4,481 total words    

18 minutes of reading

But the darkness pulls in everything:
shapes and fires, animals and myself,
how easily it gathers them! —
powers and people —
and it is possible a great energy
is moving near me.

I have faith in nights.

—Rainer Maria Rilke, “The Night” (Robert Bly translation)

It’s very early in the morning, right around the summer solstice of 2011, and we’re three hours north of Salt Lake City, in the high desert of southeastern Idaho. The further we go, the darker it becomes, and colder. Crossing through the fringes of basin-and-range country, the temperature drops into the fifties. By now, Tasha and I are far from the metal halide lamps of the interstate as we follow the back roads across miles and miles of open country, on our way to do some climbing at City of Rocks in Idaho. We’ve been up for almost twenty four hours at this point—we went to work, left early, and flew here from Baltimore early in the afternoon. Now the time spent traveling and the change in time zones is beginning to take its toll on us.

There are spots of light here and there, flung randomly about the landscape, which has now completely lost any sense of scale: the lights off to either side of the car could be two hundred feet away, or twenty miles—it’s that hard to tell. After a while, our own headlights are the only light for long minutes at a time, and the only other lights, when they appear, are dimly distant. It’s been at least an hour since we’ve seen another car on the road, and we’re both succumbing to a weird sort of tunnel vision, like driving through a snowless snowstorm, so we stop right there in the middle of the road.

We kill the headlights and step out of the car. It takes my eyes a moment to adjust, but when they do, they’re immediately drawn to the night sky above us. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s clear and cold, and so far from any city, the stars just come on in, layer after layer. It’s so dark I can easily see the Milky Way in all its glory and what appear to be many other galaxies and nebulae—gas and dust clouds, ever so faintly pink and purple, blue and green—like a theatrical backlight blazing away behind and between the stars, which are so numerous and diverse in their size and intensity, they bring on a weirdly ecstatic sense of vertigo.

We stare in wonder and silence for a period of time that is difficult to process or describe when juxtaposed against the backdrop of light-years stretching away into eternity. We are thoroughly entranced and absorbed by the magnificence of this facet of nature—night—which at thirty-six years old, I’m seeing for the first time in its undiluted form.

After what seems like a good long while, we get back in the car and continue on toward our lodging, amazed and bewildered by what we’ve seen.

The only other comparable experience in my memory occurs fifteen years earlier. While I was studying in England, I visited a friend who had invited me to stay over spring break at his family’s house in the Black Mountains on the Welsh border. After a long bus ride from the northwest town of Lancaster through the English Midlands, followed by a train ride from Birmingham to Hereford, my friend met me at a pub around closing time, and we headed back to his home.

It was a beautiful ride and weirdly enchanting as we exited the main road and began moving up through the hills, which were flanked on each side, right up to the very pavement, by tall hedgerows that drastically limited visibility to what lay ahead of us. My friend took the turns fast as we rocketed through this dark maze for mile after mile, unlit by anything other than the headlights of the car we were riding in.

We finally arrived at his family’s home—a farmhouse that had been occupied since Shakespeare’s day, he said. As we pulled into the drive, only a smattering of light leaked from the house. We got out of the car, and I was struck by how amazingly dark it was, even with the dim light coming through the small windows of the stone farmhouse. I could barely see my hand in front of my face, and that’s no exaggeration.

There was something intoxicating about this place, and it was more than just the quality of the darkness, which seemed to have a depth and character of its own. As I settled into bed in the guest room upstairs, beneath what I recall as a thatched roof, I heard sheep, as if they were challenging me to count them in some sort of roll call. Now near, now far, the bleating of sheep bounced and ricocheted over the hills and against the vaulted ceiling of night, an oddly comforting sound as I drifted off into a heavy sleep.

Until relatively recently in our civilization’s history, these two scenes would have been the norm rather than the exception on the stage of human experience. The advent of the electric light, followed by the rise of cities, and then megacities, with the air and light pollution they create, has pushed away the night sky, replacing it with haze and smog and projecting all of the worldly problems below onto the heavens above.

