by Kate Brandes
5:45 PM. The sun sets in ten minutes.
I leave my house and walk down Linden Lane in the direction of the woods and open fields. I carry no flashlight, no phone. My intention is to walk out there in the dark, alone.
This walk is inspired by another one a few weeks ago when I chaperoned my fourth grader’s overnight field trip to the Poconos. We went on a night-hike along an unfamiliar wooded path on a moonless night. No lights.
Our guide, eager to be done with us so he could go home, was impatient and testy. He walked fast forcing us to follow quick-footed. We stumbled over roots and rocks we couldn’t see, huddled together in one moving mass, afraid of becoming disconnected. My son held my hand for reassurance, and I held his.
I’ve spent a lot of time in nature, often by myself. But on that walk with my son I couldn’t see anything except the faintest perception of the boy’s yellow coat in front of us. I held the suggestion of that coat in my eye the entire time because it was the only breadcrumb I had to follow toward safety.
Ever since that night in the Poconos, an unwelcome barrier stands between me and the dark outdoors. It’s a boundary I haven’t agreed to. I run over it in my mind like a tongue over a chipped tooth.
So on this night, I want to walk in the dark again.
There’s a white picket fence at the end of Linden. Behind the fence is a wooded, communal path that leads to the cemetery, the library, the fire hall, and all three churches in the borough where I live.
I take this path, but almost immediately cut into the woods. In these woods, like the fields I’m headed toward, the wild has been tamped down by human proximity and handling. There’s no Christmas fern or hepatica leaves or spicebush here. But there are remnants of the feral. I once spied three baby screech owls huddled together on a cedar branch along the path.
Now as I walk, I see a red squirrel bound from one branch to another. A Cooper’s hawk circles overhead. The leaves from the beech trees, golden in the low-slung light, fall around me in the breeze.
I climb over a fallen tree and go down the hill toward the cornfield. At the edge of the corn, I hesitate. Regardless of the fact that I’ve walked this field many times. I think about turning around. The sun slips below the horizon and I push on.
5:54 PM The tops of the corn have been snapped from wind. The leaves and ears hang upside down on dry, brittle stalks. They crinkle like paper in the breeze. Even in this battered state the corn stands eleven feet high or more.
Usually, I’m walking through this field during the day to escape my efficient, logical mind. I come here to get away from my incessant need to check off tasks on lists. But tonight is not about escape. I want to see what it feels like to navigate these familiar woods and fields at night. I want to see how things change for me as darkness falls.
As I emerge from the corn to a wide hedgerow, dusk is failing. The goldenrod has gone pale and silky clumps of milkweed seeds drift skyward. Most everything is some shade of beige and the purple canes of the black raspberry stand vibrant against the muted backdrop. The plaintive song of a white-crowned sparrow rings nearby like a Tibetan bell. Black vultures soar in a kettle above my head — gathering for the night.
My sweater catches on thorns as I make my way along an old road that cuts through another strip of woods. I follow the road up to the crest of the hill, usually my favorite part of this walk, because I can look into the distance. There’s still enough light to see the far-off wooded hills, mostly yellowed. Eastward, the sky turns deepest indigo.
The ground, not frozen but dead, crunches under my feet. In the last of the fading light, I sit on the tractor road, next to another cornfield.
6:15 PM The clouds, now the color of a purple bruise, thicken in the sky. The first star reveals itself.
The high pitch of cricket song pulses from the woods. Geese vee overhead — Canadas instead of the Snows that will come later to these fields by the thousands, their collective wing beats so strong I’ll feel it in my chest when they take off all at once.
The air smells of dry leaves and wet earth. Outdoor lights come on at the houses I can now see in the distance. Car lights climb the steep hill to my north. The wind blows and blows.
6:30 PM A full moon rises in the west. It’s covered over by a thick haze of clouds on the horizon. I can only see a glow, a moon behind a veil.
The enveloping blackness pricks my senses. I cling to the things still visible like the veiled moon, but most of my reference points have faded. As darkness fills in everything around me, I have a sudden feeling of being watched, instead of watching.
For a moment, the barely visible cornstalks become people, standing in a crowd, swaying to some eerie music only they can hear, heads bobbing on broken necks.
I sit very still.
My heart thumps like the wing beats of a thousand Snow Geese.
I have come here seeking this dark space to explore being uneasy, alone, and vulnerable. I’m also trying to be open to what will come. It’s an uncomfortable space, like a dare.
Sitting in the dusk, outside the safety of my settled life, I see possibilities. I seek comfort and balance in my life. But perhaps too much of that leads to stagnation. Comfort doesn’t transform. It can turn a person lazy; a soul can grow stunted.
7:10 PM The moon peeks out from behind the clouds. A deer snorts and I can see the white of its tail rising and falling.
A shooting star streaks across the sky and I take it as a sign.
I stand and walk deeper into the night along a tractor road. I can’t see where it leads, not with my eyes. I move with a dead reckoning made possible only by a mysterious intuition I’m sometimes lucky enough to be tethered to and brave enough to trust.
When there are no guarantees, trusting is the hardest part. Losing my way is possible. But so is grace. Maybe even at the same time.
Kate Brandes lives in the small river town of Riegelsville, Pennsylvania,
with her husband and two sons. She’s an artist, writer, and author of the novel
The Promise of Pierson Orchard. Kate also teaches geology at Moravian College.