In a nutshell? I can’t fit myself into a nutshell (and neither should you!)

We were sitting in the pub one night with a bunch of friends, and somehow or another the subject got around to Martin Heidegger – once commemorated in a satirical poem as “..that pellucid Teuton.” You get the picture I’m sure. Some continental philosophers are a bit impenetrable and always irritated the hell out of the English school who preferred Dr Johnson’s stone kicking method. Anyway, the point is, one of my friends called Andy – who shall remain nameless asked me “In a nutshell …. what’s this Heidegger man on about?” I’m still looking for the big nutshell.

So today we were walking along the beach at Aberdaron beneath St Hywyn’s church where R S Thomas was once vicar and which was the setting for one of his most famous poems “The Moon in Lleyn” which I wrote about a couple of days ago. As we walked along the sand, I was wondering whether the poem, as well as including a reference to W B Yeats, also included a glancing reference to Matthew Arnold’s poem “On Dover Beach” – which uses the metaphor of the retreating tide to reference the “melancholy soft withdrawing roar” of faith. Three poems, all obliquely referring to the terrible loss of enchantment we’ve suffered in the past hundred and fifty years. Materialism is a poor deal, really, because it exchanges dreams meanings and visions for money – usually peanuts to be honest.

Taking a bit of a leap of faith myself, I have often wondered whether we are drawn to the sound of the sea’s roaring and the rhythmic pulse of the steam engine for the same reason. Perhaps at some deep level they remind us of the sounds of our time in the ocean of our mother’s’ womb. The sea sounds, from gentle lapping to menacing roar never make us laugh or fill us with happy thoughts but associate more readily with loss; of times missed.

Now that’s a lot of pondering in fifty yards whilst simultaneously holding a conversation – but that’s the way of it. Conscious human life can’t be put in a nutshell because it’s just too big; and my attention soon switched to a couple of large rocks half buried in the sand just as Madame began picking pebbles off the beach.

It isn’t a particularly beautiful beach because the cliffs comprise deep banks of eroding mud which are being sculpted by wind, tide and rain into shapes that might be more familiar in the desert. The pebbles, as you can see, are wonderfully colourful – but why so colourful? Putting on (yet) another hat I could see that of the two large half buried rocks, one greenish and the other markedly purple – must contain copper (green) and manganese (purple). We know that minerals and semi precious stones were mined all over the peninsula and particularly we know that among them was serpentine. Serpentine, being colourful and soft enough to turn in a metal lathe was enormously popular in the first half of last century and as late as the 1970’s there were half a dozen wooden shacks on the Lizard in Cornwall where you could buy a little lighthouse complete with a battery powered bulb at the top.

Only a couple of days ago I showed a photo of the remnant of one of the manganese mines at Rhiw. To a potter, manganese iron and copper are familiar glaze pigments. Copper is particularly versatile because depending on the glaze ingredients, temperature and atmosphere inside the kiln it can yield colours from the intense turquoise of Egyption paste through the more common greens all the way to the fabulously beautiful but very difficult to achieve red colour known as sang de boeuf to collectors of Chinese ceramics. Manganese and iron too can yield a whole palette of colours. So the thought came to mind on the beach – where do the red pebbles fit in? Serpentine is almost always thought of as green, but I’ve seen exactly the kind of red pebbles we were finding, described as red serpentine. Who knows? the processes that formed these pebbles were geologic and volcanic, involving prodigious pressures and temperatures and what emerges is something that combines usefulness with beauty. We have usefulness and contemplation in the same object. Are the red pebbles nature’s original expression of sang de boeuf?

These are big thoughts – of an earth where fungi and algae had yet to join forces and bacteria were all alone in the world. And here on the beach today we could see the world in a grain of sand as Blake promised in Auguries of innocence. The earth is not an object, it’s a story – or perhaps better, a song in which we are all sung into existence. History, geology, chemistry, poetry and storytelling, poetry and gardening and all the rest are not separate disciplines but lines in a gigantic performance of something like Tallis’ Spem in alium but with so many more parts that we can truly call it the Song of the Earth.

So I can’t fit myself into a nutshell and neither should you. Allowing ourselves to be categorised and slotted into CV’s drains the imaginative life out of us. If I want to read, or write poems, draw and paint, make ceramics and grow plants; cook food and rage against the dying of the light, and dare to challenge the way we do things round here – then I will. And if I want to sing and dance around and get over excited about a wildflower or act with Madame as if we were 18 all over again and in the first flush of love, then I will not tolerate being ordered to act my age. And if my passions for books and theories and ideas and spiritualities look as if I’m spreading myself too thinly just take a look at how thinly the scholars spread themselves.

Because – there is no nutshell. We flow into one another and into the earth. Being human is the most lovely gift; so long as we cherish it.

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

Well yes, Captain Kipper (OK actually Ludwig Wittgenstein) – but what if there’s something you’re trying to articulate that’s so liminal, so at the boundary of a concept, yet to be properly mastered, that words and their meanings need to be forged anew? Surely that’s the work of the poet? and can’t be shirked in favour of silence. Language is endlessly adaptive; always finding ways to speak the previously unsaid, and one of those ideas that’s slowly being forged into speech is the curious relationship we have with nature.

We arrived back from our family get-together in Cornwall and went straight to the allotment, as you might expect. Then we prowled around to see the state of things; set up the trail camera and made plans for today – and today it rained; so we put on our waterproofs and got on with picking out the courgettes that had swollen to blimp size during the week; harvesting tomatoes, aubergines, runner (pole) beans, potatoes, peppers, summer squashes and masses of herbs. As you will know there are only two of us so this season of plenty has to be matched with a positive frenzy of pickling, preserving, boiling, reducing, freezing and fermenting. It’s been a crazy weather year and right now with the jetstream moored south of the UK we’re stuck in a series of lows, bringing cold winds and rain in off the Atlantic – it feels like autumn already.

So today we got wet and yet we both felt completely content just to be there. After finishing harvesting, Madame got on with summer pruning the fruit trees while I wheelbarrowed down enough woodchip to level the path in the polytunnel. There’s a reason for this because our plan is to clear the tunnel completely by the end of August and then we’ll need easy access with a wheelbarrow to bring compost in to feed the beds ready for the winter crops. Later in the kitchen I made stock and prepped a dozen half litre jars ready for tomorrow’s new batch of roasted tomato passata while Madame prepared to cook a bulk batch of ratatouille which freezes very well. All the while I was making sourdough bread and attending to the starters after their week in the fridge.

Perhaps one reason for the rather philosophical opening paragraph was some marvellous video footage of our friend the badger failing to find the sweetcorn beyond two layers of soft net and a maginot line of tagetes and mint – which we make portable by growing it in pots. Badgers hunt by smell and we aim to confuse them as much as possible. The three sisters experiment is exceeding our expectations and we have corn ten feet tall with borlotti plants climbing to the very top, whilst below some fat winter squashes are developing nicely in the shade. It looks a mess but it also looks like a success. The only predator likely to get to them before us is the badger; but since we invested in the trail cam we’ve grown to love the nocturnal intruders. We want to deter them of course but we wish them – with the foxes, squirrels, magpies and even the rats – no harm and the reason for that is that we have begun to see them as having their own inalienable rights over the land. The thought that they’re out prowling during the night gives us as much pleasure as the sound of a tawny owl calling does. We share their taste for the vegetables we grow, but perhaps value them more in their appetite for the slugs, snails and rodents that trouble us. The old binary division between crop and pest is dissolving and it’s that disappearance which demands a new language. The actors haven’t changed at all – badgers love corn and that’s unavoidable. What’s changed is that we are beginning to accept that if we want to save the earth; all those binary distinctions will have to be overcome through an unprecedented change in the way we understand, and therefore speak of our place in nature .

