The Tree With the Lights In It

Loblolly and Light

After spending a few hours on the Big Thicket’s Pitcher Plant and Turkey Creek trails last Sunday,  I nearly had regained the trailhead when I looked up, searching for bits of autumn color in the still mostly green trees.

Instead of color, a vision of what I first imagined to be an enormous orb-weaver’s web stopped me in my tracks. There was no larger-than-life spider lurking, of course. There was only a loblolly pine, and the sun, and a phenomenon I’d never before seen. Despite their apparently random distribution, the pine needles had transformed the light into a beautifully circular pattern; it was nature, not my camera, that had created the effect.

At the time, I didn’t think anything at all; I only stood, and wondered at the sight. Later, I remembered a favorite passage from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and realized I’d been granted my own vision of a tree with the lights in it.

One day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with the lights in it.  I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame.  I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed.  It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance.  The lights of the fire abated, but I’m still spending the power. 
Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells unflamed and disappeared.  I was still ringing.  I had my whole life been a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.  I have since only rarely seen the tree with the lights in it.  The vision comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it, for the moment when the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam.

 

Comments always are welcome.
NOTE: I consulted Jim Ruebush, who taught physics for years, and here’s what he had to say about the effect: ““In the fully enlarged image, the pine needles radiate out in all directions. But, the only ones that reflect brightly to the camera direction are aligned circumfully (if that is not a word, it is now) to the sun. Their surfaces act like long narrow mirrors. Needles aligned any other way don’t reflect brightly to the camera.” Or, to the human eye!

77 thoughts on “The Tree With the Lights In It

    1. I hadn’t thought of it, but just for grins I went over to her website to see if there was contact information. There was, in a way. After reading this, I liked her even more, and I love that there’s not even an email address for her agent.

    2. I emailed Jim Ruebush, and thought you’d be interested in his explanation:

      “In the fully enlarged image, the pine needles radiate out in all directions. But the only ones that reflect brightly to the camera direction are aligned circumfully (if that is not a word, it is now) to the sun. Their surfaces act like long narrow mirrors. Needles aligned any other way don’t reflect brightly to the camera.” Or to my eyes, for that matter. Adding a little science to the mix makes the sight even more enjoyable.

    1. There are times when being with a group is good, especially when knowledgeable people are included. But I have a special fondness for being alone, able to wander at my own generally slow pace and free to change direction as I please. In this case, I was following a loop back to the trailhead when I felt a compulsion to turn around and retrace my route. If I hadn’t, I would have come in on the other side of this tree, and the moment would have been lost.

          1. Don’t recall that song. Never was a huge Bon Jovi fan. Don’t agree with the sentiment. Sometimes we just get lucky. Happened to us recently when our power company reset in which direction our electricity comes from. The previous direction was a rural road with lots of trees. You can guess what happened during bad storms. Power outages that lasted for days. Now it comes from the town end of things, and we seldom have power outages. We did nothing to deserve this. Plan old dumb luck.

    1. Because I still was in somewhat dark woods and facing the sun, the reality looked quite like the image. On the other hand, had I been even a few feet in either direction, I suspect the effect would have been lost.

    1. I certainly am. I still remember the little ditty my dad taught me when we used to go ‘exploring’:
      “For treasure hidden to be found,
      Look up, look down, and all around.”

    1. One of the best things about the natural world is that there’s always something new to be seen. Sometimes I don’t have a clue what I’m looking at, but research after the fact can clear up a good bit — if not everything.

  1. WOW, Linda, this is amazing! It rather looks like you set your camera and twirled around, trying to capture that circular effect. Isn’t Nature grand, giving us glimpses of the heavenly while we’re here?!

    1. The image reminds me of the star circles some photographers create with long exposures. I’m still not certain how the circular effect was created here, but it certainly was eye-catching. Eventually I’ll figure out what was going on — probably with help from a more scientifically minded person.

        1. I found the answer: not from a techie, but from a physics teacher. Here’s what he had to say: “In the fully enlarged image, the pine needles radiate out in all directions. But, the only ones that reflect brightly to the camera direction are aligned circumfully (if that is not a word, it is now) to the sun. Their surfaces act like long narrow mirrors. Needles aligned any other way don’t reflect brightly to the camera.” Or, to the human eye!

    1. I’m glad, too. I’m accustomed to rainbows, glories, sun dogs, and such, but I’d never seen anything like this. I suspect several factors had to be just right, including the angle of the sun, and the angle from which I was viewing it. Amazing.

