No more ‘blah blah blah’

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The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk – Hegel

Which is, at one level, a posh way of saying that it’s easy to be wise after the event, but taken differently might suggest that the end of an historical epoch is the best time truly to understand it – and which, in the case of our present economic, ecological and climate crisis, is no bad thing because we’re not choosing between two sorts of cornflakes but trying to figure out how we can even continue to exist. Or in Joni Mitchell’s words:

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
‘Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

So we’re talking 53 years ago for Joni Mitchell’s song, 57 years since Rachel Carson published “Silent Spring” and 62 years ago Vance Packard published “The Hidden Persuaders”. I ask myself the question that I fear my grandchildren will ask me one day – “What on earth were you doing all that time?”  because I know that any response which suggests that my personal behaviour didn’t cause the problem, or that I was one of the good guys, an avid recycler and all the rest misses out the crucial fact that I was there the whole time. Of course there must be degrees of complicity in the unfolding disaster but the bitter fact is that in a thousand tiny ways I looked away, grumbled about the plastic tide but carried on buying, drove around more than I strictly should have done and never took my protests beyond grumbling to a few trusted friends when I knew something was wrong; and so – just as it happens in a human body – the damage slowly accumulated and we said “we must stop all this one day soon or it will go badly for us”: and now it has.

The question – “What shall we do?”  comes easily and steals the best parking place in the argument, but it’s not the best question. Doing things is lovely, it suits our activist, technology driven culture because as long as we’re doing things we don’t need to think about them. Someone; the experts, the people in the know, will sort things out and in ten years time we’ll be wondering what the fuss was all about. Except the owl of Minerva has taken flight and suddenly we dimly understand that the clock can’t be rewound to the time when the party was going well and no-one had fallen out, started a fight or puked on the carpet. If I was going to the place I want to get to, I wouldn’t start from here.

So let’s ask a different question, like – for instance – “what shall we be?” What kind, what shape, what measure of humanity will serve us best.  This, by the way, is the beauty of Philip Pullman’s recent books, because they examine the same question. For him the  Magisterium seems to be modelling some kind of religious organisation like the church, but the real church has nothing but the rags and shreds of its former power.  The Magisterium is the corporation, surely? 

But something is stirring and the Magisterium is putting up a fight that, for the moment, it is winning.  Those who can see the clouds gathering feel as if they are being slowly squeezed out of the argument. But the old era is coming to an end, and for the rest of us it should be both encouraging and galvanising. Hand wringing won’t do it.

The climate and the environment aren’t the only things that can reach a tipping point. Whole cultures can reach them too. Our strategy shouldn’t be confined to shouting facts and data at people and hoping they’ll understand and change.  We need to change perspectives, embody a new vision and live it out.

 

 

 

If a tree falls in the wood and no-one hears it, does it make a sound?

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Tansy – Tanacetum vulgare, flowering out of season in December, on the towpath.

Many years ago I spent a week on a silent retreat in a Franciscan convent in Compton Durville in Somerset.  Sadly the sisters eventually had to move because they were unable to cope with managing such a large house, but it was a very beautiful place to spend a week in silence. I was the only man there, and so they gave me a small cottage all to myself. There was a mostly rather solitary silence except, that is, for 1.00pm, after lunch, when the radio was turned on for the BBC news headlines and off again immediately they were over. It was during the reign of Margaret Thatcher and one day there was a particularly tendentious headline (they were troubled times) and one of the more radical sisters snorted in word-free despair,  a snort in which we were probably all complicit, and we went back into what you might describe as a newly established communal silence. You have no idea how intensely a silence can communicate.

