For what seems like some years now, he has taken to wandering the lanes around our village, noting the changes of the seasons, the nesting habits of local birds, the arrivals and departures of migrants. It is a form of naturalism which places a high value on direct observation; one which owes more to Gilbert White than to David Attenborough, and which is increasingly rare. ‘If stationary men would pay some attention to the districts on which they reside,’ wrote White from his Hampshire vicarage in January 1788, ‘and would publish their thoughts respecting the objects which surround them, from such materials might be drawn the most complete county-histories‘. White’s diligence, his contribution to nature writing as a whole, is a reminder of the importance of patient, impartial observation, of noting changes as they occur, of making comparisons through a long acquaintance with a local territory. He expresses a rootedness in place which is all but unfamiliar to us now, a life lived entirely within the confines of one small English parish, a place which was all the world to him.
This identification with home, this yearning for the place which is most familiar, is the natural compass in our brains. Scattered as our lives are, we turn towards home for security, for familiarity, for shelter and rest. It is the ache which is better described in the Welsh word hiraeth; a longing for one’s homeland. Longing is the right word here: ‘Longing, we say, because desire is full of endless distances‘ as the poet Robert Hass puts it. We each carry with us, in the kernel of our modern, fragmented souls, a yearning which may seem like wanderlust, but is in fact a desire for that which is most unattainable, that end to our restlessness which comes with finally arriving home. A longing not to do or achieve, but simply to be. Be-longing. Belonging.
In April 2010, the Eyjafjöll volcano in Iceland erupted, pouring clouds of ash into the skies above the North Atlantic. I remember the morning after it had happened, standing on my porch with a cup of tea, looking across to the familiar view of hills. Above them, skeins of alabaster cloud stretched across a spring sky of peerless blue. I was aware that, for the first time since I had lived here, the sky was not smeared with the vapour trails of aeroplanes. There were no airliners from Manchester and Schiphol, bound for Canada or the U.S., ferrying cufflinked executives from their first class lounges to their air-conditioned conference suites, the anonymity of place repeated from one confined space to the next. For a few days, the skies above Cumbria resembled those of my childhood, before the availability of cheap air travel commodified the world, before cheap breaks in Thailand or Turin consigned the Mini Traveller and seaside guest houses to a fogotten antiquity. I thought of the thousands of people stranded in airport lounges, the eerie silence which had descended on the vast acres of concrete beyond the glass windows. It was, very briefly, a world which had shrunk to a human scale, which forced us to look inwards, not outwards, to rejoice in the local and the immediate; most of all, to accept a limit on our ability to fly to other countries at low cost, whenever we wanted, whatever the impact.
The carbon produced when we take a short-haul flight to a destination in the middle of Europe – to Geneva, say, or Frankfurt or Milan – is around seventy-five kilograms, or the typical weight of an adult male. On the few occasions now when I am obliged to fly for work purposes, I imagine this dark mass of carbon on the seat beside me; a coal-shaped statue of a person about my height and weight, a shadow self. It is my dark conscience, my reminder of the impact of the western, modern freedom that I have, this privilege and power. As I rise to leave my seat, I feel the cold grip of his sooty hand on my arm.
I think of how the world was before we could make these journeys, of how the mysterious and exotic informed our sense of wonder. I think of my grandfather, who only ever travelled abroad once, as part of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, to the Western Front in 1917. As I was growing up, he would follow my own trips across Europe in his ageing copy of the Times Atlas, tracing the routes with his mottled finger. This ability to live inside our own homes and our own minds, to travel in our imagination, is the preserve of the young and the old, and of those denied their freedom; captives and refugees.
In the springtime of the ash cloud, I read Judith Schalansky’s exquisite book Atlas of Remote Islands. This is a book about not travelling; someone whose childhood in Eastern Germany had an enforced element of stability; a form of internal exile in which it was only possible to move beyond the Soviet bloc by travelling within one’s mind. A yearning for freedom and liberty became sublimated into a desire for the unknown allure of faraway places. She closes her introduction with a perfect reminder of the joys of such imagined journeys:
Anyone who opens an atlas wants everything at once, without limits – the whole world. This longing will always be great, far greater than any satisfaction to be had by attaining what is desired. Give me an atlas over a guidebook any day. There is no more poetic book in the world.
It is a recognition that knowledge is a form of elegy, that to acquire something – a place, a memory, an object – is to abandon the yearning, to resign oneself to a small loss in mystery and uncertainty. In our insatiable desire to possess the world, we overlook the commonplace, the local, the immediate. We have seen the furthest reaches of distant continents, but will never know the seasonal stirrings of our parish, the way that Gilbert White did in Selborne, the way my son strives to do as he leaves the house, binoculars in hand, the morning light reflecting off the new snow.