And The Sky, Full of Fire
I went to sleep at about five thirty in the afternoon, waking sometime around eight to a beautiful light filling my west-facing bedroom through a crack in the curtains. I pulled the cloth aside and was treated to a blood-red sky with golden highlights; grabbing my clothes and camera gear, I threw myself into the car and drove like a man possessed to the top of Mount Tolmie, the highest place I could get without having to go too far. Hundreds of other Victorians had the same idea. I parked and scrambled up to the summit where I set up and stood, watching the light change, mesmerized by the interplay of color, shadow, and cloud.
I don't remember a lot of conversation between the people who stood up there with me that night. Quiet murmurs were the extent of the conversation. We turned to each other, made eye contact, nodded once, content in the knowledge we were witnessing something that was rare in Victoria -- that was rare anywhere, but especially rare here. We knew it was a gift from the world to us, and we wanted to savor every minute of it.
I grew up in southern Alberta, and throughout my years there, I would look forward to autumn and the harvest season, when the work of hundreds of combines and grain trucks would turn the sky the most beautiful colors -- gold, blood red, purple, azure, hunter green -- and I would watch as the sun set and changed the way I looked at the world. If the forests were burning, or if it had been a bad year for grass fires, my streets would become red then, too. Intellectually I knew it was because of the smoke and dust particles in the air; romantically, I liked to think it was summer's last stand. Whatever the cause, it was inspiring and absolutely wonderful to watch.
The most vivid memory of living in Alberta, I think, was driving from Lethbridge to Calgary along Route 519, heading west into the setting sun just after Labor Day in 1995. It was harvest time, and there'd been grass fires in the Porcupine Hills a few days earlier, so the air was thick with particulate. The sky looked like it was on fire, lit by the sun and scorching every cloud it touched. I loved every minute of it, driving into the sunset, listening to Paula Cole and wondering if I would ever see something so beautiful again.
I moved out to the coast the following spring, and I haven't seen a fall in southern Alberta since. We simply don't get the same kinds of colors out here -- we don't get thunderstorms, we don't get windstorms, we don't get the extremes of weather you get on the prairies. It's hard to reproduce such memorable moments, even in Alberta. But this came close.
In her novel Restlessness, Aritha Van Herk wrote,
I travel to escape the rotund, belligerent light of the foothills, the knife of high cerulean blue. Light is seldom muted in Calgary, sometimes gray if snow or rain plunge over the city, but that temporary reprieve seems aberrant, and until the dazzle returns, people look puzzled. Visitors arrive in order to shade their eyes at the teeth miraging the western skyline. Fall and spring are best, for then the mountains are sharp echoes outlined with snow.
I don't think I've ever read anything that so elegantly captures the essence of land and light in Alberta. I miss it.
Tech details: EOS 50E, 100-300 4.5-5.6 at the long range, tripod, ballhead, RVP 50. The scans were done on a cheap flatbed; they probably should be redone on a drum, so I'm sorry about that.