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The Shortest Day

The Shortest Day

Naturally, I'm afraid of the dark. Not so much that I refuse to get up during the night and blunder to the bathroom, or tremble at the thought of camping, or hurry out of the afternoon woods before the long shadows of trees join hands, turning shade into inky pools of impenetrable blackness. But when the sun sets an ancient part of me remembers the prey my ancestors were - recalls a time when survival hinged upon hearing the scrape of claw at the mouth of a cave or the rapid breath of a bear eager to pounce. It remembers the millennia when we didn't rule the night.

Creatures of sight, we fear what we cannot see, I tell myself, rising early on this day of shortest light. There is no blue-grey rim of dawn on the horizon at 6am, only flickering stars, pinpoints of light on the velvety dome of night, tiny frost crystals between us giving them the appearance of motion - light that has taken millions of years to reach Earth deflected at the last moment by frozen moisture in the air. 

Nature's heart beats slowly this time of year in the North Country when we have tipped as far away from our sun as our orbit allows. Rough legged hawks cap telephone poles in the prairie, their feathers fluffed against the north wind, their eyes scanning the endless sea of snow for a mouse who's ventured from his subterranean home, either to replenish seed stocks or, as I like to think, reassure himself that there is still sky above. Windblown tracks of deer and antelope scar the drifts, while the occasional coyote stands silhouetted against snowy sage, but for the most part the land is empty.

My coffee cup, a stainless steel vat approaching keg size, could use a thorough cleaning. I half-heartedly chisel at the quarter-inch of sludge in the bottom, my spoon turned back, vanquished by this sedimentary build up.

"Black strap," I say out loud, like maple syrup made from the last run of early April's sap, when it cooks down three shades darker than amber. I fill the cup with the entire contents of my coffee pot, stir in a little eggnog and honey, and contemplate what to do with the day ahead.

A race, I decide a few sips later. A contest between me and night to see how many places I can visit. How many things I can photograph across as many miles of Montana as I can drive, the only boundaries being dawn and dusk. It will be a celebration of day when night looms largest at both ends.

Few things invigorate me like a journey. It has been that way since I was a young boy, always incapable of sleep in a car, my eyes glued to the road ahead, the principal player in an experiment in the unknowable future where, with every passing mile, the possibility of seeing something new becomes reality. Around the bend. The need to see what lies there has fueled my life more than anything else. 

Not much lies on I-90, the interstate spanning most of Northern America, when I roll onto it heading west out of Billings half an hour later, and, between Albany, New York and Seattle, Washington there are disappointingly few bends. Too straight a course for me to stay on long, but I'll push ahead for now, still in total darkness, chasing night when I've a better chance of catching it than on any other day. With my view confined to the strip of two-lane, an unnatural blueish hue thanks to LED headlights, I think again about our innate fear of the dark.

It isn't just the dark, but for many of us it is the unseen and, more in particular, the unfamiliar and different. We must have walked through hell as a species to fear so deeply what is not like us. Suffered hundreds of thousands of years when virtually everything outside the tiny environment we were able to know intimately and could feel safe in spelled mortal danger. Once upon a time, self-reliance and isolation had to have helped us get a serious leg up. Aided a beast devoid of fangs and claws in its quest to exist, the most important journey any creature sets out on. 

Perhaps that is why this fear of darkness and difference is so easily tapped today. Why it is such a motivator for us to throw up shields or take up swords. Why, when someone points an accusatory finger at a segment of society - global or local - a little outside our narrow realm of "normal," we are so quick to label it dangerous, so eager to see it eliminated. 

I'm neither amazed nor surprised at how quickly we can single out another human being who, save one or two minor differences - skin color, religion, notion of love, political doctrine - is a mirror image of ourselves and subject him to persecution. Persecution in the name of a society safe only through homogenization. As technologically advanced as we've become, our pure evolution is more closely tied to the laws which govern the evolvement of all species, moving at the same pace which morphed grizzly bear to polar bear, better suited for a life in the arctic. The need to feel safe in a world of dangers is as intrinsically tied to our DNA as our ability to walk on two feet. Beat the drum to sound the alarm of threat, and we will fall in behind by the legions. Whether that threat be communism, or homosexuality, or conservatives, or liberals, Catholicism, Buddhism, Islam or Paganism, if we point the finger passionately enough, damning it with adequate charism from a pulpit of sufficient height, we will raise an army of those in opposition.

