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17 October 2015updated 26 Jul 2021 11:31am

Distance makes the heart grow fonder

I held the rock in my hand during the crossing, an anchor to Earth that would remind me of its granular, varied textures and colours, even as I saw the entirety in abstract patterns from above.

By John Burnside

In June 1965 the American astronaut Ed White walked in space for 20 minutes. Images of this event exist but what they do not show is just how fast the Gemini IV craft from which he emerged was travelling (about 17,000 miles per hour), or the complexities of managing both exit and re-entry from the speeding vehicle with a 25-foot tether strapped to his suit.

It was a highly risky manoeuvre but White was untroubled by any sense of danger. Instead, as he gazed down, he experienced a kind of elation. “I can sit out here and see the whole California coast,” he said, as he shot the still images he brought back from space. By the time his 20 minutes were up, he was gazing down at Florida and “the island chain of Cuba and Puerto Rico”. When the flight director informed him that he had to return to Gemini immediately, he remarked, “It’s the saddest moment of my life.”

It is not hard to understand why. Those who have walked in space since recount their exhilaration at seeing an entire continent or, even better, both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, in a single glance. They also report a tenderness for Earth that stays with them long after their promenade in the ether is done.

Most of us will never have the opportunity to see the planet with such an all-encompassing gaze. Yet, for me, the experience of looking out of an aeroplane window over Greenland’s snowy heights, or crossing the seemingly endless expanse of Australia’s Northern Territory, or coming in with the dawn to the Río de la Plata’s wide, shimmering delta, seems to me a comparable pleasure, even after a lifetime of air miles.

As I write this, I am crossing the Baltic, that ghost of a sea beloved of poets such as Tomas Tranströmer and Joseph Brodsky, an expanse of grey where, at six in the evening, on any autumn day, there is a shade of mauve on the horizon that you will not find anywhere else. At such times, I feel something like a space traveller’s tenderness for my planet and the extraordinary sensation of privilege just in being here.

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The day before I left Sydney to cross the continent she loved, a friend gave me a lump of rock from the Northern Territory, a beautiful yet commonplace object, one chunk of that unimaginably massive hinterland, shot through with an impossible mineral blue. She told me that I should hold it in my hand during the crossing, an anchor to Earth that would remind me of its granular, varied textures and colours, even as I saw the entirety in abstract patterns from above. Dreaming, she explained, is composed equally of these two perspectives, of the particular physical detail and the unending sweep of land and time.

I did as she instructed and it was a magical sensation. Yet its full significance didn’t hit me until the last leg of the journey, when I flew home after a short stop in Asia.

Now, I was descending into what, for me, was familiar terrain: the southern Scottish uplands fading into night. It was a country I have often been guilty of taking for granted – but that night, as I looked and looked again, I saw the land with new eyes.

Darkness was descending and for miles there was nothing to see but the varieties of domestic light: lamps coming on in the windows of country kitchens, a back door leaching gold into the first hour of darkness, torchlight tracing a hill path through gorse and fallen stones. Then, as we dipped lower, I saw something white that I couldn’t make out, though a moment later I could. It was a sheet, left out on the line and forgotten, reflecting the lights of a tractor where the driver had stopped to open the five-bar gate to a home farm’s yard. Nothing could be more ordinary but, in that moment, in the context of the planet, it was unforgettably real.

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This article appears in the 14 Oct 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn supremacy