Hello Eunice

Lizard Point – in 2014

It’s not so much that we’ve never had weather like this before. The big difference is that severe weather is afflicting us more frequently; and so although I could try to support the ‘argument’ that climate change is fake news by citing this photo taken in 2014 and claiming that the weather has always been like this the only fact that matters is that there are many more extreme weather events than we had in the past, and it’s not down to sunspots, 5G telephone masts or Russian hackers it’s down to our profligate use of fossil fuels.

And so yesterday we were up at the allotment trying to make everything as secure as possible and then we went to the campervan to make sure it is as safe as we can make it. It’s parked within a hundred metres of the Severn Beach sea wall which, today , is the subject of red alert weather and flood warnings. Spring tide + force 10 winds always equals a storm surge so we’re paying constant attention to the mobiles for alerts . We once lived at the tidal end of the river Avon when we had the same combination of events combined with a snow melt and I’ve never seen water rise so rapidly, or menacingly. It was eerily silent as it topped the harbour walls and raced across the road towards us. Mercifully it stopped rising just a few inches below the point at which our basement would have flooded. This morning the only damage so far seems to be a flying fence from the Air BnB opposite the flat; and the scratches and dents were confined to the car which was abandoned by a previous tenant who took care to remove the plates before dumping it. At Green Park Station the glass roof – which was already in a precarious state – is shedding panes on to the ground, so probably no farmers’ market tomorrow. Ah well!

This week we’ve had two named storms; the first, Dudley, affected the north of the country but today’s storm Eunice is all over the South West. It kicked off at about 7.00am and built to crescendo during the morning. Apart from the flying fence the only other casualty looks like a smallish tree across the green. These winds growl and search at the windows with a real malignancy. Opposite my window as I write this, there’s a 20′ extractor chimney above a burger joint that’s become semi-detached at the top and is waving around alarmingly. It’s all very scary.

So the question is – how can we live sane, flourishing and fulfilled lives in this insane society – or should we even try to do so? Years ago we were at the much missed Bristol Flower Show when we encountered a man in a wheelchair who’d had both of his legs amputated. He was being pushed by his son who had lovingly attached an ashtray to the arm of the chair with a jubilee clip so that his dad could carry on smoking, having no feet to stub out his dog-ends. Obviously it’s not sensible to be angry or berate either the man or his son for assisting the habit that was so obviously killing him. My reaction was to feel overwhelmed by a strange kind of hopeless compassion for someone who was being slowly killed, not entirely through his own idiocy but through human weakness and a powerful culture created and funded by the tobacco industry.

I don’t want to spend a moment more than necessary being angry. How much time am I prepared to waste on shouting at the television and frothing with indignation – because that too is a killer! Most of us have a role in the decay of this society. We’re all a mixture; somewhere between the son and the father; and so we’re all both victim of climate change as well as being part of the problem. Nothing suits the fossil fuel lobby better than a situation where we all blame and fight against one another; cyclists against motorists, vegetarians and vegans against omnivores, city dwellers against farmers – and so on ad infinitum. In the end we all have to live in each others’ crap so let’s forget the squabbles and go after the real villains and their stooges in the press and in government. It seems to me that one way of changing things is to make sinning as difficult as possible. We should be hitting the fossil fuel corporations where it hurts them most – in the bottom line. We should go after their lobbyists – naming and shaming them for pandering to their employers. Public scorn – as we are seeing at the moment – can really wound the powerful.

But we needn’t be angry – it saps the soul. With the allotment, the campervan and a hand lens in my pocket; and with a copy of the Tao te Ching somewhere to hand – I can live as sane, as flourishing and as fulfilled a life as is granted to me. Who could ask for more?

Postscript

Once the red alert had dropped to amber we went to look at the allotment and noticed a number of roof tiles near the entrance to the back door of the block where we live – any of them would have killed someone walking below. The allotment was completely hammered, with overturned sheds and broken greenhouses. Lots of glass flying about obviously. Our plot was mercifully intact but others were a sorry sight. The flood alert affecting the campervan site continues until tomorrow but we’re hoping with less wind and a smaller tidal surge we’ll be OK.

