Down from up-country

img_5233

We’ve gambled on a brief spell of sunshine and after a frantic planting out session on the allotment we’ve driven the campervan down to Cornwall to spend a little time at the Lost Gardens of Heligan, soaking up some inspiration.  Whenever we come here, and we try to come three or four times a year to catch the changing seasons, we take away loads of ideas, a few plants and usually some books as well. The campsite is right next door to the garden which, of course, is not lost at all but very well signposted. When it was properly lost I bet the locals knew it was there all the time. I once heard a lovely story about a Ugandan Bishop who reproached a tour guide at the Victoria Falls for saying that they were discovered by David Livingstone in 1855. “I think you’ll find”, he said, “That we knew about them long before that”  The lost gardens sounds a bit more impressive than the completely neglected gardens and all power to Tim Smit who’s brought some proper jobs to the area and created a beautifully restored garden and farm not just as a history lesson, but as a model of sustainability too. 

Naturally, being Cornwall where it rains every day, it rained all the way here and I’m sitting typing this with the rain drumming on the roof of the van; but the forecast looks pretty good for tomorrow. It’s only 130 miles south of Bath but that can amount to several weeks earlier for the wildflowers to show themselves, and with this ridiculously mild and wet weather I’d be surprised if I don’t find some spring favourites.

Of course the van, being a bit long in the tooth, needs a bit of love and care.  Things wear out and need replacing, and this last couple of weeks I replaced the heating controller, which cost a fortune, only to discover that the leisure batteries are knackered and need replacing too. The upshot is that although the heater is working perfectly, the batteries are unable to keep it going if we’re not hooked up or running the engine. This means that the controller has reverted to its native German language.  Luckily I know enough German to turn it on and off, and I decided to keep it going in German as a sign of European solidarity. I’ll replace the batteries as soon as funds permit.  The other snag to beset us is that the WiFi isn’t working on the campsite due to some building work; so the laptop is piggybacking my phone and making inroads into my data allowance – but it works, that’s the main thing.  

I’ve been reading Thomas Berry’s “The Dream of the Earth” and he manages to express very beautifully some kind of answer to the question “how did we get to where we are?”  I’m paraphrasing a bit because I haven’t got the book here with me, but it spoke to me because I’ve lived through most of the period during which our whole mindset began to change. I can really identify with the profound capacity of natural history to grip us. There’s probably never been an epoch that knew more about the way that nature works, how lifeforms came to be the things they are and why they grow as they do. But with that growing knowledge came the need to use it carefully, much more carefully than we have done. If we add to that huge development in understanding, the pervasive idea that we are not only separate from nature but free to do as we please with our knowledge, we slide from a basic assumption of a stewardship relationship to one of domination and extraction; and I’m struggling even to write this paragraph without using words like ‘thing’ and ‘it’ in relation to non human beings – it’s so embedded within our language, hidden as a bacteria might hide within a cell. The industrial revolution was premised on the idea that the earth was an infinite resource given to us by a beneficent God and whose exploitation was a kind of moral duty. The discovery and the exploitation, through scientific advance, of the material wealth of the earth was seen as a sign of God’s favour.  Until Darwin, nature was eternal and unchangeable and, in a sense safe from harm; it was just there

Our bad attitude to the earth is rooted as deeply as once was slavery and still is rooted in racism, misogyny and religious hatred and the same intensity of reflection, self examination and pushing back will be required before anything will change. Again and again I come back to the certainty that spraying facts and data, and shouting at people is not going to be enough. The change in our relationship with the earth and with all its living things, times, tides and seasons, is more akin to a conversion experience than to the acquisition of new knowledge. Of course it begins in reason, but travels far beyond it. 

Maybe that’s why we find gardens like Heligan so powerful.  It is, in its own way, a memorial to the lost, the lost gardeners who never returned from the First World War; a lost way of life in recreating the self-sufficient household, and a lost innocence because we know better than ever before how selfish, greedy and depraved we humans can be. It was always this way but now we know and we can’t unknow it. The fact that the location of the gardens was mislaid for a decade or so is probably the least interesting thing about it.

No more ‘blah blah blah’

P1080864

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.

 

 

 

Believing and belonging

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” – on Karl Marx’ gravestone.

I have met some people for whom even the mention of Karl Marx would lead to the paroxysms of tooth grinding and frothing, so for the sake of sanity, and to save anyone the bother of frothing, the quotation is not a wholesale endorsement of  everything Marx said or wrote; but he’s an important thinker and deserves better than being wildly misquoted at every turn.

