I was sneaking around last week, trimming some branches overhanging a sidewalk, branches of the evergreen variety, which I planned to take home and drape artistically across my mantel.
That I was driving around with my pruners on the front seat of the car is, frankly, no one’s business. That it was dark, just after dusk, is a happy coincidence that, even so, hindered me in performing this civic service to the walking public.
Perhaps my eyes have not adjusted yet to early nightfall, my rods and cones still scanning the environment for the crisp light of autumn. Or, maybe it is coming for me, that old age thing that descends like velvet across a window as I approach the time I can no longer see at night, at least not well enough to drive.
For I was having trouble. I ran a few errands along streets I have known all my life, but in the gathering darkness I felt a bit off-kilter. The shadows sooty black, headlights too bright, neon signs along Frederica strobing and blinking and making me a little sick.
Or, maybe my rods and cones haven’t seen total darkness in years, if ever, and they were just searching for the best possible reading, not unlike a camera searching, searching, in and out, for the proper exposure in difficult light.
My head felt a little like that, buzzing and catching, and I came home and had to sit down for a minute.
Even at night, in our beds, we do not drift off in complete darkness. We are instructed to turn off our TV’s, leave our phones in other rooms, keep the blinking and beeping of computers and gadgets to a minimum in our sleeping chambers. There are eye shades and blackout curtains if all else fails.
There are those who chase the light—pilgrims from overcast countries who dream of the sunny seaside, or t adventurers in parkas who travel far into the frozen tundra to glimpse, if conditions are right, the aurora borealis.
And then there are those who seek the dark. Total dark, without street lamps, the glare on the horizon of a city afire with neon and halogen. A place so dark the stars come out—all of them—and the moon illuminates the landscape, at once familiar and foreign, lit, as it is, from the sun, once removed.
Total darkness exists, but it is harder to find. It can’t be found on the continent of Europe, or in the eastern half of the United States. But cross over into the prairie and into the plains, and you can find it. The northern tier states have it, and in the mountain ranges of the West. Parts of Maine, too. Almost anywhere in Greenland, Mongolia, the western reaches of China. Most of Kazakstan, the great midsection of Africa, the Australian outback.
On the eve of the longest night of the year, I think of the great darkness and the way it captured the imaginations of human beings, back when real darkness meant something. I would have burned a yule log, too, would have kept vigil, done all sorts of things to ensure the returning of the light, this light made more precious for the long hours without it.
I would like to see the world, as it once was, as it rarely is now, pitched in utter darkness.
Would the wind blow differently, would sound carry in odd ways, would I feel a change, a shift, would I still know who I am, what to do, with nothing but the light of the stars to fix my place?
Would my eyes adjust?
The winter solstice arrives and we build fires, light candles, fill our homes with tinsel and glitter and shiny things. We do this for Christmas, for Hanukkah, for comfort and reassurance. We gather our loved ones close, for they light our way, too. We sing, boisterous or sweet, with abandon, or reverence, or joy.
We take a bit more time in our greetings, are pleased by chance meetings with old acquaintances in shops and on the street, happy in the encounter. This, too, is a kind of light. A reminder of who was once important to us, and who is important still.
We hunker down in December. Count our blessings like gaily wrapped gifts. Watch for star shine in our loved ones’ faces. Thank the dark for helping us see it, just there. And there. And there.