Beyond

I cannot go to bed while the world is full of such haunting beauty, this twilight poised between day and night. Through the day, the arc of the sky has enclosed us, holding our awareness close to Earth. But as the sun sinks deeper behind the horizon, slowly, so slowly on this high summer night, the daytime blue thins, and the wider reality begins to open. Sometimes, on a dark night, the Earthly sky will draw back completely, revealing the dark heavensthe far beyondand a spaciousness that includes the visible universe. On night watches while crossing the Celtic sea I have been taken up into this lattice of starlight, this infinite space. Will that same experience be offered this evening?

As the planet rolls eastward, the sky glows with the reflected light of the dipped sun. I am eager, almost in a panic, to get away from the artificial lights of the house, which dazzle my eyes and constrain my soul. Notebook and pencil in hand I cross the ditch and climb over the stile. In the hedgerow, the pale heads of hogweed glow in the twilight; the low light give a rolling texture to the waves of grass across the meadow; and on the far side a line of trees stands in majestic silhouette (are they truly black, or the darkest possible green, I wonder?). I scribble in my notebook, just able to make out the line my pencil makes, but unable to read my words even as I write them.

Light from a bedroom window still troubles me. I press on across the meadow, through the gate on the far side, then trace the path through the brush and woodland, finding my way more with the sense of my feet on the ground and the feel of the grass on each side than through sight. The second gate looms in the dimness, and I pass through into the further meadow, walk to the middle and pause.

Shielded now from all human light I allow myself to drop into the world around me. Earth has rolled further eastward now; the remaining sunlight has faded, glowing weakly through the line of trees to my west. A mist hangs mysteriously low across the grass, so the trees no longer appear rooted but hover above the Earth. The light of the half-moon dominates, casting my ghostly shadow on the grass. I wonder briefly whether fairies will appear with a midsummer night’s dream, whether Oberon and Titania will draw me into their jealous disputes. But despite the sense of mystery, I know, Apollonian man that I am, that this is still the everyday Earth. She is just showing me another of her faces.

The moon rises fully over the trees. Strips of grey cloud have drifted over, but the moon shines so brightly that is seems to be in front, rather than behind them. A planet appears to the south east, then another higher in the sky. I scan the dark above me where it is clearest. No stars yet. Then, abruptly, the first shines through; soon others appear, four or five, then more than I can easily count. I know these stars are massive, at a distance measured in hundreds of light years; and yet they feel to me intimately present.

The world is utterly silent. Not that there are no individual soundsthe rustling of my jacket and the scratch of my pencil; the honk of a goose and call of an owl; from the farmyard the lowing of a steer and a barking dog. But these sounds stand out distinctly from an underlying silent presence that holds the stillness of the world; this is the sacred silence out of which all sounds arise. Maybe it is the Tao from which the ten thousand things emerge and into which they will return. I hold still, open my ears, draw it into my being. For this is precious.

It is darker now, I can no longer see the marks at all as my pencil crosses the page, but still I keep making notesmaybe writing on top of what I wrote before. Will the sky open to a full dark night? I wait and watch. Slowly the mist rises further and diffuses the starlight. No more stars appear, while those that are showing are dimmed. The atmosphere has teased me: the far beyond of the stars will not reveal itself tonight. But I am offered a different beauty I would not have experienced had I crept into my bed.

“What is beyond?” I ask myself as I retrace my steps. Is it Jay’s ‘dead stars’ in ‘wastes of cold space’? Should we, with Pascal, be terrified of these infinite spaces? Or was I looking up into a living, self-creating universe? And how would I know? Is it a question the human mind and heart can encompass, or is necessarily a mystery? Better a living mystery than a cold dead space, I tell myself. Otherwise, from whence would the consciousness arise that can even ask the question?

Written at Totleigh Barton on the Arvon Nature Writing Workshop with Jay Griffiths, Paul Kingsnorth and a fellowship of creative companions, to all of whom thanks