Staying positive

I promised I’d say something about Thomas Berry’s book “The dream of the earth” which I’ve been reading for a couple of days. It’s a bit dense but the idea that runs through it is very simple. We like to think of ourselves as rational and scientific creatures who have collectively transcended millennia of superstition and religion and emerged at last confident in our capacity to organise the earth far better than nature ever managed on her own. Industry and science have delivered (we believe) all the things that previous belief systems had bundled up into a kind of visionary future that will deliver peace, prosperity, food for all and universal happiness because we can all access the very things our unfortunate ancestors could only think of in religious terms.  The sick will be healed, the dead raised (cryogenics) and we shall all share in a great banquet of goods and services exactly tailored to our innermost and secret desires. It’s hard to fault it, and as Gandhi was reputed to have replied when asked about European civilisation – “it would be a good idea”.

But the thing about religious ideologies  – and Berry is suggesting that’s what we have got here – is that you can’t question them. The evidence that our present way of life is destructive and dangerous is everywhere to be seen and yet remains invisible to millions of people. Who knows why? All we do know is that presenting the evidence doesn’t seem to shake belief in the status quo at all. What we seem to need is not better evidence or better presentation of the old evidence but something which more closely resembles a religious conversion. The continuation of life on earth, he argues, depends on a universal and thoroughgoing change of perspective. We need to rediscover the sacred earth.  We need to embrace our creatureliness in order to rediscover our true creativity.

I hope you’ll read the book, but meanwhile here’s some scary background reading on the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, written by Brendan Montague who is editor of the Ecologist magazine. And here’s a very good example of the aquarian fallacy that believes there is always an industrial solution to every problem. Here a commercial forestry expert advises the planting of more conifers to save the world because they grow more quickly.  Sadly he doesn’t seem to notice that even if they capture carbon for 25 years as they grow, immediately they’re felled they begin to release that stored carbon back into the atmosphere. There’s only one way, and that’s to end the way we consume the earth. That consumption is enabled and fuelled by the false ideology of never ending progress, the fantasy that there is no limit to growth

Which links nicely to today on the allotment because the absence of cars on the streets has made our plot more beautiful than ever – less polluted by the busy road, less noisy and quiet enough to hear a blackbird sing across the road. Call me an old romantic but I really like it.

After a few hours out in the sunshine while we sowed, planted and prepared the bed for the runner beans that will climb up their supports when they’re planted out in mid May, we took some photos and wandered home again. On a day like today this doesn’t feel too much like hardship. The hazel bean poles came from friends in Wales (thanks Nick and Kate) and always bring back memories of old gardens and older mentors from the past. We were able to talk to friends on the telephone and all our children keep in daily touch.  The food we eat has simplified because there’s no opportunity for impulse buys which has a knock-on effect on our waste.  Inside the flat the window tables are full and growing steadily.  We’ve tried to work to the point where – if the lockdown intensifies – the allotment can look after itself for a week or two.

Anger is a corrosive emotion, and I’ve lapsed into real anger more then once over the past few weeks, but today was too good to waste on recriminations. The time of reckoning will come soon enough, but meanwhile our biggest hope is that our economics and politics could escape from the hubristic prison of its false claims, the false choices that are presented as the only possible ways forward; the wolf of extractive capitalism disguised as a disturbingly green lamb, the kind that glows in the dark.  Several times today I’ve thought about the lines from Asinaria, written in 195 BC, by Titus Maccius Plautus –

One man to another is a wolf, not a man,

It’s not the full quotation which is rarely used, but the reason it’s almost always cropped is because it does seem to express something of a universal truth about our capacity for mutual harm.

Rediscovering the sacred earth isn’t about wandering through the bosky woods with your mind full of fluffy feelings. Creatureliness is vulnerable, fragile, ephemeral, capable of great love and great cruelty. Being a part of nature completely resets our relationship with the earth and with one another.  No spirituality that follows, (and any change of perspective as profound as this will involve a spiritual dimension), can be co opted and repackaged as just another product of Western materialism.

Our allotment isn’t a panacea, a free pass to a world suddenly put right again; it’s a shoulder to the wheel, that’s all. An invitation both to celebrate and to fear the seasons, but at least to be a part of the great cycle. A way of understanding our creatureliness through growing, tending, sharing and eating; through poetry, music and song, even building, and above all a way of understanding our dependence on the earth and on nature as the foundation of real wisdom.

All that glisters

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They were very large, very beautiful Cox’s and we agreed – Madame Eve and me to eat a couple. Sadly what followed was not the wrath of God, or being driven out of the Potwell Inn and into the desert but just – disappointment.  In fact we’ve eaten, or rather not eaten any amount of lovely looking but ultimately disgusting, tasteless and pappy fruit ripened in a nitrogen filled cold store and pimped with wax and a little union jack designed to make us feel exceptionally virtuous. Advertising and presentation, supermarket snake oil, is just the way agribusiness can fool most of the people all of the time.  “Well don’t buy them!” would be a well deserved rebuke, but we still do in the hope that they might be alright after all. The fact is, almost all supermarket fruit is artificially retarded from ripening, bred with genetically enhanced  armour plated skins and designed for presentation and not flavour.  In our experience many fruits like apricots, mangoes and peaches will never ripen at this time of the year.