Growing up in suburban Washington, DC, I used to relish the cold and early nights of autumn when I could go outside on the front lawn, lie on my back, and stare into a night sky, where at least I could make out the Big Dipper, Orion, Sagittarius, and the Pleiades. Sometimes I’d haul out the big white cardboard tube of the reflecting telescope my father bought for my brothers and me so we could see the spot on Jupiter, magnified a few times, or the boiling sulfurous atmosphere of Venus—the brightest things in the sky, usually.

As my childhood progressed, I started reading books on astronomy and cosmology, and on Halley’s Comet—the ultimate celestial event in the winter of 1986, amidst conditions considered the least favorable in the history of its observation. I remember a few very cold, late night and early morning trips in the family car, taking us a fair distance from the worst of the light pollution of the mid-Atlantic megalopolis where we lived, but sadly not far enough to see much of Halley’s.

Years later, when I was in my late twenties, after I’d discovered rock climbing and spent a few nights sleeping in the bed of my truck beneath a clear West Virginia sky, I reasoned to myself that we might have gotten a good sighting of the comet here, just a few hours away, on the far side of the Blue Ridge Mountains on some frigid February night, had we but tried.

In the years since, climbing adventures have taken me to some beautiful and remote spots, especially in the American west, though I’ve just as often been disappointed by the night skies in national parks like Joshua Tree or Yosemite. These are beautiful and still relatively wild places during the day, if you can hike away from the roads and climb above the crowds.

Yet the howl of Joshua Tree coyotes and the primal shadow play of flames from a campfire cast against a backdrop of granite boulders are not quite enough to cancel out the sickly glow in the west that follows a flaming desert sunset like some misbegotten second act. Up high on the opposite rim of the Yosemite Valley, across from the looming walls of El Capitan, as night falls and rope teams start  looking for a bivy for the night, one can see the headlamps blink on like some alternative system of constellations, hanging between heaven and earth in a weird, post-modern limbo.

Perhaps my strangest experience at night in the “wild” occurred at the end of a very long day of climbing at Red Rocks National Park, a series of canyons and towers that rise up to meet a high desert plateau about twenty miles west of Las Vegas. My partner and I had started early that morning, after a long hike in from where we had parked the day before. (We had parked just outside the entrance gate in case we didn’t make it back to our car before closing.)

Halfway up a long route, it began to get cold, and we were already tired, so we started to rappel down to the base of the route for the long hike out. Toward the bottom but still fairly high up, our rope got stuck on the famously sticky sandstone, so we spent some time climbing back up to retrieve it.

As the day faded, we could clearly see most of Las Vegas light up in all its neon gaudiness, burning the desert sky like a spreading tumor. There was so much light up high that we might have done without our headlamps. When we finally got to the base of the climb and descended into the canyon to hike out, things had changed.

Even with a GPS and two bright headlamps we had trouble navigating down the steep talus slopes and through the dense brush that sprang up every time we crossed a wash. We tripped and stumbled through the darkness and underbrush, but eventually found the trail back to the main road.

The main road, as we’d noticed on the ride in, was thronged by new buildings positioned almost right up to the park gates. The experience stuck with me as a particularly surreal juxtaposition: the garish and profane accoutrements of a relentlessly artificial and tasteless culture encroaching on an otherwise sere and inaccessible wilderness, with hardly so much as a buffer between them.

In the United States, wilderness is technically defined in terms of the relative inaccessibility by road of any given area. But regardless of the definition, there are fewer and fewer wilderness areas left here, as is plainly evident to any observer looking down at night from an airliner crossing the continent, or even looking down from outer space.

How wild or pristine or remote can a place really be if every night the haze and glare from distant settlements rolls in like a tide to wash away any pretense of a place removed from human development? And to what extent has the advent of electric light altered our relationship with the natural world in which humankind has been embedded for the entire course of our history? Or for that matter, how has our humanity, both as individuals and as communities, been affected by the proliferation of artificial light?

