Limited creatures in a limited world

Weave real connections, create real nodes, build real houses.

Live a life you can endure: Marge Piercy

 

When you do something useful things can happen. Usefulness is one of the great currents that sustains and builds communities and that upholds and creates what Marge Piercy called ‘real connections’. When we are no longer useful to one another, in the deeper sense of ‘being of service’ we retreat into smaller worlds and our lives shrink with that movement. Our experience is diminished.

It is May and the natural world has become a riot of colour and noise. After a mean winter, nature is suddenly profligate; life is rushing and pushing itself sunwards, a blossoming, budding, leafing, bursting extravagance, especially after the last few days of rain. What surplus plants and crops we have I have put out beside the lane with an honesty box and now cars and walkers stop by to browse or buy and something is beginning to happen, people stop for a chat, connections are being built.

There are many different kinds of exchange; Lewis Hyde differentiates between the notions of exchange as gift and commerce.  Gift unlike commerce brings us to an important currency in human interaction which commerce as a transactional process can and usually does, overlook which is reciprocity-the value of relationship and interrelationship in whatever exchange is made. The idea of ‘fair exchange’ takes on more meaning when the relationship between those involved becomes central and particular rather than an abstraction. The gift exchange, unlike commerce,  is complex and woven with stories and shared experience-it is a live encounter.

Relationship brings to mind the value of conversation. Conversation has its Latin root in the word conversationem meaning ‘to keep company with’. The old French word, conversation, literally means ‘a manner of conducting oneself in the world.’ In this light conversation becomes a guiding principle for how we conduct our affairs with others-not merely an act but a value or principle for being together and building fellowship, it is part of the process and practice of exchange that dances between the pleasure of the present and an investment in the future-the strengthening of bonds.

We are’, wrote Wendell Berry in an essay a few years ago, ‘limited creatures in a limited world’. Challenging our collective western view that ‘there’s always more,’ Berry described our ‘true religion’ as a kind of ‘autistic industrialism’ built on a false belief in limitless growth.  A consequence of the economic fantasy of limitlessness has been a catastrophic neglect of the real wealth of land, resources and genuine workmanship, along with other vital aspects of human interaction that give actual meaning to life including neighbourliness and caretaking which, he points out, ‘cannot be done by remote control, with the greatest power on the largest scale’.

 The recognition that human limitlessness is a fantasy matters because it tells us that, as a paradigm, its life expectancy is limited. Berry continues;

‘We are not likely to be granted another world to plunder in compensation for our pillage of this one. Nor are we likely to believe much longer in our ability to outsmart, by means of science and technology, our economic stupidity’.

The inflection point here lies in a choice, or so it seems, between hope and despair a point I have often encountered. Actually, neither hope nor despair, insofar as they take us into a remote and distant future are useful. What is useful is the recognition that an understanding of what it means to be a limited human in a limited world can begin with any one of us right now. Recognition of the value and necessity for constraint is actually a strange seed of hope because it is tangible and real-it can be acted upon, it brings us to the place of actual experience which is not tomorrow, but today, here and now.

The gift of constraint, of reimagining what life at human scale might look like is the gift of choice, we can choose to act differently and thereby contribute directly to a new story that has effects both today and tomorrow and we can do it in numerous ways. Limitless growth by contrast smacks of choicelessness another word for which is addiction. The implications of limitlessness are in fact exhausting and the consequences are visible everywhere. The gift of the recognition of our limitations is to return us, as Wendell Berry put is, to our ‘real condition’ and to our ‘human heritage, ‘from which our self-definition as limitless animals has so long cut us off’. Limitation self-imposed has some relationship with humility; it loops us back to our clay selves, our earthy nature.

Limitation in this context has two basic aspects; natural and cultural. Earth is one definition of natural limitation as is place and ecosystem. To understand our ecosystem we can think about the actual meanings of words such as economic (literally from the Greek eco nomos meaning household management) and ecology (literally from the Greek eco-logos meaning understanding of the household). From the perspective of household with all that is implied in terms of shared responsibility, we can personally rethink our understanding of what economy means in our own lives and can act accordingly in the spirit of their deeper meaning. The connection between earth and household can also help us better understand the relationship between limitation and culture which is our collective response to self-restraint.

‘As humans’ writes Berry, ‘we may elect to respond to this necessary placement by the self-restraints implied in neighbourliness, stewardship, thrift, temperance, generosity, care, kindness, friendship, loyalty and love.’ We can ask ourselves quite practically how we are today in relationship with these human cultural qualities, what they mean to us, how we actually express, rather than talk about them in our lives then we can get to work on those things and know that that work we do actually makes a difference.

Yesterday two people from the village came by for a walk around the land. After they left I sat and thought for a while about how often in recent years I have reached for hope and felt despair- lost in grief or anger or listlessness, in the face of the fantasy of limitless growth that we have adopted as our ‘true religion’. I recognised as well that for too long I have been waiting for government policy or someone or something to shift things and that in the waiting, in that sense of impotence, I have talked too much and acted too little and in so doing I have lost some of my own vitality and overlooked my own behaviours and actions that have run counter to my expressed beliefs. I have been guilty of living for a remote future with little attention for the day in which I could act.

Hope, in fact, it seems to me, is not about some future point in time where along with all else, it becomes abstract and unreal, conjoined with despair.  Hope, if it is anywhere, is here and now, in the multitude of small actions that connect and foster life-that make time for the art of conversation and companionship, that honour and respect the earth.

The ‘idea’ of global crisis and words like ‘environmental’ and ‘sustainable’ can actually get in the way when everything becomes an abstraction, taking me away from the today in which I can actually do something real, something in particular, acting in a small way, in my own place, on what I would consider a human scale in the company of others. Whatever global crisis there is, whatever healing of divisions must be done, begins with a commitment from me to re-imagine my own relationship with the principles of ecology and economics, with ideas of limitation in my life and to act accordingly and faithfully.

It is May and the world is a riot of colour. Perhaps we might imagine, as I do, looking at the grass or the weeds among the vegetables that growth is indeed limitless but of course that’s not the case. The seasons will turn and growth will follow its pattern of eternal duration and generation setting seed and fruit for the continuance of life. For my part, I too can act in this setting in a way that feels both real and consequential.  Husbandry is the art of relationship with the natural world, a legitimate place for us to be in good company with our habitat, to encourage and constrain, mindful of the extent and range of the life we must care for, balancing a need for good food and income with the long term future of the place which is, as I have come to learn, not simply the land itself but the community in which it is nested. It is an art I am still learning.

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The Work of Peace

Far out in space there is a remarkable song of the earth. I was reminded of it a few days ago when I flew back into London from India.

At Heathrow arrivals there is a large billboard carrying a picture of the British astronaut Tim Peake welcoming travellers into the country. Looking more closely at the image recently I noticed that one of the badges sewn onto his overalls had the word peace written on it.

As a 12 year old boy I remember when in 1977 the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft left Earth to venture into deep space.

On board each spacecraft there is a golden phonograph record which carries messages from the peoples of the earth intended as a greeting to other life that might co-exist with us in the universe. Pictures, music and sounds were sent along with messages from a total of fifty-five countries. It is a narrative, a collective story told in fifty five languages. It is our earth song.

Having just spent the week in India I was struck to discover that the first word recorded on the disc is Namaste.

Namaste, more than a word or a greeting, is an organising principle of relationship. Traditionally the word is spoken with hands in prayer lifted to the heart. It means ‘the spirit in me salutes the spirit in you.’

It is a greeting that assumes and prioritises our spiritual nature and that recognises spirit rather than matter as primary in our experience. Philosophically it assumes deep connection between people rather than division. It  has ancient roots and tells a story about how we can be together. Perhaps there is no word on earth more singularly representative of what we understand instinctively to symbolise peace; within ourselves, between souls and in the world.

Namaste was followed by many other words and voices but the sentiments were strikingly similar. In every dialect and language the message we sent was the same. In Aramaic, Hebrew, Bengali, Burmese, Urdu, Welsh, Telugu, Sotho, Russian, Punjabi, Portuguese, in every voice-the same thing-and the same word again and again.

Peace.

We welcome you; we greet you; peace be with you;

Of the twenty one categories of sound well over half were of the natural world and of core human activities. Sounds included the rain, wind and surf, the sounds of a dog, of volcanoes, earthquakes and thunder, of hyenas and elephants, a baby crying, a mother’s kiss, trees sighing, the sound of footsteps, heartbeat and laughter.

We sent sounds of connection, sounds of Life.

Of the music, Bach, Mozart and Beethoven were mixed together with traditional songs from The Aborigine of Australia and the Navajo Indians. There is a men’s house song from New Guinea, there are pan pipes from Peru, bagpipes from Azerbaijan, pipes from the Solomon Islands and song from the gypsies of Bulgaria, a pygmy girl’s initiation song from Zaire. Song after song after song we have sung out into the universe and we have been doing so for millennia.

Listening to the recordings it seems hard to imagine that peace itself is anything other than fundamental to human life and human aspiration yet it seems we have become distanced from our own vision and our instinct for what the pioneering Benedictine monk Bede Griffiths called unity in diversity.

Unity in diversity is a principle connected to the Hindu word advaita or non-duality. It recognises both the value of difference in human relations and the fundamental truth of our interdependence or unity, a belief that underpinned Griffiths’ lifelong work to find synthesis between different religious perspectives, especially Christian and Hindu.