It's ironic, I think, passing Columbus without any hint of day in my rearview mirror, that the instinct which helped us survive so long ago may be our ultimate undoing. It's not logical, but then, that's the whole point. The whole reason that subscriptions to the evils of difference are so easily sold. Our fears of the darkness, the differences, the things unlike ourselves in even the smallest ways, fly to the forefront without being subjected to any test of reason. They are coded into us and must be held at bay by intellect and measured thought, two characteristics of the human being less easily stirred to action than its primal fears.

Enough for now, I decide as I hurtle by Reed Point, realizing as I do that my headlights' beams no longer beat back the night the way they did fifty miles ago. Short as it may be, day is coming, and under a sky as expansive as Montana's, the pre-dawn and post-dusk never last long. Before I reach Big Timber, the tops of the Crazy Mountains glow a rosy pink with the first rays of sunlight at ten thousand feet. Thirty-five miles further west, where I swing off the interstate in Livingston, sunlight, coming from its most southernly angle of the year, has found the back of my truck.

I'm not sure if the wood ducks I discovered along the Yellowstone River here in early spring will be around now, and part of me doesn't want to look. That part prefers to leave their magical appearance on a gray afternoon in March a memory all to its own, untainted by an unsuccessful search for them today. And yet, here I am, bound to seek things by virtue of who I am, and I see that the wood ducks are here as well, a handful of drakes and hens refusing to move south while there is still a pocket of open water. I don't spend as much time with them as I did nine months ago, but I snap a few good photos - a preening drake, a pair of them cropped to panorama-length on shelf ice, a hen fighting sleep on bare ground, and another drake caught during a gust of 40mph wind, his ruffled feathers blown every which way. 

The sun cuts a low arc through the sky this time of year like the late-winter Milky Way when it spans the heavens, a far-off rainbow of stars tight to the horizons. It's bright this morning, but not high, cropped close at both ends by the night, which lingers in my mind if not in my eyes. I need to backtrack to Big Timber now, but I'll use the Frontage Road - that ubiquitous avenue paralleling our Western interstates, wherever I can.

Part way between Livingston and Big Timber, near the town whose hopeful name, Springdale, I've always liked, I crane my head out the window with my bazooka-like 500mm telephoto and catch a shot of a flying golden eagle. It's a primitive-looking bird, clinging to a fierce dinosaur ancestry with pride, and I can well imagine his up-turned wing feathers sporting claws.

In Big Timber, I head due north, a direction I seem innately drawn to, though I crack a wide smile thinking of Harry Dean in the movie my father revered, The Missouri Breaks, saying, "The further north you go, the more things eat your horse." Yep, probably so even today. I keep smiling until a cloud cuts in front of the sun, jolting my attention back to the few remaining hours before night, turning my mind once more to our fear of it and tendency to shun the extraordinary. 

It was for that reason that physicist, Stephen Hawking, cautioned against our headlong rush to find extraterrestrial life. He pointed to how indigenous peoples have fared here on Earth after contact with "civilization," and noted that perhaps the desire to tame and conform and conquer is present in other forms of life as well as our own. If something has the capability of traveling millions of light years to reach us, he said, it could likely dispense with the human race without much trouble. 

We will make good inroads toward that end ourselves, I think, if we don't begin to better accept each other's differences. It's hard for me to imagine a time more punctuated by worldwide hate and anger than the era we live in, emotions being stoked right here under the pretense of national pride and devotion to safety from the highest office in the land. Fly the flag upside down and prey upon our predisposition to fear, and in droves we will turn against the different. Hell, barely more than 300 years ago, a millionth of a hair's breadth on the evolutionary scale, we were hanging people for witchcraft. We are, beneath a layer of coaxial cables, high-speed internet, form-fitting clothing and comfortable transportation, largely the same beasts today.  

