In books, film, and general media, some aspects of country living are presented as “true” when those aspects are really “true when viewed through the experience of city dwellers.” This does make me sigh, particularly when plot points turn on those aspects.
I was born and raised in Southern California, but lived in a more rural community during high school. Then, after many more years of city living in two different states, I moved to rural Indiana. The nearest streetlights of town (population 1,000) were over five miles away. The nearest true city (population around 10,000) was ten miles away. I lived in a very small house that was nearing 100 years old, but had been wired for electricity only two years before I moved in, on a riverside farm of about 130 acres that I shared with the landowners. My closest neighbors were Amish.
I was far enough from town that now, living three miles from the city outskirts, I hardly consider myself living in the country.
Moving from city to country prompts folks to choose one of two paths–adapt to the experience, or adapt the experience itself. The first step of the latter involves the instillation of outdoor lighting systems to banish the night.
I can’t tell you often I hear country nights, or nights before artificial lighting, described as pitch black. As someone who used to walk around on 130 acres at night, I can assure you night walks are not akin to a blindfolded stroll. Nights are not terrifyingly dark by default. Darkness depends, of course, on available moonlight, but also atmospheric conditions and vegetation. On a clear night, less than a half-moon provided light enough for comfort. A full moon’s brightness made hikes up and down the ravines safely possible.
But the moment you look at anything brighter than the moonlight–in fact, in you look directly at a bright moon–everything else will look pitch black. The rods in your eyes use certain pigments to see in low light, and those pigments break down in bright light to prevent the light from overloading sight. It can take over half an hour for those pigments to build back up. So if you’re turning a flashlight on and off, looking at a campfire, going in and out of the house, or–as in the case of reporters–spending most of the time staring into good lighting–the night will indeed look pitch black all the time.
Patience reveals another aspect.
Nighttime sound in the country can also be described very poorly by those who live with constant background sounds. Such sounds become so pervasive, they cease to be noticed. Air circulation fans and traffic are two common sources. That noise covers smaller sounds of footsteps, conversations, breezes through leaves, and the passage of small animals. You won’t hear the murmuring of a casual conversation taking place on a porch a quarter mile away.
In the country, sources of ambient noise might be moving water and/or wind. That’s about it. Being still reveals low sounds of small nocturnal creatures–their movements, their calls, their feeding. The yip of a coyote carries a long, long distance, as does the whoo of an owl. From my front porch on the farm, I could hear the clopping of hooves for long minutes before the buggy came into sight. (Amish neighbors, remember? 🙂 From my back porch at my current home, I can hear most cars on a back country road when they’re still two miles away. When I see a character be caught off-guard by the sudden appearance of a vehicle on a country road, I know the writer hasn’t spent much time outside his city limits.
All that quiet stillness will make one very aware of how much noise a clothed human body makes when it moves. While it’s true feet cause noise on the ground, the sound of moving fabric can give away one’s position as well. These days, humans would make easy prey for any stalking animal.
There are times that I deeply miss living on the farm. Even the days, the ones filled with hard work in the July heat, were wonderful. An interlude. The in-between. The time I needed to leave behind an old self and find the new. But it’s the night–usually in spring and fall, usually when the moon is near full–that I miss most of all.