by Michael Gos
I am solar powered. I learned that as a teenager. When the cold, dark Indiana winters came, I hibernated. I suppose the cold had something to do with it, but mostly I was lethargic and grumpy because I was lacking the light I needed to “recharge the batteries.” I just got weaker and more tired as the months dragged on. On those rare sunny winter days (which generally only happened when it is below zero at noon) I would bundle up and head out into the woods to hike and try to store up some “juice” so I could go on when the gray returned. It still happens to me today.
If we go three or four days without the sun, I can feel the engines running low.
I was having lunch out on the patio at the resort in Lajitas. It was July, but there in the shade, looking out at the fountain, the golf course and the mountains, it was a pleasant afternoon. I watched as a butterfly danced from flower to flower just exuding a joy about life that made me smile. I was surprised at the brilliant, almost neon blue that marked its otherwise near-black wings. I’d never seen a butterfly so iridescent; it glowed. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I should point out here that I had only one pinot noir with lunch—no peyote buttons, no funny mushrooms. It really did glow. Finally, I had to get up and take a closer look.
It turned out to be a female black swallowtail, just like the ones we have in Houston. Yet this one was so much brighter it almost looked like the old day-glo paint we used back in the ‘70s. After watching up close for a few minutes, I decided the reason this one looked so different than the ones back in Houston had to be because of the ambient light. And that made me think about those days as a kid growing up in Indiana.
If you have spent much time in the upper latitudes, you know what I am talking about. The colors we see in nature here in Texas simply don’t exist up there. Well, almost never anyway. I remember about five or six times in my 40 plus years there, the perfect “light storm” occurred. It was always near sunset. The sky had to be almost black with dense clouds, except at the very western horizon. There, where the clouds ended abruptly and the sky was clear, as the sun dropped into the clear spot, its light bounced off the bottom of the black clouds and illuminated everything in such a bright light that the colors were awe-inspiring. I remember everyone in the neighborhood running outside to see it—it was that rare. In Texas, especially deep west Texas, that light and the resulting colors are the norm, so no one even notices.
When I teach my humanities students about the French Impressionists and the post or neo-Impressionists, we talk about their fascination with the fleeting effects of light. But Paris, where they started out, is at 48 degrees latitude—further north even than Duluth, Minnesota. The light there, frankly, is pretty dim. So in order to really explore the effects of light on their subject matter, these artists had to hit the road. Some, like Van Gogh and Cezanne, headed to Provence in the south of France. Gaugin did them one better; he went all the way to Tahiti.
As a species, we are obsessed with light. We see it all across America. Those gray days of winter really bring us down. In Alaska, they use light therapy visors to reduce the depression and suicide levels during those dark periods in winter.
Here in the lower 48, people in the north tend to be more reserved, quiet and detached. This is even more the case in winter. But people in the south, and especially here in Texas, tend to be more open, happy and friendly. As we all know, they call this swatch of land across the gulf coast and the Southwest desert the “Sunbelt.”
But the brightness in Houston can’t match the desert light there in Lajitas. The skies are bluer and the colors are brighter. The stars are absolutely magnificent. There are always millions of them lighting up the night sky—an overwhelming net of light we never see back on the Gulf Coast. The moon is so bright there it casts bold shadows. As a light-loving species, we respond accordingly.
People there in deep west Texas often live a harsh life. For most, money is scarce. And yet they are among the happiest people I’ve ever met. Spend an afternoon on the porch of the Trading Post in Terlingua and just watch and listen.
I have asked several of them why they live out here, so far from a grocery store, a drug store, even medical care. It is surprising how often I get the same answer; it is the all-day, all-year sunshine. You’ll also hear, over and over again, that the best thing about living out here is the spectacular light show that comes from the two sunsets every evening—one to the east, then one to the west. From the porch at Terlingua you can first turn to the east and watch the light show with its ever-changing colors on the Chisos Mountains. Then, when the mountains go dark, you can turn to the west to watch the traditional sunset. If there are a few wispy clouds in the sky, the colors go 360 degrees, from horizon to horizon. After a light show like that, it is hard not to feel good about life.
But light plays its part out here in other ways as well. If it is night and you somehow manage to get tired of looking at the stars (I’m sorry for you if that happens), you can always head a few miles north and look for the Marfa lights.
We all love light—not just we humans, but all things alive. The butterfly dancing among the flowers here on this courtyard just radiates happiness. The name of this town (Lajitas) means “light.” Maybe that is why the butterfly was drawn to this place—for the chance to glow.
And it is contagious.