Over at his blog, my friend Doug, a hill person of some renown, has written a great mediation on darkness. You see, Doug and his wife Lara recently moved from the big city of Chicago to a small Massachusetts town in the Berkshires. They are currently living in an old farmhouse in the shadow of Mt. Greylock. They have become, if you will, hill people. Highly educated, whip-smart hill people of great literary talent, but hill people nonetheless.
Now, the difference between your average city slicker and a hill person is, as Doug says, one’s general acquaintance with darkness. City slickers and suburbanites may think they know darkness, but they don’t. In Chicago and other big cities, the darkest it gets at night is a wan orange glow that settles over the city like a perpetual dusk. There is dark in the city, of course, in basements and under beds, in closets and alleys. But even at midnight, these are just lightless corners, scant hiding places for dark things and dark acts under the relentless glow of the city lights. They are the dark, but they are not darkness.
Darkness is a rare commodity in the modern world, even though it’s the most abundant thing in the universe; most of all that is is darkness. Even when you go camping, you’re probably not far from a city or town providing a dull shimmer on the horizon like an Arctic sunrise.
These days you have to go deep into the countryside to find real darkness, the endless, unsettling black that feels less like the absence of light than a thing itself bearing down on you, that made our distant ancestors imagine unimaginable monsters lurking in the bushes just outside the flicker of their campfire.
But it’s worth finding. Nothing makes you feel quite so human as sitting around a fire with a few friends, surrounded by a lightless wilderness filled with hungry, long-clawed beasts. Right then there is no doubt in your little mammal brain that you are an animal, a part of a nature and the food chain, and that there is nothing so wonderful in the world as the light of a fire, good food, and the company of friends.
It’s not just that, though. You can see things in the darkness you can’t see in the city glow. Things like star light, that beautiful light that only comes on when all other lights get turned off. Like darkness itself, real star light is one of things we only catch faint glimpses of in our day-to-day lives. You can look up at night and see a few stars when it’s clear, but they’re just cold pinpricks of light. To see the real thing, to see the stars as we are meant to see them, you need darkness.
Back in July, Ayako and I went camping with a couple of friends on Rock Island, an uninhabited island in Lake Michigan off the tip of the Green Bay peninsula. It’s a place so remote you have to take two ferries to get there, so remote that the Icelandic fisherman on nearby Washington Island took a pass on settling there. You know you have truly reached the end of the world when even poor immigrants from Iceland aren’t willing to live there.
It’s a beautiful island, though, and a popular camping destination. The forests are pristine, the beaches are wide, and the water is clear as glass. Best of all, it is far from civilization. The closest approximation is Washington Island across a wide stretch of water, with a staggering population of 400. Beyond that it’s just the lake.
We stayed for two nights. It rained the second night, but the first night was perfectly clear. We made a campfire and the requisite s’mores. The stars came out. First a few, not so different than a cloudless Chicago night, then dozens, then hundreds, then thousands. The Milky Way arched across the sky. It was wonderful, breathtaking. I’d never seen anything like it. The sky glowed from the light of them and bathed the ground in a pale blue.
I’ve done plenty of camping and staying out in the country, and seen plenty of starry skies, but apparently I was always too close to a town or a city to get the full view. Even when I lived on Tsushima, a remote squid-fishing island in the middle of the sea, I never saw skies like that. That’s because squid-fishing boats use huge lamps to attract the squid to the surface. The squid-boat lights are beautiful themselves, they look like little stars bobbing on the waves, but they also drown out the starlight. Rock Island, though, has no light pollution problem. The stars above it look the same way our monster-imagining ancestors would have seen them.
Later, after we were snug in our tents and sleeping bags, I got up to take a leak. I zipped open our front flap, wriggled into my shoes, and stepped out into the night. I had a flashlight in hand, thinking I’d need it to maneuver in the darkness. But I didn’t. The whole campground was lit up. I couldn’t see that far, but I could see around me clear enough. There was no fire, no lamp light, no moon. Just the twinkling stars. It was incredible.
As I went back into the tent, I felt humbled by the bigness of it, but also kind of sad. Sad because I’d spent 29 years on this earth and until that moment, I never knew what the real night sky actually looked like. I’d seen pictures, of course, but they don’t do it justice.
It rained the second night, and I was disappointed that I couldn’t see the stars again, and also that I had to stumble around at night with a flashlight just to take a piss.
When we left the island two days later, I was ready to get back to the city, take a shower, sleep in a real bed, use a real toilet, and eat something other than chili, trail mix, and beef jerky. But part of me was already eager to get back to Rock Island or anywhere else far from the urban glow. Eager to pack up my stuff and drive into the countryside until I could see the stars. Eager to find the darkness again.