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A WALK IN THE FIELDS ON A MOONLESS NIGHT CLADS FAMILIAR THINGS IN A CLOAK OF MYSTERY

The Milky Way was smeared across the sky in a dim haze. Without the moon, the night was dark enough to challenge one's sense of distance, but I got to the barn without turning on the flashlight. I turned off the electric fence and walked across the pasture out toward the woods where a cow had been trumpeting her unhappiness for a half hour.

I could have ignored her and turned over and gone back to sleep, but I hadn't been for a night walk for some time, and this was as good an excuse as any. It's curious when what you're familiar with becomes unfamiliar. I've crossed this field hundreds of times, but it's different in the dark. If you walk more on your heels, you're less likely to snag your toe and end up on your face. You reach in front of you, feeling for the wire fence, but it's 20 steps farther on.

I clicked on the flashlight and beamed it around the pasture, catching pairs of eyes reflecting on the hillside and below. Some cows were grazing, others nosing through the hay in the feeder. A bunch of calves were lying down in a far corner, and they jumped up and ran when the beam of light found them.

I held the light over my head, thinking they needed to know who the intruder was. How good is a cow's night vision? I'm not certain, but it may be a lot better than a human's, for they graze and always know where the electric fence is. Maybe smell has something to do with it too.

I waited, listening for the noisy cow, but she was done with her serenade. She was probably calling her calf, or maybe she just liked to hear herself echoing in the woods.

I came back in, navigating by the North Star. The Big Dipper sat on the horizon. Since it hasn't spilled its contents in the 50-odd years I've been watching, I guess it never will.

As I walked, I tried to picture others who have crossed it in the dark. Native American hunters, certainly, maybe carrying a haunch of venison toward a camp on the big creek. The pioneering Barrys looking for firelight spilling from a cabin door, farmers in more recent times toting a kerosene lantern. Somehow it all seems more recent in the darkness.

The stars are startling on a moonless night. I'd like to see them in a place with true darkness, where the towns and cities don't stain the darkness. Maybe someday we'll camp in the West and fall asleep with the stars bright over us. That would be something to remember, though I admit that darkness is an odd thing to look forward to. It's not like saying you are going on a cruise.

I found myself in the dark again a few nights later, this time standing with a group of cattlemen. We were all attending a "Pasture Walk" sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture at a neighboring farm, run by Brad and Eric Bentley. We drove over to take a look at a test field where they've planted strips of various types of orchard grasses and perennial rye grasses.

Last week's rain proved to be enough to germinate the small seeds, and we stood at the end of the long field admiring the work of the high-tech air seeder, which had planted so evenly and quickly. "Can you imagine seeding it all by hand?" someone wondered aloud, "Cranking away on a little broadcaster?"

Though it is not the fare of radio and television, I think farmer talk is always valuable and curious. For most everyone has dealt with the same problems, risking time and money on one strategy or another in this ongoing experiment called agriculture. Farmers have a lot of time to think, and when they talk there is usually a lot behind it.

We spoke about pastures and cattle as the sun set, discussing how interesting it will be to come back when the field is in full production. Which varieties will do the best? Which will the stock favor?

It got slowly darker until the encircled bunch of us could barely make each other out. We just kept talking, sharing experiences with water systems and fencing and wondering about the future of agriculture.

By and by we climbed into pickups and drove out of the field to follow our headlights home.

I stood in the driveway for a few minutes, watching the night as a bat flittered back and forth under the cone of light above the chicken house. September nights are different than summer nights; not just earlier, but quieter and somehow thicker, a darkness good to be in.

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