Have you heard the good news? That’s right, the days are now getting longer. When dusk fell Monday evening, it tucked into bed the year’s shortest day and welcomed the longest stretch of cold, starry night of the year. Saturn and Jupiter even shared a kiss as if to celebrate, aligning so closely in their trajectories as to appear a single burning star, something the two have not done since near the end of the Dark Ages. Fitting, perhaps.
Meanwhile, earthlings of the Northern Hemisphere, beset by a pestilential virus during the throes of the darkest, coldest time of year, contemplated dark and light, cold and warmth, and the promise of brighter times ahead. Craig Childs, author and observer of the natural world, offered a virtual version of the 12th annual “Dark Night,” in previous years a solstice gathering of music and storytelling at the Paradise Theatre in Paonia. This year, the celebrated writer created a short film with filmmaker Scott Upshur to provide a virtual way to gather, celebrate and embrace the call of darkest winter.
While Childs had planned for a COVID-tailored solstice show this year, ultimately the in-person gathering became untenable due to rising case numbers across the state. Still, he felt compelled to find a way to continue the tradition, even if virtually.
“One of the reasons I started this show was to have a reason to come together with friends, tell stories, play music and remind ourselves what’s happening here during the solstice,” Childs said of the gathering. “But also so that we’re not alone, so that we can all look at each other and go, ‘OK, we’re in this together.’ And that, I think, is a long tradition. Northern latitudes have so many traditions of storytelling in the winter.”
Stories, of course, belong to an ancient tradition of providing meaning, connection and entertainment, the flame of a well-spun story casting light and warmth on the shadowy walls of the human mind since time immemorial. This is especially true during the winter, and even more important in the winter of 2020, according to Childs.
“My need to gather, to hear stories, is greater this winter than it’s ever been,” he said. “This is not the winter to let go of creativity.”
In the film, titled “Dark Night…Interrupted,” Childs traipses through the darkness of a snowy night, sheltered by a long overcoat as his boots crunch in the resistant crust of snow. An owl hoots softly nearby, unseen. Leafless branches reach up from the ground, gnarled and claw-like, as Childs steps carefully through the unforgiving terrain of a dark winter night, where no clear path forward is illuminated.
“A long time ago, you might have been afraid this time of year,” he says as the film opens. “Who hasn’t felt that fear that the mysterious spirit that drives all bright and good things will go away from us and never come back again?”
Indeed, the darkest night of the year feels especially poignant this year, coupled with the heavy darkness of a pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than 300,000 Americans. Only now, nearly 10 months into the long winter of COVID-19, does the recent emergence of vaccines offer a ray of light, a sign like the tender green bud of an aspen leaf that this darkness too shall pass. The days will lengthen, we will gather again with our families and friends, and the fear of unending darkness will be replaced by the hope, light and warmth of a coming summer.
“Dark Light… Interrupted,” in keeping with its tradition of combining storytelling with music, features the music of multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Beth Quist and singer-songwriter Emily Scott Robinson. In the flickering light of a fire, Quist’s haunting soprano weaves among the beat of a drum and the surge of a 12-stringed guitar. Later, Scott Robinson, softly lit in the penumbra of a cave, sings “The Time for Flowers,” an ode to the cycle of dark and light, the passing of hard times and the need to continue planting the seeds for beautiful things.
“The storms will rage, and the winds will blow,” she sings, “But you are going to find out that you’re stronger than you know.”
Winter, Childs acknowledged, is harder for most people, and harder for him, despite his love of all seasons. Winter may not be the easy dog days of summer, but the brumal call to hunker down and to venture inward may be winter’s gift.
“I think it’s easy to get lost in the short days and long nights, and just the troubles of winter,” he said. “Just to get out of the house, to shovel your way through the road and drive through the ice. I love summer, the brightness and activity. But I’ve also come to love the winter because I think we need this downtime. And while we’re down here, we might as well take advantage of it.”
While the winter solstice officially welcomes the first day of the winter season, it’s yet another fine example of the paradox of life. Winter is here, but longer days are, too. Earth will continue its dance around the sun, cold giving way to warmth, darkness to light. Flowers will bloom again.
“When I woke up this morning, something deep had shifted, the sun was coming out and the clouds had finally lifted,” Scott Robinson sings in “The Time for Flowers” as the film draws to a close. “We’ll hold each other’s babies and pour each other’s wine, and promise to remember that your fate’s bound up in mine. The skies are clearer now, the moon is new. Let’s raise a glass, my friends, we made it through.”