01 March 2012

The journey at night

Driving home at night you see immense clouds piled up, illuminated by a hidden moon, and you think of alien planets; you think of places humans will never go. But if through some unimaginable process you stood on one of those planets, what would you feel, standing alone, looking up at a sky like that, as far from home as any human had ever ventured, impossibly far from anyone you knew, so far from anyone at all that the rest of your species might never have existed? Terror? Panic? Probably. But perhaps you might also feel an overwhelming joy, an ecstasy you could never have imagined until now, until this moment when you stand somewhere no one has ever stood, looking at an elegiac sky no one until now has ever seen, ready to explore a world where you have almost no idea what to expect. You hope to find something alive but have no idea what form it might take, nor even whether you’ll recognise it as a living thing. If the metaphor of being torn between conflicting emotions has any truth, you have already been dismembered.

Driving home at night you see eyes shining from the long grass clogging a roadside drain. Knowing the eyes belong to a cat, you slow down; you expect the cat to crouch and wait but know cats sometimes misjudge a car’s speed and dash for the security of their own territory. You relax as the car cruises past and the eyes wink out. Further along, a tiny hedgehog wanders on the road as if following some convoluted, invisible path; the little creature stops, runs a little way, turns, trots a little further, returns to the middle of the road. You slow down and pass carefully, hoping it survives the night yet torn by the knowledge that this beautiful little animal lives here at the expense of other lives with histories here that stretch back millennia. Yet you could not run it down and save those other lives. A year ago a hedgehog ran out in front of the car as you drove home one night and you’ve never forgotten the dreadful crunch as you crushed it. You could not deliberately run down an animal no matter how righteous the rationale. One death won’t matter to the population, but it matters to the individual.

Driving home at night you cannot hear the crickets singing in the dry grasses. You cannot hear the ruru calling from the dark inside the macrocarpas, nor the rustle of the poplar leaves shimmering in the moonlight. You hear only the rush of air, the sound of tyres on tarmac, the engine humming and the intermittent rattle of something loose in the boot. You know the night wind outside will feel cool but not cold, but you know this only because you’ve switched the heater off. The car smells slightly of chlorine from the swimming gear you used this afternoon but you imagine the night will smell like cow shit and silage because right now you’re driving past a dairy shed. When you drive somewhere, what you imagine is as important as what you sense.

You could drive forever on a night like this, driving in moonlight with wild clouds, with strange things slipping through the shadows and stranger things inhabiting the edges of your imagination. Your destination no longer matters because you have already arrived; here, driving home at night you are already at home.

Photo: In the fjords of southern Chile, December 2011.

Photos and original text © 2012 Pete McGregor