Hey – those sunflowers are mine!

Grey squirrel feeding on our sunflowers on the allotment today

Every now and again a proper conundrum comes along – usually because two ways of understanding collide. Here’s a version of it that came along today. We went out early for our walk to day and spotted some good things on our way around. Bath Deep Lock had our friend the heron and a family of two swans and their four cygnets. The house martins were nowhere to be seen on the first pond above the canal entrance but on our way back on the riverside we saw our first kingfisher from the riverside. Who’d have thought to see one alongside a busy building site in the centre of the city, but there it was like a jewel catching the light, flashing its prismatic colours. Opposite the railway station we saw a lesser black backed gull catch a fish from the river. Why that should be a surprise is a sign of the times! Then, to crown the morning, a professional hawker was back flying his Harris hawk on the Green; the gulls – highly alarmed – were circling and diving, mobbing the seemingly unconcerned hawk. I think, because we were standing and staring, the hawker flew the bird across to a tree just above our heads where we were able to see it more closely, and as the bird perched there a parent with a young child hurried past oblivious of the hawk sitting feet away above their heads. We would have pointed it out but the father was fiercely focused on hurrying the child somewhere and missed the moment.

So how does that lively morning’s experience interlock with mindfulness, or the Taoist discipline of non conceptual engagement. Is it OK for me to name the flowers? or should I put all those concepts to one side and simply contemplate them in that oddly detached way that I’ve occasionally encountered. Is it obsessive and dangerous to the spirit to care which species of ragwort is growing in the car park?

The Tao that can be spoken is not the Tao

Lao Tzu

I get it, I think, that the ‘thing in itself’ – the kestrel or the kingfisher, for instance, can never be contained within any words, concepts or pictures. The thing in itself is elusive, intangible, fleeting. We know this perfectly well when, for example, we gaze in wonder at a flower meadow knowing that it is always in a state of flux – growing, fading and dying and then regenerating. We know that we are like the flower of the field. Autumn whispers the ephemerality of our own lives to us, and so we know that it cannot be fully understood by just measuring its span or its rainfall and temperature

And then, this afternoon a kind of answer to the conundrum came during a visit to the allotment to pick herbs. As I came down the path I spotted the squirrel nonchalantly munching the sunflower seeds. If I put the sequence of my thoughts into slow motion they went something like this:

  • Hey those sunflowers are ours – we wanted to save them for the birds
  • Gosh how lovely to see a squirrel close-up
  • Squirrels are pests, I should drive it away
  • No I should take a photograph and leave the squirrel alone

I’m perfectly sure it was a lot more complicated than that but on reflection I could see how my Western dualistic mind had split the event into three – squirrel, sunflower, and me. In my instinctive response I’d set up a gap between the three of us, conceptualized a property relationship and a feudal hierarchy in which I was the Lord of the manor, the sunflower was my inalienable property which the squirrel was poaching. It’s when we react without thinking that we are most likely to expose our inner processes.

Water overflowing Bath Deep Lock

What non-dualistic thought does is to try to push to one side all those conceptualizations and reach into what cannot be spoken or understood, but is the thing in itself. It doesn’t mean that I won’t be miffed about getting seeds pinched but were they ever mine in any way that makes sense? How on earth does categorizing the squirrel as a pest mean anything? And who grew the seeds? Am I not dependent on the earth and the seasons without which there would be no sunflower and no seeds to anguish about? Of course it doesn’t suggest that I shouldn’t be seized with sufficient curiosity and wonder about a flower to want to understand it better, learn where it fits into the family of flowers and perhaps photograph or draw it. But when all that’s done I still haven’t captured or understood anything except an idol of the thing in itself which always exceeds and overflows it like a stream. The danger of too much focus on concepts is that they blind us to the extent of our unknowing. I can never imagine being a twitcher, or a botanical collector or a butterfly hunter completely focused on ticking every species on a list, but it’s just lovely to engage with a species I’ve never seen before, not because I derive any virtue from our encounter but because I found a friend I’d never previously met. Being mindful doesn’t mean struggling to empty your mind of everything, and non dualistic thinking doesn’t mean that I should search for my inner squirrel or sunflower seed; it just means that even botany has its place for wonder and we often learn more by standing in the stream without expectations.

