Turn off the Lights

by Suprabha Seshan 19

Suprabha Seshan explains how our collective need to banish the dark is ruining our planet and our lives

SS1

It’s a magical time. I’m at the stream, my feet in swirling water; skin tingling with a soft wind coming through the forest. Dusk-light fades to new moonlight and, much later, to starlight. I’m listening to the brown fish owl, who I meet here quite often: he sits on the cheru tree whoo-whoo-whooing to me, while I sit on a stone, sometimes whoo-whoo-whooing back to him. I also hear a distant lapwing, a racket-tailed drongo, a few frogs and some crickets. There are scufflings in the reeds, forest rodents perhaps. The bank is pungent with the night’s greater humidity. One by one, fireflies turn on their green-yellow lights to flicker-dance all around me.

*

It is a sad truth that most humans today fear the night, which is really a fear of the dark. We are told this is primal, an instinct we inherited from our savage ancestors huddling against predators after sunset. From this we conclude that the night is dangerous, that it heralds death and contains demons.

Yet it is the night which is endangered, as the rest of life is. The more we shut it away, the more we succumb to disease and disorder. Most humans no longer relate to the night, just as they don’t relate to anything wild.

The night is weakening, as the planet itself is. For billions of years Earth slept under the light of the moon, the stars, the Milky Way and various cosmic iridescences, until electric lights turned up to cast a cold brilliance upon these spheres, chasing their mysteries away.

The night is under assault, as indeed all planetary attributes are.  Things that happen in the night, like plant respiration, the release of melatonin in our blood streams, the pollination of night-blooming flowers by a spectacular diversity of moths, the dark phase of circadian rhythms, the 24-hour timekeeper that all nature abides by—these are all under attack.

The night, the natural night, lit only by the sky, no longer plays upon our minds or our bodies. Neither do the wild creatures with whom we co-created myriad cultures around the planet. In the manufactured white light of an eternal day, we believe we are safe, that we can control demons and desires, our subconscious and irrationalities and passions. We believe we can ignore loyalties to the stars, to the moon, to the benediction of a long sleep, the daily death with which we renew ourselves in every cell of our being.

The more the night is shut away, the more we succumb to ill health. Every earthly being and process is dependent upon this swing from day to night to day; on and on for an entire lifetime. The 24-hour oscillation of temperature and light—as well as the seasonal rhythms they follow—triggers our biochemistries, metabolisms and hormones. These rhythms are as old as the planet, as old as our rotation and our revolution, etched into the memory of each of our bodies. Like the beating of a heart, this pulse of light and heat affects everything in our individual and collective lives.

*

I remember the night a tiger leapt away from our path, leaving his body’s recent press on the grass; the smell of him. We could hear a rustle, and knew that he was close, very close. We were walking down a slope in a grassland, single file, stumbling in the dark. No moonlight, only the stars.

I remember the many nights of elephant runs, the snapping gunshot sounds of their foraging in the bamboo clumps. I am energised when they are around, alert, nimble, able to draw on different strengths in my body. The calls of the wood owl and the brown fish owl; the loris, the crickets and the frogs, the nightjars and the frogmouths, the slow slide of the cat snakes and wolf snakes; the poise of keelbacks hunting, the shrews and rats scurrying, the dancing sidestep of scorpions and the yapping geckos; the gleaming dance of leaves lit by night light: they all sharpen my senses and body as they enliven the forest where we all reside.

SS2

Illustrations: Golak Khandual

Is the night lit? Is it black? Does it have colour? You cannot know this if you are in a city, if there is even one electric light in your horizon.

*

I seek shadows, the dark, subtle lights: candlelight, dimmed light, moonlight, starlight, bioluminescent fungal light, mistlight and firefly light. I have experienced things in the night that remain mysteries during the day. When I step into my nightskin, I am compelled to leave behind everything that I know to be me and mine. I am becoming more and more nyctophilic.

*

Most traditions have rituals that can only be performed at night. I was fortunate to be witness to one in the Xingu area of Mato Grosso in Brazil many years ago: a kwarup, or end-of-mourning ritual. Central to this is “the stealing of the fire”, performed each time the tribes of the Xingu come together. This is an acknowledgement that fire was stolen from nature in the first place, that it is all-powerful and magical. Ever since then, the Xingu tribes believe, human societies stole fire from each other.

