Muted celebrations and big ones. Three Musketeers go plant hunting and a big think.

Jill Lough’s sherry trifle

So as the title suggests, this week saw a return to the present after reconnecting my heart and my head on the subject of the walk from Le Puy en Velay to Cahors. The sediment has now settled just about enough to view it as just another few yards of life’s rich tapestry. I was pleased and rather surprised to discover that it was pretty good in parts, and I’d go so far as to say that working on the timeline through my journal and photographs as well as my memory was as cathartic and helpful as the counsellors often say.

On Sunday we laid on a family meal. With two of the boys missing it was smaller than usual. Our grandchildren arrived as high as kites – suspect sugar rushes – and our son was – as is often the case – rather withdrawn. We know pretty much why he’s in a bad place but because he’s never spoken to us about it, or invited any kind of help, it remains the elephant in the room and makes everyone a bit sad. Oh and caution stayed my hand with the sherry bottle (the children had their own alcohol free version) and it failed to reach the heavenly heights of Jill’s recipe which comprised (I may have increased the booze) one sponge and one bottle of sherry.

However on Monday and after ten years, our daughter in law was finally granted British citizenship and there were whoop whoops galore on the family WhatsApp group. No more tasteless jokes about Australian cricket, then, but we will expect her to learn Bristolian as soon as possible. Then of course we spent a couple of mornings catching up on the allotment. If you’ve read this blog/journal for any length of time you’ll know how depressing I find the autumn. It’s like visiting a loved one who’s rapidly fading away. But Madame administers the whip adroitly and once I get going I usually enjoy it – ish! I am not going “gently into that good night” and every arthritic creak makes me froth with rage at the dying of the light. I normally love wheelbarrowing muck and hoeing weeds in, but ever since I was formally diagnosed with AF and given a pile of drugs to limit my heart rate and blood pressure, I suffer from a nagging panic about making myself ill. I couldn’t fault the doctors, they’ve been wonderful, but all they’ll say is “just don’t overdo it” . Just WTF is the difference between doing it and overdoing it? and do you have to wait until you’re in the mortuary with a label tied to your toe to find out??

Tuesday was spent on the allotment, until we were driven off by the rain. This has been a record breaking autumn with low pressure driving rain off the Atlantic and dropping devastating amounts across the country. I don’t understand the wingnuts who still think this weather falls within the normal.

On Wednesday I went off with two friends, prospecting possible sites for Bath Natural History Society to organise field trips next year. We had three sites to look at. The first had to be abandoned after our driver was forced to reverse 100 yards down a lane with a locked gate at the end and no turning place. It was very narrow, half flooded on one side and a ditch on the other – both sides within easy reach of the wheels. After a great waving of arms and shouting we half extracted ourselves noisily enough to attract the attention of the farmer’s daughter who came and took over having obviously done it many times before. She told me she would have offered to reverse the car herself but had thought her offer might offend us. I thought there was an element of sweet revenge in it. The combined intelligence of three old blokes failing to drive a car backwards was far too good an opportunity to miss for a young woman in 2023. It was only later that I realized what a daft thing it was to tell her we were natural historians; who on earth would know what that meant? Anything else could get confused with naturists; and nature lovers sounds thoroughly creepy. “No dear we always keep our wellies on” comes to mind. So what? ….. botanists? bird watchers, fungus hunters? all three I suppose. In the end it sounded more comprehensible to say we were organising nature rambles for a club.

Site number two also lacked sufficient parking although we managed to squeeze in around the back among the builders’ wagons. Most of the site was pretty unimpressive from a wildlife point of view but once we got beyond the lake we could see that great efforts had been made to create a real wildlife area. My companions, who were both birders, got excited about a pair of Scoters and surprisingly they spotted six or seven species, but there wasn’t enough, we thought, to maintain interest for more than an hour or so.

Site number three was by far the largest and most interesting in spite of being surrounded by houses, roads, an industrial estate and a railway line. There was an abundance of hedge and scrub – enough to hold a big population of birds. There was a wooded area, a stream and a lake plus a couple of large and relatively unimproved fields where we soon started to find waxcap fungi. We were all trying out various apps on our phones and at one point all three of us were using Merlin – an excellent bird ID app- pointing our phones at a noisy flock of Starlings. The apps parted company over the fungi – none of them (the apps that is) – are perfect and fungi in particular mostly need double checking in the books – for many you even need to resort to a microscope and examine the spores. So an affable exchange of emails later in the day got us as close as we could. But we came home with at least one suggestion for a trip next year. I’ve been volunteered to co-lead another in the spring and give a talk as well so things are looking up.

