Commissioned by the ILS for the 'Crossing Borders' series.
Every autumn, when the clocks go back, I’m struck by how little I know about the dark. Most of the time I’m only aware of it when it directs my hand to the desk lamp. In a single click it’s forced elsewhere, beyond the windows of the house, and then moved on again by the streetlights that ray-gun the pavement at regular intervals.
That peculiar orange glow – the mix of mercury and sodium vapours – is familiar throughout the developed world. In satellite images of Earth at night, it’s the colour of the arterial roads and motorways that web across Western Europe from one glowing city heart to another. From the ground up, it’s what blots out the constellations or, on overcast nights, stains the clouds a creamy brown.
In June 2016, a new atlas of light pollution was published that showed 80% of the planet’s population living under skies contaminated by artificial light. In the US and Europe, the figure rises to 99%. But it’s the enormous reach of light pollution that produces the most sobering statistics. Parisians, the report claims, would have to travel to Corsica or Central Scotland before they were able to see the night sky in its pristine state. From Bermuda, it would require a journey of nearly nine hundred miles to Nova Scotia. In San Marino, Kuwait, Qatar, Malta and Singapore – the world’s most light-polluted nation – it is impossible to see anything of the Milky Way at all. And much of the Middle East is the same, with the Nile Delta region being the place in the world furthest away from pure, dark skies.[i]
In the UK, the report picks out the land between London and Leeds as being particularly afflicted by skyglow and living on the northern edge of that area I’d found it impossible to properly witness the transition of daylight into night. For the last few days I’d sat in the garden or walked in the woods by the railway line only ever seeing a smog of light. Darkness fell, but away from my street, beyond the edges of the city. And so I went to find it.
The Langden Valley in the Forest of Bowland lies off the road that runs from Dunsop Bridge to Abbeystead. Even though the land is owned by United Utilities, who operate a small water catchment there, it’s still one of the loneliest places in Lancashire – a broad, bare valley that runs for three miles or so before it narrows and moorland takes over, stretching north and east to the borders of Yorkshire. The fells are thick with bracken and sprigged with rowan trees that grow bone-white and solitary. Oak and holly straggle up the ravines of tumbled-in rock. In the summer, the marshy edgelands by the brook are full of foxgloves and thistles, marsh marigold and forget-me-nots. By autumn the colours are muted and water runs full and deep. Brown as ale as it brings down peat off the moors.
Whatever time of year it is, human voices are rare. The valley is a place of wind, birds and water. Spend enough time there and the various accents of each start to become familiar. The sound of wind through heather is different from the sound of wind through reeds, or holly, or oak branches. And all of these varied again according to the season. As are the bird calls. But by far the loudest voice belongs to the brook as it becomes swelled by the water from dozens of cloughs.
Most are anonymous, half-hidden trickles, but those that are named are given literal monikers – Dry Clough, Long Reedy Clough – or they are synonymous with a particular kind of animal that was presumably abundant enough at some point for their name to be fixed to the landscape – Hareden Clough, Kite Clough, Weasel Clough.
Others, such as Fiendsdale Clough and Dead Man’s Stake Clough hold the origins of their names just out of reach and set the imagination reeling.
It’s a place that’s busy with language but devoid of people. I’d walked the length of the valley dozens of times before and even on bright Sunday afternoons in July rarely saw more than one or two others. At night in late November, there would be no one at all.
Just after four o’clock I parked the car by mouth of the valley and followed the tangle of rhododendrons that separate the path from the brook. The sun had already dropped behind the surrounding hills, turning the western skies yellow. It was cold, only two or three degrees, and taken down a notch more whenever the easterly wind picked up.
