Passing down a straight track through a holloway of trees, their bows still black with winter, the sun strikes and everything is so right now that I cry. “This moment is already vanished,” I think. And it is.
My junk-filled heart is driven anxious by the enormous beauty of Jersey, how much of it there is, how impossible to contain. I’m always like this on holidays or at the sea or on a hike somewhere spectacular – letting the purity of a moment be undercut by the certainty of loss, trashing my happiness with my sense of how slippery it is. I should love wild, wonderful things like an opera in a foreign language: with no hope of grasping any of it, I must let is wash over me, allowing it to play on my senses as it will. But can anyone enjoy the light through frost-bare branches, now, in this bad broken world? Can anything be pure any longer?
In Australia the bush is on fire, and in Brazil, they are razing the forest to make way for cattle farming. The brutality of this charcoaled topography conceals a harsher truth: it is not the planet being destroyed, but us. Nature will rebound, in some form, after we’re gone. Weeds will crack our patios and rats will sleep in our beds. The ocean will still shimmer with all its heart-wrecking loveliness. Only there will be no human heart to wreck.
Some of us take comfort in this notion now. You hear it more and more, not an apology for climate change, exactly, but a means of finding an accommodation with it. This position has an inherent cruelty. It can only be made by people who will never live through the worst themselves, who won’t see their homes burn or their crops die or their children killed in wars over natural resources. Those shored by their historic privilege who gaze at the quiet of de-peopled planes on the far horizon and ignore the human wreckage in between.
This line of thought contains another cruelty; it refuses to recognise anything special about people, our ability to see the wonder in the strange biological accident of consciousness and attempt to make something meaningful of it. But I believe that when I look at those trees and consider my good fortune in standing beneath them I transform them. Trees are food and shelter and firewood, but they are beautiful too. Thinking this, I see that it’s not only us that needs the planet – the planet needs us as well.
Art can give form to this mutual need. Once, in Margate, I went to an exhibition of Turner’s paintings, and when I stepped on to the promenade outside I saw the sea differently. His brush on the canvas had given me a literacy for the landscape that I hadn’t previously possessed, just as I once read somewhere that gorse smells like coconut, and now when I walk on the moors my senses are keener. Or the simple poetry of giving names to natural things – razor clam and dodo and buttercup. This allows us to see them distinctly, and to mourn their passing.
Loveliness gives way to loveliness. The track turns and ahead I see the bay. The sand in Jersey is pale pink sugar spun from granite, the sea a splash of sky. It makes you think of summer: seasons muddled in February. I walk along the edge of the water and make friends with dogs. Their owners tell me the weather won’t hold, it will be stormy by Saturday. “Better enjoy it while it lasts”.
You have to take these moments, I think, be still in them, because what if we forget the specialness of being alive? The beach is a bridge – some day in the future someone will stand here too, think of what a fine thing it is to feel the sun on their skin in this very place. That brief shared pleasure will connect us across time.