Instead of unity in diversity, we find that our societies have become increasingly wrought with separation and division. This division is felt ecologically in our separation from the earth, socially in our separation from one another and spiritually, in our separation from ourselves. Exploitation of Earth’s resources, extreme poverty and personal isolation are some of the consequences of the choices we have made in the name of progress and all are symptoms of division.

In contemplating our earth song, it is sad that contemporary life with all its pressure and urgency has so greatly undermined and threatened the livelihoods, beliefs, rituals and life systems of the people’s whose voices we sent out in greeting to the universe. As an example, one in ten young Australian Aborigine men now consider life today to be ‘meaningless’. We sent the aborigine songs but we have greatly harmed their people.

It is sad that the consumer choices we make every day threaten the plants, birds, fish, animals and other creatures we hear on the Voyager recording-to the point of extinction. We are currently losing species from the earth at the rate of 1000-10,000 times the background rate. We have sent the songs of the natural world but we continue to destroy earth’s habitats and plunder her resources for profit.

Today we live in a world where the gap between reality and what we know to be possible seems almost insurmountable.

To live creatively inside that gap, we will need to learn to balance our will to action and self-interest with a capacity for quietness and the ability to listen to others. Quietness is a capacity that we have lost touch with in contemporary life but it remains, I believe, inherent in us as does the capacity to listen deeply. We need to learn to listen again, precisely in the places where we have become most terribly divided. That is the practical work of the times we are in. Not easy of course, but there we are.

William Stafford invites us to consider the nature of quietness and our relationship to listening in a poem called ‘Being a Person.’

Be a person here,
Stand by the river, invoke the owls.

Invoke winter, then spring.
Let any season that wants to come here make its own call.

After that sound goes away, wait.
A slow bubble rises through the earth
and begins to include sky, stars, all space,
even the outracing, expanding thought.
Come back and hear the little sound again.

Suddenly this dream you are having matches
Everyone’s dream, and the result is the world.
If a different call came there wouldn’t be any
world, or you, or the river, or the owls calling.

How you stand here is important.
How you listen for the next things to happen.
How you breathe.

In the space between what is and what could be how each of us stands is important. To stand up is in itself an act of singular courage. It starts with each of us and then goes from there. The principle of Namaste can help here. In acknowledging our primarily spiritual relationship to one another, in acknowledging what is holy and sacred between us, we can better ensure the commitment to meet our material needs. From such a place we will find the courage to ask ourselves what dreams we can share and how we might learn to dream the world together once more.

Along with our songs and music, we sent a recording of the sound of fire into space with Voyager. We have sung songs, told stories and listened to one another around fires for a very long time. There is an inherently numinous quality in the relationship between fire and story, the place where we encounter the spark of Imagination. Stories told in many languages can reconnect us in the places where we have become broken. They can do it because they are born in and carved out of life itself and the shared resource of our collective Imagination.

Stories are born out of the heart, out of the hardest and softest places of our lives that make our living real. They are valuable because they honour not only our personal lives but also our transpersonal experience-the sense of mystery common to all human experience. As such they have a special place in our understanding of self and other both materially and spiritually.

There are stories of the earth, of society and of the spirit in each of us that need to be told now and heard now.  In reclaiming our inheritance as creative storytellers, in reclaiming Imagination as a fundamental voice of the human spirit, we might discover or recover a collective myth strong enough to hold and guide us through tough times, one that will do honour to the message of peace we sent out with Voyager, one that honours all the people and voices of the earth that made up that song.

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Ignite or be gone Poetry, shamanism, love and a world of action

I have been sitting in my room this morning in candlelight. The first light has come into the sky now and the candle sends shadows flickering about the room suggesting shapes, forms, ideas, playing with time and space, moving my imagination between the worlds.

Candlelight is so evocative.

I have been sitting as I do each day in silence for half an hour. It has become a morning ritual for me- an important one. In recent days the end of this time has coincided with the sun’s rising- up over the hill that runs in a line north to south-the horizon of the view from my window. These last few days have been quite beautiful. Clear nights full of stars have led to bright frosty mornings, the sky an unimaginable array of blues and the sun itself, breaking over the hill, has jewelled the landscape, washed it each day with new light. The sun has been rising way over in the south west for months now. It is hard winter here still but I notice each morning that the sunrise comes just a few moments earlier. In a few months it will rise more or less entirely in front of me and finally, by midsummer, it will rise far away to my left almost out of view.

Sky wanderer

As it moves and changes with the days and seasons, how can we say that the sun is not alive-is not life itself-life begetting life.

‘Ignite’ wrote Mary Oliver, ‘or be gone.’

