As I hold my baby daughter at four in the morning, feeling the softness of her cheek against my own…
The shaking was gentle at first, then my father pushed harder against my shoulder.
“You’ve got to get up!”
“But it’s night.”
“Get up, or you’ll miss it,” urged Dad, now nudging my brother awake.
I was eight years old and though it was only four in the morning, Dad carried us up to the attic to watch a comet cross the sky above the breaking dawn. My brother leaned against me, half asleep; a gentle dribble of saliva from his open mouth ran down my arm.
“There it goes – see?” My father pointed out of the open window.
“Yes! I can see! John – wake up!” I nudged my brother awake and we three watched as the comet soared through the heavens before us. Such behaviour was not unusual – my father loved the night sky, loved the land beneath his feet. He was curious about everything from life on Earth to her most distant reaches, and he was determined we should know and respect our planet.
“There, that’s your home,” he said, pushing the newspaper towards us one morning. He tapped the photograph on the front page. “Earth.”
I remember thinking that it looked as if it belonged on our Christmas tree in the corner of the living room, this giant bauble of life suspended above the Moon. But it gave me a reference point for my place of belonging in the world. In childhood I’d inscribed my books with my name and address, adding lines for country, continent, world, solar system, universe and… infinity. I tried so hard to imagine infinity, Earth hung on a tree of nothingness, a bright globe in space. Where did I end, and all that infinity begin? But those imaginings brought me back time and again to the land, to that which I could feel beneath my feet, could touch with my hands and see under my fingernails. Raised in rural England, amid the farms, fields, and ancient forests of the Weald of Kent, there is still the country child within me, but today I am a woman who wonders every day, “What can I do to keep Earth safe and well?”
Last October, as I left the house early to walk in the hills near my northern California home, a smell in the air stopped me before I had taken a step. Smoke. You don’t like to smell smoke, if you live in California. Where was the fire? Was it close? Should I pack up the car now? The ‘go-kit’ was ready and we could be away in minutes. But no – I didn’t think this fire was close. Not yet. At the top of the hill, the telltale dawn that heralds wildfire was brilliant, bold; the Sun a giant circle of red in the sky, where acrid smoke had given her roundness definition. I discovered the fires were in Santa Rosa, an hour away. Thousands of displaced people were being brought into our neighbouring county. Some six weeks later, I listened as my brother spoke to me from his home in Ojai, in southern California. He had climbed onto his roof upon receiving the wildfire emergency message in the early hours of the morning – he wanted to see how close the fire had spread. “The fire’s moving at an acre per second,” he told me. “The flames are over a hundred feet high.” In the coming days, the fire raged on toward Santa Barbara. Then later came the rain, the floods, and the mudslides. People died. And seeing Earthrise again in my mind’s eye, I wondered if our planet had feverishly slipped too far into human-made sickness to pull her back from the brink.
My brother inherited that love of the land, and as a landscape gardener has practised ‘companion’ gardening, using his knowledge of plants to create spaces where chemicals need not be used. He explained, “When people use that stuff, they end up wondering why they’ve got dead bees and dead birds in thei1r garden.” After my father died, we were looking at his collection of garden tools – some of which had belonged to our grandfather. Mum would be moving into a new flat where the most she would have to care for were a few planters on the balcony, not an acre of garden. “I’m shipping the lot back to California,” he said. “These old tools – they’re kinder to the soil and plants.” On the many walks we took that summer, across fields known in childhood, we talked about being country kids, and how a love of the land is deeply ingrained within us. I told him about the various organisations I was donating to, trying to support those at the forefront of saving the Earth, and he said, “The Earth will do what she has to do to survive. She’ll shake off us humans and start again when she’s over us. We’ll have been just a blink in her eye. She’s probably had to get rid of a few civilisations in her time.”
It’s an interesting idea, I’ll grant him that. But as an individual, I’ve struggled with my responsibility as an Earth citizen. I remember, once, buying Earthrise Christmas baubles, and as I hung them on the tree, I stopped and held one in both hands, this fragile glass orb of blues and greens, and wondered what it meant to cradle Earth gently. For answers I’ve read widely, books both old and new, from writers who gave voice to the natural world over one hundred years ago, to bloggers opining now, sparking ideas about how we can both care for and perform trauma surgery on a wounded Earth. If education is power, I’ve tried my best, travelling and listening to people talking about their world. In Alaska, a guide told me they were paying special attention to increased water rising up from underneath all the glaciers at the same time, enough to create greater concern among scientists. In Kenya last year, we discussed the drought that is killing both wildlife and ways of life faster than ever before.
I remember, soon after Earthrise was published, she began to appear on cards and posters, and in particular those ‘Across The Miles’ cards bought to send to family overseas. You’d see that giant globe with hands added, fingers touching across an ocean, or she’d be divided in two, with a yellow ribbon joining the halves. I bought a small Earth which hung around my neck for years, and I have a vintage globe on my desk.
In her book, When Women Were Birds, author Terry Tempest Williams wrote, “Once upon a time, when women were birds, there was the simple understanding that to sing at dawn and to sing at dusk was to heal the world through joy. The birds still remember what we have forgotten, that the world is meant to be celebrated.”
The years of my growing gave me a lifelong love of the natural world. I was encouraged to respect the land beneath my feet and the air I breathe. When I reflect on Earthrise, and my gasp of wonderment as my father pushed the newspaper across the kitchen table toward me, I know it was the point at which I had an image that would remain with me, in the way that a lover might keep a photograph – something to be celebrated, protected, and held precious; close to the heart.