The lengthening nights are a casket of wonders, if one only makes an effort to observe themby Cal Flyn / October 16, 2018 / Leave a comment
After our long, sultry summer it’s been hard not to view autumn and now the encroaching winter as the end of something; the closing of a chapter. And we’re never more aware of it than at the closing of each day: the nights are drawing in.
As I write, I can see the sky in its nightly transformation: at first a watery blue edged with primrose, narrow fingerlike clouds in violet lining up over the hills of Fife, while higher up the firmament is strung with palest pink.
Minutes pass, the visage darkens, the cirri fade from view while the lower strati are amplified, rippling away in an ever diminishing array, uplit, edges softening, blending, bleeding into one another. Dark indigo and midnight blue seep in from out of shot: window pane as paint palette, skyscape as the most glorious television.
And yet, there is no cut off, no clear turning point at which day becomes night. Is it at the moment the sun’s face slips behind the hill? The moment its upper edge disappears behind the unseen horizon beyond, with the vaults still gilded and ablaze? Or is it this murky gloaming? Is night when I must use a light to read, or does it wait until I need a torch to find my way outside?
A casket of wonders
Through the summer months night has been pale and fleeting, gone almost as soon as it’s arrived; but in the winter it takes on a wholly different character: thick, weighty, all-encompassing. When I lived in the far north of Finland, I learned the true multiplicity of what we call night. The sun set in early December and didn’t rise again until midway through January, and it’s this, when I describe it, that prompts others to tell me that they would hate such a place. They say: how depressing. Or: I couldn’t take it.
But for me, that time was marked with ethereal beauty. At noon on the very darkest days, the red sun still cast its rays into the very lowest reaches of the sky, washing it in blood and burgundy. In the twilit hours on either side, the snow shone blue and brighter than the sky, and the bare and stunted pines, candied with hoar frost, stood out black against it. It’s difficult to grieve the loss of the day if the night is so beautiful.
In Britain, where our seasons are milder, less emphatic, the entrance of winter is not so clear cut. Phenologists, scholars of natural cycles, make note of its symptoms: the flowering of the ivy warns of its slow approach, prow peaking over the horizon; the fieldfare and the redwing arrive en masse to sing its fanfare. The first overnight frost sounds the cannon of winter as it advances south; leaves fall from the trees, prostrating themselves upon the ground at its feet.
Here too these lengthening nights are a casket of wonders, if one only makes an effort to observe them. The tawny owl keeps to its moonlit watch throughout the winter, as do the crows and rooks and ravens—rasping and raw-voiced.
The procession of moths passing through our islands slows but does not stop, their names appropriately hibernal: the December Moth; the Winter Moth; the Mottled Umber; the Satellite; the Pale Brindled Beauty. The nights are dense with life: mark how, on waking after frost or snowfall, the ground is embroidered with the prints of nocturnal neighbours—foxes, badgers, squirrels raiding their cold stores.
Enjoy it while it lasts. As soon as it has arrived, it is preparing to depart. Don’t wish away the winter; she won’t be here for long.