  2. Serendipity!

    At my age, I’m usually focused on where I’m putting my feet so that I don’t trip and fall. Thanks for reminding me to stop and look up, once in a while.

    1. Serendipity, indeed — and some sympathy re: foot placement. One thing I’ve had to relearn on forest trails is that roots can be sneaky trip hazards. For the most part, I go to ground by choice, but I’ve started carrying my phone with me instead of leaving it in the car — and I have the various emergency numbers in my contact list, just in case.

      I’m sure you know about this, but I found a Cornell article about Whimbrels on Deveaux Island in my inbox today. That’s right in your back yard.

  3. For some reason Dillard’s words of a charged and transfigured cedar buzzing with flame and still spending the power…reminds me of God’s Grandeur by Gerard Manley Hopkins and the world being charged by the grandeur of God…and for all men’s activities and generations, nature is never spent:

    I like the idea the world/nature is charged and every cell humming with it.

    The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
    Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
    Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
    Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

    And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
    And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
    Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

    Love your image and that interesting circular web of backlit pine needles. Nature is the source of design.

    1. Hopkins is a favorite. I always think first of “Spring and Fall”, but there are several I return to now and again, including the one you’ve included here.

      The two lines that really caught me this time are:

      “And though the last lights off the black West went
      Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —”

      They reminded me of a favorite song that I’d meant to post when November came around, and now it’s November. The song is Gordon Bok’s “Turning Toward the Morning. It’s amazing what memories surface when I listen to it: different every time. It’s so powerful, and hopeful. I especially like the video. There aren’t any “strong production values.” There’s only water, and a boat, and birds, and a voice.

    1. It was a wonderful afternoon, and this surely was the unexpected highlight. The shorter days make easttex trips a little harder, but they’re worth it. Now that the Turkey Creek trail is open again, I may devote an entire day to that one. Who knows what’s there to be found?

  4. A Kodak moment indeed — when the world prints an indelible snapshot onto your mind, an image that sticks with you over the years. There is a thorn tree in Africa that those who live with it call “wait-a-bit bush.” Now and again the world will snag you like that thorn bush and say, “Wait a bit. You need this,” and it will give you such a gift.

    Mine is of a concrete overpass with a large concrete culvert through it that equalized the water levels between two little playa lakes on either side of the road. It was in a gap between two blocks of apartments at a T intersection with the alleyway behind the apartments. There were cedar trees planted along the far edge of the alley way on either side of this little playa lakes. It was late at night. As I drove up, my headlights spotlighted the scene of a single white great egret poised in the black water, against the black circular culvert opening in the grey concrete. It was like something out of a Chinese watercolor. It was magical.

    1. Dillard makes the same point as you have: that there are two ways of seeing. She writes: “When I walk with a camera, I walk from shot to shot, reading the light on a calibrated meter. When I walk without a camera, my own shutter opens, and the moment’s light prints on my own silver gut. When I see this second way I am above all an unscrupulous observer.”

      It’s a fact. I don’t need to look at this photo to recall every detail of my first sight of the light-webbed tree, just as you remember your egret and its culvert. Not only that, I can see your egret, too, just through your words. A photo isn’t always necessary.

  5. What an amazing sight. I don’t think I have ever heard of this phenomenon before, let alone seen it myself. Normally when I aim my camera up in the tree at certain times of the day, I get starbursts (which can be pretty enough on their own).

    1. What amazed me about this experience was that the camera’s help wasn’t needed to create the effect; it was there as soon as I saw the tree. I’ve often played with backlighting of leaves, grasses, and so on, but exactly how the circular effect was created I can’t say. There’s no need for an explanation to appreciate the vision, though!

    2. A friend who taught physics offered an explanation: “In the fully enlarged image, the pine needles radiate out in all directions. But, the only ones that reflect brightly to the camera direction are aligned circumfully (if that is not a word, it is now) to the sun. Their surfaces act like long narrow mirrors. Needles aligned any other way don’t reflect brightly to the camera.” Or to the human eye, for that matter. Once I read his explanation, it made sense.

    1. Of course I had my camera! and my little collection of lenses, too. I’ve learned over time never to assume that I won’t need one lens or another. The day I decide to carry only the macro will be the day I find a tall, sunlit tree just begging to be photographed!

    1. And now, having seen it — it’s time to try to understand it. The word ‘refraction’ keeps coming to mind, but I have no idea why. Something cool was happening, that’s for sure.

