Friday, July 13, 2012

Silhouettes and Night Encounters

Cartoonists have long known about the power of silhouettes. They have a way of striking to the heart, and burning into the brain. From Frank Miller's Batman to Chester Gould's Dick Tracy to Walt Kelly's Pogo, many of the most unforgettable images in comics are silhouettes. And all who see the film The Night of the Hunter remember the silhouette of the evil preacher Harry Powell, as he rides a horse across the night meadows, and sings an ode to Jesus.

There seems to be a primal force in these images; they appeal to us at an elemental, instinctual level. I suspect that it is related to our night vision. By the soft light of the Moon, silhouettes may be all a person sees, as he peers into the forest. The solid black shapes of hemlocks and firs and .... something moving? The ebony form of a big cat?

In my sojourns into the forest by night, at Crater Lake National Park, I experience the heightened senses which our ancestors knew. The drop of an icicle, the snap of a tree branch, a smell of musk, all become warnings of danger. They command rapt attention.

Primal fears reawaken. We harken back to a time when bears and big cats ruled the world, and humans were but soft-fleshed cave-dwellers, with unusually large brains.

On a night of full moon, my comrade Lesley and a dog named Whittaker joined me for a venture into the night forest, along the east rim drive (which was closed to automobiles). We passed the sewage ponds, where pacific chorus frogs sang. Munson Valley stretched below us, like the lower jaw of a yawning giant.

A few miles from park headquarters, the artificial lights could no longer reach us, not even dimly through the tree cover. Against the gray of the sky, the silhouetted forms of mountain hemlocks looked ominous. Like twisted beasts, whose multiple deformed limbs reached to grab us. Yet we passed below them, unharmed.

We continued along the east rim drive, amidst the shapes of black and grey. And then, through the cover of trees, light blasted in laser-bars. And as we watched, the moon rose higher, above the black mass of treetops, into the sky. It shown upon us like a celestial lighthouse. Now the grey was not so grey, the night less spooky. One could have read a book in the moonlight.

On our return trip, we passed again into the dark forest, where little light from the moon showed. A pebble bounced across the road, dislodged by my footsteps. We moved on, cautiously. Whitaker ran excitedly from one side of the road to the other, at the end of his leash. So much to smell, so much to explore....

And then Whittaker sprang into action. There was something in the valley, a steep downhill from the road on which we walked. He ran beyond the road's edge, and tried to charge downslope. With feet planted on pavement, Lesley strained on the leash to hold him back. He mewled and wailed; I am unsure what he sought to communicate to the intruder. He howled and pulled and yanked on the leash; it stretched tight as a guy-wire. And then, from below a log a hundred feet ahead of us, a yellow blob of fur emerged. Not fur, quills. A porcupine ran away from us, as fast as a porcupine can run, which is equivalent to a slow mosey. Whitaker pulled harder, and howled like an infant, but Lesley held him tight. The porky per-ambled along down the hill, and found a new log to hide under.

Further down the road, Whittaker became excited again. He darted back and forth and sniffed the ground. Tracks. In the snow on either side of the road. A larger hindfoot, shorter forefoot, claws. The tracks of a moderate-sized black bear, and rather fresh. It tramped across the road quite recently.

We continued our walk. A raven soared from one tree to the next. The forest was full of life. I began to wonder how many creatures watched us, smelled us, heard us, felt our footfalls as we passed. How few of them did we ever detect. Truly, we become the vulnerable ones at night. They are watching.

And these were not my most dramatic encounters with the beasts in the night. Five years ago, during my first summer at Crater Lake, I had a direct nocturnal encounter with a predator on the prowl. That story shall be the subject of a future blog post.

Tread happily but cautiously in the night, dear readers....

Batman artwork by Frank Miller, Klaus Janson, and Lynn Varley, copyrighted to DC comics.  Low-resolution reproduction used here for archival and educational purposes only.