I camped on my first night in Massachusetts at the almost deserted DAR State Forest in Goshen. I arrived at 10:00 p.m. and drove around the campsites looking for the one I had reserved online two days before. It was so dark I could see what seemed to be the one other occupied site only because those campers were standing around a small fire. I don’t know how they kept it going in the light rain. The forest around me was thick with trees: red oak, elm, ash, red maple, hickory, and hemlock in full fall display, and a few white and red pines. The only light in the entire campground came from a small lamp at the edge of the roof of the bathrooms, which were just down the road from my campsite, which I finally found as my van crawled slowly around a deep curve in the loop of road. I could smell my fellow campers’ fire but couldn’t see any light from it. They were too far away. The tree canopy seemed, at first, to keep out any light that might have escaped the cloud cover.
At first, as I lay on the air mattress in the back of my minivan, I thought of the darkness of a Missouri cave I visited this past summer. The guide turned off all the lights while we were in there so our tour group could experience total darkness and see what it would have been like to be lost in the cave without even a candle. The thick, black air was darker than anything I’d ever known. Night above ground is never that dark. On this night in the campground, as my eyes adjusted, outside the windows I could see the darker shades of tree branches and leaves between the lighter shades of clouds and moonlight; inside I could see the outlines of my sleeping bag, the minivan’s seats, the edges of windows. The rain came down harder.
I lay there, listening. Rain falling through a forest makes a kind of hissing sound as it slides across the leaves and tree branches. All night I heard that hissing, like static from a radio. Twigs or branches snapped in the woods around me. I imagined animals passing by. I was glad I was in the back of the minivan and not a tent, not just because of the rain, but because the darkness made me nervous. The isolation and dark of the forest were too much fuel for my imagination.
What is it about the night and the forest that sparks so much fear in us? Thoreau wrote: “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” In the dark, we often see what is not there. A tree branch looked like someone’s arm reaching toward me. Mist above the trees from the rain looked like ghosts in the moonlight as the branches moved in the wind, letting fragments of the dim light through to me, refracted by the rain so as to appear moving through the deeper black of branches and leaves. Sometimes we imagine what we most fear. This is also true sometimes of what we hear: the rain, the wind. Deer? Squirrels? Raccoons? Bats? Bears? So we huddle alone in the back of a minivan, or around campfires, even in the rain. I thought I heard a large animal rustling through the underbrush and trees. There were warnings at the park entrance about bears. Each campsite had a metal locker at the edge to store food so bears and other animals couldn’t get at the food campers bring in. I imagined several different scenarios around what I would do if I saw a bear wander into my campsite.
When I was very young, my parents took my brothers, sisters, and me camping in the summers in a small Winnebago camper. My grandfather sometimes joined us. One summer, we were camping at Yellowstone National Park when I woke up to the sound of my grandfather shouting, “Get out! Go on, get!” My mother opened the door of the camper and screamed. I looked out the small window of my bunk, which pulled out from a cabinet above the front seats. My grandfather was swatting at a fairly large black bear with a rolled up magazine. The bear had wandered up to him to check out the food on the picnic table where my grandfather was eating his breakfast. It made a kind of snorting noise and trotted away, clearly not very afraid of humans. My grandfather snorted back at it then sat down at the picnic table to finish his cereal and coffee despite my mother’s cries of, “Get inside! Get inside!” I was young enough then to wonder if the bear would feel as warm and soft as my stuffed bear if I hugged it. My grandfather laughed at my mother’s panic. My father had gone down the road for something and came back in time to see the bear trotting away into the trees. He stood for a few moments looking and pointing at that spot. Where my mother saw danger, my grandfather saw a nuisance; my father saw that bear as something interesting, exciting, a moment of lost adventure as the bear wandered harmlessly away.
Now, in the dark, in the back of my minivan, warm, dry, and safe in the comfort of a sleeping bag, I drifted in and out of a light sleep, listening through most of the night for the sounds of a bear or something more dangerous, like a human invader. My flashlight, cell phone, and small Swiss Army knife, blade out, were tucked into the niche under the back window by a plastic water bottle, close enough that I could reach out and grab what I needed quickly. Only the hiss of the rain over leaves, the pings and light thuds of water, leaves, and branches falling onto the minivan roof, the crack of twigs breaking, the rustle of leaves and branches shifting in the slight wind or from the movement of creatures, and the occasional bird cry kept me company.
The black, shifting shapes in the night were darker than the gray dark of the sky or sandy ground. The noises I could not identify were just slightly louder than the hissing rain. Then it was morning, and the sounds of birds and insects joined the rain, and the strengthening light showed the wet, spiny green of pines and the fall colors of other trees scattered among the evergreens, all dripping steadily with water in heart-breaking, gorgeous, crimson, gold, brown, and bronze warnings of the dangers, nuisances, and perhaps adventures of winter fast approaching.