Reviews

Feeling at Ease in the Dark of Night

A review of Tiffany Francis's new book, "Dark Skies."

Kids aren’t the only ones afraid of the dark.

As self-described writer, author, and environmentalist Tiffany Francis makes clear in her newly released nature narrative, Dark Skies: A Journey into the Wild Night, humans have a long, storied history of associating darkness with evil and death. “Not only does the night conceal,” Francis writes, “it transforms things we once recognised by daylight, mutates and changes them into something unknown, unwelcome. The folktales that scared us as kids sometimes grip us well into adulthood, precluding the possibility of feeling at ease with the unknown of a dark night. 

Throughout the 12 chapters that span a year, Francis shares her experiences through the lens of darkness, ranging from her solo trip to Tromsø in northern Norway, during which she experiences days of total darkness, to her visit to Helsinki amidst a period of nearly all daylight. Francis exposes her mental acuity by effortlessly and persuasively weaving together history, science, and literature—not to mention tales of emotional struggle relating to her love life—in an autobiographical work that triumphs as a meditation on darkness and hope. Dark Skies questions and historicizes what it means for people to spend time in the natural world, which often remains unknown and elusive to us in modern life, especially after the sun sets.

She often alludes to the link between darkness, evil, and death, explaining such notions in terms of how nocturnal animals have acquired unfavorable reputations, likening them to blood-sucking vampires who prey on the innocent. She notes, “there is something in our core that revolts against darkness. Perhaps because we cannot control it or maybe because we know darkness is the default. Lightbulbs, candles, fire, even the sun—every light source we have is temporary.”

But Francis isn’t afraid of the dark in the typical sense. She revels in the unknown, tripping over tree roots as she treks through dark forests and diving into a river only to find later that it contains eels, shallow waters with sharp rocks, and downstream rapids. None of this fazes Francis, and she even finishes that particular river journey pained from her own laughter.

There’s something especially compelling about the ways Francis explores. While many raised in rural areas dream of leaving their small towns for faraway cities, Francis favors exploring the countryside, where she’s spent much of her life. This is not to say she doesn’t travel—the narrative is full of her relaying her experiences from around the United Kingdom and the world, after all—but she notably eschews the Helsinki nightlife for a long hike in a remote area. Her interest is in spending time observing the aurora in Norway, a “wild, uncontrollable light in the dark,” or listening for and seeking out woodpeckers in dense forests. This just might be where her fear of the dark lies: what happens when our desire to eradicate darkness, which has been fueled by centuries of anthropocentrism, becomes so intense that we destroy all with which we associate it? What if it’s no longer a guarantee that we hear the owl on the hunt or see the sun rise each morning?

Her writing is clear and not at all pretentious, the way you’d want it to be in a narrative about the disheartening state of our shared environments. It’s easy to appreciate clarity and a straight-forward take on something so grim and immediate. Dark Skies is an urgent lesson in observation, one we need in a world that tramples carelessly over those who are too easily overlooked or disregarded.

Notably, Francis closes the work with the sunrise. It’s hard to tell if, in these last few pages, she’s stoking the trope of single women living lonely, unhappy, and, in this case, dark lives. Perhaps, though, Francis is gesturing toward her sentiments surrounding the inevitability of light following darkness. Maybe she is just reinforcing her claims that hope is necessary for us in life, love, and saving the planet. In a world struggling daily with environmental catastrophe and the slog of news surrounding such life-affecting issues, there always remains one reassuring thought: the dark night is always followed by the dawn. At least for now.

Francis cover

NONFICTION
Dark Skies: A Journey into the Wild Night
By Tiffany Francis
Bloomsbury
Published November 5, 2019

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