NASHVILLE — This year the winter solstice arrives on Dec. 21 in the shank of the dark afternoon. Officially the first day of astronomical winter, the solstice is better known as the shortest day of the year. I prefer to think of it as the longest night of the year, for I am making friends with darkness.
For most of my life, I looked forward to the solstice because it signals a shift to longer days. I was never a fan of winter, and earlier sunrises and later sunsets always felt to me like a kind of compensation for the cold. But my heart has been thawing these past years, watching as winter becomes ever more fragile, its cold imperiled by the changing climate, its darkness by our own foolishness and fear.
With the arrival of LED lighting, which costs so little to burn, every house has become an island of illumination, every city a blazing forest fire of artificial light. In my own backyard, it’s hard to enjoy the full moon because so many of our neighbors now leave their lights on all night long. And that’s without the holiday displays, each one bright enough to guide an airplane from the sky and land it safely in the middle of our street.
This resolve to snuff out every shadow of night — I wonder how closely it might be linked to the metaphorical darknesses of our age. Discord, suffering and sorrow are everywhere, all much darker than any winter night, and the tilting Earth is not to blame for them. It’s not hard to understand what’s really to blame: Media and political figures alike profit when we are angry or afraid.
Literal darkness is simple by comparison, but people inclined to flood their own yards with light for safety’s sake seem not to know how little safety they’ve provided themselves or what measures of actual safety they have closed off in the attempt. They will never know what dangers might lurk beyond their own little circle of light because they’ve created the very circumstances that prevent their eyes from adjusting to darkness.
This is the flip side of Willy Loman’s lament about the loss of sunlight — “The grass don’t grow anymore, you can’t raise a carrot in the backyard,” he says in “Death of a Salesman.” Willy’s trouble is the proliferation of apartment houses. Ours is the proliferation of LED lights. Willy’s garden languishes, and we can no longer see in the dark.
It has become fashionable in fall for people to decorate their front porches with pumpkins of all colors and sizes. In Middle Tennessee, we don’t get more than a few days of true fall weather anymore, and no one I know grows pumpkins, so these porchscapes, as they are called, are mostly aspirational. Less fall than faux fall. An Instagram season.
But the pumpkins are real, heavy and ripe. Pumpkin season used to run right up to Thanksgiving, but Halloween now marks the end of the porchscapes. Apparently taking their cue from the big-box stores, Americans have decided to hang their Christmas lights on the day after Halloween.
It’s almost always a mistake to feed wildlife, in part because feeding habituates wild creatures to our presence. Animals that are not afraid of us tend to come to a bad end at the hands of people who are afraid of them. But I couldn’t bear to see those perfectly good pumpkins, dozens of them, heading to the landfill, so I mentioned on WhatsApp that I thought our wild neighbors would welcome a pumpkin dinner once the pumpkins were no longer useful as decorations.
My human neighbors responded by bringing me trunkloads of pumpkins. Day after day I would find our front bench piled high, and day after day I would carry the pumpkins out back and tuck them up against the fence around the play yard we built to keep our dog out of the wildlife sanctuary that is the rest of this half acre. Every morning I walk down to look at the impromptu fencescape, delighting in each new sign that a raucous feast has been unfolding in our backyard after dark.
The party has been going on for weeks now. Some of the pumpkins have been rolled across the yard, to what purpose I can’t guess. Some of the first pumpkins to arrive are beginning to rot now, but others are perfectly clean inside, gnawed down to the rind. The hollows fill up with rain, a natural water source for thirsty wildlife.
Many creatures in this part of the world will eat a pumpkin: squirrels, chipmunks, groundhogs, birds and turtles by day; mice, deer, opossums, skunks, raccoons, foxes and coyotes by night. Heading out to check the mail, I have watched more than one squirrel spring from the center of a giant pumpkin, rocket-launched from deep within, at the sound of my footfall.
But I don’t know who’s been feasting at night. Nearly every potential pumpkin-eater in the suburbs has been spotted in this neighborhood during the 27 years we’ve lived here, and it could be any of them. It could be all of them, one after another. It would be so wonderful if it was all of them.
Which beautiful mysteries are out there in the dark, living their hidden lives so near our own unshadowed lives? I could hang our old trail camera on a nearby tree and probably find out, but so far I haven’t even charged the camera batteries. Something is holding me back, and I’m not sure what.
It might be fear. It would be a thrill to discover some rare and elusive creature delighting in these donated pumpkins, but the reverse is also true. What if I peered at all the grainy trail-cam images and found only the solitary opossum who sleeps under our shed? What if the only thing I learned from the camera is that most of my treasured backyard neighbors have been pushed out by all the changes in this changing city?
I know that’s not true, at least not yet. I can see the coyotes and the foxes with my own eyes. I see the skunks and the raccoons. Every morning Rascal heads down into his yard to sniff the pumpkins through the fence, and some mornings he leaps back in alarm at the scent of what must surely be a predator. Even so, I am afraid the day is coming when they will all be gone.
So I am teaching myself to rest in uncertainties, to revel in the secrets of darkness. I welcome the hungry creatures, cold and wild, that find their way in the dark to this unexpected bounty, but I don’t need to know who they are. Let them live out their lives in mystery. Let the cold nights hold them. Let the cold nights hold me, too.
Margaret Renkl, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of the books “Graceland, at Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South” and “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.”
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