Native Son: The Bright Side of Darkness

Working late in the garden this week, my mind wanders, as it should when one is gardening. The Sweetgum tree overhead, barely lit by ambient city light, is gray; many shades of gray, mind you, but gray. An hour before sundown, the leaves were a circus of red, purple, orange, and yellow…but now, in the palest of moonlight, they’re just bland shades of gray. The tree didn’t change; my ability to perceive the tree changed.

I suppose that by now everyone knows that leaves change color in the fall by losing the green chlorophyll that masks the colors of the other pigments during the growing season. Those yellows, reds, and purples are there all along, just hidden by the mask of green. I’d love to explain the complex series of chemical changes involved, but I’m really not smart enough to do so. I wouldn’t know a xanthophyll from an anthocyanin if they were both sitting beside me at breakfast.

Anyway, I’m back looking up at this gray sweetgum when it occurs to me that this tree’s true color depends more upon my perceptive ability than it does the tree itself. In a single 24-hour period, it may appear to me to be dozens of colors, depending upon the season, temperature, rainfall, light or lack thereof, the particulars of my eyes, my mood, and soooooo many other factors.

Continued Below

I look back across the garden…and it looks different in darkness. Not necessarily better or worse, just different. The flowers are gray, rising like thin smoke from a jaguar-pattern tapestry of muddled black shadows. The forms, the patterns, the designs are all there, but the garden’s many imperfections, which nip at my ankles during daylight, simply vanish after sundown. I walk through a new garden. Sure, my left brain knows what’s what, but my eyes see a changed reality; maybe even seek a better reality. My night blindness has given me a new world.

The serenity of the moment is broken by an underfoot pine cone…that, and the piercing shriek of a large, burly man suddenly and involuntarily performing the semi-splits and rolling off into a barberry hedge.

I rise, bleeding only slightly and grateful for the lack of an audience. But the thought still lingers in my mind—I (we?) usually think of light exposing what darkness hides, but sometimes darkness can illuminate what is hidden by the mask of light.

I put all of this in my brain blender, hit frappe, and it pours out as questions. Does this mean that daytime reality is different than nighttime reality? Seven billion people; seven billion realities? A single person might appear to be 1000 different people to 1000 different observers…are all of them actually right? Maybe; maybe not. Are any of them right? Maybe; maybe not.

So the pot simmers awhile and it all seems to boil down to kindness…because it works. Kindness works day or night, in every season, for every person. Kindness because I cannot ever really be certain about masks, filters, biases…whether in others or my own. Kindness given to others begets kindness to oneself.

And because kindness is really just another word for love…and isn’t that really we honor and celebrate this time of year?


Just so you know… the Longview Arboretum & Nature Center is OPEN! Hours are 10am-5pm, Wednesday through Saturday; Sunday 12 noon-5pm. Come out and see us! And bring your own brand of Zen! 903-212-2181

I need a road trip! Let me know if you’d like me to come and speak to your group sometime. I’m low maintenance, flexible, and you know I like to go just about anywhere. No city too big; no town to small. Just send me an e-mail at and we’ll work something out.

Posted by Steven Chamblee
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