Country Dark

Country Sky vs City Sky, photo by Jeremy Stanley

Country Sky vs City Sky, photo by Jeremy Stanley

Central Texas, 1979.

Country dark. I heard that phrase today. The first time I consciously experienced country dark I was out on a friend’s family ranch in central Texas, 1979. We’d driven out to the middle of a field in a the pickup truck. The house was a mile or two away, on the other side of a hill, and the lights were off. The sun went down. There was no moon. The nearest town, Giddings, was maybe 20 miles away, and there’s not much in Giddings. It was utter darkness, almost claustrophobic at first because as wide open as it was – this was central Texas, after all, and there’s a lot of space in Texas – there was no sense of spacial boundary. This was country dark.

I never experienced it as a child. Living on the vast Canadian prairie with horizons that stretch hundreds of miles beyond the horizons anywhere else, there was always, somewhere, even if it was in the distance, a farm house with lights on. I was a little kid. I wasn’t still up at 3am or whenever I’d need to be up in order to outlast every farmer between me and the horizon. Usually, too, there’s the light of the moon. Moonlight can be surprisingly bright. On a super moon, it can keep you awake at night.

Like moths to a flame.

In his book Hardcore Zen, Brad Warner writes that while it is commonly understood that the past creates memories, what is equally true is that memories create the past. While I can’t really guarantee that the story I’m about to tell is factually accurate, it is the way I’ve come to remember it, and so for me, it is the past.

Back around 1984 or so I came out to California from Austin, Texas with a band I was working with called Poison 13, a bluesy old-school punk band at a time when bluesy old school punk was not happening, a band that some Seattle musicians say gave birth to grunge. Poison 13 was an offshoot of the Big Boys, a legendary Texas punk band. The tour bus was a barely converted used Jack Brown Cleaners van. There were still a few wire coat hangers in the back, and we used a couple of them to reattached the muffler when it dropped off somewhere outside of El Paso.

The second night we were somewhere in the middle of Arizona. The Arizona desert, at night, is a vast emptiness. There was a sign saying that the last gas for 175 miles was about 20 miles off the highway, down in some small forgotten and largely abandoned town that barely existed on what used to be the route through Arizona before the freeway was built. It was country dark. In front of the gas station was this strange glowing orb. It seemed to float in the air, more or less staying in the same place, but its shape was shifting slightly, as though it were alive. When we pulled up we saw it was a light bulb, the only outside light for hundreds of miles in any direction, and every bug in the country was flying around it, like the bulb was Jupiter’s rocky core and the bugs were the mass of gasses that swirl around it. And it was loud!

Sunrise woke me up in the Jack Brown Cleaners van. We were in the rocky boulder mountain/hills east of San Diego. I was used to the Rockies. I’d never seen these scrappy desert mountains. They were beautiful.

A few years later I was working in a state-of-the-art-1956 recording studio about 20 miles outside of Dulzera, California, in those same scrappy mountains. It was an all tube studio, which meant it got hot, and it was early September, which is the hottest time of year in Southern California, so we were mostly recording at night. We’d work for an hour or so and then wait outside between the studio, which was in a shack, and the airstream trailer that the studio owner lived in. Our bawdy jokes carried a distance in that emptiness, and one evening the Sherrif drove by and told us the neighbors, the closest ones being miles away, were complaining. We played him a few tunes. They were bluesy rockabilly stuff and he liked them. He said “If ya’ll were that punk rock stuff I’d have to shut ya down.”

In between the rocks we could see the lights of Tecate, Mexico. It glowed like it was radioactive. Tecate is not a big town, but it’s a lot bigger than Giddings Texas. On that section of the horizon, the beautiful night sky disappeared into the murky glow. This was the first time I understood light pollution.

It’s hard to find darkness in the city, and this might not be such a good thing.

In the days before artificial light, we rose and set more or less with the sun. We are diurnal. Our bodies are designed for periods of light and dark. This is called a Circadian rhythm.