Seals, field mice and borlotti beans

Ripe borlotti on the allotment

The Chinese five elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, water) have their equivalents in the seasons which are listed in the same sequence – spring, summer, long (otherwise known as late) summer, autumn and winter. We have the idea of an “Indian summer” which refers to exceptionally warm weather in late autumn, much later than this present month of September; but there is always, I think, a perceptible change around this time of the year between the harvesting of almost all the crops at the end of August, and the beginning of September, but before the onset of true autumn usually counted at the equinox. These are blessed and luminous days when the earth seems to be resting and soaking up the last of the sun’s warmth before the declining days with the onset of autumn and winter. These are the days when the blackberry and sloe and if we’re lucky – the field mushroom teach us that all food is a gift.

Today it’s been raining, but last week, away in the campervan in Pembrokeshire we were enjoying historically fine weather. Whether we call it long or late summer wthere is this turning point where we gather food; preserving and storing it to take us through the winter months. We harvest and process the last of the tomatoes, aubergines, peppers and melons and clear the polytunnel ready for the winter; and it takes on the mantle of a spiritual observance. 

The inflow and outflow of the earth’s energy that sustains us; the sun’s energy that – through the miracle of photosynthesis – we harvest as food; and the moon’s energy that drives the tides and the more subtle seasons. The Taoist concept of yin and yang; strength and weakness; forcefulness and yielding – is a far better way of understanding our place in nature. There’s a great deal to be learned about the spirituality of gardening as seen in this fundamental cycle of birth and death; growth, ripening and senescence. We’ve grown so addicted to our illusory power; our great polluting machines and our chemicals, that we almost believe that there is no problem that cannot be solved by technology. As Rachel Carson (Silent Spring) once wrote. “If we declare war on nature we declare war on ourselves.” Perhaps it’s expressed even more powerfully in Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao te Ching:

When man interferes with the Tao

the sky becomes filthy,

the earth becomes depleted,

the equilibrium crumbles,

creatures become extinct.

Lao-Tzu, Tao te Ching – part of chapter 39, translated by Stephen Mitchell.

This is a season of ingathering and inbreathing and  it feels appropriate that the Chinese season of late summer is associated with the earth – one of the Chinese five elements. On the allotment trail cam we found a short video of a field mouse swaying precariously at the top of one of our Calendulas in the middle of the night, greedily eating the seeds. There was something beautiful about its enormous eyes and ears; its lightness, clinging to the stalks, its vigilance and vulnerability to predators. I wouldn’t begrudge it a single seed.

Ramsey Island at sunset

Back in Pembrokeshire last week, times we could hear the tide in Ramsey Sound almost roaring through The Bitches, but as it approached the null points of ebb or flow there was a late summer moment where it flowed neither here nor there but just rested, waiting until the balance changed and began the whole cycle again. The seal cows were gathering to birth their pups on their secluded hauls at the bottom of the cliffs – out of the reach of humans.

Some years ago we were camping near Skomer Island during the puffin season, when a huge cruise liner drew close to the island and discharged a dozen high speed ribs from the side, like invading marines.  The birdwatchers swept in towards the island laden with binoculars and cameras, and within an hour had gone again. What do you call that kind of ecotourism if not dangerous and exploitative? What sort of good could ever come from this phony immersion in nature?

On Tuesday, as we walked the coast path, we spotted a grey seal cow, heavily pregnant, lolling in the sea, eying us curiously from a hundred feet below . She looked old – something about her grizzled muzzle was weatherbeaten and aged. We were sufficiently close, with the help of my binoculars, for her face to fill the lenses. She had huge black eyes and nostrils and was so profoundly different a lifeform that, putting away any anthropomorphic nonsense, we had little else in common except for being alive and being there in the same place watching one another. There was no part of her being that I could appropriate to my own experience – we were both equally deserving of our part of the web of nature and yet her aloof thusness was complete. Around her were several other seal cows and their pups.

Sadly the seals have become a tourist attraction and from where we were camping on the clifftop we could see one powerful boat after another, all loaded with visitors, pause their engines momentarily at the regulated distance for photographs to be taken, and then accelerate away leaving a double wake that agitated the calm water of the sound for minutes, before the next boatload arrived. 

However, aside from all the philosophical maunderings it will please the borlotti worshippers to know that we are about to harvest this year’s crop, which has gone well. Not so well in the three sisters experiment where rust and moth didn’t bother us as much as thieves breaking in to steal. Between the rats and the badger the sisters were nibbled, sat upon and starved of light – which goes to show that some horticultural ideas are very regionally specific. Luckily we hedged our bets and the individual sisters have all yielded a crop for the winter.

The allotment is looking uncharacteristically weedy and tatty now, but we don’t take it personally – it’s always like this at this time. The good news is that during last week’s hot spell the aubergines finally started to yield a late second flush. The real challenge is to remove the old and replant the new so that not so much as a square inch is left exposed to the winter wind and rain.