Yesterday I went out for a walk shortly after the sun had come up. It’s another more or less daily ritual when I’m at home and carries the same importance as the time I sit. There is a place that I like to stand on the top of the hill that gives its name to our village. In Somerset the old word for hill is barrow. I live in North Barrow. The village church sits on top of the hill and from the field I stand in the sun rises up behind a line of ash trees, silhouetting the church and casting the whole scene in the most glorious light. From this spot, the path I follow wanders thinly through fields over gates and stiles down to a small brook. On the descent the view opens right up. We live on the edge of the Somerset levels. In the distance, on a clear day such as yesterday was, you can see Glastonbury Tor rising like a beacon out of the landscape, a broad, distinctive hill, steep on its southern aspect and falling away more gently to the north. The simple remains of the church of St Michael are outlined at the summit and history presses in. It is ancient land. Stories layered upon stories.

The light yesterday was remarkable. If each day were immersed in these colours there would be fewer arguments about God. I stood awhile beside the stream and listened as it riffled and flowed over shingle and stones. The flow of water is such an eternal sound. The light caught the fence that runs alongside the stream illuminating strands of wool left by sheep that use it as a rubbing post. The trees- an old oak and the string of willows that hug the water, were outlined like charcoal drawings against the sky which was pristine. The whole scene shimmered.

I was standing at a spot where several weeks ago I had come across a song thrush. The small bird was dead though still warm. I picked it up and held it in the palm of my hand for some minutes. There were no marks on it at all-its death was a mystery. As I held it I thought of my friend who, as it turned out, had died the previous day. I had been visiting her at home in the months before her death. Her dying was no secret between us and we talked about her experience openly and honestly. We sat with it; as much as was possible we sat in it together as her-self, her story, began to dissolve back into that other greater story. We both felt the subtle changes, the easing away of something, the gravity and grace of impermanence as her grip on life changed to something softer. Slowly over many months she had unpicked the threads that bound her to this world. Her books, her family, her passions, her beliefs, her activism, all of it, softened, loosened, entered the current we could both feel. There was grief and joy. We laughed more often than we should have perhaps. The universal and the particular moved and flashed together-it was like watching a fish move, working and settling in the current of a stream.

To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
I placed the bird down beside the stream and covered its body though not its head, with several leaves that had fallen from the willows that lined the opposite bank. The next day I walked by again. The leaves were still there as I had left them, but the bird was gone.

Leaving the stream, the way home takes me up the lane, past a farm and down into the village, the circuit returning past the church and on down the hill to home. As I walked, I was struck quite suddenly by the transitoriness of this life. I felt it so strongly that I wept. It was not grief I felt, or joy exactly though it was both of these things and much more. It was, I’m sure, an affirmation, a blessing of sorts. I found myself turning the words of Prospero over in my thoughts as I made my way along the lane;

We are, he said,

such stuff

As dreams are made on, and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.

 

I repeated the words several times and each time came the same gift of tears. It touched me in the way that breaks and forms in the same moment. It hurt in the way love can and does.

 

Words are powerful, especially as poetry. I share the opinion with Ted Hughes that poetry is shamanic. By nature, inclination and experience, I have come to believe this to be true.

‘Poetry leads us into the underworld, wrote Hughes, which is one of the main regenerative dramas of the human psyche, the fundamental human event’.

In a few simple lines good poetry will carry us down into the depths of ourselves. It will console, act as guide, mentor, teacher. It will also provoke us and encourage us to meet the immensity of the world its author intuits senses and seeks to describe. As such poetry is a bridge between the world of words as utility and the wordless silence which must remain always ineffable. There is an edge as Thomas Aquinas discovered beyond which words cannot go. In the burning presence of God, he put down his pen, put aside his final work and became silent.

We live out our days between time and the eternal and this is, I think, the landscape and territory of the poet in each of us. In these landscapes, the unfamiliar moves. There are footprints in the snow and in the mud, traces left on broken branches, there are thick forests and strange mists. This is the grimpen home of the poet who tracks and moves like a hunter in new fallen snow, seeking out image, symbol and metaphor, working with cadence and rhythm.

A poet will sit beside the bear cave of words all winter for a single sound, a smell, a vision.

We hear the drum sound and the feet of our souls-move.

Our spirits curl upwards like smoke. We respond.

There are, wrote Wendell Berry,

No unsacred places.

Only sacred places and desecrated places.

Here is a drum beat.

The world is sacred he says- not just in special places but everywhere, the world is first and foremost is holy, sacred ground. We know that don’t we-but we forget and in our forgetting, we lose ourselves, as Wordsworth said- in the light of common day. It is that sense of loss that so deadens the soul, separated as it is-as it seems to be, from its native goodness. I wonder if it’s a loss of a feeling for home or a longing for adventure, a keening to embark on the journey of return-I’m not sure, but if we lose that sense of being in it- if we lose the confidence that we are with our breath-involved-participants in the greatly mythic world around us, we suffer.

Our breath marks us as participant, as intimates with all that breathes and yet we can feel so alien. Even the rocks, breathe slowly. They sing too, so I hear.

