I pour a second beer and sit back in the easy camping chair. The scrawled label says 6.5%. The rapid mellowing, soporific effect suggests that it has developed greater potency in the bottle since being brewed 18 months ago at our previous home in Cornwall.
The sun disappeared behind the trees an hour or so ago. I gaze up at the uncountable pinpricks of light slowly emerging from the increasing darkness. A double flashing light emerges from behind the roofline of the house. After a noticeable delay, the dissipated jet roar follows from the same location. The cocooned passengers make their way leisurely across the night sky.
The cat’s tongue rasps as she cleans herself on the table beside me. A gentle breeze rustles the remaining dry leaves clinging stubbornly to the nearby oaks. Owls call and respond along the valley.
Normally, on a late November evening, I would expect to be inside, in front of a blazing fire. However, the unseasonably warm, sunny days, make me want to enjoy and absorb the elements for as long as possible while the good fortune lasts, just because.
After a time my mind wanders back to Thursday evening, when we visited the local auberge, for an event organised to celebrate the release of this year’s Beaujolais Nouveau.
At a long table, we shared steaming bowls of Pot au Feu and generous supplies of the young, fruity red. Following a comment about the unusual weather, a farmer neighbour informed us that a local saying suggests that on years when the skins of onions are thick, it is advisable to prepare for a heavy winter. This year’s onion skins are thin. We shrugged a communal “we’ll see” shrug and moved on to other topics.
Sitting outside these few nights later, listening to the brook burble, watching a satellite track across the sky, I got to wondering. Who first noticed a correlation between onion skin thickness and wintery conditions ? Why just onion skins ? How many years does a correlation need to be witnessed in order for a pattern to be established, and for that pattern to be written into folklore ?
I sink further into the chair, look up at the speckled darkness, and am reminded of a telephone conversation I’d had a couple of nights ago with my father. He was enthusing over the fact that space scientists last week had succeded in landing a probe on a comet. The probe was launched from a craft that has been successfully set into orbit around the comet, following a ten year journey that covered a cumulative distance of over 6.4 billion kilometres, and that needed four gravity assists from planetary flybys ( one of Mars and three of Earth ) in order to launch the craft into the required orbit.
We have kept up with very little news during the twelve months since moving to this sparsley populated area of rural France. No TV, no newspapers, no radio. We have little idea what is going on in the wider world. Somehow, though, this report filtered through, and it piqued my interest. But not enough for me to register the fact that it had taken such a long time to achieve this goal. In my ignorance, I thought that the probe had been launched much more recently. I thought “good on them, that’s fantastic”, then went back to trying to complete the terraced vegetable garden while the weather holds.
That lonely probe has been making its hazardous journey towards the outer reaches of the Solar System for ten years. Permission was granted ten years before launch to set about realising this mission. How many years were required to work through the necessary calculations in order to present for authorisation ?
For the greater proportion of my lifetime, this project has been taking place in some shape or form, in order to shed light on the development of our Solar System, and on our place as a statistically unlikely tiny speck within it.
This kind of endeavour has its roots in stillness. In the willingness to stop and observe, in the ability to ascertain pattern.
The thinking that looks up at those shimmering lights and imagines how it might be possible to negotiate a path between them, shares roots with that which notices how a vegetable’s protective layer might forecast weather conditions.
The breeze has increased in strength, and contains within it an edge that reminds that we are heading into winter. I shiver, raise a final toast to The Observers, pack up the chair, and head inside to light the fire.