Wednesday, December 21, 2011

On a Midwinter’s Night a Traveler.

The earth like a gypsy, is always traveling -- a prodigal life lived farther and farther away from the sun. This year, since the twenty-first of June. An annual issue of domesticity betwixt her and the sun, taking half the year to put back to rights. Sometimes it seems that all the woodstove-fires, all the soups and stews and rummed nog are offerings, pleading the sun’s return while assuaging the guilt of our mother. We’re sorry. We’re cold. Can we please come back now...?

And eventually, she always says yes.

Growing up, the winter solstice was a day of rejoicing -- soon, we wouldn’t be doing chores in the darkness anymore. Barely done with morning chores, “evening light” came early, calling us back out again. Heat lamps, cracking ice, 5-gallon buckets of boiling hot water to keep the troughs open for a few hours longer. Then before bed, begrudgingly tromping out to do it all over again -- mom, do we have to? They’ll be alright until morning....they’re animals. But the frantic slurping gulps of goats, cattle, and horses proved to us that yes, indeed, we did have to.

One becomes acutely aware of light living in rural areas. There isn’t much light pollution -- no street lamps, headlights, traffic signals, no ambient light seeping from other houses’ windows or porchlights -- and the pitch night sky plus altitude makes for ideal viewing conditions. My sister has a few college degrees now, one in astrophysics, and when we were kids she sold a horse to buy a 24-inch Dobsonian telescope (which now sits in the cabin’s spare bedroom waiting for her to have space for it again, prompting unsuspecting guests to question whether I am even crazier than they think....“Is that a cannon?!?”). I learned the sky from her back then -- the stars, planets, constellations, and international space station orbits -- and I try to remember it all now. Cassiopeia, The Three Sisters, Orion, The Dippers, Canis Major and Minor -- and our own Milky Way, usually unfindable in urban areas, to my eyes it appears as a solid white brush stroke, as if the rest of the sky has been waiting silently for millennia to be a finished work.

Taken by Erica Block, through her telescope in a cornfield. 
And then there are the planets: Mars, Uranus, Venus -- who never waver in their light. My sister taught me this: planets’ light appears unwavering. Theirs is solid. Sure. Steady through years. Stars however, flicker. As if in their insecurity they must grab your attention to see if they are, indeed, as beautiful as they think. A children’s verse has ceased to satisfy...

My night window is smaller here in the canyon than on the midwest plains. Tops of conifers and their branches reach out, grabbing away, and framing and shaping my view with a scalloped mountain mat, framed in shadowy Douglas Fir. Ironically, I see the night sky most often in the morning, on my 5:00 a.m. walks and runs with Banjo. When the moon is out, his face follows me, slipping behind the most-western mountain just as I reach back to the driveway. As if he’s been walking with me and is now also, home. I watch the paperboard coal sky change with the seasons -- different constellations being put up and taken down, by some giant teacher’s hand. 

And now at the winter’s solstice, slowly, we will get “more light” -- the dying words of Goethe, which are always brought to my mind at this time of the year. Blinded near the end, did he just want more light into his world which had grown dark? Or was it more profound than that, “light” long being a synonym for enlightenment, for peace of mind and soul’s assurance. The world is a much more dangerous place in darkness. What you don’t know is there -- what you don’t see -- what you don’t know -- will, and wants to hurt you. I suppose I won’t truly know what Goethe meant until my world, too, grows dark. Then, I wonder, will I beg for more light, or will I receive it? 

I don’t know. 

But I do know that I will receive this more light with a thankful heart. Midwinter. And yet for me it is not. Another month to go until my canyon’s winter reaches mid -- miles to go, feet upon feet of snow to shovel, firewood to haul and maul and stack, and many words to write -- before the season is done.

And so tonight, the longest of the year, thick in the midst of darkness, I call out, echoing -- more light...


  1. Your writing is beautiful. But i say more dark! I need sleep. Happy Holidays.

    Johnny Utah

  2. Enjoyable reading, on this dark night.
    I have fond memories of lying on the dock of a lake in Maine and looking up. The light show was incredible.
    Thanks Erin.

  3. I too thought of the turn around of more light to come today. Our minds were thinking alike.

    Oh I remember those telescope years...nights wrapped in blankets, bug bites, road trips to star parties, red cellophane, all night drive to South Dakota to see the meteorite showers, meth lab, stars, planets, more stars and a wonder girl and her dob proudly lined up in "Dob" row. Once again a wee girl in a man's world.


  4. I always check my blog roll to see if you have made a new post, Erin. Awesome. Again.

  5. That is a solstice worthy essay. Very nice.

  6. Yes. "More light"--a prayer and a proclamation. Thanks.

  7. Johnny - Many thanks and much sleep. And, Happy holidays!

    Brk Trt - The one astro-image I have never seen are the northern lights. They are on my "life list."

    Regular Rod - More sleep? zzzzz.....

    sgb - We do think alike. And a "Dob"...? What's with the Dob thing!!? ;-)

    Ty - I'm very glad (and honored) that you look forward to them! Thanks, as always!

    Will - Thank you much!

    Jim - Thank you, for reading and for the kind words.

  8. England is so crisscrossed with sodium trails, orange dots of light marching along every road and highway, riding the hills and valleys away into the distance that the night sky is all but lost in the yellow fog, even deep into countryside. These lights seem to lend us a false sense of our own importance - big in ourselves, always with somewhere to go and work to do, but should they fail then we're far from home.

