Afraid of the Dark

As we set out on the trail about an hour and a half before sunset, a singular elderly couple passed us by and nodded politely to us as they made their way back to the cars. These would be the last people we would see for the remainder of our journey. Many other companions, it turned out, would be waiting to greet us along the way — majestic Tule elk, playful elephant seals, vigilant hawks, a fox, several coyotes and countless deer — but no more people to speak of.

It’s something I’ve grown used to, but something that confuses me every time I notice it. Twice a day God puts on a show for anyone would watch it — and yet I find myself almost always alone. Over the years, I’ve made it an active habit to time my hikes to coincide with the sunset. The planet, hurtling through the darkness of space. The Earth, turning unto itself, revolving around a fiery star. The world, waking and sleeping, although we don’t always feel it. The sun, seemingly stationary all day, and suddenly hurtling towards a horizon unseen.

“I don’t understand,” I couldn’t help but say to Tatyana as she walked on ahead of me. “What is everyone afraid of?”

The sunset is a threshold — a doorway that leads us into another world, and perhaps even another way of knowing. “The world is deep,” Nietzsche once wrote, “Deeper than day can comprehend.” Lit by the sun’s ever-comprehending light, we have built a civilization and paved over the wild, moist and organismic Earth with a mechanistic certitude that speaks to our solar fixation. We make much of the world we have erected as our triumph over Nature, but we scarcely reflect on what the sunlight obscures: the stars and the planets, shimmering across the depths of the lightyears as a reminder of our smallness; the reality of space and our precarious position at the edge of a void we can hardly believe.

To look at the sky is to look at your own death…it has the power to draw us beyond our petty concerns and compulsions and temporary goals…The stars expose something deep and true. Scientists and lovers know this each in their own ways. The unconscious shock of a flaming infinity without enables a tangent space within to break free…It is closer to the perception of Immanuel Kant that the creation has a dual form. “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe,” he wrote, “…the starry heavens above and the moral law within.”

— The Night Sky, by Richard Grossinger

Walking the edge of the peninsula and heading towards Chimney Rock, it is perhaps fitting that by far the most special, scenic spots demand that you leave the well-worn trails behind. Signs exhort you to turn around and warn you of danger, of course, but they do their duty and I do mine. Skirting the windswept bluffs and watching the light change, it is not long that the land opens up in a way few places do. Saw-toothed cliffsides rise from the foaming sea like ancient ruins left as derelict playthings of the decadent gods. After that, the land evens out — it flows gently like pillows of the Earth, undulating as if in the wind, bowing gracefully to the gentility of Drakes Bay on the other side of the peninsula. It is a study in contrasts, and the sacred marriage of Nature’s paradoxical tendencies: the Renaissance and the Baroque; Apollo and Dionysus; Yin and Yang; Jesus and Yaweh; the Beautiful and the Sublime.

The stretch of the land near Chimney Rock
The stretch of the land near Chimney Rock; the Pacific on one side and Drakes Bay on the other

As we continued onwards on our trek, Tatyana and I began to reflect at how afraid of the dark hikers sometimes seem to be. “They don’t realize the grace period God grants us,” she said. “The sun goes down but a deeper light remains.” She struggled to find the word in her non-native English. “Dusk,” she finally said.

“Dusk,” I said, and then reflected upon it. “Until it really does go dark.”

“Yes,” she said. “Of course.”

An inversion, of course, happens at dawn. The world plunges deeper into the darkness than at any other time during the night. You’d never know the sun was rolling around the corner; you’d never know the wonder that would rise from the East to cast the darkness away. But then perhaps we have made too much of “light,” with all its philosophic and religious implications. Watching the numberless mice scurry from their holes, it was apparent to me that this was finally the one time they would be able to venture out from their homes without fear of the hawks. Even the hawk, itself, has only evolved its incredible, unmatched speed and eyesight because of the speed and agility of the mice and the rabbits that have co-evolved with them. Without being able to outrun their predators, rabbits would go extinct. Without being able to catch their prey, the majestic hawks would starve. And so the darkness of death have ever urged us forward, towards greater and more magnificent forms of complexity and subtlety. Light and darkness, life and death, each of them arising out of the other, each of them hurtling us onwards through space.

As the sun finally hung low like a calm, flaming lantern, we rested in a carpet of grass that sunk beneath our weight like a feather-filled mattress. Fog rolled low over the hillside like smoke from the extinguishing fire of the sun. Darkness was falling, it was true, but so was something else coming to life. Sheltered in our homes, our houses, our cities, our towns, we can see much with our electric little suns we call lightbulbs or flashlights. But what are we blinding ourselves towards? Blind to darkness, deaf to meaning. The night wraps us in a blanket of sightless not-knowing, but what is knowledge, if not knowledge of ignorance?

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