Friday, August 2, 2013

The death of darkness

I remember vividly my first encounter with pitch-black night. I was about 10 years old, and my family was visiting my aunt's summer home "out in the country," as we said, far away from the lights of St. Louis.  My mother's alarm at the total lack of light is probably what makes me recall those few nights. I came to see night as a time of fear and danger. In more recent years, I have been aware that the night sky of our cities and sprawling suburbs is not really dark in that natural way it once was.

I thought of this as I skimmed an interesting new book with a fascinating topic, the gradual loss of darkness on Earth: The End of Night by Paul Bogard, whose interests are primarily ecological, though he ranges widely from an opening visit to the Nevada desert, some of the darkest geography left in the U.S.  Two-thirds of Americans and Europeans no longer experience real night, real darkness, he says.

We live in a semi-twilight glow of artificial light, a world marked by light pollution. Finding natural darkness in our world, as Bogart shows, can be a challenge. His book is well-written and documented, a collection of revealing facts and insights from various perspectives.

Included, very briefly, is the religious, with two pages or so devoted to darkness in Christian tradition, and with nothing really about the mystical tradition such as John of the Cross's dark night of the soul or Rilke's "I am in love with night."

This spiritual dimension of night is a major part of what interests me about the topic, the parallel between darkness and silence: Just as silence is not the mere absence of sound but a kind of presence or reality in its own right, so it seems that darkness is not the absence of light but, as in so much myth and literature, a creative source of life. The feminine aspect of darkness (the womb) as something quite other than frightening or evil has often been discussed and is beyond Bogard's scope here.

He comes closest to treating such material, in what I have read, in quoting from members of the Native American tradition, who see darkness as a time of healing, as the earth rests. It is a time of rituals and ceremonies when spirits can wander across space and time. At night, says a Cherokee who is interviewed, one should be able to cross into other worlds and other eras, as in ancient times.

One of the striking features easily overlooked about earlier periods in the West, such as the Middle Ages, was the dramatic contrast between the dying of the day and the onset of night, when it was really dark, when people could look up into a velvet-black sky alive with stars and planets, as night's shadow extended into space.

The author does cite the Bible, both the story of Samuel and Christ in the agony of the garden, among many key events that occur in the spiritually alive darkness when the ultimate mystery of God is felt.  If religion tends to "illuminate" and study such things, the stories themselves remind us that darkness has to do with the mystery of being, what the mystics call the "negative way"--that ultimate meaning, or God, is unknowable, obscure.

I am glad to have come across Bogard's book and share his need to celebrate the few dark spots we have left on this artificially illuminated planet and to lament their loss elsewhere. I would welcome more discussion of the creative power and mystery of darkness--as well as the power of light.


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