This last few days the memory of that week came back to me. After the disastrous results of the election were announced, as I’ve already written, I had to deal with a whole pile of anger and despair and among the things I did in response, more instinctively than deliberately, I gave up listening to the broadcast news or buying any newspapers at all. I didn’t even cheat by reading the papers online. It seemed to me that the cacophony of opinions, stupidities and anger were echoing around in my head and it was like being trapped on a bus with a drunk, powerless to stop the fetid tide, and I thought to myself –

“if this were happening in the room I’d get up and walk away”,

So I’ve walked away and you’ve no idea what a difference it’s made. One way and another I’ve spent quite a bit of time around and close to monastic communities. Aside from being extremely married, I completely lack the strength of character it takes to live in community, but I’ve pressed my nose against the window many times.  We’ve lived in several communes and I promise that they can bring you closer to murder than any other way of life! In some Benedictine houses the doorway into the chapel is inscribed “To pray is to work” as you go in, and as you leave the inscription reads “To work is to pray”. Any which way, life is better when it’s prayerful and even having such a liminal faith as mine, it never seemed truer.

After days of awful weather we got on to the allotment this morning and, after a rotten week, we began to feel human again.  We often work in silence, completely absorbed with the task in hand.  It’s quite prosaic – I was turning the compost and spoiling our resident rat’s day again; Madame was planting out broad beans, and I thought fondly of the monastic gardens I’ve been in.

I can almost hear some of my friends gnashing their teeth at my proposal to withdraw for a while, but there are many noble precedents.  In China, monks who were odds with the emperor would take themselves off ‘fishing’. But disengaging from what Heidegger called “das gerede” – the endless torrent of gossip that destroys our authentic life, is essential for us if we are to discover what it means truly to be ourselves, however painful that process might be. At a less philosophical level, getting out of that stream of ideological noise that constantly tells us who and what we are, and how we should behave and what we should believe, is the only way we’ll survive with our souls intact.  For a few days I’ve lived a monastic silence right in the middle of the world and I can breathe again. To walk and weed and to turn compost and plant beans is to pray, just as to meditate is hard work.

So the tansy we found yesterday as we walked down the towpath alongside the swollen river is out of season, it shouldn’t be there – none of the books think it should be there – and yet it is; vibrantly alive in mid December in complete defiance of expert opinion. Can this be true?  Can a plant defy all-powerful human research? If a tree falls in the wood and no-one hears it, does it make a sound? There’s the coming extinction in a sentence. Does something only truly happen when it happens for us, and for our benefit? The tansy flowers, cast a glow amongst the rough grasses on the towpath. I thought of all the long history of using the plant, the women it helped discreetly, the wisdom of  its use and its dangers.  This was a plant that once befriended the truly desperate – no moral judgement here, and as I touched the blossoms and smelt them it felt as if I was being invited to share a secret – as indeed it was, when knowing the plants could be a sign of witchcraft and cost you your life.

But if my tansy had been growing unobserved in the depths of the forest, and without a name it would still have been there, blissfully unconcerned about our fear filled lives. The earth doesn’t need us: we’re probably the most useless and destructive species that ever lived, and if we should disappear altogether through our own greed and stupidity the tree would still fall unheard in the forest and the tansy would still flower whenever it saw fit.

But meanwhile, in the intervening years we would do well prayerfully to consider our situation. Years ago I stood at the top of a ladder lopping a long and heavy branch off a horse chestnut tree. As the branch fell away, the part of it that was supporting the ladder jumped upwards and the ladder fell with me on it.  I threw the chainsaw as far away as I could and landed in an embarrassed heap. That day, work turned into prayer in the blink of an eye. My only worry with my quiet regime is that when I get really old and the doctor asks me what day it is and what the prime minister’s name might be, I won’t know the answer!

 

I know it’s a mess but it’s my mess

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My son will feel faint when he sees this mess, but I find it comforting. The little tin of Leonardt pen nibs just to the left of the laptop, the Rite in the Rain notebook with so many botanising adventures written inside, the red cabbage leaf patiently waiting to be painted.  He’ll laugh out loud at the early morning espresso that will shortly make me feel faint and – knowing him – he’ll be looking at the book to see what I’m reading. He’s a philosopher so his life and mine are both made from books which we eat up eagerly and then after an interval of indigestion, wait for our minds to turn into food.

