I do not remember much from my brief stint in an admittedly liberal seminary, but one thing I do remember was a professor who mentioned only in passing how ancient men were truly terrified of the darkness. Every night was a testing point of the strength of his soul. This comment was made only in a thrown away manner, but it stuck with me all this time.
This weekend I decided to retreat from the disorienting life of the city to my family’s farm. As most farms are, ours is set apart from the blinding light and confusing motion of the city. When skies are clear, one can see enough of our solar system to immediately believe in God; no skeptic who sees what one can see in the night sky of my farm can honestly maintain their doubt.
I have been thinking much about manhood lately, about what it means to be a man, what it takes to call oneself a man, about where men went wrong, and about how men can reclaim their masculinity in a true and beneficial way. One very serious problem with modern men is a fundamental disconnection with their more primitive soul, with their more animalistic senses. Related, there is a lack of courage, bravery, and honor. So wrapped up in the modern world of light and noise is modern man, that 5 minutes alone with his thoughts is enough to drive most men into deepest existential crisis. I decided to put myself to the test. Around 11pm I grabbed my pipe, laced up my boots, and went for a twilight stroll through the dark and unlit pastures surrounding my farm.
I was not 100 feet from the house before I entered into another world forgotten by time. Behind me were the dim floodlights surrounding the house, obscured by a centuries old wood of Escarpment Live and Bur Oak trees. As I walked, the dead leaves of winter crunched under foot. When I could no longer see my hand in front of face, I decided to stop and take in the dark and the silence. Both overtook me immediately. I felt a rush not of fear, but anxiety. This is what I wanted to know – how would I respond? Interestingly, this anxiety was but a fleeting state. After a few drags from my pipe, I felt a sense of calm.
Standing there in the dark, my sight not robbed of me so much as it was surrendered, I noticed that my other senses began to strengthen. The smoke from my pipe smelled all the sweeter, my hearing became like that of a deer. Off to my left I hear a rustling; perhaps the wind through the treetops, or perhaps some living thing wondering what this new entrant into nature was doing where he did not belong. I was, after all, a visitor to whatever this might have been. Off in the distance behind me, I hear a small pack of coyotes. One let out the signature howl, answered by several others. Though we no longer have cows on our property, which is not a small patch of earth, I nevertheless can hear a curious cow offering his “moo” to the night. And still my pipe smelled like a sweet offering from mother earth.
After several minutes, my sight began to acclimate. Though surrounded by the dark, I began to see my surroundings. I was standing in a small clearing with high canopy. This was a dark night. Clouds kept the moon and the stars from sharing their cold light. Yet still I begin to see what was around me. Several times I saw shadows dart among lesser shadows. Perhaps it was one or two of a family of deer that haunt the property. Perhaps it was nothing by my imagination.
I continued to stand there in the dark still night, and I began to feel not anxious, but at peace. It felt normal and right to be there. To whatever nocturnal visitors may have been watching me with curiosity, I was a visitor, maybe even a threat. Yet, this is my natural place. This is our natural place – away from the radiation bath we call modern life, using all of our senses to make sense of the world around us, and contending if necessary with what we find.
It was a short exercise. I was only up the pasture for the amount of time it took to smoke a bowl, which was no more than 20 minutes. Once my pipe was spent, I began the no-longer-disoriented walk through the dark back to the farmhouse. As I was out there, hardly in what one can call ‘The Wild,’ but still in a place far different from what 90% of modern men will experience more than a handful of times in their life (if they are so lucky) I thought about my friends. I thought about strangers. I thought about everyone who spend such significant parts of their lives enveloped by the cold, dead glow of their personal devices, or wasting away laughing at the manufactured and institutionalized distraction that is now called entertainment. I thought about a friend – a man 2 years older than me with wife and child – who once asked if I had a hammer he could borrow. He did not – and does now – own a hammer.
More than anything, I wondered. I wondered how these friends and strangers who are so disconnected from the natural world would react if put into this situation, not only separated from everything they know and in which they have come to find comfort, but indeed left alone in the dark, surrounded by a world that the do not know. Yet, this is their world to know. How would these people respond to this test of mine? I have my own expectations.
I wrote an acquaintance recently talking about what I called man’s need to yell. The point I made to him, with which he agreed, was that man needs to get in touch with his more ancient side, the side that is not afraid of the natural world, but is at home in it. One thought I had while standing in the darkness was how truly terrifying it would be to be lost, say, in the mountains – to be truly lost. I had the luxury of having the farmhouse nearby if I found the dark and the quiet too suffocating. In fact, I felt at home, but I can certainly understand what fear may overtake me if I had been truly alone and truly separated from safety. How much more truly dreadful must this be for those – whom we all know – who are so inextricably attached to the thin veneer of comfort and safety offered by the modern world that they have never ventured away from the light? Further, what realistic hope do we have that men will be men, that virtue may survive, if we refuse to connect with our more primitive self?