I used to live in a Delhi where the November air is an oily yellowish smear. Water sucked illegally from an underneath aquifer fostered subsidence. Our house, near the Yamuna, sank into its foundations, fine cracks lining wall plaster.

Years later, in Mumbai, close to the place where I was staying, mangroves buffering rising oceans were ripped out. Municipal workers, clearing the seaside view, hacked through tangled, half-submerged trees. On cue, the next monsoon, grey, briny water filled the ground-floor shops.

Climate matters are, in this way, close at hand even when at a remove. We open our social-media feeds to images of wildfire and flooding. We scan how oceans acidify, microplastics aggregate, and rainforests vanish. The sky and sea that surrounds us are suffused by anxiety.

In all this, nature is framed by crisis and disaster. We have technocratic fixes like geoengineering and social hacks like degrowth. Yet with uncertain odds, our answers deepen our dread.

Might this be the central issue? Climate change is the apocalypse we all see. So perhaps the real problem is how we see.

Beauty is another method of meeting our world. It is not one that scientists forefront or that planners advocate. Rabindranath Tagore saw it more than a century ago. In his poetry and painting, birds alert us to this realm.

In Jottings, Tagore draws an image of flying ducks. They soar on a winter day, “ecstatic with dreams of remoteness / Drunk with the sky’s blueness”. In Stray Birds, winged creatures refract our sensuous sphere: “The bird-song is the echo of the morning light back from the earth.”

Beauty, Tagore suggests, is an ethos of abundance. Climate talk is one of lack. Thinking in terminal limits, we are divorced from our world. Whereas beauty’s infinite replay expands our knowing and tending.

Rabindranath Tagore, 1928, from 'Rabindra Chitravali', 2011.

Recently, I was in Siracusa, on Sicily’s eastern coast. I walked through Corinthian ruins and ancient Jewish baths. There were Roman catacombs under the city, and residues of its time as the Byzantine capital. A Norman church had been re-purposed from an Arab mosque and Greek temple. Everywhere was the mash-up of things built for one reason and hijacked for another.

Yet it wasn’t this historical jumble which imprinted me. It was a chance occurrence on my second evening. I stood on an elevated promenade on the city’s western edge. A small marina below had bobbing sailboats and sleek yachts. Locals took their evening stroll – the passeggiata – unhurriedly.

The sky was an intense pastel; the descending sun daubed its citrus palette freely. Below, along a children’s arcade, was a strand of tall cypress trees. The scene was bucolic enough, delivering the guide-book promise.

A second later, it was transcended. Out of my peripheral vision, hundreds of metres above, was what looked like a suspended fishing net. But these dark filaments moved, expanding and contracting.

I squinted upwards to see a constellation of swifts, hundreds drifting as one. They joined, parted, then fused again, while moving through the staticky, humid air. Transfixed, I watched the birds play a kind of game.

They would cluster to the north, far above Siracusa’s zigzagging limestone rooftops. There they hovered, like a cloud of angry bees, or perhaps ecstatic ones. Hundreds of beings, in this elevated synchrony, played call-and-response. As one moved, so did they all, an orchestra without a conductor.

Finally, at some cue from some force, they rushed down the row of cypress trees. A few stragglers, of the hundreds of swifts, came behind the main group, chirping energetically.

Then, as if in ritual, the swifts would repeat. They gathered in the north, did their high-altitude dance, and, without warning, careened down, nipping the treetops.

How remarkable, to see multiple beings in concert, for purposes outside of function. They could not be oriented, in that moment, for survival or necessity. Each swift was at play and pleasure: taking delight in airborne passeggiata.

As if they, too, were “drunk” like Tagore’s ducks – on a tangerine rather than blue sky. As if they, too, in piercing calls, mirrored the setting sun’s “light back from the earth”.

I could not understand why they did what they did. I could only absorb myself in it. The coiled bundle in the sky. The slalom through the green tree-tips. The rustle of the swifts’ forked tails. The sun’s candle-melted softness. The evening exhale of spiced cypress resin.

My mind was muted. But my senses – what I could see, hear, and smell – swooned. Like Tagore’s ducks, like Siracusa’s swifts, I was wasted on the immediate.

Rabindranath Tagore, Bird Fantastic (before 1941). Credit: National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi.

With the climate, we disagree on how we got here and what to do. The right storyline, the instigating statistic, eludes us. We see earth as stained and scarred: in terminal condition.

Might we translate a commitment to what surrounds through beauty? Like other forms – justice or freedom – beauty has diverse expressions. We are attuned to it by inhabiting a set of relations, translating what is near at hand, turning perceptions into something else. Just as Tagore converted his seeing of birds into penned verse and painted figures.

Seeing differently is not aesthetic distraction; it is necessary for knowing and solving. Beauty fosters how we understand and intervene. Consider Rachel Carson, our patron saint of ecological consciousness.

Carson trained as a marine biologist in America. In 1962, her book Silent Spring demolished the myth that industrial pesticides like DDT were benign. Her meticulous analysis showed how chemical toxins accumulate across species, cause poisonous cancers, and spur animal resistance. This knowledge galvanised policy protection and public awareness around the world.

But long before this, Carson was fascinated with the ocean. Her aquatic consciousness was formed not through scientific jargon but wonder. In The Sea Around Us, written well before her environmental fame, Carson writes:

  “The life of all parts of the sea is linked. What happens to a diatom in the upper, sunlit strata of the sea may well determine what happens to a cod lying on the ledge of some rocky canyon a hundred fathoms below, or to a bed of multicoloured, gorgeously plumed sea worms carpeting an underlying shoal, or to a prawn creeping over the soft oozes of the sea floor in the blackness of mile-deep water.”  

In Carson’s hands, mundane interconnections become lyrical beauty. The sticky, sludgy sediment at the bottom of the ocean is “a sort of epic poem of the earth”. Carson, like Tagore’s birds, was “ecstatic with dreams of remoteness”. Her awareness of beauty was not incidental; it lay at the centre of her science and activism.

Beauty is what gives without reserve. Like Siracusa’s swifts, it announces itself without warning. In learning how to see, we are impelled to know, and to act, as Carson did.

In Gitanjali, Tagore discusses anxiety and doubt. Entrenched in our times, they are transcended through beauty. It is a fitting rejoinder to our doomish climate conjecture:

“Come outside, come quickly, fly –
Look up, look up and see – the sky
Is full of light and bright and sheer,
Gone is all your fear”.

Ajay Gandhi teaches at Leiden University.