Exploring Darkness and Light: Nonfiction by Gaw, Geddes and May
I’ve recently read a number of books that engage with topics of sunlight, darkness and the winter, exploring all the practical implications of the season and the night sky as well as their metaphorical associations. (See also: my review of An Ode to Darkness by Sigri Sandberg.)
Two of these are brand new as of this month; the other came out in paperback late last year and was one of my Christmas gifts.
Under the Stars: A Journey into Light by Matt Gaw (2020)
I very much enjoyed Matt Gaw’s The Pull of the River (2018), a jolly yet reflective travelogue of canoe trips down Britain’s rivers. His follow-up nature book is broader in focus but again rooted in on-the-ground knowledge, chiefly gained through a series of night walks. He travels everywhere from London to Isle of Coll, a Dark Sky Community in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides, to compare the quality of darkness and to ponder the emotions these places elicit at night. Fear of darkness feels innate, while for him the stars are almost overwhelming.
In London and in Bury St Edmunds, where he lives, Gaw observes that cities seem removed from nature and that artificial illumination is causing light pollution that negatively affects flora and fauna. At the beach or in Dartmoor or Scotland, though, being outside at night allowed him to feel “part of the natural world in a way that I rarely have during the day. … To be open to the night, to welcome it, embrace it, rather than shut it out, does bring with it an extra richness. To walk at night has been a night twice lived.”
Whether making a jaunt to a 24-hour supermarket after hearing a tawny owl or awaking to a cow nibbling at his sleeping bag on Coll, Gaw is an entertaining and knowledgeable tour guide through the nature of night. I admire his writing and hope that with this second book he will continue to find the wider audience he deserves. Under the Stars covers a lot of ground in under 200 pages and would be a perfect primer for someone looking forward to the supermoon on March 9th.
A favorite passage:
“Over the horizon of the North Sea comes the moon. First a glow. Then a pale, pinkish cuticle that swells into a weakling light. It continues to rise, an ever-expanding, ever-brightening island, until after only a couple of minutes she tears away from the membrane of water, dripping light onto the earth, shining back at the sunken sun. The birth of the full moon.”
Under the Stars is published by Elliott & Thompson today, February 20th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Chasing the Sun: The new science of sunlight and how it shapes our bodies and minds by Linda Geddes (2019)
Circadian rhythms govern just about every bodily process, from blood pressure to digestion, so even minor changes in our sleep and sunlight exposure can have drastic effects. Like Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep, this is a book chock-full of facts that should be common sense, yet are more like a body of knowledge we have lost as we have become disconnected from natural human behavioral patterns. We weren’t meant to work nights, or to stay awake for many hours in the glow of artificial light after the sun has gone down on a winter’s day.
Geddes experiments with making do with only candlelight after sunset for several weeks. She also investigates seasonal affective disorder and “circadian lighting,” surveys the history of sunlight as a medical treatment, gives practical advice for minimizing jet lag, and weighs the case for abolishing daylight savings time. Whether you’re a regular reader of popular science or not, you should pick up this concise and highly readable book by a science journalist; it delves into topics that affect us all. It’s one to keep on the shelf and refer to the next time you cross time zones or change your work schedule.
Wintering: How I learned to flourish when life became frozen by Katherine May (2020)
May’s sympathetic memoir considers winter not only as a literal season, but also as an emotional state. Although “depression” could be substituted for “wintering” in most instances, the book gets much metaphorical mileage out of the seasonal reference as she recounts how she attempted to embrace rather than resist the gloom and chill through rituals such as a candlelit St. Lucia service and an early morning solstice gathering at Stonehenge. Wintering alternates travel and research, and mind and body. Cold-water swimming becomes the author’s primary strategy for invigorating a winter-fogged brain and frozen limbs. (My full review will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Times Literary Supplement.)
Wintering was published by Rider Books on February 6th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Women in the Polar Night: Christiane Ritter and Sigri Sandberg
I’m continuing a Nonfiction November focus with reviews of two recently (re-)released memoirs about women spending time in the Arctic north of Norway. I enjoy reading about survival in extreme situations – it’s the best kind of armchair traveling because you don’t have to experience the cold and privation for yourself.