Wheelbarrowing woodchip with the rain running down our necks; stacking the compost heap with a mixture of green waste and wood chip and feeling its rising heat the next day; summer pruning, rooting strawberry runners and sowing chard for the autumn is done not though the domination of nature with powerful tools and chemicals but by attempting to think like a fox or a badger or – more oddly still – to think like a compost heap, or like the earth in a raised bed. It demands that we learn to think like a tomato or a potato; to ask what ails you? as we did today when we were examining what might have been tomato blight but turned out to be (in all probability) didymella stem rot, caused by stress – in turn caused by a poor watering regime. Failure often brings knowledge. Yes we talk to our plants; but more mysteriously – and only when we listen with complete attention – they speak to us in a language we have barely begun to understand, and which stands on its head, centuries of binary thinking through which we believe ourselves to be independent, separate subjects moving through a sea of resource objects. In this new state of being we are (imperfectly) in what Gary Snyder described thirty years ago as a “trans species erotic relationship” with nature; which sounds clumsier today than it did when it was written – but the word erotic captures the sense that this relationship transcends the instrumentality of the old ways and enables powerful feelings for nature which offer a pathway out of imminent destruction. Talking to the trees – it turns out – is a two way conversation as long as we are willing to get over ourselves and listen.

A fishy story – thinking about the commons

People often look at the allotment and say – “surely you must be self-sufficient, now?” Well no we’re not, and I’m not a bit sure I even agree with the concept which always strikes me as being isolating and rather egocentric. We learn to become more human by living in interdependent communities. Although the allotment site often feels like and even functions as a sort of village, aside from our 200 square meter plot there’s nowhere we can graze an animal or run a few chickens; nowhere close we can easily forage for the things we can’t grow, and nowhere to gather most of the medicinal herbs that take up more space than we can afford. Of course there are plenty of opportunities to forage far and wide for them – way beyond where we live but the whole point of the Commons is to bring to hand all of the above, plus firewood to a small community. Without commons the community has less reason to live, work, celebrate and lament together; as many people who move into the countryside discover when they soon start to feel lonely. The 21st century default position is to live like strangers, and whilst we worship the wild, we have very little idea of how to learn from it and celebrate with it.

Back in 2020 I was searching the local bookshops to find a copy of Gary Snyder’s “The Practice of the Wild”. I’ll say a little more about the book later, but I’ll begin with one of the most depressing conversations I’ve had in years.  So I walked into Waterstones and searched the most likely places for anything written by him. Poetry? zilch! ….  ecology? zilch! ….. spirituality? ditto!  Eventually I resorted to the cash desk and asked a bright young bookseller – “have you got anything by Gary Snyder?” ….. “Who’s Gary Snyder?” he replied.

That I was quite so shocked caused me to wonder not so much about the illiteracy of the bookseller, suckled on the mayfly life expectancy of our current literary scene; but about the diminishing of that whole culture which existed for perhaps five millennia in which the urgent existential questions we face today were first identified and often answered. For me, Gary Snyder is one of those thinkers who raised the waters from that well and brought them into the 20th century for us. He is – at 91 years old – so much more than a short-lived Beat Poet. Our culture is locked into a groundhog day in which the hard gained wisdom of the past is clearcut and replanted with fashions that rarely survive twenty years. In the absence of a literary canon, we fret our lives away, endlessly seeking solutions to long solved problems. We live in windowless bunkers of our own making. 

So one of the chief sadnesses of growing old in our Western modern and postmodern  wordview; is that the canon – musical, literary, poetic, spiritual and liturgical which has been both lighthouse and lifeboat to us, is breaking up and sinking, and these sharp and careless reminders leave me feeling adrift. “Never mind” I say to myself “where you are is the only place to begin”  – or put it in (I think) RS Thomas’s words, echoing Odysseus in the dim past before the troubles began; ‘home is the harbour you set out from’. And I’m immediately unsure of the quotation because we’re camped on a clifftop field in Pembrokeshire overlooking Ramsey Island and away from any confirmation by books, internet and even my mobile which drifts in and out of consciousness like a dying man. Ithaca feels a long way away. 

Sadly the book was easily available on Amazon and arrived from an American publisher a few days later, priced in dollars; but at least I tried; but I flunked the opportunity of sharing its significance with the young bookseller who might – had I convinced him to read it – have sold it to many other seekers.  Gary Snyder has a lot to say about commons.

