Taking a flail mower to the inner landscape.

Winter scene – taken just outside Priddy today

There’s a long walk around the village of Capel y Ffin in the Black Mountains that takes you up Hatterall Hill at just over 530 metres above sea level and joins the Offa’s Dyke path. Walking west along the ridge you come to a track that’s a lot easier to find with GPS, down past Vision farm. You drop steeply down into the valley, cross the Honddu river by a bridge and then climb up the other side through Capel, passing the ruins of the monastery there, and uphill until you reach a second ridge that offers the most spectacularly airy views of Hay Bluff and across into Wales. Turning left you follow the ridge, keeping an eye open for a single wind blasted thorn, several miles further on and which is the only clue to the whereabouts of a path leading back down the valley to Llanthony Abbey and the starting point. It’s about ten, maybe twelve miles, I suppose – a fine walk in any weather although there’s no shelter from sun, wind or rain and it can get a bit gloopy in winter. That thorn tree is an essential part of the navigation. If you miss it you let yourself in for a long and difficult thrash.

The image came to mind today as I was struggling to make sense of the confusion I am feeling at the prospect of yet more restrictions and growing numbers of deaths from the Omicron Covid variant. Hefting – to use the phrase that describes that way sheep “belong” to particular parts of their fells is a powerful description of an attachment that goes far beyond owning an internal sheepy satnav. Hefting includes within its meanings the knowledge of particular plants for food; of water; of shelter from storms; of tracks of use only to sheep who have different purposes than careless walkers. Hefting embeds ancient inherited knowledge within a whole landscape – an almost sacramental image combining outward form with inner grace; shared – and here’s the point – between sheep and shepherds. I remember once talking with a farmworker in his seventies who could point out, and actually name a field on an east-facing slope of the Forest of Dean, a mile away across the River Severn.

It’s an important clue to the way it feels to be human, here in this place and at this moment in time. Covid, brexit, the collapse of social care, appalling and uncaring politics and the impossibility even of seeing a doctor when their answering machine says – “If it’s an emergency dial 999 and if it’s not – talk to your pharmacist”; all add up to the feeling of walking on a rainy and windblown ridge and discovering that every single waypoint has been taken down. The thorn bush that’s always been there as a pointer to the way home, is gone. You feel lost.

And so, today – much to Madame’s bewildered amusement – I just had to drive up to High Mendip to make sure it was still there, even if it was too wet to get out of the car and too misty to see beyond a hundred yards. “God it’s bleak up here”, she said, and I thought to myself that its bleakness may have been its saviour.

When someone’s taken a flail mower to your inner landscape you have this primal urge to find a place that you know, and that – in some strange way – knows you. I’ve explored Priddy’s underground streamways and passages with more moments of sheer terror than bliss; seen the power of the water reshape an entire cave system in a single night, and then retraced my steps sixty years later walking the map above ground. It’s a three dimensional landscape for me ….. or could it be four? My son gave me Robin Wall Kimmerer’s latest book – a collection of essays – for my birthday this weekend. Here’s something truly significant that she writes towards the end of the preface:

In indigenous ways of knowing, we say that thing cannot be understood until it is known by all four aspects of our being: mind, body, emotion, spirit. The scientific way of knowing relies only on empirical information from the world, gathered by body and interpreted by mind. In order to tell the mosses’ story I need both approaches, objective and subjective.

“Gathering Moss” – Robin Wall Kimmerer – published 2021 in the UK by Penguin Books.

You need to know that Kimmerer is both a scientist, professor of environmental biology and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. But you don’t have to be a First Nation American to embrace the earth in its totality. There was never a more important moment in human history to turn away from the narrow vision of the reductionist arrow slit to embrace the intensity and difficulty of the whole. For me, the emotional and spiritual connection to landscape -and not just wild places and countryside, but the towns and cities in which we are also hefted – these connections are being tested like never before. We are being shriven by the weather of events, huddling beneath the walls, waiting for a spring that’s failed us now, for two years, and fearing that there is no shepherd to lead us down to food and shelter.

For each of us the equivalent of my blasted thorn will be different. The signs that guide us to safety are rarely the ones erected at great public expense – like the statue of Edward Colston, in Bristol – in order to keep the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate. The Post Office and corner shop, the local pub, the tatty GP surgery, the school where the teachers remember your name thirty years later, the alleyways and steps, the bus stop that’s always hosted the number four bus, the sweet shop of your childhood that suddenly and overnight turned into a bookies on the day you finally understood why your grandfather would send you up to give a note to the shopkeeper and occasionally bring an envelope back – evidently not a rebate on sweets. When the flail mower visits your own blasted thorn you feel lost and sad; and if there’s a calculus for feeling lost then I have lots of data.

The writing’s on the wall

Graphis scripta – script lichen or secret writing lichen

Or in this case the writing is on the trunk of a tree. Madame spotted it first as we were walking down Eastwater Drove (we’re back on Mendip) – and at first thought someone had fixed some waymarkers on the trunk. As soon as I saw it I knew that I knew what it was but couldn’t put a name to it without photographing it and doing a search in Google Lens. It’s a free app on my Pixel 3 camera phone and the more it’s used the better it seems to get. Even if it’s only in the right area it gives you a start on where to open the book. At first sight it looks like it’s an illustration in a Tolkien story; a runic sign saying this way to the cavern. Anyway, although the van is loaded with plant books – bird books and butterfly books the lichens were left back at the Potwell Inn. I have to say there’s a good side to getting into Lichens and Bryophytes which is that they’re always there, and there’s always something to look at, even in the bleakest of midwinters. Here around Priddy, many of the walls are so covered in mosses that the stone structures underneath are all but invisible.

