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.