Headed Straight Into Darkness

By , November 15, 2009

The old Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers tune has been running through my head these last few weeks, as we’ve passed through what Michelle poetically calls “deep autumn” into the infant weeks of newly-arrived winter. At the moment, we’re losing daylight at a rate of five minutes a day. We are, as Mr. Petty et al sang, headed “straight into darkness.”

Mental health professionals are gearing up for the annual Alaskan epidemic of seasonal affective disorder (SAD—seldom has there been a more fitting acronym!). They won’t find me asking for help. I adore the darkness. I embrace the night!

Despite our free wind and solar-generated power, a generous collection of oil lamps, and an impressive arsenal of headlamps and flashlights, we use light less often than we could. We’ve simply become habituated to less light. Usually, the normal coming of daylight is adequate. If not, we often begin our day by the woodstove’s light and perhaps the oil hurricane lamp above the table. As long as we’re not trying to read, the soft light of morning is perfect for lighting the room. On these days we wear headlamps, which can be switched on for a moment to illuminate a brief morning task, then turned off. Eventually, daylight fills our home, and we extinguish the lamps or candles.

Human eyes can adjust to darkness to a remarkable degree—far more than most Americans realize, being so used to lighting up darkness with every available watt. I noticed long ago that using a light limits vision to that which the light can illuminate. Sight narrows down to the limits of the light, instead of expanding to take in all available natural light. With a flashlight, one can only see what one is pointing it at, while blinding one’s self to everything else around. Usually, it’s better to have full peripheral awareness of shadowy figures than a bright illumination of a thin beam’s worth of view. This, and the practical matter of saving batteries for when they’re really needed has led me to move around in the darkness as much as possible without lights.

“As much as possible” is an important qualifier. Humans aren’t nocturnal—we require a little bit of light to see by. You would not believe how truly dark it gets here! Many nights our bedroom is so dark we can’t differentiate between the wall and the window. We see no artificial light other than our own, or on rare occasions, light from a passing ship. We occasionally see a faint glow from Haines to the north, if we’re standing where we can see up the canal. Our view of the night sky is spectacular—we can clearly make out the Milky Way and other formations that are invisible to town dwellers. Our view of the aurora borealis is excellent! If the moon’s out, we often use no lights at all in the yard.

Our comfort in low light led to an interesting comment from a friend of Aly’s who spent a week with us. After returning home, she told us she realized that she didn’t need to turn her bedroom light on just because she’d entered the room—that there are plenty of times when she could see well enough without it. Her visit freed her from a wasteful habit she hadn’t even been aware of.

Life is easier and safer for us in the light half of the year, but the dark half also has its attractions and comforts. After so much time at one extreme, it’s nice to return to the other as the circle of seasons swings around again.

You will find a version of the essay above, as well as writing on similar and related topics in Sacred Coffee: A “Homesteader’s” Paradigm by Mark A. Zeiger, available in print, eBook, and audiobook editions. The published version will likely be expanded, clarified, or updated from what you have just read.

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