DARIEN, Conn. — Nearly every night around 9, Nina Miller turns off the TV in her Darien home and says good night to her husband. As he retires to their bedroom, she throws on a pair of snow boots and trudges up the hill in their backyard to the two-person tent she’s been sleeping in for the better part of the year.
Since June 26, through heat waves, thunderstorms and the recent polar vortex, Miller has spent more than 170 nights in the small North Face tent, with only a sleeping bag (sometimes two), a battery-operated book light and her notebook.
“It is amazing what I’ve seen in this spot right here,” she said on a recent Thursday afternoon.
One morning she peeked outside the tent and she saw a deer just 6 feet away. She’s seen ospreys, turkeys and a red-tailed hawk.
She said one of the highlights of sleeping in the tent is the fact that the animals are none the wiser.
“When you’re in there . . . the animals don’t know it,” she said. “The birds sit right on top of the tent and just sing away. Sometimes it’s startling because it’s so loud.”
The half-acre property on Kings Highway South, which runs parallel to Post Road near the library, is less than a mile from the Darien train station and about a half-mile from Interstate 95. Miller wants to show others that in a town that’s 98.5 percent developed, Darien still is teeming with wildlife.
And, as someone who’s lived in Hawaii and Alaska, she would know.
“Kids think they have to go far away to places like Vermont or the Everglades to experience nature,” the Darien native said. “They really don’t. All they need is time and a pair of binoculars.”
Miller, 62, worked at the Darien Nature Center for 21 years.
“I started as a volunteer in 1992 taking care of the animals,” she said.
The position evolved over the years as the nature center started summer camps, special events and programs. Eventually, she was named the preschool program director.
She now does off-campus programs for the center, taking students on field trips to local parks to learn more about nature.
“My big focus is on getting kids outside just for their health,” she said. “Never mind anything else.”
Miller is convinced that when children become more familiar with the animals in their backyards, they’ll care more about the planet and its inhabitants.
“You can’t protect what you love unless you know it, and it starts with kids,” she said.
Her tent, which sits on an elevated portion of land in her backyard, is in view of three neighboring houses. But Miller said her neighbors haven’t said a word about her unusual sleeping arrangement.
Once she settles into the tent, she’s in for the night. It doesn’t matter if the temperature dips to the single digits or the air is so thick with humidity she can barely breathe.
“I’ve been in a thunderstorm,” she said. “I’ve been up there in scary, windy and stormy weather. In lightning. It’s scary.”
Miller said she never encountered any creepy critters. But her definition of “creepy” may differ from most.
“Just the groundhog,” she said. “No rats. But I’ve heard voles scratching at the back of the tent. But I haven’t seen skunks or possums or raccoons.”
And she has no complaints about the scenery, either.
“The stars are really beautiful,” she said. “On the bare tree branches, they look like diamonds on fingers.”
Out of the 89 days that make up the winter season, she spent 47 in the tent. She slept there for 57 days when temperatures were 30 degrees and below. And she made it through 12 nights of snow.
“I can pick ‘em,” she said, referring to the ridiculous winter and the 18 inches of snow that surrounded her tent.
“Snow is great insulation,” she said. “The flakes trap the air, so it worked out well for that. And when the snow was that thick, it was pretty quiet. And who can hate snow? It’s so pretty.”
And even when she woke up at 5:30 a.m. with the thermometer reading 4 degrees, she didn’t complain.
“I put on my hat, my boots, and my fingers were freezing as I tried to open the tent,” she said.
Miller put tracks on her boots to keep her from slipping on the ice in the morning.
At night, she concentrated on the silence and let her mind slow down. She spent time crafting poems about saving animals for her writing class.
She has her iPhone, but she only uses it as a flashlight.
“I don’t even know how to play games,” she said.
Miller’s goal is to spend 200 nights in the tent before the end of June.
“I’m not surprised at how much I like it,” she said. “Anything you expect out of nature – you’ll always get more.”
Ashley Varese is a reporter for the Connecticut Post.