As I write this post, the sun spills through the window into my small office. It seems fitting as I re-visit a story I’ve been continually revising for more than two decades now.
Twenty-one years ago, I uprooted myself from the West Coast and headed to Alberta to get married. My friends in Vancouver joked that my move must have been for love. We’re a smug bunch on the coast—deeply attached to our ocean, our forests and yes, even our clouds and torrential downpours.
True, I was moving for love. But there is a second, unexpected and ongoing affair that began in the first month of my arrival—an affair involving the uniquely beautiful natural light that won’t go unnoticed in this prairie city.
To be honest, nothing could prepare me for the marvel that is Calgary light, especially during those magic hours of early morning or late afternoon, dawn or dusk.
When I first inquired about the phenomenon, prominent architect Jeremy Sturgess summed up Calgary’s saturated light with these words: “The light here is harsh, extreme, even brittle. It smashes, explodes and transforms space, especially when there’s a Chinook (a warm, dry wind that blows in from the West) and it’s late afternoon. The sunlight is squashed between cloud and horizon. Shadows become long and the whole landscape becomes intensely coloured.”
The colour. I still recall the morning I first experienced it as if it were yesterday.
We had just moved into our first apartment—located in the legendary Anderson Apartments off 17th Avenue Southwest.
I awoke, startled, the way you do when your instincts sense something unfamiliar in your midst. A shimmering, raspberry-coloured light was creeping through the narrow windows of our apartment.
Everything the light touched exploded with life: the turquoise-green walls became lush and organic. A quilt, with its deep-red, fuscia and indigo triangles, glittered in a cotton kaleidoscope. Even the battered, hardwood floors erupted into a gleaming gold.
When I climbed out of bed to look outside, the entire neighbourhood was as if it had been given a fresh coat of paint in the middle of the night. My new city was literally shining.
Writer Diane Ackerman, author of A History of the Senses, once described being paralyzed by something she calls “visual opium” – colours combined with natural light that become so intense they assault our senses “like a blow from a stun gun.”
I was stunned by what I saw that morning.
There’s no way I’ll ever be able to tear my husband away from his prairie light.
To be honest, I genuinely wonder how I would fare in a rainforest climate after having had a few decades of Alberta light at my disposal. (Calgary is the sunniest big city in Canada, with an average of 2,396 hours of blue sky each year, over half of our total number of daylight hours.)
This week, I touched base with my good friend, photographer George Webber. George, whose work highlights the Canadian West, has been photographing Calgary for nearly 40 years.
Convinced that Calgarians are buoyed by their hometown’s abundant natural light, George says it best: “The light here breathes energy and optimism into the citizens of this city. It’s a happy light, dazzling and yet consoling. It splatters and then fades—making you thankful for today but longing for tomorrow.”
Well said, my friend. Well said.
***Many thanks to photographer Lori Andrews for chasing “Calgary light” for us on this assignment. She’s worth a follow on Instagram if you’re into cool Canadiana with a design twist. A warm thanks, also, to Tourism Calgary (who did not review or edit this post before publication) for helping support this story.
***Hey readers! Where do you live, and how would you describe the natural light in your town or city? Comment below by midnight May 21, 2015 for a chance to win a Toque & Canoe-inspired swag bag. (We’ll put your names in a hat and do a random draw.) T&C
***Contest update. Lee Gilbert! We drew your name. We’ll be in touch. 🙂