From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Endings (3)—Civil Twilight

Click here for an introduction to the Round and Square series "Endings." 
[a] Waning light
One of the world's greatest endings is played out every single day in a complex blend of sameness and difference—sunsets are always the same...and different every day. Think about it. Sunset is etched into our lives through language and nature, metaphor and culture. The sunset of life is not the same thing as the sunset of a career, and neither is remotely close to Sunset Strip or Sunset Boulevard.

I am interested enough in sunsets that I return periodically to Claude Lévi-Strauss's evocative description of a sunset aboard a ship from Marseilles to Santos.  It has the kind of odd, literary, and self-absorbed quality that gives Tristes tropiques its peculiar charm, and makes it one of my favorite books. It goes on for seven pages, and is a monument to a momentary concatenation of observation and ego. In an odd sort of way, it also serves as Lévi-Strauss's first fieldnote, but that is a longer story for you to learn from Claude himself. Take a look if you have...thirty minutes.

[b] Ocean light
There is another kind of "thirty minutes" I wish to examine here, though. Everyone understands it, but relatively few people have thought deeply about it and its implications (I do hope that is beginning to sound familiar to readers of this blog). Its technical name is "civil twilight," and it generally refers to the period from sunset to about thirty minutes after sunset. Civil twilight has its own kind of beauty, but it goes far beyond aesthetics. It is the beauty of squeezing in just a little bit more, of rushing a little, of trying to get just one more thing done.

Civil twilight is a time we all recognize with a quickened pace and often a sense of mild urgency—at least at some points in our lives. If you grew up on a farm, you know exactly what I mean. From chores to work in the fields, the thirty minutes between the setting of the sun and the (almost) utter blackness of the sky is a time of opportunity...and hurry. If you have been camping, you know well that you need to have the tent up, and you probably have noticed the sequential dimming of after-light as you pounded stakes into the ground. It wouldn't hurt to have the campfire going, too. Did you bring a lighter? Don't look at me.

[c] Civil Twilight
In precise terms, civil twilight begins at sunset and ends when the geometric center of the sun is 6° below the horizon. It is followed by layers of darkness of most relevance to sailors, nautical twilight (6-12°) and astronomical twilight (12-18°). At these times, if you're finishing the milking, you'll just think it's dark. If you're on a ship, you'll notice. Feel free to check out some times on the chart below.

You may want to do a few searches of your own for civil twilight definitions and times. Just be aware that you are likely to get a South African band if you don't refine your search (trust me).

[d] Civility
Cyclists of all skill levels—especially those who work during the day—live with civil twilight calculations. I have often thought of my rides through the Wisconsin countryside through the lens of "racing civil twilight." Ten minutes after dusk, I usually can hardly tell whether or not the sun has actually set; ten more minutes, and I had better be nearing home; after that, it's just plain dark. My wife remembers civil twilight on the farm during summers in Iowa. When she first mentioned it to me, I was sure she was going to talk about chores and work that had to be done before the natural light was gone. Instead, she told me about how she remembered the way the lambs jumped and frolicked from sunset until it was dark. It was like they added a little kick to their repertoire in the fading light.

There are so many literary references to this period that it is hard to know what to choose. T.S. Eliot alone gives almost a half dozen possibilities, and Shakespeare is chock full of them. I like a more recent example that was referred to me by Elizabeth Makarewicz, a student in my "Calendars and Almanacs" class, where we discuss civil twilight (on-and-off) all term long.  James Harrison's introduction to a varied collection of writings done in middle age has a beautiful title, and every author should think twice before becoming "prematurely autumnal" (a nicely crafted image).

[e] Just before dark

Carl Sandburg, Dreams in the Dusk
Dreams in the dusk,
Only dreams closing the day
And with the day's close going back
To the gray things, the dark things,
The far, deep things of dreamland.

Dreams, only dreams in the dusk,
Only the old remembered pictures
Of lost days when the day's loss
Wrote in tears the heart's loss.

Tears and loss and broken dreams
May find your heart at dusk.

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