The night sky

On a night of restlessness, Darling sleeping peacefully next to me, I gaze at the rectangle of the open window lightness and see the stars shining in the Heavens… 

At the risk of lapsing into sounding prophetically poetic, I am reminded of my great aunt who passed away peacefully at the ripe old age of a full century: she said that each night she would say her prayers and close her eyes hoping that she would die whilst sound asleep.  The next morning she would open her wizened eyes, only a tiny slit, and look towards the window of her bedroom and when she would see the shape of light, (being a farmer’s wife her entire life, she would be awake well before dawn!) she would have to admit that she was still alive and had another day ahead of her to live! Her reluctance to live another day came from the fact that her beloved husband had died quite some years earlier and she no longer lived on their farm, so her life as she knew it, was no longer the same…

The older I become, the more like my mother I find myself becoming, not least when it comes to routines and habits, in particular the curtains at night.

Whilst I am still mostly happy to have the drapes drawn for a darker, deeper sleep, it’s on the nights of restlessness that I enjoy what Mum has always preferred, that of her bedroom curtains being wide open so that she can see the stars, moon, clouds or storm.

I guess that since she has only ever lived on a farm in the remote regions of KZN, South Africa, having one’s curtains open is no invasion of one’s privacy and no real invasion of light pollution from street lights or passing vehicles.

Now that we have the privilege of living, temporarily, in the remote rural region of the Swiss Alps, here too we are untroubled by any street lights, neighbour’s lights, security lights (as in the case in ZA these days) and virtually no passing vehicles either, since tractors usually start up shortly after dawn.  The sheer brilliance of the night sky is something to behold – the vastness of the cosmos is way beyond my comprehension, deeper than my wildest imagining and more beautiful besides!

The northern hemisphere sky is not that familiar to me, having grown up in the southern hemisphere where I learned a little about the great Milky Way and the Southern Cross from my Dad who loved to venture outside before bed (mostly for a quiet pee in the fresh air!) and to gaze up at the clear skies out in the hills where our home farm was.  

He would often tell us children of the days of his own childhood when the skies were less polluted and the distances so much clearer, that he could see clear to the Indian Ocean from the top of the mountain on a good day and that the night skies in winter were always the best.  The older we got, the less enchanted we were about gazing up at the stars on a bitterly cold winter’s night and we would hastily agree with him on all things astronomic in order to get back inside to the warm fire!

Dad also taught me not to be afraid of the dark through these little starlight chats of his. Not that there were many, but those that were, I remember fondly. In particular he would say that the night time was a time of rest and so it was to be enjoyed quietly and peacefully whilst listening to the sounds of the night creatures… that is the philosophical side of the story. The flip side of course was Dad’s delight in giving us kids the fright of our lives with a sound, shout or clap that had us jump right out of our skins and huddle together in terror!  

In a sadistic sort of way, I guess this too was a lesson in not being afraid of the dark at night as the fright was only Dad and not anything else.

This lesson of the night sounds and skies came in handy when, as a university student far away from home, I had found myself “affordable accommodation” in someone’s garden shed in the back area of Summerstand, Port Elizabeth.  This little shed/shack had no ceiling nor electricity and only a bare concrete floor and a fairly insubstantial door, as sheds most often have.  

I loved my little “pad” and made it as homely as ever; my own little haven after years of sharing dormitories at boarding school and then the nursing home and university residence, this was independence paradise!  Until one night a storm blew in from the sea and, Port Elizabeth being known as the windy city of SA, the wind blew a gale which had the trees in the garden of my abode blowing crazily. The sound of sawing was loud and clear in my little home and I sweated and stressed about who was trying to get into my house, via the roof?  

Eventually, I plucked up all the courage that Dad had instilled in me and, armed with the “extension of my arm”, as he called it, my trusty hockey stick, I ventured outside into the night to face the intruder. Only to discover that the sawing was in fact nothing more than a poor tortured tree blowing in the face of the storm and scratching it’s branches noisily against my ceiling-less roof!

We have swapped the town nights of street lights, traffic and church bells in The Netherlands for the utter peace of the rural Swiss Alps with the occasional sleepy cow bell, an owl hooting or the distant river burbling.  So too have we swapped the light polluted night sky of the city for the crystal clear autumn skies of the Alps with a cosmic display of magnificence, when it’s not raining or snowing, as it so often is at this time of the year.

These restless nights of star-pondering the different hemispheres and also the different night sounds, made me realise just how noisy the nights are in Africa. 

Apart from what most foreigners imagine we all hear in Africa: the roar of  lions (they tend to do more grunting, of which I have heard at close range whilst travelling through Zimbabwe with my parents back in the 1980’s!) or the chattering laugh of hyenas and the grumbling of hippos; it is actually the tiny night creatures that create a cacophony of night sounds like no other in the world and sometimes, even whilst enjoying the peace of the northern hemisphere nights, I miss those sounds of my home country.

Good night/morning all.

4 thoughts on “The night sky

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