In Aeon magazine Rebecca Boyle writes

“Humans, and everything else that lives on this planet with us, evolved during billions of years along a reliable cycle of day and night, with clear boundaries between them. Staunching the flood of artificial light can help restore this divide. Our well-being, and that of our fellow creatures, might depend on us doing so – or at the very least trying. The loss of night-time darkness neglects our shared past, but it might very well cut short our futures too.”

Boyle maintains that a world without darkness is unhealthy. Certain kinds of artificial light are particularly bad – the cool lights of a lap-top monitor, for example, designed to approximate sunlight, trick our bodies into thinking it is still day if that’s what we are looking at just before going to sleep. Our sleep patterns are disrupted. Circadian rhythms are confused.

There are health effects. Produced in the pineal gland, melatonin’s chief role is in regulating the daily sleep cycle by causing drowsiness and lowering core body temperature. This is true in all animals. Production of melatonin should begin at dusk. Light suppresses melatonin production.

While the purpose of melatonin is to regulate the sleep cycle, it also is an antioxidant with important implications for cancer biology. There is a well known 1987 study called “Electric Power Use and Breast Cancer: A Hypothesis” that posits artificial light is a cause of cancer, because it inhibits production of melatonin.

There is a correlation between light pollution and obesity. Our circadian rhythms affect metabolism. The body slows down when it is supposed to be dark

Circadian biology is at the root of all biology, not just humans. There are receptors in the eyes that have nothing whatsoever to do with vision that communicate the presence of light – natural, blue sunlight in particular – to the brain, so the brain can calibrate the circadian rhythms. Laboratory rats (which is basically what all humans outside of the 1% are nowadays) have shown higher rates of depression and obesity when exposed to too much light. Light exposed rodents got fat, even when eating the exact same amounts of food as the regular rodents. In humans, 2 hours of exposure to tablet (or smart phone) light a night leads to a 22% drop in melatonin production.

And then there’s the spiritual element.

Barbara Brown Taylor is an acclaimed Episcopal preacher and an author whose spiritual non fiction Time Magazine says “rivals the poetic power of CS Lewis”. She has a new book titled Learning to Walk in the Dark, in which she urges believers and non believers alike to dive into the darkest shadows of their soul in order to find strength for life’s journey. Modern Christian teachers might condemn the darkness and make people fear it, but it’s in that darkness that we might find answers and where our faith might deepen.

In the video below Brown Taylor talks about the comfort of light, or maybe it’s the light of comfort:

“If you’ve never been religious, maybe it’s more like walking outside of the comfortable place you live right now because it has gotten a little too comfortable in there, so upholstered, so wired, so well lit that it’s a poor match for the undomesticated yearning inside of you that needs more room to prowl.”

As for the darkness, walking outside on a moonless night: “There’s a lot of room under the night sky, and a lot of light, too, once your eyes adjust, so that even when you come to the edge of everything you think you know for sure, you can still keep going if you want, at least if you’re willing to learn what it means to walk by faith and not by sight.”

Have faith.

Knowledge is power, we’re taught. The implication, incorrect as it turns out, is that to not know is to somehow be weak, to be stripped of power. We fear the unknown because we have no knowledge of it. There is a difference between not knowing and ignorance.

To have faith means to believe, to trust, to have hope. To have faith means to not know. Faith requires the unknown.

Shunryu Suzuki says

“I discovered that it is necessary, absolutely necessary, to believe in nothing. That is, we have to believe in something which has no form and no color–something which exists before all forms and colors appear… No matter what god or doctrine you believe in, if you become attached to it, your belief will be based more or less on a self-centered idea.”

It’s important to read that carefully, and precisely. Most people nowadays seem to be very imprecise with their language, and this won’t do here. Suzuki Roshi does not say it’s important not to believe in anything. He says it is absolutely necessary to believe, and what it is necessary to believe in is nothing. He defines nothing as the thing that has no form or color, the thing that exists before all forms and color appear. This nothing is the unknown. Anything that has form or color or any features at all is something that is known, at least in part.