Thursday and Friday were swallowed up by the allotment again, but at last it’s beginning to look a bit decent. We covered all except two of the beds that were cleared of crops, and we’ve sown seeds for overwintering in the polytunnel. On Saturday we finally had our first NHS dental appointment after 7 years and 63 phone calls. No-one would take us on as patients for all that time and so our teeth weren’t properly looked after and when Madame’s gold crown fell out I tried to mend it by glueing it back in. Unfortunately I glued it back to front. It cost well over £1000 to get it fixed. The only tiny cloud in the heavens was the fact that the dentist called us both “My dear” throughout.

Then yesterday we were off to Tetbury with our neighbour Charlie who is an ex Director of the Welsh National Botanical Gardens and is an all-round good guy. We were invited along to a joint talk he was doing with Louise, a dyer; all about the trees and plants that are used for dying fabrics which is a subject close to my heart, and also having lunch with Geoffrey, the owner of the 28 acre site, the gardener (Louise’s husband Liam) and Charlie.

A splendid Pestle puffball – Lycoperdon excipuliformis beneath a group of Oaks.

It was a wonderful but challenging and occasionally perplexing visit to the Makara Centre near Tetbury. The cost of running it is subsidised by hosting weddings as well as a memorial garden, but you get the feeling that its real purpose is as a place of meditation, teaching and personal growth. The whole place is suffused by a contemplative atmosphere and outside there were a dozen places where you might sit quietly and meditate. There were many little water features completely naturalized with moss and ferns. But inside the main buildings were some of the most lovely human spaces I’ve ever seen. Dotted with mandalas and statues, and furnished and decorated with enormous care; there was one room in which I’d gladly sit alone for a day. Even the door frames were beautiful.

The man who goes out for revenge should dig two graves


But finally the big think. I’ve been agonising about how to think about this appalling war in Israel/Palestine and it seems to me (after 2 weeks of violent thoughts, dreams – and frothing at the mouth on my part) that even using a term like evil presupposes that the user of the word accepts that it represents something real; not just a metaphor that gets wheeled out for press headlines. As a concept in everyday use in the West, evil has all but disappeared along with much of its supporting philosophy but we still think it’s significant enough to use on especially upsetting occasions. And, of course, all the major religions including Christianity, Judaism and Islam, Buddhism – virtually all of them – separate good acts from evil acts. I’ve worked in many challenging situations and evil – when you encounter it – is utterly chilling; a trashing of every virtue; a deliberate choice for wickedness and against goodness. Surely this is a timely moment to examine our own acts; to accept our own capacity for evil and to recognise when we have fallen into it. If governments, militias, terrorists across the world chose to read their own scriptures on the subject of evil – prayerfully – and assess their own acts in the light of the scriptures they claim to follow then I’m hopeful that they would at least (grudgingly) recognise their error. There is no conceivable God worth a moment of anyone’s time – let alone obedience – who would sanction or encourage evil acts. So we can’t have it both ways. It’s hard to make a coherent argument concerning evil unless we allow that it’s a possibility for any of us, and therefore we have to accept our responsibility for the evil we do without excusing ourselves on the basis of some utterly wrong and self serving interpretation of scripture. Then; when, and only when we’ve acknowledged our own capacity for evil should we turn our attention to what the enemy is doing. I have never forgotten a sentence from my ordination sermon, preached by Francis Palmer: “Always remember that the Church can be the devil – and when it thinks it can’t be, it is!” A very old and dear friend who spent a part of the Second World War serving on the North Atlantic convoys, defending vital cargo ships against aerial and torpedo bombing, told me that on one occasion they were dive bombed whilst he was on duty as a machine gunner. He told me how, to his great shame he was so filled with hatred as he poured deadly shells at the plane, he felt he somehow changed into a monster. He was still deeply ashamed at this revelation of his deep nature fifty years later.

