Welcoming Autumn’s Darkness

We are used to thinking of darkness as something that falls. The Czech philosopher Erazim Kohák points out that evening shadows do not fall exactly: they “edge up from the thickets.” Kohák died in February of this year. He made the observation about darkness in his 1987 book The Embers and the Stars. It’s one of those books that scholars refer to occasionally, but few others have read. I picked it up not long ago.

This is the time of year when shadows “edge up” early. I pitch wiffle ball to my kids in the park after dinner. Each week there are fewer at-bats. Knuckleballs are unfair in the setting sun; curveballs tricky with the mottled blue and grey of the dimmed clouds. As autumn advances we lose time and light to dusk.

In August, while camping with the kids, we all had to stay up late to see the Milky Way. At our first campsite, the one on the marshy lake, there was hardly any moon at all. As the shadows edged up and swathed the shoreline we worried about stepping on the little ring-necked snakes to whom the site belonged. The snakes were grey, with orange or yellow underbellies—nocturnal. The dark there was deep and protracted. Eyes open or closed made little difference inside a tent.

By the time we moved to our second campsite, the one with the jumping rock, the moon seemed brighter by half. Each evening we could watch it rise above the tree line, thicker and less timid. To sit contentedly and watch the moon rise, to see the ebb of warm darkness, was like chocolate eaten with an obsessive slowness.

Some years ago I was driving home after a late meeting. I made a left turn onto a four lane street on the southern side of the city. Suddenly the moon was there, hanging like a stage prop above the stoplight. I was headed toward the highway and, like an entranced devotee, toward the moon. With little traffic, I took out my phone and snapped a picture.

Darkness is not spoken of well in the Bible. In John’s gospel, darkness is the obscurity through which the light of God shines. John echoes Isaiah’s anticipation that those who walk in darkness would see a great light. In the book of Exodus darkness is one of the plagues visited upon imperial Egypt, frightening enough to free the enslaved. Job the sufferer repeatedly describes his experience as darkness. Several of the New Testament writes say that conversion to the way of Jesus is to be called from darkness to light.

This literary shading is not universal however. In the beginning of Genesis, God distinguished the light and the dark, giving each their time, knitting both together in the cycle of growth. In many biblical descriptions of chronological fullness, day and night are tied together. Jonah is in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. Esther calls for a fast both night and day. The prophet Amos, echoing the Psalms, identifies God as the “one who made the Pleiades and Orion, who turns deep darkness into the morning, and darkens the day into night.” When Moses ascends the mountain, it is in the darkness that he encounters God. And when Solomon dedicates the temple he observes that God “dwells in thick darkness.”

My photo of the moon did not turn out. When I got home, I looked and there was nothing. I had only a picture of an empty street.

Erazim Kohák fled the communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948. He was a child, his father a newspaper editor who had already been arrested. The family found a home in the United States. The young Kohák excelled academically, eventually completing a PhD from Yale and finding work teaching philosophy. Later in life, nursing the wounds of a trouble relationship, he purchased some treed acres near the Gridley River in New Hampshire. He built a cabin. His rustic self-build required hearth wood. He worked the forest with purpose and attention. Eventually he realized that he belonged to the land more than it belonged to him. It was encircled by those trees that Kohák wrote The Embers and the Stars.

What Kohák says is that we humans find ourselves, most aptly, in the context of nature’s cycles. We need the darkness. Kohák writes, “Were there no darkness to restore the soul, humans would quickly burn out their finite store of dreams. Unresting, unreconciled, they would grow brittle and break easily, like an oak flag dried through the seasons.” After the Velvet Revolution, Kohák returned to Czechoslovakia to teach, but periodically made his way back to the land that claimed him in New Hampshire.

Earlier this fall my family and I spent a few days (and nights) on the grounds of a summer camp. Most of the place was shutdown. Not many programs had run in prior months. Only a few cabins were open. The place was quiet; we saw more deer than people. Occasionally our dog barked at movement in the shadows beyond the firelight. At dusk one evening, as I approached the bathhouse, I saw a furry black tail disappear under the steps. From a distance we shone our headlamps under the building. We climbed onto the porch from protected angles.

I had Kohák’s book with me at the summer camp. His thought was apt: “Quite concretely, the purpose of electric light is to help humans see. When it comes to blind them to the world around them, it becomes counterproductive. The task thus is not to abolish technology but to see through it to the human meaning which justifies it and directs its use.” Our electrified search for a skunk was justified, I concluded. Too much light though, say flicking on a set of floodlights, would have been counterproductive. It would have ruined our ability to participate in the seasonal murkiness of the northern hemisphere.

Floodlights would have taken away the questions. They would have struck from possibility the conversation and memory that dark evenings afford. At the very least, too much light would have scared away the wildlife and given us the false impression that the land was only for us. Or, as Kohák wrote from his wooded home, “Only where humans respect the night can they see the wonder of the starry heaven as the Psalmist saw it.”

So as the season advances, as the shadows edge up too early under the fencerows and parked cars, I welcome it. I resist the temptation to artificially maintain the summer frenzy with the flip of a switch. I am thankful that the street lights in our neighbourhood have been dimmed. When I let the dog out at night I can see the stars. When I prepare to set the lock on the front door I step outside. I leave the glowing screens behind and sit in the dark until the cold is too much.

In a week or so I will put the wiffle ball and bat away for the season, but I will leave out the chair on the front porch. The summer is not the only season for sitting outside. Just because the dark grows early does not mean there is nothing to see. What I need to see is the darkness itself, the cedar bending in the wind, the furry shape scuttling at the end of the street, perhaps the moon. Reconciliation and rest. Day and night. The slow pulse of the seasons.          

*Forest Notes, New Hampshire’s Conservation Magazine, Spring 2015, p. 12ff.

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