Coastal City Night Walk

They call it “vibrancy” – what a town’s night life must have if it is to own a place on the cultural map. Full-blown city-hood does not want a full night’s sleep; no one wants to walk long empty avenues redolent of vanished day-life, lined with gated strip malls, no taxi to be found. Who lingers in concrete squares scattered with hard benches and office workers’ morning coffee cups? Who doesn’t prefer the darkly discreet door two steps down to the jazz cafe, the comedy club, the glitter, food carts, flower vendors and the casual swish of pleasure-seeking motor-traffic?

Yet there is another “night life,” also full of sex and death, and drama in the drains, tree tops, eaves and soil. The urban naturalist too knows how to see and not be seen, and to see yet be seen not to be looking too hard or stalking too close. Whether insomniac or simply connoisseurs of the small hours, these people know where to find entertainment at night, and the further they get from the bright downtown lights the more they find. Once the neighbourhoods have settled under a blanket of darkness, windows curtained and stop lights switching meticulously back and forth for no traffic … then, the night creatures emerge, sly, wary, urban and biodiverse. Once the dumpsters are filled and the alleys emptied, then the coyotes come out, the cats, rats and the whole ancient line-up of predator and prey, carrying on the same as nature ever did, right at the city core.

Slipping down the alleys, over a fence or two behind the townhouses, the urban nightwalker finds a solitude blessed but vibrating, and whole streets to walk down the middle of, traffic-free. All it takes is a healthy urban forest: in well-treed areas a blur might swoop down — an owl out hunting. Bushes rustle in a way they never do during the day, and if it has rained the worms are audibly and liquidly writhing in the soil while snails parade along walkways and iron railings. The raccoons come to prise delicately their tasty bodies from their shells, after washing them carefully in dog bowls glinting softly in the moonlight.

It is not only the storied owl and pussycat who “danced by the light of the moon.” Whatever the downtown nightclubs are doing the raccoons are having a rave, and more often than not,  those urban newcomers, the deer, emerge to visit the window box salad bars and tomato vines which they fear to patronise during the glare of daylight and human attention. The human nightwalker enjoys a freedom, a relaxation of tension in streets, parks and gardens. Down near the harbour a few bats flit, adding a frisson of archetypal fear. Offshore mists arrive and linger; no wonder folks in earlier times saw ghosts here. Every town has a jilted bride or a cheated bankrupt who haunts the old cul-de-sacs, unable to rest in graves now paved over by the cityscape.

The thoughtful walker keeps a few cat kibbles in a pocket for the street cats. The well-housed cats too stalk by, brushing the legs of passers-by in comradeship. There is an occasional bark in the distance, sleepy dogs making a token guard-dog statement: I’m here, I know you’re there. Bottles clink as a binner works late, checking the dumpsters before curling up under a friendly tree, his bike close by. Two lovers, drunkenly determined, emerge from a closing bar and find shadows, unaware of how populated they are. Coyote doesn’t miss a thing.

The trees come into their own, grand sentinels and solid citizens, the real city fathers and mothers, swaying imperiously in wind or casting shadows in moonlight, housing insects and sheltering the birds who keep so quiet and hidden that the night walker forgets they pecked up crumbs around the patios just hours ago. Passing a garden pond the walker hears the discreet plop of a duck, but where do the hummingbirds and robins hide to rest? Night secrets are like night scents, creating a map of meaning for urban animals, but a closed book to the merely human.

When the sky lightens and darkness seeps away the sounds change. The dawn chorus starts as a tentative tune-up that becomes a confident choir. Gulls begin their heralding shrieks, and now the walker is joined by a sharp-eyed crow checking from rooftops for what the night tides, breezes and litterers have washed up. The shift is changing, day creatures emerging as doors slam and engines rev up. Time for the walker like the raccoons to slip off the scene. But not alone: an escort of deer forms in the early light, delicately picking their way around this tree on the corner, slipping down that lane to the left. This is their special time, when fawns play, the unpredictable human crowd not yet swarming the streets. The first rays of sunlight illuminate sudden colour on dropped coins, pizza cartons, furry coats. Night walker and deer head for day lairs.

Barbara Julian