The Value of Increasing Darkness

Samhain                                         Waxing Thanksgiving Moon

The daylight is gone, twilight has fallen and night is on its way.  Now that we have entered the season of Samhain, the leaves have vanished from the trees and the clouds, like tonight, often hang gray in the sky.  Samhain means the end of summer and in the old Celtic calendar was the half of the year when the fields went fallow while the temperature turned cool, then cold, hope returning around the first of February, Imbolc, when the ewes would freshen and milk would once again be part of the diet as new life promised spring.

In between Imbolc and Samhain lies the Winter Solstice.  The early darkness presages the long twilight; it lasts from now until late December as we move into the increasing night until daylight becomes only a third of the day.  This has been, for many years, my favorite time of year.  I like the brave festivals when lights show up on homes and music whirs up, making us all hope we can dance away our fear.

The Yamatanka mandala at the Minnesota Institute of Art gives a meditator in the Tantric disciplines of Tibetan Buddhism a cosmic map, brightly displaying the way to Yamatanka’s palace grounds.  In the middle of the palace grounds, represented here by a blue field with a vajra (sacred thunderbolt) Yamantaka awaits our presence.

In the Great Wheel as I have come to know it, we visit Yamantaka on the night of the Winter Solstice, that extended darkness that gives us a foretaste of death.  Our death.  On that night we can sit with ourselves, calm and quiet, imagining our body laid out on a bed, eyes closed, mouth quiet, a peaceful expression on our lifeless face.

We can do that, not in suicidal fantasy, but in recognition of our mortality, our finite time upon the wheel of life, awaiting our turn as the wheel turns under the heavens carrying us away from this veil of samsara.  If we can do that, we can then open ourselves to the thin sliver of light that becomes more and more, as the solstice marks the turning back of the darkness and brings us once again to life.

When we can visit Yamantaka’s palace, sup with him in this throne room and see death as he, the conqueror of death sees it, we are finally free.

Let There Be Darkness

Fall                                                Waxing Harvest Moon

Let’s try darkness again.  In Taoism the familiar Taiji makes my point about the essential and complementary nature of light and dark.  Taoism gives equal weight to the yin and yang* represented in the taiji, the small circle of yin within the yang and of yang within the yin, emphasizing the Taoist belief that all things contain their opposite to some degree.  So, one part of my argument simply notes that light and dark are both necessary, necessary to each other, nothing apart from each other.  In the Taoist taiji they represent the dynamic movement of heaven to which all things must conform.

In our Western cultural tradition, though, light has taken precedence over darkness, both in a physical and in an ethical sense.  Jesus is the light of the world.  Persephone goes into Hades and the earth mourns her absence until her return when it blossoms into spring.  Eurydice dies and Orpheus goes to the underworld to retrieve her.  Dante’s Divine Comedy finds Dante wandering, lost in the dark wood of error, before he begins his descent, guided by Virgil, into the multiple layers of hell.  The traditional three-story universe also reinforces these ideas:  Heaven above, earth, and the infernal regions below. Milton’s Paradise Lost follows the rebellion in heaven and the casting out of Lucifer, the Morning Star, into hell where he builds his enormous palace, Pandemonium.  Our common sense understanding of death involves hiding the body beneath the earth.  Why?

Coming out of the spiritualist tradition represented by Camp Chesterfield (see below) death involves a transition into the light, the spirit world.  Ghost Whisperer, a TV program, uses the trope from this tradition, as dead souls are led into the light.  It is, perhaps, no wonder that darkness, night and the soil come off badly in our folk metaphysic:  up and light is good; down and dark is bad.

I wish to speak a word for the yin, symbolized by the moon, the female, the cold, the receiving, the dark.  The moon illustrates the taiji perfectly.  In the dark of night, the moon, yin, reflects the sun’s light, yang, and offers a lambent light, neither yin nor yang, but the dynamic interplay between the two.  So we could look for art that features the moon as one route into the positive power of darkness.

Also, any seasonal display in a work of art, whether of spring, summer, fall or winter can open the question of each season’s value, its role in the dynamic of growth and decay, emergence and return.  This can lead to a discussion of the importance of the fallow season, the season of rest, the earth’s analog to sleep.  This can lead to a discussion of sleep and its restorative powers.

