Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Light and Shadow


Friday was a perfect, sunny winter day: Intense shadows radiated from every tree, black against the white snow.  On impulse, I decided to document this austere beauty with my camera while taking a drive around the lake I live on. 
My conscious motivation was pure and unemotional: just observe the interplay of shadow and light. I knew I was following in the spirit of Eastern thought where yin and yang are often described in similar terms as sunlight playing over elements in nature. Yin (in the literal sense) is the dark area shaded by the mountain while yang (in the literal sense) is the brightly lit sunny place: “As the sun moves across the sky, yin and yang gradually trade places with each other, revealing what was obscured and obscuring what was revealed.”⁠1
Eastern thought is so refreshing, I thought – as I drove around the lake, stopping here and there to take photographs – compared to our own mainstream news and politicians who rarely try to find balance between opposing elements of a story; instead issues are presented in  black or white terms as either  good or evil, pleasant or unpleasant, beautiful or ugly, true or false.

I continued to muse as I drove around the lake: Choosing between opposites limits us in many ways, collectively as well as personally. If we are forced, as we are in Western society, to choose between dichotomies, our ego-centered consciousness tends to  identify with the positive side while dissociating itself from the negative side.

This  splitting creates a real problem. The negative parts of ourselves that we deny become suppressed, over time, to the point that that they are purged from our conscious mind; at that point, according to Jung, our repressed feelings and memories become a reservoir of human darkness which he called the shadow. We all carry such a shadow, he said, and the less conscious we are of it, “the blacker and denser it is."⁠2

I marveled at the elaborate deviousness of the human mind as I transferred my digital photos into my computer.  After reviewing them, one image stood out: my photograph of the old twisted apple tree with its distorted shadow was by far the best, the most abstract and mysterious – but it also had a strange, ominous feel to it.

What was it about this particular tree: Is it just the nature of the composition or is there, perhaps, a Jungian explanation – a personal shadow lurking behind the tree shadow?  It was true, in a general sense, that I had a personal connection to this tree that I did not have with the rest. The twisted apple tree happened to stand in an old abandoned orchard that had once belonged to my grandmother. But that was that.

Or was it?

As I sat in reverie, more forgotten memories started filtering into my consciousness like recycled water through a filter. I remembered helping my father cut this field when I was  a very young teenager, around 12 or 13 years of age. While he drove the tractor with the mowing machine with its 5’ cutter bar of sharp triangular knives, I cut the grass he couldn’t reach, close by the apple trunks, with my sickle.

Suddenly with an agonizing, caterwauling screech,  a cat sprang out of the high grass, falling victim along with the hay to the gnashing mowing machine knives, and ran bouncing in an exaggerated manner, as if running over red-hot coals, into my grandmother’s barn. There my father and I cornered it and discovered one hind leg dangling, attached by only skin and ligament. Blood was everywhere.

My grandmother was in a convalescent facility, recuperating from a fractured hip. The cat was a barn cat who was expected to fend for herself.  My father wrapped the cat in an old shirt and told me to hold her tightly and not let go. The cat was still screaming and, needless to say, by that time I was crying, too. 

He took a carving knife he had found in the kitchen and attempted to finish the amputation. But the cat fought mightily, clawing, biting, wiggling, writhing valiantly attempting to avoid the knife which, when it did make contact, was too dull to cut cleanly.

After three attempts, which seemed like an eternity, the leg fell free. The cat clawed her way out of my grasp and beat a retreat out the door, leaving behind a bloody trail. My father and I stood there motionless in the sudden silence, drenched in our own sweat, splattered with blood, attempting to come to terms with what had just happened so suddenly and unexpectedly.

After a few moments, my father reassured me again that the cat would be all right, we cleaned up in the kitchen and went back to work cutting hay. Later that summer the now three legged cat was back in the field hunting mice as if nothing had happened  My father and I soon stopped talking about the incident and it soon receded into the dark reservoir of my subconscious – until now.

The rational part of my memory of coping with the cat accident–which took place in only 5 minutes of my life over 50 years ago –  seems more illusionary than any of my dreams.  But, now after recovering that memory, the emotional part of me feels like I’m just a kid again back in that barn with my father: I can see the dangling leg, smell the blood, and taste the fear.

Jung’s shadow exists, that’s for sure, and the more unconscious it is, the blacker and denser it is.  It makes one ponder: What is more real, the real event or its shadow?

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1 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yin_and_yang
2 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shadow_(psychology)
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