What Makes It Through

August 27, 2023, 11:48 a.m., Seattle, WA & May 12, 2023, 12:58 p.m., Brooklyn, NY.

This piece was originally published in the 2024 Are.na Annual.

There is a huge evergreen tree in Seattle’s Volunteer Park, on the edge of one of its grassy fields. From a distance, it is a platonic ideal: a nearly perfect cone, the way a child would draw a tree.

August 27, 2023, 4:32 p.m., Seattle, WA. [The evergreen in question.]

But when you approach, the tree’s solidness gives way to gaps between branches that part into entryways. Passing through one of these entryways, this tree becomes a shelter. A bed of dirt and bark marks the end of the field and the beginning of the tree. To stand here is to be not quite inside the tree but not quite outside of it either.

August 27, 2023, 4:45 p.m., Seattle, WA. [Under the branches.]

Up close, the plump exterior of the tree reveals its skeleton of branches. Each branch has its own trajectory, a path frozen from many years of following the sun. On the earth below, the many layers of the tree are compressed into a flat shadow; glimpses of sky mirror into distorted shards of light. The marbled ground could be said to be a tracery of shadows.

May 18, 2023, 5:24 p.m., Seattle, WA, home. [An open window, a white wall, the sun shining through and the wooden grid of the window panes casting shadows on the wall.]

In an architectural sense, the term “tracery” describes the decorative divisions of a window, originally intricately carved stone in Gothic churches. The ribs or spacers—which are used to create a pattern and provide structural support to the glass—cut through an otherwise open space.

April 11, 2022, 7:45 p.m., Brooklyn, NY. [A shadow of a plant projected on a wall, with the window pane separators as background.]

Other elements in our surroundings—trees, buildings, clouds, fences—also dissect light the way tracery windows do. While some light continues to its terminal, the rest is captured and rendered as negative space.

February 1, 2017, 7:50 a.m., Austin, TX, home. [Sun shining through a curtained window.]

More broadly speaking, the word “tracery” can also be used to describe any branching pattern,1 including shadows of tree branches that soften direct light.2 In that way traceries can be both object and shadow: branches as tracery, and a tracery made by the shadow of those branches.

May 12, 2023, 12:58 p.m., Brooklyn, NY. [Shadows of leaves on pavement.]

Traceries can project the outside inward. Objects break light into perforated shadows that flow through the spaces we occupy, a slice of the outdoors projected onto a wall, the floor, or a curtain as a screen. Fleeting but anchoring a particular time and place. These shadows are an imperfect cast, a version of an exterior but not the exterior itself: a memory.

July 1, 2023, 1:35 p.m., Portland, OR. [Shadows of leaves on water.]

Light traveling through the atmosphere—streaming through trees, filtered through glass—is information gathered and flattened at a juncture. Interior/exterior, true/false, yes/no become softer, fuzzier, maybe.

Shadows of different resolutions are woven together in these projections. The further away an object is from its shadow, the less defined its outline. High branches on a tall tree will create blobby shadows, while the shadows of lower branches are crisp. A memory also warps with distance. Details are lost, but an impression remains.

June 21, 2023, 8:06 p.m., Seattle, WA, home. [A patch of late afternoon light on a wall.]

In my living room there is a faint outline of where a rug once covered the floor for many years, a border of lighter wood running around the room. It’s a souvenir of another life lived here, the permanent shadow of an object that left when previous inhabitants did. Light beams slide across this floor, longer in the winter and shorter in the summer, never still, yet fastened into this mark: a rug dodged into the wood. In a way the rug is still here. I perceive it even though I don’t know what it looks like.

September 10, 2023, 12:27 p.m., Seattle, WA, home. [The rug’s permanent shadow.]

My grandmother Mary Ann recently sent me a box of film negatives taken by my great-great-grandfather. Here she is as a little girl, looking at her sister Betty, her sister looking at their grandfather behind the camera through a mirror.

Late summer 1942, Ennis, TX. [The negative of the photo stacked on top of the actual photo.]

I was able to make prints from these eighty-year-old negatives, using more or less the same techniques he would have in a darkroom: manipulating light through a negative to affix an image. This photo is a precise shadow, a moment captured as its inverse. Its printed self is only possible because of its negative. A negative becoming a positive once again.

June 14, 2023, 7:02 a.m., Sequim, WA. [The shadow of a decorative window pane on a wall.]

Memory of something isn’t the thing itself, as a tracery shadow of a window is not the window itself. It is nothing, only viewed from a different perspective.

August 21, 2017, 11:52 a.m., near Tallulah Falls, GA. [Sun filtered through tree leaves creating half moon shadows on the pavement.]

By definition shadows are an absence of light, but they are not necessarily a void. They reveal something about the light that creates them: texture from a streetlamp bulb or during an eclipse, tiny crescents mimicking the sun. They are exactly what isn’t. Empty space exists only up to its edge; a shadow exists only up to the surface it falls on.

2021–03–21 12:21 p.m., Vashon Island, WA. [A folding chair and its shadow drawn in chalk on the pavement below it.]

Looking at tracery shadows is not unlike looking in a rearview mirror. You’re seeing two things at once: the surface itself—a sidewalk, or path, or room—and boundaries of light, reversed and superimposed. It is a single composition, a duet. It is the net that catches light, and the light that passes through.

April 29, 2023, 12:25 p.m., Seattle, WA. [A Japanese cherry tree, its bright pink clusters of flowers casting shadows on the ground.]

[1] From Wiktionary: “tracery: (by extension) A delicate interlacing of lines reminiscent of the architectural ornament.” 

[2] “Light filtered through leaves, or tracery, is wonderful. But why?” Christopher Alexander, “238 Filtered Light,” in A Pattern Language (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977).

Shelby Wilson is a computer programmer and artist drawn to studying materials, handcraft, and methods of computation. She is the cofounder of the html review.