Digesting a book is a slow process. The good ones are often very expensive and so they need to be prepared for. Fifty quid for the new, fourth, edition of Stace will need a long period of deliberation followed by a reckless moment of ordering (it’s not the sort of book you can get from the local Waterstones), anxious days of waiting for the post to arrive from Summerfields and then ….. first anxious look …… plants have mysteriously uprooted themselves from their familiar page and re-homed themselves with another family. Looking up the simplest thing is agonisingly slow and so back to the old familiar.  This can take months! Finally (I haven’t even dared to order it yet) we shall become friends.

Most books need a period of resting before I can read them – let’s call it shelf life for the sake of an easy joke. I need to get over the extravagance and remember what the exact impulse was for buying them in the first place. Sometimes, no – often – the original impulse was associated with a particular vein of thought which has become a worked out lode.  The roof collapsed, or got too low to follow. Sometimes I consume them hungrily but either the book’s not ready for me or I’m not ready for the book, and it goes on to the shelf again until I’ve caught up – maybe years later.  The best books are the ones I read when I was nineteen and understood perfectly – until I read them again at thirty, or fifty or even seventy and each time discovered I’d never understood them at all. I have the clearest memory of a boring summer afternoon in a library where I pulled down a copy of Bernard Leach’s “A Potter’s Book” and read it standing up as only a hungry teenager can. I didn’t understand a fraction of it; I only discovered that Leach was a Sufi many years later – hence the profound spirituality of a book about pots  – and even today my first impulse on handling a pot is to turn it upside down to see the base, touch the bare, unglazed rim to my lips and ping it.  Everyone I know except my son’s partner, who was born in Stoke on Trent, thinks this is a bit weird. The best books are long affaires, kept secret from any chance of mockery.

Sometimes me and the book need a period away from each other while we both catch up.  I read them once, put them back on the shelf and then come back years later with an older mind. The book on my desk took 25 years, or rather it took me 25 years to catch up. I probably bought “This Sacred Earth” – Roger Gottlieb’s compendium of writing from around the earth in 1996, the year it was published. At that time I would have been deeply involved in parish life, and I’ve no recollection of reading it the first time.  It’s still in print in a second edition, along with a number of other books on green and deep ecology and radical political thought. It came off the shelf yesterday and I was transfixed by the relevance of the essays and extracts.

Yesterday I was talking about the Extinction Rebellion movement with my son. He told me he’d been shocked to see an old edition of “Spitting Image” (TV show) in which may of the ER issues were aired, more than a decade before many of its members were born. Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” was published before most of their parents were born! Species extinctions and climate catastrophe aren’t new ideas, they’ve been around for more than half a century and, by and large, we did nothing about them. If the young have a charge against the old it’s our inaction in the face of the incontrovertible facts that were staring us in the face.  We turned away – and that was a sin against the earth.

Now, wherever I look, I see the voices of the unheard shouting across the years. Did it only become a ‘proper’ problem when the dominating culture of the west appropriated it? Did we only take it seriously when it became an ‘ology’? – to borrow a phrase from an elderly friend who would say (disparagingly) “Oh he’s very clever, he’s got an ‘ology!'”.

Gosh I can’t remember the last sentence I wrote with four consecutive punctuation marks.

So there it is.  My bookshelves are groaning under the weight of slowly composting ideas that will, in the fullness of time, be returned to the earth. To borrow an idea from another book I needed to put aside, because I didn’t know if anyone was listening any more, may we be granted time for repentance and the amendment of our lives – not just for ourselves but for our children and their children down the years.

 

How to turn anger into food

Last night turned into a bit of a lost cause, I’m afraid. I was angry at the unfolding election results, the people in the flat upstairs had their television turned up loud so I couldn’t get away from the mindless excitement of the commentators who seemed emotionally detached from the harm being caused, because they had framed the election as a heavyweight boxing match. So I got up and made bread – an everyday sourdough and some soft rolls for the morning.

I can’t sleep when I’m angry and one strategy is to get dressed and wander the streets – it was easy in our previous place, but much dodgier here – the burger bar at the back is open until 3.00am and has more than its share of angry confrontations. The other is to cook, which in many ways is more successful because it’s active and there’s always something positive at the end. So a sourdough loaf proving on the stove and ten morning rolls represented the positive transformation of venom into breakfast – an almost alchemical feat which left me a lot calmer.

