The more time I spend on the farm, the more I grow to love its sights, sounds, smells, and textures. On cool crisp mornings the mist rises from the pond and off the great lake to the north and forms a thin, cottony blanket just above the earth, like a weaver gathering bits of roving to spin into the dawn’s thread. The earth smells rich or barren, vegetative or dank, depending on the weather and time of year. I’ve learned its circadian rhythms and seasonal shifts, and find myself succumbing to its harmonies.
This farm existed before us, certainly. But there were parts that we brought to life. Or, perhaps woke from a deep slumber. The farmhouse stayed its course, shifting only slightly over time, but we built the studio, the horse shed, and the various chicken coops and duck huts which replaced the outbuildings of the past, preceding our time and memory. We let the pasture return to meadow, and allowed the hay to grow tall again. We tilled the land and worked the soil, and gave the pollinators and their sustenance a home. As the farm flourished, it took on an energy and life of its own that is both endlessly fascinating and comfortingly familiar.
But I know that this same farm at night would be barely recognizable to me. It has a thriving night life that is completely distinct from the place I know and love. They say that 70 percent of the universe is dark energy, only detectable by its impact. This is certainly true for the farm as well. A morning walk gives evidence of all manner of creatures unwitnessed by daylight. Tender pear saplings nipped mercilessly by deer. A feed can lid forced open by a hungry raccoon. Bear tracks across the muddied ditch. And some creature, unknown and since departed, that captures the dogs’ attention and sends them on a spree of yipping and frothing and darting about.
We once had a paltry strawberry crop – too dry perhaps that season. Maybe next year, we lamented. We enjoyed what we could, but had none to put up for winter. Then we found a hoard of berries under our porch, picked in secrecy as they ripened before we could discover them. The dogs rooted out an opossum, who feigned death once they caught him literally red-handed. When Alan went to retrieve a garbage bag to dispose of the carcass, he returned to find it gone – suddenly revived of its deception. We found it again a week later as roadkill; I suspect this time it wasn’t bluffing.
Sometimes the night life crosses our path in the dead of night, when we’re least sure of our senses. The coyotes wail with an unearthly howl that can only have been ripped from the mouths of demons. Their sounds pierce our bedroom walls when they are close, much too close for comfort. We say a silent prayer for the safety of our flock and squeeze our eyes shut tight.
I once woke in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom and looked out to see a large black cat on our cellar roof. It was the size of a bobcat, but shaped like a jaguar with a long swooping tail. It was poised to jump down onto the old duck hut, just outside the bathroom window – arm’s length from where I stood behind the half-opened glass. I gasped, and it looked squarely at me and then quickly slinked away. I tried to tell others what I had seen, but prevailing wisdom says there are no such animals around here. But I saw him – the silent creature with the coat as black as night. And he saw me just as clearly.
I scoured the internet for information – no sightings had ever been officially recorded. But unofficial sightings? There were hundreds. Even a local mascot bore its likeness. I refused to believe I had imagined such a thing. A lack of photographs doesn’t prove nothing, it simply doesn’t validate something. There are no official photos of my grandparents either, but it doesn’t mean I imagined them. And surely if a creature does not want to be photographed, it won’t be. Why should the night life be obliged to live by our rules?
They say that 85 percent of the world’s species are still undiscovered by humans. A majority of our neighbors, living amongst us as unwitting companions, are unknown to us. Humanity’s greatest sin is its arrogance; our assumption that we can know and control everything there is. Or if we don’t now, that with enough time or resources we somehow soon will. But we don’t know, and we can’t. And for as quickly as we are uncovering new-to-us things, the world is shifting around us, continually evolving in its slow, volatile manner, like molten lava. Trying to decipher it all is like trying to capture a bubble mid-boil.
Whether we imagine it or not, dark energy exists, and so too does the night life. It is a life of entropy: chaos out of order, randomness from structure, predator over prey. We fight it as best we can, buttressing the farm each evening against the unknown.
A mink killed one of our first ducks, a friendly white Pekin we’d raised from a duckling. One morning when Alan went to let them out of their hut, he found the door pulled off and the duck on the ground, it’s heart ripped from its chest. What sort of creature would do such a thing? There is evil in the world, to be sure. Nature can be as cruel as humanity. But darkness is always – and only ever – defeated by light. We keep our ducks in the open now, free to protect themselves through their numbers.
The night life isn’t always evil; sometimes it’s the Trickster, the devil’s companion. Sometimes the darkness merely brings mischief. One week for several mornings we awoke to find the chick feed pan empty. It’s like it’s been licked clean, Alan puzzled, unsure of the culprit. Raccoons would have been able, but it would be out of character. Licked clean, I asked? I looked squarely at Stout, our black lab. Alan insisted he never went in the hen yard. Until we caught him one night, sneaking behind Alan as he locked up the coop, licking chick feed from his muzzle.
We once awoke to a trio of fattened raccoons sleeping on our chicken coop roof. They weren’t harming anything, just taking a long nap – they looked like they were sleeping off a hangover. Why a metal roof eight feet up? No one knows. We kept the dogs away until they awoke and staggered off, no harm no foul.
A few days later, we found our two white silkie chickens bloodied and half-eaten, the raccoons still in the coop at dawn, their mischief no longer innocent. Dark energy indeed. Alan took them out with an air rifle one by one as they emerged from their gruesome feast. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. A taken life is never celebrated, but taking a life? An unforgivable sin.
Thermodynamics second law: order to disorder, structure to chaos. Entropy always increases. We are the last bastion, a farmer and his wife. Some times I wonder if some day we’ll find a harmony with the night life, just as we’ve found with the day. But until then, we buttress our farm each evening against the impending darkness and squeeze our eyes shut tight until the safety of morning arises.