A Balance Between Dark and Light

Gothic Christmas Ornament
My daughter made my new favorite Christmas ornament, a balance of light and dark.

In the cold, starry darkness of Winter Solstice, life’s breath becomes visible, vaporous music. The body’s tropical warmth pushes back against the chill, sustaining life. Fingers’ frigid ache is a reminder of their worth. It’s both the longest night of the year and the promise of returning light, completely both, without contradiction — my favorite day.

Why is Winter Solstice my favorite day of the year? Why the longest night, not our other solstice that bears the longest day? Maybe it’s because I was raised with an overabundance of light. Maybe I didn’t have enough opportunity to celebrate the sacred darkness. I’ve noticed that many of us were brought up on a steady diet of light-stories and were taught to avoid, exclude, or even fear the dark. Seeking a better balance, many of us begin to search out dark things, especially in the winter. Take Krampus, for example.

Krampus is a Christmas demon celebrated in parts of Europe, the dark counterpart to bright Saint Nicholas. In Austria, on Krampusnacht (December 5), people dress up as the part-goat, part-human creature, romping with horns and long tongues among crowds of people, whipping them with little birch switches. Krampus is rapidly gaining popularity in the United States. 

The origins of Krampus are thought to be a Pagan ritual designed to dispel the ghosts of winter. In old Scandinavia, Yule was the solstice time when the ghosts of the dead were believed to return, so people left out food and drinks for them overnight. Yule ghosts evolved into one Yule Ghost, and eventually into Krampus. The American Santa Claus comes mostly from St. Nicholas, but not completely. There’s a little Krampus in Santa, too. Krampus bells, which announce his arrival, bear an uncanny resemblance to sleigh bells. Does the custom of leaving cookies and milk out for Santa come from feeding the ghosts of Yule? 

Consider that Santa is said to put coal into the stockings of naughty children, while Krampus leaves birch sticks. Why do we have such dark customs at Christmastime? Is it to frighten children into acceptable behavior? Is it to teach them that there are scary things out there? It’s hard to navigate through a world that’s too safe because we can’t learn what to be wary of. Or is it to remind us that life isn’t fair? After all, if you’re out on Krampusnacht, you might get smacked with a switch, even if you’ve done your best to be good. But there could be a balance here, too. Coal and sticks are both fuels. Both can be transformed, with a spark of will, into light.

There is a hazard in dwelling too much on dark things. Those of us susceptible to depression can vouch for this. But there’s also a hazard in dwelling too much on the light. Light is beautiful, but only when it’s real and not a veneer that comes out of desperately avoiding the dark. As a child, I heard a lot of light-stories, most of which aren’t even true. At Thanksgiving, we were fed turkey and cranberries along with light-stories about how there was nothing but joyous feasting between the Pilgrims and the Indians. The light-stories left out Europe’s disrespect and disease, genocide and grave-robbing, ungratefulness and self-righteous destruction. Light-stories remind us to chin up, always look on the bright side. Everything will (magically) be alright. With this steady diet of light-stories, no wonder there’s so much violence, so many dark-stories howling to be heard. The more we deny the darkness, the more it grows out of control and crushes in around us. And how are we told to respond? By looking on the bright side, of course.

I recently heard a podcast by Sam Yang on feeding the “gray wolf.” He tells a parable where a Cherokee elder describes two wolves inside him — a light one and a dark one — and the wolf that “wins” is the one he feeds. Sam points out how this was a bit of cultural appropriation. The actual Indigenous story was about feeding both wolves, not just the black or white one. If a person only feeds light or the darkness, there will always be a war between them. They are two sides of the same thing, and you need to feed them both so neither wolf gets hungry.

On this Winter Solstice, I invite you to embrace both bright Saint Nicholas and dark Krampus. I invite you to honor the holiday gifts and lights as well as the loneliness and want that always swirl around with them. And I wish for you the gift of the Winter Solstice: that beautiful balance between the dark and the light.

Total Eclipse of the Sun

Yesterday, we got back late from a long drive – or was it a short campout? – to a wild place in the middle of Wyoming. We had gone there like hundreds of others to witness the total eclipse of the sun. I had chosen the most remote place I could think of under the band of totality: the Gas Hills, thirty miles or so north of Jeffrey City. Jeffrey City swelled decades ago during the uranium boom but is now nearly a ghost town. The road north is all dirt and gravel, with ruts that challenged the abilities of our rented sedan.