Fire was our first protection against the night, we are told. Fire was necessary to all peoples, a power to be utilised—for rituals, cooking, storytelling, fashioning tools, clearing land and transforming materials. Fire required humility, caution, respect, discernment. Perhaps it was fire that altered our relationship with the night, by protecting us and keeping us warm. Perhaps it was in fire’s thrall that we cast out the night.

*

A friend of mine lived with the Nambiqwara tribe in Brazil for five years. He became intimate with their culture. He tells me that the Nambiqwara are deeply respected by all the other tribes in the Amazon. At intertribal gatherings the Nambiqwara are invited to perform special rituals. Trance states are induced with music alone, and even without.

It is widely known that rhythms at particular intensities can lead to altered states of perception, that different peoples around the world have used drumming to understand the subtler qualities of the real world. It is known that drumming at night is especially conducive to this. In the monsoon, as a million drops of rain fall on a million leaves; when a thousand frogs merge their balloonings and tinklings with the thrumming of cicadas; as darkness falls, as the clouds run slow over the hill, as the gloaming turns to night; if you are alone: beware. You might lose your way, as well as your sense of who you are.

In nature, in a connected life, awareness flows between creatures. It is not contained in a single organ or body. It is everywhere. Night walks facilitate this expansion particularly well. If you drop the shell you incarcerate yourself in, if the drummings of the forest get through your conditioned responses, then you experience what everyone else in the forest already knows.

The night is particularly suited to alter our states of perception.

*

The night equals sleep, for the greater part of our human experience. Dark also was the time spent in mother’s womb, where we were alive-but not seeing, pure foetal awareness suspended in liquid intelligence, the sounds of mother’s body. We cannot remember this consciously, but our safest and most cherished experiences of the dark will be like that foetal chamber: low light, the sound of water; perhaps a lover’s hands or body or breath (or a dog’s); the immediacy of your children or parents. This envelope of night is my most intimate space, where inner and outer lose definition, where dreams are messages and promptings, where everything moves, is alive and mysterious and perhaps dangerous, but mostly just imbued with shifting qualities, aided by the pulsating sounds of crickets, frogs, the wind through the trees. My ears shoot through a sonic barrier that is simply impossible to breach in the cold light of day, when eyes dominate.

Do eyes see further, or do ears hear further? At night we can hear distant sounds. Do I hear the clouds, the trees, the mountains and streams better at night? What happens when you are truly alone, on the borderline between fear and extra sensory alertness for your own safety? Does the soundscape open, does the breeze tell you things, does a molecule  speak volumes, do tremors and rustles amplify? Why do blind people hear and smell so uncannily well?

*

Everyone recognises the need for sleep. It is as if the night is a place we truly enter only when we fall asleep. We go into our bedrooms and turn off the lights. Most of us relax after sundown.

I feel safe when I’m with dogs at night. I can sleep deeply, knowing they will be alert. Babies sleep deeply in their parents’ arms. Lovers curl around each other, skin to skin, limb to limb, tender and protective at once. One can sleep deeply when one feels safe. This is the paradox of sleep. We are completely vulnerable for those hours, we are most at risk, and yet are deeply renewed by it.

Hence security guards, iron grills, alarm systems, fences, fierce dogs, street lights and weapons to be secure against robbers, thieves, rapists, murderers, psychopaths, serial killers and even spirits and ghosts. So that we can sleep deeply, so that we can be vulnerable.

Some indigenous peoples say that electric lighting keeps spirits away. In fact, some say electric lights restrict the movement of spirits. And, that this banishing of spirits is bad for the world.

I remember an evening when the full moon rose, after the sun went down in the most extraordinary explosion of colour. I remember how big and orange the moon was as it rose in the east. I remember the full silvery light of that night. Three of us were on a tower. Everything was quiet. Out of the valley to the west, where there is forest, a strange wailing began, a high-pitched undulating keening, melancholic in the extreme, and beautiful. It went on and on, this rising and falling high-pitched note. I imagine mermaids sing like that, enchanting and heartbreaking at the same time.

