Darkness shedding light…

One night during the weeks approaching Winter Solstice, I took to bed one of my favourite books, Findings by Kathleen Jamie, and re-read its opening essay, Darkness and Light.

Picture of Findings by Kathleen Jamie 

Settling down in that long night to lose myself in Kathleen Jamie’s clear-seeing prose was a small, anticipatory celebration of that magical tipping point of darkness and light. A welcoming of the special qualities of both, at a time of year that is like a retreat and an embrace; a time to reflect, take stock, evaluate and wonder.

The winter light filling those days around the solstice was something to celebrate. It had brought gifts of form and clarity; a glow that held things close. It had had a sense of enclosure about it – as if, in each day, we were held in a tight, intense moment; our attention gathered near to watch intently those things closer to home. Those bitterly cold, but gleaming days were parcelled up in darkness, wrapped in shaded edges that defined their very qualities. Precious and brief, the light they cast entered windows with a muted whiteness that was like the telling of a secret tucked in its shadows.

One blue, bright morning…

Picture of blue winter skies and sparrows on trees

… I had stood bathed in sunlight at the top of our stairs, and watched as its beams passed through a crystal ornament standing on the window sill, transforming the walls with bursts of vivid rainbows. Each was a perfect, intense spectrum; those huddling colours like a magic spell conjured out of the chill.

In Darkness and Light, Kathleen Jamie writes about these days around the winter solstice:

Mid-December, the still point of the turning year. It was eight in the morning and Venus was hanging like a wrecker’s light above Black Craig. The hill itself – seen from our kitchen window – was still in silhouette, though the sky was lightening into a pale yellow-grey. It was a weakling light, stealing into the world like a thief through a window someone forgot to close.’

I like the precise gestures of the sun……everything we imagine doing, this time of year, we imagine doing in the dark.’

At around 4 p.m. on the night of my re-read, my daughter had called me urgently to the dining room window. A flock (we counted eleven) of long-tailed tits had jinked through the dusk to cluster on our garden fat feeders, their tails overlapping in elegant criss-crossing lines, their white and black markings exaggerated in the gloom, and their pink blush washed to sepia, as if caught in the glow of an old two-tone photograph. After a few moments of peck, shift, peck, flit, they huddled and separated and clustered again in a purposeful communal fidget. With urgent, constant communication they finished their hasty meal, and headed towards the big old trees in the gardens behind ours. Darkness was falling rapidly, graining the sky grey. They needed to find their roost for the night. The cold air was closing like a tight fist. Lights were beaming from the windows, spilling in pools. The long-tails flew beyond the reach of the light, seeking the shadows.

I imagined travelling into the dark. Northward – so it got darker as I went. I’d a notion to sail at night, to enter into the dark for the love of its textures and wild intimacy. I had been asking around among literary people, readers of books, for instances of dark as natural phenomenon, rather than as a cover for all that’s wicked, but could find few. It seems to me that our cherished metaphor of darkness is wearing out…… Pity the dark: we’re so concerned to overcome and banish it, it’s crammed full of all that’s devilish, like some grim cupboard under the stair. But dark is good. We are conceived and carried in darkness are we not?’

– Kathleen Jamie, Findings (published by Sort Of Books, distributed by Penguin Group)

In her essay, Kathleen Jamie takes us with her on her travels to Maes Howe on Orkney. Her hope is to witness the setting winter solstice sun beam directly along the passageway of the Neolithic burial chamber, casting its light onto the tomb’s back wall. What she sees there is a connection between ancient and modern – between human ingenuity, and our relationships to darkness and light – played out in a surprising way.

Even in the very midst of Christmas parcel wrapping, I came across another pertinent exploration of the nature of the dark, in Luke Jennings’  Blood Knots – of Fathers, Friendship and Fishing, which I had bought for a friend who loves fishing. I’d heard great things about the lyrical beauty of the book and its nature writing – and, unable to resist dipping into the first couple of chapters before wrapping it, I was soon captivated by Luke Jennings’ description of urban fishing at night. Fishing itself doesn’t hold any attraction for me, but as an amateur naturalist, I recognise the sense of focus and fusion with landscape; the close, relished mystery of wild lives – the mystery of life itself – unseen around us:

My world has contracted to a box of darkness: to walls, the towpath and the black of the water. As always, there’s the temptation to wind in the bait a little, to check that it’s OK, but that way madness lies, because you’ll never really know what’s happening down there.

Nor would you want to, because in an over-illuminated world, a world whose dark corners are in constant retreat from the remorseless, banal march of progress, this not knowing is a thing to be valued and enjoyed.’

