What ails you?
asparagus autumn chillies climate change climate emergency compost composting covid 19 deep ecology earth economic collapse environment environmental catastrophe environmental crisis farmers markets field botany food security foraging Fungi global climate crisis global heating green spirituality herbal medicine intensive farming Lleyn locally sourcing lockdown meditation no-dig pickling and preserving polytunnels preserving raised beds rats recycling rewilding Sourdough species extinctions sustainability technology urban wildlife water storage weeds wildflower meadows William Cobbett
I’ve been writing this blog for eight years, and ever since I migrated it to WordPress which gives the ability to tag posts and make them easier for readers to find; I’ve occasionally created a tag cloud like the one above so I can get an overview of the topics that have been concerning me. Click on any of the tags above and in moments you’ll be presented with all of the posts I’ve tagged with that term. It’s an incredibly useful tool for locating particular subjects of interest from approaching a thousand posts.
If you’ve ever run writers’ groups or taken part in therapeutic groups – and I’ve done both may times – you’ll know the “back pocket” moment when, after two hours of interesting but rarely illuminating talk, and just as the group is packing up to leave, someone comes up with an idea, a poem, an insight or a memory that almost sucks the air out of the room. Often it’s the beginning of an answer to the hard question “What ails you?” Complete honesty and self disclosure is terribly hard, and only the most heroic can manage it.
There’s a reason that the ancient story of the Fisher King provides the inner structure of so many novels, plays, films and folk tales. They’re all quest stories, in which a journey – with all its hazards and reverses – brings resolution at last to the question “what ails you?” Think of writers like Tolkien, Alan Garner and Philip Pullman whose tremendous stories draw upon the structure of the Grail legend. Think of the foundational story of Homer’s Odyssey or the biblical story of Jacob crossing the Jabbok . I have absolutely nothing to add to the millions of words that have been lavished on this idea, and the point of mentioning it is not to add anything but to suggest its usefulness for isolating the right question when you’re trying to find a path through an oppressive cloud of difficulty. The key to the quest story is that it begins precisely with that nebulous and indefinable sense of ill, and that the resolution always demands leaving home because “for a hero a harbour is the place you set out from”. Home – in this case and with my tag cloud – is the place of certainty and settled knowledge; “the way we do things round here.” and leaving it means questioning and sometimes overturning received wisdom. However, received wisdom has its own priesthood and police force, its own pensioners and hangers on and its own ideas of what constitutes heresy. It has its own oppressive tools; belittling and marginalising those who challenge the status quo.
So the tag cloud is, in one useful sense, a mind map of the question “what ails you?” because all of its components are aspects of the greater question. Some tags may represent symptoms, and some may suggest remedies, but none of them are sufficient, and it’s our predisposition to fixing on a single term in the cloud as either cause or cure that paralyses our thinking and befuddles our actions. To take an example of that process from the tag cloud above, it’s obviously completely insufficient, not to mention illogical to take the tag “environmental catastrophe” and couple it with the tag “Composting” and claim to a fanfare of applause that the problem is thereby solved.
So – mainly because I’m not Thomas Aquinas – I won’t be offering a magnum opus on this topic. I remember standing in the library of my theological college and asking the librarian where I could find Thomas Aquinas and she replied with an expansive sweep of the arm across the shelves of the upper tier of the library – up a spiral staircase. Minutes later and slightly out of breath, I found many yards of shelves full of Aquinas and commentaries on his thought. But let me offer a single tentative thought on the significant absence of another possible tag cloud beginning with the concept of glory.
Lost in our utterly materialist and dualist culture we represent ourselves instinctively, (some instincts are the products of long enculturation), as isolated instances of consciousness separated by an unbridgeable gulf of empty space from all other instances of it. We see the earth as an object and we often see our neighbours as objects too. We are deeply suspicious of words like joy, glory and love as non material emotional states which – being unmeasurable – are beyond the reach of science and therefore worthless. Nature – and I’m indebted to *Alan Rayner for this thought – is defined as the subject of an eternal battle for the “survival of the fittest”, although we are arrogant enough to regard ourselves as the sole and final arbiters of what “fitness” might mean.
But what if this idea is completely wrong? he asks. What if the false idea that nature and the earth and all that exists, is there at our disposal, is the ultimate ideological enforcer of most of the tags in my cloud of shame? What if Darwin’s survival of the fittest, deserves the same fate as Marx’s iron laws of history? What if we were to reintroduce the idea of glory to field botany? What would happen to our inner lives if we included the notion of glory within the medicinal or culinary properties of plants? What would it do to our lives if we included much more sentience within the gifts of animals? What if we included within the general field of fitness the capacity of the natural world to acquaint us with glory, joy and love in a completely non-possessive way? What if we abandoned the idea of our separateness from nature and focused on our dependence upon her? What if the natural world is not locked in a grim battle for survival but an almost inconceivably beautiful and creative exchange between life forms?
The epoch changing wrong turn was to fossilize Darwin’s frangible theory into a law of nature and then illegitimately to extend it into almost every aspect of life – Social Darwinism was elevated into a spurious defense for unspeakably wicked political acts and the earth was reduced to abject servitude.
The really important question is about how we change. I think we all know enough about human behaviour to know that cultural change can never be brought about by presenting new “facts”. But there are practices and institutions from which we can learn about glory. Many of them have their own histories of times when ecstatic insight was fossilized into law and went rogue, but that, sadly, is a danger confronting all human institutions. The question is this – were we born to dominate and control nature to the point of self-destruction, or did we just forget where we came from?
Alan Rayner “The Origin of Life Patterns” – several videos also on YouTube