To look up at a night sky like the one I’ve described in rural Idaho is literally to understand one’s place in the cosmos and to be filled with awe and wonder—to be humbled—even as satellites whiz by overhead and human technologies probe the surface and atmosphere of the closest planets. To characterize it as a mystical, transcendent experience is not far off. David Abram’s seminal work on healing the rift between humanity and the “more-than-human-world,” The Spell of the Sensuous, begins with this passage:

Late one evening I stepped out of my little hut in the rice paddies of eastern Bali and found myself falling through space. Over my head the black sky was rippling with stars, densely clustered in some regions, almost blocking out the darkness between them, and more loosely scattered in other areas, pulsing and beckoning to each other. Behind them all streamed the great river of light with its several tributaries. Yet the Milky Way churned beneath me as well, for my hut was set in the middle of a large patchwork of rice paddies. . . . But by night the stars themselves glimmered from the surface of the paddies, and the river of light whirled through the darkness underfoot as well as above; there seemed no ground in front of my feet, only the abyss of star-studded space falling away forever. . . . I simply could not dispel the profound vertigo and giddiness; the paths of the fireflies and their reflections in the water’s surface, held me in a sustained trance. Even after I crawled back to my hut and shut the door on this whirling world, I felt that now the little room in which I lay was itself floating free of the earth.[1]

What Abram’s experience and my own have in common—aside from an almost hallucinatory visionary character—is the fact that we both had to travel to remote locations to truly experience something as extraordinary and yet routine as the night sky in all its glory. That was the birthright of almost every human being until about 150 years ago. Up until the time Van Gogh painted The Starry Night, most people in even the most populous and developed regions of the world would have been familiar with a spectacular and blazingly luminous night sky.

Yet as the second Industrial Revolution kicked into high gear and electric lighting began to proliferate in urban areas, people in the global north also began a mass migration to these urban centers to find work in the mills of progress, leaving behind agrarian ways of life and the earthly rhythms and folkways that sustained them.

In post-World War II America, the project of suburbanization began in earnest, laying the automobile-based groundwork for a landscape of consumerism and easy credit, and a community-less society to inhabit it. The physical infrastructure of this living arrangement can be summed up in one word: sprawl.

This sprawl consists not just of the miles and miles of brightly lit roads and highways necessary to provide access between suburban homes and urban workplaces, but whole districts of industrially lit car dealerships and strip malls, gas stations and fast food joints, all blazing away with light: light designed to attract consumers or to repel criminals; light intended to illuminate and make safe commerce and high-speed automotive travel; and ambient light from the lighting fixtures and televisions and computer screens of those who inhabit these placeless places, living in time out of turn, time out of sequence with nature and all things natural.

Most of us living today have spent the majority of our lives in places like this, and so when we have the increasingly unlikely opportunity to experience the night sky as it truly is, as our ancestors saw it, it comes as a glorious revelation.

The phrase “light pollution” then seems less like an innocuous euphemism and more like an existential threat. The glowing haze on the horizon that blots out all but the brightest objects in the night sky is hardly less soul crushing than the clear cutting of a forest or the sight of tar balls washed up on a beach.

How did we ever come to accept this as normal? I wonder this as I type, while the brilliant LED light from the two flat screen monitors on my desk floods my field of vision—two electronic eyes staring back at me with their own unflinching gaze.

American author Clark Strand, in his book Waking Up to the Dark, has identified the advent of the incandescent light bulb as “the real tipping point that would eventually guarantee the excesses of the twentieth century—from world wars to climate change to the widespread pollution of rivers, lakes and streams. For all these spring directly from the overflow of human consciousness, for which the flood of light is both the metaphor and the means.”[2]

At the heart of Waking up to the Dark is a chapter entitled “A Dark Manifesto,” in which Strand implores the reader to engage in a Dark Revolt, to “Turn out the lights—and leave them off,” often returning to the crucial premise that “it is the overflow of consciousness that the Dark Revolt seeks to turn back and overthrow.”[3]

Returning to that first quote, it’s hard to let go of the weight of Strand’s phrase “for which the flood of light is both the metaphor and the means.” I think immediately of Marshall McLuhan, that prophet of the electronic age, and his famous dictum, “the medium is the message.”

Television—and especially its commercial driver, advertising—has probably caused more harm to the planet, with regard to its manipulations of our consciousness toward a path of consumerism, than any other forces in the years following World War II. Broadcast television and advertising are a method for tapping into the most narcissistic components of human consciousness, an erstwhile force creating artificial inadequacies and exploiting vulnerabilities rooted deep within our psyches.

