The wondrously unfamiliar nighttime landscape

Nighttime feels different. It’s true in rural areas, and it’s true in the city. When the sky is inky, the soundtrack changes, and so do the characters. The daytime cast taps out, and the evening one rotates in—loons, owls, and bats, where I grew up; opossums and raccoons here in Brooklyn, busy pawing through trashcan buffets. Occasionally, when I’m returning home, I’ll lock eyes with a rat or two, scurrying past a bodega in search of late-night crumbs. 

No matter how well you know the daytime world, the nighttime one can surprise. Two summers ago, I ventured into the thick fringe of forest near my parents’ house on Lake Erie just after sunset. Growing up, I felt a kindredness with the landscape, as though changes in it registered in my body, somehow—a sloshing unease in my stomach as storm clouds swelled; a warm glow in my chest on sunny mornings, as if I could intuit a buttery quality before I even pulled the curtains open. I knew the gravel roads well, by day—the plink and plunk of pebbles pinging off my bike frame, the art of swerving to avoid skinks and snakes with whom I shared the road. Still, night was alien. 

I was in Rondeau Provincial Park, a few miles away, for a story, to eavesdrop on bats’ echolocation with the help of two naturalists and a device that works like a universal translator, converting the frequency of bats’ clicks to sounds that humans can hear. (Across species of bats, echolocation clicks can be anywhere from roughly 20 to 200 kilohertz (kHz); adult humans generally can’t hear anything above the bottom of this range.) Somewhere up in the charcoal-washed canopy of tulip trees, black walnut, and blue beech, there were owls, calling from well-hidden perches. Closer to the ground, there were mosquitoes, feasting on my face. And, somewhere, there were bats—six species of them, including the little brown bat and the hoary bat, swooping across the 12.5-square-mile landscape, swift and silent. 

A group of us wandered the woods, hushed. On the machine, we listened to what sounded like waves of static, punctuated by aggressive shushing noises—the kind a disgruntled librarian might utter in a movie. Those were the bats, flying invisibly above and around us, mapping their world. This device was a way to peer in on their habits, and it brought to life a whole nighttime ecosystem that I lived next to without ever really knowing much about. Distracted as I was by mosquitoes—they gorged on my eyelids, and didn’t even spare the corners of my mouth—deciphering the bats’ behaviors felt miraculous. 

This week’s poem, “Bat,” by D. H. Lawrence, is about their strange, magnificent movements. (This is an excerpt. Read the whole thing if you feel so inclined, but know that it gets a little sneery at the end; Lawrence clearly had a bone to pick with bats.) 

In the decade I’ve lived in New York, I haven’t taken many nighttime walks. But in the time of COVID-19, wandering in the evening feels more comfortable to me than roaming by day. After sundown, the crowds of people playing fast and loose with social distancing have largely dissipated, so I’ve begun leaving my house around 7:00, when the sky is still showy, ostentatious with its sherbet oranges and creamy pinks and clouds as ribbed as sand dunes. By the time I reach Prospect Park, the sky is the color of navy blue paint, and things feel sadly, thrillingly strange. 

One evening last week, I strolled through the park while on FaceTime with my friend Steph, who left Brooklyn to hunker down in a cabin in Maine. The night was humid, the way early summer evenings can be, when sunset ushers in cool, clammy air. My glasses kept fogging up above my mask, but I could still make out the graceful horse chestnut trees, bushy and plush as chenille blankets. When bathed in the light from street lamps, dogwood bracts (those pink or off-white clusters, which look like petals) seemed almost to glow. Several people had pulled their masks down to feel the air on their faces; they yanked the fabric up again when they saw me approaching.

The parks feel transformed when they’re full of music, crowds, flickering images and starlight.

I could hear someone playing the oboe, somewhere, but it took me a while to locate him in the darkness. He was on a bench across from Bartel-Pritchard Square, facing the dark marquee of Nitehawk theater that reads, “See you on the other side.” As the music drifted, I remembered other blue-black evenings in city parks, when it was safe to be sardined in happy, anonymous crowds. I remembered sprawling out on a blanket at the Met Opera’s performances in Brooklyn Bridge Park, with the skyline glinting across the water; passing a picnic feast as the New York Philharmonic played Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” in Central Park; savoring campy movies and puddling ice cream at the Louis Valentino, Jr. Park in Red Hook, while a few figures fished off the end of the nearby pier. 

I’m easily spooked in daytime crowds—I hate sweaty sidewalks too packed to tell torsos from limbs—but I love the sensation of sharing a cool summer evening with friends and thousands of strangers whose faces I can’t quite make out. The parks feel transformed when they’re full of music, crowds, flickering images, and starlight. Those events are part of the nighttime ecosystem of this urban organism, and I miss them already, even though summer is hardly here. I flipped the camera around so Steph could watch the man sway to his song, and I stood on the sidewalk, listening and trying to make sense of this new world—familiar and foreign all at once.

Thanks for listening. Last week, my granddad (better known, to me, as Dad-Dad, and one of my favorite observers of the world) sent me a lovely recollection of how glaciers inspire wonder. He and my grandmother saw one in Alaska, years ago, when they were on a cruise to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary. My granddad writes: “When the big ship stopped in Glacier Bay, I vividly recall standing out on the deck in the blanket of silence that had come over the passengers as we all stared in awe at the enormous glacier. The only occasional noise to cut through was the click of a camera shutter.” 

This week, I’m especially curious to know what night sounds like where you are. Send me a quick audio clip (10 seconds or so), if you think of it; a voice memo is wonderful, and you can email it to me by replying to this newsletter. Just introduce it by telling me your name and location. I’ll stitch the clips together to make a little tapestry of all the places you’re staying, and the soundtracks that play in the background. 



P. S. A few nice links:

The most charming science story I read this week was about moving moss balls, also known as “glacier mice.” They’re bizarre and adorable and I really want to pet one. I’ve been streaming a lot of dance, and the Liturgy pas de deux by Christopher Wheeldon, part of New York City Ballet’s digital spring season, is one of the most breathtaking dance compositions I’ve ever seen. It’s angular and melty, percussive and soft; I can’t recommend it highly enough. Speaking of streaming stuff, Woody Allen isn’t my favorite, but I have also rewatched the opening scene of Manhattan a lot lately. I guess I miss the borough—the bewildering pockets where the streets shrug off the grid that orders their neighbors; definitely the pickles and the tuna at Eisenberg’s; every single thing about Film Forum. As I plan to restock my fridge this week, I’ve got my eye on this miso carbonara. I’ll swap shiitake mushrooms in for the bacon, and nutritional yeast for the mountains of cheese. Out on walks, I’ve been craving nostalgic songs—Fleetwood Mac and very early Beatles, always, and also, weirdly, Wings. The song “Let ‘Em In” never fails to cheer me up with its strangeness—why does it sound like a military band is tromping by?—but also has me so looking forward to the day when we are all knocking on each other’s doors again.

Talk to you next week. Good luck out there.

[Images: James Petts/CC by-SA 2.0; marc.cappelletti/CC by-ND 2.0]