Art work of mother and child, or especially, mother and infant, can stimulate a discussion, in this context, of the womb, of the fecund nature of the dark where fetuses and seeds develop before their emergence into the world of light.

Similarly, death focused works of art can open up a discussion of birth and death as dynamic moments of change, yin and yang of human (or animal) development.  This could lead to conversation about the Mexica (Aztec) belief that life is the aberrant condition and that death is the vital, regenerative moment; we are here, goes one Mexica poem, between a sleep and a sleep.

Winterlight festivals represent a western imbalance focused on the light, the yang, and a tendency to cast the yin in a negative light, something to be avoided or eliminated or held in check.  As I said previously, this is understandable given the pre-historical science which made the return of the sun doubtful and therefore terrifying.  Many of these festivals are, too, our favorites:  Christmas, Deepavali and for a different traditional reason, Hanukkah.

In my own faith tradition, roughly pagan, I look forward to the dying of the light and celebrate as my most meaningful holiday, the Winter Solstice.  Of course, I also celebrate the return of the light that begins on that very day, but first I immerse myself in the long night, the many hours of darkness.  This affords me an opportunity to acknowledge the dark, to express gratitude for its manifold gifts.   In this way my idiosyncratic faith has a ritual moment that honors the taiji, utilizing the cues given by the natural world.

To find art that emphasizes this aspect of darkness I plan to walk the museum from top to bottom, searching for images and objects that can help our visitors understand that when they celebrate the festivals of light that darkness is the reason for the season.  I would appreciate any thoughts or ideas.

*In Chinese culture, Yin and Yang represent the two opposite principles in nature. Yin characterizes the feminine or negative nature of things and yang stands for the masculine or positive side. Yin and yang are in pairs, such as the moon and the sun, female and male, dark and bright, cold and hot, passive and active, etc. But yin and yang are not static or just two separated things. The nature of yinyang lies in interchange and interplay of the two components. The alternation of day and night is such an example.


Fall                                              New (Harvest) Moon

OK,I made this up.  Photocentrism is a focus on the virtue of light that, by implication, puts darkness in a negative or bad relative position.  Just because I made it up, however, does not mean I’m joking.  The context:  the docent annual meeting today and the presentation of a new December of the month called Winterlights.  I agree that Winterlights is a complex noun that has a rich associative feel.  I even agree that the celebrations in what I have long called holiseason–Thanksgiving to January 6th, the traditional 12th day of Christmas, Epiphany (visit of the Magi to Bethlehem), and the date for the celebration of Christmas in the Eastern Church–offer an unparalleled opportunity to learn from other cultures about matters deep in the human psyche:  Thanksgiving, Advent, Deepavali, Hanukkah, Posada, Winter Solstice/Yule, Christmas, Western New Year on January 1, the 12 days of Christmas and maybe Kwaansa, though its constructed nature makes me a bit shy of it.  Eid al Adha, the Muslim holiday that marks the end of Hajj by celebrating the Irbrahim and Ishmael story, falls in November this year, but not within holiseason itself, so I’m going to leave it out of this discussion.

The festivals or holidays of light, in particular Deepavali, Hanukkah, Winter Solstice (although is a special case as we shall see) and Christmas (more for what it replaces, Saturnalia, than what it celebrates itself) do have a common thread.  Deepavali, Winter Solstice and Christmas all relate to the despair felt in subsistence agriculture communities when the light of the sun seemed as if it would wink out and perhaps disappear altogether.  This fear, of the Sun’s final rising, put its mark on well-known pre-historical landmarks like Stonehenge, Chichen-Itza and the great Newgrange dolmen in Ireland.  Without a knowledge of the physics and celestial mechanics of the earth’s orbit and the sun’s central place in our solar system, it was frightening to consider the possibility that this time, this winter, the gradual diminishment of daylight might proceed all the way to an apocalyptic darkness.  No light for the crops.  No crops for the animals.  Cold all the time.

What to do?  According to theories of sympathetic magic, like produces like, so the logical response to oncoming darkness was a bonfire, a torch, a brave manifestation of light and heat in hopes that the sun, since it is like light and heat, will either be rekindled or seduced into rising again.  And these practices work.  Each time the bonfires were lit, the torches paraded, the sun did not disappear, but returned to once again start the growing season and stave off starvation and freezing for another year.

