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The Noctambulist

Updated: Jul 23, 2021

Go bravely into that dark night!

Noctambulism, walking at night, is a wonderful way to get closer to nature, and is something I recommend to our guests. I leave torches out for this purpose, but it is better, really, to leave them at home, and just walk by the light of the moon and stars, allowing your eyes to adapt, and your fear to turn into wonder.

When we first arrived at Manor Bottom, I would poke my head out of the door at night time, feel a shiver of fear at the blackness of it all, and return to the fireside with my glass of wine and Ben Webster. Before long, I was tentatively shining a torch around the garden, inching out, like Chunk from The Goonies. Then came the realisation that I was the biggest thing out here! What did I have to be scared of? With our highly evolved active imaginations and the deprivation of our primal sense, sight, our minds can easily give way to nyctohylophobia – the fear of woods at night. We feel vulnerable out there. But we have also evolved large brains, and I used mine to reason that I should not be afraid. I’d also let my imagination go – I’d think up what the scariest thing I could see would be – a ghost? a lion? a monster? Then I’d reason: No, just an angry badger, which I reckon I could take if necessary. So now I regularly stroll out at night, without torch or stick, up paths and through hedges!

When I say our eyes adapt, they literally do. In our eyes we have cone cells and rod cells. The former, responsible for our colour vision and acute vision, only work well in bright conditions. When light fades out, into effect come the rod cells. These take a while to adapt to the dark, but when they do they make our eyes more sensitive. Night vision is a heightened form of vision: we can no longer see colour, but we seem to have a hundred more shades of grey. This gives the land the feel of a ghost world, a world so different from that of the day. For a start the sky lifts above us – we see not just an eternal blue, but we see stars, light years away. Sometimes I look up at the stars and, instead of seeing it as above us, I see it as below us – an ocean into which I call dive forever without hitting the bottom.

I guess darkness used to be a major part of a human’s life, albeit, perhaps, a fearful one. But now we have become estranged from it – cities are never really dark! So, we don’t often have a chance to experience this feeling of bottomlessness, and its reminder that the world contains us, rather than us controlling it. Being in a natural environment where we can experience true darkness, or even true silence, can hold us over that abyss. And if you let go of the fear, there is a comfort in it, and perhaps a power. At the end of my night walk I often lie back on the grass and just gaze out at those stars. And to allay any fear, and to hold the comfort I think of the old Peter Cook line: ‘As I looked out into the night sky, across all those infinite stars, it made me realize how insignificant they are!’

I also try to remember a couple of lines from a poem I read long ago, which I have now found online:

Sweet Darkness, by David Whyte, House of Belonging

When your eyes are tired the world is tired also.

When your vision has gone no part of the world can find you.

Time to go into the dark where the night has eyes to recognize its own.

There you can be sure you are not beyond love.

The dark will be your womb tonight.

The night will give you a horizon further than you can see.

You must learn one thing. The world was made to be free in

Give up all the other worlds except the one to which you belong.

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet confinement of your aloneness to learn

anything or anyone that does not bring you alive

is too small for you.

Other great books about, or that feature a small meditation on, darkness are Nightwalk by and The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane.

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