Some of my earliest memories are as a small child gazing up at the incredible array of stars overhead. I would stand in my front yard and stare at the stars until I got dizzy…in part from the illusion of movement as my eyes roamed the night sky and in part from trying to grasp the concept of infinity….the insignificance of me in relation to the universe….and yet feeling a closeness to a “something”. Thoughts that are difficult to articulate when you are 5 years old, but the significance and persistence of those memories are quite strong. Against a black canvas, the stars, the dippers and the milky way became known to me ….. along with a series of questions that I wrestle with to this day.
At that same age, when sent off to bed hours before I needed to go, I would frequently conjure up my own black canvas. I would squeeze my eyes tightly shut, rub them hard and enjoy the explosion of colors as “floaters” went off like fireworks. The colorful display would slowly fade into what I interpreted as a circular slice of pineapple, yellow and brilliant which slowly dissolved into darkness…and more often than not with me fading into sleep. It was a black canvas that allowed me to see what is otherwise unseen or goes unnoticed.
While in graduate school, I was doing field work on an undeveloped island off the coast of Georgia. The beach at night was so dark, one risked spending the night there if you failed to mark the trail back to your tent. One clear, moonless evening, three of us ventured into the ocean, locking arms for an added measure of security and comfort. The darkness was so complete you could only feel, but not see, the approaching waves. About three seconds before impact, the suction from the approaching wave was felt and the stars on the horizon would become covered by the cresting wave. The darkness itself became blocked by an even deeper darkness as the wave descended. We would be tossed by the wave and frequently separated, calling out to each other as we regrouped before the next wave came. There was a primal fear of facing something that was unseen, but could be felt and had the power to send us tumbling within the current. We all felt the sudden surge of adrenaline when we came up, uncertain which direction we were until we felt the approach of the next wave. The safety of friends was largely an illusion, though I doubt any of us would have braved the experience for long if by ourselves. A canvas so black, we could often see nothing…but experienced much.
On a different evening we dared not brave the breaking waves. The clouds obscured what little light and orientation the overhead stars would have provided. Far against the horizon, heat lightening would occasionally glow within the clouds. As we waded through the knee high water, the darkness revealed slender, smoke-like tendrils of a bioluminescence eddying behind our legs. Our movement through the water agitated the phytoplankton, creating a soft glow that faded over several seconds. No doubt a common occurrence along the east coast, but not one that can be seen until the canvas becomes black.
A few years ago, I again braved the ocean at night, this time by myself. I watched the sunset to the west, enjoying the rise and fall of the passing swells as I floated in the calm ocean. I looked to the east to see the orange and purple of the setting sun reflected in the distant clouds. The small waves were no threat, and while the beach lights were dimmed for sea turtles, the cell tower in the distance provided a steady beacon of reassurance and orientation as the sun’s last glow disappeared. I stayed in the ocean, alone in the darkness, listening to the sounds of the surf….the occasional splash of fish breaking the surface, and enjoying the sight of stars which the glow of the motor mile car dealerships denies me at home. Suddenly, against the black sky, a vapor trail from a distant jet appears glowing pumpkin orange against the surrounding black sky. The jet is so high that its vapor trail catches the last rays of the setting sun, which is far below the surface horizon. A second sunset is provided, the orange streaks set off against the stars and only to be seen against a black canvas.
When our sky, our canvas, our world turns dark it is tempting to rush back to the familiar light. However, there is much to see and learn when our canvas goes black. When our canvas goes dark, take that opportunity to observe. There is beauty that may otherwise never be seen, there are experiences that may otherwise never be felt, and there are truths that might otherwise never be revealed without the benefit of a dark canvas.
To Know the Dark by Wendell Berry
To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark.
Go without sight, and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.