When we arrived here we found the campsite engulfed in a thick sea-mist that looks set to stay for a couple of days, so the presence of the sea and Ramsey island are extremely notional at the moment. However I struck up a conversation with a neighbouring campervanner and in the course of one of those long meandering chats, full of oxbows, he told me a story. He used to be, he told me, a professional lobster fisherman but he lost his best friend and deckhand to a rival fisherman after jointly surviving being swamped by a massive wave with the help of  a powerful engine and a lot of luck. Most people have a story to tell, but his wife – having heard it many times in the past – left us and wandered off to a more congenial conversation nearby that involved a comparison of the number of medications the participants were taking.  Non fatal illness is such fun – it seems. Anyway the coda to the fisherman’s yarn was by far the most interesting bit and here’s where Gary Snyder’s discussion of the so-called tragedy of the commons comes in:

“So what about the so-called tragedy of the commons? This theory, as now popularly understood, seems to state that when there are open access rights to a resource, say pasturage, everyone will seek to maximise his take and overgrazing will inevitably ensue. [ …….. ]  When [Hardin et al]  try to apply their model to the historic commons it doesn’t work, because they fail to note that the commons was a social institution which, historically, was never without rules and did not allow unlimited access.”

Source – Cox, Susan and Jane Buck – “No tragedy in the commons” – Environmental Ethics, Spring 1985.

Rough justice

I asked the retired fisherman – now a builder – why did his deckhand and friend leave the boat? Was it the day they were nearly engulfed by a wave?  “No”, he said, “he moved to a better paid deckhand’s job on another boat”; and went on to explain that the other boat was owned by a man who had previously fished in Cornwall, and had developed a reputation for stealing other fishermen’s gear.  In the end, tempers boiled over and he was confronted and told that unless he took his boat out of the county  it would be taken and sunk.  “Fishermen can be very rough” he explained, as if I didn’t know. 

So the ‘marked’ fisherman moved up to Pembrokeshire and was barely surviving, scratching a living from those bits of the shoreline not already fished by the locals.  Then one day someone suggested he ran out a line of pots along “the 27” (no idea what this means – possibly a latitude line on the charts).  So he took himself off into these waters which were left alone by the local fishermen because they were known to be dangerous. He immediately struck gold, making – it was said – £10,000 a week. The deckhand left his sustainably fishing friend and went for the money. 

So there you have it – the tragedy of the commons and its historical solution encapsulated in a chance conversation in the mist.  And which of the characters in the story best represents the future? Sadly, I know for sure that thievery and overfishing have played a large part in the present state of our fisheries and that the smaller fishermen have taken the hit. But whatever happens, unless the commons – in this case our inshore waters – evolve some kind of agreed local governance with achievable sanctions apart from sinking offending boats, it will be too late. The story demonstrates that the draconian local sanctions applied worked very well at first, but when the man moved to another community where he was not known and into a winner takes all culture there were no inhibitory moves that could be made, so in his new home the so-called tragedy of the commons became a reality because it wasn’t a social institution any more, it didn’t have any rules and it couldn’t limit access. This sad tale isn’t a critique of the commons but a critique of our extractive economy.

Several years ago we were with the Bath Nats on a fungus identification field trip, when one of the participants hung back and cut every single ragged parasol mushroom in a clump that I mentioned a few days ago. She rejoined us later with her cute handmade basket groaning with spoils – more than she could ever possibly eat. We stood back astonished, but said nothing. That’s the true tragedy of the commons; that we’ve become so isolated and detached from one another that we no longer even have the means to challenge the abusers of the vestigial remains.

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.

 

 

 

For the removal of scales from eyes

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  1. The easier way is to walk to the window or, better still stand outside, (anywhere will do), look at the sky, watch the clouds – today, here, they’re scudding across from the Atlantic, full of rain gathered up across an eternity of open sea –  and watch a bird (any bird will do, it doesn’t have to be a peregrine) – wheeling in the sky, enfolding the wind, and say “hello sky, hello wind, hello clouds, hello bird, my name is ***** and I don’t think we’ve ever been properly introduced”.
  2. * Read Allen Ginsberg’s “Footnote to Howl”
  3. * Listen to Patti Smith incanting it on “Land” (But never play this album at the gym wearing headphones in case you inadvertently join in and sing along, because this will surely get you barred.

If you are disturbed by strong language, option 1 is recommended.

Job done.

Solstice complete.

