Is talking to the trees a load of blather?


Home again after a long drive back from the Western Lakes in Cumberland, with an overnight stop in Yorkshire catching up with friends there. A week ago I wrote about our impressions of a depressed economy as we approached Ravenglass from the North.  Leaving by the southern route, we caught the full majesty of the fells as we skirted around the other boundary. The whole area could be called by any number of names, because calling it “the Lake District” implies that the lakes are the principal feature whereas I’d say that the fells win hands-down.  The lakes themselves, (leaving aside the rather menacing Wastwater) are fully occupied as tourist attractions which somehow diminishes them as the extraordinary environments they are. Many of the peaks are busy in the summer with walkers “doing the Wainwrights”, and compared with the remoter parts of the Yorkshire Dales, they lack peace and tranquility. There’s a whole vocabulary to describe various features of the Pennines – words like ‘moor’, ‘fell’, ‘crag’ and ‘dale’ don’t mean much until you’ve seen first hand that they represent distinguishable features in the landscape. Our trip started in the South Pennines, in Slaithwaite (pronounced ‘slough’it”, and then we spent a week in the Dales at the head of Swaledale, followed by a week by the sea at the edge of the Western Fells. Each is a very different environment, and each of those environments is affected in different ways by the economic and ecological collapses that threaten us. I’ve been reading, catching up with the scary thought that we don’t have much time to act.

But home again, it was good to be back. We quickly get into a familiar routine when we return from one of our trips.  There’s always watering to be done, seedlings tended and the allotment inspected.  I feed the sourdough starter which I never keep in the fridge because the cold favours the production of acetic acid which I don’t care for – I prefer the fruity, apple flavour I get when it’s left sitting on the side.  It’ll go for a fortnight if it’s well fed before we set out. On the other hand we do keep the kefir in the fridge, and again  I strained it when we got home and drank a full glass.  When it’s been standing you might call it a bit of an acquired taste, a bit ‘character forming’, but I find its rich astringent flavour and slight effervescence really refreshing.

Up on the allotment, the only serious casualties were the grow-bag tomatoes which were laid low by blight.  The other outdoor tomatoes which are very blight resistant looked terrific and I’ll be making the first batch of sauce for the winter tomorrow. Best of all (although I’ll never eat them) are two large plants of Habanero chillies which are ripening well making 100% success with the chillies this summer in spite of the strangest weather.  We feasted on mashed potato made from our own Red Duke of York which make the best mash ever, our own carrots and today we picked more sweetcorn which the netting had saved from the badgers/rats/deer all of which seem to have a liking for it. Naturally there’s a pile of weeding to catch up on but the winter crops are all looking good and healthy.

All of which leads me to my cryptic remark yesterday “If nonhuman beings become extinct how will we know who we are?” I was perched on the step of the van ready to leave when I wrote it quickly because it seemed important at that moment.

The past two weeks have given me the opportunity to do some serious thinking and reading about our relationship with the natural world.  The name Arne Naess keeps coming up, so I’ve read a couple of essays and books by him and about him, and in the process I’ve come to understand a great deal more about what’s become known as ‘deep ecology’. While I was searching for some of his books I came across the following review:

In particular, it would have been helpful if Naess had explained more fully his notions of metaphysical holism (we are part of nature and in some mysterious way “one” with it), biospherical egalitarianism (all living things have equal intrinsic value and an equal right to live and blossom), and Self-realization (we grow and fulfill ourselves by identifying with, and promoting the blossoming of, all other living things and ultimately Nature/Reality as a whole). In the end, these and under crucial aspects of Naess’ ecological thought largely rest on unsupported “intuitions” that many readers will find puzzling at best.

Part of a review of Arne Naess’ book “Ecology, Community and Lifestyle”

My remark yesterday shows how importantly I’ve come to regard the view that we’re all one.  But the reviewer seems to be asking for something more like a philosophical ‘proof’  that these ideas are more than ‘intuitions’ which clearly come a good way down his list of validating arguments.

