Dark Wings and Dark Feet
“To go in the dark with a light is to know the light. To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight, and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings, and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.”
Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee writes in ‘The Darkening of the Light’
“We are a part of the Earth and it is through her great generosity that we are nurtured and nourished, eating her food, drinking her waters, clothed in her fabric. Even as we deplete her, she continues to give and give. Her generosity is a lesson for us all. Each morning on my walk I pass a gnarled old apple tree. I watch her boughs become heavy with fruit, slowly reddening as late summer turns to fall. I marvel at how she gives with such abundance without wanting anything in return. Now, in this “season of giving,” if we can remember the constant stream of gifts we receive from her, and be appreciative in our hearts.
As I get older I feel the Earth’s endless generosity more and more, as if I treasure each season in the year and its different offerings, its changing fruits. I know more clearly how I would not be here without this giving. At the same time my heart hurts for the Earth, grieves at the way our culture treats her wonder and gifts, her magic and sacred meaning. And the question arises from my depths, in a culture of seeming abundance how have we lost so much? And for how much longer can we continue this destruction, this desecration?
So during this natural season of darkening my heart responds to an unnatural darkening. My attention turns towards a sacred world we seem to have forgotten. In this silent witnessing it sometimes feels as if the Earth itself were calling through me, imploring me to see, to remember, to feel.”
‘I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.’ *
We are living through an extraordinary moment in history. We are witnessing and participating in what some are calling the Anthropocene era, where humanity’s existence has created changes that will impact the environment of the planet for thousands if not millions of years. Roy Scranton explores what this may look like,
“Within 100 years — within three to five generations — we will face average temperatures 7 degrees Fahrenheit higher than today, rising seas at least three to 10 feet higher, and worldwide shifts in crop belts, growing seasons and population centers. Within a thousand years, unless we stop emitting greenhouse gases wholesale right now, humans will be living in a climate the Earth hasn’t seen since the Pliocene, three million years ago, when oceans were 75 feet higher than they are today. We face the imminent collapse of the agricultural, shipping and energy networks upon which the global economy depends, a large-scale die-off in the biosphere that’s already well on its way, and our own possible extinction. If homo sapiens (or some genetically modified variant) survives the next millenniums, it will be survival in a world unrecognizably different from the one we have inhabited.”
‘I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape ill health.’*
As we approach the winter solstice, a traditional time to go within, a chance to embrace the darkening season, to reflect on the end of a year, the end of things, death as part of the natural cycle, and light a candle to await and hope for the coming light of a new dawn, a new season, a new life, a new year – what can we do to embrace the darkness of a winter solstice for our civilization and for the world ? Scranton continues,
“In the epoch of the Anthropocene, the question of individual mortality — “What does my life mean in the face of death?” — is universalized and framed in scales that boggle the imagination. What does human existence mean against 100,000 years of climate change? What does one life mean in the face of species death or the collapse of global civilization? How do we make meaningful choices in the shadow of our inevitable end?
These questions have no logical or empirical answers. They are philosophical problems par excellence. Many thinkers, including Cicero, Montaigne, Karl Jaspers, and The Stone’s own Simon Critchley, have argued that studying philosophy is learning how to die. If that’s true, then we have entered humanity’s most philosophical age — for this is precisely the problem of the Anthropocene. The rub is that now we have to learn how to die not as individuals, but as a civilization.”
‘I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.’*
Carolyn Baker, who has been exploring what it means to face the end of an era, the collapse of everything familiar, and discovering the resources to deepen the experience of life as we navigate through dark times tells this story of being invited to participate in a solstice ritual with the Hopi,
“Many winters ago I was among several dozen Hopi-and non-Hopi individuals who sat in the dim light of a kiva on a frigid ceremonial night. The kachina dancers, always the ultimate teachers of the tribe, burst into the underground kiva chamber with the fury of the wind that howled above the ground. Shouting, drumming, and blasting their observers with a potentially terrifying cacophony, they began singing about the darkness as a necessary disciplinarian for the community. Certainly, I did not understand Hopi, but these words were later explained to me by crusty elders whose chiseled faces bore witness to their presence in more of these rituals than they could even count and to the darkness and light through which they had walked across many ceremonial calendar years. One of the intentions of shocking the community with intimidating kachina fury was and is to remind the people of their mortality and the reality that the profane perspective (that is to say in Anglo, psychological terminology, the human ego) will only harm the community and lead to individuals forgetting who they really are. As in virtually all indigenous ceremony, the sacred is central—the core of the community and of each individual.”
‘All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.’*
So what does this mean, to embrace not only our own death, knowing that one day this life, this body, this experience, this sense of being ourselves, our identity, that is so easy to take for granted, will no longer be ‘here’?
And what does it mean to embrace the death of a civilization we are embedded in, to witness the destruction and collapse of natural and unnatural systems that can no longer support and nurture life as we know it for us and for future generations? There are those who have given this a lot of thought and they would propose that each of us individually are not stuck in hopelessness – that there is still a sense of agency we can each embody. What responsibility do we have for ourselves and for each other? Joanna Macy says the world looks bleak, so what? The world looks bleak. There is still work to do. That work will look different for each of us.
We are living in a dark time. One could suggest that we are experiencing the winter solstice of our world. Carolyn Baker offers one suggestion on how to act, suggesting perhaps the generosity of the Earth that Vaughan-Lee alludes to, reminding us, as the kachina do in the Hopi ceremony, who we really are. Perhaps singing through the uncomfortable darkness with dark wings and dark feet of our own to those who cannot see…
“Live as if every act, every task performed in daily life, every kindness expressed to another being and to oneself might be the last. This is one way I stay connected with the light in dark times. Walking in reverence, living contemplatively with gratitude, generosity, compassion, and an open heart that is willing to be broken over and over again. I do not always live the way I want to live. It’s a practice, and practice never makes perfect. Practice only makes practice, and if I think it’s perfect, I’m not practicing. Nevertheless, I’d rather stumble in the dark, finding an occasional candle to light the way than become blinded by excessive light. And so in this time of unprecedented darkness, find the light whenever possible, but most importantly, be the light for someone else who may not be as familiar with the darkness as you are. That may be why you came here.”
‘My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.’*
* ( Thich Nhat Hanh’s version of The Buddha’s Five Remembrances )