Wrap Yourself in Darkness and Banish Fear

This essay was originally posted on my website for the Winter Solstice, December 21, 2012.

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To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

I believe that Wendell Berry’s poem “To Know the Dark,” which I did not discover until middle age, perfectly describes how I rid myself of my fear of darkness. And it symbolizes a way to tackle other fears.

My mother, knowing I was terrified of the monsters under the bed, always left a night light in my room. One night soon after I moved to the ranch when I was nine years old, my parents left me alone at home to go to a dance. I decided to cure myself before these tough sons and daughters of ranchers found out I was a “chicken.” So I went out into the darkness, alone, without a flashlight. I wandered into the barn loft; I climbed fences; as my eyes adjusted, I ventured out into the hayfield.

Part of the time I was terrified, but a couple of hours wandering around the ranch buildings and nearby pastures cured me and coincidentally made me love owls. (For the whole story, see Feels Like Far, p. 20.)

Once I’d confronted the fear– though perhaps not entirely rid myself of it– I found darkness to be important in keeping hold of my mental health. For example, by the time I wrote Windbreak, I’d discovered that checking the pregnant heifers anytime between midnight and two a.m. allowed me to really taste the darkness. (Windbreak, pp. 117-118; Land Circle, “Spring Weather,” pp. 9-11.) Once, I’m fairly sure a mountain lion shared the dark with me; the yearling steers got so spooked they knocked down a plank fence. And once I lay in a sleeping bag with my dog and watched the Perseid meteor shower and felt as if I were riding a clear glass ship through the stars. The memory can still make me dizzy when I look up at night.

And once, I had the potent experience of riding my horse home after dark, trusting in her to find our way. (Going Over East, p. 99. Also “Everything I Need to Know I Learned from My Horse,” which is posted on the Horse and Cow Stories Page of my website with a photograph of the horse.)

My ultimate experience of darkness, the event that transformed my attitude about it from acceptance to exultant love, involved a herd of buffalo. I urge you most strongly not to try it; I was desperate and lucky. (Feels Like Far, “Buffalo Winter,” pp. 72-85).

When I moved to town, I felt entirely disoriented in the light-filled city but as I wandered the stairs and rooms of the old house where I lived, I sensed its former inhabitants as friendly presences and found my senses expanding. (Feels Like Far, pp. 87-88.)

Since that first experience, I’ve tried to confront anything that scares me. I’ve managed to get over my fear of flying, for example, though I’m still not fond of heights.

Darkness, I believe, embodies humanity’s greatest fears. We appear to be growing more afraid of it every day because we are spending money we can’t afford to drive it away, to the detriment of every facet of our lives.

This literal darkness seems to be an enemy to Americans, though several states, including Connecticut, Arizona, Maine, New Mexico and Texas, many municipalities and several other nations have adopted legislation designed to limit light pollution from streetlights and other fixtures. Among the rationales for such measures have been energy conservation, the reduction of glare and its resulting traffic hazards, and a desire to allow people a better view of the night sky. Several states have state organizations devoted to reducing light pollution, though South Dakota does not. Several websites provide information about “dark skies” initiatives, including www.darksky.org.

Subdivision dwellers surround their houses with lights that come on when anything moves in the area, guaranteed to drive away the wildlife. Towns pay extravagantly for lamps that blast light in all directions, not just down to the ground where it might be useful. We sleep in rooms with lighted clocks so we can tell the time at any moment of the night; sometimes we even project the time in garish orange letters on the ceiling. All night the little lights of our computers, telephones and other electronic devices wink steadily. Numerous studies suggest that constant light can damage our productivity and increase stress levels, injuring both mental and physical health.

So I propose that the best way to celebrate the solstice is to embrace the dark, both literal and figurative.

First, tackle the literal darkness. Even if you have never feared the dark, you likely have not spent much time in it lately. So celebrate the solstice by finding a place as dark as possible. I prefer to go outside, to sit quietly on a rock on my hillside or even on a chair on my deck. Take a flashlight if you wish but leave it off. Don’t take a watch. Breathe deeply until you lose track of the number of times you have done so. Close your eyes. Listen for the dark feet, the dark wings. Inhale the darkness until you can sense how it is a part of you: inside your heart, your skull.

If you can’t find darkness or don’t feel safe outside, create it inside. Take a blanket into a closet, or under the stairs; or banish electronics and draw the shades. Create as much dark as you can and make yourself a comfortable nest within it. Then simply breathe. Listen: first to the sounds outside yourself and then to the sound of your own heartbeat, your own blood in your veins. If you sleep, that’s fine. But give yourself time to absorb whatever may happen.

Another good practice you might initiate at this solstice season has practical aspects as well. Carrying an unlit flashlight in case of accident, learn to negotiate your house, any outbuildings, and your yard in darkness. The ability to move quickly without artificial light might save you in a fire or home invasion. You might even turn this into a challenging and useful game for the whole family. How quickly and quietly can you escape from your house?

There are two ways of spreading light;
to be the candle
or the mirror that reflects it.

Edith Wharton, Vesalius in Zante

I’ve always collected quotations; it’s easier to find them about light than about darkness. Everyone from parents to teachers to priests to gurus both real and faux urge us to embrace the light. If we can’t light our own candle, some of these folks encourage us to take a happy pill. Very few mention that darkness can be a benefit.

