Grateful for the dark that brackets the day

We were settling into our seats, my fellow passengers and I, waiting our turn for takeoff. The San Francisco airport was busy and we already had been in the plane for more than 40 minutes. It was late evening on the last day of June. Suddenly, from several rows behind me a joyous voice erupted.

"It's dark outside!"

Heads craned to see what kind of kook we had on board. But I just looked out the window and smiled.

"That was my friend who made the strange announcement," I told my seatmate.

Dorothy and I were on our way home from Alaska, where we had just spent three weeks. It was summer solstice time, so we'd had no nocturnal darkness for the duration of our stay way up north. There was enough outdoor light throughout each night to easily read a book, write a letter, or wander about safely. Somewhere near midnight, the sun slowly and lazily angled its way down toward the horizon, nonchalantly traveled a brief distance across it, then rose upward again toward a new day. It never dipped below the horizon, as I verified for myself when I stayed up most of one night to see if it were really true. My skepticism vanished.

At first we were enchanted by this never-ending light. Driving from place to place at crazy hours on unfamiliar roads was never a problem - we always could see clearly. No need for headlights or flashlights or room lights. No need to curtail outdoor explorations just because of "normal" solar descent. But somewhere between Weeks 2 and 3 we realized how tired we were.

Like small children who resist sleep no matter how their eyelids droop, we stayed up far beyond prudence so as not to miss anything this spectacular land had to offer. And often, when we finally did go to bed, we were unable to sleep in the brightness. It was a shame to draw blinds against the magnificence of Alaska.

One midnight while studying a map at the edge of a lake, I realized that the moon was barely discernible and the stars invisible. Of course, I realized, you need the backdrop of darkness for lunar and stellar glow - like a jeweler's black velvet cloth to show off his diamonds. And the glow of a campfire was not, well, as glowy without the darkness of night.

I thought of all the other night-time visual treats I had enjoyed over the years: bioluminescent fungi and fireflies in the woods, with their eerie greenish glow; bioluminescent algae sparkling in black sea waters with each kayak paddle dip - all needing a stage of darkness for their magic lights.

Nocturnal sounds are different, too, coming from the dark: the rustling footsteps of raccoons and skunks, the ethereal call of an owl from somewhere deep in the woods. Crickets' and cicadas' chirps seem more musical, more distinct, as they come from hidden spots sprinkled like pinpoints in the night.

Summer's perfumed scents, like those of roses, lilacs, and honeysuckle, seem more exquisite when they waft from unseen blossoms in the dark.

The pilot's voice informed us that our plane was cleared for takeoff. As we accelerated down the runway and lifted up into black sky, I pressed my nose against the tiny window. Receding airport lights twinkled, shrinking into specks as we rose. And there, far below us, like a gracefully draped necklace, was the glittering Golden Gate Bridge.

"What's so great about darkness?" my seatmate asked, loosening his tie. He was returning from a difficult business trip, he told me. Somehow my descriptions of dark-enhanced sights and sounds and smells failed to impress him. I reflected on the daily rhythms of light and dark we take for granted in the "lower 48."

"No matter what a day has contained," I thought out loud, "whether good or bad, pleasant or stressful, nightfall seems to put brackets around it, encapsulating that segment of time we call a day. In some way, nocturnal darkness seems to say, 'It's OK to rest now, the day is also going into repose. Whatever has transpired is done. There will be a fresh start tomorrow.' "

My seatmate nodded slowly, with a tired smile. "That could make me feel better."

I felt myself getting sleepy, lulled by the plane's subtle motion. Cabin lights had been turned off. Outside our windows an inky blackness - the first Dorothy and I had seen in three weeks - cocooned our "sky ship." It wouldn't last long tonight, as we flew east across the continent toward dawn. But then, with day's close, there would be darkness again, night after night after night - each followed by a morning when we could say, with equal joy: "It's light outside!"

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