Night vision

03rd October 2019

Tiffany Francis, Forestry England’s writer in residence and author of a new book celebrating nocturnal landscapes, explains why she is inspired by the night skies of southern England.

Words by Peter Fiennes Photography by Sarah Lee

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The nature writer and artist Tiffany Francis still lives where she grew up – near Butser Hill in the South Downs National Park. As she writes in her new book, Dark Skies: A Journey into the Wild Night, “I love being at home, watching how a familiar landscape has changed in the short time I’ve been alive.” It’s true that Tiffany has not been around that long – she’s not yet 28 – but Dark Skies is already her third book. Her first was Food You Can Forage, and she also has a short book out this July called British Goats. “I love goats,” she laughs.

Tiffany was one of two writers chosen to be Forestry England’s “Writers in the forest” for their centenary celebrations this year. She’s spending the summer visiting their woods, meeting staff, as well as working on a long-form narrative poem “with no people in it”, celebrating the woods and their non-human inhabitants. “It’s inspired by The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” she says.

We’re walking up a narrow, thick-hedged track near her home in Petersfield, close to the village of Steep, where the writer Edward Thomas produced many of his greatest poems. There is birdsong and rain in the air and Tiffany is telling me why she doesn’t suffer from nyctophobia, that feeling of dread induced by darkness, which comes “from the reptilian side of our brains”. “I’m not really a fearful person,” she says, “and I’m quite solitary. I look forward to spending time with people but I’m not bothered either way. All the good stuff was written when I was alone.” In the book she describes several dark hours spent on her own, walking on Butser Hill or in the forests of Finland after nightfall. “I’d have been scared,” I say.

Being out at night is so peaceful. It’s a really nice way to tune into the senses and be a different version of the person you are

“Well, I can spook myself,” she says. “Is someone following me? But I like to think I’m a rational person.” She’d be pleased if Dark Skies encouraged people to get out into the dark more, but “actually people have work; people get busy. Being out at night is so peaceful. It’s a really nice way to tune into the senses and be a different version of the person you are. I don’t want to encourage people to do anything irresponsible – it’s a dangerous world – but do as much as you can.”

There are some beautiful descriptions of walking through the night in Dark Skies, not just on Butser Hill (where she watches a Wicker Man burn at the Celtic festival of Beltane and then wanders off alone to commune with the owls), but also in Norway where she gazes in awe at the Northern Lights. 

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Tiffany says she was lucky to grow up in a place that infused her with a love of nature. “My mum loves nature – she was the one. I filled all these notebooks, saved a cereal packet that had paintings of animals on the back. I loved it so much I still have it. Mum used to take me to Queen Elizabeth Country Park in the summer holidays, when she had to work, and I did a different club every day. They were the happiest times of my life – out in the woods, doing crafts.”

Tiffany breaks up with her boyfriend, Dave, on the first page of Dark Skies, and in part the book recounts the aftermath of that trauma. (Without giving away too much, they reconnect during a walk in a velvet-black yew wood. “There’s nothing like a night walk for bringing people back together,” she writes.) The book certainly starts in a very bleak and lonely place, and she says that it was important to record things as they happened and “not to write everything in hindsight. Otherwise it can seem quite forced; a little bit fairy tale.”

A love of old poetry runs through Dark Skies. “Sometimes language can be hard, but it can still resonate in a way it once did.” This comes true when she quotes Byron’s devastating poem Darkness in full – his apocalyptic vision of a world without sunlight. She says it’s redolent of our current fears, of climate breakdown and mass extinctions, and I ask whether she feels daunted by the daily horrors in the news. 

There’s nothing like a night walk for bringing people back together

“There’s no point in feeling melancholic about it, because that’s not going to help anyone. I channel my energy in more positive ways, because the world needs more out of us than that. Yes, it’s sad, but how can I turn that sadness into something good? Society is not designed for living sustainably. Everything we’re encouraged to do is not sustainable. But it’s not our fault. We’ve just been brainwashed into buying stuff, and being selfish – not in an obvious way – but brainwashed into serving the self. The book Sapiens changed my life. You think we’ve been living this way forever, but in fact that’s not true. It’s very recent. And we can change things. It’s all about perspective. We can reverse things – if we can just be bothered.”

We come back to her book. “We need to protect our dark skies,” she says. “Light pollution may seem one of our lesser worries, but the ‘health’ of the night sky is connected with the health of everything else on the planet.”

Dark Skies: A Journey into the Wild Night is published by Bloomsbury. Peter Fiennes is the author of Oak and Ash and Thorn: the Ancient Woods and New Forests of Britain. His latest book, Footnotes: A Journey Round Britain in the Company of Great Writers is in shops now, published by Oneworld.

This article was taken from the Autumn 2019 edition of the Goodwood Magazine.

 

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