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In Search of Night

"Night Mood" - excerpt from watercolor © Michael Gambino 2007Where I grew up, there was no real nightfall. Towering overhead, ten thousand street lights stood watch over the urban population. They were silent and steadfast guardians holding back the darkness, dissolving it wherever their noble gas and sodium oxide-generated light touched it. As the sun sank behind blocky, man-made horizons, and the wash of indigo flowed across the twilight sky, the guardians blinked to attention to meet approaching night. Should one of these blazing sentinels die a flickering death, darkness pressed its advantage there. This was an urban warfare of sorts, waged block by block, night after night.

When I was very young, my understanding of night and darkness was limited. Night was simply a waiting period before getting on with the business of the day once again. I could see only a few of the brightest stars or planets, and the impact of the full Moon’s brilliance was rendered inconsequential. Losing the potency of night – its magic and mystery – was the price we paid for living inside the great protective dome of electric light. 

Years later, as a teenager still essentially cut off from an experience of true night, I began to feel a strong desire to hunt for its secrets, to experience its hidden qualities. It wasn’t long after that realization that I was compelled to embark on the first of many nighttime quests. I slipped out of the house after midnight and began moving through empty streets. I soon began to see the urban landscape as if it were only composed of shadow and light. Various shadow shapes were cast about in abstract patterns, some long, some blocky, and I used these paths to cloak my presence.

To my surprise, I discovered that I was not alone on these alternative pathways through the night. I encountered cats, mice, roosting birds, crickets and other insects, rats, and a host of hidden objects to trip over. When my mind conjured up frightful interpretations of unfamiliar shapes, my heart thundered so loudly that I thought someone would surely hear it. Fortunately, most of the time I just savored the thrill of exploring the fragmented spaces and empty lots where night held its ground. 

"Urban Night Light" © Michael GambinoOn successive quests, I was drawn beyond the boundary of the light shield. I headed for the peace and darkness of the cemetery across the expressway in front of my house. It seemed an ideal place to find the dark of night, since there were no lamp posts, and the ambient light of the urban landscape did not penetrate as much. I climbed a tree that reached over the iron fence and dropped to the ground inside the cemetery. As I moved silently along the cemetery pathways, I discovered that after a short while my eyes adjusted to the dark and I could see better. 

Inscriptions on the grave stones were faint, but still legible, and the occasional owl or skunk sighting was a grand event. Being in the cemetery did not feel creepy or weird. I was there to seek wisdom and solitude, and so this –  the final resting place of  many who had departed the physical world for new adventures in spirit – seemed a fitting place for me to contemplate my own spiritual nature.

When I would retrace parts of my nighttime journey through the neighborhood by the light of day, I was surprised at how unremarkable the urban terrain really was without the stillness, shadows, and mystery. By day people went about their appointed tasks, oblivious to the night world that existed on these very same streets, sidewalks, and patches of lawn. Traffic filled the roads, and the night creatures I had encountered had seemingly vanished along with the mists of dawn. The difference between the worlds of night and day astounded me. I felt confined by the routine of an ordinary reality – that choreographed interplay of people, places, and things. Nature as a living mosaic of primal  energy seemed largely ignored, subjugated by the metal mind of society with its heavy investment in the mostly predictable acts of daily living. 

While in my early twenties, I still longed for an experience of true night without the seemingly inescapable light pollution from cities and towns, and so I boarded a Greyhound bus heading north. My destination was a ten-acre piece of land in upstate New York that my brother-in-law’s family owned. The rural, undeveloped property ensured that I would not have to contend with ambient light, sirens, the constant hum of transformers on utility poles, and the headlights of cars and trucks. I would find the night sky once and for all, and discover what creatures owned the night.

Arriving by late afternoon, I shouldered my over-stuffed backpack and hiked a few miles from the bus depot to the ten-acre woods. Finding a suitable location, I set up my campsite and briefly explored the area. After cooking a simple meal, I simply sat quietly and awaited the sunset, watching and feeling the natural world transition from day to night. Amazingly, when the sun went down, it began to get dark – really dark. I was excited and a bit nervous now, since I was not in familiar territory. Still, I resisted the temptation to build a fire against the growing darkness. Instead, I just sat still for a long time, expanding my senses out into the surrounding landscape, witnessing it come alive. There were many insect sounds and rhythms surrounding me now, and the snapping of twigs and scuffling of crunchy dry leaves told of other lives out there in the dark, searching, meeting. . . and eating.

Walking to the open field, I looked up into the star-filled sky and smiled in awe. I tried to find the Big Dipper, or Orion – the only constellations I could recognize in my old neighborhood sky, but they were lost to me in the spray of celestial diamonds. A shooting star caught my eye, and I made a wish. A short while later, I found myself stealing glances over my shoulder at the absolutely dark wall of trees that marked the edge of the clearing. Part of me hesitated because, well, it was just so dark in there. When suddenly, a pair of leathery wings beat past my face, I took that to mean I’d better get going, and so without further delay I entered the night world of the forest.

