From an Undisclosed Location
"Late in the night I woke up, just in time to hear a golden- crowned thrush sing in a tree nearby. It sang as loud and cheerily as at , and I thought myself, after all, quite in luck."
John Burroughs, from Wake-Robin, 1871
I wanted to get off the road quickly and duck into the woods before any cars came by. As soon as I faded into the woods, leaving the road behind, I began to relax. The quarter-moon in the clear sky shed just enough light through the trees that I could see the trail, if not every root and rock. I slowed down and walked deliberately and quietly, almost as if I were in a grand cathedral at night.
In about a quarter-hour, I arrived at my destination. As soon as I saw this spot a few weeks before, I knew it would be a good place to sleep in the woods. It was off the beaten path and afforded the protection of a large boulder to sleep against. The forest floor was soft, even if there’s always one rock that can’t be moved. A small pine by my head defined the limits of my bedroom.
Just as I was preparing my bed I heard the sound of a strange animal. The closest familiar sound I can compare it to is the sound of mating cats. Actually, it sounded more like a combination of cats mating and purring. I visualized someone turning a hand crank attached through a gear box to a thin-bladed cheap tin fan to make a high-pitched whirring sound. The animal seemed to be moving around in the dark woods, almost circling me. It was a little spooky, particularly since I had no idea what it was. My best guess is a mink or fisher, but I really don’t know. (I’d appreciate opinions!) I was more annoyed than afraid, however, because I was tired and wanted to sleep. I moved my pack and shoes up by my head to increase the sense of shelter and protection. I heard the first mosquitoes of the year buzzing around my head, but was confident dropping temperatures would keep them from becoming a real problem. Little did I know my real attackers would be unheard and unseen.
Even though the sky was clear and the air was warm, I found the limited shelter of the rock comforting. There was no wind, but in my nest I could feel the subtle movement of air currents as if cooler air from the North was flowing over the boulder and down on me. I put on a fleece hat, put on a jacket and pulled my light sleeping bag up around my shoulders. A few stars were visible twinkling through the leaves along with the lights of jets on their final approach into
I was probably asleep before only to be awakened around by a bird. In my half-conscious state, I heard the loud teacher-teacher-teacher call of an ovenbird with an unusual warbled ending. I could have been dreaming the last part because I’ve never heard an ovenbird sing like that, but it seemed real at the time. I could have been irritated by the rude awakening, but instead, I was thrilled to hear the night song of one of my favorite birds.
I quickly fell back to sleep, only to have the ovenbird wake me again in an hour. I was less enthusiastic this time because I had some trouble getting back to sleep. As I planned this little adventure, I imagined myself getting lost in deep thoughts while alone in the woods at night. Instead, I was having fantasies about sending terminators from the future back to the past to eliminate the mother of the guy who invented the back-up beeper for dump trucks. Apparently there was night-time construction out on the Interstate and the sound carries for miles.
After falling asleep yet again, I had a series of dreams – nightmares, really - all about destruction of - and encroachment on - the woods around me. Solitude was impossible to find. There were logging machines, roads and house construction all around.
The dawn chorus of birds woke me at , before the actual sunrise at . It was a small glee club, however, with a noisy titmouse, a chickadee, the ovenbird and a tapping woodpecker. I wondered if the spring migration was just about over. I was happy to see that my nightmares were only dreams and the woods were still standing. I gave serious thought to getting up and looking for birds, but fell back to sleep and more weird dreams before getting up for good around my usual time of 6:30.
The old bones were stiff after a cool night on the ground, but the coffee in my Thermos was still warm and the bagel energy bars tasted good as I sat on a rock. There was a nuthatch, a clucking chipmunk and two or three competing ovenbirds politely taking turns singing. Otherwise the woods were pretty quiet. A few dogwoods were in bloom, providing white floral accents among the new bright green leaves of the forest. As the sun warmed the air, mosquitoes were coming out in good numbers and I knew I’d have to plan for them for the rest of the summer. In April and early May, it’s easy to forget how annoying they can be.
After breakfast I headed home. I missed the morning rush, so few people noticed the scruffy character with a backpack walking through town. As I showered, I discovered over a dozen tiny ticks on my body. They must have been attacking as I slept. There is no hunting in our town and few predators. Our unnaturally high deer population seems to create an unnaturally high population of deer ticks. A lingering concern about Lyme disease is the price I pay for my night of solitude.
There are those who might question the judgment of a grown man who wants to sleep in the woods when he has a perfectly good bed at home. There are those who would even forbid such activity. One of the books in my to-read pile is The Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv. While what we have done to keep our clean, weak, over-protected kids isolated from the natural world is tragic, I also worry about the adults. In my youth, I took many long solo hikes in the woods, often sleeping alone. It helped make me who I am. It created a part of my character. I like to think those early experiences are still with me, but one wonders. Modern conveniences, hectic schedules, changing tastes and social pressures make outdoor pursuits inconvenient, if not down-right odd.
The desire to spend this night in the woods began to take on more importance to me than one might expect of a single night’s sleep. It was to be a way to reconnect with the simple pleasures and enthusiastic adventurousness of my youth. It would be a way to more fully experience the outside world around me; to be more intimate with the woods that give so much. When my ovenbird woke me in the darkness, I thought of John Burroughs and his golden-crowned thrush. We have changed the name, but the bird and the song are the same. I was thrilled that a little bird could give me a connection to one of the great American naturalists, and a connection to the person I used to be.