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between our steps 05 20 20 doubleVisiting a statue park in Burkina Faso, I became fascinated with shadows. The stone statues were interesting, the carving work amazing, and the story of the park intriguing. But Burkina Faso, a land-locked West African country, is arid. The sky was pure blue. The air dry. The light crystal clear. The shadows of the statues, tree leaves, us, were sharp on the ground.

leaf shadowIt was near the middle of the day and near the equator, so the shadows were shortened, but the clarity of their lines, the sharpness of their shape intrigued me. Looking at the shadow the sculpture cast showed things about the shape that looking straight at it did not.

We get shadows like that in the middle of February when the snow is blown smooth and the light is crystal clear. We find that we cast a precise image of ourselves on the ground.

A full moon casts intriguing shadows. In summer, these bright nights send wavering shadows across the textured ground. They are still beautiful, a bit mysterious. With the clear air of mid-winter, with the brightness reflected off the snow, the lines of the world are as clear as day.

In winter, the lines of the plants themselves are sharp. An aster or wild carrot sticking above the snow reveals the structure of the plant, what holds the flower up. The frameworks of the trees are visible. We can see where the main trunk branches to create the canopy. We can trace the boughs from the centres of the crown out to the smallest twigs.

At this time of year, the willow trees have fuzzy edges. Looking closely, the buds have burst open with pale green leaves forming. The forsythia that needs trimming is such a mass of yellow and green that makes it hard to see which branches need to come out.

But some of the shrubs are still clear, sharp structures waiting for warmth. The ash trees are majestic, branches like line sketching against the sky. The warblers that can be seen flitting from branch to branch, seeking the insects that have awakened. When it gets a bit warmer, leaves will hide the birds when they are not in flight. Now is the moment when if I can get a good look, I can identify them.

We had heavy fog last week. The edge of the world was just a couple dozen feet out on the water. Mist curled among the trees, softening everything, hiding the shape of the ground. When the sun comes out, with clear blue skies, the line where the water meets the sky has been precise. On quiet days, it is a line drawn with a ruler. On windy days, it is a jagged line drawn freehand by someone like me who struggles to make things straight, but still a precise divide.

I've been planting seeds the last few days, small hard shapes clearly speaking of the plant they came from. Tracing the outline of the seed it is memory that says this flat oval is zucchini, this sphere came from a pea. It is experience that says the rough hard shape will grow spinach.

The weekend rain and the coming heat will transform them. I can see this transformation starting with the morning glory seeds. These need to be soaked before planting. I placed in water hard pieces that look a bit like large apple seeds, long and black. Already, the clear shape is broken as white shoots have broken though the shell.

jugAs I write the first draft of this column, red rays of sunrise have shot straight across the water into my kitchen, casting perfect sharp shadows. Above the horizon, the sky is cloudy, a dull grey. There will be few shadows this day.

Looking at a sharp shadow, I appreciate the clarity of the image, the precision of the reflection. On the days I cast no shadow, I feel a little lost, as if my presence has little impact on the world.

Looking at the trees that are waiting to bud, I like tracing their structure, seeing the pattern of growth. I know, however, that what the tree needs, what the birds and I need, are the leaves to grow, the plants to live. Perhaps the desired clarity is not what I need most.

Cathy Hird lives on the shore of Georgian Bay

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