Is there anything worse than to lose the capacity for awe and wonder in the face of the immanence of our un-being?

To be fierce with life is our birth right and what makes us truly human. It’s a strange image but it captures the courage that marks the best of our days, our living and our dying.  It is something to affirm our own lives in a world that is forever and perpetually affirming life, pouring it forth with wild abandon in a zero sum game that yet must include our own decay and death. Paul Tillich called this affirmation the courage of despair-the courage to be. That we can embrace being itself in the face of despair-this outlook is what makes things real.

Another drum beat.

How do we engage with our lives, not only our own lives but life in general-how do we participate-in the world?

Start close in.

There is our beginning. Make it what it is- what you know it is- which is personal. The poet knows;


..don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
thing
close in,
the step
you don’t want to take.

What is that step I don’t want to take?

This is the shamanic journey to the underworld.

Close your eyes and see the other world.

Adjust. Get close in.

You can feel the fire; see how the light tricks your eyes in the darkness of the question, of the invitation. There are many faces. Time past and time future swirls about your head. Intoxicated. The drum beats swims, dreams, the ground falls away; you die.  Animals come, there is pain, burning, tearing, move across landscapes, over water, the stars seem near and far, move, dance.

We are danced.

Life is dancing us, we are dismembered, drunk, in love, sensual, sexual, cold, alone, our heart pounds, we sweat, we bleed, we soften, we weep, we rest, we sleep, we are awake, we are sore and hungry and tired and awake, awake, awake.

That is the first step. Descent and return is always the step we don’t want to take

Not the second or the third step.

Start close in.

What is the step I don’t  want to take? The one that goes over the edge.

We know what we sense and we discern truth from fiction when we get close in.  There is a trustworthy voice that is wholly our own if we will listen Up close the truth is always personal but it’s also universal.

The poet diviner.

There are currents moving beneath us and around us that are more intimately who we are than anything the common day world can tell us or give us.

The shaman’s first tool.

Nature. Always nature.

There are no unsacred places. The earth knows that and we too know but we forget.

Seamus Heaney is our guide.

Cut from the green hedge a forked hazel stick

That he held tight by the arms of the V:

Circling the terrain, hunting the pluck…

 

Is that not our lives?  Are we not, at our most alive, our most engaged, our most committed-hunting the pluck?

What is that feeling? It is our own unique relationship with the great world which is also every relationship with the great world. If we meet the hidden world with confidence- we will be met.

Unfussed. The pluck came sharp as a sting.

We will be met

We will be met

We will be met

We will be met

The drum beats- we can smell the hide and the resin in our darker minds

Between earth and the hidden streams of life we are mediators. The tools of our work are all about us, in front of us, so common you might disregard them. The kingdom of heaven is all about but men do not see it.

Our work?

Nothing fancy

To fashion ourselves.

To get close in to our own lives first and then lend our weight to the public effort

To fashion the one green hazel that is our own, to walk into the world with bare feet, to engage. To meet our part of the bargain with confidence. The earth, the living world wants to respond and it waits only for our agreement.

The rod jerked down with precise convulsions,

Spring water suddenly broadcasting

Through a green aerial its secret stations.

The pluck comes.

I am at my desk again. The candle burns still but the daylight hides the shadow play. The days of bright sun and frosty mornings have passed and the morning has broken cold and grey. There is a northerly wind that whips around the edges of the house. When I stop writing and listen, I hear it at play. The branches of the tree just down the lane are swaying, dancing, and flocks of sparrows and starlings move across the sky in dark liquid flows. The crows, higher up, are scattered and windblown. It all seems like play. It is play.

My time of quiet in the morning is greatly important to me. I sit still. I have learned to simply be there loosening slowly around my need for things to happen. To be there is enough. Sitting at the feet of eternity. That’s how Teresa of Avila put it. Another poet.  Another shaman. There is silence. There is a drum beat which is also silence and that tells me it is good.

John Main, The Benedictine monk recommends that we don’t measure our progress when it comes to meditation;

‘…the great test is-are you growing in love? Are you growing in patience? Are you growing in understanding and compassion?

From the stillness it is time for work, time to make of the day what I can. Mary Oliver is right of course when she remarks that meditation is old and honourable;

Why should I

Not sit, every morning of my life, on the hillside,

Looking into the shining world?

 

She is right to, to challenge her own thinking

Can one be passionate about the just, the

ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit

to no labor in its cause? I don’t think so.

 

What cause do we labour for?  What is it that that connects us to what is just, ideal, holy, sublime?

Here we are in the territory of the poet guides. Poetry can drop us like a lead into other worlds. As we travel we realise that there are many different worlds, worlds of reflection, of wonder, of tremendous grief and sorrow, of terrible beauty, of love. We visit those worlds, inhabit them, and coming back with what boons we can we find if we are lucky that they are all one world and that we are the breath and eyes and ears and heart of that world which is really this world of ours in all its mystery. Then we are participant. Then we can labour in its cause.

