There are mornings - today was one - when I look out of the window and see only grey skies, drizzle and trees gusting in the wind. "There will be no beautiful sunrise worth getting up for today," I thought, so I crawled back into bed with my coffee, checked social media and read The Guardian online.
When I finally emerged and clambered over the dunes, the wind was billowing along the beach and the morning sun was filtering pale and luminous through the clouds. The receding tide had left pools and sandbanks where oyster catchers and sanderlings gathered to feed and chatter.
There is always beauty, for the world is beautiful in all its aspects. It's a fault of vision, not of nature, that we fail to see it. To see the beauty in that which at first appears dull and ordinary, even in that which appears disfigured and ugly, we need to cultivate attentiveness. Simone Weil writes that "Attention consists in suspending our thought; letting it become available, empty and able to be penetrated by the object." (Awaiting God, p. 26) Pope Francis describes what this attentiveness amounts to when he writes in Laudato Si' that "there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face." (Para 233). In her stark and challenging way, Weil makes clear the difficulty involved in seeing the mystical meaning in that which at first appears abject and repellant:
The afflicted have no need of anything else in this world except someone capable of paying attention to them. The capacity to pay attention to an afflicted person is something rare, very difficult; it is nearly a miracle. It is a miracle. Nearly all those who believe they have this capacity do not. Warmth, movements of the heart, and pity are not sufficient." (Ibid, p. 28)
I think the same of our attentiveness to nature - not just that which is disfigured and afflicted by our human abuse of the environment, but the harsh realities of suffering, violence, death and decay which are unavoidable aspects of nature if we pay close attention. Romanticism elides as much as rationalism does. Only mysticism sees in the dark - sees the beauty in the dark.
I spent the first thirty years or so of my life in sub-Saharan Africa, where beauty and abjection announce their presence in ways that are impossible to ignore. Nature is a flamboyant excess of colour and sound, of drama and risk, with excitement and danger always just a heartbeat away - from the scorpion that lurks unseen inside a shoe, to the crocodile or hippo that suddenly appears at the water's edge. The idea that Africa is full of starving people and children with fly-caked faces is outrageous to anyone who has experienced the bustling cosmopolitanism and human diversity of that vast landmass, but it is true that abjection wears a human face too often in that beautiful, tragic and hopeful continent.
I've had to retrain my aesthetic sensibility to discern more subtle and nuanced forms of natural beauty since moving to the UK - to marvel at the colours of a starling's breast and a seagull's wing, to listen for the lark, the blackbird and the robin, to discover in the sound of a dove ruffling the morning air a nostalgic haunting of childhood memories, for some sounds were as common in Zambia as they are here. I've also had to cultivate a different sense of what poverty looks like, for it too is more disguised but no less abject in this affluent but divided society.
Living on a houseboat on the tidal Thames I learned to love the swans and the herons, the grebes and the moorhens and the coots, the ubiquitous ducks and the rare bright flash of the kingfishers, as much as I once loved the exotic birds of the African savannah. I was thankful that I could swim in the tidal Thames without worrying about those hippos and crocodiles, but still conscious that nature is a savage power that commands constant watchfulness if we are to survive.
Now, having recently moved to Camber Sands - a crowded tourist resort in summer but a place of wild desolation in winter - I'm learning to identify the seabirds and the shells, to appreciate the infinite variety of the sea and the sky in their lunar and tidal patterns and changing seasons. I can still expose myself to that savage power of nature, as I calculate the tide times and wade out into the chill winter sea, feeling the tug of the tide on my limbs and the sucking of the waves hungry to consume me.
And I'm learning that every sunrise is worth getting out of bed for.
These were my thoughts this morning as the wind scoured my face and the pale morning light filtered
over the pools on the beach and bestowed upon me a morning benediction.
As I made my way home, the wind danced ahead of me up the dunes in ribbons of sand. When I tried to turn around my face and eyes were blasted with the stinging whiplash of its presence.
The world is beautiful, dramatic and dangerous in all its aspects, and we are very
small in the midst of it all.