Night visions

Early to bed, early to rise! Most Canadians I know start yawning by 8:30 in the evening, and by 9:00, they are in bed and are not to be disturbed. Quite different where I come from in the US, where at 9:00, everyone’s still wide-awake playing board games or cards, knitting, baking, trying to get the kids to settle down, or watching sitcoms. I find it funny that in the northern summer of Canada, most people are already asleep before sunset. Are Canadians afraid of the dark?

When we were children, my sister and I could hardly be dragged indoors from the wondrous dark of late summer nights. “Kids! Bedtime!” “Aww, mom! Just five more minutes? Please!!!” We had nighttime games to play with the neighbour kids. Like Gray Wolf, that in-the-dark variation of hide and go seek, with it’s hiders’ refrain: “Gray wolf, gray wolf, are you out tonight?!” followed by the seeker’s reply “Ooowooooooo!” Do kids still play that game? Do kids still go outside at night?

We often walk Buki along the road at night. There’s less traffic then, or none at all, so we usually have the road all to ourselves. Neighbours who on occasion drive home after dark, bleary eyed, will already be familiar with my headlight beam or Trevor’s, and Buki’s bright reflective eyes. Other drivers who don’t know us might find our presence on the road unnerving. Do the say: “why don’t those night owls go to bed at a reasonable hour?” “What are they doing walking around in the dark?” “They’re weird!”?

In 20 years of living in this valley, I’ve never seen anyone else walking along the road at night. Trevor and I must seem very strange, but it’s normal for us. And there’s so much going on at night, we don’t want to miss it all. On our nocturnal walks, we get to see the northern lights, the shooting stars, the seasonal changes in the constellations, Orion trekking across the winter sky. On summer night walks along the road, we sometimes enjoy the wonderful sensation of lying down flat on our backs on the still-warm asphalt to gaze up at the stars. We get to hear the wolves howling in chorus. And we sometimes sing to them, and they sing back. We can monitor the rise and fall of the owl populations and know by their singing when they’re in the mood for love. Plus we’re the community’s self-styled night watchmen, keeping an eye out for any suspicious activity.

On night walks at this time of year, I often catch a reflective glint in my headlamp beam several meters ahead on the road bed. A brighter sparkle than the reflections from bits of mica or quartz grit. Marking the spot in my eye’s memory and walking toward it, the sparkle is gone unless I move the headlamp lower down and crouch for a lower-angle view. If I’m careful, I find its source: a wolf spider. Their night-vision eyes are reflective, like Buki’s, but the reflected light is a different colour. Not amber, but instead pure white, just like the sparkles of a diamond.

This reminds me of James Thurber’s story The Mystery of the Topaz Cufflinks, in which a cop prowling at night finds a man in a roadside ditch, on hands & knees, barking like a dog, and a woman slowly approaching him in a car. The policeman, full of suspicion as any cop will be, demanded an explanation. The man and woman were embarrassed about what they were actually doing, so the man said he was looking for his lost topaz cufflinks. But the cop noticed that the man was in front of the car, not behind it. And so, eyes squinting with certain doubt, he explained that people lose things behind them, not in a place they haven’t yet got to. Unable to rescue their story (probably too tired so late at night to fabricate a story about driving backwards that wouldn’t implicate them in some sort of traffic violation), they had to admit what they were actually doing: they were curious to know if human eyes don’t reflect in a bright light beam at night only because a person’s eyes are higher than a car’s headlights, thereby losing the reflection upward to the sky (the woman’s hypothesis), or because they don’t reflect at all (the man’s hypothesis). Hence the man was crouched low in the light of the car’s headlights. They were too embarrassed to admit they were doing natural history. Most people (and cops) don’t understand the naturalist’s curious mind. Curiosity is a dangerous thing.

