Early in his career as a painter, Vincent Van Gogh wrote a letter to his brother in which he said, “There is no color that is not gray.” I have to assume Van Gogh would have loved Toronto in the winter since that season in this place is a study in gray in all its possible shades and permutations. On most days from December to March, the sky above the city is filled with clouds, and the sun, if it appears at all, only peeks through for a minute or two. The light is somber, and the cold makes it seem even darker than it is. The cumulative effect of one gray day after another is depressing. Peoples’ good spirits seem to fade with their suntans.
The dearth of natural light affects not just my mood but also the photos I take. There are technical things I can do with a camera to make up for a lack of light, but adjusting the exposure compensation often washes out the natural colors of a bird’s plumage, and raising the ISO level sometimes delivers images that look cold and grainy. Neither solution is a satisfactory substitute for the richness and warmth of natural light, especially not for the soft tones that prevail just after dawn or for an hour or two before sunset.
Last Sunday, I biked down to the Leslie Street Spit in the afternoon, hoping for another shot at the Harlequin Duck that’s been hanging around the Unwin Avenue bridge. I photographed it once, weeks ago, but was unhappy with the results.
On Sunday, I struck out with the Harlequin, and then I whiffed again with my backup bird, the Northern Shrike. In the end, I wound up on Peninsula B, where the thick ground cover provides food for winter sparrows, and dead trees offer roosting spots for the shrikes and hawks and falcons that prey on them. The afternoon was cloudy and cold. I saw few birds and only one other person, a man named Bill, who’s in the habit of feeding cracked corn to the resident Trumpeter Swans.
Bill was leaving as I arrived, so I followed the path down to the water’s edge and found the collection of swans and Mallards he’d been feeding. Since the birds assumed I was there to continue the handouts, they stayed in place. Operating on the if-life-gives-you-lemons principle, I decided to take a few photos. Just as I pulled the camera out of my backpack, the sky cleared to the south, and the sun filled the bay with a rich, golden light that positively glowed. I shot the swan standing closest to me and caught the sunlight glinting off its bill. With its wrinkles and lines and different shades of color, the swan’s bill speaks to its character much as the skin on an old man’s face does to his.
Even though the Mallards kept close to shore, they never stopped moving, never stopped churning up the water, so they were somewhat harder to photograph. They’re the most common of the wild ducks, but even they remind us of what Emerson said about the reason why the natural world exists—that it’s there at least in part to satisfy the soul’s desire for beauty.
When I left Peninsula B, I cycled north to the red bridge on my way out of the park. The sky had clouded up again, and the air had turned colder. East of the bridge is a large pond called Cell 3 where I could see hundreds of Redhead ducks. They were formed into narrow rafts that made curving lines in the water, and they were all too far out to photograph. As I crossed the bridge and came up the hill, the clouds parted again, and the sun illuminated a little cove to the north. The cove was filled with waterfowl, so I rode up and found a place to sit on a rise of land by the shoreline.
Here, a few Redheads were mixed in with the Trumpeter Swans and Mallards. I’d been trying for months to get a decent shot of a Redhead, but they’re shy birds and don’t usually allow a close approach. Perhaps because it was the end of day and the sunlight soothed them, they ignored my presence and allowed themselves to drift in close to shore. The good light persisted for about ten minutes, and I was able to squeeze off a few shots.
As I finished with the Redheads, the Trumpeters announced themselves. There were three distinct family groups in the water below me, and in each group, the individual members swam together while they bugled softly to each other. The whole group would stop suddenly, and then all the swans in the group would dip their heads in unison, bending their long necks, then swim on and bugle again. There was something highly ceremonial about this behavior. It became evident that this was the procedure the swans used to settle into their chosen resting spot at the end of the day. Perhaps they dipped their heads like that to salute their benefactor the sun as it dipped below the horizon.
As I stood up to go, the wind hit me, and I could feel the cold bite right through my jacket. At that moment, it occurred to me that all of these ducks, all of these swans, must carry within themselves a piece of the sun, a piece of the same fire that sustains the solar system, otherwise they could not survive.
Some updates …
I’ve published another story on Medium.com, actually another chapter from a novel-in-progress called Fairchild Garden. If you feel the urge, you can read the story here: