Publication date: 19 March 2019
In Greenspring Wood, a man crawls out of his sleeping bag, carefully keeping both body and cocoon inside the rectangular perimeter of his groundsheet. Twisting onto his back and stretching out his right arm, he raps the tarpaulin above him, showering waters droplets over the brambles that enclose his camp in thorns and secrecy. He listens to the call of a nuthatch as, twisting again, he removes a folded piece of paper from a sidepocket in his backpack-cum-pillow. Other birds had woken the man during the cold, early hours, but—as he always does when overnighting in the wood—he waits for the bold, inquisitive sequence of this particular species to declare the day begun. Inquisitiveness, here, is no anthopomorphic indulgence: the birds have many questions to ask of the returning sun.
The morning's first nuthatch is descending a trunk near the man's camp. The proximity means that its calls are audible over the avian chorus, and, even in the weak light, the man can make out the warm breast and dark eyestripe of the bird as it probes the bark's wet furrows. Is this the same nuthatch as last time? This question, for a while, is everything to the man. On days when these first calls come from a more distant trunk or a branch in the canopy, the man perceives the bird's sounds only slightly above the woodland symphony and the question matters less. Instead, the man will pull in lungfuls of rich, earthy air and delight in the euphonic balance of the wood's passerines—the harmonies deftly forged by evolution's partitioning force.
The man, aware that the first aeroplane will come soon and tear through the moment with its scorching noise, remembers the piece of paper in his hand, unfolds it, and reads silently. Its words he had long ago committed to heart, but only by having the note in his hand can he perfectly enact the ritual.
Earth, if you had ears, I would say this to you.
Your gift to me is a life with meaning. The stories you tell with birds and dragonflies and moss and streams, and all their kin—my kin—these are the stories that matter. I belong to the human community too, but there my sense of oneness is less. For I seek a life that does not destroy but builds; a life that disengages me from the hollow destiny spawned by progress.
This desire for decoupling is most acute whenever I withdraw from a place shaped by human rapacity into one where nature's wealth rules. Brutality and chaos is replaced by wonder and breathtaking intricacy, and I suddenly feel less alien.
And so, sitting on a rock in an untrammelled forestscape, say, with the spray of a waterfall cooling my bare feet, I might marvel at the present interglacial's treasures and experience both the exhilaration of life and a comforting peace. But, just as easily, my thoughts can turn to the vulnerability of these treasures to machines, climate change, and the wants of elected humans who know little beyond concrete towers and bank balances. I might also contemplate how my own presence could itself be damaging—a dark thought that can precipitate a suffocating mist of anxiety.
What a bind! To gain a sense of belonging and of peace, I must spend time in untrammelled places, but by doing so—no matter how gently I tread—I expose myself to anxieties about their fragility and their anthropogenic transience. To stave off the mist, I must repay your infinite gift in the small ways that I can.
I know that I am powerless to prevent further deep wounds to your skin; nor can I stop the myriad small incisions that I witness each day. But I will continue to observe your actors, and to act myself—I will do what I can for you. Only then will I feel a contentment that bears my own presence in your scenes, a serenity that endures.
Many of the species that I cherish will disappear before I myself return to the soil, but they are my kin and I will not love them less for this. Nor will I shy away from their company, because I am not to blame. And so I will continue to learn from your playful starlings, your spreading lichens, your water-cleansing mussels, and your fluted hornbeams with tall granite boles. In such education lies a destiny worthy of life.
The man refolds the note and slips it back into his backpack, and he begins to pack away his camp. ■
I am a grateful to Patrick Curry for comments on a draft of this piece.