I’m having my first “wild night out” in 18 months in Devon with the ecologist and author Chris Salisbury. We are here to enjoy the darkness by walking in woods, canoeing on the river and breaking into song (for Salisbury). Far away from the dulling effect of streetlights and strobe lighting, this is a very old-fashioned night out.
For most of us, the transition from light to dark is a quiet one, but in the woods on the Dartington estate near Totnes, twilight brings with it a burst of energy. It is 8.30pm and this is rush hour. There is a cacophony of screeching, snuffles and scuffles, as songbirds return to nests for a night of rest, while nocturnal creatures such as badgers and foxes are taking their first tentative steps out, off to find food and mates under the cloak of darkness.
Most walkers would consider this time to go home but we are just setting off (no torches allowed), and pass no one else on our four-hour walk through the wood and up the River Dart on a canoe. Tawny owls are the ambassadors of the night in this wood, marking its arrival with sporadic hoots from surrounding trees. Salisbury cups his hands and makes owl noises, trying to encourage them to engage, but they’re not falling for his tricks.
As the evening draws on, I see my first hobby – one of the most acrobatic falcons – overhead, roe deer grazing in a meadow and Daubenton’s bats flying over the water. Darkness transforms the wood into something mystical – the branches of towering beech trees conspire above us and above them is an infinite collection of stars. In many ways you can see so much more at night.
The story of people’s mass disconnection from the dark started in 1880, when the inventor Joseph Swan lit up his home in north-east England with incandescent electric bulbs for the first time. In most ways it was a boon for humanity, Salisbury writes in his new book Wild Nights Out, but adds: “What is rarely considered, however, is the loss of something very precious.”
Halfway through the trip, he recites a poem, and I nearly choke on my hot chocolate when he reveals his “box of death” containing half a dozen dead bats, and an owl wing and claw from roadkill. Children find these body parts fascinating and it’s usually adults who grimace, says Salisbury, who insists on silence as we paddle home on the river.
The point of these night-time wildlife expeditions – which Salisbury runs as part of his WildWise events company – is not to terrify people but to reconnect them with darkness because we have become “exiles” of the night, he says. Understanding the dark side of the landscape is not just about seeing interesting animals, but noticing how darkness feels and learning to be comfortable with it. From deer to otters to wild boar, research suggests more and more mammals are becoming active at night to avoid being around humans.
In a depopulated landscape devoid of distractions, the mind wanders and the imagination kicks in. Although the singing and poem caught me unaware, the instinct to share stories at night-time is as old as humanity. “The quality of enchantment is around at night – starlight, moonrise, the mysterious, the unseen, the imagined,” says Salisbury, who encourages children to start a campfire, look at wildlife, and tell tales in Just William-style expeditions. “It’s a wonderful reign … a less human place.”
Darkness has become something located away from where most of us live. Research shows that more than 80% of people across the world live under light-polluted skies and no longer have access to true darkness. “There is no string to pull or switch to flick if you want a few hours off to bathe in the quiet enveloping dark. You have to go out of town to find that sanctuary,” Salisbury writes in his book.
Now that we can go about our business at any hour of the day, we miss the natural lull of the night. “It’s asking something different of us – it’s reflective, it’s contemplative, meditative. And what we’ve done as a culture is stick on bright lights, to continue to do the ‘to do’ list and keep ourselves busy, and generally distracted,” says Chris.
Increasing amounts of evidence suggest artificial lighting is bad for our health, with links to disrupted sleep patterns, obesity, impaired memory and an increased risk of cancer. The night has a central role in the timing of the biological activity of wildlife; pollution from artificial light is systemically disrupting animals’ hormone levels, their number of offspring, and navigation. Scientists argue that it should be treated as seriously as other forms of pollution.
Artificial light is also believed to be driving insect decline, potentially affecting every aspect of insect lifecycles, according to a scientific assessment of more than 150 studies. About half of all insects are believed to be nocturnal, and even those active during the day could be disturbed by light at night. Light pollution would be easy to reduce by turning off unnecessary lights, researchers point out. Making more lights motion-activated and shading lights so only the minimum area necessary is illuminated would also help.
Salisbury’s book is about reframing our relationship with darkness, and encouraging us to seek it out. Reacquainting people with darkness is part of “rewilding” ourselves, because without that affinity humans will remain tourists in their own landscape. Even a well-known landscape becomes something different under moonlight.
“I try to reassure my young children that the night is a friend because it’s like a protector,” says Salisbury. He sees a little night walk as an enriching activity. And as I learn from the evening we spend together, you can see a surprising amount when the lights are off.