January 14, 2015

Acquainted with the night

I made a plan: to get up before dawn, head out into deep countryside and watch it get light. I'm in Devon by myself for two weeks, writing, and there was a scene I was working on that it would be useful for. And more than that, it felt like an adventure.

The forecast looked good for the night after the year's first full moon – the 'wolf moon', according to Native American lore – and when I got up at 5.30 and looked out I was glad to see it was dry. Out on the lane with no cars, no streetlamps or house lights, the landscape around me was astonishingly dark, the heavens bright.

I'd walked up the hill the day before to work out my route and where I would sit to wait for the dawn; I'd decided on a stile overlooking a sloping field and the village far below. There was nothing anywhere near it, only a hedgerow and a badger sett; no houses or farms, no roads. Just a rough track through fields and woods, frequented – going by prints left in the soft January mud – by dog-walkers, dogs, and deer.

Even with a bright moon it was very, very dark. As I struck off the road and into the woods I thought about the not-so-distant past, before electricity illumined the landscape and turned it into a network of orange constellations; I thought about what it must have been like to find your way, in pitch blackness, with only a paraffin lamp. I was conscious of opening my eyes very wide as I walked, and as soon as I was under the trees, which closed overhead and blocked out the moonlight, I felt the dark really pressing in around me. I noticed that I was breathing as quietly and as shallowly as I could; and when pebbles clashed beneath my boots it made me flinch.

Up on the ridge I could see around me better, and the sense of my shoulders dropping and my breath easing made me realise that I had been nervous moments before – though of what, I couldn't have said. It was something ancient and primal, perhaps; illogical and deep-set. It certainly wasn't other humans I had consciously feared.

It's not that I don't believe that I could be attacked when out at night – or while out by myself anywhere, at any time. I could. But the odds of that happening are in fact, very slim; I overlook greater risks every time I get a lift in a car, or fail to exercise regularly, or heap sugar into my tea. We're bad at understanding risk, as a species; today's news media distorts the picture grossly and doesn't help. But the result of our skewed perception can be a life lived amid unnecessary constraints – particularly for women, who are told that night is not a safe place for them. And if you are someone who loves walking, loves the countryside, or loves the sky and stars, that is a loss.

Because, holy shit, it was breathtaking up there, it really was. Everything was stark black and white, the moon-shadows pin-sharp, like walking into a photograph. Acres and acres of stars; the Milky Way wheeling overhead. The sense of a familiar landscape turned totally foreign, totally secret; it felt like discovering another world. To be there by myself only made it more intense, more earned.

There were no animal encounters, no badger sightings at the sett I passed, though I heard tawny owls making and returning their shivering calls. Yet the walk left me utterly elated, utterly inspired; and with a sense of great freedom, of having claimed something, that hasn't dissipated.

Walking alone, while not always easy, makes my world bigger, my imagination clearer, my connection to place deeper. It has enlarged me, and I'll do it again; not all the time by any means, but sometimes. I'm not advocating that anyone else goes exploring at night, if they don't feel the need – but when it comes to examining what you believe you are and aren't 'allowed' to do, deciding whether you agree with those rules, and understanding what abiding by them costs you, I can highly recommend it.