East End Light
EAST END LIGHT
J.J. Corwin September seems to be acknowledged by both Shelter Island residents and frequent visitors alike as that one special month when, from dawn to dusk, a particular light spills across fields, filters through woods and shimmers along the shoreline–indeed, its referred to on-island as “September light” and seems, at least to me, to possess a mysterious contradiction in qualities. It’s at once gauzy–as if, like in old movies, a camera lens has been smeared with Vaseline–and at the same time, crystal clear. I’m told it probably has to do with the juxtaposition of our planet to the sun as we approach the autumnal equinox and so forth–and that certainly sounds scientifically correct, anyway. Perhaps for September’s thirty days, those two disparate qualities are most in balance. Frankly, however, having, spent 30 years living full-time out here, I’m more of the opinion that the whole East End is suffused with that same special light–all year long, in fact–the quality differing only in degree, depending on the season. In the high summer, for instance, the light seems, like the air it travels through, to thicken to the consistency of honey, ripening like wine and magnifying the moon, the stars and even earthbound objects as if they were being viewed through a bottle of rose. In the winter, the light thins somewhat, and undergoes what seems a further distillation, and that increased purity lends a certain distance to things–a god’s eye perspective, if you will–as if one were looking through the other end of a spy glass. At all times, though, that extraordinary light seems to be trembling on the cusp of liquidity.
Liquidity? Perhaps that’s not so surprising–after all, at the risk of stating the obvious (which, if you ask me, doesn’t get stated anywhere near often enough), as an island, we are by definition, surrounded by a liquid, with all things above and below either generating or reflecting light. It’s mildly ironic then that the confluence of light produced by this rather pedestrian fact should result in everything from sailboats to seagulls, houses to hang-gliders acquiring a remarkable, almost dream-like–and certainly oxymoronic–nebulous clarity.
I don’t have much experience with other islands and whether or not this particular brand of ethereal illumination infuses them, but I do wonder. For instance, what about those islands in streams that Kenny Rogers sings about, or the ones in rivers or lakes? The ones from which shores can be seen, or at least apprehended? And then there are those orphan islands, those singletons around which nothing can be seen–nothing but trackless, intractable ocean; what of them? I can’t imagine that their respective qualities of light aren’t similar to what I’ve experienced out on theEast End, but I’m beginning to suspect that the special poignancy that attends ours may have–as our realtors have told us for centuries–something to do with our location, location, location.
Long Island itself, like all the islands that verge on the eastern coast of the country, is a chip off the edge of the continental platter–an untethered shard that floats with its north side adjacent but not quite attached to the huge mass that is North America, while its southern side surveys the same limitless expanse of ocean presented to an orphan island bobbing in the middle of the Pacific. Unlike its sister islands that also festoon the east coast, Long Island is a mere bridge away from the greatest metropolitan area in the world, and is split in two–economically, politically, spiritually–because of it: Nassau County, densely populated, busy-busy, with only its coastal fringes to remind it of its island-ness, and Suffolk County, the eastern part at least, mostly small “Main Streets,” marinas, vineyards and leafy, two-lane roads. Like humans themselves,Long Islandis a hybrid–one that seems enmeshed in a perpetual identity crisis. The celestial quality of light that so enlightens our quality of life out here seems absent “up-island”–perhaps absorbed by so many big buildings, so much big business and all those bustling human bodies.
Out here on theEast End, however, there’s nothing much to impede the flow of that exceptional incandescence. For me, it begins to materialize when heading
home, east down the L.I.E., I get a few minutes past Exit 63. As that strange, quiet radiance starts to seep in, the landscape begins to widen, the sky to swell and,