An edited extract from After Dark by conservationist and ecologist Annette Lees
Every 24 hours, the Earth rolls into its own vast shadow and darkness floods across the land and sea. In a 1600km-long gliding plumb-line down the length of New Zealand, our beaches, towns, cities, farms, forests, lakes and mountains sink into shadow. The darkness seeps from the east to the west, quietening the day birds and stirring those of the night. Bats pour from their day roosts and speed into the gloaming, chasing down moths. Freshwater fish emerge from behind creek stones and underwater logs to feed in the dark water. Glow-worms light up damp banks. Waves washing along our shores begin to spark and glimmer with bioluminescing sea creatures. Under the sea, nocturnal fish – the night guild – shake off sleep and come out to graze or predate. On land, the night insects start up their chirrups and singing. Night-active skinks and geckos wake and scuttle through their shrub and tree homes, the predators among them catching arthropods, the others eating berries and licking nectar from flowers.
The last of the light fades away to the velvet-black of true night and then, in the cone of the Earth's shadow that extends 1.4 million kilometres above us deeply into space, we see the richly scattered marvels of our galaxy: the moon rising, a planet's steadfast shine, thousands of stars streaming and tilting as the night advances.
I have always loved the night, loved walking into its strange enchantment. In night, suspense, lawlessness, hazard, sensuousness and awe are evoked simply by stepping outside. Night air is fresh and damp, alive across the skin, suffused with scents of spice and salts. Our familiar landscapes are altered, mysterious and charged with potency.
I was primed to be familiar with night from a young age. Even inside our first family home the outdoors-night breathed over us. Built in the early 1900s, our Whakatāne house was constructed loosely, and during our occupancy of it we took it as it came, which was airy.
My mother's gentle elegance and my father's distracted delight in the natural world did not prepare either of them for house maintenance. Such things as wind-proofing the closed-in verandas that housed our bedrooms, or stopping up the wide gaps between the roof and ceiling where insulation was modestly absent, or getting the windows to fully close were impossibly practical matters. As a result, night flowed through the house like a river.
For the first 14 night-years of my life I slept in the glassed-in porch in a space just big enough for a single bed and small dresser, with no room to move between the two. A rotten corner let in slugs at night – I'd find them the next morning by tracking their glassy trails across the clothing I'd discarded on the floor. There was an oval leadlight window set into the east-facing glass and the moon would rise just there, wobbled and refracted, shedding medieval yellow across my bed. In the dim light of long summer dusks at a young child's bedtime, I'd lie under a woollen blanket watching breezes stir the washed-out rose-printed curtains, hearing the gentle reedy song of crickets. The scent of wisteria and roses and cut grass wafted through the warped window sills, along with mosquitoes. I would hear my big brothers, with privileges I never seemed to be old enough to claim, still playing outside. To lie there when I wanted to run and climb into that thin twilight air was frustrating for the full minutes before I fell asleep. I knew what was waiting out there - a vast landscape of night filled with theatre and witchy enchantment.
Sunlight reveals but it also hides. If we operate only by day, we are living breath to breath with creatures and events we have never seen, with animal rituals and performances passing us by, with eclipses and shooting stars going on unwitnessed.
The rolling flux between dark and light is an incontrovertible component of our lives, and through three million years of evolution we have been primed to respond to it. Of the two states, we think we are dominated by the day, the theatre of our busy noisy lives, while night is relegated to something that happens outdoors to frogs and slugs and mosquitoes. But the natural dimming of light every 12 hours or so still engages us even when we're not paying attention. It triggers an age-old nocturnal change in the seep and flood of hormones that regulate our bodies, allowing us, in darkness, to adjust our eyesight, to calm, to draw closer to others, to be more primed to experience intimacy, to be softened and receptive to awe and emotion.
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The parallel night world is as close as our front door, as an open window. Because our evening homes are usually brightly lit, outdoors is where night now happens, where we can shed our day selves and slip easily into a wilder and older world that is waiting just there.
One recent cold winter evening, the house cosy with fire and the couch inviting, I pressed my nose against the window and felt the night pressing back, so dark it was like a physical barrier. The family expressed dismay when I got out my coat – I was opening the door to glassy blackness, and perhaps I'd slip into it and vanish. In fact, as so often the case, it turned out not to be so dark outside. On that walk, the light was smoky and subtle, the night unhaunted and yet potent. When I came back into the house I brought a small wildness inside, damp hair, a smile.
After Dark: Walking into the nights of Aotearoa, by Annette Lees (Potton & Burton, $40), is out on October 7