The Light in Late Spring

May 1, 2018

This is the brightest time of the year. That may seem like a counterintuitive statement, since spring on Cape Cod usually conjures up images of cloudy skies and rain showers. But on a sunny day in early May, if you can divest yourself of seasonal prejudices, the world can seem more bright than at any other time of the year.

Brighter than on an early August day, when the sun is comparably high in the sky – brighter, even, than on the summer solstice itself.  I have felt this for some time, but only recently did I begin thinking about why this might be so.

 

There are several reasons, it seems to me. One of them has to do with shadows, specifically, the shadows of trees at this time of the year.  I noticed this the other afternoon walking along the white dirt road that runs beside the Herring River in my part of town. The canopy of branches and limbs that overhang the road here cast a fretwork of shadows on the dirt roadway, but because these trees are still leafless, the shadows they cast are not solid, not real. – rather, they are ephemeral and translucent, spectral, more like ghost shadows, mere shadows of shadows - – thin, shimmering harbingers of the solid shades of summer to come. 

 

I am talking, of course, about the shadows of deciduous trees of the Cape – the many species of oaks, primarily, but also the wild cherries, the swamp maples, the tupelos, the black locusts, the cottonwoods, the willows, the gray birches and beeches – more hardwood species that we often give the Cape credit for. Pitch pines, of course, cast solid shade year-round. Their shadows lie like dark pools of water on the road. But pines are already in the minority here, and likely to grow increasingly so. They are just interruptions in the vast ocean of light that surrounds them.

 

Another factor contributing to the sense of unusual brightness this time of year is a subjective one, but powerful nonetheless. It has to do with timing. The light in late spring is felt as implacably emerging from the relative darkness of winter. Each day is a bit brighter than the one before it. Autumn light, on the other hand, is felt as a diminishing light, a dying light, each day growing shorter, veering back towards winter. Thus, spring’s light seems brighter than autumn’s, though autumn can, and usually does, have more days of sunlight. To put it another way, all experience is affected by what comes before it and what we know will come after.

 

And there is one more thing, I think, that adds to the brightness of early May’s light, something that has nothing to do with the light, shadow, or season itself, but with the Cape’s spring foliage. During this period, before the leaves come out, the Cape’s swamps, hills, and roadsides are blanketed by a profusion of white blossoms  – billowing fountains of shadbush, low clouds of beach plum, curtains of multiflora rose (yes, I know, it’s an “invasive” plant, but beautiful nonetheless) – in other words, white flowers all, reflecting and intensifying the sunlight. 

 

Of course, all of this only happens when the sun is shining, but on a clear, cloudless day in early May, it can seem as if the whole world is illuminated.