You emerge from a day’s work at the office into darkness. Just a few months ago, hours of light remained, time for an after work softball game, or a picnic or stroll in the park. Whereas darkness covered New York City as late as 9:00 during the summer, with our turning the clock back an hour last week sunset arrives now close to 4:30.
And how different does this change in daylight hours feel! Darkness obscures, and with nearly 80 percent of human’s sensory awareness coming from sight, the diminished light can reduce our understanding of the world around us and induce fear. Consider the nocturnal demons of folklore—witches, ghosts, and other creatures. Indeed, “nightmare” derives from the Germanic and Slavic folklore’s concept of the “mare”, a malicious creature that rides on people chests while they sleep and brings them bad dreams.
Yet, if darkness diminishes visual awareness, it can heighten other sensory awareness. Touch is felt more acutely, as in the feeling of chilled air on one’s face, and the awareness of pavement underfoot with every step. One’s sense of proprioception, how our bodies move through space, is heightened to the point where running in the darkness can evoke a sensation of rhythmic floating. Hearing too is heightened. Wind blowing through the trees is heard more clearly than it likely would be in broad daylight. We hear our footsteps and those of others. So too, insight intensifies, even in how dreams bring wisdom.
And, in fact, our eyes do function in the darkness, even in the absence of street lamps. There is much was can see and discern as we let our eyes adjust and overcome fear of the darkness. With even a little moonlight, we can see the outlines of trees against the sky, the vegetation around us, and the path ahead of us.
In just over a month we will arrive at the winter solstice, and the daylight hours will grow longer, just as we enter into the depths of winter, a strange equipoise: winter’s emerging chill concurrent with the days’ growing light, and six months later, summer’s emerging warmth concurrent with the days’ diminishing light.
We Grow Accustomed to the Dark
We grow accustomed to the Dark -
When light is put away -
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Goodbye -
A Moment - We uncertain step
For newness of the night -
Then - fit our Vision to the Dark -
And meet the Road - erect -
And so of larger - Darknesses -
Those Evenings of the Brain -
When not a Moon disclose a sign -
Or Star - come out - within -
The Bravest - grope a little -
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead -
But as they learn to see -
Either the Darkness alters -
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight -
And Life steps almost straight.
If Manhattanhenge, discussed in my prior blog, broadcasts the relationship between Manhattan’s street grid and the sun’s seasonal path, summer’s heat pushes us to respond to the sun’s path with innate astronomical awareness in our daily lives.
With summer in full blast, the sun’s heat radiates off sidewalks and buildings and intensifies the temperature. As a walker in Manhattan, whether for pleasure, errand running, or as part of my daily commute, I often assess what side of a street is better shaded, and choose that side for my walk. With the longer stretches of my walk extending in a north-south/south-north direction, this means walking on the east side of an avenue in the morning and the west side in the evening. The difference in temperature is significant. Winter brings the opposite effect: seeing out the sunnier side of the street for greater warmth and light.
Orientation to the sun has figured in town and city planning for centuries, typically as a way to enhance warmth and light long before the development of modern heating and lighting systems. Notably, in 1916 New York City passes a zoning resolution to preserve sunlight at street level, recognizing sunlight as a public good. At the time, buildings were limited in height—and sun-blocking effects—by engineering capabilities.
With continual improvements in elevators and the use of steel frame structures, building height have multiplied, impacting street-level sunlight. At the same time, urban landscape materials—asphalt, metal, and dark buildings—absorb more sunlight than forests, fields, and snow-covered terrain, resulting in an “urban heat island”, were a city’s temperature is significantly warmer than in surrounding areas. New York City’s heat island effect is most felt at night, when the temperature is 5 to 7 degrees warmer than in surrounding areas.
Scientists and urban planners have considered how attention to the interplay of urban structures and sunlight can enhance energy conservation by cooling the city. NASA determined that dark, sunlight absorbing black roofs in New York City reached 170 degrees on July 22, 2011, a peak day in a heat wave that resulted in a city record for electricity usage. By contrast, white roofs were 42 degrees cooler. This led to the widespread installation of white roofs, with the aim of decreasing electricity usage and reducing city temperatures.
While not as extreme as the impact of roof-top lightening, a shift from the sunny to the shaded side of a city street in the middle of Julycan offer a welcomed refuge. If you find yourself wandering down a city street during the heat of summer, think about how you intuitively position yourself for cooling comfort. We’re not so different from other animals in this way!
As I hope came across in my previous blog, I had a magical time looking up at the sky from the roof of my building a few days ago. A few evenings later, after a day of work followed by dinner with my daughter, I ventured up there again, a perfect way to enjoy time outside while still being close to home.
It was twilight when I arrived, and the breeze made the world feel open and alive, a contrast to the cozy yet restricted feeling within the walls of my apartment. Glancing around, I notice a faint light in the sky to the west. Venus? Or was it a satellite? No, it wasn't moving like a satellite. And it was too early and too bright to be a star. It was Venus, second planet from the Sun, named after the Roman god of beauty and love. Content to be in the open air, I lingered for over an hour. When I looked toward Venus some time later, it was lower in the horizon. Venus was setting.
Meanwhile, in the southeast sky the full moon peeked out behind a nearby building. And with the darkening sky, faint stars started to appear overhead, mirrored far below by human-made star clusters of apartment lights. I thought about the vastness of our galaxy, the recent discovery of countless other galaxies, and how throughout the history of humankind we have charted the heavens, navigated by them, formed mythologies around them. Venus was the first planet whose motions were plotted across the sky, in the second millennium B.C. And yet here, in a city where the strength of human-made lumens blocks out so much of the visible night sky, and where our own sense of importance--the towers we build ever higher--too often overshadows our awareness of the natural world, we often forget the continual celestial activity happening around us.
Enraptured by cosmic happenings, I was jarred back into the world of New York, New York 2018 by an argument erupting between a couple on a balcony of a nearby building:
She: "Why does it always have to be about you!"
He: "I just need some down time after work. I'm tired. It's been a long day!"
She: "I'm tired too. I need down time too! "
There on the very plain roof of my very ordinary building, in counterpoint and like a grand joke, was the full scope of Venus in action: Our need to feel supported by the people dear to us and the disconnect we often feel with them. Our hunger for understanding and love. The urgency of our feelings. And meanwhile, the earth spins round and round, the moon orbits the earth ever changing in its phases, and Venus and the sun rise and set as they have for eons, long before we ever walked this earth, long before there was a "you", long before there was an "I".
To the Evening Star
by William Blake 1789
Thou fair-hair'd angel of the evening,
Now, while the sun rests on the mountains, light
Thy bright torch of love; thy radiant crown
Put on, and smile upon our evening bed!
Smile on our loves; and, while thou drawest the
Blue curtains of the sky, scatter thy silver dew
On every flower that shuts its sweet eyes
In timely sleep. Let thy west wind sleep on
The lake; speak silence with thy glimmering eyes,
And wash the dusk with silver. Soon, full soon,
Dost thou withdraw; then the wolf rages wide,
And the lion glares thro' the dun forest:
The fleeces our flocks are cover'd with
Thy sacred dew: protect them with thine influence.
About this Blog
Hi! I'm Nancy Kopans, founder of Urban Edge Forest Therapy. Join me on an adventure to discover creative ways to connect with nature in your daily life, ways that are inspired by urban surroundings that can reveal unexpected beauty, with the potential to ignite a sense of wonder.