Saturday morning I rose at a breathtaking 3:15 AM to go catfishing. It turns out catfish are as nocturnal as a newborn baby, and are best caught when you'd rather be sleeping. I headed out to a new spot, a put-in on the Kansas River just west of Lenexa. When I arrived, I was alone in the parking lot. The boat ramp was silent. Below me and to the east, I could detect the faint gurgling of Cedar Creek. I grabbed my fishing gear, my new, 90 lumen LED flashlight (which basically turns night into a surreal, narrow spectrum of day), and off I went. I walked down to the point, and set up shop. I got both rods out pretty quickly, using HyVee's Bacon Cheddar Bratwurst as bait. I figured the combination of bacon oil and cheese oil would bring the cats in heavy and fast. Once I had my lines in the water, I clicked off my flashlight.
What greeted me can only be described as oppression. Darkness, like a blanket, surrounded me. From every direction, I could see nothing, but hear everything. The chirping of little insects, the buzz of a mosquito in my ear, a fish splashing nearby...all suddenly seemed implausibly loud, and impossibly close. My uber-flashlight had served its purpose well, but my eyes were now maladjusted to the darkness. Far off in the distance, I saw a flash...a nearby thunderstorm was moving off into the distance.
I suddenly felt very small. Very alone. It occurred to me that what I was feeling was a sense of being distinctly mortal. And it dawned on me that I don't normally feel that.
I don't think it was fear that gripped me, that cool morning. In Kansas there are literally zero native animals that can easily kill you. There aren't even tropic diseases or insect-borne pathogens to fear. No fish could come up out of the water and eat me. No flash flood could wash me away. No, in the darkness I did not feel fear. Or at least, I did not feel afraid for my life. Instead I felt weight.
I felt like the sky, the cool breeze, and the sounds of nature all around me were pressing against me, from every direction. Perhaps the ability to see not only allows to a person to see how far away something is, but also how close it is to you...if you catch my double meaning. A sound that would normally send my eyes looking a fair distance away suddenly seemed basically in my ear. The smells in the breeze, including one that smelled of something rotten, seemed to force themselves upon me.
At some point, my eyes began to adjust. I began to see faint outlines of things, like the point where Cedar Creek and the Kaw joined, the two waters swirled and mixed in a terrific impression of the cloud cover of Jupiter. At one point I caught a large fish, a blue catfish in the neighborhood of 5 lbs. He fought on in and I took a look at him, then released him. He disappeared back into the dark. After he was gone, I realized I had enjoyed the few minutes of his company, even at one point talking out loud to him, describing his features to him. Then, with my customary pat on his tail, I'd set him on his way. Once again I was alone in the darkness. Once again the weight was upon me.
I wondered to myself if this was some sort of sensation only I felt, or if this sense of the world pushing on me was something all humans felt? I imagined my ancestors, thousands upon thousands of years ago, crowding up to the fire, and actually evolving a pathway in their brains that released pleasure hormones when they sat and stared into the flames. I imagined them turning to face the darkness, and only feeling cold on their faces, only hearing noises from sources they couldn't see.
Then my mind ventured forward in time, to a city, perhaps the first human city, where people willingly paid tax money to have a man walk down the street each night and light gas lamps, so that the darkness would be eternally banished from their lives. They lit candles in their houses, they kept a merry blaze going in the hearth. All to drive out the dark and fill their lives with sweet, pleasurable light.
Then I imagined a creature in the dark, perhaps a raccoon or skunk, watching me exit my truck earlier that morning. I had interrupted its natural feeding so it watched, amused, as I fumbled in the dark like a blind infant. Watched me, as I fumbled desperately for my flashlight, then visibly relaxed upon its ignition. I can imagine the raccoon watching the erratic way I flashed my light back and forth, not knowing "what's out there", moving with a quick, purposeful stride through the blanketing dark.
As this all stewed on in my mind, and as I continued to catch and release fish I realized that the dim light of the night, the tiny amount I could utilize to see, was actually not natural. It was light pollution from the nearby city. That was a bleak moment. To know that this nearly utter darkness that pressed in on me was not actually as bad as it got.
At some point, along Nature's course for our species, we gave up the tapetum lucidum that most animal species use to see at night. The tapetum ludicum is a reflective surface that lies behind the retina in the back of an animal's eye. Essentially light comes through the eye, and whatever passes through the retina without being absorbed by rods is bounced off the tapetum lucidum back into the retina, essentially giving the eye a double shot at seeing the photons coming at it. The upside of this little piece of anatomy is good vision at night. The downside is that vision at night is blurry - the eye has two dim versions of an image and your brain must rectify those into a single, brighter image, but the time delay between the images leads to them being out of focus with one another.
I would have paid good money for a pair of tapetum lucidum, just then. Something, anything, really, to break the darkness' hold on me. Eventually I broke; I switched on my flashlight and pointed it at the end of my fishing rods, where it traveled on into the night. And with that piercing, blessed light, I began to cheer up. I began to once again forget my mortality.