This was the season after Keats’ autumn. The swallows long since gone. Their twitters replaced by the hoarse turkey-gobbles of pheasants in the woods, who went into a frenzy at the sound of my boots on the track. Several burst out of the undergrowth and skimmed low over the marsh where mallards and moorhens were feeding in the reedbanks. A heron lifted from the water like some Mesozoic creature on half-feathered, half-leathery wings and flapped away to the bracken. On the other side of the valley, I was surprised to hear meadow pipits still gossiping above the heather as they had been doing all summer. And over the ridge of Hareden Nab a pair of buzzards turned and cried and shaped the murmuration of starlings that flexed away from them as a single form, bulging and contracting like a swarm of insects.
At the day’s end, the valley was still alive with movement and calls. Colours were still varied in the greens and yellows of the larch wood and the mould-mottle of the fells. Visibility was good, too, and I could see for miles to the end of the valley. But there was a sense that dusk was starting to fall. And it was a feeling rather than anything tangible. An apprehension of the approaching night that was sparked by something subconscious and involuntary that had rattled the reptilian brain.
A fear of the dark was once entirely healthy. It’s the reason why we’ve survived as a species. There was a time when we were food, and not that long ago. The cave lion, the panthera leo spelaea, with which we competed for shelter and prey, only became extinct in Britain about twelve thousand years ago. And dusk was feeding time.
A 2011 study[ii] into the correlation between lion attacks on humans in Tanzania and the lunar cycle concluded that fatal instances were more likely to occur in the hours just after sundown and in the weeks following a full moon, when the light is waning and the moon rises later.
The lion is naturally well-adapted to darkness, with five times as many low-light sensitive rod cells in each of its eyes than humans and the advantage of the tapetum lucidum, the layer of iridescent choroid cells which reflect light back through the retina and produce the iconic flash of cats’ eyes. Very likely the first and last thing our ancestors would have seen coming out of the dark.
I didn’t exactly feel the urge to scurry back to the car, but I still found myself looking over my shoulder much more frequently. It was becoming harder to make geometric judgements, to map the environment and assess potential dangers. And with the visual world transforming, the auditory world altered too. The sounds that came out of the darkening fells became detached from what I might have rationally attributed them to in the daylight. The brook surging suddenly against the rocks was a wild dog barking. The Herdwick sheep moving through the bracken on the opposite side of the valley moaned like a man crying out for help. And two or three times I heard something that I couldn’t locate or explain at all, something like the nostril-huff of a large bull close behind me or up ahead.
The topography was becoming unknown to me, tricksy and deceitful, capable of hiding things. But then the valley was often like that. I’d been here in all weathers before now and knew how disorientating it could be.
I’d missed wild gales by a day and they had left their mark on the trees. A large rowan had been split in half and collapsed onto the path. I broke off one of the straighter branches – the length of a staff rather than a cane – to help me navigate the rest of the way. It was immediately useful for fathoming the depths of puddles and testing the firmness of mud as I took the old shooters’ track that led up onto the moorland. A few days before, the first snow of the year had fallen and down in the cul-de-sac of the valley, out of reach of the sun, it remained as the wind had shaped it. Faintly luminous in the last of the light, like pieces of the lunar surface, broken and scattered.
At Weasel Clough, the track came to an end at the weather-line, where the fell was wind-stripped to the peat beneath. I crouched down and took a handful. It broke like cake and smelled of its colour, steeped in rain and rot. Years before, I’d built peat fires in Ireland and remembered the way they guffed and stank and burned snugly for hours. I’d seen photographs of the peat cutters here in Bowland too. Moustached men in their shirt sleeves standing proudly by their neat hives of peat blocks drying in the sun. But no one had been up here to gather fuel for a long time. Nor had they come shooting. The line of dry-stone butts that stretched away up the fell were all half-buried or broken down and the sticks used to mark the edges of the kill zone were listing almost flat. From the heather, a red grouse, safe on this moorland at least, erupted and beat his way out of sight with a laugh like a football rattle.
Fifteen minutes later, the fells were entirely colourless and it was impossible to tell which were close and which were far away. Dusk compresses distance, flattens bulk. As the light faded moment by moment, my eyes struggled to make any edge crisp. The ridges blurred and fudged. Leaves and branches turned fluid. There were strange pulses of red light. My eyes were working at their very limit, producing visions. I’d come to the far edge of dusk.
