I cannot go to bed while the world is full of such haunting beauty, this twilight poised between day and night. Through the day, the arc of the sky has enclosed us, holding our awareness close to Earth. But as the sun sinks behind the horizon, slowly, so slowly on this high summer night, the daytime blue thins, and the wider reality begins to open. Sometimes, on a moonless and cloudless night, the Earthly sky will draw back completely, revealing the dark heavens—the far beyond—and a spaciousness that includes the visible universe. On night watches while crossing the Celtic sea in a small boat I have been taken up into this lattice of starlight, this infinite space. Will that same experience be offered this evening?
As the planet rolls eastward, the sky glows with the reflected light of the dipped sun. I am eager, almost in a panic, to get away from the artificial lights of the house, which dazzle my eyes and constrain my soul. Notebook and pencil in hand I cross the ditch and climb over the stile. In the hedgerow, the pale heads of hogweed glow in the twilight; the low light picks out the rolling texture of the waves of grass across the meadow; and on the far side a line of trees stands in majestic silhouette (are they truly black, or the darkest possible green?). I scribble in my notebook, just able to make out the line my pencil makes, but unable to read my words even as I write them.
Light from a bedroom window still troubles me. I press on across the meadow, through the gate on the far side, then trace the path through the brush and woodland, finding my way more with the sense of my feet on the ground and the brush of the grass on my legs than through sight. The second gate looms in the dimness, and I pass through into the further meadow, walk to the middle and pause.
Shielded now from all manufactured light, I allow myself to drop into the world around me. Earth has rolled further eastward; the remaining sunlight has faded, glowing weakly through the line of trees to my west. A mist hangs mysteriously low across the grass, so the trees no longer appear rooted but to hover above the ground. The light of the half-moon dominates, casting my ghostly shadow on the grass. I wonder briefly whether fairies will appear with a midsummer night’s dream, whether Oberon and Titania will draw me into their jealous disputes. But despite the sense of mystery, I know, Apollonian man that I am, that this is still the everyday Earth. She is just showing me another of her faces.
The moon rises fully over the trees. Strips of grey cloud drift over, but the moon shines so brightly that is seems to be in front, rather than behind them. A planet appears to the south east, then another higher in the sky. I scan the dark above me where it is clearest. No stars yet. Then, abruptly, the first shines through, followed quickly by others, four or five, then more than I can easily count. I know these stars are massive, at a distance measured in light years; and yet they feel to me intimately present.
The world is utterly silent. Not that there are no individual sounds—the rustling of my jacket and the scratch of my pencil; the honk of a goose and call of an owl; from the farmyard the lowing of a steer and a barking dog. But these sounds stand out distinctly from an underlying silent presence that holds the stillness of the world; this is the sacred silence out of which all sounds arise. Maybe it is the Tao from which the ten thousand things emerge and into which they will return. I hold still, open my ears, draw it into my being. For this is precious.
It is darker now, I can no longer see the marks at all as my pencil crosses the page, but still I keep making notes—maybe writing on top of what I wrote before. Will the sky open to a full dark night? I wait and watch. Slowly the mist rises further and diffuses the starlight. No more stars appear, while those that are showing are dimmed. The atmosphere has teased me: the far beyond of the stars will not reveal itself tonight. But I am offered a different beauty I would not have experienced had I crept into my bed.
“What is beyond?” I ask myself as I retrace my steps. Is it dead stars in wastes of cold space as some claim? Should we, with Blaise Pascal, be terrified of these infinite spaces? Or was I looking up into a living, self-creating universe? And how would I know? Is this a question the human mind and heart can encompass, or is necessarily a mystery? Better a living mystery than a cold dead space, I tell myself. Otherwise, from whence would the consciousness arise that can even ask the question?
Peter Reason is a retired university professor with a background in action research and ecological education. His writing links the tradition of nature writing with the ecological crisis of our times, drawing on scientific, ecological, philosophical and spiritual sources.
The drawing at the head of this essay is Oak in the Lane by Sarah Gillespie. Sarah originally trained in Renaissance methods and materials at the Neo-Medici Atelier in Paris and at Ruskin College Oxford. Her work has included oil painting, large scale drawing in charcoal and graphite, and print making. She was elected to the Royal West of England Academy in 2017.
Peter and Sarah are uncle and niece. Their pamphlet On Presence: Essays | Drawings (2019), explores the place of artful, poetic expression of the human entanglement with other beings and the Earth itself at a time of ecological catastrophe.