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Living and Writing in the Natural World

The magic of the night

First the owl—probably a great-horned—whooshing over the car in the darkness. Then an opossum on the side of the road, debating between irrigation ditch and asphalt as I bore down on him. By the time the young black-tailed jackrabbit loped across the road, I was remembering a lifetime of night-time adventures in the natural world, and the magical spells often accompanying these dark moments.

It was several nights ago, and I was driving home from watching the Detroit Tiger’s ace Justin Verlander make mincemeat of my Oakland Athletics hitters in the American League division playoffs. “Home” in this instance is a three-hour drive in northern California, the last hour through the “rice field” route of country lanes bordered by—you guessed it, rice fields, rich in bird and mammal life, particularly in the hours well past midnight, which was where I was.

I remembered loading a pickup truck full of students and winding through the maze of dirt roads in sagebrush scrub in northeastern California thirty years ago, a window-mounted spotlight restlessly searching to either side for kangaroo rats about their nighttime business of gathering seeds. Interestingly enough, the rats would freeze when hit by the light, as a dozen students bailed out of the truck and netted the rodent. Being careful not to hurt the critter—k-rats are beautiful, golden with bold markings and a long, tufted tail—we’d “tag” it with a metal band in its ear, then after all had laid reverent gentle hands on it, we’d release it and watch it get its bearings before hopping away. (Tagging the critters lets us figure out what their home ranges are and map them, checking for patterns correlated with vegetation types.) Then back into the truck, for more wandering through the night, occasionally spotting a deer or coyote—neither of which froze when the light revealed them. Then back to the mess hall of the field station of which I was director, for hot chocolate and tales.

In grad school even further back, the midnight forays were considerably wetter—in North Carolina swamps, the same restless lights (this time mounted on headbands) searching the water and islands for frogs, snakes, and salamanders. Considerably more dashing about was required to catch these creatures, and the thrill of the chase was intense, sloshing about in ankle- or knee-deep waters with your buddies in the warm Carolina summer air. Plus of course, the thrill of identifying your snake as a cottonmouth was unmatched, as we called our prof Henry over with his snake-stick to effect the capture. (Here we were censusing the species of amphibians and reptiles in a Northern Carolina swamp, and matching their adaptations to the swamp habitat.)

Not all memorable moments in the night involve chases. I thought of Li Po’s poem as I lay in my sleeping bag at 13,300 feet on the flank of Mt. Whitney four years ago, my youngest daughter and her buddy beside me, the dark night sky brilliant with shimmering stars above us. “To refresh our sorrow-laden souls / we drank wine deep into the splendid night, / Its moonlit charm far too precious for sleep. / But at last the wine overtook us / and we lay ourselves down on the innocent mountain, / the earth for pillow, the stars for cover.” Though Mt. Whitney, with its blasted metamorphic rock, actually reminded me more of Tolkien’s Mordor than Li Po’s “innocent mountain,” the same stars were covering us as had covered Li Po in the T’ang dynasty.

Moonlight, of course, casts a magical glow on everything it touches in the wilderness. In an earlier blog (6 September 2012), I have written about moonlight on giant sequoias towering above me this summer, as the quavering whistle of a screech owl filled the night. Watching the setting moon cast its glow onto Cathedral Peak west of Tuolumne Meadows as my son and I settled into our sleeping bags six years ago warmed our hearts, though unfortunately not our bags, as the icy wind off Cathedral Lake revealed the inadequacy of my boy’s bag (guess who slept in that bag the next six nights). Moonlight is magic even in our own backyard here in Chico, where I awake several times each night on my full-moon sleep-outs and admire our oak trees basking in its mellow glow.

Not that you have to be sleeping outdoors for the magic of the night to reach you. My fondest childhood memory is laying with my face at the open window directly against my bed at our 13th street home in Tulsa on rainy nights. This was one of those old windows higher than wide, with sashes that opened up-and-down (rather than side to side), so that the bottom of the open window was exactly at bed-level. Thus the young boy laying in his bed had his nose literally on the sill of the open window, avidly soaking in the gorgeous smell of night-rain gently falling just outside. Here in California it never rains in the summer, only in the chilly winter, so windows are usually closed when it rains (and anyway the wider-than-tall windows are too high on the wall for a kid to have his nose on the sill).

That delicious aroma of night-time rain is stuck so deep in my psyche that just a few weeks ago, when I was visiting Tulsa for my kid sister’s 60th birthday, and of course had the window wide open in my bedroom at night, I awoke instantly as a thunderstorm passed through and that old smell wafted into my room. I was an eight-year-old again, my mom and dad were alive and making the universe safe and secure, and the night was alive with the smell of summer rain. I came darn close to crying, it was such a vivid and sweet memory. My mom and dad are gone, I'm the one now who has to handle the challenges the universe throws my way, but that wonderful smell of night-time summer rain blesses me still, not changed a whit in sixty years.

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