The road to hell is paved with good inventions

Who’d have thought it? Computer controlled automatic flood relief gates; plastic fishing lines; damming up valleys to flood them and secure water supplies; steam engines – even bicycles; each one of them a technological step forwards. What could possibly go wrong?

Sometimes asking the right question is harder than you’d think because common sense – as we like to describe it – gets in the way, and what ought to be a very simple question gets very difficult. “What direction does time move in?” – we’d mostly agree that it moves forwards, except on Friday afternoons. Our mobiles, wrist watches, TV and radio are perfectly clear that time moves forward in intervals that are measurable down to 10, 20, 1000 decimal places. Sub atomic particle physicists are a bit less dogmatic and would probably answer “it depends – but for all practical purposes it moves forwards in a straight line. ‘That’s progress’, we say, ‘moving: forwards into a better future’.

So let’s accept that for all practical purposes time moves forwards in a straight line; but does that mean that we who own watches and mobiles and watch TV are also moving in a straight line? and if it does – where’s the straight line heading? and this is where the argument gets a bit muddy because the commonsensical answer would be that we’re collectively moving forwards towards a better society and individually moving forwards to a better life. Except we’re not. As my old sociology lecturer Sid Harris would have said – “Where’s the evidence, David?” and, looking around at the present state of the earth I’d say that the evidence for a bigger, brighter and more prosperous future is pretty thin. When science, technology and politics wrapped themselves in evolutionary theory they made a fatal error. History has no telos, to borrow a Greek idea, it’s not bound by an invisible guiding hand, and Progress – in the grand rhetorical sense beloved of politicians, is just another package of merchandised snake oil.

The aha! moment

I was pondering this, here at my laptop, when my son phoned – as he often does on his way home from work, and so we had one of our conversations and he challenged me to set out my problem about time. “There’s a logical flaw” he said, and I’ll paraphrase the rest of his reply. The ancient Greeks knew that the future was always, must always be an unknowable fog of possibilities, and so when we take a walk we have to look forwards to avoid walking under a bus, but when we think about the future we necessarily walk into it backwards. All our knowledge; all our certainties and experiences are behind us in time. The Greeks and Mesopotamians understood this three thousand years ago and the present day Maori people know it now.

To describe a person or a movement as forward looking is assumed to be a compliment but all too often, so-called forward looking leaders combine a wilful march into the unknown with a blithe refusal to attend to the only real data we have – which is all in the past.

There’s a true story that I really love which illustrates this perfectly. An engineering worker lost a finger in an industrial accident and this precipitated an enquiry by a government inspector. When the man was interviewed at work after he had recovered, the inspector asked him to describe exactly what had happened. The man explained that he had put his finger into a hole in the machine and then – to demonstrate precisely what had happened, he stuck another finger through the same hole. Need I continue?

To cherish the hope that another – as yet uninvented slice of technology or science will rescue us from the unexpected consequences of the last lot, is – let’s be kind – rather silly!

Walking backwards into the future

If we were to accept the ancient Greek view of time, what would the implications be for the future of the earth? At the moment it feels as if we’re ploughing on heedlessly into chaos and disaster under the influence of a broken model of so-called progress. But we have thousands, tens of thousands of years of human experience to draw upon. The past isn’t just dry as dust history about people who weren’t as clever as us. It’s a laboratory , a library, a treasury of human insight; of ideas, of technologies, of spiritualities, of memories, of different modes of being fully human in story, drama, music and song.

Here at the Potwell Inn, when the wind blows from the north east we can hear the chimes of a church clock marking the quarters and hours. Time marches on but it doesn’t feel like a straight line. Our lived experience of time is mostly cyclical; of anniversaries and birthdays, lunar months, solstices, seasons and equinoxes. We live in a precious, never to be repeated and wholly unimagined moment that we share with the whole of creation. The meal we ate yesterday evening amounted to nothing more than the vegetables we’d harvested during the day. I baked bread. We worked quietly on the allotment, weeding, planting out, moving nets in drizzly rain. Walking backwards into the future we celebrated each moment.

The Tao is like a well:

Used but never used up.

It is like the eternal void:

filled with infinite possibilities.

It is hidden but always present.

I don’t know who gave birth to it.

It is older than God.

Tao Te Ching – Lao Tzu. Chapter 4, translated by Stephen Mitchell.

%d bloggers like this: