Bewitched by the wonders of the woods in moonlight
NIGHTWALK: A JOURNEY TO THE HEART OF NATURE BY CHRIS YATES (Collins £14.99)
The less nature there is in the world, the more nature books there seem to be. We can’t visit it much any more, let alone live surrounded by it, so we read about it instead. For it still exists, in small pockets of resistance that no one has yet paved over.
Chris Yates lives in one, the lucky man. Here he writes about it, which is our good luck as well.
Yates is best known as a fishing writer, one of those blissful jobs in which you spend half your time doing the thing you like most in the world, and the other half writing about it. But he also has a deep connection to the land, living as he does in the heart of the English countryside, somewhere so beautiful he can’t quite bring himself to tell us where it is. (He gives clues, but I suspect they are entirely misleading, and that he lives at least 200 miles away from where he pretends he does.)
And once a year, within a few days of the summer solstice, Yates goes for a nightwalk. At the height of summer there are only about four hours of darkness, so he sets out at around midnight and aims to return for first light. This is something he has been doing since he was seven. (He is in his 60s now.)
‘I discovered that the landscape had two lives: in the day there are birds and other fleetingly glimpsed creatures, but there were also people who disturbed the birds and made the earthbound fauna disappear completely.’ At night the people were gone: ‘The only birds I saw were owls, but there were all kinds of creatures, each one casually going about its night-time business, a whole secret world coming alive in the undisturbed dark.’
He learned to walk softly, making as little disturbance as possible, ‘to creep like a mouse in the wood and sit still for maybe an hour, focusing with my ears, using the sounds of paw-patter and antler-click to colour in the invisible shapes until I could identify them or they came into shadowy view’.
Shut your eyes, and you’re there.
When reading this, I suddenly remembered a nightwalk of my own. It was the height of summer, fiercely hot, my daughter was a baby and couldn’t sleep, and I took her out in the sling onto the baking hot streets of north London.
We walked for an hour, during which time I saw one other person, two cars and three foxes. At the time it seemed like one more night of parenthood hell; with hindsight it was incredibly vivid and strangely magical.
Yates has written an entire book, albeit a short one, about a single nightwalk. This might seem rather an ambitious project, the sort that can crash in flames if not executed perfectly, but this is something he has been mulling over for forty years. The one nightwalk is clearly a conflation of many, but we don’t mind. So sure is his touch, and so evocative his writing, that you willingly enter into the spirit of the thing. Reading about it becomes a very close runner-up to doing it yourself.
He is, he admits, a fortunate man. ‘From home, I can set off towards any point of the compass, and every direction takes me through woods, across fields and over hills.’ But on a midsummer night he only ever heads north.
He has a lovely, easy style. ‘Everything along the ridge above me was in solid unillumined silhouette: a heart-shaped hawthorn, a young ash tree, several clumps of thistle and at least five pairs of rabbit ears.’
Not that very much happens. There’s some rustling behind him. Then it stops. A breeze changes direction. He calls out to an owl. The owl doesn’t respond. Small mysteries are solved, or not. It’s astoundingly undramatic.
But it doesn’t matter. This is the walk we’d all like to take, through countryside that’s varied, rich with fauna, slightly mysterious and entirely free of other people. It’s a very particular vision of paradise.
Yates witnesses a moonrise. From the edge of the trees to his left, a woodpigeon begins to coo. Pigeons, he says, often serenade the moon. ‘Lacking the critical judgement of, say, a wren, they are probably deceived into thinking a new day is dawning.’
There are occasional digressions. Yates writes a lot about childhood, ‘when every sense except common sense was razor sharp’. He tells of a big cat people thought they had seen, which turned out to be a big old dog. And he wonders what happened to the nightingales who used to sing in the woods. Nothing has happened to the bird’s habitat to make them turn their beaks up at it. But ‘I read recently that nightingale pâté has become a very fashionable delicacy in certain expensive European restaurants’. You can almost hear him shake his head at the sheer absurdity of this.
Sitting on a hill, he hears the slightest sound behind him, ‘a sound like a finger pressing into dry grass’. It’s a roe deer. It stares at him for a few moments, bellows a ferocious bark and runs away. Roe deer are solitary creatures, possibly like Yates himself. ‘Instead of following a herd they have more time to follow a whim.’ This book is the result of following a whim to its natural conclusion. It’s about time and losing track of it. Chris Yates doesn’t really want his wanderings to end, and neither will you. It’s a wonderful book, and I’m happy to recommend it without qualification.
Source: Daily Mail