses under the snow, soil between the grasses, under the snow, and mariposa lily bulbs under the soil, with the voles), and some fine Okanagan Valley winter fog. But, no, that’s not what I felt myself walking into. I was walking into the dark. Here’s some dark…


… yeah, I know, culturally it’s called light. That’s what makes it so fascinating. In light, the image above is an image of an apricot tree on a farm around the corner from my house, and a red-tailed hawk, on a fencepost (second post from the right), and some snow, and wild Canada goose tracks, too, honk honk honk. Note: they’ve given up on migrating. Circling and stomping around in the snow is more their thing now.


The hawk doesn’t bother with them. Look at him below. He has his back turned on them of all things! He’d probably put in ear plugs if he could.


But that image with the hawk in it there above is an image of the dark. Now, of course, in terms of light culture, there’s light in the snow and light in the grass there, and dark tones that have absorbed light in the fenceposts and the rose bushes and the hawk, and what they are is the absence of light. The things themselves we can’t see, in this light-world. We can only guess at what they are. Maybe as an extension of the puzzlement and joy-of-figuring-out in the image below…




obscured by light (and fog and falling snow).


… and maybe not. At any rate, the earth is black. What we see is something else, a system of signs that unite us with the world we view. Here’s an image of blackness, consisting of shapes of gravity, molecular pressure, air pressure, and other forms of physical energy bonding.



Obviously, the gull is using solar radiation just as we are, to make body images of its place in this dark, interpenetrating swirl of forces, just a few energies of which are the light energies which put the yellow in the gull’s bill and the blue into the water. We’ve all been trained in this story, and it’s a compelling one. You can see one of the major effects of using the sun in this way in the plum tree below.


Is the dark the absence of light, or light the absence of dark?

(California Prune Plum)

Because of a couple centuries of big-time training in this light-trumps-all theory and the forms of cognitive calculations that accompany it…

Book Illustration Depicting Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in a Train Cabin

Watson and Holmes Figuring Out the Tricky Deceptions of the World

Every Intellectually-trained Human’s quintessential model.

…the big cultural story in town these days is that humans are visually-oriented creatures, who like the light and are cognitively adapted to making use of it. Few people point out that humans see things this way because they’re trained to. That’s right, seeing has become a highly-specialized, highly-trained art form. Is this snow-crushed grass after the sun melts the snow away, or art?



It’s a good question, but as long as the “We are Light” theory of human nature is the main story in town, the question is unanswerable. After all, humans are so attuned to light, aren’t they, that at night they turn the dark into dreams, in technicolor, because without light the day cannot be laid down in memory. Perhaps that’s true.


Are those drops of water on this bunchgrass memory?

The  plant lays down seed because of certain molecular pressures, which, held in place by time, attract water, which attracted me The complex processes of molecular folding which creates the photosynthesis used by these plants in the spring and summer, is scarcely different. It is all retained behaviour, binding future and past into the present. That’s memory, isn’t it? It is, at least, so in light theory. For humans, so the story goes, a glimpse into the light is a glimpse into the power of the world itself. There humans see themselves.


Well, yeah, OK, they used to see God in images like that (and many still do), but a God who made man in his own image and woman out of a rib bone. Don’t worry about taking that too literally. It could just mean that male consciousness is oriented to light and female consciousness is oriented to touch and bone and blood and what you can hold in your hand, and that they are, ultimately, the same, in relationships worked out according to complex feelings of desire and rootedness.



Elder flowers scaring away witches. Gruyères, Suisse

For Swiss country houses, this feature, the goddess’s flowers put to use for the priests of God’s purposes (on the principle that what the man of the house doesn’t know doesn’t need to hurt him, especially if you give him an easier story to divert his attention), is as important as chimneys. (That’s all kind of how humans work things out.)

But I digress. According to the theory that humans are attracted to light like moths to a flame, other conscious functions of the mind, so the story goes, are subjugated to the information they gather from light. Humans live in the light, it is said. We are light beings. We cannot see the dark (or in it.) Here in a weeping willow for instance, we are in the threads of light, all that yellow and orange and brown and pink and red, so pretty:

P1650007 Such colour! And look at the light collecting in the drops of molten snow that are collecting on the buds of these twigs! That clinches it! It’s light for us!


Look at the colour the human eye can differentiate in light. Such molecular vibrations! We, the molecular vibration measuring devices, able to deduce birdness from colour, yay! And life, the colour of blood, just fantastic, too.


Of course, the theory ignores the fact that the original meaning of the attraction to light was proof of the existence of God, to whom humans were drawn, as they were of the same substance, which is to say that scientific exploration was a pathway to God, but that’s the way of theories… you have to ignore some stuff to get a handle on other stuff. The result of this creature-of-light theory is an entire world of surfaces, which humans read in order to deduce their depths. Or, in the case of some human surface making, the surfaces of the surfaces of the surfaces of the surfaces of the surfaces.


Andy Warhol Being Norma jean Being Marilyn Being Marilyn Being Marilyn Being Marilyn

(Being Mechanized Pigment Application Processes)

According to this exploration of the world using surfaces, humans track meaning, given to them by clues of light. Without that, they’d be lost.

P1640713Any dog half worth his schnoz would be able to deduce a novel from these tracks by smelling them. Humans do it by looking at them.


Ah, deer! We say, following a track up through the weeds to the vineyard where, I’m sorry to say, temporary foreign workers from Mexico chase the deer around on four-wheeled motorcycles, whooping. Hunters to the end, that’s the human soul, it is, in the world of light.



