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Photo by Jason Blackeye on Unsplash

Lovely, dark and deep

Essay | 10 minute read
Author Tiffany Francis sees glimpses of hope and mortality in the darkness, as she looks for answers in the night sky

The drive up to Kielder Observatory was turbulent. Tucked onto a ridge overlooking the rest of Kielder Forest, the track that led to the observatory was like every other track I had encountered there: bumpy, and a little traumatising for the shiny white hire car I had picked up at York station, perfect for city breaks and trips to the supermarket, not crepuscular drives into the depths of a 250-mile timber plantation. I had already spent the afternoon at Kielder, attempted a walk along one of the trail routes, tried and failed to see a red squirrel, got lost three times and returned to the visitor centre for a consoling coffee and caramel shortbread. Nevertheless, the forest had captivated me. I had never seen a ‘wild’ forest so vast and impressive, let alone a manmade one that a century ago didn’t even exist. Row upon row of Sitka spruce marched across each horizon, darkened by the blue-green shadow of conifer needles and interspersed with the occasional glow of oak, rowan, birch and beech. The air was still and quiet, broken only by the melancholic cry of an osprey and the distant rumble of timber trucks carrying harvested trees away into the world.

I had travelled nearly 400 miles from my home in the South Downs to Northumberland, passing along the ghost of Hadrian’s Wall as I drew closer to the Scottish Borders. I was here as one of Forestry England’s writers-in-residence for their centenary year, celebrating 100 years of forestry with an immersive summer in our national forests that would (hopefully) inspire a body of creative work. As part of my residency, I was invited to choose a handful of forests to visit based on my own interests, and as someone who has never lived further north than Bristol, I was desperate to travel further up and experience an entire region of my country I had long neglected.

The track continued further up into the forest hills until, at last, the trees cleared and the observatory appeared in the last rays of the evening light. It was a square timber building, simple and beautifully designed against the backdrop of the forest, as if it had grown out of the earth itself. First opened in 2008, it was originally built to offer a unique astronomical experience in one of the best dark sky sites in Europe, where low levels of light pollution mean the stars and other cosmic phenomena are bright and easily visible to the naked eye. Tonight I had come to experience the Kielder sky for myself, but as the summer sun had not quite faded to darkness, we were first offered a digital slideshow on the universe and its contents.

Having shared a lifetime with the internet, I’m sad to say there are now few things that genuinely blow my mind. The cocktail of current affairs, disaster and devastation, clickbait articles and cat videos we are exposed to have made many of us immune to the wonders of the universe, and most of the world’s most beautiful and awe-inspiring offerings are now cast aside with the flick of a scrolling finger. So when I experience something that literally makes my jaw drop, or sends my brain into amazement overload, I relish it. This is what happened during my visit to Kielder observatory – before it grew dark, before the hot chocolate was poured – before we had even opened the telescope hatch.

It was a simple YouTube video that did it, beginning with a computerised image of our moon. To the left was Pluto, slightly smaller and more beige, and to the right was the planet Mercury. From here the screen moved along in size order – onto Jupiter’s giant moon Ganymede, then Mars and Venus. Earth was snuggled up to Kepler 10c, one of the largest rocky planets in our solar system, followed by Neptune, Uranus, Saturn, a red dwarf, Jupiter and a huge planet imaginatively named HD 100546b. When the planets had finished? Then came the stars, each twice the size of the last, until we met a red supergiant 200,000 times the size of our Earth. Then came our galaxy, one of billions inside Laniakea, the Hawaiian name for ‘immeasurable heaven’. And finally, at the edge of our universe and the limit of human knowledge, the animation came to its end, but just in case we needed another reason to sit and stare gormlessly, we were offered a few fun factoids. I couldn’t put a finger on the exact one that freaked me out the most. Perhaps it was that all the light we see is starlight, or that the sun, at 900,000 miles wide, is more than three times the distance man has ever travelled. In the end I think it was simply being handed my own mortality on a plate – appreciating the fragility of everything around me, everything that seemed so solid and unchangeable and vivid, and recognising that everything, without exception, must come to an end.

Photo by Nathan Anderson on Unsplash

Was I spellbound or horrified? Perhaps a bit of both, but nevertheless I left the observatory building feeling lighter. Being faced with the insignificance of our own lives is the best way to appreciate how lucky we are that the exact selection of atoms came together to give us one hundred years of fun on Earth. Our mortality is a frightening but inescapable thought, and recognising how fleeting it is means that we have a higher chance of spending our Earth years wisely. That night on the observatory decking, I stood beneath a swathe of bright blue noctilucent clouds, caused by ice particles reflecting light from the setting sun. I peered at Saturn through a telescope, felt the warmth of hot chocolate swirl around my belly and felt the cool Northumberland breeze against my face. With the stars laid out above and the dark forest behind me, I felt alive within our strange and beautiful universe.

