The Gloaming

Darkness  (A very delayed response to a WordPress Daily Post prompt from about a week ago.) 

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darkness: absence of light; the quality of being dark in color

At this time of the year, when I rise in the morning it’s in complete darkness. There’s always that split-second shock, where I’m dragged out of some light-and-color-filled scenario busily taking place in that alternate reality we call dreams. One moment I’m on a moving bus (incongruously about to pour peppermint tea into a delicate china cup) and the next, I’m reaching out into the cold and dark, to switch my alarm off.

It’s still dark outside while I eat toast and prepare for work, the sky lightening almost imperceptibly, so that eventually  through my kitchen window I can make out the outlines and contours of ground, hedge, fence, trees, and tool shed. Due to the absence of light, my eyes perceive these objects in varying tones of grey, dark shapes against a lighter grey background that is the sky.

Although I know that plenty of people are up at that time of morning, I’m often the only person awake in my house for half an hour, and while it’s dark, it’s easy to imagine that the rest of the world is still asleep and dreaming.

Dark Street 2012

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darkness: gloominess, dimness; night

I am well acquainted with darkness, from years of being an insomniac. Lying awake through the night, you get to know the sounds of your night environment pretty well.

At different stages in my life I’ve felt a comfortable familiarity with my nightly soundscape. In the country town where I grew up, I would lie in bed listening to a deep silence, broken only occasionally by the sound of a truck driving through the main street, the sound of its engine reaching my ears for a surprisingly long interval, as it passed through town and then changed gears all the way up the hill, back on the highway towards Melbourne. Living in the city, I’ve listened to the rhythm of traffic stopping and starting up again at the traffic lights outside my apartment, off Punt Rd in Richmond, a busy main route that funnels traffic all day and night from north to south.

In this house, my current home, I’ve listened as evening noises (dogs barking, car doors slamming, neighbours talking, cars driving home down side streets) slowly die down, until in the depths of the night there’s just a soft hum, so soft that at first it seems like silence ringing in my ears, but then it becomes apparent that its actually the never-ceasing swoosh of traffic driving on the nearby freeway. Occasionally this is broken by a deep, thrilling rumble, that starts, quietly, to my left – in the south west – and grows louder as it travels solemnly across the sky, reaching a crescendo above my roof, and fades as it continues rumbling on, to my right, or the north-east, as a plane descends into Melbourne airport.

I like those sounds, the traffic and the planes; in the depths of the night they are proof that I’m not the only person who is awake.

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darkness: unhappiness or gloom

On nights of insomnia, darkness can contribute to your state of mind if you allow it to. I remember nights where I’ve felt utter despair when the sky begins to lighten, because it means having to get up in an hour for work with little or no sleep, or, (at another time in my life) that I’ll need to pull myself together enough after lying awake all night, to smilingly greet my baby daughter who will wake any moment now.

In the midst of months of chronic insomnia, it’s very hard to find the strength to do what books advise: don’t lie there in the dark desperately trying to go to sleep. Get up, switch the light on, make a cup of tea, settle in, read a book. Turn on the heater, create some light and warmth. Don’t let the darkness defeat you.

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darkness:  murkiness, shadowiness, twilight, gloaming

If we trace our history back to the stone age, we can easily see why darkness would imbue fear in humans – in those days, darkness brought with it a very real and practical fear of the wild animals that roamed at night and preyed on humans.

(Perhaps it was the remnant of this prehistoric, protective instinct, that kicked in when I was a new mother, so that sometimes in the dark of night, when my daughter was a very new addition to my previously self-centred life, I would manage to make myself more and more tense, as I imagined, almost compulsively, how I’d defend my child if an intruder entered my house and put her in any danger.)

Over the centuries, humans have developed and finely-tuned the art of story-telling, at first through a traditional of aural story telling, and then by using symbols and hieroglyphics, and then by developing rich, complex vocabularies. Across history and throughout all cultures, many of our myths and stories serve to embody our fears – in the shape of ghosts, witches, giants, demons – evil, personified into physical forms.

Inevitably, in these stories, evil is almost always encountered where light is low or absent – in the shadows, in the twilight, and in the dark of night. There’s an otherworldliness about the half-light, or the gloaming, that makes the hairs on my arms stand on end just as much as the pitch dark can do.

The contrast between light and dark plays a big part in the Greek myth of Orpheus, in which I imagine the River Styx, and the Underworld as gloomy places devoid of light. Orpheus wishes to bring his departed lover Eurydice back to the daylight of the living world. The King of the Underworld allows Orpheus to lead Eurydice out, on condition that he may not look back until they are both safely back in the land of the living. But when Orpheus sees the light of the Sun up ahead, he momentarily forgets this condition, and turns to look at Eurydice, who immediately vanishes back down into the dark of the Underworld forever.