And this critique applies even more to the Internet and the world of social media in which so many of us now spend so much of our time. By putting us all at the center of a universe composed of Facebook feeds and Twitter followers—the ultimate expression of narcissism—we generate the content for our own “televised” dramas without being paid a cent for the performance. Even better, from the advertisers’ perspective, we’re freely providing so much personal data that the forces of consumerism need only respond to this information with algorithmically tailored advertisements targeting to a tee the online personas we’ve built for ourselves.

These technologies—the light bulb, the television, the computer screen—are embodiments of ever more sophisticated patterns of light, carrying information of increasingly dubious value that plays on our retinas while affecting our consciousness in increasingly insidious ways.

At one point in our evolutionary history, perhaps that critical juncture at which technology first began informing our consciousness, humanity’s mastery of fire gave us a definitively competitive edge over the rest of the natural world when we needed it most to survive and eventually thrive as a species. For hundreds of thousands of years after this, humankind maintained a relative equilibrium with regard to our place in the natural world vis-à-vis modest use of fire and candle light. But where Strand identifies the moment of humanity’s historically inevitable undoing with the widespread adaptation of incandescent light, I would suggest that its roots go even deeper, extending at least to that so-aptly named phase of intellectual history known as the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment, as most of us were taught in school, was a culminating victory for the forces of reason and cultural progress, in which thinkers like Locke and Voltaire, Rousseau and Kant beat back the forces of medieval Christian reaction and Dark Age superstition to pick up where the philosophers and scientists of Greece and Rome had left off. This decisive battle signaled the end of a war that had begun with the Renaissance and Humanism, endured through the bloody phase of Reformation-era cultural crisis and religious violence, and came to an end in the eighteenth century, punctuated by the exclamation point of the French Revolution.

It may seem unfair to lay blame for the world’s current troubles on that period of cultural development that brought us such lofty concepts as scientific rationalism and the imperative for human freedom and equality. Nonetheless, it is important to realize that perhaps the most enduring component of Enlightenment thought has been Cartesian dualism, which gave rise to the notion of humanity’s presumed primacy in, and separation from, the natural world.

The rationalism of René Descartes as it relates to science and philosophy formalizes the concept of a schism between human consciousness and the material world in which we exist. Cartesian thought laid the groundwork for scientific materialism as we know it today, and particularly it promoted the notion of separation inherent in the dualistic categories of mind and matter, subject and object, culture and nature.

It is through the broader societal adaptation of this philosophical model of separation, this rift, that the overflow of human consciousness—a superabundance of subjectivity, if you will—emerges and gradually predominates over the course of history leading up to the present.

Philosophers, mystics, and seekers of all sorts, both before and after the time of Descartes, have concerned themselves with the phenomena of subjectivity and human consciousness as it relates to being-in-the-world. Twentieth-century phenomenologists and existentialists such as Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Sartre have all sought a new understanding of the process of consciousness, but I have found that Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception—an account of the author’s experimentation with the psychedelic drug mescaline—provides perhaps the most interesting analysis of the nature of modern consciousness that I have yet read.

I am struck by many of Huxley’s insights, but especially by his recognition of “normal” sensory experience as a torrential flow of external phenomena that passes through the reducing valve of human consciousness as a tiny stream. Huxley cites the philosopher C.D. Broad, who characterized the brain and nervous system as a type of filter that winnows down the enormity of outward sensory phenomena into something that is manageable to individual human consciousness on a practical level.

“According to such a theory,” Huxley writes, “each one of us is potentially Mind at Large. But in so far as we are animals, our business is at all costs to survive. To make biological survival possible, Mind at Large has to be funneled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system. What comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive on the surface of this particular planet.”[4]

How ironic that this mode of subjectively aware practical consciousness that Huxley describes—amplified out of all proportion and extended globally by our electrical technologies and hijacked by runaway consumerism—is now driving the destruction of our planetary home.

It is this overflow of human consciousness, passing as a torrent in the other direction now through this metaphorical reducing valve, that prevents from seeping in even so much as a drip of the larger natural and super-human world from which we are so totally separated. The modern technologically illuminated consciousness represents the eclipsing of an older and historically balanced consciousness by one now given over almost entirely to the world of human culture and individual subjectivity.