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The light looks like early evening, but the shadows look like midday a few minutes before the total solar eclipse in the Gas Hills of Wyoming

On the drive up, we stopped at the visitor’s center in the small town of Baggs, Wyoming, and the docent there told us that Thomas Edison had witnessed the last total eclipse in the area in 1918. It was on this trip near here, she said, that he came up with the idea for the incandescent light. She looked skeptical. So did I, but I now understand how a totality could spur the mind of a genius in such a way, so I’d like to believe it’s true.

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The moon’s darkness approaches from the west

Nothing is ever exactly as you think it will be. No photo or video can really capture the experience of a total eclipse of the sun. It felt like the air temperature dropped ten degrees as a chill set into my hands. There was a scattering of stars in the midday sky, and crickets started to sing. The moon’s diffuse shadow engulfed us from the west as the sun’s light blinked out and in an instant, my solar viewing glasses went completely dark.

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No photo can completely do it justice, but this is the best my iPhone could do

Pulling the glasses away, there was the corona, an iconic image high in the sky. What had been over my head but completely invisible to me for the past fifty-plus years was now revealed. It looked like a crown of vapor, a thin, glowing mist, immensely beautiful. It was a glimpse of a star from the heavens as it sent off its molten gases into space, but it was also oddly familiar, as if this image was somehow carried in human DNA. After only a couple of minutes, it was gone. One of the moon’s huge craters revealed a flash, followed by a sliver of searing light along the sun’s rim. The moon shadow’s darkness raced away to the east, and it was like late evening again. The crickets went silent, and three antelope in the distance went back to their grazing.

Within the hour, the day had fully returned, and we were – along with thousands of others – headed south toward home. The drive back was complicated by traffic, and we didn’t get in until after 11:00 pm, but the ancient dance between the sun and moon was well worth a little trouble.

The Upcoming Totality

A few of us are headed up to Wyoming today. The weather forecast is favorable to see the total solar eclipse tomorrow morning! It will be my first opportunity to see a totality.

Even if you are outside of the totality, nature can still put on a good show. During the eclipse in May 2012, the totality passed south of us. We looked through a pinhole camera at an image of the eclipse projected onto the sidewalk in front of our home. The real surprise came when we turned back toward the house, finding it bedecked with little eclipses!

Shadows of eclipse on the house

The points of light created by gaps in the canopies of trees can serve as pinhole cameras and create quite a beautiful display. I wish all eclipse seekers and travelers a safe and happy day tomorrow!

You Can’t Stop Evolution

… even if you don’t believe in it. You can try to get in its way, but you can’t stop it. It’s like trying to stop a hurricane by closing your curtains and making a cup of instant coffee. You feel better for a while, but you don’t stop the hurricane. And unfortunately, you have your back to it  when it arrives.

So I’ve asked myself what the future United States might look like. What might we evolve into as a country?

One thing isimg_0632 for sure: despite political promises, it won’t be filled with millions of coal and petroleum industry and internal-combustion-engine-automobile-manufacturing jobs. It also won’t host teams of men who cut down old-growth forests or slaughter vast herds of wild bison for their tongues and tenderloins. These resources are on their way out, or they are already long depleted, reduced to island populations across our continent. Only so many ancient organisms were long ago turned into coal and oil beds. Their number was vast, but now they’re depleted, too. Like the bison. Like the old-growth trees. It’s a simple fact, no matter how many curtains you draw or cups of instant coffee you brew. Whether you “believe in” global climate change or not, the coal and steel industries are not coming back. We need to choose something else.

When human beings lose resources and their survival is threatened, things usually become violent. That’s the scary part of what could happen, and don’t think that this doesn’t keep me up at night. But what happens after the violence? I’m hoping that the once-great city, Detroit, Michigan, has an answer.

I’ve been to Detroit, over forty years ago. It was a lot like Chicago or St. Louis or Minneapolis/St. Paul. Brimming with people and industry, self-important. Not so now. The auto industry declined. Corrupt politicians took their share. The giants fell. I’ve not been back there in person, but I know there was violence, lots of it. It was all over the news for a decade or more. But while I’ve been out west raising a family and contending with the increasingly difficult business of keeping up a modest living, the affairs of Detroit quietly fell out of the news.

