I'd like to have met the man who built my house in the early years of this century. He knew exactly what he was doing. The cabin, which straddles the backbone of a ridge that slopes toward a broad river in the Carolina mountains, is precisely oriented.
During the dog days of summer, the setting sun glances harmlessly off its northwest corner like a badly-aimed basketball caroming off the edge of a backboard. Yet on the year's coldest, shortest days, late-afternoon sun strikes the long, southwest-facing wall squarely, its slanting rays washing my living room and kitchen in glorious golden light.
Chopping onions or peeling potatoes at the sink in late winter, I see that the sun is already off its aim. It creeps northward as imperceptibly as we tried to move in childhood Mother-May-I? games, heading toward the big mulberry tree that by late April will obscure my view of the northwestern horizon - and the sun's descent - with its enormous leaves.
Because my house is drafty - downright breezy when the wind howls up the river valley - and because I heat with wood, I hoard every sign that winter is slowly melting into spring. The realignment of the setting sun northward is as unambiguous a message as the bright yellow spots that appear about the same time, dappling the dull winter plumage of the male goldfinches at my feeder.
PERHAPS because I'm an early-to-bed, early riser, the margins of the day are special to me. No matter what the season, I savor the coming and going of light. At dawn in the growing season, I head outside. Tiny Mabel Orchard spiders, with their art-deco silver/black/gold/orange bodies and green legs, have mounted satellite-dish webs between the flower stalks of phlox and day lily. A fuzz of dew is all that makes those small, perfect webs visible; I have to bend close.
Once the sun has dropped behind the mulberry tree on summer afternoons, I walk the garden, picking spent blooms from the day lilies and deadheading the saturated yellow coreopsis that draws fritillaries the way apple peels draw yellowjackets. I gather sprigs of oregano, parsley, mint, and a handful of chives to use with dinner.
Invariably, I look uphill at my house - built by someone who understood the year the way I want to. My eye lingers over phlox, cone flowers, and daisies that I - and the women who lived here before me - planted, added to, divided, nurtured, and feasted our eyes and hearts upon.
Back in the kitchen, I notice the last slanting rays of evening sun blotchily patterning the new-mown grass with bright yellow spots. It reminds me of the goldfinches, who have long since deserted my yard and feeder for fence-row thistles. At dusky dark, fireflies will rise in shimmering waves from lawn and garden, the way the heat did a few hours earlier over hot black asphalt on the road above the house.
I snap the ends from just-picked beans, wash earth from red-globed beets, peel dark-skinned cucumbers, and slice them into a marinade. On the cutting board in front of me, a mound of chopped herbs grows, fragrant and green as the world. "Day is dying in the west/ Heav'n is touching earth with rest...." I see my father sitting on the edge of my bed, in a room far from this one, singing that to me nearly 50 years ago; his deep young voice plays counterpoint to the wood thrush beginning its own evening hymn in the oak and beech forest between house and river.
My father's voice is old now, and far from me. But the same sun that set on us in my childhood is disappearing behind his hills in Vermont as it disappears behind mine. Like my house, which some unknown man oriented so carefully almost 100 years ago, I feel precisely aligned - set down in just the right place on this planet, and in my life and time.