Light Lingers Long

Michael Viney has been writing a weekly column on nature and natural history for the Irish Times since 1977.  Alongside his words the newspaper includes an illustration, a sketch in ink, also by him, matching whatever has beckoned to be written about; maybe the distinctive ecosystem of a dry stone wall or comparing the song of the blackbird to that of the mistle thrush.  A few years back he wrote a wonderful book called, A Year’s Turning.  It charts, month by month, through anecdotes and observation, how it is to live in the rural west of Ireland – he has made his home in County Mayo.  This is how he begins his chapter on June: ‘The house breathes gently, all doors and windows open to whatever breeze there is.  Raised up on the hillside, we seem besieged by light.’  He goes on to describe the Irish as, ‘temperate people, at home with the cool, moist and luminous.’  There are always holes in generalisations, flaws when one characterises an entire people, but there is always some truth in the general too, and Viney speaks for me as one Irish person who cannot take too much heat.  Perhaps there are some Irish with genes passed down from Armada sailors, those who seek the heat; dark haired colleens who prefer the searing sun on the sands of Cadiz to a fresh west wind while paddling on Donegal’s Five Finger Strand. But I am one of his ‘temperate’ tribe. I enjoy these mild, damp and wonderfully long, ‘luminous’ nights of gloaming.  Like when I was walking down Easter Road towards Leith close to midnight this week, looking out upon cat scratches of light, low in the sky over the Firth, and rejoicing in a day that never quite surrenders.  That’s it – there is nothing fast about this time of the year; the parts of the day melt into each other, our usual neat segments runny at the edges like a soft cheese left out to breathe.

Last night I set off walking with K. close to 9pm, it still felt like evening.  We did our usual circumference of Arthur’s Seat stopping to watch the heron at Dunsapie Loch on the east side – frozen in stance and in time, something prehistoric about its angularity, I walked towards it and it took off, skimming the water. We returned around 10pm carrying a false sense of a long evening ahead of us.  Or was it false?  We tie ourselves in knots with time: how much sleep we ought to have; the time by which we should be in bed; the time by which we should be awake.  But these long June days offer us a free pass on time, as nature says, ‘Here are 20 hours of light – take them, tear up the schedule and stay up late, or get up at 3am and watch the sunrise.  Do as you wish.  Come alive.’

In Ireland last week I woke at 4am on two consecutive mornings. When I’m there, I sleep in a room in the roof space.  It has two Velux windows with tight fitting blinds that block out all light.  I leave one open, about an inch, for air, but also to let some of that ‘besieging’ light trickle in.  The windows open out to the east and on both mornings I pulled a chair to the window, stood on it, opened the window wider and hung out – head, arms, and torso – to look upon the most fabulous orange sunrise.

Follow The Heron Home, by Karine Polwart

The back of the winter is broken

And light lingers long by the door

And the seeds of the summer have spoken

In gowans* that bloom on the shore


By night and day we’ll sport and we’ll play

And delight as the dawn dances over the bay

Sleep blows the breath of the morning away

And we follow the heron home


In darkness we cradled our sorrow

And stoked all our fires with fear

Now these bones that lie empty and hollow

Are ready for gladness to cheer


Long may you sing of the salmon

And the snow-scented sounds of your home

While the north wind delivers its sermon

Of ice and salt water and stone


By night and day we’ll sport and we’ll play

And delight as the dawn dances over the bay

Sleep blows the breath of the morning away

And we follow the heron home


* gowan – Scots words for daisy, or a white or yellow field flower

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