“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