– From Blood Knots by Luke Jennings (Atlantic Books)

During the Yuletide lead-up, I watched Rick Stein’s Cornish Christmas programmes on BBC2. In one episode, he interviewed Tim Smit, CEO of the Eden Project, who mused on the rich pagan and Christian mix of our midwinter festival, and also on the lighting of candles at this time. He reflected how there is something about candlelight that encourages words – makes us want to talk, share intimate conversation. It’s just occurred to me now, writing this, that the intimate sense of enclosure candlelight creates, is the same intimacy which that brief, parcelled-up light of winter gives to what we see around us. That sense of focus and centre, depth and pause. It’s a light by which to huddle, and share stories.

But the solstice also makes us look outwards on a whole planetary level – it can stretch our imagination far out to those huge workings of the Universe, the tilt and movement of the Earth, the progress of the seasons, the changes in our night skies…

In the November 2010 issue of the RSPB’s Birds magazine, there is a lovely article by Conor Jameson entitled Seasons to be Cheerful. In it he talks about the birds’ responses to the seasons – and about how many birds and other creatures ‘…make light of planetary distance and treat the globe as their home, and the galaxy as their sat nav.’

Conor Jameson goes on to say:

Each year, the Earth in a sense ‘breathes in’ from the autumn equinox to the spring equinox and ‘breathes out’ from the spring to the autumn. Time-lapsed footage of this really does make the planet look like it is breathing. Imagine then the world’s birds moving in response to that inhalation, that sheet of ice, snow and cold air easing them south in autumn, and drawing them back north again in the spring, at an estimated 5 mph, as it retreats.’

I love that idea – and the beautiful, all encompassing image it conjures…

This time of year brings many gifts – not least the thirteen redwings, blown in by the snow from the outlying fields, seeking food in our garden! On December 20th, they swept over our hedge and adorned our damson trees like elegant sentinels, their red-streaked sides in full blush against the white sky – causing both delight in our household, and ruffled feathers amongst the starling flock already perched on the branches! The redwings continued to fly round and round the gardens, tumbling into and out of our trees throughout the day – and on the winter solstice itself – adding more magic to that time. The winter before, the snow brought fieldfares to our garden. They stayed for a few days, ate the apples we put out for them, and enchanted us with their beauty:

Picture of a fieldfare

Picture of a Fieldfare

As Conor Jameson goes on to say in his Birds magazine article:

A northern winter has much to cherish. Without it, there would be no fieldfares and redwings arriving in squadrons from Scandinavia, no geese from Greenland descending on our western shores, nor whooper swans on our eastern fields, magically, overnight. There would be fewer robins and blackbirds visiting our back gardens to see what we’ve got for them here in our temperate, ocean-insulated island group.’

On New Year’s Eve, I opened the front door at dusk, and was greeted by a calm mildness on the air that felt like an early out-breath from the Earth. On that breath, emerging from the deepening shadows, curled the leisurely, fluting song of a blackbird…

In those very last days of 2010, and in the earliest of 2011, the passing of the solstice and the slightly lengthening days awoke more and more birdsong. On January 2nd, I opened the bathroom window to let out some steam, and the room was instantly flooded by a cacophony of birds. And this week, I’ve noticed that the blackbirds in the garden have paired up, and the male is busy chasing off a rival (so, high drama on the lawn!) Two robins have also paired up, and are hanging around the garden together, and in February, frog spawn will adorn our neighbours’ ponds. Whatever the weather brings over these next few weeks, out of that bud of cold and darkness, spring is already unfolding…

Happy New Year!

Picture of early morning January light

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5 thoughts on “Darkness shedding light…

  1. Melanie, your posts on this blog are among the very few things on the net that are worth not merely reading, but re-reading. And they demand time for reflection before responding.

    “I had been asking around among literary people, readers of books, for instances of dark as natural phenomenon, rather than as a cover for all that’s wicked, but could find few… But dark is good. We are conceived and carried in darkness are we not?”

    I can’t think of any, either. Darkness is invariably seen as a “cover for all that’s wicked”: Lady Macbeth sought a darkness so intense that even the knife should not see the wound it makes. I cannot think of any literary depiction of darkness that presents it in a positive light. (“Light!” How easy it is to use that word – even in cases such as this where it’s so inappropriate!)

    Indeed, light has always been the metaphor for Good – even for the Divine. It is hard to think of a more resonant and indeed thrilling passage in the entire range of English literature than that in the King James Bible in which God says “Let there be light” – and lo, there was light. The very first act of God Himself is to bring forth light. From Milton hailing “Holy Light” to Wordsworth speaking of the child “see[ing] the light and whence it flows”, light has represented all that is to be aspired towards. When Milton’s Samson speaks of “dark dark dark dark, amidst the blaze of noon”, he is lamenting the darkness, not extolling it. We find this praise of light even in popular culture – most memorably (for me, at least) in that unforgettable scene in James Whale’s film version of “Frankenstein” in which the Creature (Boris Karloff) sees sunlight for the first time, and, instinctively, reaches out towards it.

