Unwitting artists paint with autumn's light

He was power-washing the railing of a neighbor's upstairs balcony, training a high- pressure nozzle on each wooden baluster, oblivious to the enormous white blossoms of mist forming above his head as the ricocheting water rose into the late-afternoon light. I stood at the curb, transfixed by the explosive beauty of these vapor clouds shot through with shafts of orange sunlight as arresting as the sudden sunlit glory that follows a passing storm. One incandescent blossom after another rocketed skyward with pyrotechnic brilliance, holding and refracting the light.

After a moment, the workman sensed my presence and looked up, unaware of the beauty taking shape just above his head. As quickly as he glanced my way, he returned to the task at hand, clouds continuing to burst into being about him. I watched another minute, seduced by this sudden rendering of light. How often are we the progenitors of a beauty we remain blind to, failing to lift our eyes to a splendor just above our heads?

On autumn afternoons it is nearly impossible not to be hijacked by beauty. The days are filled with glittering encounters. The air itself shimmers with the oblique, leaf-saturated light cast off by every phosphorescent bush and tree. Where, just moments ago, a uniform jade reigned - the dull and dusty green of late summer - a festive particularity now prevails, each branch declares itself in a final, flamboyant display, like the costumed children that run riot through these very leaves on the last night of October.

The air still held a measure of summer warmth as I continued my early evening circuit of the neighborhood, exhilarated yet despondent at the implications of these seasonal changes, the Northern Hemisphere tilting farther and farther from the sun. Soon all heat would vanish - and with it, all color. But then a starker beauty would prevail as dazzling as the crystal glint of a silent, snow-bleached meadow. Lift our eyes in any season, and we are greeted by majesty.

It was there in the house painter's spray and I found it again, moments later, at the schoolyard.

A father was pushing his young daughter on a swing, prompting squeals of delight each time his powerful hands sent her sailing into the blue. With reckless abandon, she leaned far back as the swing cast her skyward, her head dropping below her outstretched legs, her glossy, golden hair streaming behind her like molten flames. Here was not only light but music, the giggling glee of an enchanted child. "More, Daddy!" she cried each time gravity yanked her back from momentary weightlessness, every new push prompting an involuntary outrush of joy. I stood and watched as, time and again, her hair flew up into fair clouds about her flushed face, then spooled out behind her, a tiny miracle of motion that stopped me in my tracks. The girl's father, meanwhile, was distracted by the demands of another child in a nearby stroller. Here again, the creator seemed oblivious to the beauty he was creating with each push of his hands.

One last astonishment awaited me. Half an hour after sunset, the cooling night air began to pool in the valley near my house, coalescing into a thin fog that hovered just above the ground. From lamps burning in kitchen and living room windows came a lovely yellow radiance that probed the moist air with long, flamelike fingers that became holographic as I passed, light once again given heft and dimension by fine, suspended droplets of water. The simple act of flipping a switch had transformed the night, infusing it with a beauty lost upon those within.

It had been a day of such delights, beauty tossed off effortlessly by unknowing artists; a breathtaking, innocent enchantment of light, sound, and motion - autumn's unscripted pageant.

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