“He will make your righteousness
shine like the dawn,. . .” Psalm 37
We were standing atop a miniature mountain, looking out over the Big Sioux River Valley from a bluff that’s not more than ten miles from the junction where the river beneath us empties into the Missouri, at Sioux City, Iowa. There was no one else there.
Behind us, darkened prairie grasses ran up to the edge of the hill and a horizon that, right then, couldn’t have been more vivid. Through the lens of my camera, the earth was black to the east, the sky so triumphantly showy that it was hard to look clearly into the face of what was coming.
When I swung back west, I saw what we’d come to shoot, a yawning valley whose scattered farm places—shadowy, colorless clumps of trees and buildings—created the only visual difference between what this landscape looked like that morning, and how it might have appeared 200 years ago, when Lewis and Clark was in the neighborhood. From where I stand, I could almost see them, I swear.
We were up on a swell on the northernmost reaches of the Loess Hills, looking over an endless russet landscape of open fields and only occasional trees in the golden breath of the breaking dawn.
On the broad land before us there was not a door in sight; the open world was all window. Here and there on the echelons of gravel and pavement laid out every mile beneath us, an occasional truck moved toward the city, its funneling headlights out front like the long snout of hound. Otherwise, we were alone, waiting for the dawn.
Painted up against the flat-line clouds, sunrise was coming, not so much in some luminous yellows, but in a rich caramel, a long swath of butterscotch that ran for miles across the eastern horizon, at its heart a brilliant smudge of gold.
But nothing ever stays the same; blink and the hues have shifted. Turn away for ten seconds, and a new painting stretches across an endless sky. A photograph doesn’t catch the dawn any more than a story captures life; a photograph is a glimpse, one fleeting fraction of a second, one frame of a film that re-runs every morning, but has never, ever been exactly the same.
Still, the sun was not quite up. The broad plain that filled half the frame was already beginning to glow. Just above it, the ridge of clouds at the western horizon had reddened in sunlight that hadn’t yet fallen below. We were caught in a fleeting moment that is neither night nor day, but something almost richer than both—a dim-lit zone that can be experienced only for a few seconds each glowing morning. On those fields across the river west, silver barn roofs began to shine as the curtain of dawn opened, not as sunlight rose, but as it fell over the land.
And then, suddenly, in a magician’s flick of a wand, all around us the prairie grass was sheathed in bronze, as if taken from the fire. Down at our feet, the world turned to Oz, the big bluestem, golden rod, and blazing stars burnished as if sacred. We forgot the sprawling open miles west because the show right there beneath our feet made us feel, honestly, that we were standing on holy ground.
I’d like to think that’s the light that’s promised in this line of David’s poem—that shimmering gold that spreads like bronze gossamer over the land at the moment the sun rises. The word is shine, but reality is glow. Dawn’s early light is heavenly alchemy. Think of it—everything we do, shining with the radiant gold-blessed touch of dawn.
Unbelievable. But it’s a promise.