There’s something happening here!

Last summer we made our first trip to Cumbria, driving from East to West across the country, very roughly following the route of the Coast to Coast Path. We stayed for a week in Ravenseat in a cottage that was actually on the path and then we moved on West, picking up on the A5086 at Cockermouth, through Frizington, Cleaton Moor, Egremont, Calder Bridge, Gosforth and finally Ravenglass, within sight of Seascale nuclear reprocessing plant. Although we’d never been to the area before, somehow the names of these villages seemed familiar and after a while I remembered why.  They were, or rather had been, mining villages.  Both coal and iron were mined there – the perfect combination for driving the industrial revolution. But not any more. It was quite depressing, in truth; there was a terrible air of dereliction hanging over the villages.  They looked sad, run down and depressed. There were many posters demanding brexit, St George flags – big ones – mounted on aluminium flagpoles at no little expense. Even a large sign outside Seascale announcing that we were on the “Energy Coast” seemed more ironic than triumphant.

If ever there was a living example of the coming crisis it was here, and I haven’t been able to shake it out of my mind since the summer. The results of the general election have only brought it back more strongly because this is where the paradoxes that caused the collapse of our present economics  are obvious to anyone who comes. Just as William Cobbett witnessed in his (1822 – 1826) Rural Rides –

The stack-yards down this valley are beautiful to behold. They contain from five to fifteen banging wheat-ricks, besides barley-ricks and hay-ricks, and also besides the contents of the barns, many of which exceed a hundred, some two hundred, and I saw one at Pewsey another at Fittleton, each of which exceeded two hundred and fifty feet in length. At a farm which, in the old maps; is called Chissenbury Priory, I think I counted twenty-seven ricks of one sort and another, and sixteen or eighteen of them wheat-ricks. I could not conveniently get to the yard without longer delay than I wished to make; but I could not be much out in my counting. A very fine sight this was, and it could not meet the eye without making one look round (and in vain) to see the people who were to eat all this food ; and without making one reflect on the horrible, the unnatural, the base and infamous state in which we must be, when projects are on foot, and are openly avowed, for transporting those who raise this food, because they want to eat enough of it to keep them alive; and when no project is on foot for transporting the idlers who live in luxury upon this same food; when no project is on foot for transporting pensioners, parsons, or dead-weight people!

The ‘pensioners’ that Cobbett mentions, by the way, are not senior citizens but recipients of government generosity for indefinable contributions to their continuance in power.

I was reading today that there is a proposal for a new deep mine in Whitehaven producing 2.5 million tonnes of coking coal a year and offering 500 new jobs.  The proposal was supported by Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians in the face of strong criticism from environmental groups.

So there’s the paradox. How can we deny these post industrial areas of high poverty the jobs that could put them back on their feet? “The coal is in the ground, why not take it out and sell it?” they say.  Are you weeping and gnashing your teeth yet? Are there no other less destructive occupations than releasing carbon into the atmosphere that could be encouraged? The challenge before us is to change a whole culture, and it’s no use coming up with endless strategies because – as any business consultant will tell you for a large fee – culture eats strategy for breakfast!  The culture in question has centuries of entrenchment under its belt – so much so that it’s become commonsensical to regard the earth’s resources as if they were created entirely for the enrichment of humans,  and without any value intrinsic to itself. To suggest that we might have to treat the earth as a partner smacks of tree hugging madness.

For years the evidence has piled up, and no-one took much notice, but now it’s the experience we’re getting. The rainwater that floods into valley towns and flood plains, ruining land and houses is not a theory.  The forest fires aren’t theories and the extreme weather isn’t a theory either. It’s not an academic exercise to encounter the diminishment of the soil and the declining yields that can only be propped up by more and more of the very chemicals that are causing the problem.  Massive increases in stress and diet related diseases aren’t theoretical and asthma resulting from atmospheric pollution isn’t a figment of some doom-monger’s imagination, neither is the mass extinction of insects, and it breaks my heart to see mainstream politicians waving through policies that will make things worse for the sake of a few votes in a run-down area. They should hang their heads in shame.

