Midnight, and I can’t sleep. The cat is curled beside me, having no problem at all. A cool breeze flows through the screened window; finally the hot nights of August and September have given up the ghost.
Years ago we used to make fun of people who had air conditioners on the Cape, but the last few hot summers—the inexorable ratcheting up of climate change—have left us questioning that attitude, ready to relent. Still, an open window is a conduit into the world- so much better than a gray metal humming chill-box- and I am glad for it tonight. There is a backdrop of cricket din outside.
Then I hear the curdling cry of a coyote, and then another joining it. The cat sits up. That’s instinct speaking. I think: all the world is theirs when we retire to our beds. They own the night. They stroll across our lawns and down our streets and lanes. We share with them whatever is outside, and we do it on their terms. It is the ultimate time share. And it is not only the coyotes. The list of nocturnal animals is long, and goes well beyond the owls and bats to include many insects and animals and quite a few birds. Night is their time- not ours. I watched a tiny Carolina Wren skulking in the growing shadows of the underbrush off my deck as twilight seeped in. As the light dimmed it seemed incrementally more secure. We of course are the opposite. Darkness into light at dawn gives us solace; diminishing light into twilight gives us pause.
The twilight may be pleasant, but full-on darkness elicits an unease, a hereditary unease. Our earliest primate ancestors would take to the trees at twilight; later versions of us huddled in caves and hoped to survive the night; and when the genius who tamed fire came along, our earlier selves ever after relied upon it until the sun returned. Night was an especially dangerous time. The world has always provided for us, but at the same time it is ultimately out to get us. No hard feelings- but stay where you belong. We are generally uneasy where we don’t belong: underground- cavers and spelunkers excluded; up in the air- sky-divers and mountaineers excluded; or on the water- sailors and mariners excluded. Night time advancing on us is ultimately humbling. And it is not necessarily a bad thing to be humbled.
The sounds of night are unique. Since sight is secondary, hearing is promoted, and rewarded. Embedded in the velvet darkness, the subtlest noises reach our ears with a heightened richness. The rustling of a mouse in the leaves, the crickets’ rhythmic trill, the whip-poor-will’s monotonous whistle, the bumbling moth on the screen.
“Tender is the night “said John Keats, in “Ode to a Nightingale”.
He was referring mainly to its music.