They call it the golden hour. Photographers and moviemakers love it – the hour after the sun rises and, more specifically, the hour before it sets – because the quality of light changes.

They call it the golden hour.

Photographers and moviemakers love it – the hour after the sun rises and, more specifically, the hour before it sets – because the quality of light changes. There’s some physics involved, and it has to do with light passing through a fatter slice of the atmosphere, but basically the light is softer and, in an odd way, things look more alive and vibrant. It’s romantic. The phrase always reminds me of northern Wisconsin, on the shore of Lake Michigan on a gentle August evening.

It is, however, not quite the best hour of the day. That comes after sunset, when the sky above has gone dark but the western edge of the horizon is still a deep blue, not quite giving up the last bit of daytime.

I had a biology teacher – Tim Mead at the old William Chrisman Junior High School about a hundred years ago – who taught a lot of good things to those of us who might be awake during first hour freshman biology. One teaching, during an extended field trip on the Gasconade River at about this time of year, is that night is when the forest comes alive. Just stop and listen.

Bugs and frogs and the occasional owl sing out. Sometimes a woodcock blurts out its raspy call. You can hear and surmise as much about the woods at night – maybe more – as you can see and know for sure in daylight.

Yes, it’s true that I live in the city and am a bit of night owl when the evening sounds come out of a TV, radio or computer. Nothing that goes on in those places is as interesting as the call of a barred owl, but I surf from channel to channel, fitful and unfulfilled.

When I camp, however, if it’s dark, it’s more or less time for bed, no matter that the clock says. The sun has set and the last of the Dutch oven apple cobbler is gone, so there are basically only two things to do: sit around the fire telling and hearing taller and taller tales, or just sitting and listening to what the night is saying.

Once, years ago and hundreds of miles away, I camped alone on northwoods lake and, not long after dark, I heard the distant call of a pack of wolves. You could hear that on the Discovery Channel a hundred times, and it would not be the same. Not even close.

It is many of the bigger, scarier, more evocative critters – predators such as owls, wolves and cougars – that do their thing at night. Some humans – maybe those of us who assume our own safety and substitute a twinge of foolish arrogance for reasonable caution – sit by the fire and listen, cherishing the wildness that still remains, the wildness that we can still touch, even if it’s at a distance and only with our ears.