Tracking Pheasants

Or is that what we’re doing? Perhaps these colours, and all this light…


Cat Tails Soaking In Water and Light

…are really shades of darkness, not hues of light. Perhaps, the world is one unified thing and light is something else, something like the flight of birds, terrestrial creatures who live in air, or the branching of trees,



Western Red Cedar with Hoarfrost

… that live in light yet are rooted to the ground.


Perhaps the image of an abandoned fence line below is not an image of light but an image of darkness, and what is seen as colour isn’t an effect of light but an effect of darkness and form, created when light enters the darkness and darkness expresses itself in certain forms of radiation, or in reaction to them. We see darkness, agitated.


Of course it is.


I don’t think this is just a game of changing perspectives and renaming light as another thing, even as its opposite. That’s the thing I realized when I was walking. This is something that is within every moment. In the image of sagebrush and invasive cheatgrass below, which is brighter? The white light on the sage? The radiative colour of the grass? The darkness at the core of the sage brush?


No, those are surface effects. They’re all equally intense. They’re all what the sun looks like on earth. Humans, however, are earth creatures, which is to say not just surfaces. In the image below, captured with a light capturing device (a kind of imitation human that is all eye) held to a human eye, there’s a lot of light, some of it in the form of light shadows of a few starlings, a honey locust, a rowan, some frosty firs in the distance, and some more of that Okanagan fog. Certainly, but note how the absence of colour in the high-contrast of the trees and the birds allows us to see something other than the story of the light in the willows above. We see form, and the darkness it lives within.


In that image, light and dark become visible by contrast. This is scarcely a different observation than that of the poet scientist Goethe, whose A Theory of Colour put forward the idea that colour was created in the human mind as an edge effect between light and dark — a kind of resistance, shall we say, or a record of emotional states within the body of undifferentiated light. Goethe invented the colour wheel by creating as part of his argument this image of emotional states recorded in light (and transferable by it, too.)


What’s more, the idea was continuous with the world. By that I mean that according to Goethe’s theories, the colours of this image …



… differ from this apricot in its tree (in my garden, with its nesting American Robin) below …



p1120945 … or this tree (the same one seen in the fog above), in Autumn.cot

These, Goethe pointed out, were moods of the world, and humans, embedded in that world, shared these moods with the same progression as the apricot tree.


Feral Apricot in Bloom, Bella Vista

The idea was discredited by Newtonian science, because very clearly colour can be shown to be a series of gradations of energy in matter — a series of precisely-focused refractions and reflections, recasting matter into the story of its ability to absorb light, which can be carefully observed, to reveal the properties of the matter hidden behind it. In other words, according to this theory, what humans know of the world can be deduced by measuring the light that objects cast off, or by otherwise viewing them with light or by other secondary processes, including intellect. The actual object, however, cannot be apprehended without an intermediary form, either of light or of a re-formation in the mind. Just try, for instance, to find our red-tailed hawk again in the image below, without the aid of light.

Well, more specifically, without the aid of the contrast between the white sky of fog and his dark bulk sitting on an orchard post. Perhaps Goethe wasn’t so far off, after all. It’s just that he was talking about something quite separate from the Newtonian science of light and ruined his argument by dragging it in. Sure, there’s light in the image below, but, I promise, if you touch one of those cones in this ponderosa pine, or even the tip of one of those needles, you will feel it prick. What’s more, if light draws the human mind out into the world, where it reimagines and reinvents itself directly in the stuff of the earth, then this image below is an image of a human body …P1640466… but not just any human body. This one is in wild and fantastical form. It is a creature of the earth. It is in this manner that the earth views herself. And this:


Think of those filbert catkins not as a story of light or illumination but as a series of edges and boundary zones, which reveal your emotional state, which just happens to be the emotional state of the earth. Does this theory lose many of the fine qualities of individual human consciousness and of Newtonian science? Yes, of course, but it adds others to it. But that’s still not what I walked into up on the hill. I walked into form and darkness, and I saw my way through it, in the way if I close my eyes I know where my hand is, or if I walk out on a dark night I can largely find my way by memory and the feel of my feet on the ground. Darkness is also human. It is the body, and I don’t just mean this tottering creature of bones and legs and arms and grey-haired bits. I mean three-dimensional art…and I mean to discuss that tomorrow, on the model of the German philosopher Herder, Goethe’s mentor. Here he is living on in Dessau-Wörlitz, where the modern world was invented, on his model.

200w_04092116155Johann Gottlieb Herder (1744-1803)

What I want to get at is the effect that light-bias has had on the state of the earth, and some corrective measures. I know, it’s a bold plunge, but when have I ever held back? Tomorrow it is, then!


3 replies »

  1. Wow! That was quite a journey! I am no scientist and enjoy being taken with you on walks into your valley and struggling to see it through your eyes. Just one thought to add: is there a sense that everything we see (!) is a point of relationship between light and darkness? Would I be over imaginative to describe everything I see as a kind of dance or a lively conversation?


  2. Hi, Stephen, I’m no scientist, either, but I’d say that you have it exactly right about this dance or lively conversation. It appears to be the way of things. And look at that. I used 2400 words to say it, and you used 19. Whew! At least I snuck that picture of the goofy goose in there and finally found a place for that image from Gruyères! Best, Harold


  3. Hi!

    I can’t make up my mind s to whether this is poetic photography or photographic poetry. But, i also remember “when in doubt, accept both!”

    Last night, before midnight, I remember that 88 years ago, in the home of one of my aunts, with my professional midwife Grandmother’s help, I popped into this world of “Lacrima Valle”.

    Greetings Friend! Keep on prodding victoriously Forward!!! Unless you prefer MARCHING ON VICTORIOUSLY.

    P.s.: I continue storing all your shipments. Glance at them from time to time.


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