Blasted by Easter starlight

Easter sunrise at Round Valley. April 12, 2009.

Glory must begin in gloom. Easter expresses the principle, and one Easter in particular epitomized it.

April 12, 2009: I stood on the topmost hill of Round Valley Regional Preserve 90 minutes before sunrise. The climb imposed a welcome hardship: you can’t feel cold when you’re scaling 1,000 vertical feet in 1⅓ miles, circulation raging. But after reaching the top and cooling down I realized I’d underdressed; a stiff northwest wind got me shivering.

The boulders scattered across my summit sanctuary aren't tall. I had no choice but to shelter against a phalanx of boulders by squatting on dirt, hunched over as crowbars of wind tried to pry my hat loose. I poured coffee from thermos to cup with shaking hands, saw on the liquid’s surface the wind-rippled reflection of a waning gibbous Moon in the west. 

The glory began in gloom. Dawn began as a brushstroke of blue low in the east – ultramarine splitting the charcoal of earth and sky. The line spread slowly north and south like a tide flooding opposing shorelines; its center inflated to a shallow arch. The backlit silhouette of the Sierra Nevada Range, 100 miles distant, came into focus. High in the southwest, the sear of Luna’s disc softened, exposing the dark dappling of Mare Imbrium and Oceanus Procellarum. Directly above, Altair and Vega lost their luster. The cosmos began disappearing behind the silken veil of dawn.

Eastward, despite the wind, something like music was being played. The minor key of blue was modulating seamlessly, tempo largo, into the major keys of gold into bronze into copper. The horizon began to burn. That once-shallow arch swelled, forming a dome of blue played pianissimo, in my mind’s ear, by violins, flutes and oboes in their highest registers. Gazing into the darkness below, I imagined contrabassoons and double basses giving voice to stone and soil.

Then it happened: that moment, midway through the pageant of dawn, when you sense a shift in the balance of light. Measured from the first faint color in the east to the first flare of Sun atop the distant peaks – in clear air, an 80-minute crescendo – the moment came when my Moon shadow finally dissolved and my impending-sunrise shadow, cast westward, began blackening against the boulders.

I stood up and turned to view the gloom behind me. Barely visible through eight miles of atmosphere west between me and Mt. Diablo, a plume of marine fog drifted between the foothills and the mountain’s crown. The air was bitterly clear; no trace of cloud scarred the sky. Gusts of wind sent me hunkering back against the boulders.

I’d made this pre-dawn hike before and become accustomed to predictable intensities of light as dawn unfolds. But Easter of 2009 was different. Behind the mountains, the top of a small, glowing fan took shape, herald of the Sun’s corona. The alchemy of atmosphere had transmuted bronze and copper to gold. No strata of heavy air lounging on the horizon would stain today’s Sun in red; no blood of crucifixion would haunt the vision. I braced myself. 

The Sun has been present every day of our lives, every day of the 4½-billion-year life of planet Earth. Rarely do we give our daystar a conscious thought. We don’t contemplate that star; we contemplate things lit by that star. But at 6:34 a.m. on April 12 of 2009 that star was impossible to ignore. It rose without warning in jets of dark gold flaring through a gap in the sawtooth Sierra, as if a volcano had erupted. It cleared the mountains naked and hot. I stood up, faced east and stretched my arms wide. The wind on my hilltop blew as viciously as before but its bite had vanished. In a few minutes the landscape was as bright as at noon. Blasted by starlight.

Easter doesn’t belong to one religion. Easter is the expression of a world we all desire: a world where darkness is obliterated by light, where wounds are healed and suffering is overwhelmed by joy. Where death is defeated by resurrection. Easter is the glory of spring: deliverance from winter. And Easter is the glory of morning: deliverance from night.

Sunrise, September 1, 2013 at Round Valley.

In the eight years since that morning I was blasted by starlight I’ve witnessed scores of sunrises from high places. On some mornings, sheets of tilted cirrus shimmer like a crimson mirror; on others, clouds in grotesque shapes at multiple levels bewilder the eye, slash the sky in violet and black and ivory. On some mornings the Sun struggles upward behind banks of purple-grey hugging the horizon. A mundane hour passes before shafts of light suddenly explode high overhead.

Humans, despite our best efforts, are night creatures. “We have come from the dark wood of the past, and our bodies carry the scars and unhealed wounds of that transition,” wrote Loren Eiseley. “Our minds are haunted by night terrors that arise from the subterranean domain of racial and private memories. … We imagine we are day creatures, but we grope in a lawless and smoky realm toward an exit that eludes us. We appear to know instinctively that such an exit exists.”

Trust your instinct. That exit is morning; it’s spring. That exit is the glory of Easter.