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Humanist Essay for December 2012
"Changing Cottonwood Against Cloudless Sky"
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[Reprinted from the HSNM December 2012 Newsletter.]

We sure had a glorious autumn here while the east suffered the ravages of Hurricane Sandy. The news of the storm and its aftermath felt surreal from the vantage point of our blue skies and sunshine. As we enjoyed a reprieve from the coming of winter, I wondered where summer had gone, and spring before that... It seemed like I had spent the year inside my computer, churning out streams of correspondence, lists, forms, code and pixels. My 2012 memories were stitched together from trips I'd made away from home: New Orleans in June, Delaware in July, Seattle in September. In between, brilliant New Mexico went by outside my window - but where was I? I decided not to let fall get away from me.

There is a spot in our backyard that provides a very good view of a large, hearty cottonwood tree. From this distance and angle I can see the entirety of its great, cloud-shaped canopy framed against the sky. For about a week I brought out a chair in the warmth of the day and just sat. The tree had progressed from sporting subtle dabs of gold to an all-out yellow-orange coif that literally glowed against the pure blue of the sky. Each day I rested my eyes on the composition of Changing Cottonwood Against Cloudless Sky and felt warm and content and, yes, reverent.

It was a kind of meditation. My thoughts went here and there and I did not try to hold onto them. Naturally I was thinking of all the places I had lived and traveled on the east coast and the misery many were enduring in the cold and wet, in sad contrast to my present comfort. But what came to mind most often was a scene from my time in Boston years ago:

I'd completed my freshman year at Emerson College, taken an apartment with a girlfriend and was exploring the possibility of switching to one of the nearby art schools. To this end, I got a job at an art supply store and enrolled in several studio courses that I could attend at night. It was the fall semester and I remember walking to the subway stop after dark in the bustle and sparkle of city streets, riding in the unnatural illumination of the train and looking out at the alternating dark-light, dark- light of tunnels and platforms, to arrive in a somewhat darker and less busy neighborhood. Here I scooted around the corner to a big building and descended to a basement room in the Massachusetts College of Art.

There in the basement classroom, a young assistant professor compelled us to rule our art paper with pale pencil grids to be filled in with gouache (opaque water color), which we were learning to mix with scientific precision into hues, shades and tints. Our textbook was Johannes Itten's "The Elements of Color" and we followed along by attempting to recreate the complimentary and contrasting abutments of colored squares presented therein. I learned much about how colors are perceived differently based on their proximity to other colors. But sitting in my backyard watching a cottonwod tree change color, it occurred to me that not a thing had gone on in that classroom, or in the damp, glittering commutes there and home again, or within the nondescript brownstone where I dabbed-in my homework grids, that came close to conveying the qualities of color provided by this common New Mexico sight: golden leaves against blue sky.

Knowing the science behind the colors of nature does not make them less beautiful. Understanding the reason we perceive certain combinations of visual elements as especially pleasing or striking does not alter those immediate emotional reactions. Being convinced that all of nature - including us - is interconnected and the result of consistent, predictable processes does not make it less awesome. Mainly, though, I just want to share the blue sky feeling with you to carry us through the cold months. Happy Humanist Light, everyone, and best wishes for the coming new year.

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Copyright © 2012 Zelda Gatuskin

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