No night is so dark as it seems.
Here in Landour, India, on the first range of the Himalayas, I have grown accustomed to the night's brightness - moonlight, starlight, lamplight, firelight! Even fireflies and glow-worms light up the darkness.
Over the years, the night has become my friend. On the one hand, it gives me privacy; on the other, it provides me with limitless freedom.
Not many people relish the dark. Some even sleep with their lights burning all night. They feel safer with the lights on. Safer from the phantoms conjured up by their imaginations.
And yet, I have always felt safer by night, provided I do not deliberately wander about on cliff-tops or roads where danger may lurk. It's true that burglars and other lawbreakers often work by night. They are not into communing with the stars. Nor are late-night revelers, who are usually to be found in brightly lit places and so are easily avoided.
I feel safer by night, yes, but then I have the advantage of living in the mountains, in a region where crime is comparatively rare. I know that if I were living in a big city in some other part of the world, I would think twice about walking home at midnight, no matter how pleasing the night sky.
Walking home at midnight in Landour can be quite eventful, but in a different way. One is conscious all the time of the silent life in the surrounding trees and bushes. I have smelled a leopard without seeing it. I have seen jackals on the prowl. I have watched foxes dance in the moonlight. I have seen flying squirrels flit from one treetop to another. I have observed pine martens on their nocturnal journeys, and listened to the calls of nightjars, owls, and other birds who live by night,
Not all on the same night, of course. That would be too many riches at once. Some night walks are uneventful. But usually there is something to see or hear or sense. Like those foxes dancing in the moonlight. When I got home, I sat down and wrote these lines:
As I walked home last night,
I saw a lone fox dancing
in the bright moonlight.
I stood and watched; then
took the low road, knowing
the night was his by right.
Sometimes, when words ring true,
I'm like a lone fox dancing
in the morning dew.
Who else, apart from foxes, flying squirrels, and night-loving writers, are at home in the dark?
The nightjars, for one. They aren't much to look at, although their large, lustrous eyes gleam uncannily in the light of a lamp. But their sounds are distinctive. The breeding call of the Indian nightjar resembles the sound of a stone skimming over the surface of a frozen pond; it can be heard for a considerable distance.
Another nightjar species utters a loud grating call which, when close at hand, sounds exactly like a whiplash cutting the air. Horsfield's nightjar (with which I am more familiar) makes a noise similar to that made by striking a plank with a hammer.
I must not forget the owls, those most celebrated of night birds, much maligned by those who fear the night.
Most owls have very pleasant calls. The little jungle owlet has a note that is both mellow and musical. One misguided writer has likened its call to a motorcycle starting up, but this is libel. If only motorcycles sounded like the jungle owl, the world would be a more peaceful place in which to live and sleep.
The little Scops owl speaks only in monosyllables, occasionally saying "wow," softly, but with great deliberation. He will continue to say "wow" at intervals of about a minute for hours throughout the night.
Probably the most familiar of Indian owls is the spotted owlet, a noisy bird that pours forth a volley of chuckles and squeaks in the early evening and at intervals all night. Toward sunset, I watch the owlets emerge from their holes; one after another. Before they come out, they stick out their queer little round heads with staring eyes. After emerging, they usually sit very quietly for a time as though only half awake. Then, all of a sudden, they begin to chuckle, finally breaking into a torrent of chattering. Having apparently "psyched" themselves into the right frame of mind, they spread their short, rounded wings and sail off for the night's hunting.
I wend my way homeward. "Night with her train of stars" is enticing. The English poet W.E. Henley found her so. But he also wrote of "her great gift of sleep," and it is this gift that I am about to accept with gratitude and humility. For it is also good to be up and dancing in the morning dew.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor