In Praise of Darkness (and Light)


| 6/13/2013 2:27:08 PM


Tags: Arctic, Midnight Sun, Far North, Equator, Desert, Labyrinth, Path, Empathy, Tom Dispatch, Rebecca Solnit.,
Midnight-Sun

Rebecca Solnit As in 2004 and 2008, Rebecca Solnit and her blue-state henchwomen and men will probably invade northern Nevada on election week to swing with one of the most swinging states in the union. She is, however, much more excited about 350.org’s anti-oil-company campaign and the ten thousand faces of Occupy now changing the world. Rebecca Solnit is the author of 15 books, including two due out next year, and a regular contributor to TomDispatch.com. She lives in San Francisco, is from kindergarten to graduate school a product of the once-robust California public educational system, and her book A Paradise Built in Hell is the One City/One Book choice of the San Francisco Public Library this fall. Solnit’s latest book, The Faraway Nearby, will be published in June. She was named an Utne Visionary in 2010 


This post originally appeared at Tom Dispatch.  

One summer some years ago, on a peninsula jutting off another peninsula off the west coast of Iceland, I lived among strangers and birds. The birds were mostly new species I got to know a little, the golden plovers plaintively dissembling in the grass to lead intruders away from their nests, the oystercatchers who flew overhead uttering unearthly oscillating cries, the coastal fulmars, skuas, and guillemots, and most particularly the arctic terns. The impeccable whiteness of their feathers, the sharpness of their scimitar wings, the fierceness of their cries, and the steepness of their dives were all enchanting.

Terns were once called sea swallows for their deeply forked tails and grace in the air, and in Latin, arctic terns were named sterna paradisaea by a pietist Danish cleric named Erik Pontoppidan, at the end of a turbulent career. It’s not clear why in 1763 he called the black-capped, white-feathered arctic terns sterna paradisaea: birds -- or terns -- of paradise. He could not have known about their extraordinary migration, back in the day when naturalists -- and Pontoppidan himself in his book on Norway -- thought swallows buried themselves in the mud in winter and hibernated, rather than imagining they and other birds flew far south to other climes.

Of all living things, arctic terns migrate farthest and live in the most light and least darkness. They fly tens of thousands of miles a year as they relocate from farthest north to farthest south. When they are not nesting, they rarely touch ground and live almost constantly in flight, like albatrosses, like their cousins the sooty terns who roam above the equatorial seas for years at a time without touching down. Theirs is a paradise of endless light and endless effort. The lives of angels must be like this.

The far north is an unearthly earth, where much of what those of us in temperate zones were told is universal is not true. Everyone walks on water, which is a solid. In winter, you can build palaces out of it, or houses out of snow. Ice is blue. Snow insulates. Water crystallizes into floating mountains that destroy whatever collides with them. Many other things turn hard as rock in the cold. Nothing decays, and so time stops for the dead, if not the living. Cold is stability and warmth can be treacherous.

mary
7/8/2013 9:17:21 PM

Rebecca Solnit is one of the best visionary poets/writers of today. I feel she is a treasure, one whose vision of this world has helped me find hidden treasure within myself.


larry hudson
6/21/2013 8:17:29 PM

[In Salem, Mass, the possibility of Burning at the Stake would seem exceptionally appropriate...]