    In music too, we may see the fascination with light. Beethoven’s fifth symphony (and, influenced by it, Brahms’ first) depicts quite explicitly a journey from darkness to light: here, sound is a sort of metaphor for light – the threatening C minor key at the start of the symphony giving way by the end to the blazing, luminous glory of C major. The triumphant ending of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” is a representation, once again, of light dispelling the darkness. Haydn, in “The Creation”, had given unforgettable musical form to that line from Genesis – “And God said, Let there be light, and lo, there was light”: once again, sound becomes an apt metaphor for light. Of course, one may point to the poetry and lyricism of so many of, say, Chopin’s nocturnes, but here again, I think, it’s not the darkness that is being celebrated: rather, the celebration, the impetus for Chopin’s lyricism, is the softer lights of the night, the moonlight and the starlight: once again, the celebration is that of light, not the darkness. (Admittedly, Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde yearn for darkness – but they are plain weird!)

    Artists, too, have been fascinated by the idea of depicting light. But before I go off into another long, boring list, it may be worth saying that artists have depicted darkness as well: Caravaggio and Rembrandt are notable examples of artists who were often happy to leave the greater part of the canvas in the dark, and where the darkness is not used with sinister intent. In at least two of Caravaggio’s paintings – “The Calling of Matthew” and “The Raising of Lazarus”, Christs’s face is hidden in darkness. Here, at least, darkness is not “a cover for all that’s wicked”.

    Personally, I do love winter light. Looking back, it was the first thing that struck me about Britain: transported from Bengal where day was day and night as night and there was no in-between, I was very taken aback, I remember, by that curious half-light of late October. I grew to love that half-light, and I love it still. Utter darkness, I must admit, I’m still not sure about!

    • Himadri – thank you so much for your kind words… (too kind, I think! But very much appreciated…) They came at just the right time to give me a boost, as I’d been looking around at other people’s blogs, admiring their engaging, beautiful and interesting content and feeling quite despondent about the shortcomings of my own efforts. It’s so lovely to know that these posts are striking a chord outside my own inner churnings away of thoughts and ideas!

      As ever, your brilliant comments brighten these blog pages (there I go already, using those metaphors of light… As you say, we can’t help it. It’s just so ingrained!). I love all the examples you give – all such food for thought. I’ve not had much time to ponder further on this over the past couple of days, as my son was off school during that time, but all these ideas on how we relate to darkness and light have been turning round and round in my head during ‘the dark midwinter.’ I don’t know if it’s coincidence, serendipity, or a consequence of what was already on my mind (or all of those!), but a lot of my reading lately seems to have thrown up lots of interesting perspectives on the nature of darkness. They just seemed to keep on chiming with what I was already wondering, thinking and experiencing, inspiring me to look at all those old ingrained cultural references anew, making me think about new alternatives.

      The Winter Solstice is a time that makes us focus on the cycles of our seasons – the cycles of darkness and light, making us realise how dependent each part of the cycle is on the other. When we focus on the natural cycle – the ‘dark as natural phenomenon’ as Kathleen Jamie says in the quote from Findings you picked out in your comment – the dark does not wear that metaphor of evil; it outwears it…. As Kathleen Jamie says, the metaphor wears out when we apply a perspective that perhaps, more and more, is breaking free of the good and evil, light and dark associations.

      From the reading I’ve done lately, a perspective of the dark in its natural role – as positive, as a refuge and as a conduit out of which comes creativity and renewal – (and, as in the Luke Jennings’ quote in my post, as a place of unknowing in which to hold onto the deepest meanings of life – and in which to keep true perspective on our own place within the natural world) – seems to have been emerging in (paradoxically!) an illuminating way. Darkness literally shedding light on the issue! I don’t know if it’s my own way of thinking and the sort of reading I’ve picked lately, that has made this seem to me an idea which is stirring more and more minds as they ponder the modern ‘over-illuminated world’ – and the plight of the natural as we squeeze more and more of it out of our existence. Or maybe this mode of thinking is indeed growing in prevalence, in response to an age in need of new metaphors, new and more elastic associations.

      Though maybe it’s a return to very ancient associations – as encompassed by somewhere like Maes Howe, and the ancient attitudes to darkness and light – and how they might be different to the Christian, and other Abrahamic religions’ associations of the dark, ‘Isaiah’s dark’ as Kathleen Jamie calls it in her essay. We can only guess at what beliefs those neolithic people of Maes Howe held, and I’m a million light years from knowing enough about different religions to comment properly on these aspects – but places like Maes Howe, Stonehenge etc are so tied up with light and dark as cycles, it seems to me to hint at a relationship of light and dark which is not a war between the two, or as metaphors for good and evil, but more of an acceptance of the dark and light in dependence on each other, in balance .