There are a number of ways of approaching this objection. Firstly, without intuition neither science or mathematics would get very far. It’s almost a cliché to observe that many of the greatest theories in both disciplines come from insights that then need to be subjected to careful tests (experiments) to see if they are ‘true’.  The original insight isn’t the theory, it’s a postulate – a kind of ‘what if?’ statement.

Anotther approach to the objection would be that the reviewer’s difficulty with ‘unsupported “intuitions”‘ is, in itself, evidence of a closed attitude towards allowable arguments. Our lives are full of intuitions and we act on them all the time without worrying too much about their proveability.

Living as if the ‘what if?’ statements which have been gained not just by unsupported intuitions but by the factual evidence of our collapsing ecosystem are true, is an entirely ‘supportable’ response to an idea that didn’t just pop out of the blue.

The anthropocentric view of humanness demands that we humans are at the apex of some kind of evolutionary thrust (the iron laws of history) that make us the only show in town, able to subject the whole of nature to our will.  The emerging evidence suggests that’s the way to extinction because we are not “lords of creation” but ‘part of creation”. Taking that insight on board and shaping our lifestyle by its precepts is a big leap but we’ve already taken much of it aboard already. Surely it’s not such a revelation to understand that human language (especially western versions) is only one among many others.  When we ‘read the weather’ by gazing at the clouds and sensing the winds we’re accessing a nonverbal language.  When I look at the plants on the allotment and try to understand whether they’re thriving or poorly I’m kind-of speaking ‘plantish’. When I see chemical foam at the base of a waterfall I may be talking ‘earthish’. I was once thrown out of a fly-fishing club for suggesting that one of their waters- which was the outflow from a reservoir –  was polluted.  They said it was an attack on the reputation of the club????

What ‘deep ecology’ suggests is that we should accept that we are a part of a mind-bogglingly complex community from single celled organisms like bacteria and fungi all the way through the plants to the primates of which we are but one (probably the least pleasant and most stubborn).  It goes on to suggest that this complex system is so finely balanced that a sudden change to one part can affect all the others and make the system sick.  Our western ‘default’ position is to look for another new technology to save the day – we’re a culture that wants to save the planet but only if we can keep our cars and aeroplanes and cheap food. If Arne Naess is for changing things peacefully and non-violently then I’m with him.



Author: Dave Pole

I've spent my life doing a lot of things, all of them interesting and many of them great fun. When most people see my CV they probably think I'm making things up because it includes being a rather bad welder and engineering dogsbody, a potter, a groundsman and bus driver. I taught in a prison and in one of those ghastly old mental institutions as an art therapist and I spent ten years as a community artist. I was one of the founding members of Spike Island, which began life as Artspace Bristol. ! wrote a column for Bristol Evening Post (I got sacked three times, in which I take some pride) and I worked in local and network radio and then finally became an Anglican parish priest for 25 years, retiring at 68 when I realised that the institutional church and me were on different paths. What interests me? It would be easier to list what doesn't, but I love cooking and baking with our home grown ingredients. I'm fascinated by botany and wildlife in general, and botanical illustration. We have a camper van that takes us to the wild places, we love walking, especially in the hills, and we take too many photographs. But what really animates me is the question "what does it mean to be human?". I've spent my life exploring it in every possible way and the answer is ..... well, today it's sitting in the van in the rain and looking across Ramsey Sound towards Ramsey Island. But it might as easily be digging potatoes or making pickle, singing or finding an orchid or just sitting. But it sure as hell doesn't mean getting a promotion, beasting your co-workers or being obsequious to power, which ensured that my rise to greatness in the Church of England flatlined 30 years ago after about 2 days. But I'm still here and still searching for that elusive sweet spot, and I don't have to please anyone any more. Over the last 50 or so years we've had a succession of gardens, some more like wildernesses when we were both working full-time, but now we're back in the game with our two allotments in Bath.

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