Night Vision

On finding comfort and purpose in the dark

Justin Mullet/Stocksy
Justin Mullet/Stocksy

For American farmers, life changed dramatically in 1937. That year, electricity began flowing to hundreds of thousands of rural households, including some 12,000 in Wisconsin. The Rural Electrification Act (REA), which President Franklin D. Roosevelt had signed into law the previous year, provided stimulus for utilities to install poles and wires where, until then, it hadn’t been economical to do so. Most farmers were thrilled. One who lived near Janesville, Wisconsin, said of the power company crew, “I thought sometimes that they weren’t ever goin’ to get here. The organizers told us we’d have juice by spring. But we finally did get it, and, by golly, I’m goin’ to shoot the works.” He showed a city reporter every electric light in his barn. His newspaper profile reads like REA propaganda, and it might have been. To persuade skeptical farmers—who were still feeling the effects of the Great Depression and balked at the prospect of a monthly electric bill—REA advocates mounted a forceful public relations campaign. Agents traveled across the country demonstrating electric appliances. Theaters presented a popular film, Power and the Land, which touted the benefits of electricity for agricultural operations and concluded with the line, “Things will be easier now.” Part of the campaign focused on convincing women. Electricity would give them lights, refrigerators, ovens, vacuum cleaners, washing machines, and irons they could plug into an outlet. It would end their drudgery, the government promised.

But Jennie Harebo, a 64-year-old woman from central Wisconsin, wasn’t having it. After her town’s rural electric cooperative set eight poles and lines on her property, she sawed down one of the poles and parked her coupe on the downed wires. She stationed herself in the car, armed with a shotgun and a hoe. Newsmen called it a “sitdown strike,” a “vigil,” a “blockade.” Her husband, an “invalid,” brought her food. At dusk, she gathered blankets around her shoulders and lap and cradled the shotgun. One night, two nights, three nights she stayed. A sign on the windshield read, NOTICE: NO TRESPASSING. Harebo allowed no negotiating, entertained no tit-for-tat. Months earlier, she and her husband had won a case in the state’s supreme court that saved a riparian corner of their property from being seized by men who wanted to build a dam. The government’s lawyer must have suspected that his client’s case was doomed.

I imagine that Jennie Harebo, a woman of a certain age, was fed up with men’s impositions. Now they were trying to force lines through her vantage, light into her dark. Maybe she wanted to hold fast to twilight powers—the wonderment, the wisdom, the privileged views. Maybe she was simply cantankerous in the original sense of the word, which is rooted in the notion of “holding fast.”

What could she have seen in her three nights’ vigil? North Star, both dippers, crescent moon’s shine on the pump handle—the fixtures of haiku masters. Also, quotidian country lurkers and skulkers. Her night vision undefiled by electric shine, she surely saw scavenging raccoons, ambling possums, scuffling skunks. Maybe a lynx’s glassy gaze. She heard more, too, than her city relatives in their wired homes with their humming lights and fans and blathering radios. She could have made out the lawyer’s Pontiac approaching from a distance of 10 miles. She had plenty of time to aim her Remington out the driver’s side window.

Eighty years after Harebo’s stand, I took up wandering my rural Wisconsin property after nightfall. I longed for whatever sights diurnal living denied me. Trail cams mounted in the forest or by the creek had offered only glimpses: beavers adding branches to their dams, stock-still deer staring straight into the lens. The cameras, I was sure, didn’t reveal a fraction of the night’s secrets.

On clear nights, I stood under the Milky Way’s sprawling, splotchy canopy. I saw planets, constellations, comets, and once, a meteor afire and dying as it plummeted to Earth. The darkness of my rural township, an hour’s drive from the Harebos’ farm, was rare for modern times. In 2005, our town board passed a dark sky ordinance (whereas, whereas, whereas … and so, lights must be shielded, directed downward, calibrated, kept modest). Nevertheless, a yard light down the road, a sign at the corner bar, and the glow of a distant city interfered.

I sought deeper darkness. I found it at the nature preserve halfway between my place and the Harebos’ farm. One night, a self-made astronomer and his telescope met me and others at the preserve for a moonlit hike. Inside the visitors center, I discovered my friend Liz in the crowd, and we sat together. The occasion was a penumbral lunar eclipse. The astronomer began his program with canned, corny jokes. He introduced his two assistants, women who knew the trails and would guide us on the night hike. He must have mentioned the alignment of heavenly bodies, how Earth’s shadow would fall on February’s full moon, the snow moon, once it rose. But I’ve never retained stargazing facts. I’m slow to make out asterisms. I can’t recall which planets appear where and when or what temperaments the ancient Greeks assigned them. I merely love to bask under them.