    However, there are places on the coast I know where the lights trickle out to nothing and there I sit fishing on the beach at night, the unpolluted oxygen between myself and space allowing a view of the universe and myself little more than a speck of dust in it and that's not at all a bewildering thing to feel, on the contrary it feels like home as much as home itself.

    Of course I'm always glad to climb into a warm bed by morning when the sky brightens and the view is lost. Warmth and comfort are always calling!

  9. Yes more light will be building..and very soon the seed catalogs will start sprouting in my roadside mailbox .. but hold on there laddie! the deepest part of winter is still to come...

  10. Whilst driving at night across an American dessert, I just had to pull over and admire the sky - no light pollution just stars, it was wonderful.

    As for the solstice Erin, there is a theory that Stonehenge was actually built to celebrate the winter rather than summer solstice. It was a time of great feast and celebration that they had broken the back of winter - next stop spring.

    Keep well wrapped girl, there's still a bunch of cold between now and the first flowers.

  11. Loved it! It reminds me of the poem with the line: "Do not go gentle into that great night!" Good stuff, Erin.

  12. Beautiful photo from the "cornfield"! I could never get pictures that nice but then again I never had a 24" Dobsonian. Living on Long Island with it's several million inhabitants and ridiculous light pollution, I very much miss the countless hours I used to spend, when yonger, veiwing and ponder the beauty of the universe. Thanks for the post.

  13. Goethe with my coffee and morning read. My, oh my.

    Nicely said, Erin.

  14. You need to write a book....just sayin'

    When I read your stuff, I wonder to myself, "Why would she bother subscribing to my unsophisticated tales of adventure when she writes stuff like this?"

  15. Once again a goosebump inducing piece! And not from the cold. I remember the cannon, and asking, and thinking, these Block women are unique in the best sense of the word.

  16. I love being out on the bank, looking up at the stars and wondering..................

    Lovely as ever Erin.

  17. Beautiful, Erin. I grew up in a rural community, as well, so I know exactly what you mean about noticing light--both its presence and absence. We've had days and nights of cloud cover lately in MN, so I'm anxious for another peek at Orion. :) Happy holidays!

  18. I appreciate the winter solstice more every year. There are five more seconds of light today. Change begins. Wonderful, thoughtful piece Erin.

  19. My dear e.m.b...I am sure that there is a book deal on the horizon. A simply amazing post once again! You jogged some memories for me on this one...

  20. Jeff – The soul needs these places, and I’m glad you’ve found yours…even, in a crowded England.

    Penbayman – Overnight we had over 30 inches of snow. I’m still not dug out. Yep…winter is just beginning…

    Dave – Ah, the deserts hold the most beautiful skies. I have heard that about Stonhenge, and it’s always fascinated me. One day, I will visit. :) I’m keeping well bundled, with spirits to warm the insides! Cheers, my friend!

    Andrew – Dylan Thomas. And the great night was not gentle at all…came with a mighty force of cold and 30 inches of snow. Welcome winter!

    Kiwi – The years I lived in San Francisco, I missed the dark skies…I know exactly what you mean.

    Quill – A strong cup of coffee just might be the perfect accompaniment…thanks for the kind words, Quill.

    Nick – Thank you so much for the kind words, and I very much enjoy your “tales of adventure”; thus, I subscribe. :)

    Hart – My mother always used that word, “unique,” when she was trying to be kind and not say “weird.” ;) I couldn’t remember whether the cannon question was you or Eva! I hope one day soon you will be able to meet the other “Block Girls.”

    Tom – Thank you, as always…and there is no better place…

    Emily – I remember that about Nebraska and Iowa, lots of clouds! I wish you a “view” soon, and a very merry holiday!

    Mr P. – Those seconds, they’re precious. Thanks, as always!

    River Damsel – I’m glad the thoughts and memories are flowing…and thank you for all the kind words.

  21. darkness(winter solstice)for me is the time for internal. but, I, the extrovert, rejoice at the return of my favorite star. seasonal rhythm. when living in the tropics I truly missed that. thanks for your reflections.

  22. As we keep spinning, light shall return. In one way or another.

    Great stuff as always

  23. ccorbridge - When I lived in San Francisco's temperateness, I sorely missed the seasonal rhythms as well. Indeed, in winter we retreat and store up, for spring and summer's energy.

    Sanders - I like that thought...and it also makes me somewhat dizzy! ;)

  24. Very very nice. Happy Holidays to the Blocks!

  25. I wish I had remembered those 2 words of Goethe when my father died a couple winters back and complained of the dimming of light... The Winter Solstice is a special time and your essay captures the poetic spirit. Wonderful.

  26. Howard - Thanks! And Happy Holidays to you and yours as well!

    Walt - Goethe's words have haunted me for quite some time now...sometimes comforting, sometimes not. I'm glad you enjoyed this piece, and my condolences to you on the death of your father.

  27. i nearly forgot about that photo, gosh i have a bad memory!

  28. Anonymous...E2??? You took them both! :)

  29. Truly wonderful and beautiful writing.


  30. Hart - Yes!

    Dan - Many thanks...

  31. Lovely essay, Erin! I'm sure you've seen my photo album "Starry Night". A 24 inch Dobsonian? Hah! Gotta love it !

    1. Thanks, Jim. And I will check those photographs of yours out. Cheers!