For the past six weeks the northern hemisphere has been leaning sharply away from the sun in the earth’s swaying circle dance around its favorite star, pushing skirts of darkness lower and lower toward the horizon in fall’s passing fashion of ever-longer nights. The return of Standard Time last weekend marked a final prim curtsy to the evening sun.
Kate and I are now lighting candles at dinnertime and letting them burn far longer into the evening than my thrifty ancestors would ever condone. Unlike the sun’s unvarying and straightforward do-si-do, the candlelight dances like Salome, insinuating itself into dark corners of the room and our own sensibilities. We lose our heads and are seduced into candle-burning extravagance. It is, for us, meager consolation for losing hours outside in the sunlight immersed in the many details of tending gardens, borders, trees, and, frequently, our own lassitude – details pilfered now by the lengthening fingers of darkness.
The dusk of November is “a world of vast simplicities,” according to the late great nature writer Hal Borland. “The familiar hill is almost any hill, with substance and outlines, but few details. The valley has depth but few contours… The horizon itself is simplified, drawn with one clean charcoal stroke.”
So in this dim box of November, details scatter and run, like the still-unsettled leaves wandering on the wind in search of the exact spot in the thicket of raspberry canes or in the lee of the hedgerow for their return to earth. This absence of detail sets the stage for our own imaginations to fill the voids with rites and rituals and great narratives, from pagan solstice tales to the Christmas story itself.
We are a species of conversationalists and storytellers, after all. It’s how we relate to an unpredictable world where heat and light comes and goes, and hardship has a different face every day. Retreating to our sheltering homes and filling the long nights with festivals and firelight allows us to feel our way through the shadows until spring starts populating the world again with the details of new life.
Other species, however, are not distracted by imaginings and great narratives. The details of survival instead come into sharp relief in the long nights of the cold months. In the arc of light from the kitchen window, opossums paw at the ground with pink toes for the frozen sunflower seeds cast off the tray feeder by scuffing juncos. Through the bedroom window, left ajar for the night’s sleep-inducing chill, we hear the hoo-hoo-hooting of a great horned owl, sounding off before visiting silent death upon a hapless vole rustling restively in the leaves. By morning, in a scrim of sleet, there are tracks left by hungry roving coyotes or by wary raccoons come to covet our compost bin.
And it is the same for the uncounted other creatures not hibernating or already dead; it is a season of great tests and challenges specifically defined by the details of genetics, weather patterns, and happenstance. It is not a peaceable kingdom. The gritty details of long cold nights speak of privation and suffering, but mostly they speak of a will to survive against all odds. To that end creatures have their devices, just as we have ours. We give thanks that our portion is candles and conversation.