We are, wrote TS Eliot, the music while the music lasts.

We are stillness and we are actors. I have watched my friend’s life shimmer from one to the other and I know consequently, in her absence, the reality of both. Her gift to me was to remind me of the imperative that we have to live our days as fully as we can and then, when it is time, to let go.

‘There is but one music in the world…’

wrote the mystic Evelyn Underhill,

‘……and to it you contribute perpetually, whether you will or no-your own little ditty of no tone. Mad with joy, life and death dance to the rhythm of this music. The hills and the sea and the earth dance. The world of Man dances in laughter and tears’.

It is good and beyond good that it is so. It is in the final reckoning beyond words that it is so and that is the territory of the gods- of God. Yet there is a territory that spans our days and gives them the texture of good words that bridge the mundane with the eternal, the sacred, the holy- and that word that voice is the voice of the poet and the poet-shaman, which is each of our deepest inheritance. We are dreamers and actors all, we are dancers and artists and as such we must where we can- find our drum, find our voice and sing.

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In the shadow of VUCA: A call for Soul and Sanctuary in Leadership

The sun has its story

That no curtain can stop. Mark Nepo

Many years ago, so the story tells us, an archaeologist hired some Inca tribesmen to carry his many discoveries from an archaeological site deep in the mountains to the sea where a boat was waiting to take him home. The tribesmen were happy to carry the load and set off covering many miles of mountain territory each day. This went on for several days; each day the archaeologist was up early wanting to get to the boat as soon as possible and the tribesmen were happy to walk. After they had been moving for a week in this way a morning came when the tribesmen stopped and insisted they would go no further. The archaeologist grew impatient and then angry. But no matter how much he cajoled the tribesmen would not go any further. Nothing happened for three days. The tribesmen would not move, nor would they speak. Then, strangely, on the fourth day the tribesmen changed their attitude. They picked up their burdens and set off once more. When the bewildered archaeologist asked why they had stopped and refused to move for so long, the tribesmen answered, “We had been moving too fast and had to wait for our souls to catch up.”

A short while ago during a small group coaching session in the US with senior executive leaders, one man literally fell to his knees on the floor sobbing. He was exhausted by the pressures of his job and had been unable to sleep for so long that he had almost passed out at the wheel of his car on the highway a few days earlier and crashed. He described himself as ‘utterly overwhelmed’. Over the afternoon each man had a story- a story behind the story I should say-of loss and bewilderment that would be hard to imagine had we met for a beer a few hours earlier. In the sanctuary of our shared space each man wept for something that afternoon; a child they hadn’t seen, an estranged wife, fear of failure, fear of an early death, an abusive Boss, a loss of meaning. The story behind the story was one of grief, loss, isolation and loneliness and there had been no time to share it, no one to share it with and nowhere to tell it until now.

Why is it I wonder, that so many of the men and women I work with are so exhausted and burnt out in their roles?  Why do I sit and witness again and again, top level executives, in the privacy of a coaching space both alone and in small groups, break down in tears as they reflect on the pressures of work, the cost of business life to their families, the sense of disorientation and loneliness in the face of so much international travel, the sense of a strange pervasive ‘loss’ of something essential and important in their lives, a kind of emptiness despite apparently ‘having it all.’

In a plenary session one would not know anything is wrong of course. We all learn as a consequence of modern life to hide certain things. We develop a public face in order to succeed and to get along and rightly so perhaps-it’s called socialisation and it has its proper place in the adaptation of the spirit to society and the culture in which the individual grows up. A central part of the work of leadership is to learn to manage the tension that inevitably exists between that public or ‘onstage’ self and what we could call our private truth- a view on things that is personal, the essence of who we are-what some call the souls voice. Sometimes we manage the tension well and sometimes not.

Typically in environments that are wary of emotional expression (the soul feels vividly) we learn to hide how we really feel and present a persona-call it the voice of the ego- that sends out a clear message that says ‘all is well’. High fives, joking around and an air of invulnerability shield and protect us from some other voice-the story behind the story- that is at once strangely distant and very close. If this condition persists we may become slowly closed to the quiet calling of our inner life or discover ways and means of numbing the inevitable suffering that comes when the gap gets too big for too long and we ignore the importuning of our innermost concerns. We can do that for years-perhaps until the children are estranged or we fall asleep at the wheel and the story changes and we wonder as the Talking Heads song goes-how did I get here?