These last few days I’ve been thinking a great deal about the future, and especially how we can get to a sustainable and equitable future for the whole earth without the kind of violence and instability that often accompanies profound cultural change – without waking the bear as I often used to say to our teenage sons. “What’s gone wrong?” we ask, and more often than not we land up with the notion that changing our personal behaviour is a step in an iterative process that leads to our goal of a world in which we can all be fully human and live without fear; sustainably and equitably.

The gaping hole in that argument is the word ‘iterative’ – step by step. Even if step by step progress towards our goal could work eventually, our present situation is so perilous that collective action is the only possible way to head off the coming tragedy – economic turmoil, climate crisis, ecological disaster, famine, migration and pollution to name but a few. The real problem is that our solitary actions can give us the individual space to feel extremely virtuous while doing little or nothing to solve the problem.

Here at the Potwell Inn, and on our allotment we try to do the best we can; we grow our own food as best we can and when we can’t we buy organic. We recycle, walk whenever we can and cut down on meat eating and read all the books to stay in touch with the issues. We ought to feel insufferably virtuous and yet we don’t because when the elections come around we vote carefully and thoughtfully and …….. nothing happens.

I wrote a couple of days ago about the I Ching. It’s a book I’ve read a great deal but only used infrequently over the years – probably due to my somewhat austere Christian and Protestant background. I have almost instinctive reservations about divination – Old Moore’s Almanac, astrology and all that. But that’s not the whole story because behind my very 2oth Century scientific rationalist upbringing lies a real fascination with them, and against all cultural expectation I’ve studied most of them; so among the faiths I’ve studied, Taoism is the one I come back to most often – fascinated by its immersion in nature. You should realize that four of the five paragraphs I’ve just written would have been enough to get me into big trouble with the church authorities. Taoism, Tai Chi, the I Ching relate to one another, feed from one another, and always bring to my mind the possibility of peace; of equilibrium with nature and of justice. Unlike many of the world’s religions it seems to me that Taoism places less emphasis on individual salvation while stressing that we humans can only flourish when our lives are aligned with with the Tao. Just, peaceful and equitable lives are very much this worldly and experiential, rather than distant and abstract.

The incomprehensible ‘writing’ on that lichen brought to mind the I Ching whose history began by interpreting the cracks on animal bones created by burning. So yesterday, because we’re away from home and in a very peaceful place, I cast a hexagram with the question in mind that I’ve tried to explain in the opening section of this post and I was given gua 7 Shi. Having pondered it (there were some [jargon alert] moving lines) I’m simply not experienced enough to give a reading (and by withholding the moving lines I’m not inviting anyone else to do one) BUT – in a way that’s close to a this-worldly creative insight such as you might gain during psychoanalytic psychotherapy, the suggestion came to me that one deeper issue here concerns leadership. Of course our personal behaviour and the choices we make matter; but when they are drawn together in united action they have the capacity to achieve change. Our present crisis is as much about poor leadership as much as anything else. In a parliamentary democracy we’re encouraged to believe that leaders appointed by election are somehow anointed with the qualities needed to lead well. It’s called the “grace of orders” in some systems, and I think it’s a load of old hokum. When we elect fools and liars we get foolish and dishonest leadership that puts peace and tranquility beyond reach.

So as well as doing what we can personally, we also need to pay attention to recognising and nurturing the kind of leaders whose lives and behaviour are worthy exemplars – all of a piece with their professed beliefs, humble enough to hear the cry of the poor, wise enough to seek the Tao and lead in the right manner, and decisive enough to act when the moment is ripe. If we have a collective responsibility for the crisis it’s been in delegating power to the wrong people.

We know well enough that the writing is on the wall for the present system. The hexagram I was given speaks of ‘the multitude’ in the Alfred Huang translation where he refuses the usual name which refers to an army. The Ritsema/Sabbadini translation gives the title “Legions” which is at least ambiguous. The Huang translation speaks more loudly to me. A leaderless multitude can be dangerous (a mob) or ineffectual (a rabble) turned in on itself and riven by factional disputes.

You may hope that this post is just an aside and that I’ll soon get back to the real business of the Potwell Inn which must be (according to the stats) growing borlotti beans. But allotments are part of the real world, not an escape from it. Our lives are always far richer as we discover that we’re not the two up – two down kind of useful and compliant but rather dull people our culture is so good at creating.

I once spent an evening talking to an hotelier in St Ives (Cornwall). His mother used to deliver meals on wheels to people in the town, and one of the people they delivered to was Alfred Wallace- an artist who was discovered and nurtured by many of the great names of 20th century art who lived in the town at that time. Wallace was (rather dismissively) known as a naive or primitive painter and he would make paintings on any surface that came to hand, including dinner plates. The hotelier’s mother would take them back to base and wipe off the paintings which would now be worth tens of thousands of pounds. That’s what the system does to millions of human beings and we say it’s a crying shame but there’s nothing to do about it because we’re powerless. No we’re not – we’re disorganised and leaderless.

Here’s a photo I took of Alfred Wallace’s grave – tiled by Bernard Leach the famous potter.

In Barnoon Cemetery St Ives, March 2017
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