In this month’s issue of Writers’ Forum I have interviewed Matt Gaw about his research for his second book, Under the Stars, which was published by Elliott & Thompson in February this year. It is about moonlight, starlight and how the subtle shades of darkness are under threat from an artificially lit world, exploring through a series of nocturnal walks, our relationship with natural night.
Matt’s inspiration to write Under the Stars came from something his son said when he was trying to get him to bed one night. He was 10 at the time and pushing to stay up. His son told him the average human spends around 26 years of their life asleep and felt like this was a waste of time. Matt realised that although he had been out at night – camping or toddling home from the pub – he had never gone out just to experience night.
So when day after a heavy snow fall, he decided to do some research and walk in King’s Forest near his home in Suffolk. Matt was amazed at the changes that happened as darkness slowly began to rise, changes that affected both the landscape and his own body.
“I think I realised then how much natural light there is at night; how night isn’t a black bookend today, but a place of subtlety and shades.” (Matt Gaw)
Matt explained walking the different routes to research the book was an organic process. He started off close to home and then started to go further afield when he wanted to explore both darker and brighter landscapes because he feels it is important for people to experience the nightscape close to home.
“It’s about being honest I guess, showing people that there are problems but there is action that can be taken and beauty to be found.” (Matt Gaw)
Matt told me he realised he felt safer the darker it was as once your senses have adapted to darkness, it is easy enough to navigate.
“It’s strange really, in some ways your world is made smaller – you operate in this reduced bubble of visibility – but in other ways it is infinitely bigger. At night you experience not only space, but time; the light from the stars has often been travelling for thousands of years before it reaches your retina.” (Matt Gaw)
Matt explained that wildlife is most active at dusk and dawn and I was lucky enough to see an otter hunting in Scotland and had some memorable encounters later with a huge, galloping herd of deer in King’s Forest and nightjar on Dartmoor. He has edited Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s magazine for a number of years so has an excellent foundation in natural history, but discovered he also needed to do quite a bit of additional research.
The main thing was looking at how artificial light impacts on different species, so he read quite a few scientific papers and also interviewed academics working in the field. For example, Travis Longcore, one of the first people to write extensively about artificial light and ecology was very generous with his time and illustrated to Matt how our perception of darkness is a world apart from that of nocturnal species. He recounts parts of this conversation in Chapter 5, while exploring the night close to his Suffolk home.
His research tip to other travel writers is to read everything on your topic or location – local guides, national stories, folk stories, blogs, scientific papers – then rip it all up and write your own. Matt tries not to over plan his trips, he has a rough idea of where he will start and where he wants to go, but he prefers to be adaptable to prevent being closed off to the actual experience. If you’re just marching from A to B Matt believes you will lose something.
Matt’s has also written The Pull of the River where he explores Britain’s waterways with his friend James in a canoe, to give a new insight into nature, place and friendship.
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