In five more days, not only will it be winter Solstice but it will also be a year since I started this blog. Not many of you read it last December, and because darkness still calls me with its power, I thought I’d pick up on last year’s theme and make it new.
Winter Solstice calls for celebration – the light is returning, the light is returning. Each day soon will bring more minutes, then several more hours of daylight. Most humans in the northern hemisphere are jubilant, as if the sun’s return is their only source of happiness.
I wish winter Solstice were also a reveling in the glory of the longest night, as summer Solstice revels in the longest day. I don’t think anyone celebrates the returning of the dark in June. Why not?
I grieve the loss of dark, maybe because we never celebrate its return. I love night’s beauty. .. the magnificence of day blind stars, the aurora borealis launching audible awe from my throat, moon sprinkling diamonds on snow, the breath of the forest slowing as trees sleep. . .
I am more invisible in the dark feeling freer, wilder – even dare I say it, safer – no flashlight reveals my whereabouts, no fire reveals my face to the other.
My creative juice quickens in the winter. I love the inward turn of focus – possible only for those of us lucky enough to be able to adjust our frenetic schedules to account for seasonal changes. Like hot house plants, we northern urban two-leggeds live like summer all year long, forced by indoor heat and artificial light to keep producing. No wonder we have a new disease called SAD ( Seasonal Affective Disorder ). I doubt we’d feel so sad if we considered it normal to slow down in winter. With weekly regularity, perhaps, we might curl up under a blanket and sleep longer, respond creatively to the dreaming night before, cuddle together near the living room fire and tell stories, sing songs with friends and families, share food and hot drinks.
We forget that for most of human history, we were used to the dark. As Bill Bryson writes in his recent opus, At Home – a Short History of Private Life, “We forget just how painfully. . .”
Pardon me a moment while I turn on the light above my desk so I can see Bryson’s words more easily ( Note that it is 4:17 pm and already the day is fast leaving.)
. . .”dim the world was before electricity. A candle – a good candle-provides a hundredth of the illumination of a single 100-watt lightbulb. Open your refrigerator door and you summon forth more light than the total amount enjoyed by most households in the eighteenth century. The world at night for much of history was a very dark place indeed.”
Apparently, though, our eyes were accustomed to such dim lighting. Bryson shares a drawing by John Harden ( p112. ) of four family members sitting “companionably at a table sewing and reading by the light of a single candle, and there was no sense of hardship or deprivation…The fact is that people put up with dim evenings because they knew no other kind,” though they didn’t go to bed when the sun set as many of us suppose. People in the 17 and 1800’s were night owls, often eating dinner after 10 pm, dancing and conversing long after midnight.
Our modern eyes may not be as capable of seeing in the dark as they once were. I learned from an astronomer this past summer, that it takes twenty minutes or more for our eyes to adjust to nighttime vision. A simple flashlight beam can ruin it. Our eyes take another twenty minutes to re-adjust after being blinded by the light. So, the stars seem to get brighter, the longer we’re outside in the dark.
And we lose much more than night vision from light pollution. I met an educated business man from a big city on the east coast who’d never even heard of the Big Dipper, let alone seen it. I can’t imagine how it would effect my psyche to have no sense of the vastness of the universe above, its enormity recognizable – and unfathomable – only after dark. The astronomer mentioned above showed us a star burst 14,000 light years away. If that astonishment wasn’t enough, then he turned his telescope to a star cluster 250,000 light years away. Our naked eyes had no inkling these amazing phenomena existed. One woman commented as she turned away from the ‘scope, “I’m not religious but that was a religious experience.”
So, I’d love to see us find a better balance – loving dark and light in equal measure.
Loving the dark lights a fire in me. How about you?
Oh, this is a beautiful post, Deborah: I love the Bryson quote. Accepting the world as it is, and celebrating the dark: that is something for me to think deeply about. As I watch the snow gently laying outside I realise there is much to recommend working with the light and the seasons.
I pass Stonehenge on December 22nd. A day late; but I’ll pass on your regards 🙂
Thank you, Kate, especially for thinking of me with regard to Stonehenge. It is a place near and dear to me. I’ve been commissioned in the past to paint large mandalas and in both Stonehenge Solstice imagery “has had” to be included. I was there twice for summer Solstice in 2007 and both times it was cloudy/rainy…so I’ve never seen the sun actually rise over the heel stone, but the energy of the people and the place inspire me right now as I type to you. Joyful holidays to you and your family.