In Medieval literature, including Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, there are references to the time between the first and second sleep, which was the ideal time for study, one book said. I vaguely remember knowing that already, possibly from a long ago summer course. I learned it anew from my morning paper, the National Post, which published excerpts of Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep this week.
The book’s author David K. Randall recounts how a Virginia Tech history professor noted these references in his reading and how a Bethesda psychiatrist put the question of what this meant to the test. He deprived those in his study of artificial light. Initially, they took the opportunity to sleep deeper and longer than they had before, but eventually, they seemed to catch up on their sleep deficit and a new pattern emerged. They fell asleep shortly after sunset and woke up sometime after midnight, at which time they stayed awake for an hour or so and then fell back into a second sleep. Having escaped the tyranny of artificial light, they had apparently reverted to the medieval sleep pattern.
Okay, I know I’m old, but this is ridiculous. I remember my grandfather sitting up in the middle of the night in his wooden chair with the wide arms. I had been woken up by the smell of the herbal cigarette he was smoking to soothe his farmer’s lungs.
When I was born, we had no electricity in our rural community. In fact electricity did not come to those hills until well after World War II. It was not until then that the people there got out from under the Depression and were able to afford to pay for the lines from the road to their farmhouses. And while I lived in town from the time I was 5, I spent summers back there with my grandparents, so I do recall a way of life that was mostly devoid of artificial light.
I say “mostly” because toward the end of those years, my grandmother managed to buy an Alladin lamp. Not the kind that you rub for three wishes, but a tall kerosene lamp with a brighter light, which may have had something to do with the mantle. This particular lamp could also be hung on a wall bracket where it gave us kids enough light to see our playing cards half way across the kitchen. My grandmother sat nearer it to sew or knit and my grandfather sat in his grandpa chair at the gloomier end of the kitchen. The old, little oil lamp was still carried upstairs when we children went up to bed but the puddle of light it shed went back downstairs with Nanny.
I remember sitting on the porch in the evening watching the light fade in the east, my young aunt and uncles climbing onto the porch swing beside their father. The sun was going down behind the house, sinking below steep Hereford Hill. As the sky faded into an improbable turquoise in front of us, a single silver star gradually appeared over the Mount Monadnock. My grandfather broke the silence that had fallen on us five children.
“That will be Venus,” he said.
The evening star! And we children whispered to ourselves, “Star light, star bright/ the first star I see tonight/ I wish I may I wish I might/ Have the wish I wish tonight.” And then we refused to tell our wish for fear it would not come true.
I don’t remember what I wished, but it may well have been just to go on living in such blissful peace.
As darkness fell, a soft cloud of light bloomed softly from the town across the border in Vermont where there was electricity. Then one by one, the other stars popped out until the dome above us was full of them. We stood on the gravel drive gazing up at them, turning with our arms out for balance and nearly falling over, until Nanny called us in.
Once in a while, we found it necessary to journey to the outhouse before bed, a journey which could be undertaken only in pairs. There were no flashlights. It wasn’t worth lighting a lantern. I remember stepping down off the flat stone that served as a porch step and turning into a darkness as thick as black velvet.
“Stand still for a minute,” Nanny called before she shut the door against the bugs. “You’ll get your eyes back.”
I would have been glad just to get my breath back. Our voices seemed suddenly small. The darkness immeasurably large and strangely silent.
Were there wolves?
I have experienced such darkness as an adult at Peppermint Creek camp grounds above the Kern River in the Sierras. We always avoided the “serviced” camping area, pitching our tents next to the creek itself. Under the huge trees, there was no light pollution. The stars were numberless. It was possible to believe as I have heard that there are as many stars in the sky as there are grains of sand on all the beaches on earth.
Talking about the medieval two sleeps, a number of us have decided that we can take a new attitude to the tendency of age to wake up in the middle of the night. We can do what they did in the Middle Ages and value it as time well found.