Thursday, July 11, 2013

NATURE'S NIGHT SHIFT – Seeing Through the Darkness

Darkness brings on Nature's night shift. Cicada's relieved by cricket; oriole by owl; squirrel by skunk.
Let senses better suited to dark than vision regard the new crew 

as they take their turn in the urgent business of being.                               FROM UNDER THE WILD GINGER – A SIMPLE GUIDE TO THE WISDOM OF WONDER, BY JEFFREY WILLIUS

How far can you see at night? Okay, it’s kind of a trick question. We tend to think darkness means we can’t see very far, or very much, at all. So it’s easy to believe Nature pretty much goes to bed when we do.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

PHOTO: John Fearnall

When I was about ten, my family spent summers in an enchanting little settlement called Franconia, on the St. Croix River about an hour’s drive from Minneapolis - St. Paul. I’d spend all day exploring the woods, fields and waters, nourished by all sorts of little discoveries. Nothing escaped my gaze.

But one of the most magical discoveries of those summers completely escaped me...until after dark, that is.

All across the fields thousands of moving, winking pinpricks of light punctured the black shroud.

I’ll never forget that sultry, cricket-pulsing July night when, just before bed, my parents, my brother and I first walked down to the river after dark. Groping our way along the narrow dirt road, we could barely see where we were going.

What little starlight there was was swallowed up by woods on either side. Then, suddenly, the landscape opened up onto broad alfalfa fields. And all across them thousands of moving, winking pinpricks of light punctured the black shroud.

When’s the last time you spotted a firefly during the day? Or a star...the northern lights...or a distant thunderstorm? 

Yes, it’s a whole new cast of characters at night, and it takes a whole new mindset—not to mention a few clever tools—to observe them.

Of course, those after-dark wonders involving light are easy. Fireflies, biolumines-
cent plankton, the moon and stars, man-made satellites. In a sort of perversion of showmanship, they wait to strut their stuff for the curtain of darkness to fall, the perfect backdrop for their virtuosity. 

Sometimes you have to provide your own light. Scan woods and waters for telltale signs of waking life: shapes, movement, exhalation’s vapor, eerie reflecting eyes. Turn your beam down for all the creepers and crawlers. Look under rocks and logs. Gaze into water for all that alien world's denizens and dramas.

The thing about Nature at night is that the very darkness that so limits our sense of sight challenges our other senses to stretch and grow. Bats do it with their sonar-tuned hearing; snakes, by smell; moles, by touch. And we—we lucky humans—can use all three...and then some.

LISTEN for bats listening for you with those barely audible, high-pitched little ps-s-sts. For the munching of pine beetles boring deep inside their woody hosts. For Canada geese soaring south each fall a thousand feet up. For bard owl’s rhythmic question, Who? Who?, perhaps carrying a mile over still water.

SMELL fragrances you might not fully appreciate during the day, or those released only at night, like night-blooming flowers, sweet, dewy grass, or just that unique blend of perfume, engine exhaust and hot frying oil that’s the signature scent of a city after dark.

Feel the warmth of a two-year-old's hand, 
reaching for certainty in the dark.

FEEL the cooler, calmer air of night. The infinitesimal breeze of a mosquito's wings as it settles. The warmth of a two-year-old's hand, reaching for certainty in the dark.

SENSE the urgency of hunting and hiding, the industry of building and burrowing, the intricate plan of procreation…and your primordial connection with all of it.

Darkness should no more dampen our awareness of wonder than time dampens love. In fact, it should awaken it, deepen it, enrich it. You, your curiosity, your open, generous senses, your faith in creation can be the light that shows you the way.

At night, while level eyesight obeys the dark, the upward glance 
defies it, stretching a billion-fold to behold the stars. 


OneStonedCrow said...

Yes, you're right ... darkness enables another kind of vision ...

Jeffrey Willius said...

Thanks, OSC! -- Headed your way (roughly) tomorrow. Hope to share some thoughts & images after we get back (if not while we're there -- if I can figure out the unfamiliar technology connections)

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