The Speed of Light

The sun set here in late April and will not be seen again until August 19. For a few weeks after the official final sunset, we had a few hours of increasingly murky light in the late morning and early afternoon.

And then the darkness arrived.

When I decided to put in for a winter job here at McMurdo, I’ll admit I was worried about how I’d deal with the lack of sunlight. During the two years I lived in Moscow, those long months of winter drear were brutal, and that was with a couple hours of sun, or what passes for it in the smoke and smog and dirt of The Big Onion.

Here in Antarctica, however, as with many other things one might assume to find a trial, the darkness has been beautiful. I haven’t missed the sun a bit. On a clear night, there is a beautiful stillness that gives you a sense that the continent is in a deep and restful sleep. When it storms, the darkness takes on an epic drama and the landscape turns angry and wild–though, snug in my heated building, I am insulated (literally) from the danger.

That said, it has been a thrill to watch the light returning. It’s happening, and fast. A couple weeks ago, taking out the trash, I noticed the sky in the north was a lighter shade of deep blue just above one of the ridges that keeps McMurdo sheltered from the worst of the wind.

A few days later, at about the same time of day, the blue seemed brighter, and just along the ridgeline was a smudge of red.

Earlier this week, I noticed the entire northern half of the sky was that same shade of bright blue–no one sitting under a summer sky right now would consider it “bright,” but I’d call it ultramarine, and compared with the black of night still covering the southern sky, yeah, it was bright.

Then today, taking out the trash, I stopped and stared. The northern half of the sky was ultramarine, fading to a dusky purple, then a smear of pink and then, just at the northern ridgeline, a pale yellow-green, almost the color of a tornado sky, light enough to see a smudge of cloud hanging in the air. It made me catch my breath and feel this weird, deep, primal joy.

The sun is coming back! The sun is coming back!

I have loved the night here in Antarctica*, but I also welcome the light’s return. I feel privileged to witness it, and somehow closer to all those who lived in times when the length of day and night were noted, were important, were even worshiped, long before electricity and television and all the conveniences of modern life disconnected us from nature and its order.

[*That reminds me of a t-shirt I saw once that read “I have lived too long among the stars to fear the darkness,” which I always thought was a splendid sentiment.]

I came in from the cold flushed as much with excitement as from the -13F wind and asked my friend Anna, “Did you see the sky? Did you see the sky?”

She nodded and said, “I just stopped and stared.”

Fancy that.

You may be wondering why, with all my talk of the sky, I have no photos with this post. Well, if I did take a photo and throw it up on here, those of you who stop by only to look at the pictures (I know who you are!) would shrug and wonder what significance a dusky, dull smudge of light might have. And, to be sure, the afternoon sky down here these days has nothing on even an average sunset in milder climes. But to those of us who have been living in darkness for some time now, it is special, and beautiful. I wanted you to see it with our eyes.

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