Nature Crunch: Redesign, Rethink, Reimagine
Cover: Polar Bear Photograph: Juniors Bildarchiv
Illustration: Jane Ray
No other star is as quick to tell me where to go. You are my guide, my magnet, my light. Oh Star of wonder Star of light Star with royal beauty Bright
LEADING NOT WESTWARDS but North. I follow, you climb. Ninety minus theta. Further, higher, theta always shrinking until, at the end, it is close to one and you are almost at ninety. Perpendicular, a right-angle, the right angle, the right angle for a star, a star with real beauty, the pole star. Polaris.
For almost a lifetime I understood little of this. It made no difference to you. Nothing I do can make a difference. How reassuring. How liberating. I can laugh, cry, murder, die and you will shine. You, a yellow supergiant, with your age and size measured in super giant units. And me? Sixty-three years old and a third of a metre short of two. It’s enough to make me laugh.
Of course, in my world, sixty-three is a good age. In the top quartile, tenth percentile even; and where, in your world, are you? Not as hot as Rigel, nor so cool as Betelgeuse. Not the brightest even to me: from where I’m standing Sirius deserves that honour. But Sirius is not always there. And no other star is as quick to tell me where to go. You are my guide, my magnet, my light. I follow, you climb.
This time I have brought my boots. Oh, it got messy last time. The skin of my feet in shreds, stung by nettles, snagged by brambles, sliced by glass. The doctor was worried about disease – tetanus, septicaemia, even E. coli. Microorganisms, beings too tiny to see, multiplying into millions, potentially fatal, potentially putting a permanent stop to my quest. Nothing so minuscule could bring you down. My 6 billion peers could not conquer you, could not contact you, couldn’t even come close.
James came to collect me. Crying. Concerned. A little for me, a lot for himself. “Why can’t you just follow our sun?” he asked and I wondered how that would work. Sweeping an arc – East, South, West, or thereabouts – like chasing Gemini in January. “What would be the point?” I replied and he exploded. Not literally, not in stellar style, no true nuclear reaction but “POINT?” he screamed, so that a nurse came rushing. I told James he was splendid, which he was, impressive beyond normal human measure, and he said, “Mother, you are mad.”
But the doctor disagreed. Declared me Not Mad. Released me on the one condition that next time I wear boots. That doctor had a star in his eye. Only the Twinkle Twinkle kind, not heavenly but still passionate and powerful. So I have kept my promise and sheathed my lower limbs in Wellingtons. It is cold though, too cold to be comfortable in pyjamas and boots. How frail the human. How tiny the temperature range we tolerate.
Did the Vikings feel cold? Scandinavian seamen plundering, pillaging, then turning for home. Setting you in their sights. Running before storms, dragon ships drifting, discovering Greenland, a mass of snow, a land of apparently infinite white.
Does James think I’m the first to follow?
What of the Polynesians? Compassless, sextantless, found wanting even for a quadrant. Sailing south then returning, guided by nought but the empty shell of a gourd, holy and holey, blessed by a priest, eyepiece pierced and filled with fluid. Waiting for your kiss, on the rim, with fluid flat, at twenty degrees latitude, Hawaii and home.
Some say it’s too crazy to be true: we cannot navigate oceans with a calabash. Some say it’s a myth and there are many about you. That you were created by Coyote, bored by the black of a blank sky. Positioned by First Man to become The Star That Does Not Move. I’m told you do move, although we can’t see it, so I prefer the myth that makes you The Great Imperial Ruler of Heaven. No-one can argue about heaven’s hierarchy.
That’s not to say they wouldn’t try. Here they come, streaming, squealing, reeling into the streets from pubs with closing doors. Glazed eyes roam and fix on me, some snigger, some look away. Only one points and shouts, “NUTTERRR!” One word, two syllables, the first bouncing off buildings, the second sliding into the gutter with his vomit. I have no fear of him. If he were nearer I would ask him what he knows of you. Phoenice. Al-Kiblah. There is power even in your names.
STILL, IT’S BETTER when the lights are left behind. Those feeble pin-pricks protecting humanity from itself, preventing us from focusing on greater glories. Until the orange haze fades to the south I see little, feel my way with my feet, wait for my eyes to adapt. Slowly stars of smaller magnitude loom into sight – Pherkad, Megrez, Thuban – then the Milky Way, that road of ashes where lightning rests. Finally the farthest, the oldest light my naked eyes will see. M31. Another galaxy, another gravity, another age.
Perhaps I am a nutter as accused. Perhaps M31 did not outlast Cro-Magnon man. Perhaps your light is just a legacy and I am chasing a memory. Did you live through our recent revolutions – Russian, French, Industrial? Or did you die one hundred, two hundred, three hundred years ago?
Briefly I perform my own revolution. My foot slips sideways into a furrow, ankle twists, hip hits soil. I roll, am stopped by a scrubby bush with spikes that poke through pyjamas. I struggle to stand, wince as I lower my weight onto an unwilling leg. Plucking out prickles I cautiously creep forward. I must be more careful, must focus.
When I focus I learn a lot. Long hours watching, walking, eating up information. “For heaven’s sake,” says my son, with no pun intended. “You’re like a slave to those stupid stars.” But the stars help to liberate, literally. Helped negroes running North, to Canada, the Free-State. Or to death, a different state entirely.
