Dark in the Daytime

Saturday Essay - Dave SorensenHaving populated the northern reaches of this place, atop an oily veneer of civilization, we once more ride our tilting Earth into the shady side of its orbit, where things get slippery. For millennia natives traveled well in winter. Nowadays, however, snow-tires or no, wheels and ice don’t jibe. You probably noticed this the first time your car twirled like the Tea Cup ride at the fair, while sliding through a stop sign. Most types of winter recreation — snowshoes and sleds, skates and skis — not only start with the swishing of the letter “S,” they’re also atavistic. No fancy-schmancy wheels. Recreational snowmobilers are an evolutionary dead-end, though, as one once told my friend, “dinks gotta have fun, too.”

The Norwegians say there’s no bad weather, just bad clothing. Then again, the Norwegians gave Henry Kissinger a Nobel Peace Prize. So take that with enough grains of salt to cure a barrel of cod.

Before the deep snow, or the deep cold, the darkness begins. Is it any wonder that people light up the Christmas season like some sort of Jesus-in-Vegas act? There are long shadows at lunch, and the afternoon light shines all day long. My friend Tim, who no longer orbits the sun, used to putter around his house in late December, muttering, “ dark … dark in the daytime.”

Darkness Sickness differs from Cabin Fever, which comes later. These days it’s less-poetically known as Seasonal Affective Disorder. Why is that acronym embarrassing? Must be the darkness. Why so surly at sundown? Ditto. Feeling my way down the blackened hall, my fingers find the molding of the door, and I take a right. I brush against the dresser, turning left. Here the red glow of alarm clocks which flank the bed comes into view, like lights of an airfield runway, guiding me toward a downy dreamland sleep.

After a couple cloudy weeks a sunny day is blinding as a camera flash, and almost as brief. Then the low sun mocks my sweeping. Every grain of sand, fat with light, casts a shadow, though this dust that sparkles and settles on the furniture will disappear by evening, forgiven by the darkness.

I’m not big on holidays, but winter solstice is different, no symbolism needed. The Sun’s gravity holds sway. We’re spinning toward light, and not away. This knowledge gives us the confidence we need to don our gay apparel. And in winter nordic austerity and puckered Lutheran sensibility don’t seem to apply above the neck. So you can dress your head like the Cat-in-the Hat, or wrap it with a dead coyote. Wear a lid from some sinister military, or a topper out of fashion since the Paleolithic. Your hat could suit the pilot of a biplane or a flying saucer and we just don’t care. You can be, with headgear down around your eyes, both day-glow and anonymous, merely another showoff, lost in a well-dressed crowd.

I used to scoff at fools wearing cotton hoodies and sneakers in the cold. Those aren’t winter clothes! But, for us in the Anthropocine, infantilized by fossil fuels, they are. People wear shorts in the winter. It rains in the winter. There’s fog. Sometimes a summer-like breeze leaves us in our shirt sleeves for a day, and then it’s back to blizzards, about which, I’m wondering: when and why did we start naming blizzards? When the Polar Vortex marries Peak Oil, what name will these newlyweds live by? Will they hyphenate? After the honeymoon, will we shimmy our DNA south again, where the meek inherit the Earth? Dodge floods and fires for a place in front of that porridge called “just right?”

At some point in the deep cold “eisblumen” bloom in the windows, as if the genetic code lay lurking, waiting for spring. Through an icy prism the sun shines hints of a possible future. Primeval ferns and fractals scroll a preview, sketched for now in water molecules and dust on glass, but coming soon, in living green, to a forest floor near you.

Snow can be fun, darkness enchanting, and the cold nicely colors our cheeks, but there comes a time — oh transient world — to move things along. But our snowman Buddha sits on a drift I buried a yardstick in. That’s when the Samis’ eight seasons prove helpful, counting early winter, deep winter, early spring, true spring, and so on. In popular culture spring’s arrival means instant birds and flowers and gratification. But enduring winter here is like making babies: it’s easier going in than coming out. In Greek mythology, Persephone is hidden in captivity for the duration of the season. Here, what’s hidden beneath the snow is five months’ worth of dog shit. Blackened ice, like cinders from a coal fire, clings to the curbs, but the chickadees have stuck it out, and it seems the crows don’t care.

Water is life and snow is water waiting to be needed. In the meantime it gathers starlight from the dark. Its windblown surface shifts like continents and clouds, as it calls the children out to play, to cool their cabin fever.

Unlike the Darkness Sickness, which makes one clumsy and slow, Cabin Fever is a restlessness affecting even die-hard fans of winter, near the end. At some point cozy bumps into claustrophobic and needs a little space. Early on we learn the cycle of the seasons, and later we understand that people have their seasons, too. How lucky we are to shake off Cabin Fever, getting red clay on our pants cuffs and rain down our necks. In nursing homes folks grow restless in that deep winter beneath their skins, and early spring’s not coming. The confinement seems complete. But reality holds some tricks in store, and a cure for much that ails you. What if the walls of this rickety shack don’t confine us? What if it’s just a screen house, no, a gazebo? Wait, where’s the roof? Are these bodies and buildings just mirages flickering on an ocean of particles and waves? Physicists and Zen Masters agree the whole enchilada is empty and connected, and if it’s connected we’re not separate, and if we’re not separate, we’re not alone. No cabin, no fever, no nothing. So why not ride some flimsy planet around the nearest star? Why not watch the seasons cycle, and bitch about the weather?

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