Country diary: a pre-dawn shimmer hints at coming dawn

Reaching the crossroads before dawn, I hear two robins squaring off on diagonal corners, their dialogue of twitters bouncing back and forth like a tennis ball. There is no light in the sky yet, so they seem deluded by streetlight. My urban self does not know – cannot know – whether the robin sings before dawn in the countryside, devoid of sources of man made light. But it probably does. They are territorial buggers, and whoever wakes earliest – sings loudest – wins.

Looking up, the dark sky is clear. This came as a surprise as it has been yet another strangely mild October night. It feels as though there must be a blanket of cloud hanging overhead, holding in the warmth, but I see no cloud and the mild temperatures must be high pressure moving up from the south. The stars, and a waning crescent moon, are a beautiful alternative to clouds though, especially now when the morning sky is still dark. There is so little to see that my eyes are glad of the extra points of stimuli. I note as I pass how the silhouette of the church tower is traced upwards by the boxy outline of Orion.

This shift in the timing of daylight is always confusing. It feels, every year, like the first time we’re having to navigate it. Behaviours change and those who would otherwise be dog-walking, jogging, or simply out and about at this hour are artificially locked in by the encroaching darkness.

Of course some people need to be up at this time whatever the sun is doing. They have to be in the same places at the same time. And yet the brain works differently in the dark. From a distance, a car pulled over in a bus stop, its passenger taking a bag from the boot, seems clandestine and somehow cloak and dagger. But not so many weeks ago, in the morning light, the sight of such behaviour would have barely registered.

There is often a glimpse of light out to sea before dawn – the vast, unobstructed horizon allows for subtle differences which can be noticed when so much else around at this time is unnoticed. But not this morning – it is too early for a pre-dawn shimmer. Sunrise is more than an hour away.

Today’s treat, though, is a new one. The clear – almost clear – skies are actually laced with a very high, very thin gauze of cloud. Mere wisps. But they are high enough above the curve of the earth to see what I cannot: the distant dawn, way off to the east. They sit so high on their perch that they pick out the feint reds and oranges of a dawn so far away, reflecting these pleasant (if foreboding) hues so that they can be enjoyed by me and whoever else has to fumble around in the darkness at this time.