I don’t want to suggest that such therapies are useless; sometimes they save lives. But in the glare of constant light we may temporarily forget things that will ambush us when our defenses are down, our eyes are closed, the pills wear off.

Deliberately confronting the figurative darkness, the shadowy places in our own hearts and minds, may seem more difficult than flipping on light switches, but I believe solstice is a good time to do it. Now the universe forces us to realize that darkness is inevitable as the earth turns away from the sun. Embrace the dark now, so that it doesn’t sneak up and wallop you on the head some cold February night. Remember that sleep brings its own darkness, always beneficial; we might consider winter a refreshing nap.

Here’s my example. For the book I’m writing now [Gathering from the Grassland, 2017, High Plains Press], I have spent considerable time the past four years reading journals and letters left me by family members: my father, mother, mother’s mother and others. Deciphering their handwriting, turning wrinkled pages, I’ve spent months watching them disintegrate, seeing truths in their writing that I did not see when they were alive. Busy with my own life, I knew they were failing, but I was enmeshed in the hard labor and bickering of that time, watching my husband slowly sicken and die. Reading those documents has helped me understand actions that seemed incomprehensible then.

Reading my own journals has been even harder. Like most people, I did things in my 20s and 30s I wouldn’t have done if I’d known then what I know now.

Worse yet, I took notes, so I can go back and read about my confusion. Sometimes I’m surprised that the facts I wrote down at the time don’t match the golden light of memory I’ve reflected over particular incidents. My writing and record-keeping habits will not allow me to simply burn these journals and rewrite history. Instead I’ve pursued myself in my own history throughout the past couple of years and spent considerable time reflecting on the past. Yes, it was painful, but the enlightenment and release I’ve experienced has been worth it. I’m going to acknowledge all of this confrontation when I celebrate the winter solstice this year.

I can’t promise you that your confrontation will drive away the pain of loss and foolishness, but I believe anguish will decrease, and understanding will fill the gaps.

After crawling into my own dark places, I spent some time berating myself for failing to see then what I see more clearly now. Upon reflection, though, I’ve concluded that I didn’t do too badly with my knowledge at the time. I was loyal to those I loved–- though sometimes I was mistaken or lied to. Where it’s possible, I’ve atoned for the mistakes I made; in some cases I make amends daily.

In the cold darkness of this solstice season, look at your mistakes. Study them until you see where you went wrong or until you understand as much as possible about how they were made. Then lock them into a heavy chest; drag it to the center of the stone cellar under the house of your soul. Lock the door; set the dragons on watch. Leave the past mistakes behind. Go upstairs into the light and repair any error you can. Apologize. Pay the fines. Then do better next time.

Leonard Cohen found the perfect metaphor in his song “Anthem:”

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
That’s how the light gets in.
That’s how the light gets in.

The winter solstice– occurring at 6:12 a.m. eastern standard time on December 21 [2012]– is the longest night of the year, when darkness covers the land. That moment also marks the beginning of the return of the light.

Dive into darkness knowing that the light will come. Ring your own bells; offer your cracked self to the universe and wait in the warm darkness for the light.

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This Solstice I am wrapped in a particularly deep darkness because my partner of nearly 30 years, Jerry Ellerman, died on September 18, 2020 from injuries received in an automobile accident. I face this long cold winter with only my Westie, Hattie, for company.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2020, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Driving in Darkness

Darkness headlights on gravel road

“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.

Darkness coyote crossing Nov 2015

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.

Darkness ranch house with lights on

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.

M2E1L0-12R350B300Besides 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.

Darkness owl on power pole Oct 2017

 

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2020, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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The International Dark-Sky Association works to protect the night skies for present and future generations.

www.darksky.org

Book Remarks: Suggestions by Wendell Berry

The 3/20/15 issue of The Week features a book list chosen by Wendell Berry, who is one of the nation’s strongest advocates for wise land use to save our lives, as well as being a poet. If you love the earth and haven’t read Wendell Berry, start today!

Berry recommends six books that inspired his thinking, including an account published in 1911 of the organic farming practices in China, Korea and Japan, Farmers of Forty Centuries, F. H. King. How did the people keep their land productive for 4,000 years? Not with pesticides and herbicides, but by returning all “wastes” to the soil, leaving the fertility cycle intact.

Of the books Berry cites, I can recommend the following:

AgBook GroupAn Agricultural Testament, Sir Albert Howard. Published in 1943. Howard argues that farming can last only if it obeys the laws of nature. “Mother Earth never attempts to farm without livestock,” he wrote. “There is no waste; the process of growth and the processes of decay balance one another.”

Home Place: Essays on Ecology, Stan Rowe, insists upon the importance of the ecosphere (not just the biosphere) as context of our lives. Rowe writes that we should “live on the annual interest and leave the land’s capital alone.”

Nature as Measure: The Selected Essays of Wes Jackson. Berry says this 2011 book addresses “The problem of agriculture” and the prospects for practical solutions.

A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold. This, of course, is one of the bibles of wise stewardship. Leopold’s ethic is simple and clear: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

On a large scale, the problem of how we treat our land is complex, because companies who “use” the land in some way want to make a profit. But at the very least, we who occupy a small portion of the earth can do a great deal toward improving the world by following Leopold’s ethic in our lives as much as possible.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2015, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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