      One of the books I read towards the end of 2010 was Emma Restall Orr’s Kissing the Hag – in which I came across another pertinent and riveting exploration of the nature of the dark, this time from Emma’s perspective as a modern day Druid:

      The universe is very dark….. astronomers now talk of ‘dark matter,’ invisible material that we cannot see or understand, of which there is estimated to be thirty times more than anything creating or reflecting light. A hundred million light years (multiply by 9.5 trillion to find the distance in kilometres) of dark space exists between some galaxies. Light, as flickering specks dancing in the cosmic breeze, fire sprites in an endless night, is a minute part of what we can perceive to be the forces of nature…..Unquestionably, we rely on [the sun’s] heat and light; it is not surprising that so many religious and philosophical systems hold it as a pivotal focus. Yet life does not emerge from the light. The source of all creativity, of all creation, of imagination and potential, is by very nature a place of darkness.’

      – From Kissing the Hag; The Dark Goddess and the Unacceptable Nature of Women by Emma Restall Orr (published by O Books).

      Reading Emma Restall Orr’s book, and the other writers’ ideas I’ve mentioned – plus just experiencing that special balance of dark and light of midwinter – really got my cogs turning and turning, and lots of latent thoughts and ideas rising to the surface…

      The examples you add in your comment, Himadri, are more nuggets of gold (again, those gleaming metaphors!) inspiring the cogs to turn in yet more directions! I love how you’ve expanded the pondering of metaphors of the dark to the realms of music and painting. You’ve set off all sorts of remembered strains of music, and images of Rembrandts and Caravaggios (well, those I know – I wish I knew more about Art and music) floating about in my head!

      I love too the personally felt perspectives of light and dark you’ve opened up here, through your own experiences of the contrasts between the interplays of night and day in Britain and Bengal. I’ve never experienced that sudden change from day to night you describe. Again, thinking about those differences stretches the mind right out to those planetary levels, reminding us of the huge workings of the universe affecting us in particular ways, depending on where we find ourselves in the world.

      Utter darkness? Yes, I’m not sure about that either! I once stood deep in a cave in Derbyshire and the guide turned out the light to let us experience utter, can’t-see-your-hand-in-front-of-your-face darkness – and, after only a few split seconds, the relief of the light going back on was huge!

  2. Hello Melanie – I have just found your blog (via the argumentativeoldgit’s blog, I should add!) – what a treat. Lots to explore and read here, I shall have to spend some time perusing! My own blog has never got going, mainly because I am lazy, but I feel inspired to get it started properly.

    I have finally bought Roger Deakin’s Wildwood, though have not yet finished Richard Mabey’s Beechcombings, so will carry on savouring that. And Ronald Blythe’s Akenfield…he is my hero via the Church Times, and I am ashamed never to have read his most famous work! You always inspire me to go back to my nature books.

    Very interesting conversation about the dark – will have to keep thinking about/looking for examples of the dark used in a positive way – dark *is* good, though I think it’s always a *bit* scary – not that scary is necessarily a bad thing either! It can be exciting.

    Anyway, stop rambling, Evie – great to have found you and bookmarked you.

    Evie x

    • Evie! 🙂 It’s so lovely to see you here! (Hooray for the argumentativeoldgit!) So glad you found your way here, via Himadri’s blog.

      You’re in for such a treat when you get round to reading Roger Deakin’s Wildwood. What a special book. And what a special man he was. One of my heroes. Did you see Alice Roberts’s recent TV programme, Wild Swimming, which took Roger Deakin’s book Waterlog as its inspiration? That was lovely. Roger Deakin is obviously one of Alice’s heroes too, and there were some recordings of him reading from Waterlog, which were just magical. I’m definitely intending to blog about him as soon as I can catch up on all the posts I’m trying to put together behind the scenes here (life is as hectic as ever!).

      I heard Ronald Blythe on Radio 4 a while back (on Start the Week). What a warm and wise man. Yes, definitely another hero… It was a real treat to hear him. The world needs many more Ronald Blythes and Roger Deakins! I have a copy of Akenfield which I discovered in a secondhand bookshop on one of my trips to Northumberland, and I dip into it many a time. When you read Wildwood, you’ll meet Ronald Blythe there again… there’s such a beautiful chapter in which Roger and Ronald walk in a bluebell wood together…

      Still on the subject of nature writing heroes, I was over the moon to receive Richard Mabey’s latest book Weeds for Christmas, and I started reading it the other week. Life seems to have halted my reading for far too long recently… (I’m still only half way through War and Peace!) but I shall report back on Weeds here when I’ve finished reading it… (I wish I had some kind of time expanding machine!)

      Anyway, Evie – a very warm welcome to Bookish Nature. It’s very nice to be bookmarked! I shall bookmark you too, and look forward to reading and following your blog (great to hear you’re feeling inspired).

      Melanie x

  3. Pingback: Ode to a Fieldfare | Bookish Nature

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