I wonder how often my own natural history activities have startled people or made cops suspicious. Once I was crouched under a nearby road bridge at 2 am: staring into the pool of a drying creek bed, watching a giant water bug who was in turn staring menacingly at small stranded fishes. I wanted to see the bug use its powerful front legs to catch one of the fish, and use its dagger-like mouth parts to stab the fish and suck its juices out. Poor fishes. I could hear a vehicle coming, and it was too late to scramble out from under the bridge to look like I was just out for a late-night dog walk. Whoever it was, I figured they would just pass over the bridge and be on their way, unaware of me. But while I crouched out of sight under the bridge, waiting, they stopped just a few feet directly above me and I heard them get out of the vehicle. I was ready to explain “Um, hi, I’m looking at fish”. I figured it was best not to say “Um, I’m looking at a giant water bug”, which would really cross a line, especially if they don’t know what a “giant water bug” is. But they got back in their vehicle and drove on, still unaware of me. If I were really smart, before they could say anything I would demand: “What are you doing on my bridge at 2 in the morning?!”

While working on the taxonomy of introduced Taraxacum along the sidewalks of urban Vancouver, I got tired of the suspicious looks and of unsolicitedly explaining what I was doing wielding a knife to cut dandelions at the root crown and stuffing the plants into plastic bags. From the lichenologist/mycologist Vivian Miao (who spends a lot of time putting her face close up to the trunks of urban street trees in Vancouver to study the lichens), I learned that no one suspects anything if you wear a hi-vis vest and carry a clipboard. Looking official like that, people are reassured that you are doing societal good and shouldn’t be bothered. That made my dandelion job a lot pleasanter. Thank you, Vivian!

Back to the roadbed spiders, it seems it’s always just one species whose eyes twinkle back at me. I can often find more than ten within a kilometer’s walk. They’re small for wolf spiders, but surely part of the Lycosidae, with the characteristic muscular legs of that taxonomic family. I think they belong to a species of the genus Pardosa. But I’m not at all sure. I know very little about spiders. It’s not a group of organisms I would chose to study. They give me the shivers. I have goosebumps just writing this paragraph.

I could only guess what attracts the spiders to the road. Maybe it’s that they enjoy the warmth the road releases after being exposed to the sun all day. Or maybe it’s good hunting grounds, with insects scurrying around who are also attracted to the warmth of the asphalt. Or maybe it’s the lack of obstacles (thatch and such)–good running grounds for the spiders to chase down prey. Or maybe they’re out on the road just for the pleasure of a nighttime stroll, like Buki and me.

Much else crosses the road at night: toads, salamanders, shrews, mice, and the predators searching for the mice. There’s a lot of death on the road. But it isn’t all predation. Tire-squashed toads, salamanders and more. And the few vehicles racing along the road at night must be running over some of the wolf spiders, too. Death by predation is useful–life rising from death. But death by passing vehicle is useless. Just meaningless death. Some of the run-over corpses attract scavengers, and they get run over too. Whether at night or in the day, every drive on a country road is a killing spree, countless personal tragedies of death by massive blunt force or crushing. Or laming with a mangled leg followed by gradual death in prolonged agony from bleeding, infection, and dehydration as they try to drag themselves to the relief of cover and a water source. Or they get run over a second time, unable to get out of the way. Dragonflies, deer, moose, worms, bear, grouse, butterflies, squirrels, moths, bees. If there are young at home in the den or nest, they, too, suffer, dying from starvation, dehydration, and exposure while mom or dad lies dead or dying on the road. Poor organisms.

People of the ancient Jain religion know all about this. To the Jains, killing is soul-polluting, no matter how small the victim, even if it’s an accident. They walk slowly and carry a swishy broom to sweep the ground before them, clearing the way of spiders, ants, centipedes, or any other creature that might find itself under the soles of their feet. Good Jains mustn’t even think violent thoughts. Instead they seek salvation by yielding to the world’s forces willingly, without any fear, hate, or resentment. I’m guessing Jains don’t drive. Or ride in taxis. If they did, they would cause immense death and suffering among the animals crossing the roads. A Jain’s soul would be in terrible condition after going for a drive on a country lane. Orthodox Jains are so abhorrent of killing that the only food they will eat are the fruits and seeds that fall from plants of their own accord. And because possessions are frowned upon, and because clothing is made of dead materials, Digambara-sect (Sky-Clad) Jains go about their lives completely naked. My kind of people. Bless the Jains.

Goodnight. Sweet dreams.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *