Cocker also writes that ‘a preoccupation with the exceptional is almost hardwired into the human imagination’. It’s become almost impossible to escape the lure of the exceptional. But perhaps the exceptional (the marketable) is becoming the least worthy of thought. Perhaps the mystery in the familiar is becoming the hardest thing to understand.
I grow too used to the world again. I make it commonplace, veil the day behind the everyday. I become a burden to myself, moving from bedroom to bathroom, from the bathroom to the kitchen, from the kitchen back to bed and my laptop. It’s raining.
Sometimes the nearest things, what we’re most used to, are the hardest to see: we see them too often to see them fresh. Too much home and home becomes oddly alien. I’m a body moving through the same rooms, the same fields, the same shops. No dramatic mountain peaks in this flatland. No vantage point from which to sweep your arm across the horizon and grasp it all.
What did I mean by the mystery in the familiar? (Already the phrase grows stale, kitschy.) Giacometti said, ‘The closer I come, the grander it is, the more remote it is.’ Rilke wrote of ‘what is simple in nature, the small things that hardly anyone sees and that can suddenly become huge, immeasurable’. Doesn’t being lurk most intimately in the things we move among every day – in the fact of their being here at all?
Tree surgeons and reedcutters are at work making room for new spring growth, opening up the landscape. The birds, flushed out of their hiding places, are everywhere. Pheasants squall and flap about in the remaining brush at the end of the field. In the garden a pair of magpies are madly nest-building and in the woods green shoots are growing through blankets of dead leaves and brittle bracken. Along the road the blackthorns and cherry trees are blooming. S. says she saw her first bumblebee yesterday. By the river we see a blue tit hacking open a bulrush and spitting white downy wisps to all sides. What’s it after we wonder: nest bedding? seeds? insects? We move quite close but it doesn’t care about us. This is an urgent season. Spring is here, in the nearest, commonest things – the budding trees, the smell of grass, the very air – as the earth lavishly renews itself.
In everything well-known, something worthy of thought still lurks, wrote Heidegger… Perhaps the exceptional (the entertaining, the marketable, that which is used to claim our attention most easily) is becoming the least worthy of thought. Writing of conservation, the Norfolk-based naturalist Mark Cocker says it’s the commonplace that needs to be protected not the rare:
‘Our inherent orientation towards the rare has often distorted the way in which we look at the environment. How often one finds conservation policies built around a few charismatic species, such as the tiger, polar bear or, more parochially, the Eurasian bittern or corncrake. Singling out the flagship animal is often a way of simplifying a project for public consumption… Yet the downside is that it continues to reinforce the idea of a charismatic few. When what truly makes an ecosystem flourish is the very opposite of its flagship representative: the sheer bio-luxuriance of its commonest constituents – usually the plants and myriad invertebrates. A reedbed doesn’t amount to very much without its multiple millions of phragmites’ stems.’