“They could be driving through the sky.” Elly Griffiths is writing in her mystery The Outcast Dead about a drive on the Norfolk coast, but the line struck me as descriptive of what driving home from town used to be like for me, the little girl in the back seat.
For a minute I stopped to think about the meaning of the line, and it came to me: that’s what the drive USED to be like. I remember the comfort of dozing in the back seat of the old 1954 Chevy, no doubt wrapped in a blanket, as my father drove home, talking quietly to my mother in the passenger seat. The murmur of their voices was comforting in the darkness as we drove down old Highway 79 and turned into our driveway. I usually sat up then, watching as the two headlights stabbed down the gravel road. Occasionally we’d see a coyote lope along ahead of us and duck under the fence, or an antelope dive under the bottom wire. Rabbits always scurried around the limestone outcropping at the top of the hill. Closer to the house, we’d often see the glowing eyes of a cat or two, hunting in the borrow ditches.
In the ranch yard, we might pause while my father got out and shut the chicken house door, first flashing a light around inside to be sure no skunks or raccoons were lurking under the perches. Then he’d pull into the driveway and go inside to turn on the porch light before my mother got out of the car. He’d walk ahead of her into the dining room, turning on the overhead lights and perhaps turning the heat up if we had been gone most of the day.
When I got out of the car, I could stand behind it and look east and south and west and north into utter blackness– as if our house were the only one on the planet. Perhaps an owl would hoot, to add to the lonely atmosphere, or a coyote howl. Inside the circle of light, I knew I was safe. But I had slipped out my bedroom window and wandered the dark often enough to feel comfortable without light as well.
Today, it’s hard to find true darkness even 20 miles from town, where I still live. As the countryside empties of ranchers– a subject on which I’ve ranted elsewhere– it is filling with folks who want to live in the country, which should be a wonderful thing. More people in the country means we share the taxes with more taxpayers, meet more people in church, and the like.
But one of the sad side effects is that although these folks like the country in the daylight, they apparently don’t like it at night. If I look to the west, I see half a dozen glows from yard lights that will burn all night long. To the north I see lights in what was recently my uncle’s pasture, as well as the eerie glow of Rapid City on the horizon. Only to the east and a little southeast can I look at real darkness. And I can appreciate it because I can stand on my deck in complete darkness if I choose to.
The key word is CHOOSE.
On the outside of the garage, and just above my back door, I have installed motion lights which come on when they detect movement. When I drive up to the garage, the light comes on. When I walk to my car parked in front of the garage, the light comes on. When I step out of the garage and walk to my door, the light above the door illuminates the lock.
Of course, the garage light also comes on when a rabbit hops across the driveway, but nothing is perfect.
Besides all these potential lights, I have lights on tall poles outside my house and my retreat house. These lights operate with a switch from inside the house, or with a device I can carry. I have to turn them on. When someone drives up, I can light their way to the door.
This means that I can CHOOSE to light the place like a supermarket parking lot if necessary, but it’s not lit that way every single minute of every single blessed night. In the darkness, the population of hawks and rabbits, skunks, coyotes, mice, pigeons, grouse, bullsnakes, and all the other useful wild inhabitants of the neighborhood can go about their business.
When I walk outside at night, I prefer to go in the dark. In a famous poem, Wendell Berry wrote, “To know the dark, go dark.” If you walk into the dark with a light, you know only the light– only the relatively tiny circle of glowing light. Anything outside that circle will be invisible. But if I step outside with the flashlight in my hand turned off, my eyes rapidly adjust until I can see remarkably well in the darkness– much better than I can see into the dark if I light my steps. I can carry the flashlight in case I need to light my way, or confront something in the darkness. But I can also walk quietly, using my sight, hearing, and touch to find my way, and learn that the dark, too “blooms and sings,” as Berry says, and “is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.”
Walking in darkness, I have heard the whisper of a great-horned owl flying out of a cedar tree beside me, seen its great shadow cross the moon.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota
© 2020, Linda M. Hasselstrom
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