Growing up in North Carolina, the Winter Solstice seemed like a vestigial calendar entry. It may have had significance to those silly, early humans who worried Spring might forget to arrive, but modern civilization operates on the absolute certainty that the planet will continue its orbit, with or without the holly wreaths and appeals to Odin.
Then I moved to the Pacific Northwest. My first December, in 1999, as the days became an unbroken swath of dark gray, the merry glow of holiday lights was about the only thing to pull me through the month. No wonder my ancient relatives burned trees and lit candles and sang songs to invite the sun to return. It’s awfully dark at these northern latitudes.
I pick up my kids from school at 3:30pm, and if I’m lucky I’ll catch a glimpse of the setting sun as it breaks through the clouds, just before slipping under the horizon. I take regular, massive doses of Vitamin D, and do my best to expose my eyelids to brightness. I count down the days to the blissful moment when the light returns.
In recent years, though, my attitude about this time of year has shifted. Rather than dreading the dark, and trying to distract myself, I kind of like the introspective quality of the weather. In fact, I’ve had many people tell me that’s why there are so many writers in this corner of the country. Moody cloud cover and howling rain spark the imagination.
Darkness is an underrated experience in modern culture. Today I read this commentary, “Why We Need Winter Solstice”. Clark Strand writes:
In the modern world, petroleum may drive our engines but our consciousness is driven by light. And what it drives us to is excess, in every imaginable form.
Beginning in the late 19th century, the availability of cheap, effective lighting extended the range of waking human consciousness, effectively adding more hours onto the day — for work, for entertainment, for discovery, for consumption; for every activity except sleep, that nightly act of renunciation. Darkness was the only power that has ever put the human agenda on hold.
In times past people took to their beds at nightfall, but not merely to sleep. They touched one another, told stories and, with so much night to work with, woke in the middle of it to a darkness so luxurious it teased visions from the mind and divine visitations that helped to guide their course through life. Now that deeper darkness has turned against us. The hour of the wolf we call it — that predatory insomnia that makes billions for big pharma. It was once the hour of God.
Although my days are dreary, my nights are not very dark. Outside my window there is a pale orange haze that shows me the city for miles, even at midnight.
My astronomy professor in college introduced me to the Dark Sky movement, and I’ve sought out the increasingly rare starry city night ever since. This artist’s composite images of skies over darkened major cities break my heart. It would be wonderful to feel a part of the universe in my own backyard.
As much as I want to curb light pollution, though, I still keep my back porch light on all night. People like to steal in the shadows. I love my lamps and reading lights and the fact that my tablet can double as a flashlight. Old fears lurk in the dark corners. It will be glorious to feel the sun on my face this summer when it stays light till 10pm. So, I won’t be going frontier and switching out our incandescents for hurricane oil lamps.
Until I decide to step off the grid, then, I will celebrate the dark where I find it. I welcome the thoughts and dreams and inspirations that come to me when I sit with the darkness. There are things I can do in the dark that can never be done in broad daylight – at least not within city limits. And, there are sentiments that can best be expressed when the lights are out.