‘Once my eyes adjust and I settle in, I see it’s not completely dark. Everything is touched with a faint luminosity, the airglow of starlight diffused behind cloud. After the hectic orange of the streetlights, this silvered gloom feels like a cool hand laid gently on my forehead.’
Extract taken from The Clearing: A Memoir of Art, Family and Mental Health
By Samantha Clark
Published by Little, Brown Book Group
I walk through the bright tunnel of streetlights to the edge of the village. But I pause under the last light, surprised to feel the unmistakable and familiar slither of fear come to join me. A city girl, instinctively I glance behind me, scanning the silent village street, a fist of keys in my pocket – old habits die hard. It’s well past midnight now, and there are no lights on in the houses. Everyone’s asleep. I let go of my keys. I can slip away into the night unseen.
From here the footpath vanishes into an enveloping dark. I step out into it, wary, my head swivelling like an owl’s, blinking uselessly. I hold my breath to listen. I’m alert and on edge, senses all peeled back. Perhaps it’s the transition from streetlight to darkness that feels so ungrounding, that first moment of stepping out and not seeing where your foot will land. There is no moon. It’s unusually still, but there is just enough wind moving over the hills that I can hear how far they extend around me. The sound opens up the space of the night and it feels huge. I try to move quietly, but I stumble, no longer sure where my body ends, and I tread clumsily over the frosty tussocks, testing each footstep before committing my full weight. I feel like I’m crossing a boat’s heaving deck, and wonder if it’s possible to become accustomed to the way the unseen ground meets the foot so unpredictably in the dark in the same way one gets sea legs on a long voyage.
Once my eyes adjust and I settle in, I see it’s not completely dark. Everything is touched with a faint luminosity, the airglow of starlight diffused behind cloud. After the hectic orange of the streetlights, this silvered gloom feels like a cool hand laid gently on my forehead. I see in black and white, blocks and solids, big shapes, no detail. The gorse bushes are just dense black clumps, a bit blurred around the edges. The rounded hills above me slump heavily, darker against the charcoal grey of the sky. The ground is fogged around my unseeable feet. I make myself keep walking out into the darkness and it feels like when I am faced with a blank sheet of drawing paper or when I have written my way to the end of the last sentence where I knew what I was going to say, and know that I have to make myself keep on going, putting one word after another, because if I don’t I will just keep on circling those same well-lit streets of received thought and thinly veiled plagiarism. Any creative work is a walk into the dark, moving out towards uncertainty, trusting those quick darts of feeling, the almost physical twitch of recognition, the bubble- float dip that says ‘pay attention here’. Walking is as much a way of moving thoughts along a path as moving the physical body. I keep stepping forward, carrying my questions gently. There is something to discover, out here, in this wind- blown darkness. I have to wait, all senses open, observing what is to be observed, until my eyes adjust and I begin to see.
Goethe knew how to observe what is to be observed, how to watch and wait until finally he understood something about darkness and light. Goethe did not see darkness as just an absence of light, as most of his contemporaries did. He believed darkness was an active agent, and that light and dark act as opposing forces, like the poles of a magnet, interacting to create the phenomenon of colour. Newton famously shone a narrow chink of light from a shuttered window through a prism to reveal how white light could be sliced up into the separate colours of the spectrum. Goethe, on the other hand, wanted to understand light in its wholeness, watching how it behaves as it moves in the living world, not shuttered away in darkened rooms and bent out of shape by prisms. Noting that on a clear day the sky overhead is a brilliant blue, becoming paler as it nears the horizon, and that if you go up a mountain the sky becomes violet, Goethe understood that when we look at the sky we are seeing its true darkness illuminated by the sun’s light as it passes through the ‘turbid medium’ of the atmosphere. On the other hand, on a clear day the sun overhead is a very pale yellow, almost white in clear skies. But as it sinks towards the horizon it becomes orange, even deep red, as the atmosphere thickens and so darkens the sunlight. As the sun rises again, the atmosphere that we see it through becomes thinner, so it loses these warm, rich colours. I had watched this phenomenon unfold with every winter dusk and dawn I had observed or filmed over these last few weeks.
As Goethe watched the changing sky, he understood that colour emerged from the shifting balance of darkness and light, and that both light and dark are necessary for colour to emerge: ‘Yellow is a light which has been dampened by darkness; blue is a darkness weakened by light.’
Goethe’s insight was that darkness isn’t something to be eliminated, ignored, fixed or got rid of. It isn’t just an absence of light. It’s an active agent, interacting with light to produce the effects we see as colour. Out here on the dark hill, I keep on walking, following the track upwards, and leave the lights of the village further and further behind me. The darkness feels as if it is swallowing me whole. As I crest the hill and drop into a shallow dip even the red pinpricks of light from the distant off- shore wind turbines vanish from view. Still I keep on walking, away from the roads and houses, away from the people sleeping in their darkened homes, following the rough track out onto the open hill. And as I do, the big, dark night breathing over the moors no longer feels intimidating. I gulp in great lungfuls of the black air, drawing it into me, this active darkness that can twist warm yellow, orange, red out of plain white light.
The Clearing: A Memoir of Art, Family and Mental Health by Samantha Clark is published by Little, Brown, priced £14.99