One of my many reasons for planning a vacation in the north for the month of June is to be a part of the culture surrounding the solstice and the zeitgeist of the lightest time of year. 28 years in, I still run at summer the way I did when I was 5. Relieved and open-armed. I can recall two trips where I have been witness to 20+ hours of daylight and the memory of both stirs something in my core. I first noticed it back in 2004, during my first trip to Scandinavia, which included countless camping expeditions in Norway and Sweden. To be fair, all land in Scandinavia is public land and one can camp wherever they choose, so long as it is outside of a determined meterage from individual houses. That said, any time we got stranded or lost (which was quite frequent before we had iPhones), we could basically walk into any park or forest, pitch our 2-person tent, and sleep 4 astride in the heat of summer. I suppose I wouldn’t call it camping now. It was more like (in)voluntary vagrancy.
Since I am relatively nature-impaired (having only really camped on beaches, if at all), I found myself able to ease into forest/fjord/mountain camping gracefully, being aware that there was only about a 3-hour window in which I could get mauled/eaten alive/stung/bitten/etc. with little warning. The other 21 hours, I’d at least catch a glimpse of my impending doom. I noticed a very similar feeling when I spent the month driving to Alaska in May/June of 2007. Only it wasn’t so much about camping survival as it was about highway survival (if you read the archives, you will find many reasons for not camping enumerated therein). The north is a big, barren place and even within the protective confines of a car, you are ever aware of the many things that could go wrong. For instance, you could go 200 miles and not see a gas station on the ONLY highway to the Yukon. It was also easy to recognize that the good citizen-to-sociopath ratio was extremely out of balance up in the middle of nowhere (and us with not a firearm, but 3 cans of bear spray and a shiv). The incredible amount of daylight allowed for safer driving conditions and in turn a greater ability to get where we needed to go.
As I sit here in the waning hours of daylight in Copenhagen (it is midnight, by the way), I’m struck by a familiar feeling that has both elated me in the summer and plagued me in winter. A feeling of immense sadness and loneliness that exists in varying degrees whenever the sun goes down. It is contingent upon time of year, weather, and relationship status, but it is always there in some degree or other. It is not a fear of the dark, per se, but an awareness that I tend to bear the weight of nighttime more than others I know. This is not to say that no one out there understands; I just happen to have numerous artistic friends who feel nurtured and productive in the wee hours, creating masterpieces amidst the uninterrupted peace, and/or finding solace and introspection in the pervasive silence. And I simply cannot relate.
I suppose in the past my relationship with night and darkness has been a bit complicated. One of my earliest memories as a child happened to coincide with what I believe to be my only experience with night terrors. The parties involved were one 3-year old Rachel Demy, one poster of Mickey Mouse from the Sorcerer’s Apprentice (holding a ball of light, if you can recall), and one strange green glow on my pillow. I can’t say for sure what I saw, but I can tell you for certain that I scared the shit out of my parents with my screaming. And I wouldn’t stop until I watched my dad take the poster off the wall, rip it into tiny pieces, and throw it into the dumpster. I was witness to all three steps, just to be 100% certain.
I also grew up in a socially-open-minded-yet-highly-religious household. The combination is a bit confusing as I look back but what sticks out as a consistent topic of conversation (probably because I was way curious) was all things relating to the occult, ghosts, and general things-that-go-bump-in-the-night. I am also related to a few people who are pretty in tune with those entities. Listen, I’m an adult and as I’ve said above I’m not scared of the dark. But when you get a group of adults talking about strange experiences involving the other side, not many people want to hang around for that conversation if there is an ounce of belief in the other side’s existence. It is what makes scary movies scary – if you don’t believe at least a little, then you cannot relate and probably cannot be scared by them. Well, I do believe and I decided years ago to close myself off from firsthand experience. The power of suggestion during the day can become exponential in the middle of the night. I thought for simplicity’s sake, I’d just draw a big fat line in the sand between this world and that world. Done. Easy.
It has really only been in the last 150 years that man has decidedly ventured out after dark and attempted to be productive. Living in caves, night time meant getting eaten by a mammoth or at the very least mauled by a saber-toothed cat. In a societal sense, venturing out after dark was conducive to sin and ultimately one would pay for it in the fields the following morning when the sun rose. Once man grasped the basic fundamentals of industry, the natural-seasonal-human element associated with the passage of time began to drain away. And soon after, man became machine… Or at least that was and still is the expectation.
I have just never been able to make peace with that. Call me un-evolved, but I feel in my heart that when the sun goes down, so does the work. The lights come on and so does the stove. If the bears get to hibernate in December, then so do I. And if there are 20 well-lit hours of the day, they will be used and relished. Night is a wonderfully symbolic demarcation of a day and a life cycle – every day a small death and then a rebirth. It is also a time to embrace (and face) everything the darkness embodies and feeds, honoring the necessary darker sides of our nature. I ask myself every day if it is not the night but what night represents in me that makes me anxious and I have never really been able to give myself a straight answer – I don’t think there is one. I answer the question with another: Would I be an evolving, self-aware human if these dark facets of the world, humanity, and my subconscious didn’t make me a little nervous? I mean, it’s pretty scary stuff and this modern world willingly hands us distraction after distraction so we never have to face the scary stuff. I ask you all, might it be more inhuman to never recognize, much less fear these age-old dark corners of our existence, illustrated so emphatically in something as simple as dusk? I think so. If it was good enough for my ancestors, it is definitely good enough for me.
It only seems fitting to draw inspiration from the Danish midsummer celebrations happening outside the apartment window – bonfires on the water, songs in the air, friends all around. I want to give a special thank you to the Scandinavian summer for keeping me safe in so many ways. Tillykke Sankt Hans Aften!