When the sun has dipped below the western horizon but it’s not yet dark all around is velvetine. The fells become a felted mesh of colours: browned bracken; grass made luminous green by the simmering light; crags greyed and subdued now there are no certain shadows, their harshness is hidden by the half-dim; trees lose their form and become two dimensional patches of darker green; and the water of the beck that tumbles white over rocks is as soft and pale as milk.
This is the quiet time, the slow time, the gloaming. It’s an in-between time when most people have gone inside. This shimmering light is seldom glimpsed at leisure – an accident of timing since it falls at a stage in the day when a family is typically busy with tea, or you’re on the evening commute back from work, when the sapphire sky is seen through a car window or obliterated by reflections inside a train or bus. This soft gloaming becomes not just a half light, a half dim, it is also half seen. But tonight we are here to witness it, with the Langstrath Birch. When it’s cloudy or raining there’s nothing much to remark on, but today the sky is clear. The clouds that had gathered in the afternoon have dispersed and the entire sky, as far as I can see, is a paling blue.
I lie on flat on the rocks with the beck flowing all around me simply gazing. I am doing nothing else but watching the blue deepen, every so slowly. Stars appear, singly at first and then faster than I can count. Mars glows orange at the head of the valley, and dips slowly towards the horizon over the next hour as the sky becomes ever darker.
When all grey on the fells has darkened to black and the sky has lost its blue, we find ourselves staring at the Milky Way. I see stars fall, their last dying light becoming streaks in the sky, and begin to marvel at the distances. The speed of light is such that in one second light could wrap itself around the earth more than seven times, yet the light from the stars above us has taken years to arrive – the nearest star system is Alpha Centauri, whose light takes 4.3 years to reach us from a distance of about 25 trillion miles away. The furthest, the dimmest, are beyond what we can imagine.
To photograph the Langstrath Birch beneath this incredible covering of stars we work as a team: I paint the tree with light as Rob calculates the optimal shutter speed and aperture *.
We have been sitting with this tree for several hours and now, in darkness, all our focus is still on it. This is a way of our relationship with the tree deepening further. Here in the darkness, bathed in the light of stars and the sound of the beck, the universe falls into a new perspective. And the tree, just for tonight, is the star of the show.
* Camera attached to a sturdy tripod the exposure of the image above is 30 seconds at f5.6 with the camera set to ISO 1000. Two lights are then played on the scene, both Petzl headtorches – the tree has five seconds of play whilst the river has 15 seconds of sweeping light played across the scene.