Nature's Refrain

February 15, 2024

"Japanese Maple after Rain" by Eric Rennie

As I’ve gotten older, my world has gotten smaller — a not uncommon phenomenon among people my age.  You’d think this would be problematic for a landscape photographer who must be out and about to practice his craft.  I still mange to get out and about, just not so much nor as far.  At the same time, I find I’m more alert to subjects closer to home, sometimes no farther than my own front yard.

For some time I've had my eye on a Japanese maple outside my kitchen window.  When it rains, I watch silver droplets dripping from dripping from its rain-slicked reddish leaves.  A few times I’ve gotten out there with a camera and macro lens that allows me to photograph the leaves close up.  But I had not yet captured anything as good as what I see in my mind’s eye.  Then one day recently, the sun broke through right after a rain shower, and I thought my moment had arrived.  In short order I was parked under the tree with my camera and tripod.  I framed my shot and pressed the shutter.  Nothing happened. I checked my settings and tried again.  Still nothing.  My heart sank.  The camera’s battery was dead, and I had no backup.

Equipment failure — to say nothing of human error — is an occupational hazard among landscape photographers.  Not to mention to the vagaries of nature itself.  But it’s not as if my battery failed as Big Foot sauntered across my lawn.   I knew that my moment would come again; indeed, the sun broke through after another rain shower only a few days later.  As another Connecticut resident, Mark Twain, quipped long ago, “If you don't like New England weather, wait a few minutes.” 

Landscape photography makes you very aware of what naturalist Rachel Carson was getting at when she said, "There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter."  Dawn comes after night, and tomorrow it will be the same.  Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.  And likewise the seasons, spring after summer, year upon year.  With such precision do they arrive — sunrise, sunset, summer and winter solstices — that you can time them to the second.  

All of which comes in handy if you’re a landscape photographer who must be out and about. It is one thing if I intend to photograph the Japanese maple in my front yard.  Then I have only to look out my kitchen window to see the lighting conditions.  But if I have to travel any distance, I may wish to consult an on-line app called an ephemeris.  Just plug in any date and time of day, and it will show you on a Google map the exact angle of the sun in relation to what you want to shoot.

Nature consults no calendar or timepiece, so how is it able to function with such uncanny precision?  The short answer is that the earth operates as a giant metronome that marks time for everything on it.  Since our planet started spinning 4.5 billion years ago, dawn has come after night some one trillion times, slowing by only 1.8 milliseconds per century during that time.  The earth is tilted 23.5 degrees on its axis with respect to the plane of its orbit around the sun, which accounts for the changing seasons as it tilts toward and then away from the sun on each circuit. 

All plant and animal life is governed at the cellular level by circadian rhythms (from the Latin circa diem, “about one day”) keyed to the earth’s rotation on its axis.  Individual cells react to changes in light and temperature from the resulting cycles of day and night.  These circadian rhythms ensure that everything is done in due season: the mating, the budding, the blossoming, the pollination, the nesting, the hatching, the birthing, the flowering, the molting, the migrating, the hibernating.  Humans are no exception.  Circadian rhythms control our body temperature, along with cardiovascular function, metabolism and sleep patterns. 

We begin to see why, as Rachel Carson said, we find the repeated refrains of nature so infinitely healing.  We do not exist apart from nature; it literally pulses through our veins.  From the earth’s orbit around the sun, to its ceaseless pirouette day by day, to the circadian rhythms that animate all life on this planet, we are all dancing to the same tune.


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