Starry Starry Nights

Find a piece of heaven in your own backyard.

| July/August 2002

  • Stargazing adds to the pleasure of sleeping outdoors. Shown here: the glow of the Milky Way in the summer night sky.
    Photo by William C. Keel
  • On warm summer nights in Idaho, David and Janeen Brown roll their bed outside and sleep to a lullaby of woodland sounds.
  • At the Permaculture Institute of Northern California, Penny Livingston-Stark and James Stark sleep outdoors most of spring, summer, and fall in their bale (pronounced “balay”), a Balinese structure that raises their bed above the ground and puts a natural roof over their heads. “The joy of sleeping outdoors,” says Penny, “is hearing the owls at night and awakening to the predawn chorus. Sometimes the birds forget we're here and fly right through the bale.” Penny and James also use their “outdoor garden room” for dining and entertaining. The bale and linens are available from the Permaculture Institute, (415) 663-9090 or
  • A bed of chamomile just below the bale helps dreamers drift off to sleep.

Almost everyone has a cherished memory of sleeping outdoors. A roof of stars, a cricket lullaby, the cool air on your face, awakening to the calls of birds and the first rays of the sun. It’s a welcome relief from the confines of a square room, stale indoor smells, and noisy appliances. One particular outdoor sleeping experience made me a believer. A friend and I were camping in late summer at the edge of a meadow in an oak woodland. We kept it simple: sleeping bags rolled out on a tarp. The first night I remember thinking, Is nature always this noisy? How am I supposed to sleep? To my city-numbed senses, it was all new: the low moan of the wind in the tree branches, the crunching footfall of small animals on dried leaves, the hoot of owls, the distant howl of coyotes. And that moon—won’t somebody turn out the light?

But by the second night, the living world had woven me into its tapestry. I fell asleep easily, held by the earth, stroked by sweet breezes, reassured by the rustling of life all around me. When we broke camp a few days later, I felt like I was being torn from maternal arms. All my cells, newly accustomed to a deep sense of homecoming, told me that something precious was being left behind.

I have since become an outdoor-sleeping epicure, savoring numerous regional flavors. I’ve fallen asleep on a Gold Country hillside bonding with Comet Hale-Bopp, dreamed peacefully beside a high mountain lake, and awakened to a desert sunrise with the scent of creosote bush on the still morning air. I’ve even enjoyed sleeping in an urban backyard, hearing the calls of night birds and noting the passage of the quarter-moon across the sky each time I turned over.

We were made for this stuff. Our ancestors were sleeping outdoors long before there were doors to sleep out of. Our senses, our psyches, our biological clocks are attuned to the rhythms of the sun and moon and the sounds, smells, and feel of the living web. When we sleep, we renew ourselves; there is no more important time to breathe clean, cool air and hear the thrumming of nature.

Sweet dreams

I’m not the only one with such tastes. My friend Gwen Nichols recalls, “One of my loveliest childhood memories is of waking up in a screened baby bed. I found myself in the shade of a tree on a beautiful warm day, feeling protected and utterly content.”

Debra Lynn Dadd, author of Home, Safe Home (Putnam, 1997), says that her favorite sleeping experience, indoors or out, was as a camp counselor. “We lashed branches between small trees about ten feet off the ground to make sleeping platforms, then made ladders to climb up to them. It was wonderful sleeping in the trees with boughs and stars above. The trees swayed in the breeze, rocking us to sleep.”



September 12-13, 2019
Seven Springs, Pennsylvania

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