I didn’t see the figures on the sands when I took this picture. I was more interested in seeing how the polarising filter would help bring details out in the sky, while leaving the sands recognisable as, well,… sands. It was only later when I put the picture up on the bigger screen of my PC, then cropped and zoomed, other details became apparent, and the ghosts emerged.
No, I didn’t know they were there, I don’t know who they are, and of course I don’t know where they are now. They’re simply gone. But for that moment, at 14:53 hours and 53 seconds on the 17/2/2013, they were everything, creating a living harmony out of what is otherwise nothing.
I get this same eerie philosophical melancholia from watching crowds. There are so many of us alive, and each life of infinite importance to itself, each of us viewing the universe from the centre of ourselves in a uniquely different way. But for me there’s something about the lone figure or a small group of figures set against a vast landscape that turns up the wick, and applies a more intense heat to the question of what it is to be human in the world.
On the one hand the seeming smallness of our presence can make the individual life appear worthless and futile, while on the other it might be said it’s in the very uniqueness of our perspective there lies a value that goes beyond the material - that it’s in adjusting to this perception of ourselves, and seeing more clearly through what one might call the eye of spirit, we each have the potential to realise the preciousness that is the individual life lived well, no matter how fleeting and superficially futile that life might appear to be.
I’m reading Field and Hedgerow by Richard Jeffries at the moment. Jeffries (1848-1887) was a small-town English journalist, essayist and novelist, who, after labouring long in obscurity, became quietly popular in the late Victorian period. Another of his works “The Amateur Poacher” has been my companion since childhood, and I still find much in him to admire. His particular forte was nature mysticism. To say Jeffries revered nature doesn’t quite get to the point of him, though revere it he most certainly did. Here was a man who could look at a grain of sand under his fingernail and tease the meaning of life from it – all without the aid of opium - but he was careful not to over-romanticise – being conscious and respectful of the red-in-tooth-and claw dimension of nature as well. He was also a man who saw more of God in a Greek statue than in the whole of King James.
Stay with me, this is relevant.
Of course we’re not all blessed with the divine attributes of a Greek statue, and I suppose Jeffries was getting at more than seeing a literal image of “God as deity” in hominid physiology. What the Classical Greeks saw in the human form, Jeffries hints at in his various works, while the rest of us cover it with loincloths for modesty, mistake it for a perverted Eros, and childishly titter at it. What is it? I don’t know, but if you’ll allow me a moment’s nudity, I can gaze for ever at John Collier’s Lillith (Atkinson Memorial Gallery, Southport UK), and see more than just her bosoms. There’s a ghost in her, and like my figures in the landscape, she gives me pause.
Getting back to the subject of nature, in “Field and Hedgerow” Jeffries writes of an unemployed farm labourer rejecting the grim soulless state-handout sanctuary of the Workhouse and choosing instead to survive the winter living rough, sleeping in out-buildings, finding what few scraps of charity he can from the farm wives. Jeffries suggests that in his struggle to maintain a personal dignified independence, against the rigours of nature, there is something noble, even Godlike about him.
Nature is impassive, impervious to our complaints. The rain falls and the frost bites regardless of our wishes, or the quality of our clothes. Still, on a sunny day, when the butterflies come out, you can look for God in it, a God that transcends deity, as the Romantics would say. Indeed when it’s not inflicting pain upon us, there’s enough stillness and sublime beauty in nature to see projections of all sorts of things. But whatever we discover, compassion will not be among its qualities.
In my photograph, the tide is out. Three hours later it would be in, and the small lives that had scampered across the sands that afternoon would have to scamper for safety or be washed away. The beach is also known for quicksand. An unwary figure going down in them could not rely upon nature, or the gods, for deliverance. For the survival of calamity, or nature’s worst excesses, we’re always going to need the compassion and the selfless intervention of other human beings. We might pray to our deities but it will be another human being who pulls us from the mire, offers reassurance at our tremblings, and a hot cup of tea to soothe away the aftershocks.
Some might take this as evidence the Divine works through us, that our capacity for compassion is a manifestation of the ineffable at work in the world. I’m coming to the same conclusion. It was Jeffries who taught me you don’t find God in mere deity, (Story of my heart), but only through a higher form of soul-life. And, incredible, as it seems, the fact remains that in a world apparently on fire, torn apart by the darker side of our natures, it’s only in human beings we find the contrary, even paradoxical evidence of a divinely transcendent and infinitely compassionate dimension, a dimension, the existence of which, is the only thing worth all the living and the dying for. If we are to understand the value of the individual life, no matter how fleeting or anonymous, like my figures in the landscape, we must first do what we can to nurture a compassion for the lives of others, and trust we’ll find it in others when we’re most in need of it ourselves.