To have faith, then, is not to believe that something definable exists, or to trust that something known will occur, or to hope for a certain recognizable outcome. It is to believe, to trust, and to hope without attaching anything to the belief, the trust, the hope. It is to believe in the nothing that has no form and no color. It is to have trust in the unknown.

Hal Koerner loves to run in the dark.

In his book Hal Koerner’s Field Guide to Ultrarunning Hal Koerner writes

“Night running opens up the adventure of trail and ultrarunning. It’s always just a little bit mysterious to run at night…and that is what makes it so exciting.”

Running at night has an immediacy. Everything exists in the narrow beam of my headlamp. The light drops off before my peripheral vision does. I need to think about what I am seeing, particularly when running technical sections, because my depth perception is affected by the lack of shadow detail. And while significant chunks of my daytime vision are lost at night, I also see things I would never see in the day. I see the trail dust in the air, illuminated so that it looks like little snowflakes. Years later and I’m still surprised every time at how full the air is of stuff.

Things come out at night. A significant portion of the world is nocturnal. Tarantulas at Javelina. Owls, and their streaming fresh kill on the Backbone Trail in the Santa Monica Mountains. A mountain lion on a distant ridge line, silhouetted in the moonlight. Aside from the hazards of my own clumsiness, deer have proven the only danger, bounding out onto the trail and almost knocking me over on many occasions in Griffith Park. They are beautiful animals, but perhaps not the brightest.

There are genuine perils in the dark. Coming down a sandy, rocky trail in the dark at Bishop 100K, or at Coyote Backbone, or the stretch of Gabrielino between Newcombs and Chantry – I can’t see well at night; my bright headlamp gives me no depth perception, I’m going to stumble and fall if I run these sections the way I would in the light. If I fall sideways on Gabrielino, it could end badly.

Cats are crepescular.

This means they are most active at dusk and at dawn. Their night vision is much better than ours. They have more receptors, a wider field of view, better peripheral vision, all the things that humans don’t need so much since we do all our hunting in a brightly lit frozen foods aisle at Mayfair, or Trader Joes, or, if we’re cheap and don’t give a rat’s ass about ethics, at Walmart. Physically, it seems that humans have devolved in many ways. We aren’t that strong, we can’t run that fast, we are completely out of touch with our environments, spiritually, ethically, morally and intellectually charging full steam ahead backwards, but (and this is important) we do have extraordinarily sensitive vision when it comes to vibrant colors. We are probably more in tune with advertising than any other species. That’s a good thing, right?

There are mountain lions on the ridge, coyotes on the trail, and deer really do get caught and freeze in the glare of my headlamp. I’ve nothing to complain about, because I’m there entirely by choice, and the danger is really slight. In the city, it’s worse, because the most dangerous predator is man.

I’m on a farmer’s schedule these days. It’s close to harvest time. Sunrise is at 6:30am, and I’m up well before it, at 5:00. By 7am I’ll be in the mountains, running. Sunset, today, is at 7:15. By 9:30pm, I’ll be getting into bed with a book. By 10pm I’ll be asleep.

Moonrise and moonset.

Here’s something I only learned today: moonrise and moonset do not have anything to do with sunrise and sunset. The sun control light and dark. The moon pretty much controls itself. Moonrise today will be at 1:30pm. Moonset will be at 2:30 pm. It’s a waxing gibbous moon. The phase of the moon is related to moonrise and moonset. It’s a waxing gibbous moon, which means it’s visible from late afternoon until early morning. A full moon occurs when the moon is in full opposition to the sun. It rises at sunset, and sets at sunrise.

Learning to Walk in the Dark from Rothko Chapel on Vimeo.

3 replies
    • Geoff
      Geoff says:

      Nice! That’s a pretty awesome resource. It’s also sort of interesting, and great, that you and I and so many people we know (none of us farmers) should find such information useful.


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