By Richard Gambino
The essence of the haunting old tune, “September Song,” is one of nostalgia for what is irretrievably past, with the point of making the present more poignantly special. “These precious days,” as the song says. Yes. Autumn — arriving officially with the equinox on September 23 — means, of course, the end of summer. From now through October and even beyond, green leaves turn, then fall. But to me, autumn means something more. The turning brings on a blaze of colors that transcends the moment. The yellows, oranges and reds of the tree leaves, the mellow golds of the marsh grasses and beach grasses, in the very clear autumn air we enjoy on the East End stir something deep within me — an experience of the sublime. It’s the soul’s touching a longed-for experience of that which transcends one’s life. Not the full ecstasy the mystic feels in becoming one with all, but at least the fleeting brushing of transcendence across the backs of my spirit’s fingers. In speaking of the sublime, much has been made of experiencing it in the power of nature, as in, for example, standing safely on a beach and watching a fierce storm at sea, or trying to stand anywhere in a hurricane. There’s no doubt that nature’s sheer power awes us. But nature’s power is Janus-faced — it can destroy us as well as transfix us. So King Lear, caught in the open in a raging storm, famously spits defiance at its oppressing him, “Blow you winds and crack your cheeks.” However, there’s another mode of sublime experience — encountering, and being pierced by, the beauty behind nature’s beauty. I’ll do my best to explain.
For many centuries now, naturalists and others have said that we’d do well to study nature to better understand ourselves, for we are natural living entities, in so many ways like the trees, birds, squirrels and all the other life around us. Again, yes. And to my mind, much more. Renoir was once asked why he painted life as so breathtakingly beautiful — concentrating on the finest beauty in his subjects, whether the skin of a nude model or the fabric on which she lies. Why not, I presume the questioner was asking, more “realistic” views, highlighting or even exaggerating the dark sides of life? Renoir’s answer was simple and to the point: There’s already enough ugliness in the world.
Without in any way comparing myself to great artists, I too look for the beauty in nature that transcends the ho-hum, the ugly, and worse. It’s there in all seasons, but there’s something special about the light in autumn on the East End that makes it easier to glimpse the transcendent. My love of this is what drives me as an avid photographer of nature. I’m not obsessed with cameras or the technologies of photography. (Although I have full respect for technical experts.) At first hearing, it may sound odd, but I’m in love with the beauty in nature that transcends nature. Sometimes it renews my soul when I’m badly in need of it. (How do I know I have a soul? I give Walt Whitman’s answer: Personal growth has proved it.) For example, I remember such an experience I had in the autumn of 2001. It was in October, a few weeks after the spectacular horrors of 9/11. To hang on to my sanity, I focused most of all on the people I love. But I needed something else too. Anger and fear, sadness and rage were coursing through me like electric currents. I grabbed my camera bag and went out seeking … well, seeking anything that would help.
I photographed autumn colors — nice shots, but only that: nice shots. Then, late in an afternoon, the light was as bright and clear as the light had been on that terrible morning when it illuminated the Twin Towers. But now, the sun was behind some colored leaves on large trees, turning them into — I later searched for words and remembered a book mark that has been posted on the refrigerator door in my home since the 1980s. It has a small autumn leaf on it, and the inscription, Nature: God’s work of art. From time to time, when the ugliness of life closes in, I gaze at the 12 inch by 18-inch enlargement of the photo I took in 2001 of autumn leaves made radiant by the sun shining through them. I just let the image bring back that moment seven years ago.
Spinoza got it right when he wrote of two ways of regarding nature. One, natura naturata — experiencing nature as it exists at any given point in time and space. But there is a second way, much more elusive — an experience of living natural beauty. He called it, natura naturans — experiencing nature as it is ever in process, forever creating itself. If you will, “nature naturing,” transcending itself in its eternal dynamism. This, when we experience it, is our soul’s fingers gently brushing against life’s ineffable awesomeness. In other words, the sublime. It’s something that I first experienced as a boy. My parents and I would get into our old Studebaker and drive from Brooklyn to the “Italian” Catskills, in the Saugerties area. Quite a change from the streets of Red Hook. I spent timeless hours wandering over country paths through woods and fields, as the colors changed, seemingly before my eyes. “Don’t’ you get bored?” I was asked. I just shook my head, my youngster’s linguistic ability inadequate to articulate the sublime state of consciousness that possessed me. Fact is, I’m still not up to describing it, so I fall back on the words of great poets, e.g., Wordsworth: Come forth into the light of things, / Let Nature be your teacher … Knowing that Nature never did betray / The heart that loved her.Â
RICHARD GAMBINO wishes everyone a beautiful autumn..