Finding ways to create something beautiful in the dark nights of a complex world
July 3, 2022

This one unremarkable dusk


With apologies for sounding like an asthmatic badger, tonight we explore the special qualities of an unremarkable dusk and why we can feel so at peace with it and the darkness it can bring.

Journal entry:

28th June, Tuesday.

“I stop work to breathe in the storm-wind
 And bathe in the whirlpool of its noise.

My shoulders feel heavy
       As If I alone am holding
               up the blanket clouds
       That sag grey above my head.

The water hose, snakes and hisses around my feet.

Head upright, neck relaxed, the cob swan pushes towards me,
 Lazily, doggy paddling a V of disturbance on the water’s surface.

My day begins to smile.” 

Episode Information:

Cowparsley beside the cut

In this episode I refer to an interview with John O’ Donohue recorded by Krista Tippett (2008/2022) ‘The Inner Landscape of Beauty’ on the On Being podcast. 

I also read a very short extract from John O’ Donohue’s (1999) Anam Cara: Spiritual wisdom from the Celtic world published by Penguin Random House. 

I also refer to Robin Wall Kimmerer’s article ‘Nightfall’ published in Paul Bogard’s (2008) Let There Be Night: Testimony on behalf of the dark published by University of Nevada Press. 

I also refer to the following works:

Matthew Beaumont (2016) Nightwalking: A nocturnal history of London published by Verso Books.

Roger Ekirch (2004/2013) At Day’s Close: Night in times past published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson

The episode finishes with a reading of Tom Hennen’s short poem ‘Summer Night Air’ from his Darkness Sticks to Everything: Collected and New Poems published (2013) by Copper Canyon Press. 

General Details

In the intro and the outro, Saint-Saen's The Swan is performed by Karr and Bernstein (1961) and available on CC at archive.org.

Two-stroke narrowboat engine recorded by 'James2nd' on the River Weaver, Cheshire. Uploaded to Freesound.org on 23rd June 2018. Creative Commons Licence. 

Piano and keyboard interludes composed and performed by Helen Ingram.

All other audio recorded on site. 

Contact
For pictures of Erica and images related to the podcasts or to contact me, follow me on:

I would love to hear from you. You can email me at nighttimeonstillwaters@gmail.com or drop me a line by going to the nowspod website and using either the contact form or, if you prefer, record your message using the voicemail facility by clicking on the microphone icon. 

Transcript

JOURNAL ENTRY

28th June, Tuesday.

“I stop work to breathe in the storm-wind
And bathe in the whirlpool of its noise.

My shoulders feel heavy
      As If I alone am holding
              up the blanket clouds
      That sag grey above my head.

The water hose, snakes and hisses around my feet.

Head upright, neck relaxed, the cob swan pushes towards me,
Lazily, doggy paddling a V of disturbance on the water’s surface.

My day begins to smile.” 

[MUSIC]

WELCOME

Don't worry some ancient badger hasn't taken over the boat and taken to the airwaves! This is just a rather hoarse and croaky Richard tonight welcoming you to the NB Erica as we narrowcast into the semi-dark of a July night bearing a young sickle moon. Apologies for the sniffs and snivels, it is so good to see you and welcome aboard.  

[MUSIC]

NEWS FROM THE MOORINGS  

I have been a little bit out of action this week. Both Donna and I have caught something nasty, Donna has been really poorly and I have a heavy cold which has been exacerbated by bad hay fever. We are also in the middle of having the boat’s electrics done which has been something we have needed to do since we bought her. However, it has meant a couple of long and sometimes quite physical days. Consequently, I am feeling a little like death warmed up. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to record this week’s episode and will keep it a little shorter as I am not sure how long my voice will last out!

[MUSIC]

THIS ONE UNREMARKABLE DUSK

Come join me, here, beside the window on this anonymous, unremarkable, dusk. There is something about the liveliness of the still world outside, a few inches from my eyes, that mesmerises and captivates me.

I have come here to read, but my eyes are constantly drawn away, rebelling from the sentences, stretching out on the page before me that I want to read.

