Thursday, February 26, 2009

Burning the Midnight Oil

Montreal at night, 2006

Two nights ago I collapsed into bed after working until midnight. The rise of the sun that morning had coincided with the rise of my son which of course meant that I was awake for the day. He was in bed and asleep about two hours after sunset and that was when I started my other job. With the help of artificial light, I was able to work about 5 and a half hours past sundown.
As I lay in my bed, trying to silence my brain and relax my body in the light of my bedside lamp, I had an urge to be in the darkness. My body was sending a loud message to me. I need darkness. That was the first time in my life that I've actually considered the need that humans have for dark.
In an article entitled Our Vanishing Night by Verlyn Klinkenborg, National Geographic thought the facts of light pollution and our need for darkness important enough to put it on their November 2008 issue's cover. As the world deservedly concerns itself with global warming and it's repercussions, one rarely contemplates how so much artificial light affects us. Our biological urge to rest in darkness is as primitive as the rotation of the Earth itself. We can not see in the dark for a reason.
I can't help but wonder if our drive to fill up the night with street lights is not rooted in a fear of the unknown, an aversion to being still, quiet and to potentially being vulnerable. Humanity has declared: here we are, time does not slow, we will make light last 24 hours. Our minds will think perpetually, our systems will go full speed ahead, nothing can stop us.
I was curious to find out the origin of the expression "Burning the midnight oil" and found that way before we had electricity we were pushing these boundaries.

The English author Francis Quarles wrote in Emblemes, 1635:

Wee spend our mid-day sweat, or mid-night oyle;
Wee tyre the night in thought; the day in toyle.

In 1623 there was even a verb in the english language for working by candlelight: elucubrate

Henry Cockeram defined that in his The English dictionarie, or an interpreter of hard English words, 1623: "Elucubrate, to doe a thing by candlelight."

On my family farm in Quebec you can see the stars. They shine out in glory. The darkness there is deep and wonderful. Farmers also work into the night but there is a limit to what they can do and for how long. There is a kind of surrender to the darkness in this type of life, as there is to the weather. In Africa the sun is so hot at mid-day that the animals rest. They hunt or roam in the early morning, evening or of course at night. We have no real nocturnal abilities. We are vulnerable without our flashlights, lamps and fires. But if we surrender, truly let ourselves be in the dark, the silence....what is there to be afraid of?
A hope I have for humanity is that we can embrace the dark, cover ourselves with the blanket of quiet peace it brings and let go of our urges for dominion over the stars.


DarklyFey said...

Some things are hard-wired in us, and one of them is a hesitancy about the dark. However, I think we've really messed with our circadian rhythms with all the night pollution. Chronic fatigue might be linked to that, I think.

Silverlotus said...

The darkness was one of the things I most enjoyed about the blackout several years ago. We lived in London, Ontario at the time, right in the middle of the city. We were one of the last areas to get power back, but that night I was able to enjoy the beauty of the sky and sleep peacefully because it was so very dark.

It was also interesting to see the light pollution all the way from the edge of the city. It was like a large halo that extend way up into the sky. It was pretty, but also made me a little sad.