But we were both very tired and needed some fresh air in the morning and so we drove over Dyrham Park for a walk around the boundary. The wind was roaring in from the west but it felt as if it had come straight off the Russian steppes. Within minutes we were shriven with the cold and we walked quickly to keep warm. A large flock of roe deer kept a wary eye on us as we walked the ridge in the full force of the wind but then we dropped down into the more sheltered valley and thereafter we had the wind in our backs. An occasional breach in the clouds allowed the sun to drench the bare beech trees in intense light , illuminating this year’s new wood and next year’s buds as a reddish brown halo around them. Underfoot many of the perennials were pushing out rosettes of leaves – winter is anything but static. Overhead the rooks and crows were making the most of the wind, tumbling down like black leaves and rising again in the wind, playing,  like the buzzard cruising the fields below. Immediately overhead two gliders found the updraught and circled in complete silence. There were a few other walkers around but apart from a brief greeting there was no will to stand and talk. Yesterday’s rain had drenched the ground and there were deep puddles to be negotiated.

The walk did its own healing and we drove home in a reflective mood.  I’d been fascinated by the fallen tree and its surprisingly shallow and small root ball.  The park seems to have a policy of leaving a good deal of dead timber lying around – which must be a boon to the invertebrates.  Later the boys phoned, one by one, having gone through exactly the same emotional journey as we had.  Our teacher son said that these days when angry parents ask why their child is being taught by a supply teacher he replies – “didn’t you know there’s been a recruitment crisis in schools for the past ten years?” But these middle class parents often have no contact with the real world.  They’re young and fit and well paid and so they never come into contact with the world of frozen benefits and deprivation and don’t yet need social care or the NHS. It’s a failure of the imagination compounded with complacency that provides ideological cover for the government. What people don’t seem to fully appreciate is that the air we breathe and the water we drink; the food and the environmental matrix of our wellbeing is not defined by wealth and social class it’s something we all depend upon and which should bind us together in concern.

What can we do?  Well it’s nothing like sufficient, but paying attention to our own use of the earth is a vital first step towards changing perspectives. Just putting a sign over the taps marked “To the earth” would be a salutary reminder that the chemicals we dump down the sink will be back in our drinking water before very long. So paying attention to our own lifestyle, doing a bit of volunteering for a charity and not instinctively interpreting our neighbour’s new six litre pickup truck as a classy move would all make a contribution.  When winter comes and the future looks bleak, it’s best to wrap up warm, keep busy and look for the signs of spring – because the personal really is political.

 

“Where’s the evidence – David?”

IMG_20191129_105716I should dedicate this posting to Sid Harris, my sociology tutor at tech college, a thousand years ago, who would challenge my sociological flights of fancy with the words – “- that’s all very exciting David, but where’s the evidence?” If there is any way of sending a profound thank-you to the past it would be to Sid for providing me with the alethiometer (great TV adaptation isn’t it?) that all thoroughgoing sceptics need to get through the mire of speculation, quackery and sheer roguery that infests our culture.

But the question has its price – particularly that going after the evidence demands a lot of commitment, blind alleys and reading which, added up, mean you have to live until you’re at least 110 to understand a simple question like ‘why does peeling onions make your eyes water?’ My latest read – yes I get through 3 or 4 books a week – is “Garlic and other Alliums” by Eric Block, and which is a magnificent book that makes me want to cheer and applaud every other paragraph. But understanding the central chapters depends on a familiarity with organic chemistry which I don’t have.  Every opening door leads to another whole corridor.

But today I’ll start with a Guardian article that perfectly demonstrates the thought I’m working on. If you haven’t clicked on the link, the article concerns biochar – a form of charcoal made by burning wood in an atmosphere starved of oxygen – so far so ordinary charcoal – but by doing it in a retort that captures all, or most of the nasties that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere. The hypothesis is that by making huge quantities of this compound and digging it into the earth we would be sequestering carbon in a way similar to, let’s suppose peat bogs or coal reserves. The article goes on to suggest that the biochar might also improve soil fertility and even the health of grazing animals at the same time. It’s a no-brainer, we should all go out and buy it right now save the world in a day. Except for a paragraph towards the end-

While academics and researchers are optimistic about the benefits of biochar, they are not blind to the risks either. “If we’re wrong, and we spread hundreds of thousands of tonnes of charcoal over the UK, we can’t get it back out of the ground. We’ve got to be right. The stakes are really high,” says Udall.