Immersing myself in nature has always been my antidote to modern living. Our world is one of anxiety, stress, overworking and digital overwhelm, where a moment of peace and solitude is difficult to come by. I’m lucky enough not to experience any severe mental health issues, but I do suffer from eco-anxiety, a newly coined term used to define the growing anxiety around climate change and the state of our natural world. When it feels like we are marching into an ecological apocalypse and nobody seems to notice or care, reality can be hard to deal with. I look out into my garden and watch blackbirds drinking from the pond and bumblebees dancing over cornflowers, and it is harrowing to know that we are causing not only our own destruction, but the decline of millions of other blameless species. There is no simple solution to this anxiety, but when I am at my lowest, being out in the landscape at night has helped me find a sense of peace.

Nature can help us escape our everyday lives, but at night we can escape even further. Being out in nature at night, when the rest of the world is asleep, computers are switched off and the land goes silent, might be one of the most enjoyable experiences out there. And as a creative there is nothing more stimulating than relying on different senses and exploring familiar landscapes with new eyes. The darkness can send my imagination into overload, spooking new ideas into life or soothing my mind into clarity. While researching my new book, I spent a moonlit night walking through the haunted yew forests of Kingley Vale in Sussex, thought to be the resting place of hundreds of Viking marauders who come alive and wander the forest at night. I tripped and stumbled through the dark, frightened by screeching barn owls and unknown silhouettes on the path ahead, and although the darkness made me uneasy, it felt liberating to be exposed to nature, one of many species out exploring the Vale that night. I emerged from the trees onto a hilltop flooded with moonlight, and the fear slipped away as I stood and looked up at the sky, my eyes wandering from star to star until I no longer felt vulnerable at all – just another cluster of atoms in an unknowable universe.

I’m not the only writer who has found inspiration in the depths of night. The poet Edward Thomas, who lived in my hometown over a century ago, enjoyed night walks alone and wrote an encomium to darkness in his poem ‘Out in the Dark’:

‘Stealthily the dark haunts round

And, when the lamp goes, without sound

At a swifter bound

Than the swiftest hound,

Arrives, and all else is drowned.’

Thomas’ friend Robert Frost, who often joined him on walks and would, according to legend, be the reason he signed up to the war that would end his life, also reflected on the natural world at night. His well known poem ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ ends almost like a lullaby, despite the speaker’s resistance to rest:

‘The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.’

Other writers, too, have used the darkness to shape their plots and poems. The smugglers in Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn rely on the night to hide the ships they wreck and loot, while in Wuthering Heights Emily Brontë draws our attention to the darkness of the moor as a reflection of her characters’ tragic histories. In literature, the night can be used to reveal or conceal, to protect protagonists from evil or hide bad deeds. But it is not a force for good or bad – just as the natural world is neither ‘good’ nor ‘evil’, only powered by the endless cycle of energy, renewed and transformed.

Photo by Vincent Guth on Unsplash

When I was five years old, I visited the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida on a family holiday. It was from there that, half a century ago, the Apollo 11 spacecraft launched and landed two men on the moon. I have always loved our planet, but the strange wonder of space must have lodged itself into my brain somewhere, because 22 years later I wrote a book about our connection with the night sky and our fascination with what lies beyond our world. More than anything, watching a space shuttle launch when I was a child helped to trigger a slow realisation of the beautiful fragility of our planet and all the life it holds. Now, at 27, my love for the planet fuels me with more energy than anything else, and I can do nothing but channel it into my writing and art.

Lord Byron once wrote a poem called ‘Darkness’, inspired by the summer of 1816 after Mount Tambora erupted in Indonesia and caused a temperature drop around the globe. In response, Byron wrote a biblically charged, apocalyptic poem imagining the end of all life on Earth after the sun burns out, and as we edge closer to the ecological apocalypse we are warned about on a daily basis, ‘Darkness’ seems more relevant now than ever before. Byron captured the fear of darkness and magnified it, because when light brings life, warmth and joy, it feels like without it the entire world will fall to nothing. How relieved our 18th-century friends must have been when the world did not end, the darkness passed, the good weather returned and with it the molten warmth of unimpeded sunlight. Having spent a year out in the darkness to write this book, I still feel the same relief when the sun rises, but everyday I am reminded of how easily we can lose what we love.

Dark Skies: A Journey into the Wild Night, by Tiffany Francis, is published by Bloomsbury

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