The wilderness at night, dark woods that limit both light and horizon. Many of us have walked through them, or along them, sometimes with the jubilant gait of the successful hunter, sometimes with the worry of a parent, calling for a recalcitrant canine, urging them in before they meet up with something longer of tooth or fang.
The woods at night can be a comfort, a warm blanket around the homestead, keeping the noise and the crowds of the city at bay. The woods are many things, mornings filled with fragrant light, wanton evenings full of the bounty of a land that bursts with the juice of life. The wild is beautiful. Yet, from experience, as any outdoors-man or woman knows, they can be a danger. That is is why I always go armed, and with appropriate survival supplies, even for a short hike. I've never been lost, through luck most times, rather than skill, but I would know, that if I did to hunker down until light rather than risk a tumble down a path to the coroners house.
The wilderness to me is impending and remote; the time I spend there both evocative and unaccountable, threat and redemption both. But in the wild I am at home, having been raised in the mountains, mostly, with brief escapes to the sea during school holidays. I've spent many a night alone in a sleeping bag on a rise where I could watch the Northern lights.
I've spent many a day alert in the seat of a tree stand , around me pine trees in unfurled vistas splattered with dying oak leaves, fields bronzed with corn and the land empty of any movement except for that which would bring a buck into my sights.The sun's bearing down, burning my shadow's bones into the soil. It is late November but the air feels like June, a season of life and growth. I'm here to live, not to die, though that will come in its own sweet time.
Some people ask me "how can you do that, knowingly take the life of a living creature?" I'm not here to judge, nor to atone. I'm here simply to kneel on the ground where prayer is valid. Not a prayer that is an alignment of words for a specific religion, but prayer that is the knowing occupation of an active mind, seeking answers within the sound of that voice that prays. The voice of the living who wish to live. The earth speaks of the departed, even as the blood seeps into it, but the voice of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living, only to be understood when it is our time to hear.
In the big city, I'm even more aware of the voices of the dead.
After work one night a while back, I was out, long after dark, in the wilderness of a large city. As I left the building, in the deepening gloom, I hurried along out to the distant parking lot. I took notice of my surroundings as I always do, the small pieces of cement, dark as dead pools between the treelike forms of the areas sparse street lights, their presence not offering well lit comfort, but only a smug paradox of safety. I realized that I was likely alone, and if I had need of help, no one would likely hear me.
Shadows muttered in the ghostly embrace of the dim light, urging me to hurry, to get back to my vehicle. On each side of me were buildings, steel and glass monoliths formed of heat and sweat, glowering over the area between my car and others, areas into which the moonlight would not reach. I had no reason to fear anything really, other than just the usual risk of crime among urban areas, yet for a moment I felt a brief tickle along my spine that got me thinking back. Back to the only time I remembered being truly frightened in the woods.
As a college student, I'd gone up to a girlfriends parents house as I had chance to be in their area as I drove back from school. I didn't call first, hoping to surprise her. It was in rugged terrain, high up in altitude and miles from most people. I left my car down the hill, afraid, given the softness of the ground, that my little car might get stuck turning around in the wet tracks of their 4 x 4's. I could walk that last few hundred yards, and I did so, enjoying the quiet of the night after a day of classes far away. But no one was home, so I left a note to say I was sorry to miss them and started walking back to my little Honda.
I felt, rather than heard , a coldness at the very base of my spine, a sense, somehow, that I was being watched. There was no sound, no steady growl of rustle or movement upon which our mind will tell us to hurry along. Yet, I knew it was there; the murmur of threat, the panting whispers of predators unseen. I did not stop. I did not run. I simply strode with conviction and as much noise as possible towards my car, trying to look as large as I could, not looking back, the moon through the trees forming slashes of light upon my face as I moved forward with purpose.
What was it? The hairs were standing up on my arms and in my stomach coiled something as old as fear, and as nameless. Yet still, I heard nothing, saw nothing. I was operating on the instinct of an animal, one that is both predator and prey. Was there something out there, sensing my secret blood, or was I just being a silly young woman who had watched Friday the 13th way too many times?
Instinct overrode logic and when I got to within a few feet of the car, I literally ran and dove in, slamming the door behind me. Echoing in that sound was a large WHUMP against the back of the vehicle as if something had bounced off of it. For a moment, before I could get the car started, I just sat there, frozen. Great, I thought, I'm just as bad as the heroines in those silly horror movies whom we make fun of for not running away, while the guy with the chain saw approached. But in that moment, I knew that feeling. Young, untrained, unarmed, I was literally stiff with fear, listening to the minute seeping of hot blood through veins constricted, as everything was going to the the muscles, fight or flight.
I got the car started, speeding down the hill in a backwards movement of time and distance moving away from that which had caused my flight.
In the light of my house, I laughed it off, it was likely some innocuous forest creature who I'd scared as badly as it had scared me. Yet when I talked to my friend the next day, her Dad was afraid it was a cat, a big one, and had they known I was going to pay a visit they would have cautioned me as they'd seen the spoor. He'd probably been stalking me, and only when he realized I was getting away did he pounce, then watch me stride off. I will never know for sure, but I will remember that feeling in my gut as I dove in the seat, legs clenched together, driving as fast as I could, until I am only dust. A moment in which I realized that this body that serves me so well, it's dreams and hopes and inspirations, is only this much meat and that I often move downward on the bottom of the food chain when I risk the world alone and unarmed.
Many years later, as I walked across the dark parking lot, edged with tall buildings I felt that same stirring. Not as intense, simply a small feeling of discomfort for being alone out this late and alone. I hadn't expected the parking lot to be so empty when I made the decision to stay out later then expected. But, I told myself, it was a decent part of town and I did have my firearm on me. I put my hand against my weapon, and felt a little better with its cold determination near. Yet I still sensed something moving there in the shadow along the still forms of cars, sitting there in the deepening night, mute with abandon. Feeling somewhat silly, I bounded those last few feet into my truck, only to see the form of a cat, of the small house cat variety, run out from underneath a vehicle, probably looking for a warm place to sleep or a kind lady to scratch behind it's ears. I laughed as I buckled the seat belt, "silly girl" I told myself, it was just a kitty cat.
Yet, in all honesty, I'm glad my instincts had not eroded with time in the city and I was especially glad I that tonight, one last city was a little step closer to where the good guys could carry something more for defense than a cell phone and a stick. I know that when I carry, I walk differently, stride further, stood straighter. I was a more formidable person for that stance even if I prayed that I never have to find out.
I started the truck, and turned my vehicle out of the parking spot, swiftly but without any quality of haste or escape. The headlights were a beam through the darkness, lights shifting and peering into the night as if illuminating the profound opacity of a wilderness at night. The low beams caught on the outcroppings of buildings and the paths of despair in which predators often did roam. The brief brightness flits against shapes and forms that even with the headlamps, did not hold the color of light, only of dark and shadow. As I left the parking lot, something caught my eye, there in the adumbration of night. What was that? That sense of something watching me, there at the corner of my eye. A homeless person simply seeking shelter, a late worker catching a smoke, or someone else? It was impossible to tell, but I was glad to be on my way safely home.
I listen to my instincts, I listen to my experience. I listen to the voices of those who have gone before me. Because of that I am armed. I turned towards the West as two shining eyes watched me from the shadows. Eyes that know that where both predator and prey may be both be armed with teeth and claw, that sometimes it was the best idea to simply watch the prey flee into the night.