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Excerpt: 'Central Park in the Dark'

Central Park In The Dark

The first time I walked through the Ramble at night I was terrified. I had been there in the daytime often enough; that thirty-seven-acre wilderness in the heart of Central Park is where I first became a birdwatcher. But the very features that enchanted me by day — the winding paths, the thicket of trees blocking out the city in all directions, the rock formations cropping up out of nowhere, the secret coves, the rustic bridges and sylvan streams — all looked grotesque and menacing in the darkness. A shadow looming up ahead brought back a scary illustration from my childhood fairy-tale book, the silhouette of a horrible, grinning witch about to seize innocent children just like me! And those rustlings to the right of the path and the small, throaty growls from the bushes near the Lake — was I imagining them?

No birds to be seen, not even a pigeon or sparrow, no hawks, no butterflies or dragonflies, no squirrels, no tourists with cameras, no nannies with strollers, no joggers or dog-walkers, no park workers, no cops — nobody. It was too quiet. The Central Park I loved by day made my flesh creep after dark.

That was many years ago. Today the things that once made my heart start pounding are full of possibility. That rustling in the leaf litter could be a white-footed mouse; the odd yips and yowls — squabbling raccoons. Now I recognize the particular rocks and trees that cast ominous shadows on the path. Of course I keep my wits about me walking through the park at night, but not more than I do during the day. You learn to be jungle-smart living in New York.

What made me avoid Central Park at night for so many years? During my childhood and young adulthood the park really was a dangerous place, and not only at night. Its decline and neglect began when the economic boom that followed World War II came to an end, and it continued for decades. Eventually the park's bad reputation became a subject of public mockery, as in these lines from a 1961 Ogden Nash poem:

If you should happen after dark

To find yourself in Central Park,

Ignore the paths that beckon you

And hurry, hurry to the zoo,

And creep into the tiger's lair.

Frankly you'll be safer there.

Central Park reached its nadir during the city's fiscal crisis in the 1970s, when the park's budget plummeted and with it police surveillance and patrols. Its reputation as a shabby, neglected, dangerous place was well deserved in those years. The tide turned in 1980 when the Central Park Conservancy began its long program of restoration, which continues to this day.

Still, the park had never been as dangerous as the public perceived it. When, infrequently, a crime is committed within its 843 green acres, whether a robbery or assault or murder, it makes newspaper headlines and the TV news. Meanwhile a far greater number of similar crimes committed in less illustrious neighborhoods go unheralded. Today, though more police cars circle the park's paths and drives than ever before, fear of Central Park in the dark continues to prevail.

"You go into Central Park at night?" people ask, upturn and crescendo on the last word, when I talk about the owls and moths, raccoons and bats, crickets, cicadas, and other wild (nonhuman) things I've seen in the park after sundown. "But you don't go there alone, do you?" they always ask next. When I admit that I've done so on occasion, their eyes widen with horror.

Fear and hatred of darkness: the seed is planted in the first chapter of the Bible, when God says, "Let there be light," and there is light. God does not have to start with "Let there be darkness," for the darkness is already there in that unthinkable, formless void preceding the Creation. "And God saw the light, that it was good," the verse continues. How can one miss the unspoken corollary: that the darkness was not good.

Think how fear of darkness is nurtured in early childhood, the stage of life when patterns of thinking are firmly established. Even in today's psychologically savvy world, toddlers still kneel beside their beds to recite a truly terrifying prayer: "Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep; if I should die before I wake ..." Or they learn another prayer that cannot lead to cheerful feelings about the dark: "Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee O Lord, and by thy great mercy deliver us from all perils and dangers of this night."

Surely the years of saying "peril" and "danger" in association with "night" and "darkness" help to create an automatic queasiness about the darkness of night. Since modern neuroscience supports the idea that brain patterns are permanently affected by external stimuli, it stands to reason that frightening words and concepts repeated over a period of time during childhood will have long-lasting neurological and emotional consequences. Nyctophobia, a pathological fear of night and darkness, might be an extreme example of such a consequence.

Yet even the most protected children sometimes believe that there's a monster under the bed at night or a ghost outside the window in the darkness. Nor do adults stop being afraid of venturing into Central Park at night, even when they're presented with rational and incontrovertible facts about its relative safety after dark. Here is such a fact: There's not much crime in Central Park — indeed, the Central Park precinct enjoys the city's lowest crime rate. But more crimes are committed there in the daytime than at night.

Fear of darkness is universal. We are daytime mammals, after all, and evolution has programmed us to respond to failing light by crawling into a safe, snug place and going to sleep. That is what other diurnal mammals do. There are even evolutionary roots for a more specific fear known as nyctohylophobia, fear of dark, wooded areas at night. It makes perfect sense: the predators that threatened humans in their earliest days would have been lurking in those dark woods at night, animals that had evolved with better night vision and keener senses of hearing and smell than Homo sapiens.

When daytime animals are forced to leave their protected night quarters and enter the world of darkness, an automatic fear reaction triggers specific hormonal changes that serve as a survival mechanism. Fear triggers adrenaline, for example, which heightens the senses, helping the animal stay awake and alert for signs of danger.

Early in mankind's evolutionary history humans chose to go against the natural order by extending their waking hours long past sunset. Fossil evidence shows that early man used campfires, bonfires, and torches to illuminate the night. Throughout recorded history people have made ever-greater inroads into the darkness — with candles and lanterns, then with the gas mantle, and most dramatically with electricity.

Far greater dangers face us in today's world than our ancestors ever dreamed of, but we are as likely to encounter them in the day as at night. Nevertheless fear of darkness persists as an evolutionary relic, one that may diminish our lives more than it prolongs them. For our instinctive and often irrational fear distances us from the mysteries and wonders of the natural world at night. Central Park offered me my first glimpse into those mysteries and wonders. But not until I'd come to know the place extremely well did my fear of the night recede, though it never disappeared completely. Familiarity breeds content.

Another characteristic is an even more powerful inhibitor of fear: curiosity, the desire to know and to understand. Curiosity, together with our eagerness to learn — a universal human trait — will turn off the automatic fear reaction. Surely this too is part of the mammalian heritage. The impulse to delve into the mysteries of nature must have improved the odds of survival in ancient times, just as it improves the odds of fulfillment in our own day and age.

Night brings out some of nature's most fascinating creatures, and the dramas of their life cycles are enacted in darkness. Curiosity about events that unfold only at night — owls flying off to hunt, bats calling unheard as they circle at the water's edge, spiders spinning elaborate webs, slugs embracing, cicadas unfolding their lacy green wings, hawks falling asleep in concealment, large, colorful moths arriving from the mysterious dark to feed on tree sap — this is what brought a little group of nature lovers I think of as the Night People into Central Park's nocturnal world.

Excerpted from Central Park in the Dark by Marie Winn. Copyright 2008 by Marie Winn. Published in May 2008 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

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Marie Winn