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