Long Night’s Journey

John Hildebrand

The two-hour drive home from my in-laws’ farm feels longer at mid-winter than it did three months ago even though I leave at exactly the same time. That’s because I’ve been racing the sun – or rather Earth’s tilt away from the sun – since mid-summer and steadily losing ground. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I’ve lost a half-hour of daylight, which is the difference between crossing the bridge at Wabasha and seeing a river as opposed to a darker seam of darkness.

It’s not just the days that seem shortened by winter but my days, so much that the sunrise-sunset chart in the newspaper begins to look like an actuarial table. There are biological reasons for feeling gloomy:  Prolonged darkness decreases the level of mood-enhancing serotonin in the brain while increasing amounts of melatonin, the same hormone that causes bears to hibernate.

The good news is the way the darkness frames the light, makes us notice its sheer variability; as Theodore Roethke wrote: “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.” For one thing, darkness doesn’t fall like a final curtain as the sun dips below the horizon. It’s more like a dimmer switch with four separate settings. Driving east, I see the first stage, “sunset twilight,” as a bar of louvered light climbing the side of a barn. Snowfields go from white to salmon-pink and then a milky blue. Sometime between “civil” and “nautical twilight,” the moon rises high enough to turn the countryside into negative image of itself. And by the final stage, “astronomical twilight,” our car is rocketing beneath a slot of sky that’s become outer space.   

Farmhouses sail past in the dark. Sometimes a face is framed in a window though more often than not there’s only a flickering blue light, the one that wires us to the same waking dreams and makes the night feel even emptier. Between Durand and Rock Falls, I pass a scattering of Amish farmhouses. In daylight, I can tell they’re Amish by the horses in the yard or the row of frozen bloomers pegged to a clothesline. But at night, the windows give them away. Glazed in a thin, yellow light, they’re like sepia photographs in an old family album. The rooms are spare and mostly empty; all I can really see are walls, and yet looking in those passing windows is like looking into the nineteenth century when houses were lit by kerosene lanterns and waking dreams weren’t interrupted by commercials.

The Christmas decorations have mostly come down in the small towns along the way except for a plywood Santa Claus waiting forlornly in one front yard as if for a bus. In the long-ago of my children’s childhood, we always spent one winter night driving around to look at Christmas lights. Our own neighborhood tended toward electric candles in windows or a string of icicle lights along the eaves – tasteful but boring. The most garish, eye-popping, Las Vegas-meets-the Nativity light displays were inevitably on the outskirts of town where people felt less deterred by neighbors or maybe more overwhelmed by darkness.

“It’s a beauty!” our youngest daughter would announce after each gaudy show of colored lights until it became a running joke, the family punch-line to any unexpected sight that livened up a dull trip.

There’s a long stretch of darkness along the last few miles before we crest a hill and spot the electric glare above the city. It’s light pollution, visible no doubt from outer space, and a terrible waste of energy. Still, I’m always happy to see the sky aglow after a long night’s journey, heartened that so many neighbors left their lights on to show us the way home.   

As we say, it’s a beauty.

John Hildebrand, is professor emeritus of English at UW-Eau Claire and the author of several books including The Heart of Things: A Midwestern Almanac, in which this piece originally appeared. It’s used here with permission of the author.