December 19, 2011
LIGHT IN DARKNESS AND THE BAD OLD DAYS
EAST MONTPELIER, VT – Think of the earth as a giant tether ball being batted (looking at it from above its north pole) in a counterclockwise orbit around the sun. Then imagine that the tether is just a bit elastic, so that the orbit is elliptical, and that the earth thus speeds up or slows down in its circuits as it approaches or loops away from the sun. Right now, at the winter solstice, we’re about as close to the sun as we’ll ever be; but you’d never know it, because the northern end of Earth’s axis is tipped as far away from the sun as it gets. But since we’re relatively close to the sun right now, we’re about to get a boost in speed. We won’t sense it; but over the next few weeks, those of us who aren’t too depressed to notice will see the sun slowly beginning to return.
We don’t feel the darkness or the cold nearly as much as did our ancestors. Even when candles gave way to oil lamps and lanterns, a lot of their lives were lived in very low light. A line from the first scene of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol describes a December afternoon in London, at 51º north the same latitude as Calgary: “...the city clocks had only just gone three, but it was quite dark outside already.” Ebenezer Scrooge and his clerk, Bob Cratchit, toiled over their books by candlelight and shivered everywhere in their rooms except right beside the hearths. The workers outside – draymen and carters, construction workers, cab drivers – all labored by the dim light of lanterns and managed to make do in the dark. The warmest place in any house was the kitchen, where the stove was kept going most of the time in winter. I remember my mother, who no doubt learned the habit in her wood-heat childhood, standing backed up to the gas oven in the kitchen with her skirt hiked up modestly behind. Bedrooms were like ice houses, their walls often permanently glistening with frost crystals, and the windows translucent abstractions in ice. Even in my childhood we kept our clothes in the kitchen on cold nights and dressed there in the morning.
Now, on the other hand, we have the luxury of turning away from the darkness toward television sets and computer screens, reading by modern lights – even full-spectrum, if we wish, to ward off the fearsome seasonal affective disorder – and feeling warm, even by the windows.
And yet I often hear people ancient enough to know better yearning for the good old days. If you listen carefully, however, you discover that the good old days they recall so lovingly are the days of their own youth. You don’t hear sentimental paeans to the Norman Conquest, the Guelphs and Ghibellines, or even the Spanish flu. Instead, they regret the passing of simplicity, when gender and social roles were more clearly defined, they walked to and from school (uphill both ways), and America still stood for something.
I heard on my truck radio this morning an automotive expert on a call-in show decrying all the modern conveniences that have turned our automobiles into “entertainment centers,” whose technology has led to the degradation of American morals and power. The cars of his day, he claimed, were strictly for transportation – simple, easy to maintain, and unrelated to the images of their owners. (I guess he’s never seen a Duesenberg or a Cord.) But his memories went back, as far as I could tell, to perhaps the early 60s. Clearly he doesn’t go back to the good old days when the crank hanging out beneath the radiator was functional; I don’t, either. But has he forgotten the joys of draining the radiator on cold nights, and the chore of bringing the battery into the house to keep it warm? I had to get under the hood of my ‘46 Plymouth at least once a week. Now I’m not sure even where the hood latch is on my Tacoma.
I’ll never forget the frustration of trying to get to a square dance in Lake Placid during the coldest night of an Adirondack January. There were six of us piled into Barbara’s middle-aged Plymouth sedan, whose starter motor emitted only a click when she pushed the ignition button. Five of us piled out and started pushing, shouting to Barbara, “Turn off the headlights! Turn off the heater! Turn off the radio! Turn on the ignition! Pop the clutch!” We got it to the top of a half-mile-long hill and piled back in like bobsledders. A few minutes later, at the bottom of the hill, we all piled out again like circus clowns, pushed the Plymouth into a snowbank, and started walking back to camp at 22º below. How I miss those good old 6-volt days!
I’ve sometimes heard people wonder why, if northern cold and darkness are so disagreeable, more of the human race didn’t migrate south when they first began to spread from the east African valleys where they apparently originated. And why don’t people who do live in the far south complain as much as we do? The simple answer is that they couldn’t migrate very far south; so there’s almost nobody there. The tips of South America, Africa, and Australia are only about 33º south, roughly equivalent to Phoenix, Atlanta, and Baghdad in the northern hemisphere. Anybody who wanted to live as far south as New England is north would be in the middle of the roughest and loneliest oceans in the world – the Roaring Forties. There was simply more terrestrial room in the northern hemisphere for ancient hunter-gatherers to spread gradually into new territory and learn the survival skills that peaked not long ago with the Saami, the Inuit, and the Yakuts.
Still, even with the conveniences that keep the darkness of the winter solstice pushed from our consciousness, we celebrate – if in ritualized fashion – ancient festivals of light. Christmas celebrates the light shining in darkness that couldn’t quench it; Hanukkah commemorates the miraculous week-long burning of the Temple lamp on one day’s supply of oil; Saint Lucy’s day is celebrated by Scandinavians in a procession led by a girl wearing a crown of candles, followed by other girls carrying single candles, followed by a nervous parent with a fire extinguisher. And I’ve got a huge pile of dry brush out there in the snow. Happy solstice!