As facilitators in the practice of leadership we talk about how it ‘feels’ to lead-such is the nature of any dialogue on the ‘inner work’ of leadership but in general what comes back from the circle, well intentioned as it is, is what people think about things. Feelings are uncomfortable; a problem in organisational life. The intelligence of feeling is valued less than the capacity for rational and objective thinking yet nothing is seen to be lost because of that, our perception is not thought to be diminished by an over reliance on logic. It’s easy enough to confuse a feeling for a thought of course but they are very different things. Perhaps it’s no surprise that what is denied in public spills out so frequently and with such force in private. Psychologically-given the level of denial- we could call it a shadow aspect of leadership. One wonders how and where else it spills out when unguarded. In the conversations I am involved in I know it comes out in the myriad forms of violence that the author Wayne Mueller describes in his reflections on the cost of a successful life;

A successful life has become a violent enterprise. We make war on our own bodies, pushing them beyond their limits; war on our children, because we cannot find time to be with them when they are hurt and afraid, and need our company; war on our spirit, because we are too preoccupied to listen to the quiet voices that seek to nourish and refresh us; war on our communities, because we are fearfully protecting what we have, and do not feel safe enough to be kind and generous; war on the earth, because we do not take the time to place our feet on the ground and allow it to feed us, to taste its blessings and give thanks.

The violence of modern life takes its toll in many ways it seems. Perhaps it was the recognition of a ‘safe space’, the chance to be honest for a moment, that provoked the sudden grief that poured out of the hearts of those men that afternoon, not broken open as a natural consequence of living fully but exhausted and shattered by years of ill treatment and neglect.

The shadow of VUCA

Those of us that work in the field of leadership development are familiar enough with the acronym VUCA. A great deal has been said and written about the term and its implications for organisations and leaders since it was imported into the world of business from its origins in the US Army Military College in the 1990s. VUCA was first used to describe the changing nature of military intervention in modern warfare; the degree of unpredictability and surprise that might be present in a field situation unfolding in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. VUCA offers a practical code for awareness and readiness and invites us to look at learning models that support preparedness, anticipation, evolution and intervention. It’s an exciting field and offers much opportunity for the development of the leadership mind in more complex ways.

Few would deny that organisational life today is indeed typically experienced as volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous; VUCA, we are told, is the new normal and leaders and organisations need to shape themselves accordingly to thrive in conditions that are at once destabilising and rich with opportunity.  The sense of rapid change is addressed and underscored elsewhere in many emerging models and theories of organisational development

The term discontinuous has superseded turbulent as an adjective to describe the deepening nature of constant change that organisations face. The edge of chaos, drawn from the science of chaos theory tells us that the dynamically charged space between the known and the unknown, between entropy and chaos, is where innovation, creativity and new possibility emerge as new patterns of life. Leaders are encouraged to adopt ways of knowing that are experimental, curious and able to hold paradox, to be unafraid of failure. The ability to navigate effectively in that space offers any executive a competitive advantage and we might make the assumption that it will be a pre-requisite for organisational survival in coming years within the existing paradigm within which business is presently conducted.

Whilst I would not disagree with the assumptions about the business environment expressed in terms such as VUCA and would endorse the creative development of leadership capabilities towards the stage of development that Bob Kegan call self-transforming mind, I would say that the cost for the human soul of inhabiting VUCA environments over extended periods of time has been largely overlooked and represents a real concern for the future health of organisations and the leaders that serve them. Put simply, the time and space for the dignified and respectful development of the human person towards what CG Jung called individuation, is being ignored and this omission is leaving people trapped; privately incapable of holding the myriad tensions at play between their personal and professional commitments. Ignoring this truth, all theories of change fall short if they are not supported by practices that sustain both the spirit and the soul of the leader.

When the soul of a person (‘that which is essential’) is left behind, when we forego a language and appreciation for soul- when we no longer know or are able to stop long enough to let our souls ‘catch up’- the consequences are devastating. The fact that these consequences are largely hidden and denied makes the fact more dangerous and inhuman, not less so. The poet WB Yeats writes about the dialogue between self and soul.  The soul of a person, as every poet knows, needs to speak, to muse, to consider and reflect-if it is to be well, if it is to act as it should, as a guide for what is most important in our lives. It’s not a matter of indulgence it’s a matter of sanity.

A poem by Mark Nepo offers an example of this capacity and need for reflection and came to mind that afternoon in our coaching circle; it speaks to the story behind the story;

I’ve been watching stars

rely on the darkness they

resist. And fish struggle with

and against the current. And

hawks glide faster when their

wings don’t move.

 

Still I keep retelling what

happens till it comes out

the way I want.

 

We try so hard to be the

main character when it is

our point of view that

keeps us from the truth.

 

The sun has its story

that no curtain can stop.

 

It’s true. The only way beyond

the self is through it. The only

way to listen to what can never

be said is to quiet our need

to steer the plot.

 

When jarred by life, we might

unravel the story we tell ourselves

and discover the story we are in,

the one that keeps telling us.

