DULUTH, Minn. — Walking in the dark woods the other night, I saw a splash of white light on the trunks of the Norway pines up ahead. I was walking the single-track trails at Hartley Park, and I had a hunch about the source of light. Night mountain bikers.
I was right. A couple of them had stopped to chat at an intersection of trails. Night biking is becoming more common as riders try to stretch their summer riding season as long as they can before the snow falls. They use powerful LED lights on their bikes and helmets to see the way.
I, too, was moving through a tunnel of artificial light — my headlamp. It’s getting harder, as the Northern Hemisphere leans away from the sun, to get in a long walk after work.
It’s tough, for those of us who enjoyed light until 9:30 or 10 p.m. a couple of months back, to let go of long light. It’s hard not to feel as if our world is closing in on us. This is the first stage of the oppressiveness of winter. We are hopelessly diurnal creatures, adapted to function in daylight hours.
I remind myself not to fight the darkness, and much of the time it works. The night doesn’t have to be the bad guy, I tell myself.
Hunters know darkness. Deer hunters routinely march into the black woods and clamber into tree stands to await the morning. Duck hunters rise well before dawn and slosh around in the marshes. Aldo Leopold, the renowned Wisconsin naturalist, was also a hunter.
“To arrive too early in the marsh is an adventure in pure listening,” Leopold wrote. “When you hear a mallard being audibly enthusiastic about his soup, you are free to picture a score guzzling among the duckweeds. ... And when a flock of bluebills, pitching pondward, tears the dark silk of heaven in one long rending nose-dive, you catch your breath at the sound, but there is nothing to see except stars.”
Every duck hunter knows Leopold is on the money. Darkness can add a dimension to our senses if we let it. I remember my dogsledding buddy Lloyd Gilbertson, when we were riding dogsleds through the night across Cherokee Lake, hollering back to me, “Turn off your headlamp and feel it.” As soon as I doused my tunnel of white light, my mind opened fully to the whisper of the runners and the soft panting of the dogs and the serrated tree line.
But we hardly know darkness compared to the Inuit, whose winters are deeper and colder than most of us can imagine.
“Winter darkness brings on the extreme winter depression the Polar Eskimo call perlerorneq,” Barry Lopez writes in “Arctic Dreams.” “According to the anthropologist Jean Malaurie, the word means to feel ’the weight of life.”’
Even in northern Minnesota, we know something of that weight. We know what it means to retreat within four walls again, to lose that freedom of lingering evening light, and to grope our way over uneven terrain.
But maybe we need this contrast.
As Lopez wrote, after seasons among the Inuit in the Arctic, “Winter, with its iron indifference, its terrible weight, explained the ecstasy of summer.”
(c)2011 the Duluth News Tribune (Duluth, Minn.)
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