England in infra-red

Nightwalking – Four Journeys Into Britain After Dark

John Lewis-Stempel, Doubleday, 2022, hb, 104pps, £9.99

John Lewis-Stempel is nearly as prolific as the natural world about which he writes so famously, and so well. His voice is welcomely distinctive – a traditional agriculturist of lyrical articulacy, an observant ecologist who finds mythopoeic magic in everyday animals, who honours Herefordshire origins but addresses all England.

As with his monographs on meadows and ponds, Nightwalking looks at underappreciated aspects of the rural scene – this time, the most enigmatic of all. Like Robert Frost, poets often aspire to be ‘Acquainted with the night’, and many are cited in here. But even lifelong country-dwellers scarcely know the hours between dusk and cockcrow, when pre-Biblical gloom comes down over suddenly unfamiliar fields, while city residents hardly notice what waits where the streetlights straggle out. The author ventures alertly into this anti-day, this obverse universe where man no longer has the advantage, and unreason can be found beneath black trees, or riding argent urgencies of moon and racing cloud. Nightwalking is the opposite of somnambulism; this is England in infra-red.

It is Herefordshire specifically the author explores, season by season, with forays into France’s Charentes to bump into equally tense wild boar, and rejoice in nightingales. In the accompanying Batsford-style illustrations, the black-white half-timbering of his county’s vernacular buildings helps fix his genius loci, and suits the muted moonlights of one of England’s least light-polluted counties.

He usually takes his dog, because solitary noctambulists arouse atavistic fears – once, even anger, from a drunken driver on a midnight lane. Writer and retriever pad unobtrusively across starry spaces, by turns in sable shadow, dappled greyscale, or light bright enough to read by. “For a few minutes the dog and I were original and Neolithic, the first man and his dog trudging across the star-polished tundra for the cave.” He meets beasts unused to humans out by night, and further disarmed by his capacity for stillness. He is vouchsafed rare vignettes of animal intimacy.

The “tumbling umbras” of fox-cubs pause playing as he passes, then resume their life-preparing game. Hares run into the ring in March’s arenas, or dash past like demiurges – moon-associated animals of augury in many cultures, that even in the age of Attenborough chase “along the cusp of reality”. An otter eating a rat slithers onto the bank of the Monnow. A stoat chases its shadow lunatically in a clearing, either out of ludic glee, or crazed by brain-parasites. At the summer solstice, the author’s own horses prance and rear around him as if suddenly possessed by Puck, and pull at his sleeve as if wanting him to run with them. A chunky cockchafer beetle crashes into the author’s face at 11 mph. “A Spirograph of spirals and curves” signals a snake breaking the quicksilver mirror of a pond. But cattle in a frosty field are magnified into aurochs, or transfigured into witnesses to the Nativity.

Unearthly lights emanate from unexpected places. Albescent moths flutter in from the backdrop of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to feast on bioluminescent flora; fungus hums sickly green; marshes exude azure ignis fatuus; glow-worm beetles light lamps in soaking grass. Snow-sheets radiate whiter than white under the firmament’s black blanket, dalmatianed with the slots of deer. Straw seen under harvest moons is the silver-gilt of a Saxon hoard.

One night, he sees a moonbow, an ivory arch linking firmament and earth. He is momentarily awed – “I falter, feel afraid, as though I have been singled for some almighty moment of revelation”. Other times, the stars are almost too abundant, and he floats home through a universe only he is seeing, a cosmos made specially for him. If there are ghosts out here, they are beautiful and benign, exultant or wistful spirits of place. Nothing could be ill met by this moonlight.

Anyforeshortening of sight is compensated by acuter hearing and scent, the author again able to hear the clicks of bats for the first time since chidlhood, and newly conscious of the complex bouquets of night-blooms. Grasses swish with significance, trees suddenly taller shake and squeak and shed branches as he breaches their privacy, and tawny owls kerwick as larger, unseen creatures crash away. Smells impose from everywhere, carried on inexplicable warm airs – petrichor of soils, pheromones of flowers, musk of fox, breath and death and excrement of animals. Touch assumes new importance too, as he sometimes needs to feel his way by tree-barks where the path is least certain. Out here under these zodiacal signs, everything feels immense, and intense.

This is a small book, yet it conveys memorably the magnitude and majesty of its subject – a charming blend of nature diary, sound archive and scent library. It can even be seen as a kind of dictionary in which, like Byron’s nightwandering Manfred, we can learn “the language of another world”.

This review first appeared in the Spectator, and is reproduced with permission

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