All of this makes sense, granting the scientific understandings of these early peoples.  As cultures grew more sophisticated and astronomical knowledge became a bit more advanced, however, it did put out the lingering fear that the darkness would one day come and never leave.  So holidays that focused on light, especially, but fire, too, became integral parts of the cultural and religious traditions of many peoples.

They all leave out one important thing, though.  The virtues of darkness.  I first became aware of the following arguments when I began to research the goddess, the great mother goddess.  I won’t get into here the debate surrounding the contention by some that a great mother goddess preceded the monotheistic, patriarchal deities of the Abrahamic religions, though I’ll tip my hand enough to say that I don’t find the evidence compelling.

What I found out about darkness surprised me and changed my mind about how I view it.  Darkness is as necessary as light.  Seeds start growing in the dark soil, away from light and even after they penetrate the surface, their roots continue to press their way into the surrounding nutrient-filled earth.  Mammal babies live their first few months of life in the moist, nourishment rich environment of their mother’s womb. (OK, not in the marsupials and the platypus and the echidna’s instance, but you get the drift.)  Darkness creates the time of rest and restoration for us and for many animals.  It is when we sleep and when we dream.  Darkness is the natural condition of space, attenuated by billions of stars only in what amounts to a small total area of the vastness of the universe.  Light itself requires a degree of darkness to create vision.  Anyone who’s ever been in a whiteout where snow and sky mix to create a vertiginous world with no up and down, no distinguishing characteristics understands the problem well.  Or consider a bright, very bright light and its affect on your sight.

This argument can be cast as a feminist one in which the light represents patriarchy and the darkness the creative agency of women.  It can also relate to anti-racism work in that we tend to equate darkness, blackness with evil, with corruption and decay.  This denies the regenerative, restorative and generative nature of darkness and narrows our conceptual world in literally dangerous ways.

How could this relate to Winterlights?  Without this kind of background the celebration of light has a sinister side as well its assumed positive one.  The celebrations of light only make sense in terms of the deep cultural background and when we go there we need to understand the fear that created these holidays has also unbalanced our appreciation of the other state, darkness.  I’ve not given it any thought, but I imagine there works of art that make darkness a central theme, that could be used to help put the other holidays in a balanced perspective.

Hanukkah is a special case here in which the focus does not seem to be on the Winter Solstice but on a cultural achievement by the Maccabees, the expelling of the Greeks.  It does however beautiful-darknessshare a darkness dispelling theme with the others.

There is more to say here, much more, but I’m hungry.  Catch you later.

Following the Old Religion

Lughnasa                                            Full Back To School Moon

Summer has three endings:  Labor Day which marks the end of summer vacation for many school children; and, for many adults like myself, kicks us into serious mode as all those years of conditioning continue to affect our attitude;  Mabon, or the Fall Equinox, which comes tomorrow, that point when day and night balance each other, neither claiming dominance, though the trend matters and at this equinox, the balance tips toward night as the darkness increases, pulling us toward the longest night, the Winter Solstice on December 22nd and Samhain, or Summer’s End according to the old Celtic calendar which divided the year in half, Beltane-Samhain or the growing season, and Samhain-Beltane or the fallow season.  Samhain comes on October 31st and, like all Celtic holidays lasts a week.

The growing season has this triple farewell reflected too in the holidays of Lughnasa, the festival of first fruits, Mabon, the peak of the harvest and harvest home, and Samhain, the end of the harvest season and the end of the growing season.  No matter how you notice or celebrate it these real changes in the agricultural year still happen, they still have critical importance for our human community, and they still deserve our attention.  Why?  Because our ages old relationship with agriculture is what separates us from the hunter-gatherers.  Agriculture allows us to live in villages, towns and cities by producing surplus food on farms in much the same way that the honeybee produces surplus honey while still making enough for the colony to survive on throughout the winter.

Without those who farm, there would be no surplus food.  With no surplus food we would have to revert to subsistence agriculture, growing what we needed every year or hunting and gathering.  This would prove daunting since most of us have forgotten or never been taught how to grow food, how to hunt, how to identify edible plants.

This is the great hidden reality for many, if not most, urban dwellers, who make up, since 2008, over half of the world’s population, a projected 5 billion people by 2030.  Without  a healthy eco-system, one that can support intense tillage, that is, sustainable tillage, the world’s urban dwellers will be bereft of something they cannot do without:  food.  Add to that the pressure on the world’s fresh water supply and two fundamental sustainers:  food and water are at peril.

