Praise Songs I—VII

WHEN  DARKNESS  TURNS
UNEXPECTEDLY  TO  LIGHT

I. Glowworms

Late one evening in early summer, Frank and I sat in gathering dampness and dark, having just doused the fire where we had cooked dinner. We were on the western side of our meadow, near the oaks, looking into the swale where night collected first. Right there, at that bend in the landscape where the flat darkness of the meadow angled into the vertical darkness of the trees, I began to see clusters of tiny lights. They were unmistakably lights, although I doubted myself at first. They looked like constellations of stars in some sky I had never known, but why wouldn’t there be strange skies that would reveal themselves at certain cosmic moments, pulling back the curtain of the forest duff?

I whispered to Frank, “Do you see that? By that alder?” “I do.”

We crept toward the swale, but as it turned out, we didn’t need to have worried that we would set these stars to flight. The stars were the tail-ends of small grub-like things with black beetle backs and fleshy abdomens that glowed with cold light. We stood in the dark at the edge of the field, with dirt and soft-bodied stars in our hands.

There have been times in my life—I’ll just say this straight out—there have been many times in my life when darkness turned unexpectedly to light. I would sing praise songs to these small eruptions of light. Praise songs, which are hymns, hymnos, which are psalms, psallein, which means plucked. Thousands of years ago, the plucking of the harp accompanied songs of praise. Pictures of the harps survive, as do many of these psalms, with cantillation signs indicating how to sing the songs, or with musical directions in superscripts: With stringed instruments, or A song of love according to the melody of lilies.

I would sing a song of praise for . . .

“Douglas-fir glowworms,” Frank said that night. “I have heard of these. Luciferin causes the glow. Luciferin and luciferase, the enzyme that acts on it,” and there was no reason to doubt him. Even when I asked why, the answer was forthcoming. “To attract males,” Frank said. And why are males attracted to light? Because that’s where they find the females.

Now, I love Frank, but this is not an answer. Maybe he didn’t understand my question, which (as I think about it now) must have been, why is it so beautiful? There is necessary beauty in the world, I understand this. Beauty to attract mates, to attract prey, to attract pollinators. But so much of beauty seems to be bycatch, “unnecessary beauty,” waste products of essential processes. The opalescence of the inside of an oyster shell, a rainbow around the moon, a baby’s dreaming smile. Profligate beauty is a mystery to me. Sing praises.

II. Beavers

What becomes obvious, paddling a canoe in the middle of the night, is how many different kinds of darkness there are in the world.

There’s the furry darkness of spruce trees that mass at the side of the marsh. There’s the slick black of the water itself, shining and smooth as the hood of a Buick. The night sky is dark like cracked leather. In darknesses like these, a paddler’s back is going to be tense, ready to respond if the bow skids off a hidden log or plows into reeds. Of course I told myself not to flinch. Nothing will dump the canoe, I told myself, except your own fear, flinching. I pulled the paddle slowly along the gunwale, lifted it, pulled it again. Black water moved through the shadow of the boat. Then, right here, at the bow, a tremendous thud, like a rock heaved into the marsh. The water lifted.

It was a crown of white flames, I told Frank later, but cold. Created from dark water, it was a circlet of cold fire that could fit on a queen’s head, something you would see on the cover of a cheap fantasy novel, but without the sword. “Darkness doesn’t really turn to light,” Frank said then. “It’s a dark surface reflecting light from another source. Darkness doesn’t set out to shine.”

But maybe it does. How else can we understand why there is anything at all, except to say that at one astonishing moment, an infinitesimally small point of utter darkness set out to shine. And that is the only reason why Victor Hugo could truly write, “There is no such thing as nothingness, and zero does not exist. Everything is something. Nothing is nothing. Man lives more by affirmation than by bread.” Sing praises.

III. Parkas

Winter. Ten degrees below zero in our camp in the Rockies. Clear, starry night. Frank and I had climbed into our sleeping bags early, wearing every article of clothing we brought. Silk long underwear, fleece shirt, down vest, wool muffler, down parka. Gradually, though, my sleeping bag warmed up until I was sweaty hot in all that stuff. Groping for the zipper, I wormed out of my down jacket, trying not to let in cold air. When I dragged the jacket out of the sleeping bag, it sparked and snapped, shooting stars into the dark. Excited, I pulled the jacket back in again. More crackling sparks. I stripped my muffler out of the sleeping bag. A river of sparks.

“Hold still, will you?” Frank said. “You’re letting in the cold.” But I pulled off the jacket, pulled it on again, struggling, wiggling, rubbing silk on nylon, until the whole dark tent shot sparks. It would be reasonable to think that the tent smelled like fireworks, but it smelled of ice on the needles of alpine firs. Sing praises.

