Are You Afraid of the Dark?
“To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
And find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
And is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.”
– Wendell Berry, To Know the Dark
When I started leading night hikes for middle school students, I didn’t realize the extreme reactions I would get when I confirmed we would be walking into the woods without a light. Most of the students were completely terrified, with the majority of reactions being a horrified look on their faces or a “heck no, I’m not doing that” from the more outspoken of the crowd.
Eventually I started to think about how I could introduce this idea in a more gentle way, which led to me starting with the above poem (thanks to a lesson plan from the Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center in Minnesota) and asking the students for their real thoughts and feelings about walking in the woods at night without a light. Almost every student said they felt really scared, especially of being “attacked by an animal.” Being that most animals are quite afraid of humans, this was unlikely, but it always made me think, why are we so afraid of being attacked by something in the dark? And if we had a light, would that really protect us better from a potential attack?
It turns out we may have good reason to be naturally afraid of the dark. We are creatures that rely on our sight to take us through the world, and being left without this sense can be quite unnerving. Many people fear the dark because they believe they cannot see, but our eyes do actually have the ability to adapt to the dark. As soon as we step into darkness our eyes begin the process of helping us see better at night. Our eyes are made up of two types of cells, cones and rods. Cones help us see color and detail, and rods help us see our world in black and white. At night, we aren’t able to detect color and fine details in the same way, but our rod cells adapt wonderfully in low light conditions, giving us the ability to see more of the world around us.
It’s important to note that although hiking at night with a light can still be fun (did you know some spiders have eyeshine?), our vision will not adapt in the same way in the presence of white light (although red light does preserve night vision). Light is responsible for the breakdown of an important chemical in our eyes called rhodopsin. In the dark, this chemical regenerates and assists with our night vision.
The nocturnal world of nature is mysterious and exhilarating! Many critters in the Poconos only come out after the sun goes down. At the right time of year, you might see bats in action, which are arguably some of the coolest and most important animals on the planet.* I can also say from my own nighttime adventures that hearing an owl call from a nearby perch is one of the most hauntingly beautiful sounds I’ve ever experienced. For proof of the cool stuff that happens after the sun goes down, take a peek at some of our awesome video footage of the animals we see in the Tannersville Cranberry Bog after dark here!
You can also learn a lot about the ways eyes adjust to the dark and even how our eyes “play tricks” on us at night. Try these fun activities outside after dark with some friends to help you understand! (Activities adapted from Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center Night Hike Lesson Plan)
*For more on bats and how cool they are, check out www.merlintuttle.org and the “Chiropterology” episode of the podcast,“Ologies,” by Alie Ward!
-Josie Bonham-Marino, Environmental Educator
Getting Out in Nature
As we begin the New Year you’ve probably put some time into thinking of how you could make 2020 your best year yet. Maybe you’ve committed to a new workout regimen or even thought about changing your diet. Maybe you’ve decided to sharpen your brain by committing to reading more books or getting more sleep. Well if I could, I would like to suggest adding “spend more time in nature” to your list, because as the saying goes, you may be able to fill multiple needs with one deed.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that on average, modern humans spend over 90% of their time indoors. This is startling considering the number of scientific studies that show just how beneficial spending time in the outdoors could be. Today I would like to highlight just a few of the benefits that our “indoor generation” can reap by getting out and spending some quality time in nature.
Mental Clarity - A few years ago, I decided to make the best out of my one-hour work commute by investing in some audiobooks. Being that I am in the field of conservation, I thought, “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt” by Edmund Morris would be a great start. As I began listening, I was immediately intrigued as I heard how Roosevelt would regularly leave for days, weeks, or sometimes months and venture out into the wilderness, often alone, to hunt, camp, hike or climb and then return home with this renewed spirit of energy and absolutely crush it in his professional life of politics.
Roosevelt knew that spending time in nature gave him a creative boost and enabled him to reset, recharge and re-center himself so he can return to his obligations with a clear understanding of what exactly he needed to do next. Because of his belief in the healing powers of nature, Roosevelt created five new national parks, 18 national monuments, four national game refuges, 51 bird sanctuaries and over 100 million acres of national forests during his eight-year administration (1901-1909). If nature was good for Teddy, you can surely bet it is good for all. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/national-parks/early-history/
Mood elevation - Let’s face it, we all get the blues, but the good news is we don’t have to do anything extreme to get ourselves out of our slump. The National Association for Mental Health, also known as MIND, has conducted study a where over 100 participants would get involved with some kind of “green exercise” which included gardening, walking, conservation work, running and cycling. They found that over 90% of the participants stated that green exercise activities improved their mood, self-confidence, focus and felt a better sense of achievement. Additionally, the study showed that 50% of the participants who walked in a shopping mall for the same duration as those who walked in green space actually felt worse and more tense after their walk. Luckily, we don’t have to take hours from our busy days to get these kinds of results. Science shows that just 15-25 minutes a day can be enough time for you to start feeling the proven healing powers of nature.
Exercise - Everyone knows that regular exercise is important to our overall health, but did you know that exercising outdoors can arguably provide you with more health benefits than exercising in the gym? Studies have shown that not only do we give ourselves a healthy dose of vitamin D when we exercise outside, but it elevates our mood and provides us with more energy so that we can achieve more during our workout routines. Additionally, our bodies will actually exert more energy as we combat factors such as wind resistance (say for riding a bike or running) and uneven terrain, which in turn, ultimately leads to better results.
Creativity - For centuries, writers and other artists have talked about how they turned to nature for a healthy dose of inspiration. You can see it in the works of artists like Vincent Van Goh, Georgia O’Keeffe, or Claude Monet, or read about it from the writings of Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allen Poe or Robert Frost. Musicians like Richard Wagner, Antonio Vivaldi and Johannes Brahms were all well known to submerge themselves in nature to break through their creative blocks and in today’s day in age, we are actually able to study and measure the effects of nature as it helps with creativity.
One study published by psychologists from the University of Kansas and the University of Utah concluded that backpackers who immersed themselves in nature for a four-day period, without the presence of any electronic devices, scored 50% higher on a test that measures creative potential called the Remote Associates Test. “This is a way of showing that interacting with nature has real, measurable benefits to creative problem-solving that really hadn’t been formally demonstrated before,” says David Strayer, a co-author of the study and professor of psychology at the University of Utah. He continues to say “It provides a rationale for trying to understand what is a healthy way to interact in the world, and that burying yourself in front of a computer 24/7 may have costs that can be re-mediated by taking a hike in nature.”
The last benefit I would like to conclude with is that spending time in nature is just downright fun! When we were kids, we were always encouraged to go outside and play. But somewhere down the road to adulthood, responsibilities seemed to have squeezed that “play time” out of our schedules. If we were to sit back and take a lesson from watching nature, we can easily see that engaging in activities for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose is something that is innate in all of us. (Check out an example here!)
So the next time one of your co-workers asks you to join them outside for a little recreation time on your lunch break, I would suggest saying “yes” and take advantage of all of these free benefits you get by spending more time in nature. You will be happy that you did.
-Matt Giambra, Environmental Educator