The festive season, with all its sparkle, is soon to be upon us. But rather than become swept up in the chaos and commerce of it all, we have stepped away to look at the new rituals that are entering our twenty-first century lives. Rituals that involve snow, ice and stars – deep winter elements that we all long for at this time of year. We begin with stargazing…
The first time I truly saw the night sky was when I moved to Galloway in southwestern Scotland from London, where an inflamed orange-pink membrane passes for a firmament.
In Galloway, when you left the pub, which was also the post-office and the proprietor’s front room, and sometimes an impromptu disco with a van for casualties to crash in, you would shut your eyes and count to ten to acclimatise to the dark, and then the Milky Way, a careless arc of light painted in a fat stripe across the sky, would see you home if the moon was absent. You had to be careful not to get too caught up in the endless worlds of the sky on the way home, each constellation there to find, each its own story, lest you became distracted from the road and fell into a wet ditch.
The Black Mountains, geographically similar to the southern Scottish landscape, were similarly dark at night. My children would gaze through their father’s telescope from a hillside beneath Hay Bluff and watch the moon or Jupiter or Venus scoot across the frame, and try to catch them. You could navigate your way down the path between outbuildings from the light of the sky, the angle of the hillside the only obstacle. Sometimes, in the black moment of a just-locked car whose lights had died off, there would be a shooting star, or even a hail of Perseids.
Now I lived on a street-lit road and, although it was still dark by urban standards, yearned for silence and a full sweep of sky. Niklas, my Swedish partner, liked to recreate as best he could the wildness of home; we had a free weekend, and it was a full moon and nearly winter, and we undertook to spend it in the tiny bothy at Grwyne Fawr reservoir in the middle of the Black Mountains where we could be close to the sky with the small comfort of a fire.
We climbed the track from the common above Talgarth, stopping to catch our breath as Wales lay spread beneath us, ringed by Mynydd Troed, Pen-y-Fan and the Radnor hills, and remembering with post-industrial sheepishness that the men who dug the reservoir by hand did this walk as their daily commute. We followed the gentle incline of the brook that fed the reservoir, the path its own nascent waterfall. An hour later we found the bothy, nestled tight against the brook’s eastern bank; the sun emerged, as though to announce it still existed, and then dipped behind the ridge that led up to Waun Fach.
It was suddenly bitterly cold. We wandered off to find wood, fording the brook on unsteady stones, hoping to keep our feet dry until we had a fire to warm them with. A line of birches grew above rocks carpeted thick with velvet-green moss, and we followed them round, cold and hopeful. Someone had built a fire pit overlooking the reservoir, and what a place for it: the slow shift and ripple of the water and resounding silence of the sky paused the wood-hunt and we stopped, wondering if it might be nicer to camp beneath the stars instead. But I could hardly feel my hands and the prospect of warmth was no longer resistible; we went on.
The birches grew more densely down a steep little dingle. Niklas scrambled down a bank of unsteady rocks and launched himself at a storm-snapped branch dangling from a tree, nearly tumbling into the reservoir in the process. I gathered up more modest windfall sticks and twigs, and when he had finally hauled himself back up the bank and wrestled the branch loose, we carried our wood back to the bothy.
I woke, chilled to the bone, some hours later. I did not know what time it was, but light crept in along with the draught in the gap around the door. I had to put on more layers, and to do that I had to emerge from the sleeping bag. I stood up as silently as possible and crept to the doorway to put on a third jumper and a jacket. Awake, and curious now, I slowly opened the latch and crept outside.
The moon hung huge and bright above the reservoir, lighting up the stone beneath my feet, its reflection fragmenting into little strips on the rippling water. I let my eyes adjust and appraised the sky. A bright star – surely a planet – hung low in the south beyond the wall of the reservoir; a subsequent check indicated that it might have been Uranus. It felt as though I had been summoned into a parallel universe where the layout of the land had been crudely imitated but was entirely other, and at the mercy of the bright entities above.
It made me think of the Victorian philologist and comparative theologian Max Müller, who wrote of how the term ‘deva’, in the very early language of the Veda, ‘meant originally bright, and it was an epithet applicable to the fire, the sky, the dawn, the sun, also to the rivers, and trees, and mountains.’ It came to mean both star and god, for what were these miraculous moving elements if not animate beings of immense power to shape the world as we knew it?
‘Even in the Veda’, Müller wrote, ‘there is no hymn so ancient that deva does not display in it already the first traces of the general concept of bright, heavenly beings, opposed on the other side to the dark powers of the night and of winter.’
For now, the bright, heavenly beings had won, but they had not yet defeated the cold. I went inside and burrowed back into the sleeping bag. When I woke again, a grey dawn lit the window and the first snow was falling outside.
Grwyne Fawr, Black Mountains, Powys
White Laggan, Galloway Forest, Dumfries and Galloway
Greg’s Hut, Cross Fell, Cumbria
Words by Nina Lyon