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.

Migration and cross-pollination

Europe: A Natural History, Tim Flannery, Text.

Our home-grown historian and writer on the environment Tim Flannery is known for his writings in the Australian (and Pacific) setting, including contributions to understanding the relationship of megafauna, Indigenous people and firestick farming, but he can equally apply his curiosity to other lands, as is evident by his well-regarded natural history of North America, The Eternal Frontier, as well as more recent, globally encompassing Here on Earth. Now he turns his attention to Europe, retaining an Australian sense of humour and an Australian eye for the little battlers – tenacious toads and newts – and also for the quirky – giant pterosaurs and pygmy hippos.

We think of Europe as conquered and ordered by humans, but wilderness persists. There are more wolves in Europe than in North America. The continent is rich in natural history, evident by its strong nature writing tradition. More than one enthusiast has exhausted a family fortune obsessively documenting its wonders. Flannery shares this enthusiasm. (One assumes he is more financially prudent though.)

The evident geological richness, from volcanoes to exquisite fossils to the recent (in geological terms) uplifting of the Alps was a catalyst for the revolution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in what we now term the Earth Sciences. Twisted rock strata, shells on mountain tops and layers of salt beneath the Mediterranean initially confused Europeans but pointed to the dynamic nature of what was beneath their feet. This dynamism is, somewhat paradoxically, responsible for the current, deceptively stable and hospitable Europe.

The landmass we now call Europe started as an archipelago, and Flannery argues that islands have always been important in Europe’s story. Periods of isolation created unique animal species. More recently, island hopping in the Mediterranean prepared Europeans for long, exploratory sea voyages. As the land masses rose and connected with Asia and Africa, zoological and botanical exchange flourished. As today, Europe was a site of migration and cross-pollination. The fluctuations of geology and climate allowed for waves of conquering species but also subsequent extinctions.

Since the decline of the dinosaurs, as Europe cooled, species not normally thought of as European – orangutans and palms, for example – took refuge in Asia, and Flannery suggests that if we want to see what Europe was like 20 million years ago, we should visit Malaysia. European animals spread even to Australia and were only killed off with the arrival of the first humans from South East Asia.

Flannery is not merely a historian of the distant past, of course. He has an eye on the effect of humans on the environment, and what we can possibly do to retain ecological balance. The retreat of glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age created fertile soils and ideal conditions for the flourishing of humans. While for most of the time since, humans have lived symbiotically with the rest of Nature, as in the very English phenomenon of hedgerows, industrial agriculture is threatening the diversity that makes Europe so biologically rich. Europeans are talking of ‘rewilding’ but as in other parts of the world, this is controversial. Flannery himself has an enthusiasm for the reintroduction of wild elephants!