Wasp on a yoga ball | Daily News


Wasp on a yoga ball

Tiffany Francis has published three books since early 2018. After producing guides to foraging and British goats, she turned to narrative nonfiction, combining travel, nature and autobiographical writing in Dark Skies: A journey into the wild night.

On-the-ground observations, memories, scientific facts and cultural reflections: this has become a familiar blend in nature books, especially over the past five years, but in a genre still dominated by middle-aged men, it is refreshing to come across work from a woman in her twenties.

Nocturnal profile

Dark Skies is about humans’ relationship with the night and how everyday occurrences can be rendered thrilling by the approach of darkness. Having been referred to a sleep centre in Cambridge, Francis discovers that she has a very active nocturnal brain profile, as evidenced by sleepwalking and -talking. It is more natural for humans to divide their sleep in two, she learns through her research: as recently as a few centuries ago, people would wake in the early morning for chores and conversation before returning to bed for a few more hours.

Francis adopts this model for a while, taking night walks in Hampshire and East Sussex (“I was alone, exposed beneath the stars, a wasp on a yoga ball”, she remarks at Butser Hill). She also stays in the International Dark Sky Reserve at Snowdonia and reaches the summit of Snowdon despite poor weather; looks for nightjars in northern France before they complete their return migration to Britain to breed; and travels to Scandinavia at different times of year in order to compare Norway’s polar dark with Finland’s uncanny all-day sunshine.

The aurora borealis occasionally brightens Norway’s twenty-two (or more) hours of December darkness, while it is so light in Finland in June that she can spot woodpeckers and hares well into the early hours.

The mood of the book is akin to the ancient hedonism she experiences at a Viking re-enactment party in Norway (“The combination of mead and good cheer had heightened our senses, and we exchanged joyful cries at the beauty of a song”) and at the burning of a wickerman on Butser Ancient Farm during Beltain Festival, a Gaelic tradition marking the start of summer (“beer was drained from tankards, and faces were lit with an apricot bloom as the fire climbed higher”). Francis mentions the joy she takes in cream teas, cheese and trips to the pub, declaring, “My sole purpose on earth [is] to be happy and free”.

Irrepressible optimism

Her youth is evident in her frames of reference (Disney films, school trips and casual work), but also perhaps in her irrepressible optimism. Her travels are almost pure jollity. When things go wrong – as when the coracle she has built sinks – it is all still a lark. Even in the face of climate breakdown she remains sanguine, insisting that global catastrophe is not inevitable:

“We don’t have to surrender ourselves to fear and despair.

The power to change the world is still up for grabs – and we need to fight for it”. Modern nature memoirs often feature an undercurrent of bereavement, but here the central loss is temporary: at the beginning of the book, Francis has just broken up with her boyfriend, but before long they are back together, and the narrative closes with them getting engaged atop a hill at dawn.

The author flits between topics as disparate as constellations, ghost stories, light pollution and social media, not always knitting the tangents together convincingly. Including anecdotes not set at night, such as a visit to Agatha Christie’s house, contributes to the rambly feel.

The book incorporates some lovely poetic language (“gangs of long-tailed tits dangled from the plum tree like lollipops”) and attractive chapter-opening illustrations by Francis herself, but the quotations from poems are indulgently long and the literary critiques painfully simplistic. (A few dangling modifiers and inelegant uses of the passive voice also spoil the prose somewhat.)

Wide universe

However, there are absorbing passages here about body shaming, the British turn towards isolationism, and the proper place of humanity in nature: “we are only one species in the wide universe … The night sky reminds us of how vibrant our planet is, urging us not to take it for granted”. 

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