Today, it isn't witches. For the Pakistanis, it is the Indians. For the Hutus, the Tutsis. For the Israeli, the Palestinian. For the Shiite, it is the Sunni and for the Serb it is the Croat. And here, across our own country, the fires of hate and discontent are more fickle, fanned by winds touting unsafe national borders, the sanctity of marriage as defined strictly between a man and woman, the liberal left as the foe of the conservative right, and self-reliance so strong that we forge our own path in regards to climate change, throwing the findings of more than 170 countries directly under the bus of employment fears.

I try, when I need a little hope, to tell myself that the world and mankind is as it's always been, the only difference being now we have an information superhighway making us aware of strife in realtime. We have a media whose ratings seem to move in inverse proportion to the number of positive stories. I know, however, that we have something else, too. Our battles against one another have produced weapons designed to be so efficient at killing that we can now credibly threaten entire countries. Put all of civilization against the tip of the spear if need be. We can unleash a destruction greater than the Earth's ability to heal in any timeline one generation - or one thousand - can remotely begin to grasp. We have the wherewithal to hold humanity in the balance, protected by a notion that we will use restraint.

I suppose so far we have. The Minuteman ICBMs, many housed right here in Montana, where their parabolic-arc flight toward Russia - or anywhere else we decide to send megatons of death - best begins, have not launched. And yet our president carries with him everywhere he goes the codes to call them from their silos should need be.

I was a fighter for years, and I know the necessity of a good defense, but contests of fists aren't won by avoiding punches. That's what I think when I hear the world's eagerness to develop supersonic delivery vehicles for nuclear warheads - means of launching them from high-altitude aircraft where they begin flight toward Mach 10 without a readily-detectable heat signature. Where they can come at their targeted destination so fast and eventually so low to be virtually invisible to radar and certainly unstoppable. They are first-strike weapons. Ones of offense. Ready to deliver the power of the sun to millions of people who are deemed different in some way from those who send it. 

In Harlowton, with the real sun about as far overhead as it will shine from today, I turn back east and begin cruising through semi-arid ranch land - the edge of the Great Plains - loosely following the Musselshell River, avoiding wherever possible a main highway. I pass below steep bluffs where, on a hot afternoon in August a few years back, I found a beautiful lance point knapped from a transparent, Montana agate. Two hundred years ago, this river bottom would have been full of buffalo I think where I cross the icy channel on a narrow, iron trestle. Clearly, restraint hasn't been our most-often played card.

On a dirt road whose name I intentionally don't look at - preferring instead to guide myself more generally - I see a rough legged hawk on a weathered fence post up ahead. With the click of a button, my driver's window rolls down, and slowing, steering with my knees, I thrust my telephoto out into the air. I stop seventy feet from the bird, still facing away from me, and then, as he turns his head and fixes me with a golden eye, get one picture before he lifts off, the farmland behind him entirely lost in the background, a pleasing color of, well, winter.

I drive on, carving the route of a drunk snake, twisting this way and that, the thrum of tires on gravel the only sound while clouds stream fast overhead. On a small height of land, a long ridge separating long drainages, and without the usual shelter belt of Russian olive trees for protection, an abandoned house stands, its wooden siding weather blasted, a jagged hole in one of it's road-facing windows staring like the ruined eye of a cyclops. I stop and walk into the yard for a wide-angle picture then close my eyes and try to imagine kids playing here. There's still a hint of that energy I think, though veiled behind a darker desperation, like blue sky above thunderheads. What I feel more, standing next to one of the prairie's ghost ships, is a resignation to the powers of Nature when crops don't grow and winds blow heavy with dust. I sense that when the family left this home no one looked back. The sound of my door closing is hollow and far-off when I roll away, making no effort to look in my own rearview mirror. 

There is more snow here, packed in the road by a couple of sets of tire tracks, already blueish with the first indication that day is waning. Reluctantly, when I come to a T, I swing right, the direction of where my trip must eventually end. I follow a broad bottom where a creek with alkali banks the same color as the snow coating them in places flows between rounded swells of sage and yucca and then, where the trail rises over one of these hills and, without warning turns ninety degrees, spot the steeple of a church in the distance. It's a place I know, where I once photographed kissing horses on the eve of my June birthday.

