Reviewed by Peter Reason
Reading the title of this book and seeing the book cover, the prospective reader might, as did I, expect a book about the darker period of the year, and the night. And they would be right: this book is indeed about those darker times. But I have always liked the dark and the winter months, regretting the ubiquity of streetlights and hating it when people shine torches in my face on Bonfire Night. Clare, in contrast, finds it deeply challenging.
Light in the Dark is about how winter months amplify the darker aspects of a human soul. Horatio Clare is beset by low spirits during this time: ‘Last winter I thought I would go mad with depression’, he tells us. He has discovered that giving awareness to his depression is one way of preventing it overwhelming him completely, so as the days shorten once again, he determines to systemically keep a winter diary that looks out onto the world:
This book is to be a torch raised against it… I will pay attention: depression kills your power of vision, turning you fatally toward yourself, but I will practice looking and looking outward like an exercise, as though I am training for an expedition.
There have been quite a few books by nature writers addressing their inner turmoils. Richard Mabey’s Nature Cure, telling of his recovery from crippling depression in part through rediscovery of his love of nature, is one of the earlier ones. Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, addresses her grief at her father’s death and her response of training a goshawk, is maybe the best known. Katherine Norbury, in The Fish Ladder, grieving after miscarriage and fearing the world will close around her, ‘searched for something that would keep the air breathable’ and decides to follow a river to its source. Jay Griffiths, maybe best known for her earlier book Wild, wrote Tristimania as an account of a year-long episode of manic depression, using metaphors from the wild to describe experience: ‘I was scared I would drop my psyche into this torrent, frightened I would lose my mind downstream’; and emphasising that the ‘sheer goodness of nature for the sick psyche is incomparable’. So Horatio Clare is in good company.
I often find myself worrying about this perspective on nature as a cure for human ills. I worry that it is another way of commodifying the more-than-human world, yet another way of seeing it for its utility to humans, rather than for its own sake. It’s not so much the writers that worry me, but the publishers, eager to put a spin on books that will appeal to the worried well in us all. This perspective on the natural world is in danger of losing sign of the opposite one, expressed by Aldo Leopold many years ago in A Sand County Almanac: ‘One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds’, the wounds we must feel when we closely attend to the damage wrought by humans on Earth (for which see my review of Mark Cocker’s Our Place earlier this year in Shiny New Books). So I often feel puritanical about this, wanting to assert that the job of nature writers is to express the value of the world for its own sake, not for its benefits to humans.
The Light in the Dark is presented in diary form, with shorter and longer sections dated from October 16 through to March 20. Mostly these are elegantly written: Horatio Clare has an enviable ability to turn a telling phrase. I am particularly taken by his descriptions of skies, ‘Smoky-grey sleet stalks about in the clouds but refuses to fall…’; ‘Slowly comes the blue, a longing, soaring blue, crisp as glass’. A power cut makes him run outside in the night to see ‘the world transformed, released into darkness, moonlight, stars and frost… Under a half-moon, with the hills’ backs prickled with stars, its character has entirely changed’.
The diary tracks the range of activities one might expect a professional man to be busy with. Family relationships, caring for his son, writing, teaching, travel. There is a disturbing drama when dogs belonging to badger baiters are set on his elderly mother’s sheep, killing several and injuring others; Clare rushes to support his mother. Christmas approaches with the usual excitement and preparation. He travels on trains, often delayed, and listens to the other passengers’ conversations. All through the book he writes of his concerns about the impact of his depression on his family.
I did, however, find this diary form rather fragmented: as is the nature of life, issues come and go. So I was drawn into the story of the attack on his mothers’ sheep, and felt it was dropped. There are wry observations, as when Clare’s wife Rebecca describes how to hit a man: ‘In the middle of the face, as hard as you can’, because you may only get one chance. But the diary form does not lend itself to developed stories: stuff happens, then life moves on without the kind of development and closure that arrives in a carefully constructed tale. Maybe this is part of the lesson of the book: ‘This diary is a refuge, a thing to do, something to put work and time into, a defence against hopelessness’. The critic in me wants Clare to do more with this book, to find the ‘through line’ of the story, to show the reader the connection between ‘looking out’ and depression, whether his external attention makes any difference. But maybe the fragmented quality is part of the point: that is the experience of depression, ‘You cannot flow from one thing that needs to be done to the next; you continually pause and doubt and disbelieve’. The critic in me is not entirely satisfied by this, however: there is more we could all learn about this discipline.
The winter drags on, relents, then returns with more cold. The roof leaks, trains are delayed. All the time Clare’s fears about his mental state grow, and with them concern about their impact on his family and his work. As the book progresses my sense of fragmentation diminished and I was increasingly caught up in Clare’s experience—although I must leave it to the reader to engage with the whole story and find out ‘what happens’.
Clearly the diary form works for Clare: ‘At the heart of this winter I have found a double spirit, a flame and a shadow. The shadow is fear; the flame, love’. As we all approach another winter, this book may provide not only solace, but an exemplar for those whose personal shadows are amplified in dark times. The lesson, ‘Look outwards’ is a good one.
Peter Reason is a writer who links the tradition of travel and nature writing with the ecological predicament of our time. His book In Search of Grace: An ecological pilgrimage was published in 2017 by Earth Books. His previous book Spindrift: A wilderness pilgrimage at sea is published by Jessica Kingsley. Find Peter at www.peterreason.eu, and on Twitter @peterreason
Horatio Clare, The Light in the Dark (Elliott & Thompson, 2018). 978-1783964048, 208pp., hardback.
BUY at the Book Depository (affiliate link)