Darkness. It has such a bad rep. Maybe that comes from humans’ poor night vision compared to some of our predators, but in these days of degraded nature, we don’t have to worry so much. If you really want to be present and alive in your body and experience the thrill of being on this planet, take a night walk in the woods.
In the decades of my post-traumatic insomnia, I used to drive out from the city (Rochester) to my favorite park with trails and ponds and open spaces under which to view the night sky. Three a.m. was the best time, since it was still dark but you could be there long enough to watch the sun rise. (Plus, there were no men around to worry about.) I used to make a point of foregoing the flashlight so the real magic could come forth. First magic: starlight is enough to see by if you’re not in dense woods.
I first discovered this at Cedar Lake in the Adirondacks. I was lucky enough to have a friend who’d let me use his cabin perched over this small lake with no motorboats on it. The first time I drove up, he gave me detailed directions. I went alone and after dark, more and more excited as the paved roads turned into dirt roads into what looked more like foot trails. I’m still amazed I found his cabin in the dark, much less the trail down to the water and the canoe.
Gosh, I had canoed at camp when I was nine, but does one go canoeing at night? I stood on his dock and wondered how I’d find my way back if I went out there. So I fetched a candle lantern, left my little light to shine at the end of the dock, and paddled out.
Silence took me over. It was a clear, moonless night, the Milky Way out from horizon to horizon. Nothing like the night sky even in the parks near the city. People don’t know this sky. Over the years after that first night, I would insist that any guests I invited to Cedar Lake take the canoe out at night the first night they got there. So many of them had never seen the sky before!
But that first night–I still count it the highlight of my life. I paddled the length of the lake. Since the Milky Way was reflected in the water, it was like dipping my paddle into the sky, traveling among the stars. To add to the mystery, I heard a sound that shattered the bones in my body, a sound I had never heard before and didn’t know existed, a sound so beautiful and haunting that I could not be afraid of it even if it reminded me of wolves. Those of you who know what a loon sounds like get it; those who don’t, I grieve for you. (I didn’t learn until my next visit, when I actually saw these beautiful birds in broad daylight. They nest at Cedar Lake.)
When it came time to go back, I knew exactly where my cabin, my dock was. The silhouettes of the trees agains the stars told me long before I saw my puny little candle thinking it needed to outshine the universe.
Since then, I’ve paddled and walked in the pitch dark or on foggy nights when you’re immersed in mist. I remember some nights so dark I was terrified to step into what felt like palpable black, but I made myself do it just to get over fear. I relied on my feet to find the trails (which were all familiar to me in the daytime), but sometimes I’d get these gentle push backs from trees to course-correct.
At night, other magics happen. Animals treat you like you’re a denizen of the forest or lake. I’ve watched the gleam of green eyes following along beside me on the trail. Once, paddling in fog so thick I couldn’t see the front of my canoe, I heard a flock of Canada geese honking their approach to the lake, then descending, then splashing all around me as if I were part of their flotilla. I still don’t know how they didn’t crash into me.
During my last visit to Cedar Lake, the super blood moon total eclipse took place. When I went up for the weekend, I didn’t even know it was going to happen, so imagine my delight when night gets even darker. My friend and I took a flashlight-free walk to the beach and spent four hours watching the show, joined by a nearby screeching barred owl. (Talk about sounds that can terrify you if you don’t know who makes them and delight when you do know!)
Here’s the thing: by the time the moon went into its total eclipse (though of course you could still see its red sphere), the Milky Way came out. I’d never seen the night change like that. Oh, never mind, yes I had. The night I was setting up my sleeping bag on a moonless night and all of sudden started casting a shadow. How does that happen?! I looked up: northern lights! Bright white flashes, red and green waving clouds. That show lasted hours.
At night, you discover a vast belonging inside yourself that is too big for words. Somehow, I never feel insignificant when I look up at the vast sky; I feel awe and gratitude. I feel like part of something immense, the evolution of which was necessary for me to show up in it. I think it’s part of what helps me enter the dark waters of my own and another’s inner landscape, frightened of nothing we have to face in order to get our whole selves back.