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Recently, I was reminded of Detroit by an episode of “Parts Unknown,” a CNN show by Anthony Bourdain (Season 2, Episode 8). I had no idea that the city had disintegrated so much. Bourdain compared it to Chernobyl, the nuclear ghost city in the Ukraine that was abandoned in the 1980s. But in the midst of all the decay and graffiti are sustainable farms. And artists filled with life. And pop-up and back-yard restaurants serving local food to laughing customers. There is grit and hope and a strong sense of community among all of that bitter Rust. I’m not talking about boutique food or a frou frou future, the latest fad in local agriculture. I’m talking about surviving after the giants fall.

We could choose this future, couldn’t we? We could learn to feed ourselves again, to take care of one another, couldn’t we? Is it too naive to hope that we might be able to accomplish it without doing violence to one another? I have been to Las Vegas recently, and it’s beginning to look a lot like Detroit …

Is Detroit only a ruined city? The disgraced giants might think so. Or is Detroit actually a window into the future, a city decades ahead of its time? I want to believe that our future is filled with the seeds of hope that Anthony Bourdain found in Detroit. It looks like evolution to me.

September 23 garden

Winter Solstice

First snow tree at night

Some people believe that the winter solstice − rather than All Hallow’s Eve − is the time when the veil is thinnest between the worlds of the living and the spirits. The mystic in me wants to embrace this idea, but my inner skeptic wonders if there is a spirit world at all. One thing I am certain of: there is more in nature we don’t understand than we do. And that’s okay, as it should be. There is something about the winter solstice, about the interplay between light and darkness, that makes me want to believe in a world of shadow and mystery.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac calls the December full moon the “Cold Moon” or “Long Nights Moon,” according to Native American tradition. I’ve also heard it called the “Moon of the Popping Trees,” because in some places it can get so cold that the sap freezes in trees, expanding and breaking the bark in the middle of the night with a loud crack. In that kind of weather, a person could step outside to relieve themselves, be enchanted by the prismatic beauty of moonlight on snow crystals, and freeze to death in the span of ten minutes. It could take even fewer minutes in a northern ice-scape without trees at all. Best be careful, little human being.

I had the fortune to spend this past summer solstice on the Tiglax, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service research vessel for Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. For years, I’d longed to experience the Bering Sea. It is more formidable than I ever imagined. And more beautiful. Its slate gray waters − even in summer − could have claimed my life in the span of five minutes if I fell overboard. No warning signs are necessary on that boat’s pitching rail.

To some, the whole point of the winter solstice is the rebirth of the sun, the relief that it won’t keep fading away, that light and warmth will come back to us. That’s vital, but only half the story. I believe my Irish ancestors – the ones who called themselves Druids and who named the winter solstice Alban Arthuan – might agree with me. It’s not only about the return of the light, it’s also about embracing the darkness, beyond the recognition that there are things out there that can hurt us, freeze us, kill us. Humans are not in control. We never have been. It’s good to be reminded on this shortest day of the year. Often there is strength, even survival, in concealment.

Civilizations that live near the Earth’s poles seem to understand the winter solstice best. The myths of Iceland are filled with creatures like Jólakötturinn, the Yule Cat. Icelanders are direct descendants of Vikings, who must have loved cats. Recent archeological research hints that they may have been the ones to bring house cats to Europe. But the Yule Cat is not a pet. It’s a creature of the darkness, eating people who have been too lazy to wear out their working clothes during the course of the previous year. I understand that Icelanders still typically give gifts of clothing for Christmas to ward off Jólakötturinn. You don’t have to literally believe in the Yule Cat to embrace a tradition like this, to be watchful, especially in the frigid night of winter.

We need to take care, but we don’t need to fear. Darkness is beautiful, like the silvered waves of the arctic seas. Somewhere in the long night is also a warm hug, a fire, a feast, someone we love. And there is no better time to tell a good story, the sort of intricate tale that emerges from the blackness and takes hold. This solstice, turn toward the darkness as well as the light. Conceal yourself in it. But don’t forget to be vigilant. Always be watchful.