Somewhere along the line of America’s social development, darkness became synonymous with danger. I don’t mean skin color, though one could certainly draw similar and similarly unfair comparisons. I mean places that are unlit. Places where you can’t see. Places sans streetlight.
I think about this often when I bike home from work, which happens in the dark these days. This year, I’ve noticed a few more lights along the way. Not streetlights, but a few instances of lit-up, pay-to-park kiosks, a few more glowing signs that reflect my simple headlight. And when I see them, I wonder if more park “improvements” are coming soon.
Improvements, of course, mean intrusions into the darkness. It’s like installing more lights on the paths on college campuses, more streetlights in the neighborhoods, lights at bus and MAX stations, more and more and more illumination with the theory that if you can see, bad things won’t happen. Because bad people only operate in the dark, right?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all about lighting up bus stations, for example, and certainly agree that visibility is often a good thing. I’m just also very jealous of spaces that still feel natural, of places where we can remember that sometimes in this world the sun is gone, and our eyes have to adjust, and things are darker.
I love, intensely, my little section of darkness, of biking through what feels like the deep, mysterious woods of Washington Park. I love how it glows under a moon, how the clouds look lit from the heavens, how sometimes I can even see stars. I love the total focus it takes to find my way down the winding road in thick mists or soupy fog; I love how I slow down, how I hear everything, how all my senses are on high alert. I love that I feel so far away from downtown, even though 15 minutes brings me back to urban stoplights and cars. I love that this is still possible in Portland.
I fear that it won’t be for long. I fear that someone will complain, that it will be deemed unsafe, that streetlights will go in. Every evening that I make this commute, I’m grateful that it still exists. Grateful for places that still feel wild, even surrounded by city. To me, this is what makes Portland great. I hope we can preserve a few places like this from our own progress; I hope we don’t light everything out of existence. I hope we can remember that even darkness has a place.