A long time ago, I walked out alone to a massive, disused railway bridge called Seven Arches, on the edge of Dundee. A beautiful place, where the river Dichty runs underneath, and you can see herons and woodpeckers and enjoy the peace and shade of a few miles of trees along the side of the river.
From the bridge, you can see for miles out to the mouth of the River Tay. The tops of the very tall trees are level with your eyes as you stand on the bridge, adding to a special sense of closeness to vast spaces. Or, it seems that way to me.
Over decades, I’ve returned to that place many times, and sometimes I’ve tried to write about what I think and feel when I am there. This is from a poem I wrote more than 10 years ago, called On the edge of words:
On grey stones to Seven Arches Bridge.
Incursion to nowhere, staring sun and skies
Above fields of solitude, to an empty horizon.
How could I name and survive that edge?
Here, I suppose I’m trying to come to terms with a sense of something I couldn’t grasp in a purely logical way – then, or now. I remember standing on the bridge, looking out at the blue horizon which hazily separated a perfect sky and the River Tay, and marvelling at how alive and bright everything was. I felt, as a teenager, that – fully understanding reality is always just beyond the edge of things I can see or touch. I craved some kind of answer but I didn’t really know what the question was.
When we feel this way, words can stumble around like drunks trying to say what they are unable to say. Words like ‘amazing’ or ‘incredible’ are like putting a sticker on a red rose with the word ‘WOW’ scribbled in red felt pen. Understandable, inadequate, and just a wee bit ridiculous. Or, like the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, we might think something like:
What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.[i]
I read those words now and think: Hmm, not very helpful, Ludwig. Then, I remember that he wrote those words in 1918, when he thought that Logic was the only key to explaining the major concerns of Philosophy. A few years later, he began to look more at the ways in which language (and an overly logical view of language) can trick us into looking for answers in the wrong places. If we become more aware of different ways we use language in ‘language games’ (an idea he developed), we might be better able to see that there are many ways we can use words and not all of them need to correspond to the same logical rules. (I’ll have more to say about these ideas in future posts.)
As an adult, I am still amazed at the world. After reading millions of words about science and history, literature and art – I don’t feel as if I know much more about the source of my sense of awe than I did as a teenager standing on Seven Arches Bridge. Most weeks, I feel the same way. Sometimes, photographs I take reflect something in the world that sparked the feeling: a photograph of Isobel (that always works); Loch Long; bicycles outside shops and cafes; sunlight through a leaf; frost on the ground; a shiny chestnut; or, a hedgehog of coloured pencils. Lots of times, something will grab my attention and I’ll photograph it or write about it or talk about it; but – each special spark or spirit of wonder in those situations always remains out of reach, somewhere just beyond the edge of things.
Some people are led towards religious ideas when they wonder about things in this way. It’s not a path I feel able to walk down for long, although I’m much more tolerant of people who place their hopes in religious faith than I once was. Not that I was ever openly dismissive of Christians and other religious believers: I just thought – God does not exist, and all religion is nonsense. Now, although I still see no need to believe in God, I’m happy to explore the history and psychology of the human search for what is often referred to as ‘spirituality’ and a need for peace and kindness in a world tottering on the edge of barbarity.
Am I confused by language, or by too much caffeine, into thinking there’s something to explore ‘beyond the edge of things’? Perhaps. And – I’d certainly be confused if I was looking for some mystical explanation. I’m not looking for a God, nor for the kind of mystical answers offered by Buddhism or newer religions. Instead, I’m interested in the borderland between what we know and can see and touch and our sense of wonder. It is the place in our minds and in our interactions with the world where dreams are made and poems, songs and paintings grow out of, as if out of nowhere – providing further sources of wonder. Science also has a role to play in helping us to understand this area. I’m just another explorer, taking notes on what I find.
I work most days with people whose sense of wonder has been battered senseless in childhood and crushed ever since. Poverty, drugs, and too much stress are an effective recipe for killing dreams. Yet, amazingly – if you listen very hard, you can still hear the stories of hope and people in dire need helping each other. One man, whose hands barely work as hands, helps to dress his ill wife every day because the love he feels beats the logic of impossibility. And I have seen smiles on the faces of people who have nothing to give but they want to give you something for helping them, and they give you a smile that makes the world a better place. We all have something to say about the wonder of just being alive in this world. All of the wonder of the world, like all of it’s wealth, should be shared by all. And it will be: just beyond the edge of now.