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Don't be in the dark about what's around us

On nature

POSTED: April 5, 2008 5:00 a.m.
One evening when I was a young woman, I was caught on Springer Mountain in Georgia when darkness fell.
I had been running for over an hour, trying to get back to the trailhead, but after sundown, and after twilight, and after dusk, a blackness descended that stopped me dead.
The night was moonless. When I looked down, I appeared even to myself as a ghost.
The path, decades old, was a long groove in the earth. On either side, the forest floor was covered with rattling leaves. So, I removed my shoes, using my feet to search for the way. Sometimes I went down to hands and knees, feeling. Late in the night I arrived back where I had begun.
At night our senses sharpen. As in true blindness, the brain, in the absence of sufficient light, opens other sensory receptors.
Too, the human eye has the ability to adjust to darkness, its pupil opening wide to gather available light. For me, night-vision is a skill as necessary as swimming. (To have night-vision requires good eye health as well as practice in navigating darkness, in order to exercise the light-sensitive rod cells of the retina.)
In our love for daylight and things of day, we humans mostly miss a nocturnal natural history of fabulous proportion. During spring and fall, birds fill the night sky, mostly unseen. High in the universe yellow-billed cuckoos migrate, their bodies silhouetted against harvest moons.
On spring nights, male pinewoods tree frogs hop to the edges of vernal pools, where they call and call, begging a female to come to them. Flatwoods salamanders pick a cold rainy fall night to start their treks downhill to ephemeral ponds to breed.
By night, sea turtles migrate toward sand dunes, where they painstakingly dig nests and lay their leathery eggs. Mullet leaping in the saltwaters throw up spumes of phosphorescence. Owls hunt the understory.
These animals are wired to move in darkness. Light will confuse them, make them head in wrong directions, stall them.
My friend Sandy West, who lives on a barrier island off the coast of Georgia, talked to me about her sadness for the lives of young people nowadays. "They will never know total silence or total darkness," she said. "We have all but completely taken night away from them."
Sometimes at night I go outside and listen to the dark wood collect around me. From the pond comes a frog chorus, and around me I hear tiny rustlings and the slight movements of animals. A barred owl calls. I stand for a long time beneath the night-clouds, looking into the inscrutable distance.

Ray has an essay in the forthcoming collection, Let There Be Night: Testimony on Behalf of the Dark.

 

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