Thursday, July 25, 2013

They Own the Night

You're driving along a winding gravel road. The road itself undulates through a seemingly endless countryside. Your headlights scan skyward and then plunge toward the ground as your car crests atop one rise and begins its descent into the next valley. Except for the headlights, and the trees, weeds, and rocks illuminated by them, you see ... nothing. A landscape devoid of any distinction. Total uninterrupted darkness. You hear the crunching sound of tires on gravel - only. Nothing else. The darkness and accompanying stillness are reminders. You know you are alone.

The only exception can be seen far off in the distance. You almost have to know where to look because the pinpoint of light is so faint as to be illusory; the more you try to fix your gaze on it, the more your eyes convince you that it is not really there. In part that is because the tiny beacon emanates from high upon a mountain three miles away and is the only sign of human habitation in a wall of blackness. On a moonlit night, the faint silhouette of the moutain itself - my mountain - can be discerned with some effort. On most nights though, when the evening mists form and the clouds take their sleep around the summit, nothing save the tiny glow from the porch light can be seen - for miles.

My porch light. My home.

To say that Paula and I live in isolation is no exaggeration. On a sunny day you can stand on our front deck and look down upon a vista that is right out of a JMW Turner landscape. Far off in the distance you can see the village of Bland with its distinctive Lutheran church steeple and nearby courthouse tower. Around and beyond the cluster of dwellings and small businesses, you see rolling pasture lands, punctuated with frequent woodlands and meandering ravines. Further away, you see an imposing Brushy Mountain. Directly behind our house rises our mountain, completely forested, uninhabited, since the beginning of time undisturbed. The Jefferson National Forest. Save for a few neighbors down below, we live alone.

Except for a host of other creatures. If we cohabit during the day, they own the night. Paula was walking next to the stream that flows down the mountain and across our property the other day when she noticed something unusual laying on the bank. It was a claw. A large, curved, grayish brownish claw. At first, when she brought it to the house and showed it to me, I thought it had come from a bobcat. Although rarely seen in the area, I had spotted one last winter, when the snow was its deepest high in the mountains. He - or she - had come down to my neighbor's farm looking for food, I expect. I watched it trot across a snow-covered pasture, its long, sleek silhouette unmistakable against the pure white background. It was there and then it slipped into the woods; gone.

But when I got to looking at it, I recognized that the claw had probably come from a bear. There are quite a few black bears in the forest above; so many that there is a hunting season established to keep the population down. One of them had come down to scavenge along the stream, perhaps. How the claw came to be there? Noone will ever know. Living in the wild, we witness considerable carnage. Red-tailed hawks and kestrils killing and eating doves and finches, insects eating other insects. The bear may have met up with a bobcat and the bobcat walked away from their confrontation. Last Spring, just after the snow thawed, I found along the same stream a rather fresh scattering of bones of a small fawn, probably caught and killed and eaten by coyotes. Out here you learn to read bones. Species. Age. Their fate sometimes.

It's the coyotes that signal to humans on warm summer nights that we are not in control, if only for a matter of hours. You never see them. But you can hear them howl. And there are times late at night when you can pick up what sounds like a pack of coyotes playing with one another, seemingly yipping and racing around in the blackness on the edge of dark pastures below. Occasionally you also hear screams. Primal last breath cries of anguish. Rabbits sometimes. Squirrels. You didn't know that rabbits can scream? It is more of a shrill squeal. Very brief. And then the interminable silence of the night closes in again.

Coyotes are not the only creatures that hunt around our house at night. I've heard, and on a few occasions have seen, owls swoosh by overhead; huge birds of prey. And there are many foxes, grays and reds. And bats out to get their fill of insects. Racoons. Possums. Mice. Bobcats. And there are the many creatures that move about in absolute silence, move about for the same purpose - sustenance. Snakes of assorted colors and sizes, many of which I stumble upon during daylight hours when they are resting from the previous night's hunt. And feral cats.

Once, several years ago, Paula and I were in the house, it was late at night, when we heard what sounded like a scream - almost human - from not far away. Only one short, loud cry that eminated from some creature that was confronting impending doom, and then silence again. Somewhere out there in the darkness. We looked at each other and we realized that I needed to go out and investigate. All I was wearing at the time were my shorts and tee shirt, it was Summer as I recall, and there was a heavy mist coming down outside. So I donned my "safety orange" jacket, grabbed a flashlight and my trusty baseball bat and went out to find the source of the...sound.

I walked the perimeter of our yard, found nothing, and decided to explore the woods behind the house. Knowing that there was a clearing deep in the forest, and deciding that the quickest and easiest way to get back to it was to traverse the edge of the cornfield that abutted the treeline. I headed in that direction. The only sounds I heard by now were those of millions of tiny droplets of mist collecting on the tree leaves, forming larger drops, falling down to leaves below, and raining down to the ground. Visibility by now was poor. The fog had rapidly obscured my vision of the house and I was unable to see anything beyond corn stalks and trees.

As I began trudging along the muddy furrow between the corn rows, shining my light on the path ahead, listening for sounds coming from the woods, a feeling came over me. A feeling of foreboding like I had never experienced before in my entire life. Something was watching me. Not someone. Some thing. I had this overpowering sense of consternation take hold. As I moved now, I tried to shine the flashlight in all directions, particularly behind me. I knew that, whatever it was, it was going to attack from behind. The thought went through my mind, "Stop it. You've been watching too many slasher movies." But the sensation did not go away. And the memory came to me of the bobcat tracks that I had seen in the snow the previous winter within yards of this spot. Large paw prints the size of my fist. It was not an agreeable thought. I knew that I needed to focus.

And I needed to get out of there.

So I turned back. Reentering the yard outside the house where I had the porchlight on to illuminate the surrounding area, I felt safe enough to turn and peer into the mist to see what it was that had been hunting me. But there was only silence, save for the dripping sound of mist plummeting from nearby leaves. And my line of sight ended at the edge of the forest, where the mist and darkness took over. I don't know what it was that I came close to confronting that night. But I learned a valuable lesson from it. During the day, my presence is tolerated.

They own the night.