Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Midsummer and Mysteries on the Moor

Two nights ago I was up unusually late. As I went to bed at 1am, I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was dark. It is easier to sleep in darkness: to wrap oneself in that comforting web of quiet and isolation, but I know that all too soon, the long sunlight will be hidden in darkness and I will crave the light again. Today is the longest day. The sun dips below the horizon only briefly before it makes its way back up again filling the sky with a broad, clear light. In ancient times, midsummer night or Johnsmas was celebrated with fires on the heath. Some people still light a fire although that may be a necessity more than ritual as it can still be quite cold here. Nonetheless, the longest day seems a good time to talk about darkness and the sometimes delicate balance between light and dark.

I grew up in the midwest of the United States. It got dark at night. In summer, we chased lightning bugs. Their flashes were bright contrasts with a black late night sky. After years of living in cities, I moved to a small town in Indiana where, once again, night could bring an all-embracing darkness, at least in one sheltered spot in my yard. For me, this darkness was welcome and comforting. A friend who had always lived in cities reacted with dismay to a place where it got dark at night. That had always puzzled me a bit, but it is at the heart of the paradox of dark--both welcoming and embracing and full of the unknown.

The moors, isolated homesteads, and rugged shorelines have mysteries at any time, but in darkness a different perspective can take hold. The first time I drove home from a friend's house in the dark, I realized just how dangerous it was. The road was carved through wet, mostly unpopulated ground with no shoulder on either side. The small village between me and home would be long shut and the lights out all along the way. If I were to have a flat tire or a deer run out into the road, I would be absolutely alone. It gave me a brief shudder and I hunkered over the steering wheel as if to get closer to the light of my headlights.

The first time I walked the farm road home from a meeting nearby I took great pride in walking down a path so familiar that I walked it easily in the dark. The road was differentiated from the background only by the comparative greyness in the surrounding black. The person who dropped me at the edge of the road must surely have thought I was walking into oblivion. She asked anxiously several times if I were sure I wanted to be dropped there. As I walked I recalled the story of the silver ferns--the national emblem of New Zealand-- and how I learned in a Botanic garden in broad daylight how their silvery backs were used to help Maoris follow a trail in the dark. It was just a fact there and then. Here and now I understood it.

I heard the cattle on either side of the road as they stirred. I coud hear that some lumbered onto all fours to get a closer look. I heard the geese who had settled into the field for the night rustle their wings and wonder if they should take flight. Perhaps one of the barn cats looked on from the grassy verge pausing briefly from her hunting to watch me pass. The light from the lighthouse at Strathy Point was so clear and bright that it startled me, and then I marveled at the new idea that a lighthouse was not just a beacon for ships at sea but also wanderers on land, if there were any. Although it stood out to sea to tell ships where not to go, it cast an un-shadow to help those of us on land find our way. I counted the seconds between sightings of the light. Each lighthouse has a unique signature in the time of its revolution. By my count, Strathy Point is 16. Between the bend in the road and the lights of home, there was absolute darkness with the stars overhead popping out of a velvet sky.

The light from the house welcomed me around the last stretch of road on that first walk in the dark. In the half light I thought I saw one of the cats enjoying the evening air just outside the cottage door where they sometimes reside. A white patch and a pair of shiny eyes were all the clues I had. Perhaps it was wishful thinking. At any rate, I scooped up cat food from the bag in the garage and left it at the cottage door. If not now, then certainly in the morning it will be a welcome treat either for the kittens—now nearly half grown—who seem to be there most often—or to the wandering adults.

I recently read in the local paper a story about a retired farmer, who, late at night, makes his way to bed after watching, perhaps dozing, in front of the television. Through his window in the incomplete darkness of a summer night, a pair of large, golden eyes stare back at him. The eyes are surrounded by a large head and the head is attached to a long cat-like body--nearly 7 feet from tip to tail. The tail is slender and held poised above the ground. The cat-like animal is nearly 14 inches high at the shoulder and when the mouth opens, it reveals large, sharp teeth without any signs of age or hard living. With the practised eye of a farmer, he notices not only the size and condition of the animal but also its behavior. The panther "marched" rather than slinked or ran "as if it knew where it was going" and seemed headed toward a rabbit nest.

I believe this story because the farmer's knowledge about animals is something that he could exercise even if he had been sound asleep. I might have doubted his description of anything else. Morris tells a story (probably fictional but truer for all that) about a man in court who is struggling to answer the attorney's questions. The attorney, in desperation, demands that the man describe his wife. "Oh," the farmer replies, sadly shaking his head, "I canna do that. I ken her when I see her, but I cannot describe her."

Several people confirmed stories about similar sightings. The plausible explanation is that the presumed panther is someone's exotic pet either released or escaped. The big cat is so far behaving as a big cat should--avoiding people (and livestock); and people are behaving as they should and leaving the cat alone. The moors should be big enough for both in the balance between the day shift and night shift.

I also believe that story and the others about sightings in the night because I need to believe in a difference between night and day. Different creatures work on the night shift. With the rich cultural mix up here and long history of habitation, darkness is populated with trows (trolls), pixies, fairies, witches, giants who hurl boulders, and demons who can split giant stones with a sharp crack of their tails, and other things without names. Numerous tales are told of people out in the dark for one reason or another who are held sway until day breaks or the farm yard cock crows, signalling the end of the night shift.

The north shore of the largest of the Cayman Islands shares with the highlands a fondness for the queen and places where darkness still reigns at night. In the darkness of a Cayman night, I have seen bioluminescence: tiny creatures making their own light and stars as they like to be seen without any competition from lights. I have also dived into the darkness of the sea after the sun has gone home. I did not stay long. This darkness was not a familiar one to me, and in that unknown darkness, my imagination sent me reeling. Caymanians have a simple phrase that sums up well, I think, our feelings about workers on the night shift: "Duppies is." There are some things out there that we cannot quite explain by the same rules we use during the day and that is how it should be.


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