Night in the forest is a time of strangeness and mystery. After my years of living in the forest, I have learned many of the night sounds—tree frogs and bull frogs, great-horned owls and screech owls, the snort and stamp of a deer, crickets and cicadas. And yet sometimes, still, I hear sounds I can’t identify. Those mysterious sounds stay with me, as I tumble them around in my brain, trying to put animal with sound. When I am able to identify the sound-maker, the night becomes less mysterious, less frightening and also less wondrous.
Last night I heard a sound, close behind the cabin that I couldn’t identify. It was loud enough to make Baby Dog bark once in warning. To me, it sounded as though something large produced the sound. It struck me as birdlike, an owl, perhaps. Not a screech owl or a great-horned owl or even the less common barred owl If I’d heard that sound 6 weeks from now, I would have dubbed it a saw-whet owl, called myself fortunate to hear it and continued my walk.
But it isn’t September, and so saw-whet owls, who don’t live in my forest, shouldn’t be here now. What else could it be? Perhaps a turkey, startled into making an odd noise? Or could it be something else? Foxes, especially gray foxes, make a variety of strange sounds. Could it be that?
The choices gnaw at me, as I look at each, discard it and move on to the next. I’m not afraid, but not knowing what I heard makes the night feel stranger and somehow more dangerous than I’ve gotten used to it feeling. Identifying and understanding the forest’s night sounds de-mystifies them, almost without me realizing it.
Imagine how strange the night must have felt to our distant ancestors, huddled around a few campfires. Learning to identify the sounds of the night must have made them feel safer, in a world that offered them little safety. Learning to live with the unknown that swirled all around was part of their daily existence.
For us, in today’s times, there are fewer mysteries, fewer things that can’t be learned with a quick search. The night, the world, is less mysterious.
Finally, I let it go. The forest held onto its mystery, this time. I will never know what I heard last night. I am content with that. Indeed, I’m even relishing it. The night should keep some of its mystery, if only to remind us of deeper mysteries and other things we will never know or understand.