I’ve always loved darkness. I know, what a shocking confession. Ever since I was old enough to have an aesthetic preference, I’ve felt a gravitational pull towards all things fall and winter: fashion (structured), music (heavy), food (hearty), drink (mulled) and activities (reading William Blake in pale moonlight). It’s not that I don’t like summer; I just never feel truly at ease until the air develops a bite and darkness covers the Earth.
Actually, that’s not entirely true — not in my adult years anyway. My relationship with the darkest season has definitely grown more complicated as I’ve grown older. Reader, for this I blame capitalism.
Getting into that fall groove used to happen organically back when I would routinely hang out at underground wine bars at 1 AM on a Wednesday, debating the relative merits of French existentialism vs. German phenomenology or Hercules vs. Xena. That all changed the moment 9 to 5 happened. Life suddenly became something that needed to be crammed into specific hours of the day. Darkness became more tiring than soothing.
I actually do not have a problem with 9 to 5 per se. I find it far preferable to the life of a freelancer where you’re never not working. I even like work itself! I just don’t like what it’s done to my appreciation of the darkest season. It’s quite shocking, as a sworn denizen of the night, to discover that what used to give you life is now giving you SAD — both the mood and the actual disorder.
In recent years, my saving grace during these long gloomy months has been our annual mid-winter trip to my husband’s home city of Lyon, France. The December sun there has a soft, tender quality that feels like actual heaven when all you’ve known for so long is the Baltic-Nordic darkness.
All this has led me to wonder how much of our society’s general disdain for the darkest season (I realize I’m in a minority for professing even little love for it) is actually about how our society is organized. If pagans have their traditional wheel of the year, so does Western capitalism — and it has inexplicably decided that the darkest and busiest period of the year should coincide.
Look at the work program of any contemporary business or organization and you’ll find the last quarter of the year packed with more stuff, from product launches to PR events, than any of the other three.
If this isn’t counterintuitive, I don’t know what is. The fall semester is considerably shorter than the spring semester. The days are shorter, too. Yet we’re expected to work harder than at any other time of the year, powered by caffeine, vit D supplements and company-sponsored mindfulness classes (that do not even count as working time because they have us convinced that it’s “for us”).
It seems clear that darkness = awesome, but darkness + capitalism = slow death. I’ve tried to come up with an alternative and I think I’ve found it among — wait for it — the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast. I’m aware that I’m about to commit a rookie anthropology mistake by setting an indigenous way of life on a pedestal only to knock down our own crass and soulless culture, but calm your khakis, fellow anthropologists. I’m writing a fluff piece for my personal blog here, not a PhD.
Here’s the deal: the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast — or more specifically the Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian and Kwakiutl — work in summer and play in winter.
This was my main takeaway from The Gift, a classic ethnography by Marcel Mauss and first anthropology book I ever read as an undergrad. In late spring, these semi-nomadic tribes disperse in the wilderness to hunt, fish and gather berries, only to return to their settlements come winter. The darkest season is basically a non-stop party characterized by ritual gift-giving (this can turn a little messy when social hierarchies shift, but let’s not focus on that). All work and accumulation of wealth throughout the preceding months has been building up to this moment.
I know what you’re saying: “But Noora, surely you aren’t saying that we should model our own society after these indigenous cultures! Not only is it completely unrealistic, we can’t possibly declare winter the new summer because that would mean we’d have to work in summer, and who wants that!”
First, I must challenge your assumption that it cannot be done. Just this year, EU voted to scrap daylight saving time from 2021. What started as a controversial idea of some farmers decades ago became a mass movement that finally gained momentum in the highest political level. Considering the time and effort it took to get there, you’d think the anti-DST folks were calling for an overhaul of the entire Western concept of time and economic activity. So why not take it as encouragement to actually overhaul the entire Western concept of time and economic activity?
Second, there are actually many benefits to working through the summer that we tend to not acknowledge. Our productivity is naturally higher. The days are longer, so we still get to enjoy daylight hours after we leave work. Our workplaces, more often than our homes, have proper air conditioning to keep us cool in higher temperatures. There’s no central heating to dry up our faces either, so we can all look a little sexier than we do in the depths of winter (who cares if it’s just for Janet from Accounting). Everyone’s just a little bit nicer, too, because the sun has that effect on people who are not me.
Imagine if holiday season started just as fall rolled in. I’ve always tried to push my summer holidays as far into the second half of the year as I possibly can. Once I couchsurfed my way across New England and Eastern Canada during the months of September and October. I heard the coyotes in the Ontario wilderness, took in the gritty glamour of Montreal, saw the foliage in Vermont, had my first hot apple cider and donuts after a hike on Catlin’s Hill, did a pilgrimage to Walden Pond, saw Morrissey in a concert on a frigid night in Boston and met my best couchsurfing bud in Salem amidst the Halloween madness, among other adventures. It was awesome.
Now that I’m on parental leave, the darkness and I are getting along again. The days are arguably more intense than if I was working, but the absence of external schedules and productivity targets is doing wonders for my ability to ease into the season. Sometimes I wake up while the rest of the family sleeps and just lie in the darkness listening to the hum of the night winds. I take my 5-month-old for a long walk every day. I’ve seen the trees go from gold to faded brown to bare. I’ve taken up running at night when the kids are in bed — an idea I got not from the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast but Kim Kardashian. I’m also writing, as you can see.
I think it’s time to re-brand the darkest season as the dopest season and re-think the ways we work and party. I look forward to your scathing feedback while sipping my mulled apple cider and listening to October Rust in the flickering light of a dozen scented candles dedicated to Norse gods.