Wednesday, December 2, 2009

In the dark


Early dark, long dark nights – hours of dark, dark, dark! I find the dark time of year “challenging,” to use the current weasel word.
The early darkness shuts down on my brain, making it hard to concentrate. I stand up from my desk, because the window has turned distractingly into a puddle of black ice.
It looks like it’s been dark for hours. When I check the time, it’s about a quarter to five. Gee, in only fourteen more hours it will start to get light again.
I don’t mind the daytimes this time of year, and I adore the twilights; it’s what happens afterwards that gets to me. What is it though, exactly, that “gets to me.” I recognize its return every year – that little vampire moment when something awful has crawled up out of a tomb somewhere and sucked something out of me – and thankfully forget about it the rest of the year.
Sunday, a delightfully sunny day that wandered in from some other latitude to show us what we’re missing, I visited the remains of the garden and moved a rake around for a few hours. It was cold or rainy most of the week, so I hadn’t spent much time in presence of living things – or dead ones, for that matter – to speak of. Color is getting scarce in the late fall garden. The pink mums have grown wan and leggy and laid their heads down on the sundial, like offerings on a funerary monument. Nearby a tiny bright red English violet, which apparently failed to receive its North American schedule, has blossomed out of its bright, textured, chunky leaves. It’s a brilliant, miniscule impersonation of spring, surrounded by a sea of brown leaves. I let the leaves lie where the plants and the breezes have contrived to deposit them. A layer of brown leaves is like a winter sweater for the plants that grab hold of them; at least that’s the theory. They won’t break up into soil-enriching humus without a lot of help, so I rake them all off, delicately, in early spring. It takes weeks.
Sunday I removed them only from paved surfaces such as the patio and the driveway, where they don’t do anything any good, and raked them back from our brick and gravel walking paths (though the wind will soon spread some of them back there).
Out front we still have roses blooming on the all-season rose bush; and a few rose buds on an older rose bush on the side of the house are about to become December roses. Meanwhile, on the sidewalk strip the pansies I planted in September are now going great guns, with big floppy orange flowers. Don’t ask the pansies what to do in the dark season; they don’t recognize it.
But what about everything else? What do my perennial plants – the ones I expect to see again next spring, dancing up a storm with a red dress on – do when cold and dark have shut them down for the season? Maybe the can teach me something.
They go “dormant,” I am told. They hibernate, like animals sleeping away the dead-earth months inside trees or caves. They send “nutrients” only to systems vital to sustaining life. In short, our plants aren’t “dead.” They’re well-adjusted.
That sounds like the approach I’d like to take to the deep, dark arrival of darkest five o’clock if I knew how.
Looking for further explanations of what these nutrients are, what this dormant state consists of (is it sleep? do plants dream? we do in our dormant states), and other hidden matters, I come across the somewhat more detailed explanation that plants store lots of “sugar and salts” in preparation for winter, because these substances lower the freezing point of water and resist ice formation. This may tell us something about surviving winter, but not much about the nature of dormancy.
The real question: Is there something going on in winter’s depths, when the ground has frozen solid (far from where it is now) that is necessary for the plant’s health and longevity? Does dormancy revive them the way a “good” night’s sleep undeniably does something for us? (Even though to my knowledge science has never pinned down exactly what sleep does for our well being.)
It seems to me that dormancy – whether in daily sleep periods or the wintry hibernation – is a physical state with a metaphysical purpose. It allows something to happen in living beings that’s essential for change and growth. The perennial plant comes back again in spring but it’s never the “same” plant, not exactly. It’s grown anew. And somehow we wake up from even an adequate night’s sleep with a new outlook, even though it’s the same old us looking back from the mirror.
It seems clear the cold dark time of year serves some physical needs. Winter cold kills some of the bugs, microbes, and parasites that prey on us. The short days slow down our activity, encouraging us to give our bodies the prolonged rest certain kinds of healing require.
But darkness, lots of it, also tells us to go inside our heads. Short days and long nights have always put the story tellers in demand. We sit around the fire and dream with our eyes wide open.