I lie outdoors on my back, slowly surrendering consciousness to the night sky, a ritual I engage in on surprise occasions – it just shows up unannounced on my emotional radar. The temperature is perfect. I am warm in the down sleeping bag, and the slight chill on my face (the thermometer is in the fifties) is refreshing. Tonight is ideal for this. Late October has benevolently supplied a few days of Indian Summer. It will go up into the 70s during the days ahead, but because there has been a frost or two, mosquitoes are gone for the year. Crickets, though, have yet to give up on the season. Thankfully, their loud sawing fills the night. The only sound I sleep better to is the joyful racket of the spring peepers, a blessing that can cause me to keep a window open during an April night in the forties. (This, of course, can only happen in a separate room from my cozily slumbering wife). There are a handful of leftover Katydids out here too, both insects running out of time fast, calling poignantly for companionship. Singing (leg scraping) comes from all around me. This earth music begins in July, signaling midsummer. As it does each time, it means the slippery slope toward winter has begun, while also conveying the message to each life in the night, “This is as good as it gets – do it now!”
Having just returned from a summer in the high desert, I am lucky to get this opportunity to sleep out in Connecticut, and I revel in it – in northern Arizona it seemed like only one cricket had been assigned to each yard. Nights there were way too quiet. Here, these stubborn bugs cling to consciousness with lusty competitive fervor.
Why does a guy in his late sixties choose to spend a night on a marginally comfortable plastic chaise lounge on the patio once in a while? I do own a fine tent. Despite all my other interactions with nature (and there are many), once I discovered this it stuck. It’s easy, and in a mild way it evokes the feeling of being unprotected, and that is profoundly pleasing to me in this claustrophobic digitalized 21st century. One of the local coyotes might walk up and sniff my exposed snoring face. A skunk may disapprove of my rolling over. I could get bit by a tick or a mosquito and contract a terrible disease. Oh, and a meteor might hit me.
I’m kidding – none of those fears is real; it’s probably just a Paleolithic memory of danger in the dark which now, with some satisfaction, drifts through my thoughts. This is my home, this back yard, just as much as the rooms inside. It’s an auxiliary living room and dining room for much of the year; it might as well be a bedroom too.
A thin cloud cover obscures the sky, and so on this night of the full moon, the whole firmament gently glows, except a few holes through which stars are visible. It used to be darker. We could see a lot more stars when we moved in here. Blocked from sight by the house, Orion, the Greek hunter, is beginning his nightly winter stalk up the eastern sky.
Against this unusually pale background, the oaks are dark silhouettes, and if I rolled on my side I’d see their shadows. In the front yard, there is a huge white oak and an equally tall red oak, both now dramatic figures visible over the roof. I get to compare them each season for color, amount and size of acorns, times of leafing out and times of losing the last of their brittle brown leaves to winter. Botany 101. The red oak has one branch on which leaves rattle on until spring. For reasons known only to them, the Orioles usually choose this tree to nest in over the white oak.
Motorcycles and trucks gear down for the intersection by the Drive-In Theatre a half mile away, and then wind it out again. Used to be quieter here too, I recall resentfully for the hundredth time. By far the loudest noise, though, is the acorns. When they fall, they violently rip through several leaves on the way, then hit the ground with a satisfying thunk. Cannon shells. The ones that fall on the roof bonk, the ones that hit the driveway chink, with a clear cracking sound (a windy October day here demands a hard hat). Thunk bonk chink. In the absence of day’s distracting sights and sounds I’m paying attention better, despite gradually falling asleep. Thunk bonk chink.
You wake up often when you sleep out like this, but you go back to sleep quickly too. There’s the Barred Owl hooting. I wonder if he’s one of the babies that fledged around the yard years ago in the evenings, now grown. There were four of them, playing follow the leader from tree to tree in the early evening, announcing “scree-eee” and looking curiously at me. That was a good week to live here.
The vehicle noise diminishes to nothing around two, followed by the Katydids. The boys have closed the bars; the Katydids closed their legs. Crickets will not quit, nor will the acorn bombs, but the overall impression is now of peace. Fade out.
Later on, I am again awake for the first whistle of the northbound freight, and notice bright Rigel, the Hunter’s left foot, through an open patch of sky. Orion is now above the oaks. Night trains have been part of my life here for forty years; other ones go back to childhood. Mysterious yet familiar, they seem more like part of a vaguely remembered story than real perception.
The diesel locomotive blows its 4-note diminished chord for each of five crossings on its journey up the river valley, faint at first. As it comes near, the call (two longs, one short, one long) is loud and the clatter of steel wheels drowns out the crickets, then for the last crossing it’s barely heard again. Nothing sounds more lonesome than a railroad train fading away into the night; it’s a reminder of one more adventure you missed. How many thousands of trains have gone by?
It’s still bright with moonlight, though the moon too is far from where it started. Aren’t we all? I can even see leaves pirouetting their way down, silhouetted against the sky. If it was daylight, the oaks would still be green but for deep red crowns, but the maples, hickory, birches (and the black cherry that the Pileated Woodpecker likes) have turned orange and yellow. Baby maples are a sparse red ground cover. Yeah, it feels like home.
To my right, the hill drops quickly down to the brook where the deer doze winter days away snuggled in snow, visible from the sliding glass door to the patio. Tomorrow Chickadees will land on me and complain if I don’t fill the black oil sunflower feeder first thing. They, along with the Titmice and Nuthatches, are somewhere hidden until morning, when the Barred Owl will take a last look around for suckers. Thunk bonk chink.
Sleep comes again easily. I’m just an insignificant part of the local geography right now, but by being out here I’ve quickened my connection to this bit of land one more time. I’m back in my habitat niche, comfortable in a minor role. The next time I wake, the short-lived but vivid colors of autumn in New England will be just appearing in the soft blue morning light.
©George Jacobi 2016