Meanwhile the very same interests who have conceived, promoted and benefited from the violation and destruction of the earth have taken complete control by driving their juggernaut through the ranks of the opposition because the opposition had no plans for anything except managing the destruction a little more ‘fairly’. There was no teaching, no vision, no genuine conversation with these depressed areas, just the odd hospital and road thrown their way in the hope it would be enough to stave off change. Our politics has shown itself to be no longer fit for purpose. Workington men and women, and millions of other disillusioned people voted from despair because no-one ever listened, nothing ever happened and no-one was offering a coherent picture of a way forward, the only show in town was a regression to the imaginary glory days. I can’t get that line of mining towns out of my head.  I took a school trip down Big Pit once, and I got chatting to a retired mine electrician at the pithead.  “you must miss it” – I said.  “Miss it?” he snorted – “I hated every bloody minute of it!”

Driving across Yorkshire to Cumbria we passed some of the prettiest and some of the most derelict areas in the UK. It’s collapsing, the whole political and economic structure is falling apart and the earth on which we depend utterly is screaming its distress at us. The threads of a new culture are there.  They lack all sorts of detail, but I think we now understand that our relationship with the earth has to be understood as a spiritual “I -Thou” relationship and not the “I- it” relationship of modernism.  I think we understand that people really matter, and that strong human community is as essential to us as air and water. I think we understand too that our politicians need to stop speaking and start listening more.  I’m not the only person who gets exasperated by being told what I believe by a person who’s never spoken to me. And I think that we understand that the fruits of the earth and of our labours must be more equitably shared.  It would be a crime of the highest order to export the crisis to the poorest people on earth in order to preserve our wasteful way of life. And finally we have to change ‘the way we do things round here’ – the way we grow and harvest, the way we eat and the way we enjoy our leisure. The people of Whitehaven deserve better – just not that kind of better.

So I’ll finish with some words from Roger Gottlieb from an essay entitled “Spiritual deep ecology and the Left: an attempt at reconciliation”  – I found it in the first edition of “This Sacred Earth” and I’m quoting it because I think we need to talk.

 

A fruitful exchange between deep ecology and the left, however, requires that adherents of both perspectives suspend  some entrenched prejudices. Leftists need to open themselves to the possibility that a spiritually oriented perspective might actually have something to teach them: in this case, something about the ultimate source of value in our lives and about limitations in our conventional sense of self. Deep ecologists, on the other hand, would do well to suspend their ahistorical arrogance about their own wisdom, their pretensions to being above or beyond political struggles and their too facile dismissal of left movements as unremitting agents of the exploitation of nature.

***********

Although committed to ending unjust systems and ending oppression, leftist or progressive political movements have often reproduced, rather than opposed, the conventional ego.  Classic liberalism emphasised personal rights, enshrined individual economic activity at the heart of its system, and believed the central purpose of society was to protect and further ownership and consumption.  Surely this will not help us face the environmental crisis.

Sadly, more “radical” political movements of the West – despite their emphasis on community, class or racial experience, and their attempt to generate an ethic of collective solidarity and struggle – have also too often presupposed an individualistic consumerist ego. The practical politics of the left have frequently aimed to provide more things, money, and prestige. They have too often represented the interests of one segment of the oppressed while claiming to represent all, and they have repeatedly failed to challenge the individualist premise that a higher standard of living will make for greater happiness. It has been a rare progressive party that called for less, not more, consumption – at least until the Green Parties of Europe came into being; and there has been little assertion that human fulfillment may be directly opposed to high -consumption lifestyles.”

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.

 

Much study wearies the flesh

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I think I’ve been reading too much – and it’s all the fault of the southwesterly winds. We did at least manage 3 hours on the allotment yesterday, but today, after setting out on a fruitless (yes) mission to pick damsons, it hammered down so much we turned around and came home again whereupon I spent the rest of the day watching 2 films about Arne Naess and reading his book “Ecology of Wisdom”.  I had to check him out because his name, and the concept of ‘deep ecology’ have come up quite a lot in my reading recently and I always find it better to go back to the source and make my own mind up..