There are no horses today, and no indication anyone has been here since the snow. It lies unbroken all around, as pristine as if part of a life-size gingerbread scene. I wonder if there will be a Christmas Eve service here? Candles and hymns giving light and song to the night three days away? A nearby mouse, tucked in a grass nest under the snow, wondering what odd noises fill the night?

I sit in my truck next to this church for a long time. We have forever used religion to punctuate our differences, I think. As the sun walks closer to the snowy, Absaroka Beartooth Range behind me, I am struck by two things. First, a comforting feeling of global connectedness through recognition that in their founding many religions - whether honoring Christ, the Buddha, or Mohammad - affirm a goodness in humanity, espousing kindness for the sake of kindness alone. Second is the more stark realization that across the Earth we have subjugated this message to justify unspeakable evils. Like taking light and tricking ourselves into believing it is darkness. Can there be a greater heresy than to malign our fellow men and women in the name of a god who we worship as good, I wonder? What idiocy is it to hate because one man prays facing east, another to the cross, and still others to the spiritual gods in Nature?

From the Crusades to the jihad, our fear of differences is so strong, our need for safety and certainty and one-size-fits-all so large, that we take the greatest unknowable in our entire existence and wage war in its name. Refusing to acknowledge this innate urge for barbarity resides within us, we push it off on some deity, killing and enslaving and raping and torturing, all in the name of holy righteousness. Who are we - any of us - to judge the fate of another's soul, based not on deeds or devotion or love and kindness but purely on what or who they put their faith in?

Again, enough. The shortest day of the year is winding down, and I don't want my last daylight thoughts to be here at this church. I point my truck downhill and step on it, eventually descending below the snow line where the world rests in muted shades of brown and gray and in the west the sun approaches the horizon. I've got time for another picture, and in front of the cement steps belonging to a home long gone, another tombstone from the harsh pioneer life, position my camera to record the transition of day to night.

What can I do I wonder, facing so much darkness? Be unafraid, I think, for starters. Refuse to allow an innate fear dominance over a rational mind. And keep seeking, too. Keep ferreting out different angles through which to show our world. Embrace the unique with recognition that it is the exceptional and not the ordinary that makes for a beautiful picture and, for that matter, a beautiful life. I'm convinced of it, as surely as I am that if our race has a lengthy future it lies with acceptance and not rejection. We must believe that the collective whole of humanity is worth infinitely more because of and not in spite of our differences.

The longest night of the year is here when my camera stops, and with it a prickle on the back of my neck that says more is unseen now than an hour earlier. But I won't go just yet. I'm going to sit here on these steps and revisit in my mind the wood ducks, the flying eagle, see again how the rough legged hawk bent into the wind from its fencepost perch, listen once more for the sounds of children playing in the dooryard of an abandoned home, and smile thinking about a mouse puzzled by Christmas hymns.

The New England poet, Robert Frost, wrote about doing something similar on a distant anniversary of this same night, watching his woods grow dark and fill with snow. Tonight I think, without the sensible horse he had to question his lingering, I'll stay longer, though the miles I have to travel are undoubtedly, if not hopefully, more. I will stay until all but the dimmest stars turn on, blowing warmth onto my hands, walking the permitter of this foundation when my feet get cold, listening for coyotes to sing or a great horned owl to call. 

That's what I do, and by the time I leave - by the time I've made my statement to the night that I am not afraid - for the first time today something occurs to me. Tomorrow there will be more light. Just before I climb into my pickup, I stare at the North Star until my vision blurs. I wonder if anyone else, somewhere close to this line of latitude, has thought the same thing tonight? I think so, I decide as I crank my engine. More than one person, too, I hope.

"More light," I say out loud. And then I'm rolling.


As always, the photos with labels below are listed on my site, as is the cloud-stack feature picture, "Stairway."












  • Carl Johnson

    I saw this thanks to my good friend Tanya! So glad I did. So poignant… thanks for sharing!

  • Annie

    This is priceless. It’s the best of story, reality, hope and prayer. It’s my favorite.

  • Tanya Sousa

    Jake…. Oh my. This is you at your best and most beautiful. THIS is your soul – right here. Gorgeous. This is not the stuff of blogs, although it’s here today. It’s the stuff that should be in “The New Yorker”. Perhaps you should send it. It strikes every chord that makes the human being sing. Bravo.

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