We were all traipsing outside into the snow when, unexpectedly, the astronomer announced that hiking would be too dangerous because of ice. Instead, he would talk to us during the half hour before the moon rose. The group groaned, and Liz and I looked at each other. Like the astronomer’s assistants, we knew the preserve’s trails, at least the main ones. We backed away from the others and stole into the darkness.

We padded slowly and quietly over the glazed snow, keeping our eyes on the ground, gathering scant reflected light from unknown sources. The woodland trail was icy only on rocks or railroad ties. In those spots we braced ourselves and reached out to steady each other. Soon we joined the wider trail, formerly the old state highway. There, the snow was ridged from snowmobiles’ belts. As we walked on the crusted ridges, Liz told me about living in Dharamshala a few years earlier. I pictured her humid quarters in the mountains of northern India, the buildings’ bright colors, the Buddhist pilgrims surrounding her. I sensed the peace she had felt there and nowhere else. I shared her desire to return to Dharamshala, although I’d never been there. While visualizing that faraway place, I kept my eyes on my surroundings. Moving in the dark was a balancing art. I felt most adept when I looked out with a broad, allowing awareness, when I didn’t fix on fine details or make assumptions about the terrain. Liz and I arrived at the path’s apogee precisely when the clouds parted, the full moon rose orange, and as if cued by the shifting light, coyotes began howling.

I imagine that Jennie Harebo, a woman of a certain age, was fed up with men’s impositions. Now they were trying to force lines through her vantage, light into her dark. Maybe she wanted to hold fast to twilight powers.

What I have seen by the light of celestial bodies: rabbit prints as lavender shadows in the snow; bare, black elm branches waving; the red glow of varmints’ eyes at the compost heap; stars in puddles and brooks; my lover’s silhouette moving beside mine.

What I have not seen in the night and been surprised by: knee-deep muck; a snorting, thundering herd of deer; a frog on a door handle that I smashed under my palm as I hurried to get indoors during a rainstorm; a pickup truck without headlights barreling down the road—and the drunk young man at the wheel who, after nearly running me over, reversed and asked, “Are you okay? Geez, are you okay?” in a tone that told me his real question was, What are you doing walking out here after dark?

To be moon-eyed is to keep your eyes wide open and to be awed. But to be moony is to be absent-minded, loony, or at least naïve. With better night vision, I thought, I could steer my life toward more moon-eyed moments than moony ones. Maybe I could take in more good surprises than bad and live with heightened awareness, less delusion. Seeing what I’d been missing all along might grant me new, original insights.

Humans are born with the ability to see in low light. But compared with that of other animals, our night vision is feeble. We lack the nocturnals’ giant pupils (think doe-eyed  ) and their tapetum lucidum, a structure at the back of the eyeball that acts as a mirror, amplifying starlight into floodlight and reflecting it back onto the retina. Our natural night vision can be eased into—it takes a while for our sight to adjust to dimness—but in general, it can’t be enhanced. Using lubricating eye drops or eating more beta carotene, for most well-nourished Americans, won’t improve it. Other habits, such as staring at computer screens or the sun, can degrade it. Unfortunately for Harebo and me and others past their physical prime, night vision also diminishes with age.

To compensate for human deficiencies, engineers developed night vision goggles during World War II. Now every optics store sells them. Some years ago, craving a clear view of the outdoors after sunset, I bought a pair. I stood on our deck, held the goggles to my face, and scanned the horizon. Deer in the field glowed an unnatural phosphor green. Nothing more. No portal opened to a secret world. No mysteries were revealed. In the years following my purchase, I rarely picked up the goggles when I set out in the dark. What I really wanted was something innate and unencumbered, a better version of what I was born with.

Scientists have researched ways of improving human night vision. A chlorophyll derivative called chlorin e6 has shown promise in mice. In 2015, Gabriel Licina and Jeffrey Tibbets, self-styled biohackers with a group called Science for the Masses, gained notoriety for trying the substance. A solution of chlorin e6 was dropped into Licina’s eyes. Two hours later, he and others, acting as controls, were taken to a place where “trees and brush were used for ‘blending’ ”—presumably, an attempt to create a uniform backdrop for all participants. Licina and the control subjects were asked to identify letters, numbers, and other symbols on signs. The experiment appeared to have been successful. Controls correctly identified the objects a third of the time, while Licina did so 100 percent of the time. Afterward, he acknowledged to a journalist that the experiment was “kind of crap science.” Without knowing the potentially harmful effects of chlorin e6, the biohacker had been willing to risk his everyday vision for the possibility of gaining night vision, if only for a few hours (the drops’ effects wore off by sunrise). But Science for the Masses lacked sufficient funding to conduct the sort of extensive, ethical trials that more esteemed researchers require.

