Ocean of Black
Twenty-four hours after Winter Solstice. I’m craving solitude. The road to the Johnny Gunter place traverses night-struck ridges into the heart of the Coast Range. Rivers of fog flow across the asphalt, drowning headlight beams in formless vapor. Pulling up to the old house, I’m surprised by the instant illumination from a new motion sensor LED porch light, an incongruous piece of technology I haven’t before seen in action. The garden gate is hanging open. Again. A week has passed since my last visit, and deer will certainly have browsed off every leaf of winter kale. Resigned, I shut the gate. The chain that holds it closed jingles the stillness.
Inside the frigid house, I light the woodstove. In a few minutes, black iron becomes animate. Open drafts on the front doors pulse with air sucked in by the ravenous combustion of dead trees. While the house fills with heat, I return to the porch, shut off the new light, and park my over-socialized self in the plastic lawn chair. Silence. The dark tide of night flows in, suspending me in a black ocean. All that remains of four stormy days is a trickle of raindrops tapping the tin porch roof. The swollen creek sings alto from the valley floor, bank-full rush against rock and log rising into the night. Needled boughs broomed by a small breeze become a tenor falling from the ridge. Chorus of creek and wind. Winter song. My aging ears are grateful.
Back in the house. The warmth does not contain my compulsion to embrace the long night. Soon I’m out on the porch, burrowing into a sleeping bag. Impenetrable silence settles over my soul like a poultice, drawing out those years spent flailing against this season of darkness. I used to hang on, keeping a few embers alive that could be fanned into flames by the lengthening days of February. Winter Solstice is celebrated as the Return of Light, that astronomical tipping point when daylight begins to increase. I understand. We and our fellow beings cannot survive in a state of permanent dormancy. Hearts must quicken out of hibernation. Sap must eventually flow. So bring out the candles. I’ll celebrate with you. But beyond that tiny flame-lit circle lies a heaving sea of darkness, full of big energy and big dreams waiting for my attention.
Dawn creeps in so tentatively I don’t realize it has arrived. Douglas-fir boughs, silhouettes backlit by gray, reach toward muted light. As if in deference to the dark, the rising Sun hides behind a curtain of clouds, keeping his pink wings folded. Eventually I’m able see inside the garden fence. The kale is untouched.
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Last evening I dropped a tree over the edge of the world as I know it. The Douglas-fir died in exactly the spot I directed, sent there with a chainsaw and hand-winch. I am not an expert feller of trees, although decades ago I did make my living dropping lodgepole pine around what then were million-dollar homes.
On the front porch of the Johnny Gunter place, I ride the incoming swell of nightfall. The last logging rigs rumbled out of the valley two hours ago. A single robin chirrups from the meadow growing April green before me. Wind from the west draws an iron overcast across the evening sky.
There sure is a lot of sex at the end of the world as I thought I knew it. After a socially distant run on the chip trail, I finish with a sweaty stroll through the neighborhood park, pausing on a footbridge across the small creek. The air has become a breathing thing, ribs of willow and cottonwood exhaling …