When I set off on the return journey, it was impossible to see much more than thirty yards ahead but I ditched the rowan branch and kept the torch buried deep in my rucksack, wanting my feet to find the path instead.
The rubble of lichen-spattered stones on the path was a guide of sorts but it was almost impossible to judge the gradient and camber and I found myself stumbling down the track, unable to tell what was shadow and what was solid ground. I couldn’t walk as quickly as I’d done in daylight or even at dusk, but what was the rush anyway? I was still thinking with a city head that was no use to me now.
In the absence of light, my connection with the landscape had switched from sight to touch and shifted to the soles of my boots. But these felt too thick and clumsy so I took them off and walked in my bare feet. Now I felt every nub of rock, every sharp of grit, all the fleshy patches of mud that I’d indented with my boots earlier. I didn’t falter quite so much. I settled into a slower rhythm, or not even a rhythm at all; nothing so conscious. Perhaps it couldn’t even be called walking. As the brook hurried, I tried to saunter in the manner that Thoreau so enjoyed. I placed each sole down carefully from heel to toes, reading what the skin found. No longer thinking of fells and cloughs, trees and birds and marshes. That world had gone. Now, there were only textures and sensations –hard, soft, rough, smooth, wet, dry, sand, shit, mud – in a rolling podiatric mapping.
Eventually, the sound of the brook grew louder and I went to wash my feet before putting my socks and boots back on. Down on the shingle, the noise was amplified. I called out and whistled and my voice was small.
In the dark, it was hard to see where the gravel ended and the brook began. But here and there the water rolled through starlight, giving it a sheen like wet limestone and a different consistency than in the daytime, flowing like molten rock.
When I stepped in, the coldness burned instantly and my feet felt bruised. The mud gave way and I slid further in upto my knees and waded out into the middle of the flow, feeling the water’s urgency. A careless moment and I would have become its freight. But there were enough pebbles under the surface to keep my feet in place and I stood for as long as I could bear the cold, listening to the water coursing around me. And over me, too, as the brook’s racing echoed off the fells somewhere. For a while I was happily cocooned in sound and blackness.
I thought about what had bought me here. It was a restlessness, certainly. A dissatisfaction with living life on a single note. A feeling that my search for darkness was a search for something authentic and natural.
We should, of course, be careful about how we use the word ‘natural’. So much of what we think of as being so is anything but. Landscapes have been managed one way or another for centuries and nature reserves and national parks controlled so that we often have a mediated connection with nature, even in what we me might consider to be ‘the wild’.
But if we take the definition of ‘natural’ to mean something that has been the standard experience for most people for most of the time during most of history, then it’s arguable that in terms of our relationship with the dark the way we live now is profoundly unnatural. Even if we were to consider the time since the end of the last ice age – about twelve thousand years – then the period in which we’ve been able to illuminate the home or the street at the flick of a switch is only a tiny flash at the end of a long spell of darkness. Set against the two hundred thousand years or so of homo-sapien’s entire history, it wouldn’t even register on the eye.
In his 1806 poem, Star Gazers, Wordsworth could describe a London street hawker with a telescope in words that today sound like sarcasm. “The showman chooses well his place – ‘tis Leicester’s busy Square.” And even as recently on our timeline as 1889, Van Gogh could see the heavens from the asylum in Saint-Remy well enough to paint The Starry Night. Today, that area of France has the same amount of light pollution as the Home Counties.
The dark was once simply there. Now it has become a thing to be preserved. If we want to see it in its natural habitat we must travel. And if we don’t, or can’t, then might the language of contamination become more real than that of astronomy? Beam-spread, disability glare, light spill, light trespass, skyglow, clutter – just some of the terms listed by the International Dark Skies Association on their website’s glossary - are things that can be observed by more people on earth than stars, galaxies, planets, comets and the Milky Way. Nouns that cannot be observed directly only ever point to a theoretical world. And the thing itself has the potential to be unreal and misunderstood.