The evidence isn’t there yet.  It might be there in a year or two, if we do the research, but like most breathlessly announced breakthroughs, we need to slow down a bit. I imagine that the article itself will be mentioned many times, used as a sales pitch and generally enter the consciousness of allotmenteers and gardeners all over the world without the small-print warning following it.

When I started to read about the deep ecology movement I was puzzled by the phrase ‘aquarian conspiracy’ which often cropped up.  For me the ‘age of aquarius’ was a song in a musical where some people got their kit off on stage, I couldn’t associate it with the idea of a conspiracy. But what the phrase seems to allude to is the concept of a ‘new age’ in which all of the great challenges facing us are ‘solved’ by the application of new technology.  Apparently this became something of a Silicon Valley mantra. While you might think that making charcoal in a fancy retort is hardly ‘technology” it’s clear that the ideological use that it might be put to  could be a dangerous diversion from the pressing issue of our anthropocentric environmental greed. Soaking up excess carbon is a must, but you need to stop producing it at the same time.  The pressing danger of the ‘aquarian conspiracy’ is that it allows us to carry on polluting in the false belief that there’s always a technology around the corner.  And there’s no evidence for that either!

Evidence based science often clashes with the sales pitch – it’s hardly surprising – and the danger is that we rely so much on the carefully crafted ‘evidence’ produced for us like pre-digested seagull food, because we lack the skills to find out for ourselves. Here’s an interesting quotation from David Hoffmann’s book “Medical Herbalism”

I was asked to present a paper on the topic of “Herbal Alternatives to Prozac”.  This quest to identify a herbal alternative to Prozac is a perfect example of how the real gifts of herbalism can be deflected by underlying assumptions. It would, in fact, be more appropriate to consider the holistic alternatives to the current vogue for psychopharmaceutical solutions.

When judging outcomes in phytotherapy, the quality of an outcome depends on your values. If an RHS judge with a passion for formal gardens was asked to comment on our allotment they might say it’s a mess because it doesn’t meet their criteria (tidiness, straight lines, complete absence of pests and diseases), for “a good allotment”. A good outcome in holistic therapy (or gardening) might be an enhanced sense of wellbeing whereas a medical assessment might depend on a series of abstract measurements. Neither method is more correct than the other, they both try to be rigorous and they each have strengths that we depend upon – and in any case I have to say that being loved cared for and listened to is the best healer and that defies almost all science.

I remember well a ward sister at the General Hospital in Bristol where I was a part time chaplain. When she died in a riding accident, they put a plaque on the wall to commemorate her.  It’s gone now and they’ve turned the hospital into expensive flats – and I’ll  make no further comment on that subject! However Sister Valerie Helps – this is my little personal commemoration – had a gift beyond any scientific exploration.  Post operative patients in severe pain would feel better when she came on to the ward.  She would say -“could you hold on for just another half hour?” when they were calling for morphine, and they discovered that they could. She would challenge the doctors when they were attempting to do something stupid and inspire complete confidence in patients and relatives alike.

Lets do the science – masses of it – and be prepared to learn from it, even if it means changing some of our assumptions.  But for science and healing to work together they each need to broaden their underlying assumptions.  For science there’s the need to try to describe and quantify a broader range of outcomes which will have to include wellbeing and other ‘subjective’ states.  For herbalism, gardening and the whackier reaches of human culture we need to accept that not every hand-me-down remedy is necessarily, a priori, better.  I remember my mother talking about the lives saved when sulfonamides were first used during the 2nd world war.  They’ve been superseded now, for the most part, but in their day they were lifesavers. To go back to biochar, it may be a part of the answer to the climate catastrophe but in ethics they always say “you can’t make an ought into an is” and that’s not just a lesson for ethicists but for all of us.