The coals go out,
The last smoke wavers up
Losing itself in the stars.
This is my first night to lie
In the uncreating dark.
In the human heart
There sleeps a green worm
That has spun the heart about itself,
And that shall dream itself black wings
One day to break free into the black sky.
I leave my eyes open,
I lie here and forget our life,
All I see is that we float out
Into the emptiness, among the great stars,
On this little vessel without lights.
I know that I love the day,
The sun on the mountain, the Pacific
Shiny and accomplishing itself in breakers,
But I know I live half alive in the world,
Half my life belongs to the wild darkness.
From ‘Middle of the Way’ by Galway Kinnell
After reading Jeanette Winterson’s essay Why I Adore the Night recently and seeing the affirmative Facebook response to Winterson’s call to embrace winter darkness, I got to thinking about my own experiences with winter darkness. Literal, physical darkness played a major role in my life for about five years. I’m a native New Englander, born in November, so am (as Frost would say) one acquainted with the night. But for several years in my mid and late 20s, I became even more acquainted with the night, intimate with the night, the winter kind to be exact, the kind of night that begins with deepening dusk around 3:30 and doesn’t abate until 7 a.m. For five years my family and I lived in a two-room cabin in the Maine woods. Not a log cabin, it was more like one of those tiny houses you might see on websites dedicated to living modestly. The cabin had no electricity, running water or plumbing. We heated entirely with wood so returning from a Christmas visit to my family in Massachusetts meant returning to a house that was colder inside than out, a house that took all night to warm up. My boys were toddlers at the time; the youngest potty trained in an outhouse. We read The Long Winter from the Little House on the Prairie series frequently and wholeheartedly identified. Though the house was newly built and insulated, it could be drafty and winter winds funneled down the hill, smacking into the house like an open-handed slap, billowing the plastic on the walls. Yes, the walls were insulation covered in plastic for at least two years. We were a work in progress.
Despite the hardships of drawing frigid water from a well in a nor’easter, using an outhouse in minus zero temps with the flu, dealing with an invasion of flying squirrels, not easy to catch and landing periodically on sleeping children, making dinner and cleaning up by candlelight (not as romantic as it sounds), reading books by candlelight and Coleman lantern, accumulating garbage bags of dirty laundry for that marathon trip to the laundromat, washing ourselves beside the wood stove in a galvanized washtub of another era; in short, living intimately with the cycle of winter darkness, winter cold, the literal death of growing things, despite all this, we had chosen the lifestyle. Would you rather be poor in an apartment in a depressed city, or poor on your own land, in your own little house? The question seems a particularly American one.
We moved into our little house in autumn. The mornings and evenings were getting cold, Maine cold, but we only had an outdoor shower we’d rigged up, and continued to use even with frost on the ground. I was using that outdoor shower when my husband ran around the corner to tell me a plane had just smashed into the Twin Towers in New York. For weeks after we began payment on our 50 acres, climbing every night to our loft bedroom on an apple picking ladder because the stairs hadn’t been built yet, I’d fall asleep looking at the tops of the trees outside the bedroom window. There are degrees of darkness one becomes familiar with. Treetops tossing in a wind against the deep blue to blackening sky create a distinct outline that can be seen well past that moment we call night. I was mesmerized by those treetops, our trees. I still remember it as one of the most surreal moments of my life, one of the most comforting, to know those trees belonged to us, a kind of kinship. That’s how we felt about our piece of land, winter or summer, though summers were halcyon days like living in Eden and winter the threat of expulsion. The land was a former sheep farm with the widest, most beautiful and impressive rock walls I’ve ever seen, several wells and the foundation of the former farmhouse, which had burned in the 1800s. Our last winter on the property was a tough one. The temperatures were in the minus double digits with wind chills making it worse. We slept in full body Carharrt snow suits. To make matters worse, our dog decided to have a litter of pups and turned out to be an awful mother, jumping out of the crate just when her pups had latched on, scattering little mutts everywhere. The job of feeding gruel to a seven-puppy-litter fell to me. Every morning the layer of newspaper was frozen to the bottom of the crate. I heated water on the stove and gave each pup a warm bath. They were only a matter of weeks old, their small bodies would go limp when I submerged them into the pan of warm water. I could identify. That tough winter caused temporary insanity as we like to think of it, no other way to explain our decision that spring to buy a house in a village on only one acre. The ensuing two years of village living nearly killed me spiritually, but that’s another story…..
At this point, we’ve lived in a handful of different farmhouses with varying amounts of acreage and farm animals, but have never again experienced winter and darkness in quite the same way as we did on that first piece of land. And though we’ve owned forests of trees, none have felt so particularly dear. That former sheep farm with its half buried relics of another family from another time, and our modest house sitting in a rough clearing, is my emotional gauge of what kinship with place feels like. To truly embrace the darkness, and I suppose this refers to figurative as well as literal darkness, simply means living in it, just another one of night’s animals or objects: whippoorwill, coyote, moose, deer, flying squirrel, tree, stone, wood that makes a small square shelter and the people in it. All finding our way in the dark, acquainted with the night.