Embracing the night
photo by Bill Abranowicz
About 14 years ago, we went on a family vacation to Hawaii. We rented a pretty cabin in Hana, Maui, with our three kids. The bedrooms were spacious and well-appointed, each one with a skylight, and on each skylight an adorably chirping gecko could be found posing like a character out of a children’s book. However, it was the futon bed on the screened-in porch (the lanai, as it’s called there) that called to my husband and me, and it was on the lanai that we chose to sleep. Two weeks later, we arrived home to Bedford. I barely unpacked before heading to Mount Kisco to buy a futon bed for our own screened-in porch.
Since then, our nights sleeping al fresco have extended across half the year. In April, we turn on the electric blanket about 20 minutes before venturing out into the chill of an early spring night. That, a down comforter, and the most elemental source of heat—another body, and we are snug as can be. When summer blossoms full-on, we use a woven linen blanket, at once weighty and weightless. In late September, we plug in the electric blanket once again, and by early November, when it becomes too cold to hold a book in our hands, we move back inside for the winter.
Why do we enjoy sleeping outside so? For us, it has never been about the health benefits, which, according to a slew of sources are
real and varied: improved activity of the lungs by increasing oxygen assimilation, a strengthening of the central nervous system, and the stimulation of the vital glands of internal secretion that produce hormones and tone up the skin. It is well known that spending time outdoors and getting plenty of fresh air increases serotonin levels, improving mood and reducing stress.
We sleep outside because it just feels so good. A butterfly in Japan flaps its wings, and on our back porch in Bedford, my cheek is gently buffeted by a puff of wind. During storms, we feel the spray of mist against our faces. Thunder wraps all around us. Lightning creates momentary tableaus, each window framing a distinct composition of dancing trees against a steely sky. Sometimes we are awakened from our sleep thinking there’s a party gone out of hand nearby. It is actually the freakishly human-sounding shrieks of a pack of coyotes wilding on a terrified mammal in the surrounding woods. We listen with the rapt attention we’d give the most exotic nature documentary on TV.
Nights on the screened porch are a study of the delineation between one thing and another. The place where my warm breath meets cool air. The owl’s soft pipe song interrupting the buttery texture of silence. Where, devoid of manmade sound, we modern people can feel and hear night as it has been since un-modern times. In the dark calm of a Bedford night, I can begin to decode the language of the natural world. I listen for the variations in the crickets’ song, try to guess where that barking dog lives, and attempt to memorize an animal cry so in the morning I can search it online. The distress call of a baby fox? The ratchet-y chitter of a raccoon in a standoff with a cat?
“There are on earth,” writes Jean Giono in his 1935 book, The Joy of Man’s Desiring, “moments of great beauty and peace.”
Sleeping on the porch gives us so many more of those moments.