Nighttime Activities Done in Solitude: Things We Do When Enclosed by Dark But Not Sleep

“I awoke in the center of night. ‘In movement is blessing’ […] I felt about for my journal and laid there holding it, waiting for the moon to reappear.”
Patti Smith

Darkness is physical. It can be an enclosure—an enclosure of our self, of everything else. It’s sight without meaning, like snow.

We know things are there, but we’re unsure what they are. The scariest thing might be swimming with endless black fathoms beneath, although I am no more likely to do that than I am to reach my hand into the black crevice of an opened basement door. Darkness held a particular fear for me as a child. It still does.

And yet, there is something about nighttime. The surge of darkness. And more. My mother always said she liked to stay up late because nighttime was when she could be alone. I understand her fully.

Whatever is in the darkness is mine and mine alone. Perhaps that’s why it’s so overwhelming. And inviting.

Conservationist and nature photographer, Joshua Burch, takes exceptional photos of common nighttime wildlife in his local Surrey. A garden snail at night. Photograph by Joshua Burch.

In his scattered but subtly beautiful 1933 essay on Japanese aesthetics, novelist Jun’ichiro Tanizaki finds nighttime solace in the most unlikely place:

The Japanese toilet is, I must admit, a bit inconvenient to get to in the middle of the night, set apart from the main building as it is; and in winter there is always a danger that one might catch cold. But as the poet Saito Ryoku has said, ‘elegance is frigid.’ […] Anyone with a taste for traditional architecture must agree that the Japanese toilet is perfection. […] No words can describe that sensation as one sits in the dim light.

There is wondrous freedom during nighttime. Freedom for a rich self-discovery by way of letting go and being pulled by something greater, larger, and more powerful than us or our daily routine. Deeper than a break or a pause, it’s a setting down of burdens.

“I was at my desk that evening, trying to work,” writes Robert Macfarlane in The Old Ways, a book connecting places, people, and the paths we forge as we walk the earth.

I kept stopping, standing, looking out of the window. The snow was sinking through the orange cone cast by a street light, the fat flakes showing like furnace sparks. Around eight o’clock the snow ceased. An hour later I went for a walk with a flask of whiskey to keep me warm. I walked for half a mile along dark back roads where the snow lay clean and unmarked. The houses began to thin out.

During his walk, beautifully etched into visual memory, Macfarlane takes time to read and follow the fresh snow, trampled with animal presence: “I picked a trail and set out along it, following those tracks to see where they might lead.”

A wonderful companion to Macfarlane’s paean to walking is Nan Shepard’s The Living Mountain which includes the same enchanting encounter with nighttime space.

Walking in the dark, oddly enough, can reveal new knowledge about a familiar place. In a moonless week, with overcast skies and wartime blackout, I walked night after night over the moory path from Whitewell to Upper Tullochgrue to hear the news broadcast. I carried a torch but used it only once when I failed to find the gate to the Tullochgrue field. Two pine trees that stood out against the sky were my signposts, and no matter how dark the night the sky was always appreciably lighter than the trees.

To remove human presence and capture wildlife in its own routine, Burch sets up movement-activated cameras. This vixen was captured by a camera trap after much patience. Photograph by Joshua Burch.

The endless space of nighttime, the freedom, allows us to relinquish the hard-earned control we father during the day. Many people, like Macfarlane and Tanizaki, write about solitary activities done at night. There is a measure of vulnerability, wonder, and quiet acceptance.

This tone infuses the words of Patti Smith’s episodic reverie Woolgathering

I awoke in the center of night. Above my head, beyond the open skylight was the moon—a vibrant gold—like the shield of a frightened but determined young warrior. […] A cloud pulled across the moon. Black radiance. Newborn blind I felt about for my journal and laid there holding it, waiting for the moon to reappear.

Rainer Maria Rilke, a poet, and lover of solitude, urged us to “descend into self.” Japanese scholar Kakuzo Okakura similarly urged isolation as a catalyst for contemplation.

In the quiet of the night, Smith laid still and dove deep into herself. Swimming in the mind’s dark fathoms is scary but vital.

Perhaps this is what we do at night. Descend into our own deep fathoms. In the quiet night, in solitude, paring away people and needs, being free from interruption, this descent is possible.

When I was pregnant with my daughter, I was often up at night, trapped in a body that didn’t let me sleep. I’d go out and water the garden, even in winter. I was so full I had to give. I read somewhere that designer and gardener Nancy Lancaster watered at daybreak when she couldn’t sleep. Flowers are such bright companions, even in the dark.

Nighttime Activities Done in Solitude
Super wolf blood moon. Photograph by Joshua Burch.

Of course, the things we do in solitude aren’t always so comforting. Writer Dorothy Parker, a restless sort who was no stranger to mental agitation and overflowing energy, wrote a short story called “The Little Hours.” It features the darker side of being alone, awake:

Now what’s this? What’s the object of all this darkness all over me? They haven’t gone and buried me alive while my back was turned, have they? […] Oh no, I know what it is. I’m awake. That’s it. I’ve waked up in the middle of the night. Well, isn’t that nice? Isn’t that simply ideal? Twenty minutes past four, sharp, and here’s Baby wide-eyed as a marigold. Look at this, will you? At the time when all decent people are just going to bed, I must wake up.

Night welcomes us to unpack and unload, but that doesn’t mean we will be prepared for what comes out. Like Parker, German author and philosopher Hermann Hesse captures this anxiety in his poem “Walking at Night” written in 1913:

Bush and meadow, field and tree,
stand in their self-sufficient silence.
Each belonging wholly to itself.
Each deep in its own dream.

Clouds float by and stars stream light
as if appointed as higher sentinels
and the mountain with its steep ridges
towers above, dark, tall, and distant.

Everything remains and will continue.
Only I am alone with anguish and grief.
I drift far from the heart of God
without a purpose through the land.

I still water my plants and flowers at night, often. Feeling that I’m nurturing successfully. I play with the cats, too. They are easy companions, endless awakeness. My cousin, a former teacher, used to do her best work at night, lessons plans. My husband is the opposite—if left awake he paces until sleep overtakes him.

There is something about night itself. A dark tableau, an enclosure that holds us together. Emerson, who often walked at night, urged in his essay Nature: “[I]f a man would be alone, let him look to the stars. The rays that come from those heavenly worlds will separate between him and what he touches.” The stars are present at night.

For your wakeful nights, your calm plunge into fathomless depths—or even for eyes too bent to earth—I leave you with a bit of joy and marvelous wonder: William Wordsworth’s “A Night-Piece”:

The sky is overspread
With a close veil of one continuous cloud
All whitened by the moon, that just appears
A dim-seen orb, yet chequers not the ground with
With any shadow – plant, or tower, or tree
At last a pleasant instantaneous light
Startles the musing man whose eyes are bent
to earth. He looks around, the clouds are split
Asunder, and above his head he views
The clear moon and the glory of the heavens.