From left: my grandfather, oldest sister, either me or my brother in my dad’s arms, a neighbor, and my mother. I have no idea why this picture was taken, but this is what I called the front porch of the farm house.
I am an overly-sensitive midwestern farm boy, which means I grew up in a literal cornfield highly attuned to my environment. My neighbors were about a mile away, so until I was old enough to ride a bike through the dirt lanes to the next section (a section is a one-mile square), I was pretty much stuck in that cornfield. Well, one year it was corn, the next it was soybeans, because crop rotation is considered good practice.
I heard once that the blue eyes I inherited from my parents and shared with my brother and three sisters are more sensitive to light than other colors. I looked it up on Wikipedia, and it seems there may be some truth to it. But I do know plenty of people with blue eyes who are not lighting designers.
Whatever the reason, I was born sensitive to light, and when I was younger this was not a bad thing. Light was just another toy that at first captivated my attention as an observer before becoming a consuming hobby. Eventually, I would decide to keep light as a toy and go elsewhere as a career, but every step would be shaped by my origins as a farm boy. From natural to artificial to dramatic light, I subconsciously understood that light was a gift. I used it for fun, as a toy, until I realized I could make money with light.
The Farm Boy in the Sun
Growing up on a farm- at least my kind of farm- offered plenty of time for outdoor fun. Ours was not the farm of endless eighteen-hour days of chores and labor, but one of occasional bursts of intense activity in air-conditioned cabs with stereo radios followed by longer stretches at a more reasonable pace. Oh, and mowing the grass. Lots of mowing. Hours of mowing. Days of mowing.
In central Illinois the land is quite flat, smoothed by glaciers and fertilized by swamps that were drained by early settlers. The ground is extremely productive, rainfall is generally adequate for bumper crops, and farming focuses on plants rather than animals. The land is too good for grazing.
One major result of the flatness is that the sky is as big as possible. There are no hills to block the horizon, no mountains in the distance, few trees, and fewer tall buildings. The sky is one hundred and eighty degrees above and three hundred sixty degrees around. One of my older sisters, who lived for years in the hills of northern Virginia, remarked on multiple occasions that the prairie sky was what she missed the most.
Having a huge sky, all year long, lends itself to extraordinary sunrises, sunsets, storms, and endlessly fascinating combinations of light and shadow. I can still recall the emotion of standing in front of our home, looking west towards the setting sun across a field of stubble in November. It was always the front yard; we had no westerly facing windows and the backyard had a few trees. I would often stop and soak up the last minutes of sunshine somewhere on the farm, and the front porch was a wonderful place to watch the storms with my father. Now, living in the city, I have to rely on satellite maps to tell me when and where the storm will strike. Back then, I simply looked and could see it hours before the rain started.
Those moments were memorable, but most of my ordinary days were also drenched in light. My grandparents gave us a swimming pool when I was very young, and I spent many summer hours floating and playing in the water as the sun sparkled in my eyes. Trees surrounding the house, planted decades before by my ancestors to provide shade and protection from fierce winter winds, broke up the sunlight into dappled ever-changing patterns of light and leaf. I played on the swing set when I was very little in that shaded yard, and fought off attacking battalions when I was in grade school (we played a lot of war back then, because the Russians were constantly parachuting into my back yard, probably to steal the swing set). Later I would make out under those same trees and in that same pool, but don’t tell my parents.
I also understood the value of shade as a farm boy. Detasseling is a job that was originally done by prisoners but outlawed by the Geneva Accords, so now it is done by farm boys and small town kids. Just about everyone who needs money for ice cream or GI Joe (electronic devices back then were mostly found in the kitchen), and detasseling is how it is earned.
Imagine a seemingly endless cornfield in mid-July. It is 95 degrees, with humidity above 90 as well. There are no trees for miles- they would slow down the growth of the crops- and therefore no escape from the sun. The corn, as high as your head, looks pretty from the highway but is actually the descendent of razor blades. Each edge of every leaf is sharp and attempts to cut your hands, arms, neck, and face. Head-to-foot protection is a must, despite the heat.
You march through the field, usually about a mile from end to end, reaching into each and every corn plant and yanking out the tassel. Still wrapped in protective leaves, the tassel is about to sprout and shed pollen in the field. The seed corn company, however, doesn’t like that pollen, and has planted other corn with good pollen. Or so the story goes.
Okay, I got lost in remembering for a bit, sorry. Here’s the point: when you work in those conditions, you deeply appreciate shade. Perhaps that’s why I am a fanatic about dimmers to this day.
My mother must love light, too, for she refused to cover her windows with shades or curtains. I learned that from her, and still get frustrated when a curtain blocks a few inches of light-bringing glass. When my oldest sister went to college when I was about eight years old, I moved into her bedroom at the top of the stairs. It was a cozy room, tucked under the eaves of the house above the front door. I had the only bedroom with just one window, but it did face due east. In the summer, I could lie in bed and watch the sun rise over the fields outside. At night I could see the lights of my best friend’s house a mile away. Growing up in our home with so many windows and so few shades meant even when I was inside I was soaking up light. Light must have saturated my skin and eventually become a part of me.
You might imagine, then, that school was a chore with all its indoor time. I loved school- I was good at it before depression temporarily sapped my enthusiasm for it- and of course school was also my social time. Friends from all over the county and several nearby towns would come together in one grade school, and recess was a highlight. Even better were the warm fall and spring days when the kids in the “neighborhood” would meet on a nearby country road and ride the five miles to school. It was amazing freedom for a fifth grader, and many of us had younger siblings trying to keep up as well. All the time we rode to school, we soaked up sky and light
Apart from basketball, which I enjoyed but was too afraid to ever shoot the ball, I chose outdoor sports in school. I started running cross country to get in shape for basketball and enjoyed it enough to join track as well. Long track meets outdoors were great times of fun, perhaps especially because I was not very fast and thus felt less pressure to perform than some of my more gifted friends. I even preferred outdoor games before school or during recess; kick ball and eventually touch football. I loved outdoors.
In addition to beautiful light and the relief of shade, the vastness of the sky left its mark on my soul. It is easy to feel small surrounded by so much sky and light. Perhaps I could have thought instead how everyone I loved was under the same sky, no matter how far away. But that wasn’t my style: there was even at a young age the beginnings of a different kind of darkness.