As if the stars had fallen
Nothing changes a landscape like darkness. As the primacy of the eye gives way the more subtle arts of ear and hand, as the surety of footfall morphs into the uncertain step, the world changes. For country dwellers the change may be less marked, used as they are to the changing of the day, but for city kids and urbanised adults the darkness of night is both unusual and scarce. From pools of yellow streetlights to the blue glow of TV’s, cities are full of light. The country is a different matter.
Down on Johanna beach at the failing of the light, the night and day merge uncertainly, with little ebbs and flows. Day hangs on to the western horizon and lights up the sky for one last hour. The colours reflect in the wet sand beach and hold on for one last minute. The surf break glows for one last second . And then, with the sun below the horizon, just a strip of light remains. The foam of the breaking waves seems to pick up the last few rays of light and glow, faint and even ghostly, into the darkness. They bring the waves of last light to the shore. Against the strange night light of the sky even the silver gulls are cast as black. Magpies carol from the dunes, and somewhere down the beach a lapwing calls in stress and alarm. This would be a night for whale song and stories, for the long reflective stare out towards the nothingness of the horizon. It would be a night for company. It would be a night to talk of the past and plan for the future. But with only the gulls and the waves, the sea and the darkened sky for company I walk back towards the cottage.
The eye takes back its primacy as I see the window light on the hill. Warm on a chill night with a sharp wind. Cows cough off to my left, in a way that suggests surprise or ambush. I woke one night, long ago, to a similar cough and watched deer walk through the campsite we were in. A dozen or more children and half as many adults sleeping under the stars – and three passing deer on their night time duties. The kids were buried in their sleeping bags, as much for security as warmth, and many of the adults were less comfortable than they claimed. In the morning no one else had heard or seen a thing. But the footprints were there, clear in the mud. I wondered why they had woken me and no one else. At that time I spent most of my time outdoors and regularly slept under the summer trees. Did that familiarity let me notice something new, even as I slept? If the same thing happened today, in the less familiar woodlands of Australia, would I wake? Or would I huddle in my bag, as much for security as warmth, and miss what the darkness brings?
Overhead the low evening clouds are grey and seem full of rain. Off in the distance the sun still shines, low and soft. It’s a sky that promises rainbows, and on this evening I’m in the right place at the right time. The skylight arch of colour is bright and clear, with a second, a shy sibling, higher and behind. The twice refracted light makes sky art at its best. It’s no less stunning for not being the work of God or the bright hand of an augury. It’s not a metaphor, it’s pure physics. And it’s still stunningly beautiful. The brighter of the two seems to cleave the edge of the sky – grey one side, blue the other. The moment I step from the car rain drops fall, fat and heavy. A short sharp shower over Lavers Hill, a passing storm, a clearing storm. The rainbow hangs over the hill and the gold pot seems in reach. We eat dinner in a pub, a curious mixture of the welcoming and the distant. We are welcomed in the bar by being shown we really should be elsewhere. The food is OK – “sound, but unremarkable” – a little more the fuel, but much less than art.
As the darkness gathers we pull into the car park of Melba Gully. Disappointingly there are two cars already there. The rain now falls from the leaves rather than the sky, and around the car bays you can hear the faint pitter tap of falling water. We get briefly lost in the car park – tangled in the switch back paths intended for wheel chair users. Eventually we find our way through the well intentioned maze and walk into the gully. These rainforest gullies are damp places, and for all the fact that this one has a path through it, they retain the feel of secret places. Old trees, not touched by fire, grow by the path side and tree-ferns hang over the path’s edge. For all their mystery these gullies are not untouched. The loggers axe and saw have left their mark, and in the daylight hours you can find odd, letter box shaped slots cut into the base of old tree stumps. These are where boards were forced into the wood to give a platform for the loggers. Now the stumps, often startlingly large, slowly rot back into the forest.
But in the darkness such things are only known, not seen. The kids, obsessed with light, need to be persuaded not to turn on their torches. Often the persuasion does not work. Slowly, as we walk deeper into the gully, it becomes darker and darker and eventually we find the stars. Not in the cloudy sky, but in the darkness of the path’s edge, where the tree ferns curtain the bank side. First one, then two, then many points of light come into view. An inquisitive torch light shows nothing, and when it is darkened, and your eyes have adjusted, the lights come back. It’s as if the stars had fallen and left their light in tiny sparkles. The truth is no less strange. The lights are glow worms – tiny specks of biological light that form constellations and galaxies in the darkness by the pathways.
The far end of the gully is marked by a waterfall and here the glow worms shine in greater numbers. They swirl along the edges of the stream and progress along fallen logs. The more you look the more you find, like looking out into space or back into time. The kids are surprisingly quiet. The torches remain off. With 20 minutes of darkness behind you it’s possible to see the little lights deep within the forest.
If I saw such things and did not know what they were, what stories would I invent to explain what I had seen? What fables would grow from these darkened gullies, where on this evening the stars did really seem to be in reach.