Slowly, gently night unfurls its splendor
Grasp it, sense it, tremulous and tender
Turn your face away from the garish light of day
Turn your thoughts away from cold unfeeling light
And listen to the music of the night
We are accustomed to thinking that fear of the dark is foolish. Childish. Our parents tried to convince us that there was no monster under the bed. And how did they do this? By turning on the lights. How stupid is that! Everyone knows that monsters disappear the very instant there is light.
Eventually we learn to accept the rational and reject traumatizing fears. Most of us anyway. Most of the time anyway. Some of us even embrace the romantic notion of the splendor of the night. Until the very instant that we feel threatened by it.
Our family vacations included tent camping and backpacking trips. There is a huge difference though they appear the same to the uninitiated. Tent camping in an established campground is basically living in a village. There are neighbors for socializing, camp stores for stuff you forgot to bring, ranger talks to acquaint you with nature, and sometimes even showers. Campgrounds also have other essential facilities that we cannot possibly live without. Toilets. Some of them even flush. There is a great sense of security that comes with being able to “rough it” while hanging on to virtually every support system of civilization.
Backpacking, on the other hand, means that absolutely everything you need is carried on your back: shelter, food and a means to cook it, water, clothing, and footwear. If you don’t carry it, you ain’t got it and you can’t get it. Can you fit a toilet in your backpack? Yes you can. It is called a trowel and it is used to dig a shallow pit into which you make your necessary deposit. Yewww! That’s disgusting.
When our family was heading off on a backpacking trip, Shirley’s mother was convinced that it was some weird form of child abuse. What kind of responsible parents would take three little girls deep into the woods for several days at a time? It was as if we had voluntarily decided to go back to the Dark Ages with no modern conveniences. Even so, people do all kinds of things as recreation that would be perceived as work—really hard, dangerous work—if done out of necessity rather than by choice.
Deep in the woods, darkness comes quickly and the canopy of trees often blocks out the moon and stars. You will, however, be able to hear the music of the night. Think of the music of wind through the trees as a tuning up of the string section. It can be as pleasant and soothing as a Chopin nocturne. When the wind is brisk, though, larger branches rub against each other, creaking and groaning like some malevolent forest demon.
Our first chore at the end of each day hiking was to find a “bear tree.” The girls quickly became quite proficient at this. A “bear tree,” or more properly, two of them, were needed to store our gear and food out of reach. Black bears can climb high and fast, so there is no point in just hanging your stuff in a tree. It must be suspended so that it is out of reach from above, below, and either side. Bears are not only agile but clever, so you have to be smarter than the average bear. Do not scoff. Not all of us are. The bears prove it consistently.
Sometimes people make it way easier than any bear should reasonably expect. We were awakened in the middle of the night on the Appalachian Trail by distraught hikers. They had camped in a meadow a short distance away. No bear trees. No trees of any kind. So bears threw a party, inviting all their ursine friends. Refugees streaming into our camp claimed they had been surrounded. There were ominous grunting sounds and the smacking of lips. In the morning I went to have a look. All their gear, not just the food packs, had been run through a shredder.
So, what does this have to do with the music of the night?
Nighttime sharpens, heightens
Darkness stirs and wakes
When it is time to turn in and listen to the music, what does that music sound like? Depends on your state of mind and your general understanding of the world around you. Are you inclined to roll over to your companion and say, “Listen, Honey, the bears are singing our song”? Or is it more likely to be “Holy $#%&! What in the world was that?”
City dwellers with romantic notions of nature, proudly declaring themselves “environmentalists,” often have only theoretical knowledge of Mother Nature gained from watching Survivor. There is a veritable orchestra that performs nightly in the deep woods. But darkness stirs and imagination wakes the phantoms of the mind. What is that pushing against the side of the tent, scritch-scratching at the fabric? Who wants to open the tent to see what it is? Much easier to just convince yourself it is only a possum. Maybe a raccoon. Go back to sleep, now. Or try to, anyway.
Our camp sites were always near a water source. Sometimes a spring but more often a rushing mountain stream. “Babbling brook” is a poetic cliché, but it can also be an apt description. Water tumbling over and between boulders really does sound like a room full of people all talking at once. Some of them, apparently, are raucous and quarrelsome. Awakening in the night, temporarily disoriented, it may take a moment to recall where you are and conclude that the voices are not as threatening as you initially thought.
We have also camped on the beach where the rhythmic pounding of the surf can be soporific. CD recordings of waves on the beach are said to promote relaxation, inner peace, and sleep. All desirable benefits for only $19.99. If you are just barely above the high-water mark, though, the wump, wump of the incoming tide can be disconcerting. As the waves draw closer and closer, your spouse is increasingly likely to question your judgment. Even more so in places where the beach is not sand but pebbles that rattle and clatter as they are tossed about by the waves. For acoustical reasons, they always sound much louder at 3:00 a.m. than 3:00 p.m.
