"Even the darkness is not dark to you."
"The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it."
The Gospel of John
"Hello darkness my old friend."
December is dark. Days are short and the nights are long. And the dark nights get my attention. They spur memories of other dark nights. I'm not thinking about "dark nights of the soul"—as real as those can be. I'm just thinking about dark nights—and how we sometimes react to them.
I have many memories of nights alone in the wilderness. It's not always easy for me. My tent seems so small and the night is, well, so big. And long.
One night, deep in Olympic National Park, I was dreaming vividly of a Mountain Lion moving carefully around my tent. The dream had that real life quality built around natural anxieties of a dark night, alone in a dark tent. At one point, sensing that the big cat was nosing against my tent wall, I let out a guttural scream and pounded the nose I was certain was pushing through my tent. Naturally my scream woke me up. In the dark and in my sleep fog I was unclear that I had been dreaming, and so I poked my head outside my tent, scanning the small beam of my headlamp around me.
But there was now a second tent in my remote spot. Clearly some other travelers had arrived after I had settled into sleep and set up camp in the dark. "Ah, that's the noise I heard." And I zipped back into my darkness.
The next morning I was sharing coffee with my new neighbors. They described their late start the day before, how they were so relieved to see another tent in the light of their own headlamps. They were exhausted after too many miles on the trail, and they were worried they wouldn't find a place to camp now that the sun was long set. So once they spotted my tent they simply put up their own and crawled into their cocoons. I told them I hadn't heard them arrive and was certainly surprised to see them—and glad. Strangers can quickly become friends when they meet deep in the backcountry.
But then they asked me if I thought there were any Mountain Lions in this area. This was new territory for them and they were worried about what they didn't know. "Sure," I said. "They're here. But they are so rarely seen."
"Well, there was one around this campsite last night." They were certain of that.
Suddenly the vivid memory of my dream turned into reality. I wasn't dreaming! There was something nosing around in the dark!
I asked if they had seen it and they said they hadn't—but they heard it clearly, unmistakably. They described how, just after they had zipped in, they heard a tremendous, guttural roar. It was clear and loud and frightening, and they were amazed I hadn't heard it. They told me how they took turns sleeping the rest of the night—so that at least one of them could be awake to listen for the approaching predator. "Wow," I thought. "That Lion was right outside my tent!"
The three of us wandered around a bit that morning, as we packed up our tents in the warming light of another day, and we looked for prints and scat or any other sign of our nighttime visitor. We found none. And then, of course, it slowly dawned on me… there was nothing prowling our campsite that night. The "roar" they heard was me, dreaming and then roaring awake.
Yes, darkness, and being alone in the dark, so often unsettle us. It's a natural part of the human experience. And, even when the dark frightens me, I'm grateful for it. As simple and even cliched as this sounds, long dark nights in remote places, and the long dark nights of December, remind me of my place, our place, in the Universe. I am not as big and bright as I would like to pretend I am. Wild, wilderness nights can be wonderful teachers. Sitting beside a high alpine lake, as the stars of a moonless sky reflect in the glass of the lake itself, I remember that there is Dark, and there is Light, and God called them both Good.