Blackout and Candles: A Dark Night Experiment

For the month of February I am using only candles for light at night.

Three of my new best friends.

I wanted a glimpse of what was once regular life for everyone before electricity: a true dark night at the end of each day. Has an important place been lost by extending the day, and could I explore it?

Receptors in the eyes were recently discovered that take in no visual info, only signals of day and night. Electric light gives them a daylight signal, but candlelight doesn’t. I blacked out my windows to eliminate light from outside, removed the refrigerator light, and swore off computers and all other artificial light during the evening hours.

This is my dispatch from the first week.

I had no idea how bright my nights had been

It struck me immediately that I had no idea how bright my indoor night had been all these years. I live on the ground floor of a duplex between two small parking lots. Both lots are brightly lit from dusk to dawn.

Basket of blackout curtains

With the blackout curtains, it’s a totally different world. I can’t believe how unaware I was of the light pollution in my nightly life.

Wait for the Blackout

Every night at dusk, I play the opening song to the Damned’s Black Album, the song Wait for the Blackout * on the record player, repeating the song a few times while I cover every window. (*Brian is a lifelong fan of The Damned, and thought of it right away.)

Lyrics to “Wait For The Blackout” by the Damned (Scabies, Sensible, Gray, Vanian, Karloff)

It comes on like a TV theme song to introduce the night. I put up the curtains with two squares of Velcro above each window, light a candle, and let the night begin.
The difference in the house with these curtains up is literally night and day. After only a week, I learned a lot.

It seems much later

It is so dark that the pilot light in the stove and heater cast a blue-purple glow, and always seems like it’s almost time to go to bed.

Carrying candle lamp to the bathroom: not so bad

I take a candle lamp to the fridge and to the bathroom. I’m surprised how easy it is to feel around in the fridge and find things. It is actually fun. And bringing a candle into the bathroom is so natural, as if my body remembers it from ancient times.

Candles in Total Darkness are Always Beautiful

Candle tableau

I had never quite figured out night lighting in my house. Most night lighting is a pale imitation of daylight. But total darkness plus candles is a simple yet effective recipe for a beautiful sensory experience. Like counting on a morning cup of coffee, I now looked forward to a nightly abyss of darkness with three or four twinkling candle flames.

Without the clutter of cords, rooms are also more relaxing. It’s like how historic kitchens set up in a museum, like from the pioneer days, are always so simple and rustic. The nightstand is now just a candle lantern, a book, a lighter, and glass of water.

A “fairy lamp” candle holder with a strawberry design. These were popular in the 1880s, but this one is from the 1980s

Candles Vary Widely in Brightness

Once one’s eyes are adjusted to the dark, it’s pretty easy to read by the light of a candle or two. Sometimes. Other times, I crowd three or four around my book and it’s still too dark, even after my eyes had adjusted.

Once a flame gets deep into the candle, it doesn’t give off much light

It’s an Incidental Rest from the Digital World.

With so much time at night away from screens, I often miss the distraction and connection. But the night and candles create such a totally different world that it never feels like a deprivation. 
The contact I do have is a throwback in that my ringer is now on, and if someone calls I have no idea who it will be. But occasionally it’s futuristic, like using voice activated commands or having the phone read out loud by swiping two fingers down the screen.

High-contrast notetaking w Sharpies on the back of old Smokey’s Tangle show posters

I re-discovered that’s there’s a lot you can do without a computer. Typing up a messy longhand draft and letting it naturally improve like a finer round of sandpaper is much more fun than opening the computer to disjointed notes on an electronic document. Plus, a shorter available time on the computer means less wasted time during the day as I do my best to fit all necessary computer work into daylight hours.

I’m not that important

I occasionally must work late at my job, so if I think I’ll be super busy, I can come in early to get everything done. So far, it hasn’t been very hard to come home before sunset. I don’t have night classes, events to put on or attend, or anything totally mandatory.

After not using screens all night, I’ll check my email or notifications in the morning and there’s like nothing. Partly this is because I’m a little less active online, but partly it’s because there isn’t much substantive activity taking place around the clock in my life, and it’s a good thing to admit to oneself.

Time Slows Down

You know how time sometimes flies by when you have free time? This is the opposite. Time is as slow as I can ever remember it as an adult. Sometimes the day flies by and it’s suddenly night, and then it slows down. It’s February, so at about 6:30, it’s like a whole four hours stretches before me, sometimes luxuriously, sometimes unsettlingly. 

Plus, I don’t know what time it is at night. Without digital displays or lights on, there is no way to know whether it’s 3AM or a minute before the alarm rings. I’ve had a few very boring nights where I had to think about all my problems instead of look at my phone, and one night where I resorted to turning the candle back on to read.

Dawn feels like a miracle 

Brian takes down the blackout curtains in non-bedroom areas before coming to bed. When it starts getting light at sunrise, I get up to pull off the bedroom curtain too. Watching it get light is like feeling the world transform into a totally different place.

Good morning moon

An Optical Illusion For Your Inner Nocturnal Animal

I have an animal within who can see at night. And so do you. Humans have a setting on our eyes we use but rarely pay attention to: night vision.

Simulations of how animals see show that through another set of eyes, the world changes its color, sharpness, and contrast. With night vision, this simulation becomes real.

Last winter, I created a series of optical illusion candle prints that show the after-image effect.

This winter, I set out to create another optical effect: a lit candle that brightens as the eyes adjust to the dark.  The effect– a demonstration comparing our two types of vision rather than a true illusion–works because our night vision sees color differently, allowing a camouflaged flame to emerge Continue reading

Ancient Life and Modern Love at the Center of a Geode

My large enhydro agate geode with sanding sponge. Photo by Emily Wick

I have been sanding through an enhydro agate geode for over a year, slowly wearing away its surface toward the crystal-lined pool inside. It is part of a larger project exploring geodes through hand-sanding to examine things that usually go unseen.

As I’ve approached the center of the geode, friends have been asking what I plan to do with the water. Let it spill? Save Continue reading

Searching for Scorpions at Night

To get close enough to a wild scorpion to take its photo is scary: the Arizona bark scorpion isn’t deadly, but it’s the most venomous scorpion in the United States, with a sting that causes severe pain.

The Scorpion Master

It’s more terrifying for the scorpion, I’m guessing. It’s Halloween weekend in Phoenix, and I’m less than an inch away from its body, a 4x micro lens on my camera phone in one hand and a Scorpion Master black light flashlight in the other. I don’t kick or turn over any rocks, and I periodically sweep the light around my feet. Continue reading

The Shimmering Slime Drawings of Snails and Slugs

Slugs and slime on a stump, Oakland, CA

It’s hard not to notice crushed snails on sidewalks. But I usually didn’t notice the subtle slime trails that emerged out of front yard gardens, where and slugs and snails glided along glittering lines of slime crisscrossing the sidewalk. These lines mapping where the little creatures have traveled are visible only for a moment, when the sun happens to light them up at just the right angle.

One trail in particular reminded me of the people who use the Map My Run app to leave trails in the shapes of a body part or to spell words, and after I saw it, I was suddenly tuned in to slug and snail drawings like never before.  Continue reading

The Flower-Popping Power of Purple Lenses

Me with a grapefruit and purple-lensed glasses. Left: naked eye. Right: view through purple lenses.

To see things differently doesn’t always mean seeing more. Limiting the senses– a candlelight dinner, a silent cathedral–enhances sensory experience.

One way to limit color vision is to wear colored lenses. I have been wearing purple lenses as sunglasses, and occasionally indoors, for several weeks weeks. They came in a pack of 12 assorted colored sunglasses from a company called Glo-X.  Continue reading