Season of the long nights

PHOTO: Mark Gunn, Flickr-CC-BY

I’ve been seeing a lot of cable television ads for motion-detecting LED lights. Apparently, we all desperately need to flood our yards with torrents of photons upon even the slightest provocation.

Consider the homeowner’s greatest known threats, a garden-lusting rabbit or a bumbling potential thief (wearing a tight fitting knit cap so you KNOW he’s up to no good). Neither can escape these tireless beams. Indeed, with lights like these, you can sleep easy every night knowing that your garage apron glows brighter than a Cape Horn lighthouse. Well, maybe not sleep. It’s too bright for that. But you can roll around in bed with a faint sense of security.

These ads fail to convince me, however. I’ve grown comfortable with the dark.

We live several miles outside town out in a stand of woods once more suited for moose, elk and bear than people. The elk are long gone now. The moose visit rarely. The bears amble through occasionally, usually to mangle my bird feeders. This only highlights the fact that the lights of the nearest town — Nashwauk, population 970 — don’t reach this far. In fact, you have to scale a tall pine and squint toward the southeast to see the dim halo of Nashwauk’s petite luminescence. 

That’s how I like it. When I lay in bed the only indication that my eyes are open comes from a thin blade of moonlight along the edge of the curtain. At new moon there is no visual difference between consciousness and slumber. You have to figure that out on your own.

As it should be. Buzzing street lights and blinking phone screens appeared much more recently as a largely unhelpful addition to the habits of our species. 

Humans are supposed to enter the dream world every 24 hours. We dip our souls into supernatural pools while our working brain performs routine self-care. In the dark of night, our true selves — nocturnal beasts they be — emerge from worldly burrows. All of our hopes and fears, lost memories and thin strands connecting us to the divine, may be found in the dark and nowhere else.

The black capped chickadee, a bird that would double its weight by picking up a small chain of paperclips, somehow survives sub-zero temperatures for months on end. Its behavior during the day is plain to see. Chickadees eat seeds and berries until their eyes pop.

But at night, they escape to the dark, cramming themselves into tiny spaces, always alone. Inside, they let their internal temperatures drop to levels that would delight a penny-pincher looking at his thermostat. Then, upon morning light, weighing 10 percent less than they did the night before, the tiny birds emerge with a hunger that propels them through another day.

Morning light reveals what happened in the dark. I told you about the bears and my bird feeders. Sometimes the scene is even more macabre.

Years ago, my wife’s parents who live next door found a young deer killed by wolves in the night. Blood splatters colored the white snow, a forensic affirmation of nature’s unforgiving laws. 

We see the tracks of woodland creatures that cross our property with the haphazard whimsy of a European city street map. Sometimes these routes become interrupted by the whooshing imprint of owl wings. 

December is the month of long nights. They get longer and longer, and then as long as they can be. Only near month’s end, with the coming of the solstice and Christmas and finally the New Year, do the long nights begin giving way to the light. But by then the darkness has amassed so much power that it will be more than four months before the lake ice melts.

Such is the power of darkness. It is the price of spring. Of life.

There are those who would spend $24.98 to pitch battle against the night. They miss a most important combination.

Step outside in boots and long underwear. See how the Milky Way cuts across the night sky while the trees crack and new ice howls its lonesome song. Return to to your darkened bedroom. Stare at the absence of light. Close your eyes. Everything you need to survive will be revealed to you. That is, so long as your phone is somewhere else entirely.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Saturday, Dec. 10, 2022 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.



  1. Kathleen Jokela says

    I tried convincing the Hibbing Public Utilities of the benefits of darkness during a bit of a dust -up with them and my neighbors over the installation of an LED alley light that resulted in night illumination comparable to that of a football field on homecoming night. I lost.
    I envy you and your place in the deep dark woods.

  2. Great piece.

    These Starry Skies North folks have some good information on the topic.

  3. After nearly 4 decades of living in Cook County I moved to the Twin Cities. People ask if I miss anything and I tell them the quiet and the dark.

  4. Elanne Palcich says

    Thanks, Aaron–I contacted Minnesota Power and the city of Chisholm about the new LED street lights. The amount of light coming from them can be reduced, but the city had chosen that level. In addition individual neighbors have put up lights facing the alley, so there’s no escape from light pollution. We know that night lighting affects sleep patterns which affects our health, disturbs night pollinators, deters lightning bug reproduction, and can also have an effect on nesting birds. We continue to remove ourselves from the natural world around us without considering the results.

  5. Jane Hooper says

    Transplanted Ranger here. Our particular patch of Twin Cities suburbia has no street lights by design. All the better to see the night sky, supposedly. However we are surrounded by brightly lit suburbs whose light pollution invades our sky anyway. We can’t see the night sky because of the neighbors’ light pollution and we can’t see our streets and sidewalks for lack of street lights. Go figure .

    • Police promote street lighting as a crime reduction measure. Utilities promote it as a “load building” measure. Road designers have guidelines based on the view that lighting reduces traffic accidents. It is a lot to overcome….

  6. I also live in the middle of the woods, tho close to our little city, so their lights shine up towards the clouds. I’m grateful for trees between us and the next door neighbor because they have chosen to have 3 major lighting fixtures in their yard. Within our house, I do like some minor night lights so I can avoid turning on a light for those inevitable night time walks across the hall. Except that I go past our small computer desk which has multiple lights on each item.

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