Wandering in the dark

Dark Skies: A Journey into the Wild Night, Tiffany Francis, Bloomsbury.

Until more recent centuries it was common for people to go to bed early, then rise at midnight to eat, read, even work for an hour or two, and then go back to bed again. (This time might of course also be spent in criminal activity.) Modern experiments have shown this pattern is good for health – the time of wakefulness between sleep phases contributes to more restful sleep. This is just one of the dark-related matters Tiffany Francis shines a light on in Dark Skies, while exploring the nocturnal history of London, chasing bats, birds and beavers at night, eating cheese and watching the northern lights.

Henry Beston, in his classic The Outermost House, about living in a cabin on the dunes of Cape Cod, complained about the way civilisation has lost touch with the night, and this was in 1928, mind you. The night gives a counterpoint to the frenetic day, to the inquisitive glare. The International Dark Sky Association, which advocates for less light pollution in the night skies, notes that light pollution affects human health, wildlife and the environment. The dark is good for us, as necessary as sunshine. Humans need darkness for the production of melatonin. Too much light makes us depressed. Wildlife are disrupted by city lights and car lights, and all that energy used in lighting the night contributes to climate warming and other adverse environmental effects. Nightglow is also bad for astronomers, of course.

In Francis’s book one topic merges into another, sometimes like the flow of dreams. The night is a huge topic, and she can’t cover everything. (Geoffrey Blainey’s Black Kettle and Full Moon, for example, has much about how in centuries past light from the moon dictated travel times and the like.) She writes about poets and astronomers, endangered birds and trees, but Francis’s journey through the dark landscape is also dictated by personal matters, and something of a travel diary. Like many young people she assumes her personal life is of more interest to others than might be the case, especially her love life. And she sometimes wanders off topic, as you would when wandering in the dark. (The night prompts perhaps a different kind of logic.) But her youthful enthusiasm means she often hits on what is important in life and what we should be focussing on. She points us to simple ways of doing things, laments the tendency of politicians to hoard wealth and encourage it in others, hates hunting. But she has a youthful enthusiasm for seeking new things, even if that means clomping through a cold forest in the middle of the night. This nocturnal bushwalking requires an adjustment, and attunes one to the ways wildlife operates quite differently to humans, its difference being one reason to make efforts to save it.