We all wonder Who is God? What’s going to happen when we die. I don’t think it’s ever… nothing. I’m very fond of Lucretius. And Lucretius says that everything is a little energy. You go back and you’re these little bits of energy and pretty soon you’re something else. Now that’s a continuance. It’s not the one we think of when we’re talking about the golden streets and the hierarchy of angels. Even angels have a hierarchy. But it’s something quite wonderful. Everything is mortal. It dies. But its parts don’t die. Its parts become something else. And we know that when we bury a dog in the garden with a rose bush on top of it, there is replenishment.
And that is pretty amazing.
That was an excerpt from an interview with the poet Mary Oliver.
The Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park in the South Island of New Zealand is famous for it’s lack of light pollution. Like the Atacama in Chile people travel from far and wide to come and see the starscapes. On my recent trip there, an English guy called Sean drew me a map by hand and said to me if you’re ever venturing that way or passing along that particular road, take this map with you and go and find the X that marks the spot. A couple of weeks later I took him up on it. I hooked a right off the main road onto a dirt track and cycled for an hour along a slight incline, following the road along a river valley surrounded on either side by vast looming mountains.
The map told me to bridge two streams, and just before the third to cut right and pass through a gate onto a cattle track. Hide your bike somewhere and pack what you need for one night in a dry bag, food, clothes etc. Make sure it’s a dry bag because you’re going to have to ford a waist-high river. I packed what I thought I might need, hid my bike in a thicket, waded across the river, and climbed up into the hills following an ever-disappearing and reappearing track, all the time clutching at this piece of paper where Sean had marked out in biro the contours of the hills from memory. For three hours I walked, moving what I hoped was closer to the X, the subject of his map.
I moved into a whole new valley, a plateau I had no idea existed since it was invisible from the spot where I’d left my bike. As I walked the sense of isolation became like an adrenalin inside me, purely by dint of how alarming it felt to feel so alone and so small, wandering amidst a landscape made for giants. Tracing my way along a rocky outcrop to my left handside I heard the sound of cascading water from a stream, and finally laid eyes on Sean’s fabled X.
It was an old mustering hut from the 1870s, a place of refuge for the cattle and sheep farmers during the long winters spent moving their animals around in search of greener pastures. Inside were three bunks, a table with two stools, and a map on the wall, and the names of previous travellers scribbled into the wooden beams and the walls of corrugated iron. I dumped my stuff, went on a walk up to the highest point I could see, washed in the stream, ran around buttnaked for a little while for good measure, ate a couple of sandwiches I’d picked up at a petrol station that morning, and got into my sleeping bag.
At 2am my phone alarm went off. I woke up, put my jacket and shorts and beanie on and walked outside. Squinting my eyes half-shut, I laid down by the stream, put my head back on the grass and, stretching my arms and legs out into a starshape, opened my eyes. I’ve never seen so many stars in my life.
The constellations I was semi-familiar with were completely invisible, indistinguishable from the gazillions of their new neighbours that had apparently been there all along, but yet had only just now magically appeared to me. It was as if God himself had picked up a huge fistful of sherbert and summoning his best curve-ball had launched it at the night sky. I felt the surge of a strong instinct to concentrate, because I’d never again see a sky quite like the one i was gazing up at.
My uncle Adrian was obsessed with the stars, and all things space-related. He owned many telescopes. He was at Nasa HQ during Armstrong’s first small step for man, covering the moon-landings for the front page of The Telegraph. He wrote many books outlining the future of mankind, which were translated into many languages including for the Japanese, who were crazy for them.
Adrian breathed to walk, and showed my brother and I the joys he took from placing one foot in front of the other for hours on-end during a weeklong trip to Zermatt when we were twelve. I drank my first ever beer in his company on the terrace of a mountain hut, under the watchful eye of the Matterhorn.
I remember walking with him and his two dogs Basil and Otto through Richmond Park on a rainy Saturday morning when I was ten, furiously scribbling notes for some homework essay I had to write about the future, while Adrian waxed about the millions of different directions the earth might go in, and the myriad of paths upon it mankind might take. I remember my teachers being so surprised at the detail of the essay and incredulous as to the source of my pre-wikipedia research that it was published in the school review.
I remember Adrian used to put cherry tomatoes in his cereal for breakfast. He had the coolest sci-fi VHS collection in the world. He was the first grown-man I ever saw cry, when Basil drowned in the swimming pool one Sunday and we buried him in the dog-graveyard. He taught me all about chess and Kasparov and Deep Blue and how we were witnessing the rise of machine over man. He had an incredible warmth, and was tactile in a way that was not common on the English side of my family. He would bound up to me when he saw me and bellow ‘what‘s the news?!’ with an almighty grin on his face.
Staring into unending space outside that mustering hut at two in the morning, looking up at the stars after my four hour walk, I thought of Adrian back at home in London, fighting cancer, and it became clear to me in that moment how obvious were the reasons why he loved the things he loved so much. And I felt glad and thankful that he’d shown me those things when I was young, and it was largely because of him that I’d gotten myself into the situation I was now in, lying on my back in the dark after my walk into the hills, staring up at the Milky Way.
Adrian was my mother’s eldest brother. He died this morning.