Friday, February 10, 2012

The blue hour

In this recent period of cold, clear weather, it is possible to notice the procession of the lengthening days, the subtle shift of four minutes at the beginning and end of each day by which we edge towards spring. I can now walk over dusk-filled fields at five-thirty or later, observing the colours of the sky as they darken from cerulean to indigo, sometimes shot with clouds of improbable gold and rose. I learn to appreciate the beauty of the half-light, the sense of pause it brings to the start and finish of each day, that liminal time when birds, animals and the weather are all in a state of stasis, a lacuna in their restlessness.

Twilight has degrees; there are different forms of twilight,definitions precise enough to regulate the progress of the sun as it disappears over the horizon. Civil twilight, when the sun is less than six degrees below the horizon, gives us light enough to continue about our day-time tasks. It is the period of gloaming, as it is called in Scotland, a word that carries the weight of gloom but the freedom of roaming; a light sufficient to be still wandering the hills. Civil twilight is the time curtailed, for those of us in Britain, by Lighting Up Time; a ritual enshrined in the lighting of gas lamps on city streets: “and then the lighting of the lamps” as Eliot has it. The word dusk comes from the Old English for brown, and this memory of urban twilight conjures somehow that sense of colourlessness, like dark folds of cloth.
When the sun is further still below the horizon – six to twelve degrees, we have nautical twilight, a darkness in which mariners can fix their position from brighter stars, but when features on the shore have not yet melded into the gathering night. And then comes astronomical twilight; a form of darkness so indistinguishable from night that only astronomers may perceive it; a time when even the faintest of stars become visible on clear nights; the time when the faint light from distant stars reaches the earth through the thickening density of night. Beyond this period, when the sun is lower than eighteen degrees below the horizon, is true night. It is a condition that is alien to our northern skies in high summer; we are trapped in perpetual astronomical twilight, hovering in a limbo of almost-night like restless souls waiting for the dawn to return. 
The importance of twilight is embedded in northern cultures in a way unknown in the tropics, where the sun sets so abruptly, like a performance in which one is still waiting for the final curtain call. It marks the shift from outside to inside, from activity to rest. It is also a time when many of the creatures which feature in our mythology are at their most active: badgers, foxes, deer, hares, bats, they are all crepuscular, creatures of the half-light.
I learnt that the twilight time in french is sometimes called l'heure bleue, as though there is an ineffable sadness which comes with the transition from day to night or night to day, a sense of loss which lasts only as long as the time taken for the light to change. Blue is also the colour of distance, of the far horizon when seen on a clear day, and we can imagine twilight as a gathering of this blueness, a slow creep of indigo from the edges of the world until it closes above our heads with the coming of night, like an ink stain on a sheet, a diffusion of blue.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Darker than the night

First, the facts: an old yew tree stands by the river, the shade of its limbs darkening the slate pebbles which are covered by winter floods. It is around sixty feet tall, taller than the village hall on the far bank which bears its name: Yew Tree Hall, as though it is the tree which is the prime object in this small lakeland village. Certainly, we can be sure that the tree is considerably older: estimates in the nineteenth century put it at over a thousand years old. Like many yews, this tree has suffered change, has lost limbs, is split and twisted. Nonetheless, the girth is still so large that it would take three adults to embrace it with joined hands. Beyond this, all is heresay, mystery, conjecture.

In the autumn of 1804, William and Dorothy Wordsworth took a six-day tour in a jaunting car, to see the wonders of the Lake District. William was 34 years old, and on the rising wave of his fame. His volumes of poetry were increasingly popular. Dorothy, 18 months his junior, had assumed the role of his muse; we can imagine their spirited conversation as the coach, its roof perhaps open to the mid-day warmth of autumn sunshine, edged past waterfalls and oakwoods, beside lakeshores and the laurel-draped lawns of country houses.
They visited the famous Lorton Yew Tree; a vast specimen which overhung the Boon Beck in the village, its dense limbs sagging with age. It was reputed that the tree was a thousand years old, and it had become a magnet for visitors since George Fox had preached there in 1653, en route from his contact with the community of seekers in Ulverston, before his imprisonment in Carlisle castle. Fox clearly understood the mythic significance of the yew, of its associations with churchyards and mystic places. It was said that, when Fox preached, the branches sagged with listeners perched there, better to hear his words.
Dorothy proclaimed that the tree was the largest she had ever seen; in her journal, she called it "Patriarch of the Vale, green and flourishing in old age". The Wordsworths were even more impressed by the Borrowdale yews, four ancient specimens which drape the valley side above Seatoller. “ Nor uninformed with Fantasy,” he wrote in his poem Yew-Trees “and looks / That threaten the profane”, as though these four trees carried all of his anthropomorphic fantasy about yews, their mystery, their darkness:
...ghostly Shapes
May meet at noontide: Fear and trembling Hope,
Silence and Foresight, Death the Skeleton
And Time the Shadow”

Yew trees are one of the three native British conifers. Like all trees which had an ability to hold their leaves or needles through the winter, they are associated with magic, with special properties. It is said that yews symbolised death and resurrection, that they grew in sacred places, that the poison in their needles also had healing properties. At night, yews are always darker than the sunless sky against which they are seen, as though they absorb any residual light, sucking in the faint glow of stars and the moon. Nothing is emitted, nothing escapes. It is as though the thousand years of memory and change are compressed in that dense flesh, its cells toughened by the experience of the years. It is said that a post made from Yew lasts longer than a post of iron,.
Yew trees acquire their own mythology by accretion, by the desires of others. They are associated with churchyards and longbows, because it is nobler to imagine these purposes that those of witchcraft and paganism. The stories and legends of yew trees eclipse all others, in the same way that the dense shade of the yew banishes other growth, as though the tree must remain aloof, not part of the growing, dying, ephemeral green world of the surrounding land.

The first time I visited the Borrowdale yews, before the storm which felled one of the four, was a damp summer day of lowering cloud and intermittent drizzle. They darken the hillside, which is otherwise covered in birch and oak, lush and mustard-green in the height of summer. In the half-light of a wet day, they hold an allure, a fascination that draws the eye to the dark shade pooled beneath their canopy.
It was possible to climb inside the trunk of some of the trees, into the hollow space created by the splitting and growth of the tree over hundreds of years. Squeezing through a narrow gash, one could slip into a space as wide as one's outstretched elbows, taller than human reach. In that dark tomb of humus and decay, in a green so dark it seemed black, it was not possible to find any answers to the mystery of yews, only the sense of the ancient tree, breathing, the faint hiss of its needles in the breeze.