Last year I watched autumn for the first time in this small town since we moved here nearly four years ago. A few months before, I’d started, slowly, to let daylight into my room; and now, in those hours when the blinds are lifted, I can look outside.
You notice autumn here. The town is edged with woodland, and in places trees and houses jostle for space. The trees are often older than the houses, and you have the sense they’ll still be standing when the houses are long gone. It’s their land. From my window, lying here, I can see the top of a tall tree – I think it’s a beech tree – three or four storeys high, outreaching the mock Tudor house across the street. As summer ended, and more rain fell, the leaves of the tree turned the colour of rust, as if they were rusting in the rain; and then, slowly, they began to fall, tumbling through the branches, getting stuck, as if they were afraid of the drop, or reluctant to go. Now the tree is naked; stripped back, tender, raw. On cold days, when the sky is clear and the light is sharp, and the tree is black against a pale blue sky, the intricacy of its branches, dividing and dividing and dividing, startles me. You would call it the skeleton of a tree, but I don’t see clumsy bones. I see blood vessels, nerve fibres, the tiny branching alveoli in the lungs, dividing and dividing and dividing. It’s not death I can see. It’s the shape of life.
This month it’s exactly 10 years since I first fell sick, and I’ve been wondering how I’ve survived it. This is one of the ways. Time and again, when I’ve felt set adrift, scared or bewildered by fever or in pain, alone in this room in an empty house, the natural world has caught me and held me. Tawny owls calling across the December dusk, each call answered by another. Rain falling softly on the roof like a half-heard conversation. The subtle but certain shift of shadows on the walls as the sun heightens and winter tips into spring. During a spell of insomnia, at four on a summer morning, I heard a cuckoo, each note clean as a struck bell.
A few months ago my father died, and I found myself looking out of a different window, at a different view; into the spindly, upward-reaching branches of a rowan tree my father planted more than 20 years ago. Paul was with me, and we were watching tiny birds flitting in and out of the tree, great tits and blue tits, so light the spindly boughs didn’t bend beneath their weight. I was trying to explain to him something of what I’m trying to explain here; trying, and failing, because not only does this illness take away your capacity to walk, or dress yourself, or comb your own hair, it also takes away your ability to reason, to analyse, to remember what you just wrote or said, to place words one after the other in ways that make some kind of sense. But I knew that before I got sick, I wouldn’t have seen the birds. I would have turned my back on the window, turned towards the half-packed bags on the bed, turned my mind to the uphill road we had to take out of town. Paul said it was as though the background had become my foreground. But it’s more than that. What we were looking at, the flitting birds, and the tree my father had grown from a single berry, weren’t just background. All these things – birds and birdsong and trees and rain – are knotted into the net of our lives. It’s just a question of where we place our attention.
On 7th February, I write in my diary that the dawn chorus wakes me for the first time this year. It seems too early, it’s still winter. I lie awake for a while, listening to the playground din, disentangling the songs I’ve learned in the three summers I’ve spent in this room: chaffinch and blackbird, blue tit and great tit. It’s comforting to hear them again, the same songs, the same birds. They remind me I’m already home.