Transactions of Light

1,478 total words    

6 minutes of reading

Photo Credit: greg, "Copper River Birch" (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Standing, birch is yearning, / Silent, sleepy spire, / Falling snow is burning / In its golden fire.

Sergej Jessenin, The Birch

In these days of mid-December, there are only few leaves left on the birch tree in front of my doorstep. They are so few now that each lonely leaf seems to shine with a bright light of its own: a handful of incandescent light bulbs scattered among the meager twigs, each radiating a small circle of gold.

The birch, a fully mature tree, grows in a patch of earth on the curb, between two parking spaces. There are more birches, alternating with cherries and mulberries, alternating with cars and bicycles. It is a quiet street, so quiet, that a few golden birch leaves can draw my full attention.

Every morning when I leave the house, I pause and let my eyes take a short bath in that light. When I have time, I take out my notebook and try to write down a sentence in human language that echoes the feeling these last leaves give—their light dimming and at the same time rising like a warm tide. The sentence that comes closest is not my own but Ezra Pound’s. He noted that the only thing he was interested in was the “liquid light, the nous, the fecundity of nature, the feeling of the soul in ascent.”

When I am greeted by the fewer and fewer remaining leaves that shiver five meters above my head in a light breeze, which my cheeks don’t feel down here at street level, I feel this upward movement, the sweet transport by which my feeling ascends. And the only thing I want to do is to greet these leaves with a gesture that would, at least in the faintest way, return that energy, the energy that makes the muscle of the soul rise and flex.

Lewis Hyde has written beautifully about this experience, about the idea that everything valuable is an offering that makes the soul rise. Reading Hyde’s work also pointed me toward the Ezra Pound quote. I think that we can say: the only things that count in reality are transactions of light. Everything that is real, really real, and meaningful, is a transaction of light.

Autumn is not special in any respect but this: it shows us the essence of what counts by slowly subtracting colors from the picture and thereby immersing us in light. This is why I take out my notebook in front of the birch, when I have time. This is why I write.

Autumn for me is a peak time of writing down ideas. This is not because I am particularly imaginative at that moment of the year. It is a reaction to something coming from the outside. It is my aliveness answering the stirring in others’ lives at a crucial seasonal intersection. My urge to write down my feelings is a way of echoing what is happening to the tree foliage all around me. I resonate with a life cycle coming to an end, dreaming of a new start.

I feel immensely loved at that time of the year. Loved by the colours, loved by being called to immerse myself in the warm light. I feel invited to be, surrounded by so much being, by such  a candid parade of what really matters. I feel loved by being flooded with sensual pleasure. It is the pleasure of imagining with my own sensible skin what the experiences of the skins—or the barks—of other beings are. What we all have in common.

My words are my way to picture the leaves changing colors, from their different greens into creamy yellows, light browns and bright reds, first slowly, then in leaps and bounds, in tender surprises (oh, I did not expect this birch to be able to turn into pure gold!) and bitter delusions (tonight’s storm stripped the maple of all its foliage except three crumpled sprigs!)

I write so much in autumn because it teaches me so much. The trees show that they are taking biological account of the summer’s past riches, and that they are ready to undergo transformation. Autumn urges me to express my feelings because the world is so full of feeling. The trees don’t speak. They might not even think. They display thought all over their bodies.

In their fullness, the trees grant myself the fullness of my own experience. I feel alive, without any censorship of what it means to matter. For some brief and blessed moments, I watch myself not only with the eyes of a human individual, entangled in social necessities, but as the world experiencing itself, as much as I experience the world’s fullness through the viscous yellows and silky purples.

In autumn, I always have the strong feeling that it is not me who is watching the world, as I would watch an object, turning it from one side to another. In the trees’ colorful presence, I discover that it is the world watching me through itself. I feel that the colors of the trees are my eyes, their light is my vision. I see as the world. The world sees as me. 

I have understood longing, acceptance, coping with endings and preparing for new birth by sitting under the bronze bells of beeches, gleaming in an oblique sun, giving back the summer’s energy in weightless leaves swirling to the floor. I have felt the lightness of birth in dying under the vibrant gold of some scattered last birch leaves. I have come to dwell in certain dimensions of myself only through being invited into the light of others. I have stepped into the space of my inwardness through being immersed in what is outward.

The living world, its vibrant matter and radiant energy, is a poetic space where living beings express their experience of being alive. The traces of this aliveness are not “mere matter” imbued by us with a flavor that depends on our cultural upbringing. Reality manifests as a process of desire. To partake in it is a basic love relationship.

My autumn writing frenzy follows my feeling of being loved by being immersed in light. Writing is my way of loving back. Everyone has her own way of loving back. It is important to discover which one in order to feel whole. Loving back is accepting the invitation into the expression of someone else’s individuality—in this case velvety ochre and cadmium orange.

Accepting means full immersion, naked and vulnerable. If we want to love the tree’s winter light, truly love it, we cannot help but answer with our own radiance. Loving back means to be real. This is the greatest possible gift: Offering what we truly are, vulnerable, naked. It is what every being in the ecosystem does. Loving back is the prime ecological act.

An ecosystem at its very base is a process of love. On a material level, this love manifests as fruits, shining with ripeness, or as sun, tickling with pleasure. On an experiential level, this love reveals itself in the feeling of belonging, in the bliss of being fully alive, in the unspeakable happiness under the last golden light. Loving back is the urge to partake.

We usually consider the practice of love a private matter, rather than an instrument of knowledge. But the tree’s kind hues show us that love is not private. It is not a feeling but an urge. It is the way ecosystems long to prosper. It is the urge to be, and to invite into being, by following this urge and therefore granting oneself the right to be whole. 

Love does not announce itself as an overwhelming goodness that makes everything okay, but rather as a deep longing to be touched—and to touch. It is the longing to be, and through this, to invite others into being. Giving in to love transforms us into an organ of perception, enabling us to know the world from the inside, through its desire to tenderly relate and transform.

Reality is matter, and it is desire. It is desire because it is matter. And it is matter because it is desire. Only by greeting others with our vulnerable surface can we feel. The autumn foliage speaks: Have the courage to trust in a new birth. Trust the splendor of death, let yourself sink into its promise. It reveals the single most important thing to remember: that both, birth and death, are the same.

The vanilla and chocolate wavelengths of autumn shine inside me. The world has become my own sense organ, the palpable surface of my experience to be alive. The towering beeches shed one crisp leaf after the other. The trees are raining light. Instead of growing dimmer, they become brighter with every drop, until their empty branches, opening upwards, hold nothing but the sky.

  • Andreas Weber

    Andreas Weber is a biologist, philosopher, and nature writer. His latest books are Enlivenment. Toward a Poetics for the Anthropocene (MIT Press, 2019) and Sharing Life: The Ecopolitics of Reciprocity (Boell Foundation, 2020).

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