Finding darkness

We sat next to the campfire, sparks ascending to heaven against the backdrop of idyllic lake towards glimmering stars peeking between lush birch and pine boughs. The mysterious and mystical call of the loon lofted over the glacier-scoured waters. My husband and I, softly singing together the old folk tunes, shaded our eyes from the 100 watt glare emanating from the next campsite.

It is fair to ask why I choose to go camping. As I walked the other night to the campground restroom, I started doing the math in my head. We’ve come here three times a year for five years now (since before Thane celebrated his first birthday). That’s fifteen camping trips. The trips have averaged four days. That’s two months. Two months of my life I’ve spent here at White Lake State Park, with coin showers and loon calls. What would inspire me to spend those two months here instead of back in my house, with cable and wireless and delivery sushi?

There are a few things. It is possible, in a campground, to have nothing you need to do. Rare, yes. Unusual. But possible. It is not possible for this to happen to me in my house. I could have a month of leisure in my house and never run out of things I need to do. I only ever run out of either energy or motivation. Do not underestimate the power of nothing to do.

The concentrated time with my family, where I am undistracted and capable of fully experiencing and (usually) enjoying them is lovely. The campfire – we humans are drawn to flames and the every-playing pattern of the salamander-tongues of fire springing from a rocky plain of throbbing coals.

But quite possibly my greatest motivation is to find darkness. There is no darkness in my life. I live within the aureole of Boston. Standing in the shadows of my back yard, hiding from the porch lights and street lights, I can see maybe 30 stars. The Big Dipper and Venus are there. But the sky is permanently bright. Inside the house, no room is free from the banal orange of the street light, the blue LED, like lurking lizards’ eyes, from the charging devices, the night lights and energy vampires.

I did know darkness, once. I was raised high in the mountains, where there is less air to capture and refract the light. Furthermore, I was raised in the mountains far from other people and their addiction to the bright lights. My parents actually stopped paying for the lighting of the street light outside our house, so we could enjoy our dark. I could walk up mountain roads to the dark and quiet graveyard – half hill, half vale – and listen to the quiet of the Northwest and watch the bright cheerful streak of the Milky Way spanning a star-filled sky. Sometimes, driving home from Seattle at one in the morning, I would be forced to pull over on a dark stretch, so bright and imperative were the stars.

The brightest darkness I have ever known was in Africa – in a tiny town in northern Mozambique. My travels across the southern tip of Africa had, even at the time, a dreamlike quality brought on by not knowing where I was or where I was going, and not having sufficient sleep, water or food. I was, perhaps, in Cuamba. There was a prayer meeting that night – all in Chichewa of which I spoke not a word. I didn’t know anyone but the missionary I was with. I do recall a little baby, whose name was Manuelito, peed on the dark suit of the pastor, who was less than pleased. I remember the dingy, 1950s/concrete feel of the living room in which we met. And then the power went out. It was not an infrequent even, but it signalled the end of the prayer meeting. I stepped out the door to go (where, I remember not) and was struck still and dumb by the stars. The entire town – the entire region perhaps – were dark from the power outage. It was late enough that no on had bothered to start generators or light lanterns. And what I saw on that night was a sight I had not seen before, nor since. The Southern Cross, landmark of a whole new night sky, lay at easy gaze across the still silent corrugated roofs of the town. That moment is surrounded on either side by a fog of memory, but itself blazes bright and clear.

All this is to say, not only have I known darkness, but I loved it. And I miss it. Part of the reason I go camping is to find darkness again, in a small way. In fact, at night on that walk to the bathroom, I often do not take a light. My feet travel the now-well-known path, finding careful way across star-studded field. I walk between the high branches on soft loamy paths, the mist swirling around me, the darkness undisturbed. I see others going with bright flashlights and loud voices, and almost pity them as being blinded by their lights. When you hold a beam of light, you can only see where that beam points. When you go in darkness, you can see all the darkness, the deeper shadows, the stars and the flicker of fireflies or lightening. (Although last night, when I truly found my way through thick, eldtrich mists periodically illumed by flashes of nearby lightening and accompanied by near-constant rumble of thunder, even I found it eerie. That might have had something to do with the Lovecraft I was reading, though.)

When I walk back from the bathroom, not only is it dark but I am blind. I’m extremely nearsighted, and always always always wear my contacts. Even my husband hardly realizes or remembers how poorly I can see. I’m bright-blind from the bathroom lights, blind-blind from nearsightedness, and still turn on no light. I walk through a fuzzy, dark world more felt than seen. And I savor it.

So deeply do I love the darkness that I actually get confused by the bright lights my fellow campers bring. My neighbor this weekend had a Coleman lantern that easily exceeded 100 watts. He sat next to it for hours, playing on his (backlit) phone. Its beams cut through the humid air like rays from a medieval painting of Jesus’ natal star. It cast shadows from 30 feet away. Here was someone who had, at expense and effort, left his home to come to the shores of White Lake. And once there he turned on the lights, up the radio and played Candy Crush. (Of course, I update Facebook and write blog posts while out here, so I’m hardly innocent, but I do enjoy my moments of dark and quiet in the evening.)

We gather our things to go, and say farewell to our summer abode. We sweep up sand and needles, and shake out towels. We fold, wipe, stuff and pack, thoughts toward school and home and the coming year. But I fold up, along with the tarps and sheets, a little scrap of warm darkness – gemmed with stars and lightening – to carry with me through the winter.


Teaser: we have brought home not only Data, but his beloved brother Tiberius. Expect a post tomorrow with details and pictures!

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