It’s a common birdsfoot trefoil – Lotus corniculatus (but not an actual bird’s foot).

No hiding place

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Well not for this group of overwintering snails in Cornwall. The ivy, behind which they had been dry and cosy, was stripped off by estate workers and they were oblivious to the danger they were in from the local birds – just a matter of time before they became a lucky break for a hungry predator. Our camping pitch was home for abundant numbers of very tame rooks and it was amazing to hear what a wide range of vocalisations they had – perched, as they were, only feet away from the campervan. I guess it’s just a matter of standing still for as long as it takes to fully engage with the natural world. I always feel a bit sorry for the runners and cyclists who treat the bridle paths as speedway tracks – they don’t know what they’re missing.

But not knowing what you’re missing has a darker side because when we depopulate our minds of the the ordinary everyday wildlife; or when we’ve never experienced the sheer fun of naming the plants and trees, we’re less likely to miss them when they’re not there any more, and in an age like our own, getting to know what’s there becomes a moral issue.

These days I seem to be reading more and more angry words, and I’m constantly being exhorted to give something or other up for the sake of the planet – and almost  always it’s couched in emotional terms. If I eat meat at all I must be in favour of animal suffering – but if I talk about veganism I’m a lentil headed moron.  Plastic ? no plastic? dig? no-dig? What to wear, where to take my holidays and how to get there, shop local  …… and so it goes on. And all this effort is towards saving the planet about which most of us know next to nothing. Is it any surprise that talk of a climate emergency or an ecological disaster has almost no impact on our behaviour. We don’t feel scared because we don’t quite know what it is we’re about to lose and in our (ideologically trained) hearts we still believe that we can all get richer and more productive because we’re the cleverest species who’ve ever lived on the earth and we always come out on top – don’t we?

So here’s a suggestion. Take a walk – it’s almost spring now so there are lots of plants about to burst into life – and name as many as you can.  This isn’t about spotting ghost orchids, it’s about the most ordinary things you’ve probably walked past thousands of times without paying attention. If you can’t walk far, check out a few pavement cracks and stone walls.  The most important part of this exercise is not to show off but to understand just how little we know about ordinary plants, living heroic lives against the onslaught of strimmers, chemicals, dogs pee, drought and storm. Spend a season discovering that coltsfoot, cats ear, hawkweed, hawkbit and all their relatives are not dandelions after all. Do some bird watching but don’t buy a fancy pair of binoculars, a bird book and drive to a reserve somewhere; stand and listen very quietly – what’s that bird outside the flat? – does it care about the noise of the traffic? Find a moth that looks exactly like a twig.  Let’s be even more contentious – what breed are those sheep? those cattle?

I promise that once you’ve made the resolution not to pass up on things you don’t recognise and can’t name, your life will change completely. You’ll never be lonely again because the plants you pass will be friends; you laboured to get to know their names and so they really matter.  You know pretty much where they live and when you’ll be able to catch up again next season – this is all about ordinary everyday things, not national rarities. The thing is, species disappear when we don’t know they’re there. Our grandchildren may never hear a cuckoo, and they’ll almost certainly never hear a nightingale – ordinary everyday birds that disappeared because of what we’re doing to the environment. Last summer we were driving along an absurdly exposed and narrow road in the Yorkshire Dales, almost on the border with Cumbria. We were accompanied for best part of half a mile by half a dozen lapwing flying directly in front of us like a red arrows display team. You don’t forget moments like that, and you’re far more likely to get involved when their very existence is threatened.

So don’t get despondent or confused about what we’re supposed to do in this unrecognised crisis – there’s plenty of advice out there and some of it is even sensible! Be cautious of evangelically inclined interest groups, lobbyists, commercial interests and all the rest but also give then a fair hearing, especially if you don’t agree with them.  The best way to conduct a campaign is to know your enemy better than they know themselves. Shouting drives people into their comfort zones but quiet persistence and empathy really can change peoples minds.  But above all, know what it is we’re trying to save – name it, treasure it – because it’s not an abstract concept we’re trying to defend, it’s family and household to us  – the only family and the only household we have. Love and hold the ordinary and everyday close to your heart, and the survival of the earth can be achievable.