Six Questions: Matt Gaw about moon, stars and darkness

“As I climb onto the car to lie down on the bonnet, the sky begins to melt. Meteors. Candle wax drips. The stars fall at the same speed as the gannets who plunge into the sea of Ailsa Craig. It is, and there are no other words for it, truly beautiful.”

British writer and journalist Matt Gaw tucks his family in bed and goes outside when sun starts to set to witness moon rising, stars falling and snow glowing blue. His new book Under the Stars: A Journey into Light is published today. Artificial light is almost everywhere today, it has polluted the pure blackness of night and our chance to even see the stars. Matt Gaw sets out on a journey to find and experience a night so dark you can’t orient yourself in space (and time!) at all. He also revisits something completely opposite, buzzing London at night with lights, clubs, empty streets and drunk loudness, and explores ideas of darkness as fertile soil for crime, terror, our own fears and ghosts.

In Bury St Edmunds, where he lives, Matt is stopped by a police car when he comes out of the undergrowth and heads to the nearby 24/7 supermarket to buy milk. He looks too suspicious, wandering the woods like that late at night. To look at stars, to know how to be guided by them, is a forgotten art of reconnecting with nature and with ourselves. Dark skies are too precious to loose. Besides, night animals need for the night to be dark. “For bats, like deer and other nocturnal animals, entering an area of artificial light is similar to us staring into the sun.”

Matt Gaw’s new book Under the Stars: A Journey into Light follows his debut The Pull of the River: A Journey into the Wild and Watery Heart of Britain (2018). Now the moon and stars are the ones that pull Matt outside and will definitely do the same with reader. Beautifully written, thoroughly underlined (in my case), inspiring and wise book that teaches to see in the dark.

Were you scared to go out in the dark? Has that changed now?

I think there was definitely a sense of trepidation to begin with! I suppose the night, culturally at least, is painted as a place of fear and trembling, somewhere you shouldn’t roam. When I could, I went out before sunset, so my body could adapt as the dark slowly began to rise. I love the experience of twilight when the air seems to thicken and the eyes start to rely more on rods than cones.

In fact, the change of the senses is probably the biggest source of fear. The retinal cones are largely based around the centre of the retina, while the rods are around the edges, which means focusing is harder as it gets darker and peripheral vision is much more sensitive. That, combined with a greater reliance on hearing, can result in the occasional skipped heartbeat if you notice something on the edge of vision. I remember feeling more creeped out when I was in forests (Dartmoor and Galloway) and there was a lot of movement in the trees. Your brain adds all kinds of unwanted colour!

I wouldn’t say I’m scared of the dark now. I’ve learnt to manage some of my responses. When I was in Dartmoor Forest I really wanted to hurry, but I consciously slowed down and stopped, I guess I didn’t want to ‘run from something’. I think I mention in the book how it’s a bit like jumping or falling into cold water, the instinct is to thrash and swim but really you should just float and get used to the feeling.

What happens to our body and mind when we can’t see a thing?

I think that being in total darkness was the most uncomfortable experience I had, although I like to think I would cope better with it now. When I saw deer in an earlier walk I’d felt a real closeness to them, as if the lowering light removed a barrier, or reduced the distance between me and these wild animals. But in the total darkness of a cloudy Galloway Forest, it felt as if I had been consumed by the dark. It was a bit of a cogito moment and I ended up just questioning myself and everything. If I had been expecting it, had been more prepared (the story of my life), I think it could be a really wonderful thing, an opportunity for peace and reflection about how rare such pure darkness is.

What struck you the most about the light pollution?

I was aware of light pollution as an issue before the book in terms of how it impacts on migrating birds, and I think lots of people have seen heartbreaking footage of newly hatched turtles heading towards brightly-lit land than the moon-scalded sea. But I definitely didn’t realise how much of an issue it is for all species, how it is causing ecological chaos for species unable to adapt at the speed of light. I guess too that I just hadn’t noticed how much artificial lighting there is. My baseline for night, my expectations of what it is and what it should be, had been warped by growing up in a modern, bright world. After walking in London I started seeing lights everywhere and even in places of relative darkness I kept thinking about how the landscape was probably terrifyingly bright for many nocturnal creatures.

Why we need to look more at the moon and stars?

For me seeing the moon and the stars and the way their light changes the landscape is simply beautiful. There is a magic to it, a mystery that evokes the stories and myths that have been passed on for millennia. We have watched the skies for as long as we have been here and in some ways the moon gave humans the first taste of eternal life. The old calendars, cut into eagle’s wing bones, chipped into stone, chart a moon that is always moving, changing shape, disappearing and then returning. Even now, understanding the moon’s movements and the seasonal wheeling of the stars bring us closer to the rhythms of the non-human world.

I think seeing the stars has probably never been so important. They locate us within the universe, show us where we live and allow us to grasp (even if it is just for a second) the sheer scale of life. There is something amazing about looking at a star, or tracing a constellation, and realising that the light hitting the back of your eye is the same age as the Romans (or in some cases even older).

"Under the Stars: A Journey into Light" published in February, 2020, and available in the Sea Library.
“Under the Stars: A Journey into Light” published in February, 2020, and available in the Sea Library.

Which books inspired you when writing Under the Stars?

Kathleen Jamie’s Sightlines (particularly the essay on pathology – I thought about her microscope when I was gazing at Andromeda through a telescope), Horatio Clare’s Light in the Dark, Nancy Campbell’s The Library of Ice and Jean Mcneil’s Night Orders (I love the form of this book, a kind of poetry notebook).

What’s the sea at night like?

It is, of course, wonderful! At Covehithe, not far from my home in Suffolk, I experienced the full moon pulling itself out of the sea. The North Sea is always a strange fudge of colours – sometimes sludgy brown, other times pigeon grey – but the moonlight transformed it, creating a ribbon of gold light that followed me along the beach. The change in temperature at night also means sound waves behave differently so the suck and hiss of the sea over the shingle bounced off the cliffs in unusual ways. It felt like being utterly surrounded by the sea’s moon-powered waves. Then, on one calm night on the Isle of Coll the sea was blissfully calm and was almost bioluminescent with the light from the Milky Way.  

I think the sea and night are well suited. They are full of subtleties and beauty, always changing. And I guess, at times, both can be a bit frightening.

Matt Gaw, author of "Under the Stars: A Journey into Light"
Matt Gaw, author of “Under the Stars: A Journey into Light”.

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