Weeds: Getting through the dark months
There are things we take for granted, things that are underappreciated: like a good can opener, hitters who use the whole field, Little Debbies, George Strait. The sun belongs on that list. Since it’s responsible for all life and energy on Earth, it’s a pretty big deal.
We for sure take the sun for granted in the summer when we’re getting sixteen hours of solar power. If it’s 90 degrees out, we do everything we can to hide from it. This time of year we notice the sun, but more for its absence. The days shorten. These are the cloudiest weeks. We get a time change that seems to rob more of our already shrinking light.
If you are working outside, there are signs of day’s-end as the Earth leans toward shadow and stillness by 3:30. The sun sets an hour later. By 5:00 it’s dark, and morning is a long time away.
I’m told it’s always been this way. I only noticed it a few years ago. Something about Last Kid moving out of the house brought this dismal pattern to my attention. That first November he was gone, after harvest’s 16-hour workdays and busyness wound down, I began to notice the seemingly eternal darkness. Days didn’t used to be this short before, right?
When you’re a kid, you live in the present moment, and conditions don’t much matter. Then you get older and fall in love, and dark is a good thing. When you have your own kids, their demands consume the next couple of decades: diapers to homework to school activities to worrying when they’re out late. When Last Kid left, I could take a breath.
But an empty house gets darker faster. I suggested to friends that Global Darkening was a grave concern and we needed to do something about this affliction. They looked at me funny.
It appears there’s not much I can do about these long nights. Some evenings I might have a meeting to distract me. But when there are none of those, my body wants to go to sleep after supper, like some innate urge to hibernate. That’d be great if I was a bear.
On a summer evening there are a million things to do outside till dark. On a winter evening, I can either read something or watch something, both of which are effective at inducing a coma-like state. I like to snuggle on a corner of our couch with a book under a worn quilt with moose designs that Pam won years ago and would really like to throw away but it’s my favorite. In that comfortable position, I get through about a page before my head slumps. So I go to the table and sit on a hard chair in the cold kitchen under a harsh light, where I might get five pages in before my eyes turn to lead.
Typically, I go to bed after ten and get up at five. Giving in to hibernation-urges, I find myself going to bed at 9:30, which means I get up at 4:30. That night I am tired earlier, so I want to go to bed at 9:00. Which means I get up at 4:00. You can see where this is leading. Going to bed at 6:00 and getting up at midnight is not real practical.
I told Pam as long as I was getting up this early, we should get some cows to milk. We’re losing money on corn and soybeans; why not add a third unprofitable enterprise? She wasn’t impressed with my business sense.
I understand this wretched darkness is part of some larger plan doing with the Earth’s annual journey around the sun and the tilt of the planet going from one pole to the other. Over the course of a year, wherever you are on Earth, you will get an equal amount of day and night. Same for a lifetime; you’ll get half day and half night. It all evens out in the end.
Then I thought about the increasing number of my friends who are going south in the winter. They are travelling to where the days are longer and then coming back here when our days get longer. It struck me that they’re getting more than their fair share of sun. I’m not sure that should be legal. They should have to pay a Sun Excess Tax.
Of course, we are advantaged over our ancestors to have artificial light available to us. A hundred years ago, dark meant dark. I heard an economist talk about how many hours of labor it took to purchase oil to light one room for one hour a century ago. Now we light whole houses for pennies. There is nowhere you can be at night in southern Minnesota except for maybe the deepest ravine and not see yard lights. Satellite photos of the planet at night show light glaring over large areas that aren’t ocean. Now, dark isn’t that dark.
Some of us struggle to find a space dark enough to sleep well. And you might have heard that excessive manmade light is disrupting the migration patterns of birds. Humans, like all creatures, evolved with half a life in sun and half a life in dark. Who would have thought, but darkness is a commodity that might be in short supply?
We’ve got a few more weeks of the North Pole tilting further from the sun and dragging our little piece of Earth with it. These interminably long nights and abbreviated days will be with us for a while. We’ll get through this. We need to stick together. If each of us tries to be a little nicer, a little less grumpy, maybe tell a few more jokes, we can do this.
It helps that right around the longest dark and darkest long night Christmas comes. Even if Jesus’ birth wasn’t really on that date, it has been part of how we know the sacred birth since we were small children. That night seemed magic to us then and its charm spills into adulthood.
Sometime in January, maybe February, you’ll be driving home from work, and see a bit of sun still hanging on the western horizon. That’ll be a sign that you made it. And you can look at the sun and wink and say, “Don’t be a stranger.”