So simply knowing that there are some people in government who think that demonstrating against environmental damage and species extinction amounts to a form of terrorism is a chilling thought. Just as a ludicrous overreaction, it could be laughed off if it weren’t backed up by hard state power. I’m quite sure that there are many more people in this country and across the world who believe the evidence that a global catastrophe is looming up on us but feel powerless in the face of the ideological onslaught that tells us every day, and in a million subtle ways, that there is no alternative. Since the brexit referendum and in particular since the UK general election I no longer listen to news broadcasts and I don’t read the newspapers which are part of the problem. I choose my sources carefully and I try as best I can to verify what they’re saying – especially if I really want their stories to be true. As a result I have no idea who the members of the Cabinet are, for instance, but I’ve a pretty good hunch that they’re a dangerous bunch of charlatans and chancers.

Which is all very well except it raises the dilemma of how to respond effectively in a particularly challenging way. Let’s assume that there’s no point in writing letters about it to MP’s who, it seems to me, have no horizon beyond the next election or being appointed to profitable directorships. Successive prime ministers have learned the art of ignoring demonstrations, however huge, and convincing themselves that they know what “the people” are thinking even when best part of a million of them are walking peacefully past the houses of commons suggesting that they don’t. The principal opposition parties all seem to be clutching their favourite parts of a potential policy jigsaw but refuse to collaborate with anyone else in order to put something workable together. Waking up every day feeling powerless and lonely is a bad place to be.

I’ve always been a bit sniffy about direct personal action. I’d wonder – sometimes out loud – how wearing organic cotton T shirts or making your own soap was supposed to change the world. I suppose in part it’s my age, what with being a first generation hippie and seeing our dreams of a better world crushed relentlessly. I’ve written before about my own moment of enlightenment at a free festival in Bath, when I saw a young mother scraping the crap off her baby’s nappy against the only standpipe and water tap on the site. People have always misunderstood St Augustine when he said “love and do what you will” What he meant was that if you love, then you will make better moral choices – like, for instance, not threatening hundreds of people with salmonella because you can’t be arsed to clean your baby up safely.

Although the language changes, selfishness, greed and idolatry – in our case the worship of profit and the neoliberal economy – have always been the real problem. That’s my belief and it brings me no comfort whatever. Even if I were able to convince millions of people that my belief is correct, it wouldn’t do anything to get us off this self destructive path.  The only way to do that is to change our behaviour and – I’m finally beginning to understand – that it begins with me. It may not change the world if I wear an organic cotton T shirt or eat more veg, but if I do –  I’m part of the solution and not part of the problem. Change from the bottom up is the only show in town now and we at the Potwell Inn have been thinking about it for ages.  The allotment, our diet, our choices when we replace our worn out clothes, the way we get about, how we wash and what we wash with, what goes down the sink, how effectively we recycle – all these things are part of the fight back. I suppose you could say “that’s just virtue signalling”  – I’ve said the same many times as a defence against changing.

The most encouraging thing is that when we change our own lives we inevitably start to interact with other people who are doing the same thing. Just like the way you notice when you’ve got a baby on the way that the world is full of pregnant women, so it is that the allotment site is full of people who feel the same way about organic farming and gardening. Today we were continuing our search in Bath for somewhere we could buy food staples without packaging, and reading the small print on the back of re-chargeable shampoo bottles – it takes all sorts! – and we found just the shop we’d been looking for and it was like coming home.  We even met a fellow allotmenteer who works there.

The signpost in the photo at the top stands in a guerilla garden on Walcot Street and when I spotted it I felt the presence of a mass of people who also want to change the world. The new community crosses all the barriers that artificially divide us – age, gender, orientation WTF?

Any half decent evangelist, for any cause whatever, will understand that belonging is far more important than believing. Environmental change will happen when our collective imagination reaches the tipping point where not to change becomes unthinkable.  So the most powerful strategy for change in the face of a hostile government is having more fun, being better neighbours and refusing the limits that their edited version of human possibility try to impose on us. They’ll  tell us that we’ll only survive if we build a better machine, invent a new technology, build a higher wall. And we’ll show them what human flourishing really looks like. When you look at it that way there’s no contest.

