Saturday, September 19, 2009

On the cusp of autumn, Diane Ackerman looks to the cusp of day

“The lamp of art allows one to shine light into dark corners.” ––Diane Ackerman

I love that Diane Ackerman’s new book is titled Dawn Light, because she’s been a guiding light in my life.

In Dawn Light, Ackerman contemplates many facets of “dawn” as both noun and verb. As in all her graceful, metaphor-lush, and, by turns, whimsical and deeply affecting books, from the genre-defining A Natural History of the Senses (1990) to the bestselling The Zookeeper’s Wife (2007), Ackerman deftly interleaves science with art, and the personal with the historical to created a verdant word garden rich in observations, stories, and musings.

She begins by noting that “dawn is always a rebirth, a fresh start,” then takes great pleasure in describing all that the first light of day delivers, stirs up, and transforms. In her naturalist mode, Ackerman witnesses the arrival and impact of dawn season by season from a balcony in Palm Beach, Florida, and in her home in Ithaca, New York. Birds get top-billing in tales of doves, cranes, wrens, and a very smart, funny, and grammatically precise starling, but, as always, Ackerman casts her net wide to embrace spiders, honeybees, and snails, as well as milkweed and lotuses. Natural phenomena of all kinds fascinate her, so we learn, too, about rust (“a very slow fire”), the dynamics of a “cloud glory,” and the shapes of rain.

No species is as urgently interesting to Ackerman then our own, and her roaming meditation on dawn includes reflections on diverse dawn rituals and goddesses, and on artists inspired by “dawn’s half-open doorway between dream and wakefulness,” especially the Japanese printmaker Hokusai and impressionist Monet.

Cascading detail, sensuous celebrations, hard-won insights into the human psyche, all is rendered in a glorious spectrum of dark and “dawn light,” as Ackerman, a gentle but resonant teacher, awakens us to the exquisite interconnectivity of life, and to the worlds within and without, to sorrow and joy.