And stupid? Oh James. Spirits of the dead, spirits of the unborn – these descriptions would disgust you. Holes in the solid dome of the sky. “Where is the science in that?” you would ask. But where is the science in stupid? Where is the relevance, the perspective, the humility?
I am humbled by my body. Weak, weary, deficient but determined, I scramble over stiles, stumble across streams, clomp through cowpats. Cold air creeps under my clothes, awakens arthritic aches, numbs toes. I will roam the road awhile, not North but close to it, smooth and black until punctuated by an explosion of light that scorches the retina, shatters the vision. I raise my elbow, shield my eyes, hear a screech, a slam, a shout. “All right, love?”
Perhaps someone has been hurt. I turn, dazzled, see red dots dance on a box silhouette. A lump approaches. “You all right, love?” He means me. “Yes,” I reply. “You looked… Are you sure?” I smile, which he may not see, and say, “I’m just walking.” Then I walk again to show him. He watches me still, so I wave and continue over the crest of the hill. When I’m sure he can see me no more I slow down.
Just walking! I shiver, unsettled. The road exposes me to suspicion, judgement; better to risk broken bones on bumpy ground. I wait for a sign, follow a footpath over a stile. Away to my right a farm dog barks and my ears seek out the sound. When I look back to you your brightness is fading. At first I think the farm lights have affected my vision. Then my skin senses moisture. Mist!
I push forward faster but, with admirable speed, a thousand stars become a hundred, a hundred, fifty. You vanish and when my view of Vega is obscured by a veil of steam I know this mist is settled in ’til sunrise. I am too weary to climb, too weak to rush around corners, to avoid vehicles driven by drunks. In the supreme scheme my sixty-three years may seem trivial but my body bears the scars of every one.
I need rest. Later, I shall continue my quest, but for now I drop to dew-dampened grass beneath the branches of a birch. Dawn is just a few hours away and I will be safe here, hidden. When the sun rises, so shall I. Until then, I shall sleep.
I AWAKE TO whispering. Soft words wafting. “Sleeping”, “safe”, “secure”, “sane”, “sixties”, “sectioned”, “shshsh”. Sectioned?
Smells of antiseptic, efficient swishings of skirts. My son in mafia mode, murmuring, “She has money.” More mumbling. Moving. My arm rising, biceps squeezing, blood pumping. Eyelids trembling. “Mrs Small?” “Mother?”
“Sectioned?” I ask. Someone pats my hand. No-one says sectioned again.
In the evening, the doctor comes to sit with me. His eyes twinkle but the light is not white. It is not blue, yellow or red. Later I shall ask him about the shine in his eyes but first we must speak about me. “My son would have you believe I’m mad.” He smiles and shines and shakes his head. “You were walking towards Bristol. Your son wants to know what would happen in Bristol.” “I would keep walking. North.” “And when you came to the Severn.” “I could walk on water.” His eyes widen. “And drown. Or I could walk beside the water to the bridge. It would be best to find the bridge.”
His eye corners crease. His lips part and lengthen. His shoulders shake. When they stop, he says, “Your son is concerned about your clothes.” “My son has a tattoo on his buttock, a stud in his tongue and a ring in his rim, if you see what I mean. Pyjamas are impractical but they do not actively hurt.” He laughs again, really laughs, really loud. He squeezes out tears then sobers, subdues. “Mrs Small, we should not laugh. You have hypothermia. And this is, after all, the Health Service. We cannot let loose people with no proper sense of self-preservation.”
This doctor’s eyes are well-watered. He has laugh-tears, tease-tears and probably sad-tears. I’m sure I need convince him of nothing but I say, “I have sailed in boats so small, in seas so big, that even I would not have bet on my survival. I have hung under a handkerchief half a mile in the sky. I have knocked myself unconscious on rocks under kayaks and close to it underground. No-one doubted the danger and no-one disputed my sanity.”
“But you wore the right clothes, Mrs Small.” The doctor’s eyes dance. He laughs when he should not. He mocks my son without mentioning him. He is on my side. “I will wear a coat,” I say. “But I am not mad, with or without it.” He sighs, “In my mother’s land, millions will not meet, move or marry without consulting the mathematicians of the skies. If you are mad, then so are they. But there is no space to hold you all, even in my heart. Alas, Mrs Small, simple logistics compel me to declare you sane, again.”
Twinkle, twinkle. He is not sorry. He pulls a pen across paper, files the paper, pockets the pen. I fold into pillows, “Is that all?” “Almost.” He links his fingers, leans forward. Affects an Italian accent, low voice, “I belief you haf monee?” My son speaks too freely to strangers. “I am not without means.” “Go to Greenland. Or Svalbard. I believe even Siberia will do. Wear bear skins, lie on your back and point your binoculars. It is beautiful. Beautiful. And the aurora borealis, an added bonus.”
“You have been?” “To Greenland, yes. For the snow and the sleds but the sky was the best.”
I smile. I was right. This man has the stars in his eyes. If I am not sane then neither is he. This introduces questions but the answers do not matter so I don’t ask.
He stands, clasps my hand, shines. After releasing me, he clamps the file onto the clipboard at the foot of my bed. Winking the lid over a well-watered eye, he says, “One last thing, Mrs Small.” “Yes?” “If you do go to Greenland – fly!”