In the Dark

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I’m reading a book called A Story like the Wind, by Laurens van der Post. If you are unfamiliar with Laurens van der Post, as I was until I was given this book and several others by him, it’s hard to explain who he really was. During his life he was an Afrikaner, author, farmer, conservationist, philosopher, humanitarian, journalist, educator, war hero, prisoner of war under the Japanese, Commander of the British Empire, explorer, advisor to multiple British prime ministers, and a friend of many talented and famous people, from Carl Jung to Prince Charles. After his death, people raced to tear down the image, as people love to do, and he may or may not have “embellished” the truth in some of his memoirs and travel books, and he may or may not have fathered a child by a fourteen year old ballerina who was in his care while he was in forties.

For the first, I would point out, as my mother frequently did, that absolute truth should never take precedence over a good punch line, and then go on to quote Mark Twain speaking of himself in the voice of Huck Finn: “That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied one time or another…”

And for the second, if it is true—and it may well be, for he was, by all accounts, a man with a powerful weakness for ladies—I would quote Jesus: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone…” An admonition that, God knows, will save my pitching arm a lot of wear and tear.

Whatever the truth, he was an extraordinary man who clearly admired and did his best to help indigenous people in his native South Africa, primarily the San—or Bushmen—of the Kalahari desert, believing they had a spiritual identity and connection to the earth that civilized man has lost to… Oh, where to start? Technology, arrogance, competitiveness, bloodthirstiness, greed, laziness… The list goes on. Certainly it is true that the more we insulate ourselves from nature, the more we lose our understanding of certain phenomena that may be spiritual, or even our ability to recognize those phenomena, and that theme runs through van der Post’s writing.

(To give you an idea of the extent of disconnectedness between what we laughingly refer to as “civilized” man and “primitive” man, I saw in South Africa many years ago, an old hunting license from around 1900 that included in the permissible bag, two lions, two buffalo, one rhinoceros, two Bushmen, four springbok, three wildebeest… As casually as that.)

But what caught my eye the other night, during the insomniac hours, was a passage where François, the young protagonist of A Story like the Wind, walks outside into the “…impact of African night which one still believes to be the greatest of all the many forms darkness can assume on this insignificant planet.”

As it happened, shortly after reading that, my eyes became too tired to read any more, and I switched off the light and wandered around in the dark that is not dark, and was struck by the absence of darkness we live with and take for granted: the many lights of houses and small ranches scattered around the valley; the school on the far side where the road comes down the hill; the ambient light from the town over the hill; more ambient light from a small community at the far end of the valley; the faint green light of the clock/timer on our stove; the green lights of the smoke detectors; the flashing blue lights of the sleeping computers; the hideous round chartreuse glow of the alarm clock’s face;  the faint yellow glow of a light switch; the bright red of an electrical strip; a cacophony of light that makes a lie of any thought of dark.

If you’re a certain age, and were lucky enough to have grown up in the country, think back to what dark was like once. I can remember a blackness so complete, so absolute, that I relied on my own hearing, like a bat, to know where I was and what obstacles I had to avoid. As an adult I have been lucky enough to experience that complete absence of any artificial light that makes starlight almost painful to look at. A small island off the coast of Kodiak Island in Alaska (where a trip to the outhouse at night in brown-bear country was made a lot less unsettling by the presence of a hundred pound Chesapeake Bay retriever); deer-hunting camps in the mountains of Colorado and Utah; mountaintops in central Nevada in the heart of the Great Basin, the single most light-free area in America on those satellite maps done at night, like the one above; the mountains of Sonora, Mexico; a small sailboat during a night passage in the Caribbean; a hunting camp in the bush in South Africa (where the professional hunter assured us the lion we heard was about a mile away even though he sounded as if he were in my tent); a camping trip in the mountains of northern Vermont; a beach on the Skeleton Coast, south of Walvisbaai in Namibia; a hunting camp in the Kalahari (where I had to sleep with a revolver under pillow because a leopard had been making a nuisance of himself); and once, long ago, a deck passage on a small freighter in the Aegean, where it was possible to see the world very much as Ulysses must have seen it. It’s still possible, occasionally, in certain places, to experience the world as it was from the beginning of time until very recently, but it’s getting harder, rarer, more to be cherished.

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