The Vitality of Darkness
My guilt and frustration about my mood softened. I remembered that these moments counted as being fully alive. The quiet moments of darkness mattered to me just as much as they count for my plants, or to trees native to cold climates. That realization didn’t catalyze a sudden shift to singing The Sound of Music. Instead, I found a kindness that gave a shallower bottom to the depth of the mood. I got up and played with the cats. That snowballed into the little victories of taking a shower, getting dressed, going out into the world beyond my apartment, and connecting with friends. Author Andrew Solomon muses that the opposite of depression isn’t happiness, it’s vitality. The simple act of letting my mood be alive soothed it.
I began to wonder how our dismissiveness of darkness and quieter times might be hurting our culture, and how nature connection might help.
Too often, when we speak positively about darkness, it is only to highlight how to get “back to the light” -- ostensibly a better place. We’ll tell people going through challenges that we need the darkness to appreciate the light. We refer to the “dark night of the soul” as the hardest time of someone’s life. These aphorisms reduce darkness to an unpleasant, but necessary, road to get back to the happy, lively, “light” space. Even nature therapy’s unofficial poet laureate, Mary Oliver, conflated darkness with sorrow: “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”
How might it feel to be told, as a person with depression, that you are trapped in the dark? Do we exacerbate depression when we tell people they’re only alive if they feel bright and sunny?
What happens to our ecology when we can’t tolerate the dark, let alone appreciate it?
Our fear of the dark has a detrimental effect on our health and a healthy ecology. Humans need darkness to truly rest. We have a delicate circadian rhythm calibrated to twelve-hour sleep and wake cycles based on dark and light skies. Even the smallest amount of electrical light at night may disrupt melatonin production. Researchers have found that disrupting periods of darkness may lower immunity. A systematic literature review of darkness and health by the American Medical Association described many ill health effects from lack of darkness, including increased traffic accidents from light glare, accelerated tumor growth -- especially in breast cancer patients -- and exacerbating the underlying causes of reproductive problems, obesity, diabetes, mood disorders, and depression.
Losing darkness can quite literally be torture. Highly effective at psychologically dismantling a person, “white torture” is simply the act of removing darkness: white clothes, totally white cells, white rice on white plates, lights on all the time. Without darkness, the prisoner loses any sense of time and identity.
Many animals suffer when they lose the dark. Migratory birds generally fly at night. They become confused and disoriented by artificial lighting, now one of the most common causes of casualties during long-distance journeys. The city of Chicago was one of the first to implement a “Lights Out” program. In one instance, researchers at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History found the simple solution of turning off the lights reduced bird deaths by 80% -- and presumably saved tons of money from the lower electric bills and the reduced expense of cleaning up bird carcasses.
Darkness has beauty to it, and not just in the ways we associate with death, shadows, and the macabre. There is so much life in the dark! Dark soil is fertile and rich with nutrients. In darker skies, more pollinators come out, which eventually leads to more flowers and fruit. A walk near a pond in high summer under the dark new-moon sky is like going to a raucous, joyful nightclub. One of my friends lives on a flower farm and complains about losing sleep in the new moon because her animal neighbors won’t shut up! Overused as symbols of the moribund, ravens and crows turn out to be intelligent, empathic, and as playful as puppies.
As lovers of nature, we have the opportunity to make small, meaningful changes to cultural perceptions of light and dark. Repaired culture offers right relationship, valuing the balance and beauty of both the dark and the light. I invite you to spend some time outside, considering the beauty, value, and dignity of the dark.
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