Settling In



Driving into Shepherdstown this morning, the fog is light on the tops of the fields, variably displayed beneath a separate horizon of dawn-lit cumulus at what looks to be 3,000-5,000 feet. Its height, depth and coverage varies from field to field, based perhaps on the crop and topography. Crops still actively growing are transpiring—passing moisture from the soil to the air just above—while those that are mature and drying down are not. Combine that with the rolling dips and rises of a given field and it is no surprise that on one of these “verge” mornings this kind of variation appears.

Of course fog is nothing but clouds that happen to be nearer the ground, sometimes clinging to it. If you lack the good sense to avoid excessive curiosity (and are not a pilot), you may wonder about the view from an airliner as it descends through a cloud bank toward the airport at three hundred miles an hour. Driving through a thick patch on Engle Molers Road, I thank God that geese and seagulls are not the size of deer!
There is one spot on Uvilla Road where a sinuous wisp of mist resembling the tail on a white horse  stretches maybe a hundred yards along the edge of a cornfield. I call it mist instead of fog because it is so diaphanous one can see through it to the woods behind, and the only real difference between fog and mist (and the haze that Shenandoah Valley residents know so well when they look to the east or west) is visibility.
Mere science perhaps, but sheer beauty as well, and changing moment to moment as the moist air ebbs and flows, and the first hints of sun disturb the dawn’s equilibrium.

The past few mornings the fog has been thicker, seemingly impenetrable, and has not lifted till almost noon, but this morning there is maybe half an hour when slips of sunlight sneak from between the Blue Ridge and the cloud deck—origin and canvas both obscured—creating the kind of soft focus on the land-scape that the contrasty, shadow-flung sunrise of a clear morning can never produce.

I am headed into town so early because I want to get a picture of the small maples recently planted between the new pedestrian tunnel at Shepherd University and the Rumsey Bridge. But when I arrive, the fog is nowhere to be found, so I decide to walk out on the bridge and shoot back toward the Contemporary Arts Center, as I have done many times before, hoping for a glint of rising sun on its copper skin. I get there just as the sun rises above the Blue Ridge—but still behind the clouds east—and lights the rumpled cumulus from beneath. Looking downriver, I see that each small ravine feeding the river has its own tributary finger of fog settling down toward the water, only to disappear (evaporate?) as it reaches the open channel of the Potomac.

This “run” of the fog is not something you see in the spring, any more than you would see a maple syrup “run” in the fall. Each depends on a very specific and precise yet flexible set of conditions that its given season provides, and each is thus emblematic of its place in the synoptic symphony that surrounds us. Warm land, warm water, cool air and the humidity left from a recent rain provide the instruments; the season provides the score.

The calmness after the tumult of summer lets the fog settle in, as we do, this time of year, in preparation for winter.

Twenty minutes and a cup of coffee later, I head home. The sun is fully above the Blue Ridge when I reach Molers Crossroads, and the fog over the Knott Road cornfield has melted to a continuous mist, now a bright iridescent yellow tinged at the edges with blue reflected from the sky. The white church at the corner fades in and out moment to moment as the mist dissipates until finally clearing into the blue.

To view the photographs referenced above, please visit the Fluent gallery.