Mexico at Dusk and Dawn
Ode to the Liminal
The sun sets over Baja California. A cool wind blows through the palms, the sky glows yellow, and the water of Bahía La Paz, on the Sea of Cortez, reflects shards of sun. There is time, time to acclimate, time to be stealthy and quiet. Time to watch and learn how to be in this new and fleeting era, the moments between day and night. At midday here, the horizon is often indistinct, pale water disappearing into pale sky. Near dusk, though, the horizon sharpens, as sea deepens to ultramarine and indigo, cobalt and steel, while the sky becomes a carnival of red and orange.
Terns hunt, diving into the whitecaps. One emerges with a fish in his beak, drops it, dives and catches it again midair, stopping it from escaping back into the deep. Another tern, descending fast towards the water, is shunted from impact at the last minute, blown sideways by the wind. On a long dock extending out from this city of a quarter million people, fishermen sit on overturned buckets in groups of two and three, talking quietly. They pull in their lines as the horizon becomes sharp, the sky now orange and ochre, high wispy clouds turning pink. A pair of young lovers sit watching the horizon, then embracing, then looking outward again. Dusk comes but once a day, and our eyes, our brains, track it, learn from it. With every passing minute, as the light fails, we can detect meaning in shadows that were not visible to us before.
Except when we get in our own way. In La Paz, on the popular waterfront boardwalk known as the malecon, streetlights blaze white light all night long. And in December, the palms lining the malecon are also wrapped in string lights, shining so brightly that it is painful to look directly at them.
In the approaching darkness, the water still deepening in color, thought can shift and flow. Until, that is, the lights of the malecon turn on: sudden, pure white, startlingly festive. Dusk is gone in an instant.
It is still possible, though, to see some of the most obvious things through the lights. A full moon rises over the hills to the east. Hanging below it is the bright dot of Mars, as if tethered. Syzygy. Our moon and Mars appearing in close alliance, but only from the perspective of the Earth. And here on Earth, at night, the horizon is once again indiscernible, both sea and sky pure darkness, pools of possibility.
Before I had ever been to La Paz, I rented from afar a room right on the malecon, where it is never dark, but the music and other human exuberances on display end, most nights, before midnight. There is no peace to be had, no solitude, no ability to feel myself think. After two nights, I moved to a place many blocks away, on a dark street. I was told that the lack of light and activity gives some people concern, although I was assured that it is safe, that the neighbors are La Paz families who have lived here for generations, fishermen mostly. “I like the darkness,” I say. “I want the darkness.”
Over one hundred years ago, Louis Brandeis wrote that “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”1 I do protect myself more actively when I approach my new place after dark, walking with intention but not fear, mace at the ready. I have willingly given up the policeman that is electric light, and must therefore take greater responsibility for my own safety. What have I gained?
In the darkness I can experience the cycles of the place to which I have come. As I search in the liminal twilight, my eyes adjust, and I rely more strongly on other senses. Here is the possibility of discovery. For I—or rather we, for this is true for everyone—search not just in physical space, but in mental space as well, in the abstractions of our minds. There, connections can form and break and form anew, and shadows move wraith-like through our consciousness.
In the interstitial we might find clarity, or confusion. Bright lights provide the sense—unwarranted—that here there is perfect vision, perfect understanding, perfect safety.
But even if those artificial lights could guarantee safety, safety is not the only value that I hold. I also value discovery and exploration, serendipity. Full exposure can reveal what is already known, but it can also entrench errors, make uncertainty seem like a weakness, and drag us into dogmatic thinking, in which the conclusions are clear: there is only one way to think, only one way to be.
I cannot tell you the precise nature of what we are losing when we disappear dusk and dawn. We know some of it, we reductionist beings, desirous of the finite and the known, simultaneously seeking the quantitative, and incapable of making sense of it when it comes. But we do not know most of it. Much as early biologists could easily see and name the differences between those who are active in the day—the diurnal—and those who thrive at night—the nocturnal—those who move in the in-between, in the crepuscular, have been harder to pin down.
We can rediscover what anchors us by embracing night, shadow, and uncertainty. We can, as Jeanette Winterson wrote so beautifully some years ago2, do many things seasonally. She, living in wooded England, gives her city guests who arrive in Winter, who remind her of captive hamsters running endlessly on a wheel, “food with darkness sealed in it: deep red venison stewed in claret, carp from the bottom of the river, root vegetables grown in rich black earth….Eating seasonally is not a green fad; it is [a] way of connecting the body to what is really happening out there. We are seasonal creatures – the over-ride button is scarcely 100 years old. Give the body back its seasons and the mind is saner.”
“I believe in pleasure,” she continues, “but not the same pleasure all the time. Seasonal pleasure prevents boredom and cynicism.”
Let us embrace the world we were born to, not run from it always with our constructions, our technology, our—oh what hubris in our words—our fixes and our corrections. Embrace the changes of the seasons, and of the moon, and of day into night, and night into day. Be reminded of how much more there is under the sun, and the moon, than we have yet imagined.
I have left my home in the North as the Winter solstice loomed, for a week in the near-tropics, to feel the sun on my skin, to replenish my body’s reserves. For this, I have some of those very constructions and technologies to thank. I am grateful for them. But we too often imagine that if a little is good, a lot must be better, or that the ease and comfort of our inventions have no cost. They do. Taken constantly, they may be costing us our sanity.
On the malecon in La Paz, all is endless noise and light and human energy, an inescapable roar. This is no barbaric yawp, no cri du coeur. It feels a shameful, shameless, timid release, a giving up, a nevermore.
Up early the next morning, before the sun has risen, I go down to the water and walk quickly to escape from the infernal lights on every palm, on every street post. I escape them, and walk more slowly into dawn. Real dawn, light spreading from behind the mountains, and across the bay. There is the palest peach in a lightening blue sky, and a full moon floating down toward the horizon. It promises to return, as soon as day once more slides into night, but there will be just a bit less of it visible to us when it does. It is the waning yule moon. Winter approaches.
If you enjoy this kind of thinking—scientifically informed while also embracing of the unknown and the poetic—consider A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century, Bret Weinstein’s and my ode to evolutionary thinking and the human condition.
Brandeis, who was a Supreme Court Justice from 1916 – 1939, wrote this in his 1914 essay “What Publicity Can Do,” itself in his book “Other People’s Money and How The Bankers Use It.” Brandeis was himself apparently borrowing from an 1888 book by James Bryce, quoted here.