We had never heard anything like this before. It was later that night, when there was a great crashing and trumpeting in the valley, that we realised the elephants were back. Had it been one of them? We heard this once more, and never again. I have yet to hear reports of elephants singing. Perhaps these eerie sounds were made by other creatures. But not by a human.

*

I believe the night to be a fertile period, in part because it belongs to creatures and processes for whom darkness is necessary, whom diurnal beings like ourselves never meet in waking reality. Without them, the biosphere would not be what it is, as the interdependencies between night life and day life are essential to all ecologies, no matter where. Matings, huntings, pollinations: the night is very busy. People in my village fight for their right to cheap electricity. I’m of a mind to join activists campaigning for a “right of the night” itself.

They lobby for areas of land where no electric lighting disturbs the night sky. They know the night is endangered and that we need to protect it. They fight against light pollution, which is detrimental to human health and to natural ecological processes, to the lives of pollinators and mammals and blooming flowers, and indeed for the respiration of all plants in the vicinity. Electric lights, particularly white lights, alter our circadian rhythms so drastically that stress levels rise, causing all kinds of dysfunctions to our bodies and our thinking capacities.

The night is a hindrance to this patriarchal enterprise called civilisation. The fact that we can wilfully turn the night off and on, at the flick of a switch, adds to our delusion of having conquered the universe. The longest night of extinction, an apt metaphor for the state of things today, includes within it the extinction of the night. There has never been so little night till now.

The extinction of the night is a necessary objective of human supremacists. They hunt darkness out for they know that it’s actually life bearing. With the floodlights of civilisation depriving the earth of its sleep, insanity spreads far and wide.

We need to bring back the night.


Suprabha Seshan lives at the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary in Wayanad in Kerala and works as an educator and restoration ecologist. She gives a talk titled “Rainforest Etiquette in a World Gone Mad”.


Read more in the current issue of The Indian Quarterly. There is a lot to read about The Night. Subscribe here.

19 Comments

  1. Meena Subramaniam January 14, 2016 at 6:22 am - Reply

    Yet another marvellous essay on things we never think about. Am still in the world of the fish owl.

  2. Anirudh Belle January 14, 2016 at 3:35 pm - Reply

    Absolutely loved this piece. Thanks for writing, Supi :-)

  3. Vanya January 14, 2016 at 7:50 pm - Reply

    I love this Suprabha.. It is such a beautiful deep sharing that I know too..May you win the battle! so much love

  4. Juliet Pierce January 15, 2016 at 2:11 am - Reply

    Fabulous, so lovely to hear this voice from the night and to be reminded of what we lose when we refuse to embrace the dark.

    We live in rural Suffolk Uk and can still see stars at the horizon at night. Our visitors from towns and cities both love and fear the experience and rush for their torches. If one waits for the eyes to adjust, the starlight is enough to navigate. The torchlight across the pond on a summer night just shows how busy the natural world is!

  5. bob stewart January 15, 2016 at 8:48 am - Reply

    Nice one Subi. Two km of street lights have been installed through Bombay Shola. Well pissed off

  6. shyamala sanyal January 16, 2016 at 2:07 pm - Reply

    compliments . the highest compliment i can pay
    suprabha writes with the skill and sensitivity and the expressiveness of an englishman born

    in my opinion the british have a deep love of nature which gives their writing a skill , beauty and eloquence that othres simple cann ot .
    from the first sentence , the very first line one is wrapped and enclosed in a world of the writers expression and creation .

  7. Ruth Purtilo January 17, 2016 at 12:06 am - Reply

    I live outside of Boston, USA. This superb-Suprabha piece reminds me of a time lived in Africa before light had reached many parts of the high veldt. When I go two miles to the ocean from where I live now there is very ittle unnatural light but reflections from miles away pierce the darkness. Here in the US we are just on the other side of the winter solstice and I am blessed to have friends who have taught me how better to live fully into the beauty of its darkness. Thank you Suprabha.