The introduction was a bit repetitive, whereas the initial chapter on place was really intriguing.  But I came away from the first three essays thinking that, after looking at his CV, I felt more disabled than enabled by his mountaintop vision. There was something a shade too muscular, too charismatic, for me. I’ll never build a primitive hut on the side of a mountain, or read Spinoza in Latin, or learn Ghandian boxing.  So does that mean that the Potwell Inn is forever condemned to the sidelines?  Does it mean that my proposed ecology of Muckyannydinny Lane, the rubbish filled alley connecting two estates, will never see the light of day because it’s too ordinary?

I liked the man and some at least of his writing, but it seems to me as if his disciples (where have I heard this story before?) have added whole chunks of metaphysics and rather extreme conclusions to his initial words.  Isn’t it always the same? The moment we canonize someone, the followers feel free to claim pretty much anything they like and then stamp it with the saint’s imprimatur to put it beyond debate.

So here I am with a seed catalogue in one hand and the disabling thought in my mind that I really don’t know what we should be doing for the best.  Is the bib and brace overall and the Tilly hat more of a deferential tug of the forelock to the past? (see postbox). Is there some complete system for the ethically perfect life that I haven’t stumbled across yet or am I condemned to stumble around in the dark?  I know there are people who’ve found the answer because you can sense by their absolute certainty and their gimlet eyes that they have the truth – I’m not being smart and ironical here, I’m both envious of and repelled by their purity.

Loving the earth and the natural world is easy, and counting ourselves among the creatures surely involves loving one another as well as the birds, bees and wolves, and yet the most forceful expositions of rewilding seem almost Malthusian – discarding human lives as if they (we) are a form of infection.  The most common exposition of the technological dream, of carbon capture and fusion power et al  seem to me to be putting your trust into the power of the unicorn, and somewhere in the middle you land up being despised by almost everyone.  All I can think of is to try to live ethically as best I can, reduce my impact on the earth and keep the Potwell Inn going so we, the bewildered, can spent our twilight years with shaking hands and rheumy eyes discussing the price of onions over a pint of Ushers cider.

Today I baked another sourdough and took 15 minutes off the baking time to try to create a less daunting crust.  Madame cooked ratatouille – possibly the last of the season from our own produce.

My son asked me at the weekend why I don’t blog about politics.  It’s for the same reason I don’t go around bludgeoning people who steal our coldframes, it’s all got a bit too poisonous and I think it’s bad for me.  One of my ex parishioners facebooked to say I was being very stoic.  OK Chris – you’ve  found me out!

A new widget

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I’m inclined to think that we bloggers are better at talking than listening, and having banged on for a year at some (130,000 words) length on any subject that interested me, I realized this morning that if this blog is to be any more significant than a bunch of egotistical blah blah blah it needs to offer the opportunity for more engagement and more feedback.

I’ve long wanted the site to have its own email address so that readers could respond privately without having to use public comments or likes, but I’ve been wary of compromising our privacy by handing out my own addresses and being swamped. I realize that this could be risky but I’ve taken every precaution to keep the ‘contact@severnsider.com’ channel separate, and I hope and anticipate that this will add something to the whole experience of the Potwell Inn. After all, whoever heard of a pub where you had to listen to the landlord without being able to join in a conversation. So now there will be two ways of joining in, the ‘comment’ button for stuff you don’t mind sharing with everyone, and the ‘contact’ button for anything else. I can’t promise anything more than a slow response, but I will try and respond and I’m always pleased to receive constructive ideas, criticism  and further thoughts.

That, at least, was the intention when I woke ‘on a mission‘ this morning.  “It’s time” – I thought and I charged into action. Not being a computer geek I should have realized that nothing is as easy as it seems and I finally made it work ten hours later, which rather took the shine off my glorious optimism.

I’ll put up a ‘proper’ post later if I can find the energy, but meanwhile I hope you’ll find this a useful opportunity.  Do let me know if you agree, I get the sense that there’s a community out there which is struggling, like me, to make a lucid and useful response to our climate and ecological crises by living differently – hence the endless reading, the allotment and the emphasis on food.

We’re now in North Wales for a little while in our exploration of the regions and their different farming challenges. We seem to have been (I suppose we have been) travelling for weeks, but nothing has shaken my conviction that there is a way through this mess.

 

Is talking to the trees a load of blather?

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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.