In photographs from that night, Licina stares at the camera like some mad alien, his eyes watery and opaque with their larger-than-life black irises—a consequence not of the chlorin e6 but of the oversize light-dimming contact lenses he wore. His creepy appearance and the report’s description of him roving in a dark wood made me think that the young men had especially enjoyed the homemade horror-film aspect of their experiment. Maybe they lusted after superpowers that would allow them to recognize and slay the dark’s monsters. After all, night vision is one superhuman capability that’s nearly achievable. Unlike time travel or leaping tall buildings, it’s only just beyond our grasp.

“Darkness, pitch black and impenetrable, was the realm of the hobgoblin, the sprite, the will-o’-the-wisp, the boggle, the kelpie, the boggart and the troll. Witches, obviously, were ‘abroad,’ ” journalist Jon Henley wrote of life before artificial lighting in a 2009 article in The Guardian. Real monsters coexisted with the fantastical. In the London, Munich, and Paris of the early 19th century, thieves, rapists, and murderous gangs roamed freely. According to Roger Ekirch, author of At Day’s Close, humans were never more afraid of the night than in the era just before gaslights illuminated the cities’ streets. Murder rates then were five to 10 times higher than they are today. And yet, Erkich adds, “large numbers of people came up for air when the sun went down. It afforded them the privacy they did not have during the day. They could no longer be overseen by their superiors.”

Darkness made equals of poor and wealthy, servants and masters, women and men. Past sunset, oppressors needed artificial light to point out their symbols of country and religion, to run factories and enforce conforming behaviors. For the less powerful, darkness and the ability to navigate celestially meant freedom.

Jennie Harebo’s vigil attracted reporters and photographers from across the state, their cars lining the roads near her farm. The visitors, she said, treated her courteously. A deputy sheriff persuaded her to put down the shotgun. And the REA’s lawyer finally relented, having decided to circumvent the Harebo farm after neighbors agreed to accept the poles and lines on their properties. The utility paid Harebo $25 for her trouble and removed the eight poles that it had installed on her land. “With nothing left to fight for,” a newsman wrote, Harebo ended her vigil after about 96 hours. “Storing her formidable hoe in the woodshed, [she] claimed victory today.” She abandoned her coupe, “her husky frame sagging a little with weariness.” The crowd that had gathered to watch the three-day standoff dispersed. “Ultimately,” another reporter mocked, the family’s “need for kerosene lamps continued.”

In opposing electricity, Harebo was a rare exception. Some farmers didn’t even wait for the REA. Two decades before her blockade, men who once lived along the road between my home and the nature preserve were so eager to have electricity that they collected their own poles and wire. They used tractors, shovels, and muscle to run lines from the nearest village. Theirs was the nation’s first farmer-led electrical cooperative. It functioned independently for 20 years, disbanding only in the early 1930s, when the state butted in and began interfering in its operations.

Although she opposed lines on her own property, I imagined that Harebo would have admired the farmers’ refusal to comply with state regulations. As one farmer remarked on the public service commission’s successful attempt to set his cooperative’s prices, it “was a good example of the chair-bottom warmers’ insatiable desire to run everything.” In the years since I learned about Harebo’s vigil, she’d become a minor heroine in my eyes. Here was a tough woman who had fended off the establishment. She had battled for her rights—to the darkness and the freedoms it brought her, to the preservation of her night vision—even if she was weary and sagging.

Standing on the groomed snowmobile route, Liz and I watched the full moon fade to yellow and shrink behind clouds. Then we left for the narrow forest trail. We picked over rocks and logs and a trickling, perennial creek. Farther on, we listened to our breathing and footfalls, nothing more. We found the meadow next to the parking lot of the visitors center. Ahead, clustered around the telescope, stood the astronomer and part of the group we’d started with.

The clouds disappeared again. I looked up to watch the space station dash a diagonal across the sky. The astronomer invited me to view the moon in the telescope. “Lean into the eyepiece,” he told me. “Don’t touch anything.”

