Civil Twilight, A Sharp Knife, and Remembering John Haines and William Stafford

On the night of 19 July each year we mark a change here, a subtle one not noticed by many, but significant to back country flyers who do not come and go from established airports. No runway lights and centreline markers here, just water and snow and tundra.  On the night of July 19th, for the first time since May 26th,  there starts to be some “legal darkness” in the middle of the night.  Flying in daylight has been a 24-hour option for nearly two months now.  Today summer has crested and that season is done.

We do not see the Midnight Sun here, being still a few hundred miles south of the Arctic Circle.  We do, however, have midnight sunlight for these halcyon nine weeks.  Centered on either side of local midnight, skewed an hour by the adjustment of Daylight Saving Time, this first hint of coming change delineates the period when the sun’s orb drops more than six degrees below the horizon.  When it does, not enough light spills up over the rim of the earth to let a pilot safely bring an airplane down to “land” (be it water, snow, or gravel) without the aid of some sort of artificial lighting. 

This little wedge of darkness in the middle of night grows rapidly longer over the next few weeks, widening to nearly four hours here, latitude 62° 51’ North, by the first of August.  We keep a chart of the times here on a clipboard, handy for reference. It is a binding rule of aviation, and unlike some other edicts passed down from on high (Ottawa, Washington, etc.) this one makes us all sit up and take notice.  Turning short final for landing in the final minute or two before “Civil Twilight” or “Legal Darkness,” on an overcast night over dark water can be – as any bush pilot’s curled toes and puckered sphincter muscles will attest – quite exciting. Reduce the visibility to a (legal) mile or two in forest-fire smoke, or coat the windshield with some light mist, make the water glassy smooth, and it becomes one of the operations professional pilots get paid for.  So we take heed of those numbers.

For a few weeks now some long-ago memorized lines from a poem by John Haines have been running through my mind.  I have been thinking about Haines, and his place in my life as literary hero and bush-life icon.  I was lucky enough to meet John Haines a few times, and I saw him last  in 2004 when I arrived un-announced at the office he kept that spring at the University of Alaska. I had flown a Husky from Hoarfrost River to Fairbanks, to deliver it to a new owner, and I was waiting for the buyer to fly down from Bettles. John had gone flying with me once, about 30 years earlier, over the south shore of Lake Superior in a little Cessna 140 I owned with a buddy.  He still remembered that flight, and told me he had always thought he might get his pilot’s license.  Not a surprising aspiration for an Alaskan woodsman, where pilots of small bush planes fill the skies from Skagway to Kotzebue.   

In 1979 or 1980, late in autumn, William Stafford came to read at Northland College.  My longtime friend Lee Merrill, himself a poet and in those years a professor of English at Northland, had asked Stafford to dinner.  Lee had asked me, former pupil and avid Stafford reader, to join them.  We had gone out to Lee and Melinda’s home deep in the woods and far from town, on a tiny lake south of Ashland.  Dumbstruck as I was in the presence of Stafford and Merrill, I rode along silently in the back seat as Lee steered his old sedan north through the dark, to the college on the coast of the big lake. Stafford in person was just as any reader of his poems would have expected: polite, soft-spoken, gracious and generous.  As the dark November miles ticked past, the conversation turned to poets.  Stafford told of a mountain picnic with Gary Snyder, and chuckled at how charmed his wife had been by the man, hinting that perhaps she had been a bit surprised by that.

“Haines? I remember this about my first meeting with John Haines. We were together in Oregon, and we had an apple we were going to share.  He passed me his knife so I could cut it in half.  ‘Careful,’ he said, ‘it’s very sharp.’ And it was! I think it was one of the sharpest knives I’ve ever handled.  And that seemed so right, you know?  That John would always have with him a sharp knife.”

Stafford and Haines.  Poet’s poets. What fine brief meetings those were, sprinkled across those years, and what steady inspiration the lines and the lives of those men have been, thrumming along in my mind day by day.  Thanks, Lee, for those introductions. 

Now maybe I’ll set this aside and touch up my belt knife.  It is not as sharp as it should be, and certainly not as sharp as John’s knife in Stafford’s anecdote.  Day after day, it is there in its leather scabbard, and out doing something: cutting a rope, trimming a frayed hose, tweaking the tiny screw on a headset… and slipped back into its sheath.  I reach for it without even thinking, which is as it should  be with some tools, and I literally feel only half-dressed if I do not have it.  No pre-flight security checks here!

Sitting here on this rainy cool morning, I can’t discern any connection between the lines from a Haines poem and my ramblings from sharp knives to the annual onset of summer twilight.  So be it — this blog is subtitled Musings from the Hoarfrost River, and this month you get “musings.”   I’ll paste the lines from Haines here below.  John would be pleased. 

Thanks for reading, have a good month, and watch those twilight times, comrades.

And there I too wanted to stay…

speak quietly to the trees,

tell in a notebook sewn from

their leaves my brief of passage:

long life without answering speech,

grief enforced in that absence;

much joy in the weather,

spilled blood on the snow.


With a few split boards,

a handful of straightened nails,

a rake and a broom;

my chair by the handmade window,

the stilled heart come home

through smoke and falling leaves.


  • Final two stanzas from a poem “There Are No Such Trees in Alpine, California” from the collection Cicada by John Meade Haines (1924 – 2011)

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