You don’t need special equipment to build your own time machine. You have a TARDIS in your pocket, and it will take you through Time And Relative Dimension In Space. It’s an alarm clock, or the wake-up function on your phone, or whatever it is you use when you need to get up earlier than your body would like.
We default to our origins with very little prompting – but that prompting has to come from somewhere. Back in the days when we hunted and gathered, dawn was our best time.
When I go back to the savannah, I get up at dawn, not as if but because it’s the most natural thing in the world. Daylight is a summons to action, to life. It’s no hardship: there’s a sense of privilege in stepping from your hut into the soft light of an African day before the sun has shown itself. It’s the best time because it’s cool. That’s nice for you, but it’s also nice for all your fellow species of animal that live out here in the bush. The middle of the day is too hot: the elephants and the antelopes and the lions doze under trees and bushes while you doze in your hut. You’ll be up for more adventures when the sun is three parts of the way back down again, and so will the elephants.
If you live without artificial light, dawn is the most important time of day. It’s safer, infinitely safer than the night you’ve just lived through, and so you can start reminding your neighbours that you’re about and that this happens to be where you live. This occurs in various ways on every day of the year – and yet we humans snore our way through it, cut off from the natural rhythms of the world, the natural rhythms by which our ancestors lived.
But we can return to these times. We can renew ourselves by greeting the dawn. And though such an adventure will have its rewards at any time of the year, I suggest 1 May. That’s if you can stand the din.
The latest you can leave it is 3.45, and that’s only if you have a wild place on your doorstep. You need to be out in the right place before 4am. Oh, and a word of advice: dress for a cold winter’s day. Those magic waterproof trousers are not a bad idea either, no matter what the weather. There’ll be plenty of dew. You’ll be lucky to get a complete absence of man-made sounds, but you’ll get a quietness that’s unknown at almost any other time, and that in itself is a powerful experience. We are so used to shutting out extraneous noise that, when there isn’t any, our brains need to make an adjustment. There’s something faintly alarming, faintly thrilling, in this comparative silence.
What you do next is up to you. You can walk, or you can sit. Either is good: it’s a question of taste and temperament – and, also, of the place you happen to have chosen. As my associate from SEO Leeds advocates, if you can find a single spot that’s full of promise, you can sit tight. Otherwise you can walk, but slowly and with frequent stops. The best of the experience comes long before the light is bright enough to see easily.
The dawn chorus is perhaps the single biggest wildlife miracle that we have in Britain – and it’s open to us all, no matter who we are or where we happen to live. The birds do it throughout spring, but they reach their peak round about May Day. The resident birds will still be hard at it and the migrants would have by now set up territories and will be announcing them and defending them by means of their voices. By means of song.
Let me stress right away that you don’t need to be an expert to appreciate this. Your local wildlife organisations will certainly offer dawn-chorus walks, which are companionable and come with experts who have ears like fennec foxes, though miraculously miniaturised. There will often be breakfast or at least coffee.
But you can also do it for yourself. You can greet the dawn in a silence that is stripped of politeness and friendly put-yourself-at-ease jokes. You can let yourself go. You can let the dawn itself take over … and one by one the chorus swells, till it’s a mighty noise, as Mike Heron of the Incredible String Band sang.