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