 

Everyday sacred

IMG_20191205_113353

Writing about baking bread the other day I was casting around for a way of expressing just how important ordinary actions and objects can be. I’ve written in the past about the ‘ordinary’ and I’ve no doubt I’ll keep coming back to it. Ordinary is a word inflected by its use by the church to describe the authority of regularity, of obedience, of order, but in  institutional hands it came to mean repetitiveness, blind obedience and hierarchy. Sometimes it’s possible to blow the dust off an old word and restore it to its full meaning, but maybe ‘ordinary’ has been taken to the charity shop once too often and so it just means ‘a bit meh’.

So my loaf of bread, ordinary though it is to me, because it embodies a whole network of responsibilities and regularities – and great beauty too, aside from its utility as a shared food – ‘ordinary’ doesn’t quite stretch to it.  So I tried another word. ‘everyday’.   Everyday bread perhaps, for some people, conjures up a faint memory of ‘daily bread’. The word stuck in my mind and although I’ve tried writing on a number of other subjects I keep coming back to the idea of ‘everyday sacred’.

I’m really worried about using these kind of words because they’ve been so hijacked and starved by by their association with organised religion with which I’ve had a long relationship in the past.  But that leaves me with a problem because if ‘spirituality’, ‘sacred’, and all their associated concepts are put beyond reach by the institutions that hold the concession at the moment, we have to start from scratch in describing what for many of us is a deeply felt connection with the earth, and with one another, that transcends the ‘selfish gene’ nonsense peddled by Old Testament atheists like Richard Dawkins.

I no longer have a belief in the supernatural.  I dreamed about losing it and then it just happened one day as I stood watching the River Severn in flood, and I saw it float away in the fierce water.  It wasn’t at all dramatic; I wasn’t as much ‘losing my faith’ as being set free to find it again in another place, free of the rigidity and dogma. I’ve never spoken about this before and it may come as a bit of a shock to some of my friends so I’ll have to pace up and down  a bit before I press the ‘publish’ button, but there we are – it’s a relief to have written it.

So now I can write about everyday sacred without any ambiguity about my intentions. This blog isn’t about selling anything it’s about being human – delightfully, stupidly and increasingly decrepitly human.  When I’m in the kitchen making bread I feel connected.  When I’m on the allotment I feel it too.  On my way through the park today I stood face to face with a pair of long tailed tits in the hedge who seemed as curious about me as I was about them, and the urge to thank somebody, something, surged inside me.

Everyday sacred is that sense of gratitude because the earth provides so much that we need. The photo is of a sketch I made of a garlic bulb – this was a more successful one, I did dozens of others that turned out like schoolboy phallic graffiti – it’s hard to get it right. Knowing that it’s so good for us to eat and knowing something about the quite amazing molecular transformations that go on within garlic, within so many plants whose secondary metabolites can cure our diseases and put us back together again – that induces the same sense of the everyday sacred.  The hawthorn – we called it ‘bread and cheese’ as children and ate the leaves when they were new and not full of tannin – hawthorn has an outrageous array of natural gifts to offer.

So the Potwell Inn is for: dancing, singing, making music, eating together, telling jokes, falling in love, breaking the rules, growing our food and listening to each others troubles; healing, challenging and forgiving – these are the everyday sacred, and I say to the churches – “thank you for looking after the ball for so long,  but please can we have it back now.”

How can a patch of earth be so beautiful?

IMG_5015It was a day for catching up with old friends and big hugs for the family, so we were up at the plot early to check that the greenhouse, the hot bed and the coldframes were ready for another unseasonably hot day. Our children may not appreciate the analogy but seeing the sun shining on the allotment, watching seedlings develop and  feeling the wamth of the earth is not a million miles away from the sheer pleasure of being loved – for no discernable reason – by your children and grandchildren.  Our youngest said to us once, after a day out with his first nephew, “It’s really strange the way they look at you, decide you’re OK and just love you”.

So that was today really. Lunch at Rosemarino’s our favourite Italian café/restaurant in Bristol where our youngest once worked as a chef and with old friends we’ve known for years and travelled together with.  I had a lovely lamb ragu with pasta and we shared a bottle of cheap Italian white while we ate and talked. Later, after crossing the city,  big hugs and cuddles with the grandchildren and their Aussie Mum who’s brought so much to our expanding family. Oh and the fact that everything just seems to be working. Pride, I know, comes before a fall – but stuff it – the Potwell Inn is the place to be – “point” as Whacker Allan my old French teacher used to say.  He was a sadist but he’d lived in Paris which was pretty exciting. Tomorrow the weather turns and we shall be gloomy again but today we are filled with delight.