“You Darkness that I Come From . . . “

Darkness, night, dark nights of the soul, following a star in the heavens, comets as portents . . . What does it mean if all of that goes away? Both in terms of astronomy and interesting people in star-gazing and studying the heavens, and in the sense of culture and religion? Those were some of the topics batted around at one of the FenCon panels.

The title phrase comes from one of Ranier Maria Rilke’s letters to a young poet, in which he (Rilke) muses about preferring darkness to firelight, because night includes everyone, while light shuts out those beyond the glow. I confess to having always been one “acquainted with the night,” as Robert Frost phrased it. I grew up star-gazing, taking walks after dark, going on Owl Prowls at the nature center, and so on. I prefer to keep lights dim, even as my aging eyes are less sensitive to light in general. I grew up understanding all the star references, and learning celestial navigation, and so on. But what about generations that can’t see stars, or anything dimmer than the quarter moon, because of city lights?

For astronomers, to lose the stars is both sad and a professional problem. Who will pick up the mantle after the current generation retires, if younger people don’t learn to look up, and are not fascinated by the wonder of “what’s out there? Why does it look like that?” Light pollution is a serious problem for migrating birds as well, in some cases. It can be a real pain for pilots, because finding the airport in a sea of lights is Not Easy if you don’t already know what to look for. Especially if you are not on an instrument approach with everything set to get the radio beacons or GPS fixes. There’s a runway down there. Somewhere. Or is that I-80?

Some people reply to the plaints with “There’s an ap for that!” You can point your phone or tablet at the sky, or ground, and get a star chart for whatever you are aimed at. Hubble and Webb telescope images are far more colorful and detailed than what you can see through a 6″ backyard telescope or binoculars. And some places still have a planetarium, to simulate going out at night without the bugs, traffic, light pollution, stiff neck, or risk of mugging. Who needs real stars?

We humans do. We need darkness to properly rest. We need to be reminded to things outside of our ken, of worlds greater than ourselves. There’s a sense of wonder and amazement kids and adults get from seeing the stars and identifying the patterns and shapes, the nebula and galaxies and planets, that even a great planetarium can’t quite match. There’s no ap that will reveal the heavens in their glory on a cold October night in Yellowstone, when so many stars filled the sky that I couldn’t identify constellations or planets. The Milky Way cast shadows, it was so bright. Or out at Black Mesa, Oklahoma, as the summer stars marched across the peak of the heavens and a coyote or ten called back and forth.

Darkness stands for evil in many religions. Darkness is when bad people lurk, and thus when heroes do their thing. Humans generally don’t see as well at night as by daylight, although there are a lot of variations on “not as well.” We don’t see color, and discerning patterns and “is that a shadow or a hole” becomes a bit more challenging. Not that it stopped people from working, traveling, or doing things at night in the past. Today, we flood the night with artificial light to make travel (in vehicles) safer, to discourage footpads and robbers and other mischief makers. We fear darkness more than in the past. Which came first – not going out into the darkness, thus leaving it for evil to use for shelter, or evil growing in the shadows and chasing “good people” indoors when the sun sets? Yes?

St. John of the Cross reveled in night, in his extended poem and meditation “Dark Night of the Soul.” Night brought the lover (G-d) and the beloved one (the mystic) together. Night is for lovers, for philosophers, for socializing. Night holds sweet secrets, conceals private pain from those who would mock or minimize what is very personal and real. Night is greater than we are. Darkness and stars, the moon and planets, remind us that we are tiny creatures in a big, mysterious, wonder-full universe. Who made the moon and hung the stars? What are the stories of the shapes in the night sky?

Without stars, we humans lose both astronomy and spiritual wonder. At least, that’s what the panel and those present eventually drifted toward, although no one said it in those words.


13 thoughts on ““You Darkness that I Come From . . . “

  1. There are times, crossing Nevada at night, when you just have to pull over, turn everything off, get out, and marvel.

    As to darkness itself, I’ve been banging this drum for a while.
    If your reality is defined by your perceptions, anything that alters your perceptions alters your reality. (I used to call such thought primitive, but the way our society has bought into it since my youth, I have to come up with a different description. I just haven’t found one that resonates. Pagan comes the closest, but it’s not quite right.)
    In the night, certainly becomes more difficult. The familiar becomes strange, and it doesn’t take much for the strange to become threatening.
    If your certainty is a pose to begin with, this has existential elements. (I once saw a group of city kids have an absolute breakdown in a very comfortable camp. It wasn’t pretty.).
    Not that I’m above taking advantage of the opportunity for mischief. 😉 An elk call made long nights during School of Infantry much more entertaining. (For those who could identify the sound, at least.)

    • Coyote caller – $25
      Dark corner of dorm quad – five minutes each way.
      Room lights flashing on and rumors of wolf on campus – priceless.

  2. Werewolves and Full Moon nights. It would be interesting to read a werewolf story where one of the werewolves informs a friend that Full Moon nights aren’t special for werewolves. Werewolves love the night and it’s just more likely that humans will be out at night when there’s a Full Moon. Thus humans are more likely to encounter a werewolf when there’s a Full Moon.

    Note, it is very possible that the association between werewolves and the Full Moon is more from movies/books than from actual folklore. 😉

  3. People can be such pessimists. Humans are fascinated by the unknown.
    For some people, not being able to see the stars would bring them to astronomy.
    And you want to evoke spiritual wonder? A good way is to look at the world through a microscope.

  4. I am blessed that I live in a place with relatively dark skies. I go out on most nights and look at the stars either naked eye or through a pair of binoculars, no need to break out the telescope. Looking at the wonders above just restores my mental health in a world that has gone, in my opinion, just a bit crazy.

  5. Been out in NM like that, for early morning and twilight. You look up, and almost forget to look down from the wonder.

    Anda planning some night sky photography later this week, if weather cooperates. Low light filters for flashlight and large aperture lenses ready.

  6. Boats in the middle of the ocean WILL get your attention when you look up and see the myriad of stars that few others ever see! Thankfully, the Navy is once again teaching cel nav! At least there will be a few folks that ‘get’ the stars!

    • One of my most disoriented moments while flying was taking off on a clear night out of Pierre, SD. All the lights were up, not down, since we departed westbound before being turned back east. No farm or ranch lights, but tens of thousands of stars. Disconcerting to say the least! And beautiful.

  7. Area matters a lot– both because of environment, I can’t walk in Iowa on a moon lit night like I did on even a moonless night in Death Valley, and because of physical threats. You need more lights when there are… well, those who wish their deeds to be done in darkness.

    The phone aps are wonderful *aids*, because you can finally seek out “is that a wisp of cloud, or a star?”

  8. > Who needs real stars?

    Where I live there’s almost always haze at night. Maybe a few dozen visible stars, some nights – not even enough to pick out the constellations.

    Driving through New Mexico or Colorado at night, there were so many stars they were oppressive. Too many for proper darkness.

    • That’s how my main German prof felt about the sky when she ventured west of Kansas City, Kansas once. Once. She and the others turned back to the shelter of trees and civilization.

Comments are closed.