Singled out in close-up, the moon nearly blinded me. The penumbral eclipse, a subtle shading on the moon’s surface, was too faint for me to detect. I kept my eye to the telescope only long enough to assure the astronomer that I’d made an effort. I didn’t like the way the instrument isolated the moon. Without its complement of stars and planets, it was a flattened, vapid object. I felt as if I were ogling it but not really seeing it.

Liz took a brief turn at the eyepiece, too. Then we walked to our cars, agreeing to meet again for more nighttime hikes.

We claimed our right to be safe from monsters in the dark—symbolically, of course. The real, human perpetrators were always about, day or night, visible or not. Who knows if our stand changed policies. But it changed me.

People soon will be able to choose better night vision like they can choose to eliminate forehead wrinkles. Professional scientists—not only biohackers—are working on it. In 2019, Gang Han and his fellow researchers at the University of Massachusetts Medical School announced that they had enabled mice to detect near-infrared light by injecting nanoparticles into their eyes. After the injection, the mice could see phosphor-green shapes in the dark, as if they were wearing night vision goggles.

Not surprisingly, safety and security, national or personal, are often cited as reasons for such research and its funding. What if soldiers, for example, could see enemies after dark without the hassle and weight of equipment? In one article, Han suggested testing the eye-injected nanoparticles on dogs next. “If we had a ‘super-dog’ that could see NIR [near-infrared] light,” he told a reporter, “we could project a pattern onto a lawbreaker’s body from a distance, and the dog could catch them without disturbing other people.” As if criminals wouldn’t dodge behind obstacles; as if police with their natural night vision could make out the perpetrators well enough to project shapes onto them; as if dogs wouldn’t be distracted by all the marvels their new night vision revealed and dash away from their handlers.

The delivery method—an injection into the eye—also makes this night vision technique impractical. Recently, though, when I spoke with Han, he told me that his lab might soon begin testing a wearable device, such as a patch or contact lens, on humans. He imagined an application in which a security agent wearing a night vision patch could see details in facial recognition software that others could not. But for this, more funding would be required. Of the lab’s many projects, night vision research has received the most attention in the media. But not from industry or government. People at the big granting agencies, such as the National Science Foundation or National Institutes of Health, Han told me, “can’t recognize its importance in daily life.”

Months after fixing Jennie Harebo’s image in my mind, I found an article about her that I hadn’t seen before. It included a photograph, likely taken after she ended her vigil. She looked nothing like the newsmen’s descriptions. Although the image was dim from age and poor scanning, I could tell that her hair was curled and styled. She wore a buttoned-up overcoat with a contrasting collar, maybe fur. She struck a movie star’s pose beside the coupe—jaw set, chin lifted, face turned slightly, gaze fixed on the middle distance. She was beautiful. Her frame was upright, not sagging. She showed no sign of weariness after 96 hours in the car. Shotgun held at her side, she looked ecstatic and carefree. Seeing the photograph chastened me. I had allowed the newsmen’s descriptions of Harebo to deceive me. I’d been willing to accept that she was crabby and exhausted from her ordeal. But the word vigil, after all, is rooted in “lively” and “strong.” Maybe she didn’t consider it an ordeal at all. Maybe she relished the standoff.

Harebo’s proud posture reminded me of when I lived in Lansing, Michigan, during college and joined friends to march down the middle of the street. We held posters or candles and shouted, “Women unite, take back the night!” We claimed our right to be safe from monsters in the dark—symbolically, of course. The real, human perpetrators were always about, day or night, visible or not. Who knows if our stand changed any policies. But it changed me. Marching to reclaim the dark brought me a sense of solidarity among women that school, work, and family had not. Even so, I thought as I studied Harebo’s photograph, my efforts hadn’t gone far enough. I hadn’t fully imagined what we would do with our freedom after we won the night.

During the summer after our first moonlit hike, Liz and I took more late-night excursions to the middle of nowhere. What I saw with my natural, flawed night vision: shooting stars, swooping bats, slumbering farm machinery, and the lift and dip of a rare, blue-glowing firefly. What I felt, as I listened and shared more stories with my friend: a keener attunement, an ease among shadows, and the assurance of being fully seen—so much of what daylight’s glare had been hiding.

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Tamara Dean has written for Orion magazine and The Southern Review, among other publications. The author of the book The Human-Powered Home, she lives in Viola, Wisconsin. Her essay “Slow Blues,” published in the Autumn 2020 issue of the Scholar, was a National Magazine Award finalist.


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