Most posts begin with an idea, even a title, or a photograph. I took this photo through the kitchen window three days ago, but I could have, just as easily taken it today because the scene outside is not much different. We’re in a spell of fairly typical south -westerly weather with alternating hours, of heavy showers and (if we’re lucky) days of sunshine. Photographs work hard for us, capturing in a fraction of a second an image that bears a huge amount of information. Here, the empty green, the trees in full leaf, the Georgian terrace and the moody sky combine to suggest a time and place. As everyone says when they see the flat – “you’re so lucky to have the view”, and we are very fortunate – the photo shows it.
There are things the photo doesn’t show, like for instance the fact that we’re here, and and not somewhere else far less attractive, because when I retired we became technically homeless. The flat is owned by the Church of England and we got it for no better reason than the fact that it became vacant just as we were looking desperately for somewhere to live. If I called it ‘social housing’ it would slot us into a far less desirable milieu, placing us with all the other displaced, ephemeral, faintly dodgy and occasionally deranged people of a dozen or more nationalities who also live here. But we, and all the others happily populate this area which mostly comprises social housing. There are students, singles, nurses, retired university professors, artists, refugees, rugby players, teachers, designers and retired clergy – the list goes on. It’s a splendidly diverse culture that demonstrates Plato’s notion that the city is a work of art.
And there in a nutshell is an awkward and difficult problem with nature, described using human actors and environments. Is an environment best described by its appearance and history? – ‘the view’? Much of Bath is a World Heritage Site, for instance, and Royal Crescent illuminated by the setting sun is astoundingly beautiful. Or is it better described scientifically, with the heavy lifting done by sociologists, anthropologists and economists? Bath makes millions from tourism, notwithstanding the difficulty of crossing the city at the height of the tourist season and especially the Christmas Market. Or is the essence of Bath embedded in its human ecology, its sheer diversity, the mixture from ostentatious wealth to grinding poverty, the novelists and the drug dealers. How do you weigh neighbourliness and human community? If it’s a work of art, in essence, how much of Bath would you have to destroy for it to become another place – “notbathanymore”?
I’ve written about this challenge a lot in the past few days. Yesterday we walked across the river to the Gulag to see the new park. It was officially opened the week before last and I felt I owed it a chance, having slagged it off. You’ll remember this very large and ‘prestigious’ (aren’t they all?) development was built on what’s known as a ‘brownfield site’ which was really very green indeed and housed a regionally important population of invertebrates – bugs in English. My initial impression was of surprise – our entrance coincided with a large border of weeds that ran the northern edge of the riverside park and was maybe fifteen feet wide. I was even happier that it had been seeded with a well thought out mixture of largely native grassland plants. Full marks to the person who passed up on pan-european seed mixes and paid a few quid extra to get the real deal. How long the border will last in the face of opposition from the owners of the £1million+ flats who think they’re messy is another matter, but in trade-off terms, this patch is a sop. a salve to the conscience, a token. Fifty well-meaning Knapweeds is not enough when the area of Gillette shaved ryegrass is twenty times greater and dully limited by notices that forbid almost anything human beings like to do. The original environmental survey was done by reputable ecologists – I’ve heard one of them speak, loyally and regretfully on the subject. The seed mixture was obviously chosen by someone well-trained enough to do the right thing. Here’s Murray Bookchin, quoted in “Deep Ecology” – and well worth reading –
…. The choice must be made now before the ecology movement becomes institutionalized into a mere appendage of the very system whose structure and methods it professes to oppose. (p4)
How long until we get to “Not bath any more”? How long until we get to “Not nature any more.”
The one approach that’s not much spoken of because it has a very high ‘cringe factor’ for our materialistic culture, might be called the spirituality of nature. I know instantly that this will be dismissed as hippy dippy tree-hugging, but those sorts of responses speak more loudly of fear than they do of confident atheism; fear that the baby has gone down the plughole with the bathwater. Here’s the Potwell Inn kitchen early this morning –
Messy ain’t it! First thing we have tea in bed (made by me). Then I knead the sourdough (top left bowl) and go back to bed for another hour’s reading, we try to limit “busywork” at the Potwell Inn. Then, when the mood takes me I get up again and strain the kefir ready for breakfast. We didn’t grow the tea but we’re profoundly grateful to those who did. The sourdough starter is nothing whatever to do with me. I can claim no credit for what is a gift of the earth, and neither can I claim any virtue for the kefir grains on the same grounds. I didn’t buy either of them, they were given to me by my son and the air we breathe.
On the allotment yesterday we harvested the first batch of potatoes along with all the usual seasonal suspects. Supper last night came entirely out of our own bit of earth, aside from some cheese. It is quite impossible to harvest from the allotment without a deep sense of thanksgiving directed at who knows what? Harvesting has a profoundly non-sectarian and non-theistic spirituality. Feast and famine alike are the gifts among which we live, and so too is the natural world.
We have a Blackbird outside the flat – he’s gone quiet at the moment, but on spring days he sings in a way that weaves my entire past and present into a single song. Even in the depths of our miserable basement among the rubbish bins, we hear his song. How should I respond to it? Should I photograph him? make a written record for the Natural History Society? Count the syllables of each phrase? Fight to create a site of special scientific interest? write to UNESCO and ask if they knew we’ve got blackbirds as well as Roman baths? Or should I rather fall into the arms of it and allow myself to be held by him and healed of all my melancholy? The first time I really looked at a Forget me not, I thought that I was seeing through the portal of the blue petals into some kind of unreachable heaven beyond.
Nature needs recording and counting of course, and it needs scientific understanding. We need what nature offers by way of sustenance and medicines. We’re part of the same ungraspable unity – “the Tao that can be spoken is not the Tao” Blackbirds and Forget me nots are not rare, and neither are potatoes and courgetttes or the micro-organisms that feed the soil and ferment wine and beer, sourdough and kefir. They’re not rare, that is, until we take them for granted and they disappear. And who will heal us then?