And here was the most unexpected outcome of our day at Makara – a sense of release and peace against all the anxieties and fears of the present moment. We talked for hours about it last night, and again this morning but couldn’t define what exactly was happening there, but this morning we went up to the allotment to clear another two beds and it started to rain; not a bit of drizzle but biblical rain roaring down on us and we laughed as we struggled to work on; digging our winter potatoes from the sodden ground. I could brag about how successful our efforts at improving the soil have been in improving drainage, but that wasn’t the point. We were just laughing about earth and rain and hard work and potatoes; the least glamorous or religious activity you could imagine. When Charlie was trying to explain what Makara meant to him he said “The place has got a soul”. He’s been deeply involved in the development of the place for years, and he and Geoffrey are old friends. Well, he wasn’t wrong.

Quite a busy week really. Retirement is not for the faint hearted !

Groundhog Day, or Ordinary Time?

No man is an Iland, intire of itselfe; every man
is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine;
if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe
is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as
well as if a Manor of thy friends or of thine
owne were; any mans death diminishes me,
because I am involved in Mankinde;
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

MEDITATION XVII Devotions upon Emergent Occasions
John Donne 

I want to start with a verse from John Donne’s 17th century poem in order to work together two threads of an argument towards a green spirituality; not a particularly ambitious attempt – which would require many more threads, but to try to lay down some markers for myself and for anyone who’s interested to read my post. Hopefully there are one or two out there in the darkness!

The significance of Donne’s meditation on our connectedness with all human life was never more significant than it is today, when it’s so under threat. The second thread, though, concerns time; our understanding of it and the way that understanding shapes our lives.

I watch the television (my grandfather always called it ‘the idiot’s lantern’ – although he was the first person in his Chiltern village to own one because he was also an inveterate early adopter. There are phrases and ideas that come up over and over again on TV – so often, in fact, that they take up residence in our minds as a dreadful kind of common sense. ‘Taking control’ is probably a good idea if you’re a passenger in a speeding car when the driver has just collapsed – but if it comes to be applied in every aspect of your life it’s a thoroughly bad one. My favourite example of this perfidious lunacy is the idea of taking control of the covid virus – after you Boris! If we really want to take control of something it makes sense to consider whether control is appropriate or even possible. King Canute demonstrated his limited powers by sitting in the path of the oncoming tide and ordering it to stop. Point taken, then. In nature, taking control can be delusional.

‘Because I’m worth it’ is another one. Why anyone except an idiot would consider that their personal appetites should override any other consideration demands an explanation. What both popular phrases demonstrate is what happens when we stray from John Donne’s insight that we stand or fall together. We are either a part of the human race in our whole lived experience, or we have become parasitic grazers of experiences that please us.

So let’s insert this dangerous selfish gene into the DNA of another idea, the idea of time. Boldly put, is the unfolding of time a kind of line that begins with the big bang and ends when the sun runs out of heat? In a sense that’s undeniable, but the timescale over which it happens is so vast as to be beyond our understanding. There are more pressing problems at hand than the cooling of the sun in millions of years time, because our concern has to be whether the earth becomes a barren wilderness within a few hundreds of years. The ultimate fate of the earth becomes an almost metaphysical argument when it’s compared with the extinctions that are pressing upon us.

The limited argument here is that ‘taking control’, ‘because I’m worth it‘, and similarly superficial slogans, have become a default defence for the destruction of the environment.

Never mind about these temporary worries, we’ll soon find a fix and we’ll all march together into Canaan where there will be food for everyone and we’ll all live forever in magic houses where robots do everything for us.

There should be a mea culpa at this point from Christian theologians for inadvertently providing the ideological weaponry for our troubles; and yes, I have read St Francis and Hildegard of Bingen, Meister Eckhardt and Matthew Fox and all the others, but sadly they were always outsiders. Mainstream theology focused on sin, redemption and getting into heaven – popularly known as ‘pie in the sky when you die’. The idea of challenging the status quo, right here and right now, so often landed up being trumped by the thought that it didn’t much matter in the end because this miserable life was a bit naff unless you were a bishop. To put it in more academic terms, the theory of evolution plus Christian eschatology (the doctrines of the ultimate ‘last things’) leads into a linear mindset that (when the religious impulse fails) supports an ideology of endless progress towards the perfect society. It’s an entirely instrumental view of life without a shred of validity or vitality and with more in common with Marx than it does with the future of the earth.

