Fear of the dark is a fundamental part of the human condition, dating back millions of years to when we were hominids on the African savannah, sleeping alongside nocturnal hunters capable of snatching us from our nest and dragging us, screaming, into the night. The nature of our fear of the dark has evolved with us. As the planet became crowded with people the risk of being eaten by a big cat or bear has receded for in most locations, only to be replaced by the fear of our fellow man. And even when the logical mind knows that there are no wild animals or hostile humans there can still be a fear of supernatural menaces, such as ghosts or demons. More commonly these three categories, animal, human, and spirit, merge together into a generalised fear of the dark.
I was raised several miles from the nearest street lamp in a land that had been purged of its last bear and wolf centuries before I was born. I also grew up before the invention of the head torch, when torches were long cylinders that ran on expensive batteries, so I spent a lot of time outdoors in the dark. Generally speaking I am completely relaxed when out in the wilds in the dark. There are no wild beasts capable of killing me and eating me. The chance of seeing another soul out in the dark is sufficiently low that it is reasonable to assume that there is nobody there. Even if I did bump into another person they would most likely be a fellow outdoorsman, who may well be more scared of me than I of them. Thanks to my scientific outlook I don’t have to worry about malevolent spirits.
Normally when I sleep outdoors I am striking off into empty country, putting distance between myself and the rest of society before I lie down the ground, but this month’s outing was different. I had identified a promising camping spot on Google Earth, a flat bracken-covered area beside the river that was only two kilometres or so from my own house and within a few hundred metres of other houses. It made me realise that there is a certain boldness required to sleep out in crowded conditions, that those who live in the crowded south are far braver in their micro-adventures than I.
When left my house at about 9 o’clock it felt weird to do so on foot rather than on wheels, to be walking down a residential street carrying a rucsac that had clearly had a large sleeping mat attached to the side of it, past houses containing people that I knew who could in principle have popped their heads out the door and asked questions like “Where are you off to?” or “What are you up to?” forcing me to explain the strangeness of it all and have them look at me as if I was mad.
As I walked past the last of the houses I felt even more exposed. It seemed somehow important to avoid detection. As I walked in the night I thought first of how unlikely an encounter with another person would be, then that pre-programmed fear of the dark began to over-ride my logical brain. My mind wandered onto how disturbing it would be to have an encounter with a dodgy character, and began to serve up recollections that fuelled this anxiety. Someone had once told me of driving on the road to Loch Ness when a crazed girl with an axe, an escapee from an institution for the disturbed, stepped into the road in front of his car. What would I do if I met a girl with an axe?
The next thought to arrive was of a wandering eccentric on the island where I grew up. Known as The Buddha, he was the half-caste son of a local jazz singer and bore a striking resemblance to a young Colonel Gadaffi. The Buddha roamed barefoot in the night and was rumoured to howl at the moon. They said that he had pulled up the floorboards in the lounge of his council house and planted a tree, that he had taken too much acid on the hippy trail and fried his brain. Maybe he was enlightened, maybe he had more to teach than anyone else on that island. Come to think of it if he had actually achieved enlightenment he would probably have been less quick to give chase to taunting children. What would I do if I met the local equivalent of The Buddha? What if I was the local equivalent of The Buddha?
The night was light enough to see, but not necessarily light enough to be seen, so when a car approached I put my torch beam on so they could see me. Soon after, just as the headlamps of another approaching car illuminated the stand of conifers to my left, I gladly cut off from the main road and struck out across fields. This relieved any angst that had been building and I realised that I was in fact exploring my immediate environment for the first time. As a boy I knew every inch of land within a few miles of my house, yet this was the first time in a decade of living here that I had ventured away from the road. It felt good to be out exploring, but I still wasn’t far from people. I kept my light off for as long as possible. When I had to put it on I tried to use the cover of the terrain to hide it from the few houses within view. But I knew that any house would be full of people sitting watching TV. Even if they were to see a light they wouldn’t come out to investigate.
I walked through a gap in the conifers, beneath electricity pylons, skirting on animal tracks round blobs of thornbush, then cut across another field before descending a steep bank through birch and alder to the river. It was here that I felt that for the first time i was actually out doing something a little bit wild. To access my proposed camping area I had to cross a burn. It proved to be quite difficult to navigate. There were fences on steep terrain either side, and many fallen trees that I had to wriggle around and slither over. Having done so I emerged from the trees into the bracken-covered clearing. It was rife with badgers, the sandy fluvial environment allowing them to dig extensive burrows. I saw their eyes highlighted slightly red in my torch beam in the distance and the flash of the their striped flanks as they scurried away. The spot was really only good for badgers. What had looked as if it was a flat area beside a tree-lined river was in fact a steep bank, only the lower and steeper part of which was wooded. The riverside camp spot I had hoped for simply wasn’t there. It occurred to me that I could simply turn around, pronounce my destination unsuitable and return home, saving my February sleep for another time.
But it would have taken me half an hour or so to get home and much less to find a flat spot and put up my tent and get into it. I ascended to the margins of a field where I used the cover of some gorse bushes to make sure that my lighting wouldn’t be visible to the nearest house, set up my tent and climbed inside. Once inside my tiny tent the beauty of being out and about was so obvious, though I was within earshot of road and railway, I was out, unconfined by walls. Pleasingly it began to rain just as I finished pegging out my tent, and I enjoyed listening to the patter of raindrops on the canvas.
I read a few chapters of Peter Matthiessen’s ‘The Snow Leopard’ and made a few notes while enjoying a lightweight refreshment or two, then turned in. For the first half I slept fully clothed with my summer bag over me as a duvet but when I awoke I was a little cool so I stripped down to my thermals and climbed inside my sleeping bag. Once warm I slept until 0800.
As I clambered out of my tent a flock of at least thirty pigeons took to the air on clattering wings. The sun was just below the horizon. I took my cooking gear and seat outside to prepare my breakfast, catching the sun’s first rays as my porridge bubbled. There was now something quite beautiful about this spot, something soothing in the contours of the land. The evolutionary biologist would argue that such an environment, a riverine valley with wooded patches, is fundamentally appealing to the human animal (unlike for example the unsettling interior of a deep dark forest). This is why we recreate elements of it in parks and landscaping, because it strikes some primitive chord, reminding us of the environment in which we evolved. As I sat and ate I heard a woodpecker tapping a tree and watched a pair of swans flew past, high above. Small birds chattered in the treetops. They were unidentifiable without a glass, though the call was chaffinch.
February’s outdoor sleep takes me up to 24 back to back months of sleeping outdoors once per month. A significant milestone, yet there was no euphoria whatsoever at having completed two years. The intention was always for this to be a practice, The benefit comes from the doing of it, not in having done it.