IV. Spiders

If you want to know how dark a trail can be, try walking a jungle trail at night. The group of us had followed a flashlight to the edge of the river. With the lights doused, we crouched like crows, jerking our heads toward each chirp and squeal and sudden shout from the shadows. But it was too dark, much too dark to see anything. I don’t know how much time went by. My eyes ached, trying to see—do eyes ever bleed with this trying?—and the muscles in my back crawled. “Can someone turn on a flashlight?” Frank flipped a switch. The beam found a tangle of lianas. The vines were full of eyes, pinprick silver eyes, all of them looking at us. Eyes, like a thousand tiny coyotes. Paired eyes, all staring. “They’re spiders,” Frank said. “We’re seeing the eye-shine of spiders.” The spiders stared at us, and we stared back. Can’t spiders blink, for god’s sake?

If spiders were to turn a flashlight on us, we would not return their silvery stare. Human eyes at night are blank dark pools, taking it all in and giving nothing back. Fish eyes shine white, horse eyes shine blue, raccoons’ green, coyotes’ red. But humans’? Flat-black, felted, obscure: like the dark matter of the universe, soaking up the light of the stars. Sing praises.

V. Lightning

On a night tinged at the edge with red, we pushed the canoe through tule reeds on a mountain lake. Our movement startled a red-winged blackbird that chirped and rustled the reeds. Pushing past a stick, the canoe squeaked. Then the lake went dead quiet. There had been fires in these lodgepole forests, and the full moon was as rusty as a wreck. From the hills around the marsh, we heard rumbles from distant lightning, and we stopped our paddles to listen, rocking in the ruddy dark. Then, suddenly, the darkness broke open in a jagged white crack that ripped from the hills to the crest of the sky. Astonishment, a sharp blow to the mind, lit everything with unexpected light, and all the world suddenly came clear. A blast of thunder rolled over the lake, engulfed us, and roared away to the east. Then there was nothing but that dark red silence—and a spot of fire burning like a candle-flame in the top of a pine on a ridge across the lake. It began to rain. Sing praises.

VI. Bluegills

So there is this. Many decades ago, I was floating on my back in an Ohio quarry. The sky was purple, the water was warm, and the moon was milky white. I don’t know what lie I had told my parents, that I was allowed to swim here in the dark. I do remember thinking I could sleep here, floating, and I tried to make myself as still and insubstantial as a dream. But a bluegill rose under me and nipped my leg, and I changed my mind and floated upright, with my head out of the water mostly, and my legs pumping to turn me round and round, so I could see the dark weed bed, then the beams of headlights through the maples, then the black forest. What happened next, I couldn’t explain at first. A point of light popped on the glossy black water, and concentric rings spread from that point, expanding and glossy. Then another point of light rose and sent out its rings, and another—all around me, expanding rings of light. The rings swirled and coalesced, then spun away, twisting off new galaxies of light.

Thinking about it now, I imagine it was bluegills, rising to sip insects, disturbing water that caught the light of the moon. But back then, I thought, this looks like simulations I have seen of how the universe began, these expanding rings of light. I am floating in the middle of the Big Bang, which is quieter and gentler than I would have thought. Sing praises.

VII. Jellyfish

Night had fallen faster than we expected on this desert island, so we were forced to find our way back to camp by following the water along the beach. This was not as easy as it might seem. I stumbled, and before I caught myself, I had splashed into the sea. Damn, because sneakers soaked in saltwater will never dry. But look. In the disturbed water, small lights bobbed along like luminous coracles.

I swept my foot through the water. All around the floating shoelaces bobbed a flotilla of white lights. “Jellyfish,” Frank said, bioluminescent jellyfish. The lights throbbed by, pulsing as slowly as a sleeping heart. Do these jellyfish have minds, or are they the mind of the ocean? I must have said this aloud, because Frank turned to me. “Minds? Jellyfish don’t even have brains,” he said.

They have a neural network, a hairnet of nerves in the shine of the jelly. Something touches the jellyfish—maybe a surge of water, or a shoelace— and a nerve fires, then others, all around. The nerves flip from a high level of energy to a lower level, and the excess energy flashes out as light. So. It’s awareness of a touch that lights up the jellyfish, I remember thinking. We are watching the awareness of a jellyfish pulse and glow in the saltwater of a shallow bay.

Never mind about camp. I pulled Frank down onto the beach, lay my head on his shoulder. Unseen jellyfish flowed through dark shallows. The Milky Way flowed through galaxies. And flowing between us? I like to think it was the same infinite stream of awareness, throwing sparks. Sing praises.

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