 

 

Full Moon in cloudy sky 2012 (over Melbourne Airport)

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darkness: wickedness or evil; as in ‘the forces of darkness’

Darkness is effectively used to evoke fear and foreboding of disaster in any  form of storytelling. Take, for example, the opening of this scene in Macbeth, the night when Duncan, the King, will be murdered:

Banquo: How goes the night boy?

Fleance: The moon is down; I have not heard the clock.

Banquo: Hold, take my sword. There’s husbandry in heaven: Their candles are all out.

When light is absent, the benign forces of Nature, present in the light of day, are supressed, and evil has a free reign.

In the Lord of the Rings, the power of evil has created the Ring-Wraiths, creatures doomed to do nothing but relentlessly seek the Ring forever. These chilling presences, neither alive nor dead, invisible but for the black cloaks they wear to give them form, are referred to as Black Riders or Dark Riders. Formerly human, they now live in a kind of limbo; only half existing in the world that humans see :

…they entered into the realm of shadows. The Nazgûl were they, the Ringwraiths, the Úlairi, the Enemy’s most terrible servants; darkness went with them, and they cried with the voices of death

The trilogy makes symbolic use of dark and light throughout – in that epic journey, the heroes frequently traverse through forests covered with growth so thick that no sunlight can penetrate its depths, or down into the bowels of the earth, into caves under mountains. These places are always the abode of dragons, goblins, orcs, trolls, and similarly evil creatures, and the fear that even worser evils could be hidden in their depths. When they enter these dark, foreboding places, I am filled with the same foreboding that the heroes have. We learn, through reading and telling stories, that there is a the pattern to our story-telling, so we know it’s inevitable that when our heroes enter gloomy places, something disastrous will occur.

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darkness: lack of intellectual enlightenment; ignorance

Up until recently, European history from the 5th to the 14th Century was commonly referred to as the Dark Ages.

An implication in this term was, that during that period, which came after the decline of the Roman Empire, there was a period of intellectual darkness, that lasted until the Italian Renaissance in the 14th Century; a period of high achievement in art, architecture, literature, philosophy, music and science.

As noted on Wikipedia, the term Dark Ages employs traditional light-versus-darkness imagery to contrast the “darkness” of the period with earlier and later periods of “light.”

We also refer to the Age of Enlightenment, a period during the 18th Century which saw philosophers and scientists espouse reason, and scientific method, as legitimate modes of thought.

Thus even in colloquial language, a lack of knowledge equates to being kept in the dark, while gaining knowledge will throw light on a matter that was previously not understood.

Throughout history, education has mostly been the realm of a small minority, namely the rich and powerful, while a high proportion of the population has always remained poor and uneducated. In that environment, fear and superstitions are able to gain a strong hold on the collective imagination. It’s a situation that creates a ripe breeding ground for stories that instil fear; and in turn, not coincidentally, that situation creates a handy tool for those in power to utilise to their advantage.

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darkness: secrecy or mystery

The term Dark Ages, mentioned above, used in reference to a period of European history, has a second meaning. That is, that the period was

characterized by a relative scarcity of historical and other written records at least for some areas of Europe, rendering it obscure to historians

In the time in which I write, it is sometimes hard to believe that we can’t find the answer to anything we need to know by merely typing it into Google and seeing what comes up. So it’s fascinating to realise there is a period of history about which little is known due to a lack of historical and other written records. It’s almost as if that period deliberately and obstinately wishes to remain obscured to us.

Really, what could intrigue us more, than that which we do not yet know the answers to? Humans are by nature curious; this drives our desire to learn about the world. Centuries after the Dark Ages, we have a wealth of knowledge and reasoning at our fingertips….and yet for all our supposed modern sophistication, the tendency for humans to fear darkness has lasted through the centuries, despite higher levels of education and scientific advances that should dispel the predominance of irrational fears and superstitions.

After all, who amongst us in 2016, if left alone in the dark, even in the safety and familiarity of their own home, would not prefer to have a light readily available? And be brazen enough to say that it is merely for convenience?

I will be the first to admit it: if I’m home alone, I leave the bathroom light on.

 

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There’s a gap in between

On week day mornings, I am hauled from the depths of some dream or other at precisely 6.45am when my alarm goes off (to the sound of Led Zepplin playing Whole Lotta Love), and back up to the real world, where it’s cold and still dark. It’s early July, and here in the Southern Hemisphere we are almost right in the middle of our winter.

