As part of the current residency with Fermynwoods Contemporary Arts, I thought I would like to use the opportunity of being in the middle of nowhere to really engage with darkness: there must surely be as little light pollution here as I’m likely to encounter anywhere else and, through chance and careful planning, my 10 days span the peak of the annual Perseids meteor shower.
Last night was supposed to be the night to be out gazing up at the heavens, so needless to say that was when we had cloud cover all night. Yes, I did keep getting up to check.
It’s the most gorgeously blue-skyed sunny day today though, so maybe I’ll have better luck tonight.
I did also do a little bit of nocturnal venturing forth a few nights ago (Tuesday, I think. Not sure. I’m starting to lose track of time a bit…).The place where I’m staying is reached via a 2 mile long stretch of track that weaves between and around different patches of woodland. Half way between the Lodge and the road there’s a bit that I always find just a little bit glorious as the track breaks out from the tree cover and, for a few hundred metres, has a field on either side and views of rolling hills beyond that. I think I especially like it because a footpath cuts straight across one of the fields, visible in the scrub as two burnished lines of compressed earth.
Anyway, I digress.
This is the scene I really want to recount:
Just as the last hues of the sunset were loitering around the horizon, I set off purposefully from the Lodge towards that halfway field. Then I went back in for my camera. Then I set off purposefully again, serenaded by crickets or grasshoppers or somesuch in the grass either side as I approached the entry point onto the woods. It’s probably not quite the word I’m looking for, but I also got strafed by a hare and some moths in this first hundred metres.
I resisted using a torch for this outward journey, mostly because I think that cone of light does as much to restrict your vision as it does to enhance it. Whilst that first, open, section of track was pretty easy to navigate, I anticipated things getting interesting once the trees closed in. We all know how it goes in the half-light: twigs snap, shadows play tricks on your mind, it’s easy to get disorientated and it all gets a bit scary. We know it. It’s so predictable it’s boring. Even so I was still a little bit surprised to ‘see’ a lion in the ditch to the side of me. Huh. Explains the electric fence back at the Lodge though, I suppose…
Anyway, if anyone asks why I was walking so fast down the track, it’s because I wanted to get to the halfway field before the light faded completely, alright? Heart beating perhaps slightly more rapidly than the fast pace warranted, I decided it was actually quite cold and, having failed to have remembered to pack a wooly hat for an August residency, I reached for my cycling cap, hoping it would at least keep some of the wind chill off. I made that cap and, being a ginger, I made it with a slightly larger than normal peak to try and reduce my chances of sunburn. Turns out that that’s not what you want when you’re walking through the woods at night. *flip* Probably the only time I’ve worn it with the peak up.
Minutes later a Land Rover comes towards me: headlights on full beam and a hare – all legs and ears – running so fast in front of it down the middle of the track that it didn’t notice me until a brain’s post-processing delay after it had passed, then it skittered sideways for a few paces, ran on some more and then figured out that if it got off the track all would be well.
Waiting until they had both passed, I got back onto the track from the verge, switched off the torch I had flicked on, and continued on my way, grateful that when coming through on my bike earlier I had paused to clear some of the bigger branches strewn around as a result of the Forestry Commission works being carried out. The smaller debris helped me to locate where I was … except I haven’t got much of a sense of distances and directions for that journey even in daylight. It’s more like a series of punctuations and instructions – I don’t know how it all relates in space. In the dark, distances stretched out endlessly and the track contorted in combinations of curves that had previously gone unregistered.
I savoured the moment when the trees eventually came to an end and I paused on the threshold, surprised to see that there was still a trace of sunset orange in the sky.
I’d bought a camping chair and a sleeping bag with me so I could properly spend some time here now I had reached my destination. I’m so glad I brought that extra cover – the wind was coming over the field unobstructed and it was very chilly.
I set myself up at the corner margins, knowing full well I was also setting myself up for anxious paranoia at every leaf rustle and twig crack coming from the bushes behind me. I soon faced a choice: wrap myself up snugly in the sleeping bag with minimal skin showing, or suffer a bit of cold, but without muffling my sense of hearing. I chose the latter, but I’m wondering if I should have chosen the former, because I frequently found myself turning around expecting something to be behind me. Eventually I figured out it was the bag’s label flapping about in the wind.
It got me wondering about how different the experience was to camping, when a fragile sheet of 20 dernier ripstop nylon is enough to form a protective barrier against all but the most invasive of predators (slugs?) and most fears about the unseen.
I sat there for what felt like an hour, but was probably nothing like as long. I might have seen a meteor, but then again it might have been a satellite. I saw lots of aeroplanes, and gradually the stars came out. In the distance a dog barked, and all the other clichés too. How can I make an interesting piece of work in response to the night that moves beyond all these tired tropes of fear and the stars?
I sat there for what felt like an hour. I sat there for long enough to see the moon had moved along in its orbit to now be above a different clump of trees, then I packed up and tackled the return journey back to the Lodge. Definitely by torchlight this time. And perhaps even quicker than the outward journey, hoping each corner would be the one to reveal the field near the Lodge.
Part of me really wants to nail the geography of these woods and the ways through them; another part of me is already sick of following the prescribed paths and wants to keep at least a semblance of mystery or serendipity about moving around the place. I started off the week frequently looking at the map on the screen of my Garmin to locate myself in relation to the cardinal directions and the boundaries of the wood, but I quickly learned that lines on the map don’t necessarily correlate with lines on the ground. As I type this, I’m looking longingly at the fields around the lodge and wanting to go off piste, however the fields are currently being mown so it would probably be prudent to leave that a while. Maybe tonight…