Thursday, December 10, 2009

Light and Darkness

It occurred to me yesterday how little experience of genuine darkness we have in our day. There is no where we go, save, perhaps, in a closed closet, where there is no significant source of light.

I was imagining what it must have been like living before the advent of electric or gas lighting during the winter when there are more than 14 hours of darkness in a place with the latitude of Milwaukee. Outside it would be very dark unless the moon were shining. You would have starlight at best (which would be much brighter because there would be little interference from ground light). If it were cloudy the clouds would have little light to reflect from the ground, so it would be much darker than it is now in cloudy weather. No orange glow from the city street lights.

Inside it would simply be dark unless you had a candle or two lit, or a fireplace (which we don't have). For fourteen hours. You certainly would not be able to get much accomplished after dark, so you'd have to sit around and play the fiddle like Pa Ingalls, or knit or string onions or something. I'm sure people slept more in the winter than we do. And you would probably sleep more deeply and soundly, since it would be genuinely dark. There is now no discernible difference between sleeping patterns in summer and winter.

Just think how frightful it must have been to wander around in a medieval castle or village at night, not knowing who or what was lurking in the shadows that were deeper than anything we know about in our day.

I imagine there are places on the earth where one can experience this kind of darkness even now--away from cities in places where electricity is scarce.

In our house there is no place you can go to avoid the light that comes in from the outside. The street lights are bright. On cloudy days the bright orange lights from the cities make it even brighter. When there is snow on the ground it is brightest of all. Our neighbor keeps their outdoor lights on all night to keep away the burglar. Even if you put blinds up, they are translucent enough to let in significant amounts of light.

And in the house there are dozens of little light sources all over the house shining forth from the technology that we have surrounded ourselves with. The t.v., the computer, the printer, the digital alarm clocks, the CD player, the flash drive.

If you walk around our neighborhood, whether the moon is shining or not, whether it is cloudy or not you do not need a flashlight.

And we stay up until after 11:00 (six hours after dark) doing the normal, productive things. Not sitting around knitting or playing the fiddle.

It makes one tired just thinking about it. That rhythm between summer work and winter quasi-hibernation was probably quite healthy. I know that monastic schedules used to change between summer and winter. I wonder if they still do. I'm wondering if there is some way we can return to it.

I suppose at this point I should have some spiritual insight about this, but I don't. It is just an observation. Although I do believe that the chronic sense of fatigue that is so common in our day may find its source partly in the change in our culture that I am describing.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Unless we acknowledge the darkness, we can't see the light.

Or something like that....

An Augustinian optimist