When Darkness Falls
Jennifer Scarlott goes for a night walk with her daughter Julia. She is amazed at how the world is transformed once darkness falls. Will you accompany her on her journey?
At night, everything is different. Familiar park benches, paths, neighbours and dogs, everything is a little strange, mysterious, fraught with possibility. What is it about the world after sundown? We went walking last night, my daughter and I. Just out the ordinary front door, to the ordinary street, into the ordinary park. But nothing was ordinary.
My daughter was a little tense. “You never let me walk at night,” she said, a hint of accusation and puzzlement in her voice as if I were leading her straight into danger.
The streetlights glowed against a dark sky. I would like to say the sky was black and velvety, but New York’s night sky is a city sky… just a few of the bravest, brightest stars and planets compete with the ambient light of Manhattan. As we strolled, I pointed out a honeysuckle bush. Covered in tight buds, it was ready to bloom a month ahead of time due to the unseasonably warm weather. A white butterfly appeared and flew up the path in front of us, disappearing into the gloom. What do butterflies do at night?
It’s mid-spring in New York and the weeds are growing in glorious profusion. In another six weeks or so, tragically, city parks workers will come along with their smoke-belching “weed whackers” and cut all these boisterous plants, depriving bees and butterflies of wildflowers, and skunks, opossums and raccoons of cover. Until then, the plant life at the edges of our little park is marvelous. At night, the great shapes of the plants loom in untamed landscapes. One notices the shapes at night, other details during the day. Tucked low are miniature fields of dandelions gone to seed. We blow on them, creating a small hurricane of fluffy, silvery seeds. We figure we are just aiding the natural process of wind dispersal, but at night, under a slowly rising pink moon, there is a feeling of adventure to everything.
Into the park. It’s darker here, the paths lit only by the occasional ersatz Victorian lamp. A man and his dog come around a bend, catching us by surprise. We say hello, in hushed voices. In the park after dark, one shouldn’t behave quite the same as one would at midday. After dark, what is domestic, tame, known, becomes wild and unknowable. My daughter’s eyes are wide. I think about reassuring her, but don’t. Why deprive her of the mystery, when there is so little of it in our lives?We pass a spot where, not long before, I had seen a green-striped garter snake in a damp, muddy dip in the path. Tonight, there is no snake. We walk, silent.
The moon has risen above the big maple on the hill, and has lost its pink glow. It is now a more dignified creamy white. Maybe we will see a raccoon or a ‘possum or a skunk, I say to my daughter. I point to a brambly hillside where I’ve seen them many times, hurrying in the dark, hoping to pass unseen by dogs and their walkers. We walk among familiar trees made strange by their cloak of night. The breeze off the river rustles their branches, and the smell of new green things is strong.
Across the street, there is a nursing home, its lights blazing. A huge garbage truck is in its driveway, engine rumbling, gears grinding. New York is not sleeping, in this too-brightly lit, too noisy park. My daughter reminisces about a mountaintop in rural Vermont where she lay under the stars at night with friends. They could see the Milky Way galaxy on any clear night, she says. We sigh. Heading home, there are no wildlife encounters. Whatever mammalian movements are happening in the underbrush, we are unaware of them.
Still, the park is beautiful at night. Somehow, a little more “wilderness,” a little less “park.”It’s so easy to overlook our own imperfect outdoor spaces, in longing for the more truly wild ones we have known. But they offer solace from the city every day, and deserve our love in return. Our little park is all the wilderness our neighbourhood raccoons will ever know.Goodnight, raccoons. Stay hidden. We know you’re here.
Jennifer Scarlott is based in New York, U.S.A. and is Director, International Conservation Initiatives, Sanctuary Asia. You can contact her at
by Jennifer Scarlott, First appeared in: Sanctuary Cub, May 2012