Cancelled Flights and Dark Skies

Every day lasts a year when you’re missing loved ones. After four months apart, my husband finally arrived in England to as big a celebration as you can have in quarantine. What a relief! But it’s been five months since I saw my daughter and my dog. Five months of planning and plotting and forking over money and waiting and calling and booking and vet’s visits and rabies shots and re-microchipping to be compliant with new 14-digit chips and crate-training in a custom-made crate because Watson is just too big for the biggest off-the-shelf crate and on and on and on. And now, with only days to go before Watson was to arrive on November 3rd, his flight is cancelled. No reason. No appeal. Just a rescheduled flight for November 11th. Which, since I wrote that sentence yesterday, has been cancelled again. Embargo on pets flying through Frankfurt apparently, which means redoing all the paperwork as exact timelines must be met. Which means more trips to the vet which means more … you get the idea.

This delay also means moving my daughter’s flight back as she needs to be in the US until Watson flies. For the love of Pete, will this relocation-during-a-pandemic turmoil ever end?

Of course, I know the answer is yes. But on a day-to-day basis, it’s getting old and we’re all battle fatigued. We’re fighting a ticking clock as this pandemic seems to be getting worse, not better. What if we’re weeks away from a total lockdown and we can’t get the rest of our family over here for months? Holidays are coming up, winter is coming, possible US election results are terrifying for those of us who feel there is, if not a perfect result, at least an OH, HELL NO! result.

I’m whining. I don’t usually whine. But I’m whining and I know I shouldn’t be. I know many of you out there have greater concerns than getting your dog from A to B. You have sick loved ones. You have permanent holes at the dinner table rather than the (hopefully) temporary ones I have. But worry shouldn’t be rated. Worry is worry. And I’m worried. Darkness pervades every thought.

With almost perfect timing, the Exmoor Dark Skies Festival is taking place during the month of October. Exmoor is a designated International Dark Skies Reserve, the first in Europe, due to its low light pollution. While the pitch black can make for a nerve-wracking night drive over the moors, it has its benefits. On a clear night, the stars appear close enough to touch. They dazzle both the eye and the mind. They fill the entire sky, barely a gap between them. The Milky Way is more intense than a wispy veil and even the least knowledgeable stargazer can pick out planets and constellations with ease.

As part of this year’s Dark Sky Festival, last weekend saw me driving up Porlock Hill, across the moors, down Countisbury Hill into Lynmouth, then up over the moors again to Heale Farm. Set in rolling hills with views across the Bristol Channel, Heale Farm is about as dark as anywhere you’ll find. On arrival, I meet Judith, our guide to not only the stars but to a new way of looking at darkness. She reminds us of the special place darkness holds in our lives. Yes, you heard me correctly: THE SPECIAL PLACE DARKNESS HOLDS IN OUR LIVES. It’s like she knows my story, though we’ve never met.

A small band of fellow stargazers (including my husband, son, and daughter-in-law in a delightful reunion as we hadn’t all been together in a year) take the muddy route up and up and up to the top fields of the farm. Our headlamps are set to red light so as not to interfere with our night vision. It’s been raining hard for days and the forecast was for more rain. Luckily, it’s not raining as we walk, but the heavens are hidden behind layers of inky blue to black to grey clouds. The moon teases as it dips in and out of view. No stars are visible. We stop at the highest point and look across the combe. A triangular view of the Bristol Channel opens up to reveal pinpricks of light from the coast of Wales. There is barely a breath of wind, rare up here. It’s as silent a place as I’ve experienced in a long time, perhaps since my night journey up the Brazilian Amazon River. We stand and listen to the silence. Awed silence. It fills my ears, my head, my mind. It’s deafening. It’s total relief. It quiets the mind and absorbs the heaviness of recent events. A single night bird cries. We don’t know what it is – owl? hawk? It calls out into the silence for reasons unknown to us, then just as suddenly stops for reasons unknown to us.

Silence. When was the last time you heard absolutely nothing? I can’t even begin to explain how the lack of auditory input calms my soul, deepens my breathing. It’s the most glorious nothingness. Miraculously, the cloudy veil opens up; only small, fleeting tears in the fabric but enough to reveal those dazzling stars and planets. Then they’re gone, the darkness complete. I realise how many shades of black there are. Though the sky could be considered black, there’s still an even blacker outline of the hills and valleys beneath it. Inky outlines of trees stand out against the hill. A black fence post stands out against the trees. Layer after layer of black. Then another opening in the heavens and we gaze up again in silence. Am I the only one to wonder who, or what, is looking back at our blue dot floating in the heavens? I don’t know how long we stand there. All I know is I don’t want it to end. But end it must, so we stroll back through fields of napping cows, jealous of the hours of silent darkness that stretch before them.

Our evening concludes with a delightful meal around a firepit. We hear from a fellow guest, a cultural astronomer, about how mankind has viewed the stars through the ages. Judith talks about resetting our circadian rhythms, using nature’s darkness to address mental health issues, physical ailments, and healing the planet in ways I’d never considered. It’s enlightening – no pun intended. I needed this to refocus my negative dark thoughts and turn them into positives views of the darkness of the universe. At the end of the evening, I drive back over the inky-black moors with far better night vision than on the outward journey.

I’ve been looking at darkness all wrong, thinking dark times are to be endured, got over with, escaped. But maybe, just maybe, there is a healthy place for darkness. It focuses the mind, resets circadian rhythms, offers hyperclarity to points of light. Silence is more than an absence of sound; it’s a moment filled with clarifying potential. I’m taking that silence and darkness with me into the chaos that lies ahead. Stillness. Serenity. A reminder of all the universal beauty that goes unnoticed in the blinding light and exhaustive noise of daily existence.

My trials will end. This dark period will accentuate the light to follow. We need dark to see light. We need silence to hear sound. Oh, how simple pleasures will become extraordinary events: a dog snoring on the mat. Watching a film with a daughter. A clink of glasses and a ‘cheers!’ around the dinner table when, government rules permitting, my whole family is together for Christmas. Each event will be a pinprick of light, made brighter by the dark days required to get to this point. I highly recommend opportunities to place yourself dark silence whenever you can. I intend to do it again. But hopefully, I’ll get to take my dog and daughter with me. Soon.

(Friday update: Watson may have a flight next Wednesday through Amsterdam. Please cross everything you have for a smooth and safe crossing! And forgive any typos. It’s been a day.)

Many thanks to Judith and all at Heale Farm. For more information visit:  https://www.healefarm.co.uk/heale-exmoor-dark-skies-retreat/

Image: Wikimedia Commons