I was walking in the woods in North Somerset on Saturday with M. The pussy willow was out – goat willow catkins in little beads of fluffy moleskin. It was plashy underfoot. I was glad I had accepted the loan of some boots. We stopped to pick wild garlic and have a chew. “This time last year I was out picking wild garlic with E. and S. at our secret spot in Innerwick.” I told M. “Made so much wild garlic pesto I sickened myself of it. It’s as well we only get it once a year.” She told me I had missed a trick, that I should have made wild garlic frittata, it’s delicious. This year I’ll give it a go, I told her. Walking on a bit further I saw my first butterfly of the year: yellow butterfly, was as far as we got with identifying it. We wandered along in semi-silence, M. humming happily whilst I deliberately steered myself into muddy puddles, enjoying having the right footwear on to so that I could be a messer. The butterfly had established the colour of the day, for everything I saw thereafter was yellow: daffodils, early blooming whin bushes, celandines winking out from deep in under the trees and a few clumps of brave hearted primroses. M. had recently been to see the musical ‘Wicked’ and, as we walked, she sang. Her repeating earworm was staring to wriggle in my ear too, “I think I’ll try defying gravity, and you can’t pull me down!”
It started to pour and we stood under a huge beech tree for shelter. “It’s not giving us any shelter, the branches couldn’t be more bare.” I looked up and a huge raindrop fell straight into my eye as if to chide me for complaining. “Isn’t Stephen Hawking marvellous, though?” M. added, in a characteristic non sequitur. Maybe it was because we had been looking skyward that he came to her mind, maybe it was because of the ‘Wicked’ lyrics she had been singing on loop; whatever it was, I didn’t ask why she had spoken of Stephen Hawking, and we walked on, bouncing from one disconnected thought to another.
And this morning we’ve all woken to the news that he has died. Stephen Hawking, who didn’t defy gravity but did something almost as breathtaking in defying all reasonable prognosis of how long he had to live – defying medics by about fifty years, and then some. Stephen Hawking, who told us that, “However bad life may seem, there is always something you can do – while there’s life, there is hope.” Stephen Hawking, who reminded us to, “Keep a sense of wonder about our vast and complex universe.” And I think about our walk on Saturday and how naturally he fell into our conversation as we wandered about the woods of England in gentle wonder.
Hawking’s sense of wonder was kindled in him through an interest in space, the stars, the universe, and tonight we should all look up in wonder, and wonder. Today, we might just notice the wonders on earth too. Here in Edinburgh, the blooms on the whin bushes are well behind those in Bristol; they’re just coming to life in patches around Arthur’s Seat – another couple of weeks and they’ll be blazing. The frogs have been spotted in E.’s pond, which is full of frogspawn, and I’m supposing the gannets are back on the Bass Rock, but I’ve not been out that way lately to check. Try as I might, I’m never going to understand all that Stephen Hawking has to say about the universe, but my starting point is to stand in wonder and appreciate it, happy that the world keeps turning as it should.
‘Desert Places’, by Robert Frost
“They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars – on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.”