Anyone who has ever exchanged email with me probably has noticed the hours I keep. Time stamps tell them I am a confirmed owl. East-coast larks and I often cross days, as they start their days as I am ending mine.
Rather than calling myself an owl, now and then I say I have vampiric tendencies. (After all, I do write fantasy.) I get some interesting reactions to this statement, especially from non-science-fiction/fantasy fans. But whatever term you use, the fact remains: my personal circadian rhythms and schedule are effectively out-of-phase with the sun.
Some people share Ben Franklin’s low opinion of late hours. Or should I say Poor Richard’s? After all, Mr. Franklin was quite the bon-vivant in his day, which hardly seems to match the Puritanical tone of “early to bed and early to rise.” But science has come to the rescue once again! More and more research seems to be saying that it’s not my fault. (I’ve been saying this at intervals for years about all sorts of things, but no one listens.)
This recent article in the New York Times shows there’s a hereditary component to this. Despite past generations of farmers on both sides of my family, I think I get my owl tendencies from my mother. Even though she’s past eighty, I do not worry about calling her after nine pm her time. I know people three decades younger where that’s a problem. True, I can’t call Mama at two am, but I also don’t worry about getting six am calls from her. In fact, I suspect she’d resent them almost as much as I do.
In addition to the Puritanical Poor Richards, you’ve got another strain of Puritan Luddite who wants to blame technology for the very existence of us owls. The alleged logic goes that without electricity, we’d all still be going to bed with the chickens and getting up with the roosters. Aside from the fact that this sounds dreadfully uncomfortable (ever been in a chicken coop? and roosters crow at any hour), this shows a lack of common sense and an ignorance of both geography and the effects of earth’s axial tilt on the seasons.
I don’t think anyone would call Berlin or London Arctic cities. But both those great cities, fonts of history and culture and our modern world, lie north of the fiftieth parallel. (Berlin at 52 degrees, 19 minutes north and London at 51:30.) One can calculate how much of an effect these northern climes will have on the day/night cycle of Berliners and Londoners, but thanks to the wonders of the internet, you can get exact times. Here’s the site I use.
It turns out that on December 22, the shortest day of this year, the sun will rise at 8:15 am and set at 3:56 pm in Berlin, and at 8:04 and 3:54 in London. Allowing an hour for dusk at dawn and sunset, that means that night, in the sense of full darkness, in those cites will last about fifteen hours!
Does anyone actually think people who lived before electricity in those regions slept for fifteen hours? What of areas even closer to the pole? So what do they think people did during those long hours of darkness? Aside from sex, that is; I know that’s the first response many people will make to that question.
Other possibilities include working, by candle or fire or moonlight, or standing guard, or caring for children, or studying the stars. I’m rather fond of that last myself. People who pretend that all people’s circadian clocks are set to the same time also seem to ignore the vast store of visual astronomical data that has been amassed over millennia by people who stayed up at night. The vigils and canonical hours of the pre-Reformation Church went on year-round, and I’m certain that priests and priestesses in the temples of Rome and Greece and Egypt and Tenochtitlán had similar duties.
And I’m equally certain—not able to prove it, mind you, but certain—that many of those people with such duties were as happy with their schedules as I am with mine. I’m sure they learned to savor and enjoy the same things I love about the nighttime. The silence, the peace, the lack of mental static from all those busy human brains. The endless beauty of the night skies, so much kinder to the eyes than the harsh glare of the sun. The feeling of rest lying upon the world that is more restful than sleep itself. The cool respite from heat in a hot climate. And the sense of ownership.
We own the night, we owls. We welcome tourists from the daylight hours, but the magic and beauty of night’s depths belong to us.