A Woman in the Polar Night by Christiane Ritter (1938; English text, 1954)
[Translated by Jane Degras]
In 1934, Ritter, an Austrian painter, joined her husband Hermann for a year in Spitsbergen. He’d participated in a scientific expedition and caught the Arctic bug, it seems, for he stayed on to fish and hunt. They shared a small, remote hut with a Norwegian trapper, Karl. Ritter was utterly unprepared for the daily struggle, having expected a year’s cozy retreat: “I could stay by the warm stove in the hut, knit socks, paint from the window, read thick books in the remote quiet and, not least, sleep to my heart’s content.” Before long she was disabused of her rosy vision. “It’s a ghastly country, I think to myself. Nothing but water, fog, and rain.” The stove failed. Dry goods ran out; they relied on fresh seal meat. Would they get enough vitamins? she worried. Every time Hermann and Karl set off hunting, leaving her alone in the hut, she feared they wouldn’t return. And soon the 132 straight days of darkness set in.
I was fascinated by the details of Ritter’s daily tasks, but also by how her perspective on the landscape changed. No longer a bleak wilderness, it became a tableau of grandeur. “A deep blue-green, the mountains rear up into a turquoise-coloured sky. From the mountaintops broad glaciers glittering in the sun flow down into the fjord.” She thought of the Arctic almost as a site of spiritual pilgrimage, where all that isn’t elemental falls away. “Forgotten are all externals; here everything is concerned with simple being.” The year is as if outside of time: she never reminisces about her life back home, and barely mentions their daughter. By the end you see that the experience has changed her: she’ll never fret over trivial things again. She lived to age 103 (only dying in 2000), so clearly the time in the Arctic did her no harm.
Ritter wrote only this one book. A travel classic, it has never been out of print in German but has been for 50 years in the UK. Pushkin Press is reissuing the English text on the 21st with a foreword by Sara Wheeler, a few period photographs and a hand-drawn map by Neil Gower.
With thanks to Pushkin Press for the free copy for review.
Notes: Michelle Paver drew heavily on this book when creating the setting for Dark Matter. (There’s even a bear post outside the Ritters’ hut.)
I found some photos of the Ritters’ hut here.
(Although I did not plan it this way, this book also ties in with German Literature Month!)
An Ode to Darkness by Sigri Sandberg (2019)
[Translated by Siân Mackie]
Ritter’s book is a jumping-off point for Norwegian journalist Sandberg’s investigation of darkness as both a physical fact and a cultural construct. She travels alone from her home in Oslo to her cabin in the mountains at Finse, 400 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Ninety percent of Norway’s wildlife sleeps through the winter, and she often wishes she could hibernate as well. Although she only commits to five days in the far north compared to Ritter’s year, she experiences the same range of emotions, starting with a primitive fear of nature and the dark.
It is a fundamental truth that darkness does not exist from an astronomical standpoint. Happy fact. I’m willing to accept this. I try to find it comforting, helpful. But I still struggle to completely believe that darkness does not actually exist. Because what does it matter to a small, poorly designed human whether darkness is real or perceived? And what about the black holes in the universe, what about dark matter, what about the night sky and the threats against it, and … and now I’m exhausted. I’m done for the day. I feel so small, and I’m tired of being afraid.
Over the course of the book she talks to scientists about the human need for sleep and sunshine, discusses solitude and dark sky initiatives, and quotes from a number of poets, especially Jon Fosse, “Norway’s greatest writer,” who often employs metaphors of light and dark: “Deep inside me / … it was like the empty darkness was shining”.
In occasional passages labeled “Christiane” Sandberg also recounts fragments of Ritter’s experiences. I read Sandberg’s book first, so these served as a tantalizing introduction to A Woman in the Polar Night. “Is there anywhere as silent as a white winter plateau on a windless day? And how long can anyone spend alone before they start to feel, like Christiane did, as if their very being is disintegrating?”
This is just the sort of wide-ranging nonfiction I love; it intersperses biographical and autobiographical information with scientific and cultural observations.
[Another recent book tries to do a similar thing but is less successful – partially due to the author’s youthful optimism, but also due to the rambly, shallow nature of the writing. (My review will be in the November 29th issue of the Times Literary Supplement.)]
With thanks to Sphere for the free copy for review.
Related reading: This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland by Gretel Ehrlich