We designed our bedroom to handle the light of the Australian sub-tropics. We used hundreds of CAD shade diagrams and tried to honour some basic feng shui principles. So a narrow window admits morning sun along the eastern wall. Just a glimpse, a shard of light. But in the winter (almost intentionally) the paler morning sun glances off the glass in the door opposite. It makes delicate pattens on the western wall.
I turn over to face it, greeted by sparkling. Awash with brilliance.
That light is so Australian.
I grew up (if you could call it that) in a damp, foggy, grey place: Vancouver. My father called it “Canada’s Evergreen Playground”, an advertising term he’d heard on the radio, I think. I called it grey. Living in Norgate Park in the fifties was not what you’d call a totally pleasant experience. Vancouver was dreary. Some days there were terrible smells from the fish plant and it was always foggy.
We lived near the Inlet and I’d wake in the night to the foghorns’ mournful wail. I thought it was just a foggy place, but it was actually the smoke from the sawmills’ beehive burners. Most of the fog disappeared when the mills were torn down. But the weather was still awful.
In Vancouver, it was never actually sunny. Just less grey.
We had a hundred names for rain like the Eskimos have for snow. “Just spitting” was one of those.
New Haven light
When I was twenty, I married (largely to escape my family, the fog and the rain) and moved to Connecticut. Different light altogether. The summers were steamy and unpleasant. And the winters: well, if your car would go, they were beautiful. Snow was always on our horizon. We had a 1952 Cadillac with all the windows stalled at half-mast.
In our first New Haven winter, the AAA started the Green Dragon (aka the Sponge on Wheels) nineteen times. In March, they wrote to say that nineteen was enough, already. No more starts.
Winter snow was challenging in an old car.
But the light.
Oh, the light!
New Haven light.
I remember waking early on a Sunday morning and sensing that something magical had happened. The light from the kitchen window in our small apartment at 98 Edwards Street is what I remember most. Something bright, almost silver, seeping into the drab interior spaces and enlivening them.
It had snowed while I slept.
Children remember the silence of an overnight snowfall.
I remember the light.
Last February, I lived in Charlestown in Boston for three weeks. It was heaven. My cousin would have to be the most generous person alive: he made an entire apartment available to me, kitted out down to the napkin rings. It had everything.
I had everything.
It was very snowy in Boston, which is one reason I had to move there.
I discovered, my first morning, when I wandered into Raffi’s kitchen, that it had the New Haven light: the silvery light I loved so much. I guess it’s actually New England light. But I had not seen it for nearly fifty years. To me, it’s blessed with sweet memories of hopefulness. I was twenty: my “escape” was accomplished and my new life was beginning. Nurtured by New Light.
The unfamiliar/familiar light in Raffi’s Charlestown kitchen stopped me in my tracks. I had to sit down and consider it.
New Haven light.
The place I stayed the day before – in suburbia – had none of that light.
So I considered that Raffi’s light might be the product of something more: the sum of many sensations. Maybe the age of the building (1906), its design, the closeness and design of the neighbouring buildings, the shape of the window, the old glass, the old window frame, the blind, the orientation of the building, the architecture of the kitchen…
No matter: it was the New Haven light. I basked in it! Sidling up to its pale luminescence, cradling my mug of tea, I felt comforted. Safe.
That got me thinking about place attachment. We’re such territorial animals, us humans. Hard-wired to love and protect our territories.
It might be difficult for planners to evaluate “love of light” as a place-attachment criterion. But I think it’s worth a shot.
For me, one beam of New England winter light is the light to have.
A most hopeful light.