My late husband once told me something very obvious, except at the time it wasn’t in the least bit obvious to me. He told me that taking oneself to a place of elevation (Arthur’s Seat, for example), climbing up to a look-out point (say, the top of the Scott Monument), finding a view out over a panoramic landscape (Calton Hill is perfect), anywhere that brings you higher, he told me, would also bring a sense of perspective and set one’s worries in the context of the big picture. He was good at the big picture; maybe because he had travelled to war zones and witnessed so much trauma and sadness in the world. His go-to points of altitude weren’t the Edinburgh landmarks I’ve just mentioned – those are my go-to places (for the time being, that is). His were in Canada, and once, on a trip there, he took me to a famous viewing point in the Gatineau Park outside Ottawa called the Champlain Lookout. There, he gave me a revision class on how a view from on high can smooth the edges off our worries. ‘Look out there, E.,’ he said to me. ‘Isn’t it stunning? See where the Canadian Shield runs from here all the way up to the Arctic. They say these rocks are four billion years old – some of the oldest rocks on Earth.’ And I looked down on rocks and trees and rocks and trees and rocks and trees (and water), and I marvelled at the age of it all, wondered at the expanse of it all. How limitless, spacious, open it seemed. Then I thought of myself as a little speck of flesh passing through: important (insofar as we all are) but inconsequential. And on that particular occasion the view didn’t solve anything, but it did salve something.
I walked up Calton Hill on Sunday evening, aware that it could be a while before I’m there again. I looked east to where Berwick Law rises like a pyramid from the flat fertile land of East Lothian. Then north, across the still water of the firth, to Fife where the hills gloamed navy in the setting sun. Into the west the wheels of the city were grinding more slowly than usual; only a few buses trundled up Princes Street bounded by the secure landmarks of the near Balmoral clock tower and the castle beyond. But the south appeared to be sleepier still; neighbourhoods like Morningside and the Grange huddled down, the Pentlands holding them gently from behind. I thought about Nan Shepherd, the famous Scottish hill walker, who wrote a book about a lifetime spent walking the Cairngorms (The Living Mountain) and the freedom that height afforded her. She didn’t always go that high, even a small climb could bring her some peace. “It is worth ascending unexciting heights if for nothing else than to see the big ones from nearer their own level.”
Yet we might be deprived of it soon, this ability to gaze upon the urban or rural landscape from above – and what then? I have two proposals: firstly, to stare up into the sky, preferably at night; and secondly, to fly in your sleep. I’ll deal with the flying first. My Dad could fly in his sleep. I used to be able to too and we would talk about it – height, speed, distance covered. I stayed low, just above the rooftops, like the Snowman (before he lost the run of himself), and boy was it a good dream. I could fly above the birds, or some of them, the gulls would rise above me. (Which reminds me: S.’s favourite thing is to stand on a cliff and watch the birds fly below her, what a perfect favourite thing.) Some of my deepest feelings of contentment have settled upon me on real night flights across the Atlantic, west to east, when, after a fitful half-sleep I’ve woken to watch the sky crack an orange yoke as sun rises below me. Perhaps tonight I could dream this.
As for the night sky, looking up there slows our breathing and reminds us we were never really in control. As my friend C. said to me in an email yesterday, ‘it is a time for patience and humility’ and nothing brings more humility than checking out the illuminations of the night sky or the promise of a bright full moon. In his book Night Flight, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry told us, “Love does not consist of gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.”
Even in a forsaken, starless sky the stars are still there, hidden behind the night clouds where the moon is becoming whole, ready to shine.