|In Praise of Sweet Darkness|
by Shepherd Bliss
Regular HopeDance contributor and farmer Shepherd Bliss turns his attention to darkness and explores the mysteries and acceptance of the sweet darkness.
In recent years I have written articles with titles like “Dark Clouds Over America” and “Torture Memories.” Our nation’s war-making and other threatening behavior have disturbed me. My study of peak oil and climate change has convinced me that we are in for a dark time as we run low on fossil fuels and over-heat this special planet. At first, I found this depressing. I have come to see that the loss of cheap energy can also be a great opportunity, depending on how we respond.
In addition to our external responses, such as conserving energy, making a transition to renewable energy sources, and relocalizing, there is much that we can do mentally to prepare for post-carbon society.
One opportunity is to re-consider the role of darkness and down times as part of a natural cycle. Everything that lives perishes — individuals, relationships, nations, empires, species, even planets. Other living things combine from what remains. It’s a natural cycle. I see it everyday on my organic Kokopelli Farm in Sonoma County. My lively compost piles are full of spent plants, chicken manure, kitchen scraps, and a wide variety of once-alive but now-decaying organic matter. That compost nourishes my berries, apples, and other plants, giving them life.
Endarkenment is an essential, often-maligned aspect of that cycle, which frightens some. What goes into my compost pile has many colors, including green, yellow, red, and even purple. What comes out is darker — brown or black. I regularly bring in manure as fertilizer to feed my soil. “Shoveling shit,” as farmers call it, has been a pleasure. This “brown gold” will bring forth tasty fruit. Darkness can be fruitful, in various forms.
I write in praise of certain kinds of darkness, which the Welsh-American David Whyte describes in his poem “Sweet Darkness.” Darkness can be many things, including a passageway from one thing to another. Whyte’s poem enabled me to see more deeply into the possibilities of sweetness in a time of darkness — literal, seasonal, political, and figurative. I do not mean to deny that evil forms of darkness also exist.
“The night will give you a horizon/ further than you can see,” Whyte’s poem assured me, providing me something to look forward to. A full moon was scheduled for that night, so I went to check it out. Indeed, there was much to see with the benefit of that diffuse, less-focused light. I felt a larger context within which we humans dwell. In addition to the guidance of our daylight logic, we could benefit from the insight of nighttime’s more diffuse lunar light within its ample darkness.
This essay began as I prepared to make my way back to visit Northern New Mexico during the darkest month of the year. I used to hang out there with a chicana curandera (folk healer) who glowed in the dark. I have unfinished business in New Mexico, as well as in old Mexico and Chile — darknesses that I left behind, rather than integrated. I’m on a soul retrieval. Integrating one’s own darknesses and those that have come toward one is essential para vida (for true life).
Industrial societies tend to light up the night with headlights, streetlights, houselights and many other lights, rather than relish the dark’s unique gifts. In contrast to contemporary Western attempts to ignore and deny the dark with its abundant refreshing qualities, indigenous people and some religious traditions tend to embrace it.
In Semitic languages and early Christianity, “black” and “wise” were associated. St. John of the Cross wrote about the “Dark Night of the Soul,” a journey which was difficult but ultimately restorative. When one is called to el mundo subterraneo (the underworld) or is dragged there by a dark force, he or she may return with rich stories to tell.
But in the United States today, darkness has taken on a negative, even racist tone. “Dark” is even used to label that which is allegedly inferior. Malevolent forms of darkness do indeed exist. But my concern in this essay is with benevolent, or sweet, darkness.
Whyte’s poem stimulated me to seek more poems about darkness. “Night cancels the business of day,” the Persian poet Rumi declared back in the thirteenth century. “Be refreshed in the darkness,” he added. Dante begins “The Divine Comedy,” which many consider the greatest European poem ever written: “Midway along the journey of life, I woke to find myself in a dark wood.” Rilke wrote, “You darkness, that I come from and love so much,” once again describing that wider context within which we live.
Scientists describe it as dark matter and dark energy, which is still mysterious to them, such as how gravity works and holds us on the orbiting Earth. “If I reached my hands down, near the earth,/ I could take handfuls of darkness!/ A darkness was always there, which we never noticed,” Minnesota poet Robert Bly writes.
Kentucky farmer/poet Wendell Berry encourages us to “know that the dark, too,/ blooms and sings,/and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.” Theodore Roethke adds, “In a dark time, the eye begins to see,/ I meet my shadow in the deepening shade.” He reminds us that we carry our personal darkness, our shadow, with us all the time, casting it behind as we walk, usually unaware. Boston poet May Sarton celebrates the dark Indian goddess Kali: “without darkness/ Nothing comes to birth.”
Maybe this darkness is not as bad as I originally thought on that cold, wet morning when Whyte’s poem arrived and led me into myself and to other poems.
“Nothing makes the light, the wonder, the treasure stand out as well as darkness,” writes Jungian analyst Clarissa Pinkola Estes in her book Women Who Run with Wolves.” She describes “night-consciousness,” noting, “Things are different at night…. Night is when we are closer to ourselves, closer to essential ideas and feelings that do not register so much during the day.”
In darkness we can dream, revealing parts of ourselves that are otherwise hidden. “We need to dream the dark as process, and dream the dark as change, to create the dark in a new image. Because the dark creates us,” social activist Starhawk writes in her book Dreaming the Dark. “How do we find the dark within and transform it, own it as our own power? How do we dream it into a new image, dream it into actions that will change the world into a place where no more horror stories happen, where there are no more victims?”
Sometimes I conceive of the Dark as a dance partner; it feels more feminine than masculine. I do not try to lead, but rather to follow.
Weaving the multiple benefits of darkness into my life (and avoiding its pitfalls) seems to be my main winter task here at the end of 2006, as 2007 approaches. In the darkness one can rest and be renewed. Spring may come again, with a different set of abundant gifts.