If a tree creeks and cracks in a deep, dark forest and thinks no one is there to hear, it does make a sound. I discovered this on the trail somewhere between Bristol Springs and Naples, NY. It was already starting to get dark as my husband and I finally found a place to make camp. After taking a wrong turn that led us more than a mile in the wrong direction, we were backtracking - almost back where we had started. We set down our packs and quickly began gathering firewood and pitching the tent. It wasn't supposed to rain, so we left the fly off. "It will be fun to see the forest all around us, stars peaking through leafy branches," we thought.
I have always thought that whoever invented buildings was less than intelligent. Laying there almost completely unprotected in our mesh-walled tent under the trees and the night sky, I was forced to reconsider. As the fire faded, the darkness wrapped itself around us, seeping through our porous shelter. I was afraid as I had never been before outside - of the dark, of strange noises in the night. Even when I finally drifted into a fitful sleep, my dreams were eerie. It was only when the first hint of dawn coloured the sky that I was truly able to rest.
In the morning, I was disappointed with myself. I still believed that Creation is humanity's natural environment, that we would feel more alive if we immersed ourselves in it. But, as I fixed our backpacker's breakfast of oatmeal, I realized how terrifying it must have been for our early ancestors to live in the open, unprotected from all sorts of predators. Darkness makes it much more difficult to ignore what is easily shrugged off in daylight. It shrinks the visible world, only making the world outside seem larger. A shelter, even a flimsy tent fly, creates a feeling of safety. I had been reminded not to scoff at seeking shelter; it is also a basic human instinct.
But that won't keep me inside. Better than seeking the protection of a tent fly is facing fear. Whatever is out there in the darkness can't win. That's one thing our ancestors must have agreed on, or we wouldn't be here today. They conquered the darkness, and their fear. But I look forward to the day when we do return home, and we finally welcome the darkness as it wraps itself around us like a starry quilt.