Things that don’t go bump in the night

Essay by Julie Luekenga

Mountain Life – October 2004 – Colorado Central Magazine

ONE OF THE THINGS I like best about living in the mountains, away from the city, is that the nights actually get dark. Each time I visit my relatives in Denver, I’m aware that nights never get really … well … night-like. There is an eerie glow from thousands of artificial lights illuminating the darkness. It never really gets quiet there either. The nights vibrate with a constant hum of machinery powering air conditioners and vehicles. I can’t hear crickets. It disturbs me.

In August, I went for a walk around our quiet, Gunnison neighborhood. The moon wasn’t out but, boy, the stars sure were! I could see the hazy glow of the Milky Way stretching across the sky. As I walked with my head tipped back (not exactly good form for avoiding obstacles), I saw several stars streaking across the sky — my own personal fireworks. I couldn’t wait to get home and tell my husband about my private, heavenly light show.

Turns out my “falling stars” were actually the early displays of the Perseid meteor shower, which passes through our night skies each August. Not wanting to miss a chance at free entertainment, my husband and I bundled up warmly the next evening, dragged out lawn chairs — away from where any trees or our house obstructed the view — and waited. We weren’t disappointed.

It was like watching the big pyrotechnics on the 4th of July. We sat, heads back, and “oooohed” and “ahhhhed” with each streak that passed through the sky. Some left wonderful, fiery tails in their wake. Others burned brightly with oranges and reds. “Wow — did you see that one,” one of us would whisper (as if out-loud voices might startle the heavenly display).

Actually our celestial fireworks were the bits of debris left by the passes of the comet Swift-Tuttle. Apparently, this comet makes its rotation every 130 years and leaves in its path comet dust-bunnies (OK, not the scientific term). Each meteor that we see is, according to the scientists who study such things, no larger than a grain of sand, or if it’s really big, the size of a marble. That puts a damper on my “God-playing-with- sparklers-in-the-sky” theory, but it’s still magnificent to ponder.

Fortunately, my night-sky, light show won’t end with the Perseid shower. Each fall month seems to host its own display. In October — around the 21st–I will bundle up and try to catch the Orionids meteor shower whose radiant is the constellation Orion. On the nights before and after November 19th, I might catch the display radiating from the constellation Leo, appropriately named the Leonids meteor shower. And not to be out done, mid-December proudly offers the brightest of the shows named after Gemini: Geminids. The viewing will be cold but the sights dazzling. All this may go unnoticed by the city-dwellers, but donned in my earmuffs and mittens, I’ll be out there.

STARS AREN’T ALL the evening hours have to offer, either. A few nights ago I ventured out to water my garden. I turned on the light above my garage door, and a silent predator swooped out of the darkness and snatched a moth in mid-air. Wow. I watched a little longer. It flew in a big circle and then in complete stealth-like flight, plucked-up another bug.

I quickly and quietly slipped inside the house: “Honey… bats… you’ve gotta come watch this.” Once again, bundled up, we stood breathlessly on the lawn watching the night feasting of these fascinating creatures. Because they moved quickly, and because of the darkness, I couldn’t make out their color or any distinguishing characteristics, but the bat-like maneuvers made them easy to identify. Several times, they dipped, almost playfully, right above us. But had I not been watching, I never would have known they were out there; I was amazed by the total silence of their night dance.

Some varieties of these little flying shrews (I kid you not, look it up!) can eat 150 mosquitoes in less than 15 minutes. Go, shrews, go! They use a sounding system called “echolocation” to find their food. They produce and transmit calls, imperceptible to our human ears, and receive and interpret echoes, thus finding their prey and… swoop… supper. Some species whack the moths off-balance, mid-flight, and scoop them into their mouth. What precision!

ACCORDING TO Dr. Kevin Alexander, biology professor at Western State College, my specific, little performers are known as Big Brown Bats. With a 13-inch wingspan, that’s big enough for me. The flights I observed were their efforts to build up a much-needed fat storage for the winter hibernation that is quickly approaching. By early October my bat friends will be hidden away for their winter siesta until the spring temperatures bring them out for repeat performances. I’m also told they like to find housing among inhabited dwellings like barns, silos, churches and, yes, homes. Some things are better left unknown.

Unless you live in complete isolation, you never quite escape the lights from neighboring homes, even in the mountains. But, I have to admit there is a subtle security in their proximity. The night before last, our electricity flickered and wavered and finally went out completely; all of the lights went off and the murmur of electrical contraptions was silenced. Gazing outside, I realized that this power-outage had touched the entire neighborhood. I stepped out to our back deck and stood, in awe, at the complete darkness that shrouded us. No lights, no hums, no moon — it was truly pitch black. I looked up, amazed, at the incredible blanket of stars that flickered above me.

Just then my dog, a small, brown cow-pooch of dubious border collie breeding, succumbed to her ranch-land, security instincts and gave a low, throaty growl. I strained to see what had startled her, but the thick blackness obliterated any view beyond three feet. Like some alpine version of Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, I considered the possibilities: mountain lions, coyotes and black bears, oh my!

I went back inside.

After all, these are the mountains. You just never know what’s lurking outside your range of vision … after the lights go out.

Julie Luekenga lives and writes in the Gunnison valley, with her ranchland security pooch and family, exploring nocturnal adventures and dreading the early morning hours.