The Night Shift

Glover’s Reef, off the Belizian coast, Summer 2005.

“Many people find themselves in the dark, in the outdoors at night, for some reason or another…” – Vinson Brown, Knowing the Outdoors in the Dark

I go running in the evenings, down along the limestone scarps behind my house.  The trail winds beside the Rio, the narrow defile opening up into a series of broad, marshy meadows.  The last and largest of these meadows is riddled with Gunnison’s prairie dog burrows and offers spectacular views of the Peaks to the north, and the deeper forest to the east.  To the south, the woods are blackened and skeletal, bearing witness to a recent fire.  The summer’s growth has spurred a tentative colonization of the edge of the black forest, columbines, vervain, and Dalmatian toadflax erupting bright green against the black ash.  Now, late in the summer, various species of Amaranthus and field bindweed thread their way across the char.   Early in the evening, swallows gather in great numbers at the dark forest’s edge, eager to take advantage of the curtains of non-biting midges who rise above the verdant field.  On the far side of the meadow, where the forest remained unsinged atop a limestone ridge, red-tailed hawks rise from their perches and eyries to pursue prairie dogs in the field below.  By sunset, the hawks have settled down for the night, their piercing territorial cries given over to muffled churrs between partners and half-grown nestmates.  As the sun dips fully behind the western horizon, limning the clouds with brilliant golds and pinks, the midges descend to the grasses and forbs below, and the swallows and flycatchers return to their nighttime perches deeper in the ponderosas.

The evening of the year is swiftly approaching.  A trio of ash throated flycatchers surprised me in the yard the other morning, beeping and wagging their tails as they made their way downhill from seeps and springs on the high mountainside to winter quarters beside the oak-lined streams of the Sedona red rocks.  The lazuli buntings who used to greet me every morning with raucous song have slowly quieted and drifted south.  The goldfinches remain, waiting for the bonanza that comes when the meadow plants finally cease flowering and allow their seed pods to mature and dry in the autumn sun.  The rosehips are on the rosebushes, and the grapes are fattening on the wild grapevines.  The nights are sweatshirt chilly, and steal a little more from each day’s dawn.

I used to go out wandering at night, late, when I lived in New York.  Crazy with broken heart and unsaid words I’d make my way through the town near the college to a little patch of woods left by the suburb-builders.  Huge old oaks and cottonwoods rose beside a little rivulet winding  between drug stores and Westchester mansions.  The summer I was working in the neighborhood, I heard rumors of a family of coyotes who’d dug out a den under one of the old glacial erratics littering the woodland floor.  One day, traveling back through the woods to the train station, I followed canine tracks to a wide, sandy hole underneath a freestanding lump of basalt.  A year and some adventures later, I returned to the woods at night, running from the city and looking for something unknown and beautiful in the dark.  The first time, I stepped fearfully onto the soft sand of the path, blinking the streetlamp blindness from my eyes and jumping at every vine and shrub that brushed my side.  Carefully, hesitantly, embarrassed of the possibility of being caught out, I howled.  Trains and distant cars mumbled in the background; the quiet rustles of the wintertime night forest seemed loud and powerful all around.  A little more confidently, I raised my head and gave a passable imitation of a lonesome East coast coyote.  Quiet on the wind, at first almost a whisper, flowed the answering cries.

I have an ambivalent relationship with the nighttime.  The whole world grows thinner, or seems to, in the crepuscular hours at the edge of daylight.  A new crew takes over, one unafraid of our technological and philosophical boundaries.  Bears and raccoons venture into suburbia in these nocturnal hours.  Owls perch on rooftops, and toads sing from backyard gardens.  The unknown is closer to hand in the darkness; it is far more difficult to rationalize our situation, deprived of the visual acuity granted by the sun.  I spend a lot of time out and about during the transition times of dawn and dusk, dusk especially.  For all the time I’ve been abroad in the forest’s world, deep into the nighttime, an apprehension still draws on me at the fade of the daylight’s last glow.  There is always the fear, sometimes slight, sometimes overpowering, that if I should call, something might call back- or worse, that something should howl at me, unbidden!

Inside now, the electric light is warm and dinner simmers on the stove.  Through the open window filter the song of crickets and katydids and the distant barking of dogs made somehow louder by the darkness.  Beneath the limestone scarps, skunks plow through the vegetation, nosing out invertebrates and sleeping lizards.  A horned owl glides silently past roosting swallows, searching for shrews and mice in the undergrowth.  Broad-winged neuropterans dodge jinking bats and clever spiders, rising from the canyons towards the burgeoning late-August moon.  Those who the old Celtic Britons call “the crew that never rests” are abroad in the world.  I’ll be asleep soon, and dreaming deep, take to the night.

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One Response to “The Night Shift”

  1. Beautiful writing, Ben. I hope you’ve been well!

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