A Nightscape’s Wonder

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Our cell phone alarms brought us loudly and abruptly to wakefulness at one o’ clock in the morning. I opened my eyes to the cool, exposed darkness of wilderness and wondered aloud whether we had even slept at all. By two o’clock, we had shuffled and groaned our way out of our sleeping bags, fumbled through the tying of our shoes and the packing of our gear, and readied ourselves for the dark, uphill journey that lay ahead.

It was August 24, 2014, and we—my dad, my brother, my boyfriend, and I—set out to summit Mount San Jacinto before dawn and see the sunrise from the peak. To accomplish this, we arrived at the base of the trail the day before and hiked in about two miles before stopping to set up camp. We spent the evening in Round Valley, a small primitive campground en route to the 10,834-foot-high peak.

By day, the visual landscape of Mount San Jacinto State Park dominates the senses. In the higher elevations, rows of steadfast pines stand among gray, granitic rocks of varying sizes. Red and green manzanita, tawny chaparral yucca, and other hardy shrubs line the park’s dusty trails. The southern Californian mountains are surrounded by lowland development, notably the sprawling desert city of Palm Springs, but on the park trails you see only wilderness. You see it, predominantly (rather than hear it or smell it), because humans are visual creatures. More of the human brain is devoted to vision than to any of the other four senses. The word landscape itself possesses a primarily visual connotation, defined by Merriam-Webster as “the land that can be seen in one glance.”

At night, though, a glance doesn’t convey as much sensory information as it does during the well-lit daytime hours. A landscape can become something else altogether, and what is lost visually may be gained through other senses or modes of perception.

On that evening in August, the moon set at 6:45 p.m., producing a particularly dark night. As we began our ascent, armed with headlamps and carefully minding each step, I began to question the motivation behind this nighttime adventure. Ostensibly, the goal was to witness the sunrise from the top of southern California’s second-highest peak. But technically that could be accomplished by hiking to the top during the day and sleeping there overnight —an excursion that would have expended the same amount of time, overall, as sleeping in Round Valley and then summiting. Exposing ourselves to the night and hiking with only the light of the stars and our headlamps to guide us felt risky and unnecessary. Without the crutch of good eyesight, could I sense danger before it was too late? Could I avoid the oncoming hungry animal, the deranged criminal, the precarious ledge? And yet, despite the risk, I felt I was embarking on a truly unique and exciting experience that I, as a hiker, had never faced before.

The benefits of wilderness hiking are easily felt, if not always well understood. Humans have maintained a close relationship with nature throughout much of their history and are arguably themselves a part of nature. (We are organic beings, after all, part of the web of all life on Earth despite our apparent dominion over it.) Though the sharp juxtaposition of urban areas like Palm Springs and wilderness areas like Mount San Jacinto State Park suggest otherwise, humans belong with nature. Proven positive effects of human-nature interaction include physical, psychological, and cognitive benefits. Natural encounters increase self-esteem and reduce anger, improve academic performance, and lower stress levels. Wilderness settings, located away from urban centers and usually set aside specifically for their aesthetic beauty and rich ecological value, offer interactions with nature in its purest form.

In addition to a connection with nature, wilderness offers a place to escape, to experience physical challenges, and to enjoy a type of solitude not often found anywhere else. As an avid hiker, these benefits were familiar to me. But hiking at night for the first time, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The wilderness is a different place at night—unfamiliar, untamed, and even scary.

Darkness often carries negative connotations and evokes fear in Western cultures. The Bible associates darkness with wickedness. Erebus, the primordial god of darkness in Greek mythology, shares his name with a gloomy region of the underworld to which mortals travel immediately after death. In some sense, our fear is justified. Studies show that the cover of darkness encourages more dishonest behavior from humans, while daylight can dissuade criminals from acting for fear of being caught. By purely physical standards, though, darkness is merely the absence of light—it is not even its own phenomenon, but is rather the vacancy of another—suggesting that it cannot be inherently wicked.

As we slowly navigated the switchbacks leading up the mountain, I thought about the nocturnal animals that I couldn’t see, but that could surely see me—animals adapted to the darkness in ways far beyond my human abilities. Research implies that humans fear darkness because we are a species accustomed to daytime activity, but that nocturnal creatures—including the deer mice and great-horned owls that I imagined were watching us—fear daylight more than darkness. Fear, it seems, stems in part from that which we aren’t used to or aren’t adapted to, and not from the darkness itself.

That night, I found no harm in the darkness. Instead, I found the same familiar aspects of wilderness experiences, amplified or altered by the absence of light. Night hiking not only offers, but also intensifies the opportunities for escape, solitude, and new and challenging physical experiences sought by park visitors. For me it uncovered a whole new world, not a landscape, but a nightscape, previously unexplored.

At night, vision is no longer our most relevant sense. We used our eyes mainly to track our feet on their journey upwards, and occasionally to marvel at the stars above us. More striking than sight was sound—both its presence and its absence. Although scientists have demonstrated that mice deprived of vision for a week can develop enhanced sound processing abilities, it isn’t likely that short periods of darkness actually enhance a person’s sense of sound. Rather, the lack of typical daytime noises and visual stimulation leads to fewer distractions, so you can focus more on the sound around you, or on the lack thereof.

As we ascended, I was especially conscious of the sound my feet made each time they contacted the earth, of the constant rustling of my clothes as I moved, of my strained breathing, and of the duplicate sounds made by those around me. The stillness of the night brought a silence not attainable in the daytime, broken only by the occasional roaring of the wind through the pine needles above us.

The darkness of nighttime brought a sense of wonder and novelty to our journey. As our visual world shrank, our auditory world expanded. The stillness and solitude of the night provoked reflection on the environment around us. The challenge of navigating the trail in low light heightened our concentration and our mental state. The world became a conglomeration of sounds, feelings, and mysteries.

Photo by Kathryn Francis

We hiked for three hours in the dark, reaching the peak just after astronomical twilight—the first hint of light in the night sky following the period of absolute darkness. We watched as layers of color spread across the horizon beyond Palm Springs, a city of lights among the darkness far below us. First orange, then yellow, then a delicate blue mingled with the black sky. We watched as the light overtook both the stars above and the city lights below, illuminating the sprawling, sleepy desert metropolis. The sun emerged completely above the horizon just after six in the morning. Despite these gloriously stunning visual effects, as I looked out over the urban sprawl lighting up below me, I felt the night’s stillness and wonder slipping away.

Ahead of me lay a landscape, a thing of visual beauty. But behind me lay a nightscape—challenging, stimulating, new. A thing not of visual beauty, but of heightened perception and uncertainty. The sunrise we had come so far to see did not disappoint, but equally marvelous to me was the dark world we experienced along the way.

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Kathryn Francis
Kathryn Francis writes through the lens of an environmental scientist, relating both personal experiences and important or interesting issues in conservation and ecology. She currently lives in Santa Monica, California, which provides much inspiration for nature-based writing in the form of the beautiful Santa Monica Mountains.

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