Alberta's Magic Hour

Filmmakers and artists are obsessed with Alberta’s natural light


| May-June 2010


To witness Alberta’s magical light in film trailers, visit  utne.com/MagicHour . 

I recall that morning as if it were yesterday. I awoke, startled, the way you do when your instincts sense something unfamiliar in your midst. A shimmering, raspberry-colored light—unlike anything I’d ever witnessed—was creeping through the tall, narrow windows of my new Calgary apartment.

Everything this light touched exploded with newfound color. Turquoise walls became organic and lush. An antique quilt from Montreal glittered in a red, pink, and blue kaleidoscope. Tired hardwood floors erupted into liquid gold.

That was 15 years ago. I had just moved to Alberta from British Columbia to launch a new life in the province. Truthfully, I was completely unprepared for the marvel that is southern Alberta light. “Visual opium” is how American writer Diane Ackerman (A Natural History of the Senses) once described this kind of phenomenon—when natural light and color collide and tackle our senses “like a blow from a stun gun.”

I was stunned by the colors that roused me on that fateful morning. I say fateful because, ever since, I’ve spent my life on guard, searching for similar moments. Moments that only seem to come when I’m in this part of the world.

A longtime West Coast girl, I was more accustomed to the soft, comforting light that accompanies a humid climate. A Vancouver sunset, Canadian writer Max Wyman once told me, offers up the cityscape as if it is being viewed through “a glass of sweet white wine.” Vancouver light is exquisitely subtle. Alberta light, by contrast, is harsh, electric, extreme, and brittle with the potential to “smash, explode, and transform space,” local architect Jeremy Sturgess tells me.