Why?

What is it about this settled scene that I find so compelling?

The evening light gradually  stretches across the water on muffled oars. There is no fanfare of furnace orange skies. This is no evening of Instagram sunsets, celebrated with a thousand likes, turning pillared clouds into burnished bronze and fire. It is just an almost imperceptible diminishing of light. A chalky sky hardening to grey and grey hardening to even darker grey.

It’s just an anonymous, unremarkable, dusk. Perhaps that is why I feel so drawn to it and so at ease.

The mirrored surface of the water is calm, but also alive, constantly shifting colours and motion.

Last night it was slabby and choppy, like pebbled glass, gleaming dully like old unpolished pewter.

Tonight – the surface shines glossy. Even though there is movement, the reflections are strong and unbroken. Capturing the inverted details of the bankside – the cloud statues of ox-eye daisies. A line of fencing and the sweep of grassy hillside. The boat moored further down is joined at the waterline to its upended twin. Each with their light grey cabins and turquoise trimlines; the white splash on the bow.

I am watching two worlds. One is a still as a painting. Static. Unmoving. Slowly edging into darkness. The other, full of light and movement.

Which is real?
    Which is alive?

I think it is this movement of the water that keeps arresting my eyes. It shivers and ripples. The movement is strangely fast. That gives the impression that it is somehow wrong. If you were trying to create this in a film or video on CGI, you’d say, ‘No. The movement of the water is too rapid. Too fast. Still water doesn’t ripple that quickly. But it does.

From time to time, a solitary ring plays out, as a fish breaks the surface. The ring expands, diminishing as it goes until at last it is absorbed into the general movement of the water.     

Every now and then the surface is criss-crossed with ducks, in pairs or small groups. There goes the archdeacon and his small covey of accomplices. Forging across the reflection of the boat and making it dance. His body is low in the water, swimming business-like and with purpose. Another group of four or five cut across in the opposite direction. I cannot hear their soft chucks and quacks, but know that they’ll be a lot of chatter. A lone female crosses on the diagonal, dips her beak into the water for a drink. For a while she just floats there. Slowly turning in circles. Watching the darkening world. Unhurried, unstressed. She scratches her head with her flipper. Shakes, and then pushes off as another group swim purposefully passed.

This could be Paris, Hyde Park, Southwold seafront. A promenade. A sociable evening of genteel perambulation, the fashionable saunter of the flaneur. Taking the air before retiring for the night. One last circuit passed the boats, one last forage by the irises and rushes, before night comes and sleep.      

So, let’s enjoy and celebrate this unremarkable summer dusk – this twilight that is neither final nor sad – just the slow beat of the rhythm of the day and month and year. The tidal flow of light and darkness that washes over us. Slowing us down, taking the responsibility of hours and minutes out of our hands.

Here in this unhurried light, we are once more in our proper relationship with time.

In an interview with poet and priest, John O’ Donohue, O’ Donohue suggested:

“I think that one of the huge difficulties in modern life is the way time has become the enemy. … I’d say seven out of every ten people who turn up in a doctor’s surgery are suffering from something stress-related. Now, there are big psychological tomes written on stress, but for me, philosophically, stress is a perverted relationship to time, so that rather than being a subject of your own time, you have become its target and victim, and time has become routine. So at the end of the day, you probably haven’t had a true moment for yourself, to relax in and to just be. …

Twilight does us good. It gives space for time. A time for sitting still, for watching the cares of the day float away with the receding light. We are people of the light (look at how much we fear darkness still, even in the modern, Post-industrial world, flooding our geographies with artificial light, as if, in some way, the things we fear -usually ourselves – can be kept at bay). The great myths and narratives that shape the western cultures, reflect this duality of light and dark. Dark is almost universally bad – to be shunned, avoided. Always move towards the light. Dark is where the bad things are, fear, death, the unspeakable.

Both Matthew Beaumont in his psycho-geographical history of night-time in London, Night Walking, and Roger Ekirch’s more broader study of the social history of the night, At Day’s Close both do well in highlighting how historically state institutions, primarily, church and judicial – and then more latterly, governmental, have until fairly recently sought to play on these fears of darkness and our cultural attitudes to night as a negative space - in both social and religious terms - in order to control and encourage compliancy within the population.   

