From the Georgia Review
“. . . the natural limitation so flight sempiternally deny the satisfaction of desire. For this is the inherent irony of vision, that it reveals to us the space beyond our bodies, and the shortness of our grasp. Visual perception makes it possible for us to grasp for what is beyond, and, at the same time, to realize that we cannot reach it.”
— F. Gonzalez-Crussi, The Five Senses
What’s dark? I was in the caverns at Carlsbad once when the ranger pulled that old trick of turning the lights out on our tour so that we all could experience absolute darkness for once, as we can’t in our ordinary lives because of the light bleeding out from the stars, the moon, and our own banal lighting. She flipped a hidden switch and sure enough it was as if our eyes had quit working. It was a blankness. My eyes grew hungry for any morsel of light. It was dark. But not empty. We were all too aware of the depth of rock above our heads, of the nervous expectation of our neighbors. After a few seconds there were a few little laughs and titters, and then after ten seconds or so the lesson dissolved in irritation at the yahoo who felt this was the right time to take a flash picture.
But out in the desert there is no such thing as darkness. In the desert there is nothing to block the sky, and so every night the light falls from the stars, the planets, the moon, and from the increasingly bright orange penumbras that blossom over Phoenix, Tucson, Yuma, and even small towns. The human eye can detect as few as eighty photons coming in per second, a vanishingly faint light that is far less than what comes in on the darkest and most overcast night — the ghost of a light. Even on a dark night lacking a moon, the sandy ground shines and the outlines of the mountains stand black against the paler sky.
Even what looks to us like emptiness, like the darkness I saw (or did not see) in the caverns, is not really. In all the known universe, the physicist Henning Genz has written, there is no space that is truly empty of matter and energy: “Let us assume we can remove all matter from some region of space. What will we be left with? A region of empty space? Not necessarily. In the universe, between galaxies, each atom is at a distance of about 1 meter from its next neighbor. Still, the space between these atoms is not empty; it is bright with light and other radiation from very different sources. It is only in the absolutely empty space of our imagination that no light, no radiation penetrates.” Those Christian desert fathers sought an analogous emptiness in the imagination of their Sinai, a place so bare of life that it did not distract from the work of seeking the face of God. This, though, was no experience of darkness or of the void, but rather of its opposite, as we gather from Joseph of Panephysis: “The old man stood up and stretched his hands toward heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said, ‘If you will, you can become all flame,’” — a desert radiance of fullness rather than of emptiness.
The only real emptiness must lie out beyond the boundaries of the universe, where no matter and no energy have yet penetrated. It is that place beyond places, the time beyond time, that is the true desert. Nothing there: no time, no space, no light, not a particle of anything, not a thought. And if we were to add up all the light in the universe, the physicists say, it would constitute a pale beige, barely off-white. Imagine, then, some unimaginable observer out there in the true darkness, the greatest desert of all. And here comes the universe out of nowhere: a fuzzy ball crackling and glowing of its own luminescence, beige against black like a ball molded of the warm and dusty ground of Arizona. How could that onlooker conclude anything else but that this unthinkable manifestation itself was the face of God, rich with the potential of its own seemingly endless energy?
It is a feat of great elegance that the human eye is so well adapted to the conditions of the universe and in particular of the surface of the Earth, able to make sense of the flood of light of desert noon, the trickle of desert midnight, and everything in between. This is something to celebrate when the new moon and Venus set, leaving the sky dark with its bright pinpricks of stars. On some nights in the desert I’ve seen the Milky Way so dense with our neighbor stars that I thought at first it must be a cloud bank — but no, not in this heat and dryness. Those were all stars like our own, sending their light and information out to unknown lands. On some nights, even in the heat of summer when the days are a trial by fire, I’ve taken great comfort before sleep in the knowledge that the whirling of the Milky Way and of the constellations was really our own Earth’s whirling toward the dawn, a perpetual easting toward the ever-new possibility and fullness of sunrise.