When I was six, I was given the task of fetching in the coal at the start of each day. Foolishly, I saw this as a chore, at least to begin with. It was only later, when I’d become more adept at negotiating the icy path that led from our back steps to the vast darkness beyond, that I realised what a privilege I had been given.
We lived in a run-down prefab at the darkest edge of a small mining town and, when there was no moon to guide me, I had to navigate that darkness by a mix of guesswork and memory, one of my father’s old jumpers pulled loosely over my pyjamas, a thick, knitted balaclava muffling my ears. Around me, the dark hovered like a live presence: a deep, almost tangible blackness in the lilac bush just feet away from the kitchen door; a colder, wider mystery haunting the path ahead, as I edged ever further from the dim house light. No surprise, then, that I initially approached this task hurriedly, flapping out to the bin like a drunken penguin in my oversized wellingtons, then staggering back with the newly charged scuttle to get inside and warm again as soon as I could. It took a few inevitable slips – hard, stone-slapping falls that left me bruised and more shaken than I ever admitted – to start taking things more slowly.
And that was when it began. As taking it slowly progressed to stopping on the way and momentarily being still and attentive to the night, I became aware of something I had missed before in my hurry to be done. To name it was beyond my vocabulary then (and even now, I cannot say that I know what it was) but after a while I had the sense, every time I went out, that something was there. It was something felt rather than seen, something intuited, even, but it was real. It was present, as I was present – and yet, as I looked around, it was nowhere to be found. Or rather, it was so everywhere that it seemed to be nowhere at all.
To a well-trained Christian child, of course, there is only one phenomenon that is everywhere at once, but I must confess that the idea of God never once entered my head. Instead what occurred to me, if only in the vaguest terms, was that this everywhere-and-nowhere thing was what most people meant when they talked about “nature”.
At school we had a nature table, a dim shrine in the corner of the classroom to which we brought autumn leaves, feathers and the occasional mouse or songbird skull, but I had already begun to divine, as through a glass darkly, that these were totems, tangible signifiers of something that was both intangible and beyond signification. That “nature” I sensed all around me – elemental, exhilarating, mysterious, pagan in the full sense and, so, occasionally frightening – was not an assembly of objects, mere fetishes and relics, like the paraphernalia of a moribund religion, nor could it be rendered in purely rational terms, like a mathematical function or a chemical reaction.
It could, however, be apprehended – that is, we could know it on the same basis that Richard Flanagan says we know love: “We apprehend it, we feel it, and we think we know it, yet we cannot say what we mean by it.” None of this is language that I could have used then, of course, but this is how apprehension works. Less exact and nowhere near as definitive as rational knowing, it allows us to bring feeling, intuition, instinct and imagination into the making of a subtler and more fluid response to the world.
So it was that, standing outside our prefab on those cold, dark mornings 60 years ago, I was being offered a privilege that has lasted decades – the privilege of ordinary wonder. It is a state of grace that can happen to anybody, anywhere. It may well be crucial to our survival as a culture, because without it we are in danger of thinking that “nature” is elsewhere, in the woods or the safari park or on some eco-resort in Central America, rather than here and everywhere, and dependent, for its safe keeping, on our sense of wonder.
[see also: Where have all the sparrows gone?]
This article appears in the 05 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Johnson's Last Chance