Granted following the holidays of the Great Wheel will not work magic–sorry to all my Wiccan friends–but it would remind us all, 8 times a year, of the source of our sustenance.  That would help.  Naming our days after these holidays (I do it in the upper left of each post) keeps that reminder fresh.  Our sustainers, mother earth and father sun, do not require us, do not need anything from us, yet they will support us if we live within their limits.  These holidays began when our ancestors realized the need to remind themselves of the delicate, fragile harmony required for human life to flourish.

Over the course of the years and centuries and millennia since, hubris has lead us further and further away from the old religion; we have replaced it with  idols, fetishes, really.  We will, at some point, pay the price for our blasphemy as we upset that harmony, creating an environment that will no longer sustain human life.  Only if we step back from our profligacy can we ensure our survival.

Knowing the rhythms of the natural world, of the agriculture that feeds us, of the systems that keep water fresh and available, is our only chance to avoid apocalypse.  Will we do it?  I don’t know.

A Quiet New Year

Winter                            Full Moon of Long Nights

We have gained back a few minutes since the Winter Solstice, so the New Year will arrive, as it does every year, with a bit more daylight than the grimmer days of mid-winter.

The neighbors have begun to shoot off fireworks.  They are a restrained lot for the most part, but when they perceive an excuse for celebration:  holiday, birthday, new year, they always bring out the fireworks.

(Methuselah Grove
The Methuselah Grove with the world’s oldest living things. The oldest living tree at 4,723 years, Methuselah, is not identified for its own protection.

Kate and I have clinked glasses of champagne (her) and Fre (me), wished each other a happy new year and not shot off a single firecracker.  We did watch Jules and Julia, a middling movie in my judgment, though it had some interesting observations about cooking.  We also watched a great Nature program on the rise of the dog.  Apparently a Swedish geneticist has pinpointed eastern Asia as the origin of all dogs.

Kate’s neck has begun to bother her again this week and her left hip is now  worse than it was before the operation.  The back, though, has improved markedly.   A day at a time.

Well, a happy new year to you, whoever you are.  Back at you next year.

Star Filled and Wonder Saturated

-4  bar steady 30.28   0mph SW  windchill -4   Samhain

Waning Gibbous Moon of Long Nights

I have a run of almost 3 weeks with no outside obligations.  This is a time of the year, even when I worked for the Presbytery, that I would stay home, take up a research project or a book I’d wanted to really absorb.  This habit probably started during the Presbytery time because no congregational folk wanted to talk to judicatory people during the Christmas holidays and immediately afterward.  Which was fine with me.

Right now it’s quiet.  It has been dark since about 4:30 PM.  The long nights have begun to swell and take over the rhythm of the day.  This means more silence, more time to enjoy the darkness of mid-winter.  This is a time of year and a natural cycle that draws us all inward.  This inward pull pushes some of us to string up lights, go to multiple parties, perhaps drink to excess, spend money beyond our means.   We’ll wake up sometime in the new year, ought 9 in this case, with a hangover wondering how the season got so out of hand.

The season can be filled with holy nights, silent nights.  Starred filled and wonder saturated nights.  It matters how we come to the season.

Instead of driving in to the Sierra Club meeting tonight I chose to participate by phone, as did all but two of the other legislative committee members.  By the time I got done with my workout and shower, a lassitude crept over me, borne of the tensions and aches of the last couple of days.  If I had driven in, as it turned out, my trip would have taken twice the time of the meeting.  Not very efficient.

My original reason for driving in, to match peoples faces with names, would have been thwarted, too.

As it was, I was on the phone for 45 minutes, took notes, then hung up and went upstairs to read the Story of Edgar Sawtelle.  Without the long drive it felt like I’d cheated.

A Time of Burnt Sacrifice

85  bar steep fall 29.89  0mph WNW dew-point 68  Summer, warm and sunny

Waxing Gibbous Thunder Moon

We long ago passed the midpoint of summer, June 21, and have begun the fattening, browning, bursting journey to the harvest season.  It begins in earnest as July ends, but some early givers have offered themselves already:  lettuce, beans, beets, carrots, onions and garlic.  We all, at least all of us up north of 45 degrees latitude, await squash, cucumbers, corn, watermelon and the full seasonal abundance of beans and peas and tomatoes.

