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9 April 2016updated 27 Jul 2021 9:09am

As the plane descends, I’m reminded that humanity won’t always rule this patchwork land

There have been times when I’ve felt sick to the stomach at what is being done worldwide by “people” - but the world is moving on a longer timescale than ours.

By John Burnside

It’s a strange feeling, as the plane descends towards Edinburgh and I can see the land all around for miles: the Pentlands dusted with snow on a winter’s day or, when we swing out over the Forth to descend from the north side, the Fife hills where I grew up, bright and sunny in the March light, as we come in from Berlin.

Looking down on those hills, I can almost pinpoint where each old family member is buried, under his slab of masonry or her cheap stone angel, and I turn to my son in the seat next to me, ready to regale him with stories of his grandmother cycling to work in the 1940s, or the great-uncle who served in the Black Watch, home from the war with his medals and secrets – but he is engrossed in a magazine and, besides, he has heard it all before, one way or another.

All of my family tales are used and touched with sadness: how the war heroes came home to the docks or the new construction sites, how the women did all the moral and emotional heavy lifting while their husbands turned to drink, or hid away in lofts and home-made aviaries, breeding songbirds and pigeons.

Still, just as I turn back to the window, resigned to my solitary reminiscences, my son mutters something and, when I tell him that I didn’t hear, he looks up from the magazine and says, “People make me sick.”

It’s apropos of something he has just read, I know, an item about whatever the latest environmental scandal might be, but when I raise my eyebrows to show that I’m all attention, Lucas just shakes his head and goes back to the article. By now, we are close to touchdown, so I let it pass.

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All the way home from the airport, though, I ask myself the question: is it acceptable that, at 15, my son feels that “people” make him sick? And is it acceptable that I cannot very convincingly disagree? When it comes to the environment, I’ve felt sick for decades at what I’ve seen people do but I’ve usually blamed that on “the system” and have chosen to see most people as preoccupied, as I am, with family and work and keeping things together – too preoccupied and worried about what tomorrow may bring to pay full attention to what all our tomorrows, however many there may be, will do to the environment. Still, there have been times when I’ve felt sick to the stomach at what is being done worldwide by “people” and I have felt a sense of present and impending loss that is not uncommon but also seems not quite enough to drive us to do more for the environment than the mostly cosmetic things we do now.

At the same time, that aerial view comes back to me and I see the land again in my mind’s eye: pit towns, upland villages, cemeteries, old schools, buildings that were once libraries and are now awaiting the worst-laid plans of developers, yes, but also sheep trails and stands of pine, dark lochs and waves of wading birds drifting along the shore, stretches of edgeland recolonised by native plants and garden refugees, and even the odd plot of unbroken land that the old folk called a “De’il’s piece” (an offering to the spirits of the earth in that place and nothing to do with Satan, though the Christian Kirk never saw it that way).

It is a patchwork and, for now, humanity dominates, but that has not always been – and will not always be – the case. Left to me, I would have the scales tipped the other way fairly drastically and I know Lucas would. But, as Yeats says, “All that is personal soon rots; it must be packed in ice or salt” if it is to be transmuted into something other than attachment, or dread, or feeling sickened by “people”. I wish I could persuade my son of what I sometimes convince myself: that even as I despair, the world is moving, in its mysterious ways and through a longer timescale than mine, towards a more lifelike condition. 

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This article appears in the 06 Apr 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Tories at war