Walking in the DarkPrint
Sometimes you don’t want to look straight ahead
By Miranda Weiss
September 8, 2016
The first thing I saw when I went for a walk down the dirt road next to our house at 10 P.M. last night was the tiny orange glow of a neighbor’s cigarette. In this new fall dark, I couldn’t tell who it was, but I did also see the low dark shape of a dog nearby. Apparently she couldn’t tell who I was either. “Hi?” she called out from far away. “How’s it going?” I called back. I’m sure she was relieved, like I was, to hear another woman’s voice.
I had gone for a walk to clear my head. Or not exactly clear it, but something else. That sense of having mastered the universe I’d earlier felt, after vacuuming under the couch, had vanished. Nothing felt conquerable, everything seemed in flux. In the dim light behind the neighbor, a white shape seemed to bound around. A second dog? No, just the real estate sign advertising the eight acres for sale next to our house. The 25 acres next to that have gone on the market too. “Beautiful night,” I’d said to the neighbor as we passed each other on the road. She had put her dog on the leash when she’d seen me coming, and the black mutt with white bib lunged against it.
And it was a beautiful night. A yellow crescent moon was setting between the power lines and the smudge of sea in the distance. The tips of the alders along the road, which have popped up to 15 feet from nothing in the eight years since we bought our house, spread like lace against the indigo sky. For a moment, I forgave that opportunistic tree for obscuring the view of meadow and birch grove we used to have along that walk.
No view stays the same. Change is the currency of life here.
Sometimes this change is painful. On another evening walk last week, I traversed a damp right-of-way the city of Homer just cleared below a friend’s small, in-town farm. Dozers had scraped a wide swath of land through wild birch forest and fireweed meadow and then planted it with some kind of grass that seems to grow calf high in a matter of hours. Moose tracks pocked the newly cleared ground. It won’t be long before real estate signs go up along that corridor. And then a road, driveways, houses.
Although Alaska is in dire fiscal straights—another friend who has already moved away still can’t sell her house despite dropping the price—the amount of land clearing and construction here can feel like an approaching avalanche. Nothing will be the same in its wake. I take the scar across the meadow personally, while obsessing over whether my husband and I should try to buy a patch of land along it. “Believing two completely opposite things at the same time—that’s what life is,” a friend said to me recently. This can be exhausting.
The neighbor with the black dog has lived on the block for nearly as long as we have. I know little about her except that she drives a rust-orange car and works at the video store—a second job, she said to me the only time I’ve stopped by the shop in the last decade. I don’t know what her first is.
We know enough to greet each other, smile, and remark on the beautiful evening. We know the names of each other’s dogs. At the end of the road, I stopped and looked at the sky. We’re tipping into the darkness now, losing too many minutes of light each day, and now stars pop up in the evening. There was still some light in the sky—even without a headlamp, I could still make my way—but I found the three stars that make up the handle of the Big Dipper, and then craned my neck to find the North Star above the scratchy black tips of birch trees along the road. I was reminded of that whole thing about rods and cones in your eyes: sometimes to see a thing in the dark, you have to look away. Looking straight ahead obscures the main point.
Miranda Weiss is a science and nature writer in Homer, Alaska. The author of Tide, Feather, Snow: A Life in Alaska, she also wrote the Northern Lights blog for our website.