It’s an idea that Isaac Asimov takes to unsettling extremes in his 1941 story, Nightfall, in which he imagines a planet, lit perpetually by six suns, about to be plunged into blackness by an eclipse. Because the Darkness and the Stars (Asimov’s capitals) have never been seen by anyone on Lagash, they have become the stuff of nightmares, the harbingers of apocalypse. Fear and ignorance have bred a shaky science. “Of course the Cultists talk of millions of Stars,” says Beenay, one of the technicians at the observatory. “But that’s probably an exaggeration. There just isn’t any place in the universe you could put a million suns – unless they touch one another.”
On Lagash, truth is channelled (and warped) through superstition and religion rather than science. In our world, there is perhaps more of a danger of darkness becoming simply unimportant. Light pollution is hardly taken as seriously as rainforest depletion and carbon emissions. And yet there is a wealth of evidence to suggest that it’s just as damaging to the planet’s ecosystems. Hatchling turtles are lured off course by beach-front lighting, insects (and consequently what feeds on them) are drawn away from their natural habitats.[iii] And so the whole food chain is disrupted.
Like these, and so many other species, we have evolved to respond to the light and dark of a spinning planet. As well as rods and cones, the eye contains photosensitive retinal ganglion cells which have no image-forming function but send information about the level of ambient light down the optic nerves to the suprachiasmatic nuclei – the body clock. When light levels drop at dusk, tiredness begins, body temperature falls and there is an increase in the production of melatonin, the hormone which aids the immune system.
The science is still in its infancy, but there is consensus that artificial lighting, particularly the new wave of “blue-rich” LEDs in phones and computer screens, has a significant disruptive effect on our circadian rhythms and, because melatonin production is suppressed as a result, there is more chance of developing diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. [iv]
The world and the body have grown apart. They exist on different strands of time. Perhaps in the end it was simply that disconnection that had prompted me to come here; why I wanted to deprive sight and move by touch.
And I lay down, now, in a patch of dry-ish heather, listening to it crackling and popping as it took my weight more comfortably than any mattress. I sunk deeper, smelling the decay of ferns and the peat and the damp rock beneath. The temperature had dropped below zero, but I wasn’t cold. Nestled into the thickets of the fellside, I could have stayed there all night watching the sky.
Venus sat low in the south over Wolf Fell and each new patch of sky I looked at more stars were fading up from the blue-black. If I tipped my head back, the branches of the tree further up the fellside were hung with lights. I watched Cygnus gliding through scraps of cloud. I picked out Ursa Major and Orion, and, at the eastern end of the valley, the constellation of Taurus, where the Pleiades were pinned like a faint, jazzing rosette on the shoulder of the bull.
Ten minutes later, the spine of the Milky Way was beginning to form. Only faintly, and nothing like the bright scar tissue that arcs over desert skies, but a glimpse, at least, of something normally hidden away.
But, there was no transcendental moment, no definitive answer to the call. I hadn’t expected those things anyway. There was just a feeling that darkness was an emblem of all those cycles and realities of our human heritage we so easily put out of sight and mind. And, for a time at least, I’d remembered them again.
[i] The new world atlas of artificial night sky brightness. By Fabio Falchi, Pierantonio Cinzano, Dan Duriscoe, Christopher C. M. Kyba, Christopher D. Elvidge, Kimberley Baugh, Boris A. Portnov, Nataliya A. Rybnikova, Riccardo Furgoni. Science Advances. 10 June 2016: E1600377.
[ii] Packer C, Swanson A, Ikanda D, Kushnir H (2011) Fear of Darkness, the Full Moon and the Nocturnal Ecology of African Lions. PLoS ONE 6(7): e22285. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0022285
[iii] Visibility, Environmental, and Astronomical Issues Associated with Blue-Rich White Outdoor Lighting International Dark-Sky Association. May 2010.
Andrew Michael Hurley
In love with the landscapes of the North