  8. Liza.R.S January 17, 2016 at 4:35 pm - Reply

    Exceptional Supi, … in its language and content- poetic and factual as your writings always are. The richness of certain primal instincts are to be experienced and is not for all. Let us hope for the fearless to come together to stand up for the dark sky.

    Joining the IDA, International Darksky Association is a possibility??

    Do fireflies have a food plant like the butterflies and moths?

  9. Peter Smetacek January 18, 2016 at 10:17 am - Reply

    An inspired piece of writing. However, the fight for the night is ongoing and much more serious than outlined above. Read more about the effect of brightly lit nights here: http://darksky.org/
    I do hope better sense will eventually prevail among planners and the education system, which is the best place where a love of the dark can be instilled in children, away from the fears of their parents.

  10. sonali January 19, 2016 at 9:49 am - Reply

    Supi. Wonderful writing. Am going to share it with sundry students since, as it happens, have been talking about This Very Thing in class. And also feeling – the lack of it – in my own life.
    Beautiful writing, honestly. Write to be tasted.

  11. Rahul Nath January 19, 2016 at 5:52 pm - Reply

    Ver well written article! Thoroughly enjoyed it…

  12. sham January 20, 2016 at 8:27 am - Reply

    Why struggle in the dark when you can have a torch? We have the tools to drive out every last trace of discomfort and insecurity. And we need more. We shut out door with a million locks and look at the world through the window or even better a screen.
    It is interesting to think how the word darkness is used in english as something sad or bad. I wonder how other cultures that embraced the darkness looked at it. Keep on writing Supi to make us think.

  13. Thedy von Fellenberg January 25, 2016 at 1:34 am - Reply

    Supi, I k now, what you are talking about when having lived in the monti I was three long winters the only human being lost in the snow, the cold and the solitude. We had electric light in the house, but very often I went in the night out without a torch to look for our horses who roamed in ful freedom. Often I went out just for the magical experience of absolute silence, the moon glittering on the snow. The only sound was the roaring of the deers and the melancolic call of a n ight oal. I felt one with the cosmos. By the way: the night is very seldom really dark; it is even clear in the snow, and newer “black”, when the eyes got used to it. Soi I used to walk through the wilderness without an light. It is only “black”, when there is mist, no moon, claudy or rain. Now we live in the city. I miss not only darkness, but every direct link with the nature. Amities thedy

  14. Sreeharsha January 29, 2016 at 3:46 pm - Reply

    Almost recollectd the best of the experiences in the wild, and made me realise how worthlessly I spend my nights, instead of get enlightened and use my other senses in harmony with nature.

  15. Suseela October 8, 2017 at 3:49 pm - Reply

    This is so beautifully written and yes, we need to give nights their dur respect and honour the circadian rhythms. Reading this reminds me of the times I spent in the sanctuary and makes me want to visit the sanctuary again.

  16. Rajeev G October 11, 2017 at 9:56 am - Reply

    This is a pathetic approach. Never mix nostalgic poetic writing with scientific writings. Light is a primary requirement for human to see. Do activity. Modern human is not any more part of natural evolution. We are evolving through our modern science and technology. I can suggest another solution to your poetic thinking. Let all Tribes and people living near forest area leave to City and leave the entire Wayanad area for wild to flourish. Will you?

  17. Anil Kapur October 11, 2017 at 12:19 pm - Reply

    Even before people got prizes for explaining our natural biological rhythms, people in villages and the forests before and even now prepare to sleep, finishing chores and going to bed as if it is an act of celebration. Sleep keeps us alert for the time we are awake.
    Thanks For sharing this articl, it has given such a deep and meaningful understanding of the night.

  18. Manoj Pande October 21, 2017 at 8:12 am - Reply

    So well said by Suprabha Seshan : ” The extinction of the night is a necessary objective of human supremacists. They hunt darkness out for they know that it’s actually life bearing. With the floodlights of civilisation depriving the earth of its sleep, insanity spreads far and wide. ”

    ” We need to bring back the night…” … I am In full agreement with you on this …amities

  19. Garvit October 23, 2017 at 2:21 pm - Reply

    This is one of the most beautifully written essay I’ve come across in a long time.
    It captured the truth of the long lost sound of silence.

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