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3 July 2016updated 28 Jul 2021 7:06am

Don’t fear the dark, for the night can heal you

Magic in the sky, on land and at sea: a late ramble can give you a new perspective on the world.

By John Burnside

We find the healing that we need anywhere we can, I suppose, but there is a good argument for the old homoeopathic idea that “like cures like” – and over these past weeks, when we seem to have fallen into so much darkness, I have found myself staying up into the small hours, making the most of the nights.

Like cures like. If a child is afraid of the dark, see if he won’t come out to watch a pair of little owls working a hedgerow at twilight, calling back and forth in that eerie way of theirs; or maybe persuade him to stand a while, observing a solitary bat as it swoops wide circles around a street lamp, or over a field of long grass, trailing elegant patterns in the air that seem almost visible as it passes. He may not want to come but, if he does, like cures like – and when we start to see beauty, or order, in what we previously feared, a change for the better has already begun.

I sometimes refer to these sojourns in the dark as night vigils but they are, in reality, not that grand. There is no better time to experience the healing power of darkness on these islands than a fine June twilight, close to the solstice.

In Scandinavia, to mark this midsummer season, people make great bonfires that burn long into the early hours of the morning, but even though the flames are bright, it is the night they are celebrating. I remember once staying in Søgne, Norway, in the tiny harbour village of Ny-Hellesund. There are only a few people on its islands but they build an elaborate bonfire every year on a rock in the middle of the bay, then sit for hours in their boats, watching the flames leap high into the sky.

My night rituals are somewhat more modest. I take a walk out to the woods down the hill from here and keep an eye out for owls, or I simply sit by my window, watching my neighbour’s cattle vanish quietly into the darkness. It doesn’t matter – because one night takes the place of all nights, from the most tender to the most sublime. Night in the desert, on the lookout for leaf-nosed bats. Sitting out on the rocks at Hillesøy (Norway again) under the aurora borealis – or that one gorgeous night I spent on the Uruguay River, near the former corned beef packing plant at Pueblo Liebig, in Argentina. I had spent the day visiting the plant, talking to the men who used to work there and were now trying to eke out a living by showing visitors around.

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When they heard of my interest in birds, one of the men led me to a far corner of the complex to see what he called the “white owls”. I was sceptical – I really wasn’t expecting to see a white owl in those parts – but, sure enough, there they were, two astonishing white faces, gazing down from the broken rafters, from another world.

On closer examination, they proved not to be perfectly white, but the darkness of the place made them look almost so – and the startling pallor of their faces (which reminded me, at that moment, of nothing so much as the shaman masks I had seen in the north) seemed to express wordlessly a rapt awareness of the great night that had closed around our little group in a matter of moments. It plunged us into the still, dark beauty of a subtropical night, the great river flowing by unseen now, the land around filled with past and present dreaming.

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Then, as we turned and made our way back to the light of the former records office, I felt calmer and more at ease with the world than I had in a long time. The air seemed sweet and extraordinarily smooth – it felt like breathing velvet – and it did not matter at all that what I had just seen was probably a pair of not uncommon short-eared owls that happened to be, or seemed, lighter in colour than the norm. What mattered was how the night contained me, stilled in its immensity and, for a moment, healed of all present pain.

This article appears in the 29 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies