Book Review – Under the Stars – A Journey into Light

With the dark nights upon us it’s time for another book review and we think we’ve got the perfect read for wintertime, Matt Gaw’s Under the Stars – A Journey into Light

We sometimes park up for the night in our motorhome on unlit byroads and laybys. Once darkness engulfs the view of the surrounding countryside we put the cosy lamps on and settle down. The night is shut out like an unwelcome visitor, ignored and shunned for fear of what it may be hiding.

But reading this book may change all that!

Matt Gaw’s Under The Stars, A Journey into Light is about being out and walking in the night time, losing the comfort and security that light gives us and daring to dance with the darkness.

If you’ve ever done a spot of wild camping in your van out in the middle of nowhere this book will be a welcome source of comfort. Not only will it help you mentally negotiate your way through the hours of darkness but it’ll give you a much greater appreciation of what the night can offer you.

In ‘Under the Stars’ Matt delves into the bottomless well of blackness, almost drowning in the inky still waters of a moonless night. And smothered by a blanket of sensory deprivation, he emerges with a new understanding – and love – of the star-lit world.

Let us venture into the night time…

Under the stars – the darkness of a different world

Let’s start with a few lines from Matt himself…

I’ve never really considered exploring the night-scape before. To me, night has always been a dark and gloomy place. A solid, black bookend that inspires fear and anxiety. But here among the trees, cloud and snow-glow, I can already see that night is not just one long stretch of unforgiving darkness, any more than daytime is constant bright blue sky.

Night has its own subtle shades of light, capable of illuminating the landscape and inspiring in us a sense of connection and wonder. I feel a tingle of delight at the realisation that almost by accident I’ve ghosted into a different world.


One of our favourite van life night time memories is of driving towards Old Felixstowe and catching a glimpse of a massive moon between some houses. We looked at each other in disbelief!

It seemed surreal but, of course, we had been fooled by the ‘moon illusion’; it appears bigger when it sits on the horizon. By the time we had reached the cliff, it had risen into the sky and was its normal size, though still as mysterious as ever…and aloof.

Every poet’s dream landscape!

under the stars - full moon at Bawdsey, Suffolk

A search for understanding beyond ourselves

This is what Matt has to say about earth’s natural satellite…

The moon hasn’t lost her power to inspire us, to make us search for understanding beyond ourselves. Embracing night, drinking up moonlight, is part of our culture and our nature. Caught up in our baubles of man-made light, it’s easy to take her familiar face for granted.

But here at Covehithe, the moon’s reflected light is not dampened by the flare of electricity, her ethereal glow highlights a connection between all humans, all life, that is or was. 

But perhaps the effect goes deeper, influencing our minds and souls…

It has long been believed that her silvering light brings with it madness and mayhem. The word lunatic is derived from the Latin word for moon: luna.

The moon’s influence over the tides, a gravitational pull that causes even rocks to bulge towards the moon, inspired the idea that the earth’s satellite could also move moisture around the human body, changing humors (1) and twisting psyches.

www.blackwells.co.uk

Why do we shut out the night?

The effects of the full moon on the mind of those living with dementia is widely accepted as fact by carers. The old religions recognise the power of this cold, dead satellite whose reflected light is stolen from a sleeping sun.

Gardeners and farmers, people versed in the old ways, respect the moon’s effects on the soil and the weather. We seem to have long forgotten the wisdom handed down to us, blinded instead by modern “enlightened” methods.

Why do we pull down the motorhome blinds and shut out the night? Is it just for reasons of privacy? Or is it because we’re afraid of something out there in the darkness?

Maybe the lack of visual information allows our inner demons more of the stage. Maybe without full vision, we shut off our rationality and let our darkest imaginings fill in the blanks.

VW Cree campervan in the dark

Here’s what Matt has to say about it…

Night is, in our collective consciousness, a time of fear and trembling. The word “Nightfall” itself is rooted in death; the diminishing light was once thought to bring a poisonous haze…

But is fear of the dark something we learn or something we are born with? Perhaps our primitive fear of the night is an evolutionary residue of times when the landscape was dangerous. When tooth and claw could turn the blackness blood red...

it is because the night is a place of fear and the unknown that we find it a suitable place for the malevolent and monstrous, rather than the other way around. We yearn for the sun to return, banishing the horrors that live in the dark, bringing with it relief, reassurance, safety. And, until it does, we seek temporary comfort in whatever light we can find.”

For those who must dwell in the shadows…

But light can be equally dangerous for those who must dwell in the shadows. Nocturnal hunters and hunted become disorientated in our unnaturally perma-lit night.

The human emotional need for security (met in one way by banishing the dark) is causing untold damage and suffering to wildlife as we pollute the darkness with artificial light.

And is it in our own best interests to live without the respite of night?

Our spirits need the time-out for rest and introspection. We need to switch off, to stop the constant stream of visual stimulation to enable us to listen to the soul. We all need to dream. Remember, it is only in the light that we cast a shadow!

We Hobos had a night at a Dark Sky Park in the Cairngorms in Scotland, sitting outside the van in a deep indigo landscape enjoying a view of the stars only such places afford. (Our header picture shows the location).

A windy night, we were not able to enjoy the silence that often accompanies profound darkness, but we were given a celestial reminder of our insignificance in the Universe. A cleansing experience which saw off some unnecessary worries.  

And we’ve done the same thing in Wales, visiting another ‘dark sky’ in the Elan Valley…

Craig Coch Dark Sky Park

Leaving the light behind

After reading ‘Under the Stars’, we have determined to step out of our bright comfort zone more often and to journey into the night, leaving the light behind.

We are all used to pavements bathed in the gentle amber glow of streetlamps. But walking in the countryside in darkness, you have to slow down, be mindful of your footfall, use your other senses, and be at one with your surroundings.

The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed to us previously unknown pathways across fields and byways which we’ve enjoyed both day and night.

One one such walk, returning in the pitch black from Canterbury cathedral we’d visited earlier in the day, we had to use our staffs to guide us, feeling the hedgerow and grass verge at the road side. It was so dark you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face!

This is what Matt says about the dark…

As the darkness pushes in, seeps through my skin, my brain feels as though it is going into overdrive, trying to make its own entertainment. It burrows into itself, picks at scabs. I question what I am doing, not just here but in my life generally…

I can’t believe the stillness. No footsteps, stirrings or even the bum shuffles of restless pigeons. Listening to silence, a silence not of open empty spaces, but of an earth that has seemingly emptied itself out completely It’s deep and old and disconcerting. Against it my brain feels as if it is crashing with noise, grinding its gears against itself. A hooting, honking, backfiring clamour…

I cry for the first time that I can remember…without even knowing it, the tears tracing quietly down my cheeks, and then in hard, racking, snot-jerking sobs. I don’t even know why I’m doing it. I laugh at myself, but still cry, the awful noise of it shaking through the woods.

I think again…about how in the dark you cannot find yourself. Yet that is the only thing I seem to have found.

Order your copy of Under the Stars now!

Get a copy of Matt’s Gaw’s Under the Stars – A Journey into Light and delight in the darkness! To our way of thinking, it makes for perfect winter time reading, snuggled up indoors – or in your campervan – with a warm drink or, even better, out there under the stars!

And if you like travel reading remember to check out our other book reviews…

How to Live in a Van and Travel – by Mike Hudson (our all-time favourite van life book)

Take the Slow Road Scotland – by Martin Dorey (an essential guide book if you’re planning on a trip through Bonnie Scotland)

Deep Country – Five Years in the Welsh Hills – by Neil Ansell (lose yourself with Neil in the Welsh countryside!)

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn (an incredible story of endurance against all the odds!)

Notes:

  1. ‘Humors’ refers to the 4 humors of Greek medicine, as defined by Hippocrates
www.blackwells.co.uk

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