Huxley offers rich descriptions concerning his thoughts and perceptions while under the influence of mescaline, and many times he returns to an experience perhaps best described as a recognition of the inherent inter-subjectivity (to borrow a term from David Abram) of the individual in the world. He frequently mentions objects that surround him in his house, where he, along with several others, is recording his observations:

The legs, for example, of that chair—how miraculous their tubularity, how supernatural their polished smoothness! I spent several minutes—or was it several centuries?—not merely gazing at those bamboo legs, but actually being them—or rather being myself in them; or, to be still more accurate (for “I” was not involved in the case nor in a certain sense were “they”) being my Not-self in the Not-self which was the chair.[5]

Or this passage, in reference to the trousers he is wearing and how his attention has become fixated on a crease in them:

This participation in the manifest glory of things left no room, so to speak, for the ordinary, for the necessary concerns of human existence, above all for concerns involving persons. For persons are selves and, in one respect at least, I was now a Not-self, simultaneously perceiving and being the Not-self of things around me.[6]

The wonderful dissolving of boundaries between subject and object represents a sort of jailbreak from the prison of Cartesian dualism that insists on the rational separation of mind and body, self and other, material and spirit—the organizing principle behind “enlightened” Western civilization for almost four hundred years now.

Following in the footsteps of Huxley, various advocates for the psychedelic experience such as Timothy Leary and Terence McKenna have urged society at large to adopt the widespread use of psychedelics as a means of recovering a primal state of human consciousness embedded in the natural world.

While the use of psychoactive substances may be one route—and probably the most intense one available—by which one may temporarily experience this state of inter-subjective union with the external world, it is certainly not the only one. As Huxley himself admits, considering Van Gogh’s treatment of a chair and Botticelli’s rendering of drapery, “What the rest of us see only under the influence of mescalin[e], the artist is congenitally equipped to see all the time. His perception is not limited to what is biologically or socially useful.”

I disagree with Huxley, though, in his assertion that the artist—particularly the painter—is somehow biologically gifted with an uncommon power of vision to see into the fabric of nature and realize its contiguity with human consciousness.

On the contrary, we all possess this faculty, and it is accessible through many avenues. I have myself experienced the sort of inter-subjectivity that Huxley describes while absorbed in various practices of creation and craft. I have also experienced this by physically escaping the noise of civilization, as John Muir and countless others have done, by venturing into what’s left of the wilderness and reveling in the glory of the light and space and air, and staring up at the night sky. Still many others have sought and presumably found wholeness of being similar to what Huxley describes through meditative and contemplative practice or religious devotion.

David Abram, throughout his writings, has demonstrated convincingly that rapprochement between humankind and the natural world, a condition he calls reciprocity, is possible through a cultivation of sensory awareness that can take place in even the most mundane of settings and requiring no use of drugs or special religious training. He has even shown that the condition tends to manifest on its own in the absence of electrical technologies.

Recounting an episode in The Spell of the Sensuous that occurred after a hurricane disrupted electrical service to the Long Island town where he was then living, Abram observes, “The breakdown of our technologies had forced a return to our senses, and hence to the natural landscape in which those senses are so profoundly embedded. We suddenly found ourselves inhabiting a sensuous world that had been waiting, for years, at the very fringe of our awareness, an intimate terrain infused by birdsong, salt spray, and the light of stars.”[7]

As I write this from our farmstead in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, I am turning over in my mind Clark Strand’s proposition that the only plausible path forward for humanity requires a darkening of the literal and metaphoric lights of human consciousness. He has written that the Dark Revolt begins with an act as simple as switching off a light. Revolt in its many forms is very much on my mind in these early days of 2017.

Bring on the night. I have faith in nights.

[1] D. Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous (New York; Vintage Books, 1997), 4.

[2] C. Strand, Waking Up to the Dark: Ancient Wisdom for a Sleepless Age (New York; Spiegel & Grau, 2015), 43-44.

[3] Ibid., 52.

[4] A. Huxley, The Doors of Perception (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2009), 22.

[5] Ibid., 22.

[6] Ibid., 35

[7] D. Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous, 63.

More Stories & Ideas

Scroll to Top