Staying positive

I promised I’d say something about Thomas Berry’s book “The dream of the earth” which I’ve been reading for a couple of days. It’s a bit dense but the idea that runs through it is very simple. We like to think of ourselves as rational and scientific creatures who have collectively transcended millennia of superstition and religion and emerged at last confident in our capacity to organise the earth far better than nature ever managed on her own. Industry and science have delivered (we believe) all the things that previous belief systems had bundled up into a kind of visionary future that will deliver peace, prosperity, food for all and universal happiness because we can all access the very things our unfortunate ancestors could only think of in religious terms.  The sick will be healed, the dead raised (cryogenics) and we shall all share in a great banquet of goods and services exactly tailored to our innermost and secret desires. It’s hard to fault it, and as Gandhi was reputed to have replied when asked about European civilisation – “it would be a good idea”.

But the thing about religious ideologies  – and Berry is suggesting that’s what we have got here – is that you can’t question them. The evidence that our present way of life is destructive and dangerous is everywhere to be seen and yet remains invisible to millions of people. Who knows why? All we do know is that presenting the evidence doesn’t seem to shake belief in the status quo at all. What we seem to need is not better evidence or better presentation of the old evidence but something which more closely resembles a religious conversion. The continuation of life on earth, he argues, depends on a universal and thoroughgoing change of perspective. We need to rediscover the sacred earth.  We need to embrace our creatureliness in order to rediscover our true creativity.

I hope you’ll read the book, but meanwhile here’s some scary background reading on the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, written by Brendan Montague who is editor of the Ecologist magazine. And here’s a very good example of the aquarian fallacy that believes there is always an industrial solution to every problem. Here a commercial forestry expert advises the planting of more conifers to save the world because they grow more quickly.  Sadly he doesn’t seem to notice that even if they capture carbon for 25 years as they grow, immediately they’re felled they begin to release that stored carbon back into the atmosphere. There’s only one way, and that’s to end the way we consume the earth. That consumption is enabled and fuelled by the false ideology of never ending progress, the fantasy that there is no limit to growth

Which links nicely to today on the allotment because the absence of cars on the streets has made our plot more beautiful than ever – less polluted by the busy road, less noisy and quiet enough to hear a blackbird sing across the road. Call me an old romantic but I really like it.

After a few hours out in the sunshine while we sowed, planted and prepared the bed for the runner beans that will climb up their supports when they’re planted out in mid May, we took some photos and wandered home again. On a day like today this doesn’t feel too much like hardship. The hazel bean poles came from friends in Wales (thanks Nick and Kate) and always bring back memories of old gardens and older mentors from the past. We were able to talk to friends on the telephone and all our children keep in daily touch.  The food we eat has simplified because there’s no opportunity for impulse buys which has a knock-on effect on our waste.  Inside the flat the window tables are full and growing steadily.  We’ve tried to work to the point where – if the lockdown intensifies – the allotment can look after itself for a week or two.

Anger is a corrosive emotion, and I’ve lapsed into real anger more then once over the past few weeks, but today was too good to waste on recriminations. The time of reckoning will come soon enough, but meanwhile our biggest hope is that our economics and politics could escape from the hubristic prison of its false claims, the false choices that are presented as the only possible ways forward; the wolf of extractive capitalism disguised as a disturbingly green lamb, the kind that glows in the dark.  Several times today I’ve thought about the lines from Asinaria, written in 195 BC, by Titus Maccius Plautus –

One man to another is a wolf, not a man,

It’s not the full quotation which is rarely used, but the reason it’s almost always cropped is because it does seem to express something of a universal truth about our capacity for mutual harm.

Rediscovering the sacred earth isn’t about wandering through the bosky woods with your mind full of fluffy feelings. Creatureliness is vulnerable, fragile, ephemeral, capable of great love and great cruelty. Being a part of nature completely resets our relationship with the earth and with one another.  No spirituality that follows, (and any change of perspective as profound as this will involve a spiritual dimension), can be co opted and repackaged as just another product of Western materialism.

Our allotment isn’t a panacea, a free pass to a world suddenly put right again; it’s a shoulder to the wheel, that’s all. An invitation both to celebrate and to fear the seasons, but at least to be a part of the great cycle. A way of understanding our creatureliness through growing, tending, sharing and eating; through poetry, music and song, even building, and above all a way of understanding our dependence on the earth and on nature as the foundation of real wisdom.