Moving slowly and without a flashlight, I began to explore the dark and unfamiliar landscape. It was not long before my body realized it had to move differently than in daylight. It was easy to lose my balance unless I crouched with knees bent. Often I crawled along the ground, learning to see with my hands and knees. I felt myself become like a fox, moving carefully and quietly, pausing often to expand my awareness out into the forest. I found that by very gradually compressing the debris on the forest floor with hands and knees, I could minimize or eliminate the typical crunching, snapping, thudding sounds that would alert animals to my presence. 

After a while of doing this, I began to notice a shift in my perception, and a feeling that I had passed some unseen threshold and was now becoming part of the woods. Deeper I sank into this quality of awareness, until I began to sense the presence of a separate reality that seemed connected to the physical world around me, yet was more than simply a reflection of it. As this feeling grew more palpable, it was as though I could reach out into the dark of night and touch the veil that marked the boundary between the physical world and the world of spirit. Something was drawing me closer to that veil, and while I was nervous, I wanted to be closer still. I hungered for adventure and to touch that mystery so near, and yet so far away.

At one point during my wandering, I heard very faint drumming and what sounded like Native American voices that confounded my logical mind. I caught glimpses of what seemed like small pale glowing blobs of light scampering or walking through the woods ahead of me. These events caused me to be hyper-aware, and my senses reached out as far as I could push them into the dark.  I sensed no danger, so I continued on slowly and silently. Moving intuitively with no schedule to keep, I obeyed simple commands: turn here, pause there, smell this, touch that. This was pure freedom.

Textures and shapes of the rocky outcroppings spoke to my mind through my fingertips, telling tales of the staggering power of glaciation some 13,000 years earlier. Moist areas of soil and the gently rolling topography created in my mind a picture of the of the flow of rainwater over the landscape. Placement of spider webs that I found (often with my face) indicated subtle air currents that might be used by insects. Owl calls originating from various directions told me that there were enough rodents in the field and forest to provide good hunting for several owls. Rodents would be abundant because of the wealth of seeds and nuts produced by the oaks, hickories, maples, and other trees and shrubs. The accumulated heat of the summer day captured by rock and soil now radiated back up into the starry sky. Pockets of warm and cool air that changed with variation in topography and vegetation added to the three-dimensional map taking shape in my mind.

Deep into the night, crawling silently forward along a fern and moss covered ledge, I was suddenly struck by an urgent, silent command to STOP. I obeyed instantly, and the hair stood up on the back of my neck. After a few moments without further evidence or warning, I began to think the command was a false alarm. I was about to resume my travel when there came a very loud and incredulous snorting and stomping from the ledge just a few inches above my head. I froze, my face to the ground as a large deer leapt over me and crashed through the forest, shattering the silence as it thundered away. As you might imagine, it was a while before I composed myself enough to continue, making my way back to camp and to a well-earned, dream-filled slumber.

The magical quality of the night had revealed itself to me, and at last I experienced what I had been yearning for during my youth as a prisoner of the urban light shield: the night, as it was meant to be.

It has been many years since that night quest, and I have since learned much about the workings of nature and spirit. My search for night was really the beginning of a search for something deeper. The experience of night away from the heavy influence of humankind can lead to a greater sense of self and a sense of our place in the world. The biggest obstacle standing between us and a deeper relationship with nature exists in our minds. The powerful distractions generated by society deceive our senses and alter our perception. Such distractions create the illusion that we are somehow apart and exempt from the laws and processes of nature that govern life on earth. What waits for us in the primal night is truth. Our illusions and delusions about reality are challenged, and therein lies a reason many fear the darkness. More than any wild creature moving unseen in the night, it is perhaps our own self that we are afraid to encounter.


Author’s Note:

I do my best to pick and choose my words extremely carefully when crafting a story. The vibration of each word, the colors, tones, and mood, whether singly or as part of a sentence, is critical for conveying experience. There is a deliberate often lyrical quality created when the words are put together this way. Changing even one word, especially one on which a climactic moment pivots, is like smashing pottery. Modern publishing tools such as auto-correct, auto-fill, spell-check and so on can sometimes muck things up for the writer – or the editor if they are not fully attentive. 

This is the original and correct version of the story as it was submitted for publishing. A very slightly (but mistakenly and critically flawed) version was previously published in the Spring 2013 edition of “Balanced Rock: The North Salem Review of Art, Photography, and Literature”, a publication of the Ruth Keeler Memorial Library, North Salem, New York.” 


Addendum No. 1 to “In Search of Night”

In spring, the rich fragrances from wildflowers, fresh green foliage, and thawed soil dance on ribbons of night mists that curl slowly, floating throughout the forest. Insects become active again and follow these fragrances to find sustenance. Wood Frogs and Spring Peepers sing in the distance, revealing the location of vernal ponds hidden in the dark. It is a glorious awakening of the land, free now from winter’s frozen embrace. New life springs forth from cold death and rot.

During summer night walks, you can hear frogs, katydids, beetles and other insects announcing themselves to potential mates. The collective symphony of sound is nothing short of trance-inducing, and at times nearly deafening. On quieter summer evenings, Great Horned, Barred, and Screech Owls can be heard calling out across the landscape. Coyotes whoop it up with a primal exuberance that is thrilling to behold. Warm humid air carrying the mixture of wild scents simmered together during the heat of the day enhances the exhilarating experience of being surrounded by night. Growth, passion for life, and physical prowess are the dominant themes expressed in summer.

The autumn night walk has a cool, electric energy. It is a season of transformation and of completion. The sounds of insects begin to diminish. Only the hardiest of them continue to sing on cool evenings as their life cycle approaches resolution. The location of nocturnal mammals, while mostly unseen, is revealed by the sound of freshly fallen leaves that crunch beneath hoof and paw. Faint scratching sounds in short bursts tell of mice and shrew activity, while louder, but still delicate crunching and snapping sounds indicate deer are moving about. It is a season of completion, celebration, and preparedness.

Winter is perhaps the most spiritually potent time to be outside in the dark. It is nature’s time of inward focus and conservation of resources for a far off season. The haunting rattle of plant skeletons in the wind and the creaking of leafless trees on bitter cold nights emphasize the one aspect of life that we don’t really like to dwell on: death. In contrast to the vitality of a summer evening, a winter night wrapped in a blanket of snow can offer an experience of true stillness, and reminds us of the importance of quietude in our lives, and that all things must experience some form of death before rebirth can occur.

The greater portion of our journey through life is wrapped in profound mysteries. Early man had no science, no math, no formal training in logic, yet he knew how to live. I can’t help but feel connected to our ancient ancestors whenever I sit in the woods at night, knowing they too faced the darkness, wondering about the mysteries of the world around them. Paleolithic hunters knew that the darkness held great potency. They entered the darkest recess of certain caves to seek aid and healing from the spirit world. Guided by an inner sense not squelched by an overly rational mind, our ancestors knew a great many things about the stars and the ways of plants and animals and the rhythms of the earth. They had no science, but they did have direct experiences with the forces of nature and thus learned deeply from them. For all our knowledge today, have we any more wisdom than our early ancestors? Wisdom must be quested for and the seeds of vision cultivated. It cannot be accumulated the way information and facts can. The earth, ancient and wise, can illuminate our journey towards wisdom – if we will listen with our hearts wide-open.

What began so long ago as a search for an experience of true night was really the start of my journey towards wisdom, towards a deeper connection to that part of life that is unseen and eternal.


Addendum No. 2 to “In Search of Night”

Paleolithic man knew that the darkness held great potency, and so in many places around the world caves were used for sacred communion with the spirit world. Paintings recorded deep in these cave systems throughout the world can be interpreted in different ways perhaps, but clearly there is clearly some acknowledgement of the unseen and eternal forces that influenced their lives. Whether for gaining favor and protection during an upcoming hunt, or for undergoing rites of passage by adolescent Cro-Magnon boys – the darkness of the cave facilitated journeys and communications to and from the realm of spirit.

Once, I had the opportunity to enter a modest cave alone. I did not get very far before it became impressed upon my being that I was truly inside the earth, surrounded by a great many tons of rock and soil, and in absolute blackness. There was not a single photon of sunlight for my eyes to record. The silence there was so deep as to seemingly pull the noise and chatter of my mind right out through my ears in a kind of “reverse listening”.  With my headlamp turned off, I sat motionless on a rock for a long while in this profound solitude and stillness. I could hear the blood in my veins, and the flow of my breath. I could feel a powerful shift in my consciousness, as though I was being drawn out and away from ordinary reality. I got a bit nervous because this was so overwhelming and spontaneous, and I wondered if I might get ”lost” for good if I let go completely. Trusting this process and the Creator, I chose to surrender to the moment and in an instant transcended my sense of the present time and space. I vividly experienced floating and tumbling about in a great, primordial void. No up, no down, no sound, no light, no breeze – just a hint of chill to the space, though I sensed it from a place outside of my body. In time, certain images appeared that were symbolic to me, though seemingly irrational or incomplete. I do not know how long this experience lasted, but it felt like quite a long journey. 

My connection to the physical realm – my body and the cave – was re-established by the mild discomfort from sitting on the rock for an extended period. This discomfort eventually drew me back to ordinary consciousness and the density of my physical form. I was so disoriented upon my return that if I had tried to stand up at that moment I am certain I’d have fallen on my face. It took me a minute or two of talking aloud to myself and fidgeting around to ground myself and remember where I was.

Reaching other levels of consciousness without ingesting some sort of substance is not all that difficult, but sometimes making sense of what is experienced can be – especially to the logical mind. The greater portion of our journey through life is wrapped in profound mysteries, and even our vast, accumulated knowledge of things is small by comparison. Early man had no science, no math, no formal training in logic, yet he knew how to live (not simply “survive”). Guided by an inner sense not squelched by an overly rational mind, our ancient ancestors knew a great deal about the stars and the ways of plants and animals and the earth. For all our knowledge today, have we any more wisdom than our early ancestors? A quick look at today’s headlines provides that answer.

It is wisdom that helps us to live within the mystery of life. It is wisdom that helps us in dark times and places. We should seek to cultivate wisdom, for it cannot be accumulated the way information and facts can. The earth, ancient and wise, can still show us the way, if we will listen.

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