The sky lightens imperceptibly while I eat toast and drink a cup of tea, so that by the time I’m almost ready to leave, around 7.30, you can see outside, although the color is still missing from everything in the grey, pre-dawn light.

When I left my house one chilly morning recently, I didn’t notice the unusually thick, low-hanging fog as I drove to the train station. Perhaps because there was about 20-30 metres of visibility, and that is the range of my focus when driving in the built-up inner Melbourne suburb where my commute by train starts. But as soon as the V-line (country) train pulled out of the station, I settled in to my seat and looked out at the view going past on the embankment above me, and saw a sight that is unusual in the city – only a few metres of shops and houses were visible, and the rest were  swallowed up in the white swirl of low hanging cloud.

Now, I am not good at sleeping on planes, trains or automobiles, but I can occupy myself quite happily by staring out the window of a moving train any time, as I always find it mesmerising to watch the landscape go whizzing past me at high speed. On this particular morning, the view was all the more fascinating. Yes, I was awake, but the world outside the train looked like a dream landscape, or landscapes, racing past like hazy images from my subconscious.

Since I was so inspired by the fog (?!) I scribbled some notes on the train, and those (edited and extended) are incorporated into what follows, accompanied by photos.

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Staring out the train window now, we are skirting around the outside of Melbourne’s outer suburbs, and pulling into the last suburban station before we really have left the city behind. My view is of a strip of dirt, some brownish-greenish grass, and then just a haze of white fog that has hidden everything else. Usually from here I’d see the matching rooftops of suburban houses just across the paddocks, and city buildings even further away in the distance.

 

Foggy morning from train 16.06.02-3

 

On sunny mornings I’ve stared out those same windows across those very same paddocks, and marvelled at how clear and detailed the view is for miles – I can pick out telegraph poles, as tiny as specks, far away on the horizon.

I hesitated, just a moment ago, about whether to describe the fog as white, or grey. From here, its appearance is an off-white, which I think would be on the scale of greys. (As opposed to the scale of creams, for example.) I’m pretty sure if I was trying to capture this color in paint, I’d need to mix the tiniest bit of black into my white paint. Maybe the tiniest bit of black, and the tiniest bit of blue.

As the train rumbles swiftly along, all sorts of ghostly grey shapes can be discerned by someone staring intently out the window, i.e, me. I can just make out some dark, organic, curving lumps hovering in the mist – these are trees, bushes, and mounds of dirt where digging – for a new housing estate or a road – has taken place some time ago and then seems to have been abandoned.

I notice a group of birds – is three birds a flock? – fly into the fog and vanish. The dark shape of something I can’t quite distinguish looms in the foreground – I think it’s probably earth moving machinery, as we are still travelling past a patch where work has been taking place. A bit further on, two dull yellow lights glowing – a car driving slowly down a side road, towards a railway crossing. Then for a while there’s nothing, no shapes reveal themselves. Just the hum of the diesel engine and layers of cloud hiding the world outside from view.

We could be travelling in this train along a track that runs parallel to the edge of the world. There’s maybe 30 metres between us and where my vision can see to – the middle of that paddock there. Maybe that’s where the earth just drops away and beyond that, all there is, is a swirling mass of vapour.

Imagine that: out there, in that paddock, hidden from me by the mist, is the edge of the earth, and beyond it, the unknown. I pretend that’s what the wisdom of the day tells me. How, in that case, do I imagine that unknown space beyond the world? Is it just swirling vapour, or is it a vast ocean, that the earth floats on, as some people thought hundreds of years ago?  Should we be afraid of reaching the edge, and seeing what lies beyond? When the mist rolls in, should we shiver, and huddle close, the hairs on our arms standing up, not with cold, but in fear of where the mist comes from, and what it brings with it?

Of course this is all daydreaming, and when not on a train staring out at the fog, I don’t believe any of the above, but on a morning like this, it’s easy to imagine how people living hundreds of years ago could think the earth had an edge, and that humans should be cautioned against the folly of exploring beyond it.

In those days, when mists came rolling in across the moors, or the fields, depending where you lived, it must have seemed as if they came from that dank and murky place outside of the edges of the earth.

Looking into a fog like this, hundreds of years ago, surely only the bravest amongst us could envision themselves striding out across the grass, disappearing into the swirling mist, and entering the gap that would take them across into the unknown.

 

Building in fog

 

Of course I’m not the victim of such fantasies. All the same, I’m glad I didn’t drive today.

 

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