Even the angle of the sun reached its apogee at the Summer Solstice and has begun steadily declining since then, shortening the day and lengthening the night.  The deepening shadows of afternoon tell the tale, too, as does the now far gone blooming of the daffodils, tulips and scylla.

This partly benighted soul finds a comfort in the change, preferring the winter to the summer solstice, the sweet melancholy of fall to the bursting forth of spring.  When the wind direction swings to the north, and the winds begin to howl, then the weather begins to stir the deep reaches.  The inner cathedral gains in holiness as the need for candles increases.  Walking those corridors, those ancient trails of the interior journey, demand a commensurate gloom, or, at least, welcome it.

Until then, Persephone above ground keeps us focused on food and external pleasures.  We soak in the sun,  till the earth, travel the highways and airways.  This is, too, a time of burnt sacrifice, smoked hecatombs appearing on decks and patios across the land.

The Sun Stands Still


 A Winter Solstice shot by Jim Johnson from the plains near Hecla, South Dakota

23 88% 30% 0mph windroseWNW  bar 29.86 steep rise windchill21   Winter Solstice

     Winter Solstice began at 12:08 AM this morning

While doing some reading and meditating late last night, I came across something new to me.  Solstice comes from the word solstitial, to stand still in Latin.  This explains a phenomena I noticed in the day and night lengths on the calendar for the next 5 to 6 days, that is, they remain about the same; the sun seems to stand still, to pause at it’s northern apogee, then slowly begin to slide more toward the south, granting a slighter longer slice of daylight with each arc of change. 

In the same reading I also discovered that the Zuni and the Hopi both have men whose duty is to mark the reemergence of the sun.  The Zuni man does it with a low, deep moan.  When I read this, it gave me a chill.  Imagine a situation where the sun begins to hide longer and longer each day; the days and nights grow colder and the plants are long dead.  The only food comes from stores and animals caught in the hunt, but they are leaner too for their food sources have diminished.  The longer dark brings families together around fires, the smoke spiraling toward heaven emphasizes the blackness outside; the  fear the sun may never return.  A priest who knows the heavens climbs to the peak of a village structure or a sits on a mesa one night late in this season.  Based on faith and knowledge, his familar voice fills the air, a wailing that recognizes the grief in your fear, yet its persistence, its calm creates hope within you.  You know he has seen, in his spirit life, the promise of the sun to rise and rise and rise, bringing again the warm days.  What a moment.

Last night I also realized that this is my holinight, not a holiday, or even a holiseason, but a particular night, a special night, a night filled with holy wonder.  As John Matthews said in his book, The Winter Solstice, the quiet of Christmas, that moment in the dawn when commercial activity has ceased, children shiver eagerly in their beds and no one moves, is the later adaptation of the Christian community to the stillness of this Solstice night.  It is a calm we need all year, one we can drink in with our senses in these 6 nights while the sun stands still.

The Dark Night Comes

40  60%  40%  5mph  windrose SSW  bar steep rise  dewpoint 27 Waxing Crescent of the Snow Moon  Ordinary Time

A great wind blows through Andover today.  Literally.  40 mph gusts.  The grass in my window bends to the ground, leaves swirl up from the ground and my shed door, left open yesterday, bangs against the frame.  A change in the weather, air coming from the arctic.

This is the brown season, a season in which the only garden color is green.   The bleakness corresponds to a certain wildness in my soul and I revel in it.  Lower the lights, crank up the wind, bring on the snow.  Then, then we can get down to it, the travel toward the deep places, the caverns and secret gardens hidden by too much light. 

This is holiseason, a time when external beauty and easy movement vanish, clearing away a swath of maya, leaving us bare before ourselves.  The Winter Solstice is the well, the sublime and darkest moment.  St John of the Cross gave us the phrase “dark night of the soul.”  He saw the dark night as a place of challenge, of despair and hopelessness, the extinction, or near extinction of faith, salvaged only by re-emergence into the light of faith.  This is one ancient trail.  There is another that sees the dark night as the very place, the site of connection with the sacred depth.  Here in the darkness from which we came and toward which we move our entire life we embrace fecundity, the richness inherent in blackness.