Down from up-country

img_5233

We’ve gambled on a brief spell of sunshine and after a frantic planting out session on the allotment we’ve driven the campervan down to Cornwall to spend a little time at the Lost Gardens of Heligan, soaking up some inspiration.  Whenever we come here, and we try to come three or four times a year to catch the changing seasons, we take away loads of ideas, a few plants and usually some books as well. The campsite is right next door to the garden which, of course, is not lost at all but very well signposted. When it was properly lost I bet the locals knew it was there all the time. I once heard a lovely story about a Ugandan Bishop who reproached a tour guide at the Victoria Falls for saying that they were discovered by David Livingstone in 1855. “I think you’ll find”, he said, “That we knew about them long before that”  The lost gardens sounds a bit more impressive than the completely neglected gardens and all power to Tim Smit who’s brought some proper jobs to the area and created a beautifully restored garden and farm not just as a history lesson, but as a model of sustainability too. 

Naturally, being Cornwall where it rains every day, it rained all the way here and I’m sitting typing this with the rain drumming on the roof of the van; but the forecast looks pretty good for tomorrow. It’s only 130 miles south of Bath but that can amount to several weeks earlier for the wildflowers to show themselves, and with this ridiculously mild and wet weather I’d be surprised if I don’t find some spring favourites.

Of course the van, being a bit long in the tooth, needs a bit of love and care.  Things wear out and need replacing, and this last couple of weeks I replaced the heating controller, which cost a fortune, only to discover that the leisure batteries are knackered and need replacing too. The upshot is that although the heater is working perfectly, the batteries are unable to keep it going if we’re not hooked up or running the engine. This means that the controller has reverted to its native German language.  Luckily I know enough German to turn it on and off, and I decided to keep it going in German as a sign of European solidarity. I’ll replace the batteries as soon as funds permit.  The other snag to beset us is that the WiFi isn’t working on the campsite due to some building work; so the laptop is piggybacking my phone and making inroads into my data allowance – but it works, that’s the main thing.  

I’ve been reading Thomas Berry’s “The Dream of the Earth” and he manages to express very beautifully some kind of answer to the question “how did we get to where we are?”  I’m paraphrasing a bit because I haven’t got the book here with me, but it spoke to me because I’ve lived through most of the period during which our whole mindset began to change. I can really identify with the profound capacity of natural history to grip us. There’s probably never been an epoch that knew more about the way that nature works, how lifeforms came to be the things they are and why they grow as they do. But with that growing knowledge came the need to use it carefully, much more carefully than we have done. If we add to that huge development in understanding, the pervasive idea that we are not only separate from nature but free to do as we please with our knowledge, we slide from a basic assumption of a stewardship relationship to one of domination and extraction; and I’m struggling even to write this paragraph without using words like ‘thing’ and ‘it’ in relation to non human beings – it’s so embedded within our language, hidden as a bacteria might hide within a cell. The industrial revolution was premised on the idea that the earth was an infinite resource given to us by a beneficent God and whose exploitation was a kind of moral duty. The discovery and the exploitation, through scientific advance, of the material wealth of the earth was seen as a sign of God’s favour.  Until Darwin, nature was eternal and unchangeable and, in a sense safe from harm; it was just there

Our bad attitude to the earth is rooted as deeply as once was slavery and still is rooted in racism, misogyny and religious hatred and the same intensity of reflection, self examination and pushing back will be required before anything will change. Again and again I come back to the certainty that spraying facts and data, and shouting at people is not going to be enough. The change in our relationship with the earth and with all its living things, times, tides and seasons, is more akin to a conversion experience than to the acquisition of new knowledge. Of course it begins in reason, but travels far beyond it. 

Maybe that’s why we find gardens like Heligan so powerful.  It is, in its own way, a memorial to the lost, the lost gardeners who never returned from the First World War; a lost way of life in recreating the self-sufficient household, and a lost innocence because we know better than ever before how selfish, greedy and depraved we humans can be. It was always this way but now we know and we can’t unknow it. The fact that the location of the gardens was mislaid for a decade or so is probably the least interesting thing about it.