So let’s oppose this linear, instrumental view of life with something very different. It’s worth doing this, I think, because trying to oppose the extractive ideology of the present day by offering counter facts doesn’t seem to work. The government say fracking is a great idea because we (actually it should be they) get lots of free fuel. We put up all the scientific arguments against, but nobody is listening and no-one is changing their mind because they’ve got too much invested in the way we do things round here. The agents of destruction don’t believe what they do because they are in possession of a different set of facts which we can alter by offering some better ones. They are able to do these things because their entire worldview is contained within a powerful culture. ‘Because they’re worth it‘ means they have every right to ‘take control’ because that is the law that flows from their understanding of nature.

For all practical purposes the fullest human lives are lived in a more cyclical manner. What I’m getting at is that we’ll never change the world by only pursuing counterarguments. It’s important that we carry on arguing but it’s a hopeless task because we’re always fighting on their linear, instrumental turf. They offer facts, we offer counterfacts and they offer counter-counter facts and someone says ‘lets’ set up an enquiry’ and before it’s finished deliberating for a couple of decades the lights have gone out and it’s ‘goodnight Irene’.

Putting aside the inevitability that the earth will one day perish, (because it’s always better to deal with the proximate danger first); opens up the possibility of arguing that because the inglorious moment of the last instance is so inconceivably far away, that we can forget the idea that there will be a cunning plan someday soon and adopt a radically different notion of passing time.

So what if we were to engage people by living better? Instead of inhabiting this linear worldview where there’s always something better just down the road that never arrives; the ship that never ‘comes in’: we could choose to incorporate and live out the polarities, the cycles and rhythms that have sustained the earth and all her ecosystems over millennia and would continue to do so for millennia more if we only let them? Let’s not fight just with facts, let’s change perspectives because once we’ve changed someone’s perspectives their collection of facts will have to change too because they don’t work any more.

I think it’s fair to argue that when I look at the sun rising in the morning, I can be sure that if I were around in twenty million years time it would still look much the same. The cooling down of the sun is slow slow slow. But global extinction is fast. The earth is finite – just like us. The earth has her cycles and seasons; the moon has hers too drawing up and releasing the tides. The seasons were once beautifully represented in the Christian liturgical year – it’s all gone now, but Advent and Christmas, Lent and Easter, Pentecost, Harvest, Remembrance and – finest of all – Ordinary Time – all reflected the rhythms of the earth and our own lived experience of feast and famine, joy and sorrow; the sadness of loss and bereavement and the witnessing of new life in the fields and in our homes. We’ve lost the ability to dream our dreams and sing our songs. This is absolutely not an appeal to get back to the local tin tabernacle for a prayer and a bollocking but it is an appeal to consider our humanness as essentially sacramental rather than instrumental. The will to fight for the environment is, (to pinch a phrase from the evangelicals), better caught than taught, and there is an alternative that we can communicate in its lived form, rather than belittling people’s innocently acquired beliefs with angry counter-arguments.

We grow food because it is in our nature to grow things and it teaches us gratitude and humility. We love to eat together because we are essentially creatures of community. We care for one another; the old, the young and the sick because that’s where our humanity grows. We can build on core values like joyfulness, gratitude, openness and – dare I say – thriftiness; and the greatest benefit of living sacramentally is that it’s completely sustainable because that’s the nature of earth, and we can live in peace rather than in violence and greed because in the end, any other way of life is self-defeating.

Of course some will say this is idealistic nonsense, and the favoured trap, laid especially for us, is fear. “It’s all so complicated” we’re taught to think – “we don’t even know where to start; what happens if it goes wrong; better the devil you know etc etc …..”. But the choice isn’t between the groundhog day of eternally repetitive cycles – peasant life, in fact; and the pursuit of technological dreams that are destroying the earth. Sacramental life is endlessly creative; no two seasons are the same any more than any two people are identical. Nothing in nature’s cycles precludes innovation and change for the better. It’s a way of life forged in music, songs and stories, dancing, drama and pictures. The only limiting factor is that we must stop laying waste to the environment simply because we were taught to believe that we’re worth it. In fact we’re worth much more. We’ve seen the enemy – it’s us.

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