Recently I spent the evening at the home of some friends who live just down the road. When I go there I typically ride my bike, 0.3 miles, down the dip and up the slight rise and I’m there, I scarcely have to pedal. That evening, when I left, it was well after dark, but the distance is short enough, and the road quiet enough, and my judgment clear enough, that I can easily get well off the road when I see the glow of distant head lights. When I pulled out of their driveway and out into the road though, that night it was so dark I could not see anything. The moon, nearly new, was hours from rising, and the sky, though clear, shed little light. I could not see enough of the road to get home, at least riding my bike along the broken edge of asphalt. I had to get off my bike and walk it home, and as I did so, my heart beat a little faster. Walking along in such inky darkness spooked me. I don’t spend much time outside in complete darkness, most of us westernized people don’t, and every time I do, the experience takes me to a place in my head, in my body, that feels old old old, and at the same time, immediate and as relevant today as it was when we were just coming down out of the trees.
Last summer, I wrote a piece for a radio show I produce for WERU community radio. I talked about watching a robin through its nesting cycle. Indulge me as I quote it at length here:
“In watching these animals, who I am so grateful to for accommodating my curiosity, I was given a gift. I saw how fast those babies grew, and thought of all of my friends and their children, and my young niece and nephew. I watched the mother sit faithfully on the nest for two weeks, and then saw the father return to share feeding responsibilities with the mother once the eggs had hatched. I was aware of the parents’ alarm when I would approach the nest for my lightening fast once daily photo, observing how the young would immediately lower themselves in the nest in response to their parents’ calls. When darkness fell each night, I would imagine the mother robin, sitting on her nest in the dark, with only her self between her babies and the unknown and hungry night beyond. Raising those babies is truly a robin’s life work. What kind of person am I if I am not awed by that?
As we enter this period of summer’s bounty and ease, pick something, anything, anything you will see on a daily basis, don’t wait for the Blackburnian warbler or the rose pogonia. Watch it until it brings you to your knees. I promise you, your life will be richer for it.”
This year the robins ( or perhaps their children) are back. The new nest was completed early in the summer, but then, no female materialized to lay eggs and I thought it was all for naught. But then, here in the height of mid summer, suddenly the nest is in use. There are three little hatchlings being fed and growing fast, and I thought of them, and their mother, as I walked down my driveway in the pitch black, anxious to turn the corner into field of light from the house. There was me, out in the darkness, for a few minutes on one night, and there were these birds, these babies, in the dark on that night and every night. I thought about what it would feel like to be afraid of the dark every night for your entire life, and with good reason. In the dark we are all prey.
I thought about the darkness when my friends were running the Downeast Sunrise Trail Relay race, an 102 mile overnight relay race through Hancock and Washington counties along a rail to trail multiuse path from Ellsworth to almost Eastport. When I first heard about this race I was fired up to gather a team and register. When I realized I had a previously scheduled conflict, I was sad, but let it go. Now I am seeing photos from the race and am newly motivated. I would love to run at night, run for long enough to see if the spook abates, if the night grows more comfortable, like your night vision. I would love to run alone, together, in the dark. This race seems like it might be the perfect entre into the nocturnal world. Regardless, I see now that I need more time in the dark, the real dark, without the luxury of a light switch. I believe that time is really all that is needed. Time to ride the wave of fear, time to relax into the other, non visual senses. Time to feel alert, time to feel secure.
Doing cross country drives, my preferred shift was the dawn patrol. Taking the wheel at 3 in the morning, and driving as the Earth rotated and the light slowly emerged was a delight I never grew tired of. Even in the dark, if you can survive the night, dawn is the one guarantee you have. The sun, it will rise, if you are just patient enough.