Dawn Light

Short of all those thanatosomniphobiacs out there — the folks who fear dying in their sleep — few hail the dawn with as much gratitude as Diane Ackerman. In the gathering light, her senses are alert and receptive to a parade of glories: mind-bending colors in the sky, the smell of a lover’s skin, the ruckus of birdsong, the morning glory itself — not the flower (though that too), but a meteorological event: long rolling clouds, rushing forward while spinning backward, a nursery for thunderstorms and awe. She is also happy to have made it through another patch of dangerous darkness, and we nod in agreement, remembering how vulnerable we feel, how our skin crawls, when night is truly pitch black. Our reptilian core has not surrendered its dread of night, even in these light-polluted times. “It’s as survivors that we greet each day,” she writes in this collection of luxurious, whither-where-I-wander meditations on the break of day. Then again, dawn is the time of duels and the clash of armies, when predators do their best work. Beauty, danger, sensuality — just Ackerman’s cup of tea.

Dawn is not only the topic, but the agent provocateur, goading Ackerman’s lively mind. Her writing touches down here, then there, a stone skipping on water, unpredictably albeit understandably, her bemusements discreet yet linked. It is like the Japanese literary genre known as zuihitsu, “literally ‘following the will of the pen,’ ” a roaming piece of short prose she encounters when her fancy draws her to Sei Shonagon’s 10th-century work of mischief and snobbery, The Pillow Book. Not incidentally, it contains the lovely image of an amorist “who crept in at nightfall and stole away at dawn.”

So, willingly, we follow as Ackerman ranges (through the seasons, New York to Florida), from the Buddhists’ hare in the moon to the rabbit as the Celtic goddess of dawn to Easter stones studding German hillsides; from snowflakes to koans to rust to the fetching poverty of wabi sabi; from an early morning fogbow to a snail riding a daylily to the sex life of orb weavers (spiders, alas — Ackerman’s smitten with natural history — not canoodlers doing shocking things with balls of yarn).

Ackerman is an adept at hitting upon these delicious associations with daybreak as she is with artful description: a poinciana full of boat-tailed grackles, “a pink and gray sunrise echoed the cheap linoleum in 1950s hotels,” a whooping crane riding a daybreak column of rising air, the tomfoolery of zodiacal light reflecting off the “debris left from the coinage of the planets.” This descriptive strength can overfloweth, however, taking its fearless ripeness into precincts of rococo fruitiness. “As the sun drives gold nails through the shadows, a dull red dawn, the color of deer and rust, soars up the sky” is effulgent to bursting, distressingly so when that sky is “the breathless blue unknown of space.” And if “sixty vagabond dawns live in each minute, thirty ripening dawns in half an hour,” that’s 1,799 more dawns than we have need or bargain, even before considering “in this magical haze, a flock of flamingoes pinking by would not seem odd.” Then, soundly in command, she takes the most potentially lethal subjects when it comes to excess sentimentality — the morning star, Venus, “a woman with a past”; when, in the Rig-Vedas, “the goddess of dawn bares her breasts to attract the eye of the sun god” — and plays them tantalizingly, achingly close, as one would a sleeper hand in poker.

Her science writing is along these same lines — just the right measure of material for the topic at hand. That may entail the precision of haiku — animals using nature’s apothecary, for instance — or an appropriately free verse, as when she details what it is like to be an owl and one fascinating fact after another gradually takes the shape and pleasure of Dr. Seuss spinning out the essence of owlness. Again, she peregrinates, from the diary of pioneer apiarist L. L. Longstroth to the curious case of Archimedes’ lost journals, and again, it’s worth peregrinating along. “There are only so many truths one wants to keep in mind at a time,” she writes, and where she shines is in fusing her delights with her learning. An eerie morning rain that gives her the jimjams next finds her in the global marketplace of rain words, the Hawaiian ‘olulo (rain moving out to sea), the Irish biadhan tsic (rain in frosty weather), the predictably quaint Texan “like a cow pissing sideways onto a rock” (pelting rain). Rapturous at losing herself in nature, she will then coolly consider the astonishing, though very real, “possibility that your molecules might once have been employed elsewhere, in a cuttlefish or a minstrel or a slime mold.”

Nowhere is this fusion more evident than in her encounters with birds. She moves with ease between the purely impressionistic deciphering of a crow’s morning croaks — “I’m up, dammit. I’m up! I survived another night on this godforsaken planet! Beat that!” — to the importance of bird babble at dawn, when they stumble about, trying snatches of song, stretching their chords. A yellow-bellied sapsucker takes her on a journey from how their brains manage to survive all that furious hammering to the lofty perch they once occupied in Greek mythology.

Ackerman, to boot, can be a plain old good storyteller. Her tale of the talking starling — Sprinkle, owned by her friend Kyllikki — lets Ackerman retreat to the background as the bird speaks for herself. “Did you see my beautiful beak? My lips are sealed,” chatters Sprinkle. “You lied to me about sparrows!…shaving beaks…terrorists!…Is that a good purse?”

Stepping into Ackerman’s smart and comfortable shoes, what’s not to like about dawn, with “its ancient thrill of impending daylight,” where birds bring news from a far country, we enchant ourselves by simply paying attention? “Morning,” wrote Sei Shonagon in The Pillow Book, ” — most astonishing.”