The Darkest Night
by Bruce Patterson, December 28, 2010
Maybe 30 years ago, back when my wife and I were living “off the grid” (we called it living without electricity and indoor plumbing) up near Mountain House, a friend told me of a tribe of people—I think they were Patagonian highlanders—who navigated by the night sky but without using the stars. Instead of focusing on the stars, galaxies and constellations, war chariots, Greek gods and wild animals, they used their peripheral vision to see the web work of black pathways connecting them. Myself having always been a stargazer—under crystalline High Sierra skies, Mojave skies, Montana skies—I was skeptical because I’d never noticed such a thing.
Yet my friend was well schooled in life’s mysteries and so I decided to put it to the test. It was a hot August night, clouds were about as scarce as January tourists, and after the last of the sunset’s afterglow had gone out to sea, and before the moon had risen, and in order to get away from the glare of our cabin’s kerosene lamps, my wife and I followed a sheep trail to a nearby a point of land. The wet blanket of hot air was stone still and, while we were settled on our sitting spot, we heard the faint echoing chugging of a locomotive pulling a train up the Russian River Canyon. To the southeast glowed the dome of light put up by the town of Cloverdale and, further along in that direction, peeking over the ridgeline horizon, we saw the pale whitewash hanging like smog above the Russian River/101 Freeway Corridor. But north, south and west, the lightless mountains were slumbering in star shine. There was a good bit of sky above us, we looked up, used our peripheral vision and—damn!—there they were: black pathways converging on the North Star.
It goes to show how preconceived notions and unquestioned assumptions can not just obscure the obvious but, by doing so, act as the mother of all human idiocy. Here’s another example: for centuries European sailors adrift in lifeboats died of thirst because they were oblivious to the fresh water that kept jumping into their boats and swimming into their hands. Fish were usually plentiful and the shipwrecked sailors rarely died of hunger. Yet, creatures of their culture, it never occurred to them that live ocean fish are, by weight, over 90% pure H-2-O. So they cooked the fish they caught, evaporated the water out of them, ate the dried flesh, got full bellies and died of thirst.
“Cultural blinders,” the malady is called, although I’m somewhat uncomfortable with the implied insult to horses, them being among my favorite critters (human critters remain my favorite sort). Yet, to be fair, blinders are used on teams of work horses, or on a particularly flighty plow horse, to rob them of their peripheral vision and, hence, their imaginations. Blinders calm horses but, at the same time, make them stupid by giving them tunnel vision. Word of advise: if ever somebody gives you a saddle horse that needs blinders, and somebody else offers to trade you his donkey for it, take the donkey.
Or take the notion that, because they “invented” it, Christmas Season belongs to Christians. To the extent that’s true, it’s only because they stole the Solstice holiday from pagans. 160,000 years ago Homo sapiens distinguished themselves with their capacity for abstract thought; the ability to use their inborn logic and imaginations to solve practical problems, and during all but a fraction of that time they’ve lived outdoors when they could, and indoors when they had to. Whether they were hunter-gatherers, fishermen, herdsmen or “primitive farmers”—or all four at once—they were fine tuned to the circle of seasons; the four great repetitions that blended together like the spokes of a giant rolling wheel. There have been thousands of Paleolithic and Neolithic tribes and I don’t think it’s a stretch to assert that all of them had a firm grasp, if not a precise fix, on the year’s darkest night and, therefore, its brightest day plus the two times when the length of daylight matched the length of nighttime. The land, water, wind and sky, trees, grasses and shrubbery, animals, birds, fish and insects all told them what the season was. To believe that “cave men” were oblivious to everything around them is downright preposterous. It’s only TV Consumer Man that has accomplished that task.
Even when forced to live their whole lives cinched down inside the whalebone corset of needs, obligations, rules and regulations imposed by the senile old rich men of Church and State, people have always found reason for celebration. Drop a coin on a trail, backtrack and find it, and you’ll celebrate that. And, when it comes to celebrating a particular day of the earth year, what better than the one marking the longest night? Having made it to the dead of winter, by golly, it was all downhill from there. For the next six months, every day would be brighter than the one that came before. For six months people would be journeying into light.
So it was only natural that those who wrote the story of Jesus of Nazareth, wishing to keep his memory alive by creating a legend, would credit him with such an auspicious birthday. It doesn’t matter that they had no idea what his real birthday was. In terms of inaccuracy, checking any box on the Julian calendar was as good as any other.
Then there’s New Years Day — how phony is that? It’s like the ancient Roman Christian monk mathematicians that created our calendar were so determined to avoid any taint of “worldliness” that they deliberately missed the real start of the New Year by ten full days. Of all of our “national holidays,” New Year’s is the phoniest because it steals not just from the Solstice but from Christmas to boot.
I found out just how phony New Year’s Day really is the hard way. Fresh out the army and going to JC, I was taking a class in American Literature. My professor was a no-longer-young woman who’d been crippled by childhood polio who — eek — loved poetry. Our term paper was to be about some local current event, and I chose Pasadena’s New Year’s Day Rose Parade as my subject. Ever since I was a little boy and was forced to sit through my first Rose Parade, I’d never been wild about the event. What did I care about Monty Montana and Annie Oakley? What am I supposed to make of shampooed Palomino ponies prancing with ribbons in their hair? Of horses skittering backward, tap dancing, high-footing it and sashaying sideways? Of High school marching bands with swinging bumblebee tubas and mini-skirted teenybopper cheer leaders twirling batons, circus clowns and jugglers all mixed and shaken into a flotilla of creampuff floats floating in the shapes of Pilgrim ships, Prairie Schooners, Indian tepees, spaceships, submarines, bull moose and Donald Duck? I must admit that in my youthful enthusiasm I savaged my subject with my righteous scorn, my typewriter keys steaming. This is celebrating a new year? Who they kidding?
So I submitted my scandalized treatise, my professor gave me an A Plus and demolished my presumption with a single penciled flourish: “You are expecting a function that is outside of the form. Parades are necessarily commemorative.”