THE DARK SKIES
By Owen Thomas (English Language Writer in Residence for the Brecon Beacons National Park 2023)
I have been entranced by the night-time for as long as I can remember. As a child, I would relish those rare moments when you should be in bed, but you weren’t. Driving home late from my Great Grandmothers house and staring out of the car window for as long as I could before the rhythm of the radio and the road sent me reluctantly to sleep. As a teenager, night upon night was spent in a gateway overlooking Llyswen with my closest friends in the whole world. We would talk, laugh, and stare at the stars until the first flickers of morning. The sense that the grown-up world was asleep, and that this time atop the slumbering valley was ours and ours alone was something I never forgot.
I grew up on a farm a mile away from the village of Bronllys. Consequently, countless nights of my youth were spent walking or cycling in the small hours along a lane I could navigate blindfolded. I vividly remember the night when a sleepy sheep on the other side of the hedgerow gave a cough so unmistakeably human that I screamed in terror. I would often will a ghost to appear on these walks, manifesting itself drably there in the moonlight. I would imagine those who had walked this lane for a thousand years before me, walking beside me once more in the half light of half the night gone.
My love of the night can be traced back to two seminal moments in two books from my childhood. The scene in ‘Danny, the Champion of the World’ when our brave hero goes out into the foreboding night in a small car to find his father, and the moment when Watson observes Barrymore signalling with a candle to a faint and flickering light out on the moor in ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles.’ Both moments seared into my imagination. The sense of the unknown. The possibility of adventure. The feeling that you are intruding into a realm that belongs to highwaymen, to foxes, owls, and witches.
The night happens nightly, and yet something happens to us in the day to almost make us forget what a strange and beautiful time it is. Everything we know gradually enveloped in darkness. The commonplace becoming mysterious. The familiar sounds of our houses, unfamiliar. And the sheer scale of the world above us, and just how infinitesimally small we are, becomes blindingly apparent.
In my lifetime light has crept ever more into our lives. The omnipresent mobile phone has found its way onto the bedside tables of many, its harsh phosphorescent glare spoiling the soft allure of darkness. We need the night. We need the quiet respite it brings. We need the silence and the still.
This Friday marks 10 years since the Brecon Beacons National Park secured its status as an International Dark Sky Reserve. Between the hours of 7.30pm and 8.30pm try to switch off non-essential lights and step out into the dark. It might be a long time since you stopped and looked at the night. If it is clear, above you will be a canopy that has bewitched everyone who has ever existed. The night is nothing to be feared. It can be the moment when Earth is at its most perfect.
I am currently writing a new play in my role as English Language Writer in Residence for the Brecon Beacons National Park. As with much of my work, the night has found a way of creeping quietly in.
An extract is below.
I hope you enjoy it.
Wyndham, a farmer in his early 70’s, and Josie, a student in her late teens, are leaning on a gate. Behind them, the vista of the Brecon Beacons on this beautiful, crisp autumn day rises above them.
Somewhere above a kite calls out intermittently.
WYNDHAM: The best time to see the sky is at night Josie. There is light pollution in the city. Streetlights and cars dim the stars, but here, out here, there is nothing. And tonight, on a clear October night, a Hunter’s moon in ascendence, take a moment to look up. No phone. Promise me.
JOSIE: I promise.
WYNDHAM: Just stare deep into the sky. And like magic, bit by bit they will reveal themselves to you. Those same formations that have shone above the heads of everyone who has ever lived and died will shine down upon you. The stars that enthralled Shakespeare will sing loud their siren song.
JOSIE: I’ve always loved the stars.
WYNDHAM: Some of the stars you can see died a long, long time ago. We are watching an echo, a moment, something long dead that lives on. Something that had its life in a time we cannot imagine. Now just a part of the cosmos. Everyone lives on in some way. Their light shines out for the ages.
JOSIE: You miss your wife…
WYNDHAM: I do.
WYNDHAM: I miss her more than I ever thought imaginable.
WYNDHAM: She loved the stars. The tranquillity of the night-time. She used to go outside, every night, before bed, without fail and take a moment to just take it all in. Rain or still, she would tip back her head, and look up. It always helped her to sleep. And some nights when the pain of missing her is oxen strong. I do the same. And in a funny way, she comes back. I see her, there, in the yard.
JOSIE: Do you dream about her?
WYNDHAM: I do. I look forward to going to bed these days. Going to bed is like watching old films. I see her as she was, the farm as it was, the children as they were. I see the past. It shines once more.
JOSIE: …like long dead stars.
WYNDHAM: Like long dead stars.