I am a creature of darkness.
Friends and relatives tell me that they regret seeing the days of lingering sunlight ending when daylight savings time ends. They have happily basked in long days of the late spring, summer and early fall light, and now mourn their passing. Not me. I find refuge in the cover of darkness
It’s not as though I’m a goth person who likes sinister things. I haven’t worn black clothes since my early days a parish priest. Yes, I have a melancholy streak but I’m not creepy about it. The darkness is different for me, a positive thing. It’s like this: there is nothing I find more satisfying than, in the latter days of October, laying a fire just after sunset, mixing a libation and sitting by a blazing fire with only one lamp lit in the room, a light just bright enough to read my book. Then I feel as though I’m in tune with the world. Indeed, I may well be. Darkness serves our well-being as much as light does: we are diurnal creatures. Darkness doesn’t usually get the kind of favorable press that light does.
In this regard I’m in good company, if not necessarily everyone’s favorite company; a vast variety of our planet’s other inhabitants like insects, bats, rodents, opossums, badgers, many birds and turtles, and certain kinds of vegetation find refuge in darkness. For them, too, it’s a positive thing. They go about their business in the same way I do, only spending their nights as if they were my day, traveling about from here to there with daily chores. In the case of many plants, they grow mostly at night. I remain sedentary, fixed in a chair. Each of us, in our own way, is glad to be under the cloak of darkness. Darkness, however, is coming under assault in the postmodern world. The assault is called light pollution.
Light pollution is now encroaching on our precious darkness. Excessive night-time lighting that’s misdirected (up and out rather than down) and artificial (think large parking lots and stadiums) lights that appear in many quarters of population centers, disrupt the diurnal rhythms of the natural world. Too much light pollution also washes out starlight in the night sky, interferes with astronomical research, disrupts ecosystems, has adverse health effects and wastes energy. The ubiquitous presence of streetlights has become a significant factor in light pollution.
Whoever could have imagined that light shining in the darkness could become a liability. Any good thing when in the hands of man, is often made toxic.
I recall how the streetlights of my boyhood were unlike today’s streetlights that cast mostly cool light. Back then, the streets threw a light that had a soft, orange hue, different than the lighting of today’s streets, office buildings or big boxes. There’s a cold chill to present lighting, perhaps reflecting the less kindly milieu that surrounds us, today. However, I must say that the gentle ambience of softer light did little to temper my boyhood social conduct.
Neighborhood street lights consisted of large, disc-like shades that were metal, round, scalloped and with a large lightbulb in the center. They provided neighborhood boys a vulnerable target to practice our marksmanship. Which of us kids could hit the bulb first; it was a matter of honor among us. It was total misbehavior, to be sure, but in the passage of time, I can see where my malicious conduct may have, in the big picture, served a greater good. Actually, I may have been, although inadvertently, an early activist addressing the evils of light pollution.
It was not that I set out to do mischief every night or to address the problem of light pollution. Popping streetlights happened randomly, like weather, and for no reason I can identify. It would predictably occur on hot summer nights when a few of the neighborhood boys would roam nearby streets not initially to do harm, but just wander around aimlessly as I’ve seen bats and insects swarm in circles around the streetlights. Then, during one of these casual sorties, one kid might suggest we try to knock out the light at the corner down the street. That streetlight, while in the vicinity of our homes, was far enough away that we felt sufficient anonymity existed there to get away with it. The attempt organized itself sufficiently so that each boy took turns – one rock per person – while the rest of us watched.
As I recall this, my actions may have been inspired as much by the allure of the darkness we created as it had to do with my fascination with spectacle of dying light. In a perverse kind of way, my actions were preserving the integrity of the night.
In any case, what followed was thrilling: after several attempts, my rock hit the light. The light actually grew brighter when hit. The bulb flared up for a matter of seconds, sputtered, and in its death throes, sprayed sparks into the night like fireworks, and then slowly went out, hissing all the while as it finally surrendered to the darkness of the summer night. I was experiencing how the thrill that being intentionally malicious is pleasurable; misdeeds may reverberate through the human heart like the tremulous musical notes that shiver along our auditory faculties. There’s something neat about being bad. Forbidden fruit is sweet.
We remained momentarily still, awed at the strike. Then we scrambled and ran in all directions, like cockroaches fleeing for the cover of darkness after the kitchen lights are flipped on. The streetlight episodes remain imprinted in my mind as does the recognition of how willful wrongdoing can be a thrilling business, and paradoxically may even address an evil that has not as yet been identified.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.