I was shaken awake by one of my older brothers, saying “Come on; Get up. This is something you’ve got to see!” It was after midnight, and I had been well-ensconced in dreamland. “Getting up” was the farthest thing from my four-year-old mind, but their excitement was not easy to ignore. Two floors and three minutes later, I was dragged into our front yard where my parents and several pajama-clad neighbors stood in the moonless dark, staring skyward. “Look!” my mother explained. “Look at all the shooting stars!”
Overhead, wherever I looked, the heavens seemed filled with the glowing embers of a massive meteor shower, some of them so bright and dazzling that even the grown-ups around me would shout out in awe, “Oh! Look at that one. Did you see that!” Someone in the group even asserted that if we listened carefully, we could actually hear them sizzle.
It all happened a lifetime ago in human years, but it was my introduction to things magical; especially the kind of magic which happens only during those hours when the world sleeps. I thought of that boyhood experience one night many years later, when my two grown sons and I stood on the shore of a wilderness lake, in Canada’s vast Northwest Territory, within the shadow of the Arctic Circle, mesmerized into the early morning hours by a display of the Aurora Borealis which took the breath away and seemed to go on forever, as great shifting curtains of many colors danced across the northern sky from horizon to horizon.
I grew up in a world dominated by two older brothers a dozen years distant in age and activities, but I will never forget the times when they “invited” me into their “world”; even to a friendship with “Piccolo Pete”, a friendly poltergeist who lived under the eaves of their attic bedrooms, and made strange but entertaining noises on the rare occasions when I was allowed to share their sleeping quarters. Especially do I remember being allowed to stay up late as they lay in wait for the great Polyphemus , Cecropia and Luna moths which were attracted to the honey-laced towels hung beneath a midnight-set lantern in our back yard where we waited with bated breath and catching nets.
Two generations later, as our extended family “camped out” on our still-undeveloped Virgin River property, the nighttime air filled with the perfume of Russian Olive blossoms, a ten-year old grandson persuaded me to surrender the comparative comfort of our travel trailer, so that we could sleep outdoors together. I dutifully spread my sleeping bag next to his as we lay together under the great vault of Zion’s skies as midnight came and went. I pointed out the stars of the Summer Triangle, Sagittarius and other constellations, waiting for sleep to come. Somewhere in the near distance, a pair of coyotes broke the silence with a brief duet. After a few moments of quiet he whispered to me, in obvious wonder: “Grandpa. Do you realize this is the first time in my life that I have ever slept outside under the stars?” And then, he was asleep, and I was left alone with a tear or two in my eyes and the music of the night ringing in my ears and in my heart.
My departed and much loved friend and author Sigurd F. Olson wrote endearingly about such experiences in a chapter titled “The Witching Hour”, a term which was given new and ironic meaning for me as I lay in yet another sleeping bag late one autumn night not far from his home near Ely, Minnesota, as I camped alone on the edge of Basswood Lake. As the clear and frosty blackness of a far-northern night gave way to the hour known to military sentries and seamen as the “mid-watch”, I felt an unearthly stir of air brush my face. I opened my eyes just in time to see the broad and silent wings of a Great Horned Owl, just inches away, and close enough to touch, at the hovering stage of an investigative dive. It was a once-in-a-lifetime moment of sheer magic; so highly personal and “private” an experience that I have shared it with few for fear they would not understand why it should affect me so deeply.
Like American poet, Robert Frost in his 1928 sonnet, “I have been one acquainted with the night”, and as Andrew Lloyd Webber challenged in his “Phantom of the Opera”, I too have found moments of magic listening for the “Music of the Night”.
The lime-green Luna moth was so large, beautiful and rare that we almost always freed it after capture. It can measure more than five inches across.
Owls are perfectly designed to operate as nighttime predators, with hollow bones for lightness, cushioned wing feathers for silent flight, and extraordinary eyesight. The Great Horned Owl is North America’s largest with a wing span up to 5 feet.