The summer night is the best time of the best time of the year.
Nothing against the summer day, that lovely, green, hot embrace beneath a breathtakingly blue sky that proves to us that Minnesota is not a land of perpetual snow and ice. Without summer days we would be bereft, and perhaps unhinged.
But I love the summer night better. The summer night is, to state the obvious — though it is not, as I will explain, obvious at all — dark. But this darkness is not the same everywhere. We live in the country, close to the cities but not of them. In the country, the summer night is different, darker and quieter. Except when it is lighter and noisier.
We built our house 15 years ago, on five acres of former pastureland in Grant, which used to be known as Grant Township and is now formally the City of Grant, though most people who don’t live here have never heard of either. It’s a funny name. Grant is anything but a city. It’s a rural oasis holding out among the ever-expanding suburbs. We get our mail from Stillwater. A neighbor still cuts hay on our property and others nearby, and I can see several barns from the window in the room where I write. The livestock are gone now, but the hay bales dot the landscape through the summer and into the fall, and as long as they do I’m calling this country.
Our land is near the top of a high, steep ridge that runs from west to east along the southern border of Hugo and then turns sharply to the south, crossing Country Road 7 and curling into Grant. The house is aligned on its long axis with the North Star and looks, from our back deck at the end of the day, directly west to the setting sun. In the mornings, from our bedroom window, we can see the sunrise glinting off the IDS building and lighting up the Minneapolis skyline thirty miles away. This is our view. And because it is high and unobstructed, we can see the edge of the world, the horizon that reminds us that our environment is mostly sky.
The summer night here is short and sweet. As I write this, the times of sunrise and sunset have scarcely changed since the solstice on June 21. The sun came up this morning at 5:31 a.m. It will set a few minutes after 9 p.m. this evening. The purpling dusk will linger another hour. Just six hours later the first light will show in the east.
Sunsets are almost always gorgeous, even on cloudy days and sometimes especially on cloudy days, when the sullen sky reddens and seems almost afire before it fades. For the past few weeks we’ve had many clear nights and a ringside seat to not only the setting sun but also the setting of two planets — Jupiter, glittering and remote, and Venus, the brightest object in the heavens after the sun and the moon. Venus, which orbits closer to the sun than the Earth, is never seen far above the horizon or for more than a couple of hours before sunrise or after sunset. In late June this year, it nudged close to Jupiter in the western sky, just as the thin crescent of the waxing moon appeared close by.
What comes after the sun is down and the twilight is gone depends. Night in the country is truly dark as it is not in the city, where ambient light pushes back against the night. Here there are no streetlights, no tall, glossy buildings burning their lights all night, no houses near enough to be more than pinpricks of light in the distance. The occasional car wandering along County Road 7 slides though a long curve to the west of us like a firefly hugging the ground.
So it is dark.
But it is not black. On clear nights, the starlight is bright enough to see the deer moving across the fields, or watch the shadow of an owl coasting silently out of the windbreak, where a line of ancient oaks is visible against sky. If the moon is out the land is silver, the many trees we’ve planted over the years looming against the bright lawn. And if it is cloudy, the wan light from the cities that seems to come from nowhere is actually everywhere.
The night is alive. Coyotes bay at the moon and the passing trains, and sometimes yowl in ecstasy after a kill. Turkeys and pheasants and mourning doves roost like Buddhas. Geese and their ungainly goslings drift on the local ponds. Late last summer, while out on my bike on a warm, bright afternoon, I saw a fisher cross the road near our house — a rare animal everywhere and especially here. It was a wanderer, probably up from the St. Croix, on its way who knows where. It might yet be out there in the night.
The night here is quieter than in the city, too, or would be if it weren’t for the frogs and toads calling madly though the darkness, yearning for a mate. It begins in late March, with the clicking thrum of chorus frogs, and culminates in mid-summer with the long, sharp trill of toads. A lone female toad — Bufo americanus — can lay 20,000 eggs. Soon the fringes of every wetland will be ringed with tiny toadlets. Fortunately, most will be eaten by something bigger, or our world would be all toads.
A few years ago, our black lab began barking excitedly at something in the backyard late one night. I turned on the floods and a pool of light appeared on the ground. Nothing. Suddenly, the dog bolted down the stairs and out across the lawn, crossed the lighted area and raced growling into the darkness beyond. After a few seconds I heard a pained yelp, and a moment later the dog reappeared, speeding back toward the house, pursued by the largest red fox I have ever seen. Both careened up onto the deck, where the fox nipped at the dog’s rear-end before staring at me in wild insolence. Then it turned and ran off into the summer night.
William Souder’s biography of John James Audubon, "Under a Wild Sky," was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His most recent book, a biography of Rachel Carson, was a New York Times Notable Book in 2012 and was also named one of the 25 Best Nonfiction Books of the year. He is currently writing a biography of John Steinbeck, which will be published by Norton in 2019.