So what’s good at the moment? …. Pears.  Good old cheap as chips Conference pears eaten so ripe you have to eat them like a mango, with your sleeves rolled up. Forget the exotic fruit with all its glamour and airmiles and eat pears, preferably organic ones. And then there are Seville oranges of course, to make better marmalade than you could ever buy, at a fraction of the cost, and Bramley apples. Aside from them, stick to vegetables – it’s winter – and then when the new season comes around you can swoon with delight at the sheer intensity of in-season flavour. We’re still eating squashes, greens and spuds from the allotment, and of course there’s blackcurrants, raspberries. red currants and gooseberries in the freezer.  It’s really not the end of the world if we have to wait a few months before the Discovery apples come off the trees, and in any case what are jams preserves and pickles for, if not providing us with a bit of food variety during the hungry gap?

But that’s enough. What really promoted this mini tantrum was listening to the BBC Food Programme this afternoon. The subject was Spirulina – blue green algae – which, it’s manufacturers claim, is the food of the future. full of protein, vitamins, minerals and so good for you you’ll live forever. After half an hour of listening to its breathlessly excited merchandisers it slowly became obvious that it tastes filthy unless you bleach-boil it in nitric acid for two days and then separate the tasteless powder in an industrial centrifuge. Even the vitamin B12 it’s had claimed for it, turns out to be unavailable to our digestive systems. The key question, put by the presenter of the programme, was never answered and it was “do we really want to increase the amount of industrially manufactured foods we eat?” Or put more simply, if it tastes and looks filthy and can only be made palatable by industrial processing, isn’t it likely that it will then be stuffed full of artificial flavourings and texturizers before being packaged, promoted and sold back to us as as the best thing since white sliced bread?

If, like me, you’re interested in the numbers, then it looks as if you’d probably do better to eat a boiled egg: and let’s not get into the ethical arguments because it seems possible that in our anxiety about food we’re so focused on the ethics we haven’t noticed that we’ve become the new battery hens; fed dangerous untested foods, confined in dingy polluted surroundings for 15 hours a day and discarded in old age when we’re no longer productive. If you want to live a long and healthy life the best advice I’ve seen is Michael Pollan’s dictum ” …. eat food, not too much, mostly veg.”

I wrote a while ago about the fact that I hadn’t initially understood what the deep ecologists were saying when they talked about the “aquarian conspiracy”, but here’s an excellent example in the way that our go-to solution for all problems has become industrial technology. We’ll solve all the problems that confront us by inventing new technologies like carbon capture, food technology, genetic modification, fusion power – and so the list goes on. If I put myself back on the couch and articulate all these unrealised and unrealisable desires to a psychotherapist they might, if they were any good, gently probe my deeper motivations. “What are you most frightened of?” My own psychoanalytic psychotherapist once cracked the funniest joke (extremely unexpected) after I recounted a recurring dream about being shadowed by two elephants. He responded  “Oh, well I’m a Freudian so they’re sex and death!”

I’m convinced that, since the collapse of religious imagery, we’ve lost the means of articulating our deepest fears about both of my dream elephants, and so issues of sexual identity and the fear of death have found new expressions in our culture. In the past these fears were managed and exploited by the God industry and converted into secular power, political influence and some nice buildings. What’s happened is that a new bunch of hucksters have stepped in to skim the profits.  These days you don’t need a knowledge of ancient Greek or Latin to understand the theology; a qualification in business studies and the ability to trace the true ownership of the latest quasi artisan brand of gloop will do better. They still trade on fear; fear of death, fear of illness, fear of the loss of vitality, fear of old age or ugliness or poverty or whatever and they are ready, so very ready, to monetize that fear.

Industry knows very well how to bait the hook to catch a fish, and the hook here is often additionally baited with the climate catastrophe, environmental destruction and species extinctions. Wherever you look within the food trade you see entirely specious claims – often more implied than in your face (for fear of breaching advertising standards regulations), that eating or drinking industrial gloop will save the earth in some unspecified way. So by linking together our personal fears with our justified fear for the environment they prop up a weak argument with powerful emotions. As an example of the power of advertising, smoking no longer makes you look sexy; but it did once!  – and I well remember a photocopied herbalist’s catalogue from the early 1970’s among whose testimonials were accounts of satisfied customers coughing up or otherwise passing tumours in the kind of events that would have had me running screaming to A & E.  Hope and fear are powerful sales tools.

For what it’s worth, there’s more sex and death on the average allotment than you’ll see in a season of Scandi Noir, and all of it absolutely real. My own mortality and vulnerability are contextualized within the ebb and flow of nature, with the sun and rain on my back; and at the stove and the table later where food becomes sacramental rather than instrumental. There’s very little difference in tone between foodie fundamentalists and religious ones, and between them they’ve precipitated the need for saving the earth by a warped religious understanding of our place within it, and invented an impractical and ideologically distorted plan for saving it.

Saving the earth and flourishing as humans certainly needs urgent action on our part, and won’t happen without some challenging changes in the way we live, but there’s no magic bullet.

Every gift horse should have its teeth examined regularly by a qualified vet.