I remember studying the rose window of Notre Dame at art school. I’ve never seen it, except in photographs. Now perhaps I never will. I’ve read Victor Hugo’s testament to the creation and life of Notre Dame Cathedral, and of course I feel the loss–our collective loss–as it burns, with all the world watching.
A mighty edifice has gone up in flames, and naturally we are moved–it’s right that we should be, though not without due consideration to its origins, or what it represented.
In the same spirit, though, I can’t help but think of the thousand-year-old forests we’ve known only by their stumps. Of the ten, twenty-thousand year old glaciers we’ve known only by their shards. Of the languages lost, whose words we never even heard spoken, and of the cultures entering their twilight. Of those places of great beauty that had endured for ages, ploughed under, chopped to matchsticks, or blown to smithereens within the frames of our own little lifetimes.
Passenger pigeons. Dodo birds. Great auks. White rhinos. Tiny little frogs we never had time or resources to know about, let alone to name. Forests razed without regard for their history, or for our collective future. Fires blazing, floods surging, wars raging. These too are the images of our collective loss, our collective grief.
In mourning what is familiar and beloved, let us consider too what is being destroyed and lost as a matter of course, out of the public eye, in every corner of the world. The Earth itself is a cathedral. Trees as old as Notre Dame fall before chainsaws and are hauled off, sawn up and shipped away on a daily basis. If the world doesn’t see, doesn’t feel, doesn’t know it, it’s because we chose to look elsewhere.
Too often we have seen the world through spectacular windows of particular human making. They colour and reflect and refract the light to show what is pleasing, what is inspiring—what we wish to see, or what others wish us to see.
When a window shatters, we have the opportunity to look in, or out, at what is really there—-as well as what is gone.