The day has settled with a sigh toward dusk.
The world’s a mess. The election’s undecided. The internet’s lost its mind.
But the golden leaves tremble on the cottonwoods, in glorious defiance of the inexorable winter. Another gusty storm is on its way, so the leaves will be gone soon.
So I’m standing on the banks of the East Verde River, my eyeballs and camera sensor collecting the angled photons bouncing off the pond.
The wind has died.
The planet has spun.
And the angle of the photons is perfect.
So I’m once again working the reflections — thanking the Creator for having gone to so much trouble when designing water.
Think about it for a moment.
Why does water create such a perfect mirror?
It’s wonderfully simple and wonderfully complicated all at the same time.
So it’s simple: Water’s both colorless and smooth.
Those photos blasted out from the sun take eight minutes to cover the 92 million miles to Earth, where they strike the cottonwoods and sycamores on the bank of the stream. The leaves of fall reflect the wavelengths my eye reads as gold. Those reflected photons in turn bounce off the perfectly still surface of the water — since for the moment there’s not a riffle of wind. The water’s in shade and the trees in sun, so the water’s not also reflecting the light from overhead — making the reflections of the trees on the bank pop. Since the colorless water absorbs and reflects all wavelengths equally, so it perfectly reflects the photons it receives — like a mirror.
But this begs the question: Why’s the water so smooth?
Ah, now we’re talking surface tension.
See what I mean? Right away, things get complicated.
Mind you, surface tension makes you possible.
Water molecules stick together because the arrangement of their electrons gives them opposite electrical charges on the top and bottom. So they’re endlessly stuck to one another. Beneath the surface, the molecules are pulled in all directions equally and you can proceed swimmingly. But at the surface, the top layer of water molecules isn’t pulled from above. As a result, each molecule’s stuck to the ones on each other side. This makes the water act as though it has an elastic film along the surface — to the delight of stone skippers and water striders.
This also makes the surface of a body of water perfectly smooth — so long as the wind’s not blowing and some fool photographer’s not wading around in the shallows.
And how does it make me and the tree both possible? Turns out, this same quality of water accounts for capillary action — which is the tendency of water to more or less crawl up a tube of just the right size. This makes your circulatory system work — it also makes it possible for a tree to pump water out of the ground and up to the thirsty tips of its loftiest leaves. If water molecules did not stick together — none of the rest of us would exist at all.
So now I’m standing perfectly still, sinking into the mud, waiting for the ripples of my entry into the shallows to stop turning those perfect reflections into mere shimmers of color.
A whiff of something takes me by the nose. I sneeze. Three times. I can never seem to just sneeze once. A fresh series of ripples sallies forth from my gradually cooling legs.
I sigh (carefully) and wait.
Mercifully, the photons of our own personal star continue fall upon the trees, the pond, my eyeballs as I stand in still waters.
At length, the mirror returns and I squeeze the shutter oh so carefully.
It occurs to me then that the world’s not a mess after all.
It’s a shimmer of beauty.
So I thank the powers that be for massless photons and squishy mud and yellow cottonwood leaves ... and most especially for capillary action.