I remember standing out in our narrow suburban garden with my mother, and looking up as the stars fell out of the winter sky. In the darkness they seemed to hiss with energy as they breached our atmosphere, breaking through the fragile barrier that stands between us and infinity. At one point, a fireball flashed red and orange as it seemed to fall to earth, all but smoking. We craned our necks as the heavens opened with a fleeting phosphorescence. Then it was all gone.
Throughout the year, at key moments, as we move through the orbits of fragmentary heavenly bodies, we can lie outside, on the grass or a beach, and watch the sky erupt. It is enough to jerk us out of our complacency. Nature is suddenly disrupted, and the disruption has nothing to do with us, and our notional dominion. It is a spectacle older than us, setting our existence in salutary perspective. The annual arrival of meteor showers such as the Perseids, the Leonids, the Geminids and the Orionids takes us straight back to our past. ‘Lying on our backs’, as the artist and critic John Berger wrote, ‘we look up at the night sky. This is where stories began’. We are watching our planet hurtle through the remains of a comet, its fragments burning in our atmosphere. They are the way life itself arrived on Earth; we are all made of stars.
And streaking through that night sky, as if they’d scratched open the firmament and showed us the infinity beyond – the dazzling white nothingness behind the black screen – these sidereal wonders once struck fear into our ancestors. They became omens, much as other apparent disruptions of nature did: from freak weather to stranded whales, all seen as part of a metaphysical disturbance. In fact, a recent scientific paper, discussing the mass stranding of 29 sperm whales around North Sea coasts in January 2016, suggests that their navigational senses were disrupted by the same solar storms that produced a vivid display of the aurora borealis that year.
Such events still remind us that not everything is within our grasp or control. And the way we react to them also speaks to a time when knowledge was not disastrously divided into arts and sciences, a separation that has led us to a point at which ‘experts’ can be demonised and culture itself discredited as elitist. In his recent book, A New Map of Wonders, modern polymath Caspar Henderson unashamedly celebrates science and art, seeing a wonderful complexity that does not deny the numinous. ‘Almost uncannily, the universe appears to be written in some kind of code’, Henderson observes. He shows us the wonder of ‘Earthshine’ – ‘a subtle and gentle light’ cast by our planet bouncing the sun’s rays onto the dark side of the moon, and notes that half the water in our oceans is older than our solar system itself. These are poetic evocations of a transcendence that blurs the imposed divisions of our modern culture of progress.
In a beautiful discussion of Albrecht Dürer’s exquisite but enigmatic sixteenth-century engraving, Melencolia I, Henderson points out that the comet which speeds across the image as an omen, is watched by a genderless angel surrounded by symbols that might be alchemical or scientific. Dürer embodied the polymath: one of the greatest artists of the Renaissance, he was passionately interested in science, and was an amateur astronomer. He painted, in exacting detail, the wing of a blue roller, the twitching body of a hare, the fantastical hide of a rhinoceros (which he never actually saw) just as he created lavish portraits of the great and good of his age. Dürer believed ‘the new art must be based upon science – in particular, upon mathematics, as the most exact, logical, and graphically constructive of the sciences’. And yet he painted an apparently inconsequential piece of turf, to the life, for no other reason than to celebrate its beauty as a microcosm of the natural world. We now look upon representations of nature through the lens of depredation, and often feel powerless in our ability to intercede. But merely bearing witness is a force in itself. Henderson quotes from the modern German writer, W.G. Sebald, author of The Rings of Saturn, ‘Melancholy shares nothing with the desire for death. It is a form of resistance’. It is a sentiment felt by J.A. Baker, whose extraordinary account of the vanishing peregrine became a protest voiced through melancholy; a voice that, through culture, contributed to the turning around of that animal’s fate.
Our lives are made problematic by the notion that the natural world is receding from us. It is beyond us to understand the statistics – that as many as 30,000 species may be going extinct each year. Such facts place us at the centre of the disaster, inducing guilt – just as we see the rest of the world through our hubris. That was the way it appeared to the Victorian writer Richard Jefferies, who placed his humanity at the centre of his experience of nature. ‘To me everything is supernatural’, he wrote, in his book, The Story of My Heart. How strange that condition of mind which cannot accept anything but the earth, the sea, the tangible universe! … Without soul all these are dead. Except when I walk by the sea, and my soul is by it, the sea is dead. Those seas by which no man has stood – where no soul has been – whether on earth or the planets, are dead.’
Art celebrates our humanity, and our connection to the rest of creation, to the elements and the species that constitute our planet. It’s hard not to become despondent in dark times. Some might think a shower of shooting stars too pitiful to illuminate our collective gloom. Robert Macfarlane would not agree. In The Lost Words, his book with artist Jackie Morris, Macfarlane makes a poetic, creative stand ‘against the disappearance of wild childhood’, by taking twenty ‘lost words’, from ‘acorn’ to ‘wren’ and reinstating our sense of wonder in the natural world they signify. Macfarlane notes that while 53% of UK species are in decline, only 52% of the British public are aware of it. 8 – 11 year old children can recognise Pokémon characters, but not the birds over their heads or the insects at their feet. Can we blame them, when their elders have become so fantastically set apart from the living world – the space between us and those falling stars?
‘We no longer camp as for a night’, the American philosopher, Henry David Thoreau wrote, ‘but have settled down on earth and forgotten heaven’. At 2 am this morning I lay on a suburban beach, overlooking a busy port which stretched like a vast superstructure in the mid-distance. Its sodium lights spoke to our twenty-four-hour culture, not of creativity, but of consumerism. Ships were being readied for departure, laden with new cars. Other ships were arriving, laden with other new stuff. Yet behind me in the woods, foxes prowled and owls called, and as I went to swim in the dark sea, it seemed that the stars were falling into the water.
Around the country, other night-watchers were craning their necks, sharing that same spectacle, a sight that only their imaginations could exceed. We were all linked that night by the stars. It is our greatest saving grace as a species to be able to express that longing and that beauty. It may be the most important way in which we can bear witness, and make sense of what we have done. My mother died a decade ago now. I stand outside in our garden, alone, peering up at the falling stars. They represent perennial hope, as I wait for the next one, and the next one, always just one more. Like so many other ways in which we experience the natural world, they’re omens of otherness utterly beyond our selves and yet, in that moment, in a dark suburban garden, they have the power to bring us all back together.
PHILIP HOARE’S latest book is RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR (4th Estate) @philipwhale
Cover photo by ANDREW SUTTON.