      1. I emailed Jim Ruebush, our resident physicist, and here’s what he had to say: “In the fully enlarged image, the pine needles radiate out in all directions. But the only ones that reflect brightly to the camera direction are aligned circumfully (if that is not a word, it is now) to the sun. Their surfaces act like long narrow mirrors. Needles aligned any other way don’t reflect brightly to the camera.” Or to my eye, as it turns out!

    1. That’s right ~ I had great fun looking at some of those time-lapse sky photos. As I mentioned, I sent an email to Jim — there’s nothing like having a physicist on call! I’m going to add a note to the post, and to my next one, just so people who come along later can read the explanation. It’s rather like a corona, except it was reflection rather than diffraction.

    1. There’s beauty everywhere; there’s no question about that. Beyond that, I enjoy what I call “nature’s analogies.” The pattern of this light surrounding the tree suggests the wheeling of the stars, seen in time lapse — just wonderful.

      I emailed a friend who taught physics for years and asked him about it. Here’s what he said: “In the fully enlarged image, the pine needles radiate out in all directions. But the only ones that reflect brightly to the camera direction are aligned circumfully (if that is not a word, it is now) to the sun. Their surfaces act like long narrow mirrors. Needles aligned any other way don’t reflect brightly to the camera.” I love the thought of pine needles as mirrors.

  6. That’s quite a sight you found there! At first I thought perhaps it was made while somehow rotating the camera during a longer exposure, but with the tree and branches still I knew that likely wasn’t it unless it was a double exposure. I also liked the idea of giant spiders building webs up in the trees, reminds me of a chapter in The Hobbit. Knowing it’s a piece of nature makes me smile. It’s another reminder there’s always more to see if we’re open to it. I’m very glad you were.

    1. It looked just like this when I spotted it, and before I took any photos. No camera techniques were used in the creation of the image! But, I was so curious I emailed a friend who taught physics for years, and asked him about it. Here’s what he had to say:

      “In the fully enlarged image, the pine needles radiate out in all directions. But the only ones that reflect brightly to the camera direction are aligned circumfully (if that is not a word, it is now) to the sun. Their surfaces act like long narrow mirrors. Needles aligned any other way don’t reflect brightly to the camera.” Or, to the human eye. The thought of pine needles as mirrors makes me laugh, but once I read his response, it made perfect sense.

  7. Your photo is so incredible and I just keep thinking that somehow you have been blessed so that you happen upon some of the most astounding photographic opportunities in your expanded neck of the woods. I have never seen a photo such as this one but I can guarantee you that I will remember it.

    1. Isn’t it something? I was glad for Jim’s explanation. Knowing the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of natural phenomena makes things more interesting to me, not less. When I think about how many factors had to come together for me to encounter this sight, it really is amazing. If I’d been a few minutes earlier or later, if I’d taken a different trail, if it had been cloudy… best to just enjoy the sight, and be amazed!

  8. What a fantastic find of a unique phenomenon. It reminds of a piece of antique glass with a swirl. It was nice to read Jim’s explanation. Glad you noticed and did a nice job of capturing this.

    1. I hadn’t thought of it until your comment, but you’re right: it looks very much like an antique glass paperweight. Even though there weren’t many flowers blooming, the light did a good job of creating its own sort of ‘bloom.’

  9. A wonderfully mystifying satisfying image to have shining around in my head today!

    Once again, you exemplify that special sort of individual who observes her surroundings, as opposed to most of us who blithely “go for a walk” or snap a pic of a flower and fail to see the bug in the bud.

    The world needs more you.

    (Now you’ll have me staring at the treetops straining to see whirling dervishes of pine needles aligned circumfully to the sun.)

    1. You’re certainly not one of the “most of us”you mentioned, although I have encountered a few who fit the description. They probably are related to the people who make tracks across Kansas or Oklahoma because “there’s nothing to see there.”

      Isn’t ‘circumfully’ a great word? I found it used quite a bit a century and more ago, for everything from Victorian table settings to Australian parliamentary debates. I also learned another word: circumfulgent, which means “shining around or about.” That fits.

    1. One of the best things about a camera is that it allows sharing sights ilke this. In this case, a picture surely is worth a thousand words — or more. How could anyone describe something like this in words?

  10. What an extraordinary sight! A wonderful thing to come across – but thank goodness it wasn’t a giant spider web, because I think it would have been trying to catch something a lot bigger than a fly, hehe!

    1. I have a feeling a spider that large would have seen me as a lovely appetizer — if not a main course for dinner. Better to see an unexpected light show, and live to tell the tale!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.