Yates, C. (2012) NIGHTWALK A Journey to the Heart of Nature William Collins ISBN: 978-0007415540
‘The hope, the expectation, gives a sense of purpose and after a mile or two a vision begins to form in my head, like the imaginary fish, but more obscure, more primal … and so every walk becomes a hunt …’
Chris Yates is best known as one of Britain’s most celebrated fishermen, and is a prolific writer about the pleasures of fishing. In Nightwalk he digresses, and shares his experience of an overnight walk in the English countryside around the summer solstice.
It’s not actually one night of course, but a cataloguing of a huge number of memories, experiences and associations drawn from over half a century of night walking – this kind of exquisite knowledge of nature can’t be learned from books, but evolves over many years from direct experience. Chris Yates has earned a hard-won affinity with the land.
Nightwalk is a sensory journey, his observations of the night and its animals are lyrical and precise. He writes in a quintessentially British ‘nature writing’ tradition that permits little introspection or personal digression; yet it sometimes feels that what Yates is really hunting for is neither the sounds or the slight movements of the night but a means of overcoming his sense of alienation from the natural world through a solitary and meditative process of re-connection.
‘I discovered that the landscape had two lives: in the day there are birds and other fleetingly glimpsed creatures, but there were also people who disturbed the birds and made the earthbound fauna disappear completely.’ At night the people were gone: ‘The only birds I saw were owls, but there were all kinds of creatures, each one casually going about its night-time business, a whole secret world coming alive in the undisturbed dark.’
He learns to walk softly, making as little disturbance as possible,
‘…to creep like a mouse in the wood and sit still for maybe an hour, focusing with my ears, using the sounds of paw-patter and antler-click to colour in the invisible shapes until I could identify them or they came into shadowy view.’
Nightwalk is a book that is both curiously impersonal – I often found myself hoping for something more than description no matter how beautiful the prose – and at the same time it’s deeply mindful.
‘One of the joys of walking a long night path is the way in which everything in my head gradually clears of mundane domestic concerns and personal anxieties … because I know that apart from the animals I will always, unless I meet a deer poacher, be in perfect solitude, I am therefore able to bring all my attention to bear on the present moment … a place of endless immediacy, a place known to every wild animal, a timelessness.’
Not that very much happens. There’s some rustling behind him. Then it stops. A breeze changes direction. He calls out to an owl. The owl doesn’t respond. Small mysteries are solved, or not. It’s astoundingly undramatic.
But it doesn’t matter. This is a walk I’m sure we’d all like to take, through countryside that’s varied, rich with fauna, slightly mysterious and entirely free of other people. It’s a very particular vision of paradise.
‘We were all pagans once, before we went to school.’
Nightwalk is all about time and losing track of it. Chris Yates doesn’t really want his solitary wanderings to end, there’s a palpable sense of regret as dawn arrives and the heightened senses, immediacy, intimacy and utter enchantment of the night are left behind for the tortuous complexity of another day.
‘Normally, the present is just a transition point, a bit of a blur between one thing and the next, yet in the untroubled and mostly unrevealing dark, past and future have less relevance and I can find myself in a place of endless immediacy, a place known to every wild animal, a timelessness.’