Be­yond the Twi­light Zone

A walk in the dark can be haunt­ing and beau­ti­ful...but choose your friends care­fully.

Country Walking Magazine (UK) - - Contents - WORDS: JENNY WAL­TERS

Set your senses on fire!

“WHAT THE HELL is that?” I hiss at my friend, pulling on her arm and gen­tly ma­noeu­ver­ing her in front of me. You know, putting her be­tween me and the scary thing. I rub my eyes as if that might help me see into the dark­ness. “It looks like a mas­sive dog,” I whis­per. “Or maybe a bull.” She starts gig­gling. It must be the on­set of hys­te­ria. Then she splut­ters: “It’s a stile, you idiot.”

So. Ab­so­lutely noth­ing to worry about (apart from my less than heroic be­hav­iour). But that’s the de­li­cious thrill – and oc­ca­sional hair-rais­ing ter­ror – of walk­ing af­ter dark. As twi­light thick­ens, the bal­ance of the world tips. It no longer feels like the do­main of light- and sight-cen­tric hu­mans, but of the wild crea­tures. It’s no more a place of the ra­tio­nal seen, but of the un­known and barely-imag­ined. Even the most fa­mil­iar places be­come new, mys­te­ri­ous, ex­cit­ing.

Our sight fal­ters badly in low light, but dark­ness doesn’t stop us try­ing to see. Walk out into the coun­try­side at night and you can feel your eyes strain­ing to make sense of shapes even in hope­less pitch black. Pupils di­late to snag any frag­ment of bright and a light-sen­si­tive pig­ment called rhodopsin grad­u­ally floods the eye­ball. It can take a full half-hour to de­velop our best night-vi­sion, and even this is lim­ited. And – coun­ter­in­tu­itively – you of­ten see some­thing bet­ter if you look away from it: the eye’s pe­riph­eral rod cells do bet­ter in the dim than its cen­tral cone cells.

Or in­stead you can revel in the height­ened acu­ity of your other senses, the ones that play a sec­ondary role in day­light hours. You’ll likely find your ears strain­ing as hard as your eyes, as what seemed a quiet world fills with sound. Crick­ets rat­tle in the long grass and drag­on­flies hunt midges through the gloam­ing, whirring past with the din of tiny pro­pel­ler planes. The twit-twoo of the tawny owl flutes from the depths of a tree. A noise like heavy rain turns out to be a herd of deer gal­lop­ing across the far side of a field of stub­ble. That racket like a car­ni­val ap­proach­ing? Prob­a­bly your own foot­steps. Stop­ping lets you ab­sorb the full sound­scape, al­though any sud­den noise will set your brain shriek­ing at your legs to just peg-it, peg-it, PEG-IT. Maybe it’ll be a rus­tle in the un­der­growth that you guess to be a griz­zly bear (a squir­rel) or a shriek­ing bark that cur­dles your blood (a fox). Like the best

"... lead me deep into the woods, away from home, to a dark t an­gled thorny place lit by the eyes of owls." CAROL ANN DUFF Y, THE WORLD' S WIFE

ghost sto­ries and hor­ror flicks, it’s fin­ger­nail-bit­ing fun. Or it can be just plain fas­ci­nat­ing.

I re­cently walked through a long dusk, rel­ish­ing the dim­ming light and the build­ing at­mos­phere, and sat on a foot­bridge for 15 min­utes (alone, my friends no longer trust me). As I ar­rived, I sur­prised a roe deer and fawn, who bounded away with all four hooves air­borne as if on mar­i­onette strings. A rush of air in the still­ness and a flock of birds – I think swal­lows – twisted through the twi­light. Some crash­ing from a ditch and a bad­ger ap­peared, then a sec­ond. The first ap­proached, lifted its striped face into the night, caught a whiff of some­thing out of place and scam­pered away. Then the silent pale of a barn owl floated past, dipped a wing and re­turned low over my head, be­fore shrink­ing to a sil­hou­ette against the last of the light in the west­ern sky. It was mag­i­cal.

By the time I walked back through the woods, inky dark­ness was ooz­ing from the trees. I blame fairy­tales for keep­ing me to the mid­dle of that track and away from the grasp­ing witches and tricksy wolves that clearly live in the shad­ows. The first twin­kle soon ig­nited in the sky though, as if to re­as­sure me the dark­ness wouldn’t be to­tal. It looked red: I think it was Mars.

And two more senses woke up. A winey smell told me I was pass­ing a bram­ble patch packed with over­ripe berries; an an­ti­sep­tic-tang that I’d reached the pines where the path turns. I could feel day and night air mix­ing, in patches of warm and cool. I could also feel I was gath­er­ing freshly- spun spi­der webs, their silk threads tick­ling my arms. And the fi­nal fifth sense – taste? I didn’t try that. Prob­a­bly not rec­om­mended in the pitch.

I al­most made it home with­out switch­ing on my torch, but a crash in the bushes was too much. I flicked on the torch and saw...? A deer. And in that mo­ment the whole feel of the woods changed. The sur­round­ing dark­ness so­lid­i­fied and left me spotlit and vul­ner­a­ble. It also scared up some birds roost­ing in a tree (I may have squealed at this point). I was no longer part of the for­est life; I was an in­truder. I soon flicked it off and waited for my eyes to read­just. Bright white light bleaches rhodopsin and wrecks night vi­sion: keep­ing one eye shut pre­serves at least half of your dark-see­ing skill, or a red or green fil­ter on your torch can help.

Mak­ing friends with the dark­ness ex­pands the time for ad­ven­ture as days shorten into win­ter. You don’t have to go far. Fa­mil­iar paths on your lo­cal patch are the per­fect spot – night nav­i­ga­tion in new ter­rain is truly a dark art – or for the twin­kli­est stars you can walk in one of Bri­tain’s eight Dark Sky places ( www.dark­sky­dis­cov­ery.org. uk). Wher­ever you roam, ev­ery night tells a dif­fer­ent story as the moon wanes and waxes. Ven­ture out when it’s a fin­ger­nail clip­ping and the con­stel­la­tions and Milky Way will glow; walk when it’s a lu­mi­nous disk and the shad­ows will crisp and the monochrome views grow long. One last tip, though. Keep an eye on those stiles. They can be prop­erly scary.

PHOTO: TOM BAI­LEY

PHONE HOME Not try­ing to con­tact ex­tra ter­res­tri­als, but us­ing a smart­phone app like SkyView to iden­tify plan­ets, stars and con­stel­la­tions.

BRAVE NEW WORLD Short days don’t have to shorten your ad­ven­tures: pack a head­torch for walks into starlight. FLY BY NIGHT An owl perches in a shad­owy tan­gle of branches be­fore tak­ing wing to hunt din­ner.

SHOOT­ING STARS Our star-view is con­stantly chang­ing with the spin of Earth, with our or­bit around the sun, and with a slow wob­ble in our planet’s axis (see right).

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