We have had plenty of time to build our antipathy to the night and its darkness.

It’s interesting how, more modern mythologies appropriate and spin these ideas. In the mythological and a-theist, cosmology of Dr Who, in both Dr Who itself and in one of the spin-off series, Torchwood, death has been repeatedly depicted as the ultimate terrifying darkness of nothing – and yet confusingly (myths, by their very nature can be creatively incoherent) in this darkness something unknown – and because of it, something terrifying – lurks and prowls.

The earliest post-mortem narratives of the ancient Greeks and Jews revisited, re-worked, rebranded to a secular, popular audience.   

But darkness and its nightly emergence, its gentle enveloping of our worlds and landscapes is nothing to be feared – any more than the sun rising on the eastern rim of our horizons. So why do we so often not feel at home in the darkness and that our nights are transitory periods between the serious stuff of day and living? Darkness is as much a part of this earth than the light – our world is a home to the darkness as much as it is to the light. It is, after all, the natural state of the universe – lightless apart from the chemical flares of a billion, billion, billion stars and they too, as far as we know, will one day fade out.

“We are,” John O’ Donahue again, “sons and daughter of the darkness” just as much as we are of the light. Unsurprisingly, given his Christian theological training, O’ Donahue locates this within a broader narrative of journey or transition in which we gradually walk from darkness into light, nevertheless, he acknowledges that this must be the kind of light that has “retained its kinship with the darkness.”

It's those cycles and the tidal ebbs and flows again, isn’t it? The pulses and rhythms that have become so disconcerting in our modern world of flattening (as if rhythms and cycles are not natural) and illusions of control. This night. This night that is falling outside our window and casting its embrace within the boat – deepening the corner shadows into richer darkness, softening and fading the warm browns of the wooden panels above our heads. It is good.

Botanical scientist, Robin Wall Kimmerer’s article ‘Nightfall’ captures beautifully in minute detail the flowing dance of daytime and night-time, light and darkness. And how, at this “long blue moment” of twilight, “hung on the cusp of night and day”, everything changes, from the flow of air (and its resultant breezes) that is no longer being warmed, and its effect on the aerodynamic properties and capabilities of birds, to convection of water, the flow of water in plants and trees, replenishing the soils with water and nutrients. “Nightfall”, she argues, “gives back what the day has taken.”   

I love these observations, but this is not simply about meteorology and botany. This is not just about biology and our mammalian need for sleep.

In his Anam Cara, O’ Donohue writes these words that I find so powerfully insightful

“The world rests in the night. Trees, mountains, fields and faces are released from the prison of shape and the burden of exposure. Each thing creeps back into its own nature within the shelter of the dark. Darkness is the ancient womb. Night-time is womb-time. Our souls come out to play. The darkness absolves everything. The struggle for identity and impression fall away. We rest in the night.”

And how we need those times, don’t we? When the burden of our accumulated lives, can slip from our shoulders and we can be the people – childbirth naked – that we are. Robert Louis Stevenson referred to these times as “a nightly resurrection” that free him from the “Bastille of civilisation.” That might be why something like this podcast can exert such a powerfully emotional response from us. We can be here, as we are, not imprisoned by our bodies in a culture in which body image is so important and upon which, we know, judgements about us are made.

Perhaps, that is also why the scene just outside the window draws us into it. We may be diurnal creatures, but the dusk and the night-time is also our world. One that we can so easily lose touch with or perceive as alien to us, even threatening.     

And still the dusk slowly gathers in its gentleness. One of the portholes of the neighbouring narrowboat glows soft warm light, that spills out upon the dark night waters. Yes, this is our world too. Our souls can breathe more easily in the dark for it was from darkness we came – lit on our way by the flash of suns and starlight.

As Tom Hennen observes, darkness does not really fall, because it is here already.   

Tom Hennen ‘Summer Night Air’

[READING]