Drawn by the Moon
Posted on November 16, 2016
This is the time of stillness
land milked under moon
I sit under the hawthorn
solid as stone
I am writing in night’s halfdark
in the embrace of winter’s sleep
stars shining on an indigo sky
pearled by moonlit clouds
It is as if I am offered this night
there can be
such a thing
Sometimes the draw is just too strong. At three in the morning I emerge from sleep. It often happens when the moon is bright. I open the window to see fields and bare sycamores bathed in soft light, and a perfectly clear sky. It is as if I can smell the stars and the coming of frost.
I wonder how Little Asby common feels right now, and what it would be like to sit with the Hawthorn under this enormous moon. The last time I was there with the moon was as it rose at the tail end of day. I want to be there in the thick of night, when all is sleeping. I can’t resist. I want to be there. I want to know what the birds do in this kind of light. I want to feel the night.
So I wake Rob. We pull on warm clothes and gather our kit. I fill a thermos and grab a couple of pieces of apple cake, and within minutes we have left.
The narrow road that cuts across Little Asby Common looks like a silvered river, and all around us the grass has a velvet quality. A startled snipe flies up in the headlights, a flash of pale underwings and a long straight bill. Sunbiggin Tarn has become a mercury imprint, weighted with the heavy sleep of starlings.
We’re able to walk up to the tree without torches. The bright globe moon, two days off being full, is glowing directly behind the skeletal silhouette of the hawthorn. I am held in a momentary line of isolated figures – moon, tree, me – and stop to take in the peace of the place. To the south the rolling backs of the Howgills are as soft as blankets. There is no wind.
My intention was to come and share this moon-time with the tree, so for the next hour or so this is what I do. The tree is on a limestone scarp and the land falls away from it, rolling gently southwards. It is as if this landscape is my theatre, and I am in the gods, being treated to a show of slowness and subtlty. I keep listening as hard as I can for sound, but there is barely any. Just my breath and the occasional clicking of Rob’s camera*. This silence is so rare.
The moon disappears and the darkness deepens. I have an urge to leave, as if doing so would mean the spell would not be broken and these hours of moon-drenched land could stay, always, here for the finding. I have been lured into a state of otherly dreaming. But I know the sun will hide the stars and the sky will lighten. It wouldn’t make sense to miss the transformation; and in any case I'm curious to find out how the land wakes up. I pour tea, eat cake, and wait.
An owl calls it first, declaring the last of the night. It’s a tawny owl, repeating its cool hoot into the dark. There is no echo and no muffling: sound is as clear as the starred sky. I turn my torch on from time to time and in its gleam I see a delicate streaming of dew in the air, gossamer lines bringing frost to the dark.
There are only two points of brightness now. The sky is paling in the east. The owl has stopped calling and other birds wake up. Something makes with a high pitched peep. A snipe? Then another call, hoarse and scratchy, as a bird passes above, but I can’t find it’s silhouette against the dark. From the limestone around me and the grass below I can hear more and more sounds. Chits, chats, and the almost-gobble of grouse, squeaks, chatter.
I walk onto the limestone pavement behind the tree and can see the Eden Valley stretched out flat below the Pennines, layered with mist. A bird flies out from the stones, a black flash of feathers, and disappears with a staccato call of complaint. Beyond, Sunbiggin Tarn is waking up too: ducks, swans and geese add their voices to the chorus. Then there are dogs and clatters from a farm on the other side of the hill. Day has started.
The sky has become a pale blue-grey and the scene is a little bland. But the birds are still chattering, as if they want to draw more from the morning. Suddenly, there is drama: rolls of clouds are tinted with fire and pink, bouncing the sun’s light back to us, the tree, the rocks, the birds, and I’m aglow. The small globes of water on the grass at my feet hold the light of the rising sun and leave me speechless.
The birds have quietened now. Above me, a flock of starlings ripples the air. Their fly-past is the final sign that the day is well under way, the moon forgotten. For now.
We drive out around eight o'clock and begin to think about a proper breakfast, so we head a local garage to see if they have any eggs. They don't. The only other person in the small shop happens to be David Knipe who used to be my milk-and-eggs man, until he and I both moved to different valleys. He has plenty of eggs in his van and while he boxes them up he tells me that he's still clearing up after Storm Desmond (almost a year ago now): a reminder of the rarity of a still night like the one we've just enjoyed, and the frightening power of winter weather ahead of us.
**Rob's images at night shot on a sturdy Gitzo tripod using exposures of aperture f5.6 at 30 seconds to catch the light of the stars without them becoming blurred (as it would do on longer exposures).
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