Toad in the Hole

December 23, 2005

The Point of Light

I first wrote this for the SF Examiner a mere five years ago.

One way or another, most of us are celebrating a feast of light, a traditional midwinter occasion at least in the Northern Hemisphere. It's the darkest time of the year, and we all need to keep our spirits up, to remember that the Earth does turn askew on its axis again and long days of sun will return. Some of us grit our teeth and endure another month of what's lately called Seasonal Affective Disorder. Some of us have ritual family fights and nod off in front of the TV after ingesting all those turkey tryptophans. (Maybe turkeys arenít as stupid as they're supposed to be. Maybe they're just perpetually nodding off under the soporific influence of their own contents.) Some of us make overtime pay. Most of us light candles, string bulbs, hang sparkly reflective gewgaws here and there, set the Yule log aflame. Anything for light.

Is it a sort of cheerleading, or do we appreciate light most when it's a rarity, a contrast? We humans love contrast. It probably lends as much as nostalgia does to odd horticultural habits: fake snow on California indoor trees and fake rocks made of concrete -- or real rocks imported from the mountains -- in flatland gardens, where the largest native mineral formation is a clay clod. We import all sorts of odd creatures and then struggle to keep them thriving where they look misplaced. We plant spiky red phormium cultivars and gaudy 'Joseph's Coat' roses, just to have something else in a green garden. We wear diamonds, if we can, the strongest contrast to soft flesh and fur, seeming to carry its own light ó light in a stone, of all things. We cherish our light when it's set off by darkness. We bask in the sun but we gaze at the stars.

The love of light is something we share with countless other Earthdwellers. As seals recolonized the ocean, leaving their landbound ancestors behind, a species here and there has recolonized the night. Bats and owls and night-blooming cereus mount expeditions into that less-crowded niche, and we look over our shoulders and invent myths about such odd behavior. But they are in many ways as dependent on light as we are. Even moles, who fled into subterranean darkness almost permanently, need food, and that ultimately means plants. Somewhere in the evolutionary depths of time, some being learned to make sugars and proteins, the bases of all our lives, out of whatever was handy ó and light. Aside from a few very odd beings who live around deep-sea volcanic vents, everyone on the planet springs from and lives on that earthly miracle.

What a talent! Look at a redwood, all that towering mass drawing itself into existence from a seed, the soil and the weather, by the impalpable force of light. Light kicks off the biggest manufacturing operation in the world: photosynthesis. At eight photons a pop, a plant sorts out a carbon dioxide molecule to make a carbon compound for its own use, and just by the way drops a molecule of oxygen back out into the air around it. As waste goes, this is rather environmentally benign, especially to those of us who need to breathe it. It does this trick using pigments, usually green, that get excited and start tossing electrons around when they see light. After that beginning, a chain of chemical reactions follows; some of those can happen in the dark. Plants donít actually sleep. (Quite a few animals donít sleep either; it seems to require or be a requirement of a certain quantity of brain.)

Some plants do curl up as if napping, though. Some like California poppies furl their flowers when the light disappears, or even on dim days. Some like sunflowers watch the sun alertly, moving leaves or, more spectacularly, flowers, to track light all day. Even those with less apparent mobility chase the light if they have to, growing spindly long stalks to reach it or oversized leaves to catch as much as possible. A houseplant will change its shape to face and gather light; a shrub will drop neglected leaves from a shaded side. A tree will curve its trunk ó using methods that vary among species, cells either shrinking on one side or expanding on the other ó to push its leaves into the light. When light wanes, in winter, some trees cut their losses and lose their leaves entirely. They'll do this even where water doesnít freeze into inaccessibility, where you'd think everybody could afford to stay dressed all year. Maybe it's a habit formed when they evolved in freezing climates and not disadvantageous enough to give up. Maybe keeping leaves just becomes a net loss when the light lasts only a few hours a day.

Herbaceous plants, with less hard capital investment than trees make, can just drop everything, go dormant and disappear down to the roots, in the dark of the year. It seems drastic, a bit sulky, but it works. Lengthening days will stir them to wake in spring, but now they abandon us and only bits of decaying brown litter are left. Between those and the leafless trees, winter looks bare and stingy even when it's beginning to revive the grass to green. No wonder we cook up rich foods and sweets, and set fire to things. We're lonesome.

The longing for light is more basic than custom or religion. It's a tropism, older than humans, older than animals, older even than eyes. It's one of very few appetites we share with those mysterious green aliens we depend on for food, shelter, and the air we breathe. A kind word of reassurance to your wistful plants would not be out of place in this season.

Posted at December 23, 2005 06:40 PM


I find myself reading your blog over and over, savoring each article the way I savor a good novel.

I found this blog completely by accident while searching for, unbelievably, a good recipe for 'Toad in the hole', a wonderful food I became acquainted with while in the army.

Be assured, I am being neither fatuous nor leering, I just wanted to say that...on an internet filled with the graphically vile, unschooled, illiterate, pedantic musings of the worst filth this weary world has to offer, your blog is a breath of fresh air. Your writing is clear and succinct, and yet has a mesmerising quality to it that I have always aspired to, yet never mastered. If you haven't turned to writing poesy or literature, you definately should...there is a narrative quality to your work that puts me in mind of a female version of the narrator to that wonderful old television show 'The Waltons' (and thats a complement, not disparagement).

I plan to read your blog often, and share it with my wife and friends.

Kudos on a blog well done :)

Posted by: David Brown at January 29, 2006 01:44 AM