The Night Country

In the dark, a different kind of seeing gives fresh perspective.
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The Night Country
Illustration by Glenn Wolff

I write this for Midori Bay Dennis, born May 17, 2016:

Nights when I can’t sleep I sometimes walk down the road to the bay and stand beneath the stars. The three-o’clock hour is best, when we’re so deep into the night that the planet seems to have stopped spinning. The dew has fallen, the stars are at their brightest, and everyone is asleep. All the machinery of the earth is at rest.

If you’re attentive, a new awareness of the land can come to you.

The night sky is an excellent corrective to our self-importance. Everything superficial falls away. Vanity disappears. Politics, culture, and fashions of every sort fade to insignificance. It’s just us, alone beneath the infinite, as we’ve been since the beginning.

If you’re attentive, a new awareness of the land can come to you. There’s something about seeing a place under changed conditions — in the morning after the first snowstorm of the season, in a rain shower, during the midday dusk of a solar eclipse — that awakens a new appreciation. That’s especially true at night. It becomes a different place altogether. The veil of familiarity is peeled away and all the senses are alerted. It’s like stepping off an airplane into a foreign land.

You hear things you don’t notice in daylight: the faraway moan of a truck downshifting on the highway, the hollow query of an owl, the cadence of night insects. Unfamiliar scents arise, as well. The grass exhales a verdant musk, and the lake gives off trails of fragrance that can take you back decades.

When our sons were young, Gail and I sometimes woke them late at night and led them outside to see wonders. There was a night when we were alerted by a phone call from our friend, artist Glenn Wolff, and we went outside to see the most spectacular aurora of our lives. Swaying across the entire sky were red and green curtains so bright it was as if buckets of watercolor were streaming down the heavens. Another night we went out to see a trio of rare events: the moon in full eclipse, Mars in conjunction with the moon, and the comet Hale-Bopp suspended in the sky and glowing faintly, like a flashlight on the bottom of a pond. Other nights we watched meteor showers, heat lightning, snowstorms.

Tonight, as I write this, our first grandchild is being born. I’m already planning for the nights when I can carry her outside to see the Milky Way strewn across the sky. We’ll walk to the shore of the bay to watch the stars reflected on the water and listen to the sounds the lake makes only at night. I’ll tell her stories, mythological and scientific ones and probably some invented ones as well. And I’ll tell her what I know to be true: that she will stride with confidence across the world, that she will see and perform wonders, that she will be mighty.


Reflections columnist Jerry Dennis lives near Traverse City. His many books include “The Living Great Lakes,” “Canoeing Michigan Rivers,” and “A Walk in the Animal Kingdom,” illustrated by Glenn Wolff. Learn more at bigmaplepress.com and jerrydennis.net.

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