Swimming in a sea of stars

For me, summer truly ends, the first time I drive in the dark. Yesterday was that day, as dressed in a wetsuit and hat, I drove south to meet friends for a swim. I kept looking north, knowing there was a possibility of aurora if the clouds parted.

Last winter was too long, with lockdowns changing what was possible, erasing much that brightens the darkest months. Although the endless, magical daylight of the simmer dim did much to restore me, it hasn’t felt like enough. This summer has been strange and unsettling, the islands draped in cloud. Days of mist and mirage, a feeling of uneasy pause as demands for ‘normal’ clammer in a world that is anything but.  Autumn came on the wind, carrying stories of the inevitability of change.  I watched as  puffins gathered, preparing to leave land for a winter in the waves.  It felt too soon, I was not ready. Now the darkness is truly returning, encroaching a little earlier each day, and for the first time in the pandemic, island cases are rising rapidly, and there is a worry in the air about what this winter might bring.

It was pitch dark when we arrived.  We set a light on the beach, to direct us back to shore. As I moved my hands under the water, their path was lit by a cascade of stars. With each stroke the water responded, making my body visible beneath the surface, surrounded by otherworldly light. My first experience of bioluminescence, the Shetland mareel. It’s name, derived from Old Norse, translates as sea fire.  From our bodies, ripples extended, sending sparks across the surface, revealing momentary constellations. Tiny algae, a living sea, only experienced in the right conditions, with darkness and movement.

As I swam,  surrounded by friendship, laughter and tiny unknowable creatures, with the possibility of aurora behind the clouds, I felt a little more ready for the changing season.

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