Silver leaves in midsummer night’s light/Dan Schneider
Today is June 21, the solstice. The apex of summer and the longest day of the year. The sun stays above the horizon, evenings stretch on.
At this time of year it is possible to start out at 9 p.m. and hike three or four miles without fear of getting lost in a dark forest. On this night, and at this time of year, light lasts and lasts compellingly in lingering hours of summer twilight.
The surreality of the light and of long shadows, late in the evening in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, makes me wonder about the quality of light in Alaska and other points north when the sun stays above the horizon a full 24 hours.
Our late-evening, summer-night light is remarkable enough (in its own right). It has been so for several weeks now. Partway through spring leaf-out, back in late May, I walked through a grove of young trees growing alongside the railroad grade. It had just rained. Moisture clung to the trees. Their trunks shone gray-green, as if their gray bark were translucent and the green glowed from within.
What made these trees remarkable was their leaves. Still furled at the edges, each leaf had the shape of a spearhead. Only the leaves’ underside showed.
The undersides of the leaves were silver. Bright silver. And they captured the light in scattered, spear-shaped flashes among the maples’ leaves of brighter green, among the dark green shapes of the evergreens.
When I first saw these young trees, saw their leaves, the sun had sunk low in the sky – a mostly cloud-filled sky – but had not set. When I returned an hour or so later, in the deep gloaming, the leaves still caught enough light to flash silver – points of silver hanging in darkness that now obscured altogether the maples and the evergreens deeper in the woods.
The next morning I walked along the same railroad grade, through the same grove. The trunks of the trees had dried out, their bark ashen gray. Their leaves still curled at the edges, their silver sheen now absorbed in the full bright light of the sun.
When the leaf edges finally unrolled, the leaves were spade-shaped, their edges serrated. Aspen, of course. A common tree in the western U.P. The silver of the leaves has dissipated, faded to gray-green. The leaves shimmer in the breeze in the daytime, without so much mystery as they had when they were still curled into silver spearpoints. But with the onset of late evening, that surreal high summer light, their mystery is restored.
I wanted to write about the aspen trees because to me, their gray and green colors somehow resonate with the diaphanous light of a midsummer night. With the light and with the shadows and with the puckish tricks these play on the eye.
Tonight is a good night to go out to the woods, to see the lingering rays of a day’s long-lived sun.