Spending the night at the base of a waterfall with all that white noise in the background is also calming and restful. Likewise, you have not fully lived until you have experienced the sound of gentle rain on the metal roof of an Appalachian Trail hut or RV. Though some are stressed by the thunder and lightening that sometimes comes with it, I always sleep the sleep of the just because my heart is pure. Shirley insists there must be a more plausible explanation.
Moving water may be rhythmic but not particularly musical. But tree frogs are—especially in breeding season when thousands of males are competing for female companionship. Cicadas, crickets, and nocturnally active birds may join in as well. Among the more musical night bird songs are the marvelous piccolo of the hermit thrush, cousin of the nightingale that sang in Berkeley Square, and the plaintive call of the whippoorwill. A barred owl duet features call and response. Hoot toot toohoo. In recent years, the population of wild turkeys has grown dramatically, and gobblers can be heard from an amazing distance.
Also heard from an amazing distance are the cries of 30,000 sandhill cranes that over winter at Whitewater Draw in Arizona. They begin to flock up in late afternoon to spend the night together in the safety of a crowd. Just before dawn, they all prepare to leave for breakfast in the fields. The bugle reveille of a single crane can be heard for nearly three miles. When you multiply the volume of that call by 30,000 and add in all the snow geese, ducks, and other waterfowl, you can understand why Shirley and I have never overslept at Whitewater.
All over the country, coyote choirs loosen up by singing some scales before their leaders tap them to order. Their yip-yipping, with an occasional soprano descant, is commonplace. At the ominously named Death Valley, a pack came right up to the campground. A ranger came by loudly proclaiming, “Get your pets under control, people!” Even in South Toledo, pet owners have found that sudden disappearances might be attributable to the little devils.
Less common, because they don’t form packs, is the high-pitched cry of the fox. It can sound like the harsh call of a raven or crow or even the demanding cry of a baby in distress. Like coyotes, urban foxes are becoming increasingly common. Wild things make my heart sing.
Scary stories around the campfire capitalize on the ability of all kinds of night sounds to encourage huddling closer together for reassurance. Those stories can be enhanced by a high screech like an Aztec death whistle announcing human sacrifice.
If you are Irish, think of the banshees. If Italian, consider some of Dante’s more reprehensible souls being tortured in a lower circle of The Inferno. Creep you out? It should. In the beams of our flashlights were two skunks locked in mortal combat, loudly cursing each other as they twisted and tumbled about. Or perhaps it was copulation. I have heard that some like it rough. As one inseparable beast with two backs, they somersaulted downhill until lost in the dark. But not silenced by it. Thankfully, they left no olfactory evidence of their vehemence—or passion.
At the other end of the audio spectrum are the rumbling double-bass voices we have often heard. Not very melodic, but basses are not expected to carry the melody. In the dark at Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, there was no doubt about the identity of the singers. We had seen hundreds as, just before sunset, the bison assembled from the hillsides along the Little Missouri River. After dark, they paraded through the campground rumbling deep, deep in their massive chests. “Umm, umm, umm! Fee, fi, fo, fum! I smell the blood of an Englishman!”
Other creatures sing a similar song. We took a ranger-led starlight walk in Everglades National Park. In the beams of our flashlights were hundreds of red Christmas lights strung along the bank of Taylor Slough. Alligator eyes. The bellowing of a bull gator is like a Harley engine that sputters a few times but won’t start. The sonic frequency causes water to dance on the gator’s back. The deeper the rumble, the bigger the gator, so it is used to impress the ladies and discourage the competition.
We were impressed and discouraged as well when those glowing red eyes headed in our direction. The gators moved, like a pack of wolves, into the increasingly narrow canal within 10 feet of the Anhinga Trail where we stood. Frogs, turtles, gars, catfish, and snakes stampeded before them as the noose tightened. Thrashing water and the rush of gators disturbed a flock of ibises roosting in nearby pond apple trees. They protested with discontented cries somewhere between a croak and a quack with an occasional shriek thrown in. Hundreds of frogs successfully scattered before the gator onslaught, but some of them leaped straight up and came down where they did not want to be. One gator grasped a soft-shelled turtle upside down and another held a heavy-bodied brown water snake that writhed and wrapped itself around its jaws. The most common gator strategy was to chomp on fish pinned against the reeds and soft mud along the canal banks. It was a noisy, turbulent affair as discordant as a Schoenberg symphony.
The splendor of the night, like Michael Crawford in Phantom of the Opera, can be mesmerizing or terrifying. Or both. But, if you know the score, the music is simply magnificent and the price you pay for admission to the concert is just a walk in the park.
LeMoyne Mercer is the travel editor for Healthy Living News. There is limited space here for LeMoyne’s photos. You might want to see more at anotherwalkinthepark.blogspot.com. Please leave comments on the site.