 

I think there are times when we all think this way. In times of transition and rapid change it is especially true that we are called to face questions of meaning in our lives. Our capacity to sit creatively with such tensions is what allows us to grow more fully into our lives. To leave such concerns unmet, buried or hidden isn’t brave or tough; it can only diminish our experience and our capacity to meet the world more honestly and on our own terms-that is to say-authentically.

Perhaps it seems strange to conjure poetry in a discussion about leadership but I contest that it is precisely the lack of poetic sensibility that undermines the health of individual leaders, their teams and organisations. Poetry is the language of the soul and has much to teach us. The consequences of the omission of soul in the estimation of what amounts to organisational success is something that I see too regularly to count as an anomaly nor am I willing to discount it as ‘collateral damage’. In my estimation the people in the room with me a few weeks ago were committed, intelligent, courageous leaders actually marked out for advancement in the corporation they served-yet privately they were suffering; willing and able yes as any good soldier is, but ill equipped for the physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual cost of VUCA life.

Leadership and Addiction

Prior to beginning my practice with senior executive leaders a decade ago I spent over 15 years working in the field of addictions and criminal justice. In that time I worked with many hundreds of people whose lives had been shattered and broken in a thousand different ways and who had turned to substances like alcohol, heroin and crack cocaine and behaviours such as gambling, sex addiction and stealing to mitigate the pain and suffering caused by the many forms of abuse that a person or a society can inflict on another human being.  I learned that anyone could get caught in addiction and over the years have worked with people from every conceivable background.

The term addict is an interesting one, deriving from the Latin, addictus, it means ‘to be a slave to’ and refers to the multitude of ways that any person might become lost in patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving that corrode choice and undermine their capacity to grow towards the noble and dignified state of human maturity that we call adulthood which is the gift of a lifetime where conditions allow.

It’s relatively easy to spot addiction to Crack cocaine and in some ways ‘easier’ to work with since its consequences can be so quickly and obviously destructive. Other addictions are sometimes more pernicious and hard to see. A pervasive form of addiction today is simply intensity-in its myriad forms- at work, in sport, in entertainment, on vacation, it seems we can never relax. A high flying adolescent can never get enough and our relentless need for intensity speaks of a curious lack of maturity in our society today. We don’t know how to be still.

Intensity is of course both an appeal and a danger in the context of VUCA. VUCA if misunderstood will speak only to the classic hero myth; It’s easy enough for the psyche to repackage a thing and miss the point, as TS Eliot put it, ‘we had the experience but missed the meaning’. VUCA is a call to adventure which is fine in itself but if not grounded by a mature perspective that includes a capacity for stillness, it will appeal only to the adolescent in us, the young warrior, because it is derived from and works with the language and intensity of warfare. VUCA tells us that we need to be alert, prepared, anticipating, evolving, aware and ready-all the time. In a world addicted to better, bigger, faster, what better than this?

The issue with VUCA is that it takes real depth and wisdom to be able to embrace conditions of volatility, ambiguity and so on. It can be tough and demanding to live in a space of liminality and complexity whilst simultaneously navigating the numerous day to day business demands that take up so much time and energy. For many it’s too much. The addictions and states of de-stabilisation that I saw in my first career are mirrored often enough in different forms in my work today that I consider them to be a pervasive pattern related to a general incapacity to cope.

Addiction is always symptomatic of a life out of sorts concomitant with a loss of freedom. Addictive behaviours are an attempt, albeit misjudged to right the balance, to compensate for what seems to be lost, enslaved, missing; to numb the intolerable, to cope, and to survive. Ultimately however, insofar as such behaviours ignore the importuning of the inner life through the application of outer fixes, they are life denying and only increase the suffering to the one caught in the drama and to those they work with and care about.

The point is that real suffering (as distinct from neurotic suffering) which gives our life character, builds resilience and provides us with the strength to endure amongst other things is a matter not simply for the ego and it cannot be addressed through acts of bravado, denial or traditional ideas of power; Incorporating our suffering into the narrative of our lives is a matter for the soul. Conditions that are inhospitable to the work of ‘soul making’ as the poet John Keats put it divide and diminish us in every conceivable way and bring about a particular quality of suffering that is life denying rather than life giving; shattering and isolating, more closely related to hopelessness, a quality writ large in the ennui, despair and loneliness so prevalent in western society today.

It is in the nature of a life that we suffer and indeed it is through our suffering, our passion, well met that we might be moved towards the greatest gift of fellow feeling that we call compassion, again deriving from the Latin meaning to suffer with. Compassion has to do with the heart as addiction does, but where the addict protects and shields the ego from the wounds of life, the compassionate person admits it all and recognises that we grow and become fully human precisely out of our heartbrokenness.

Finding Sanctuary for the soul

Sanctuary has its roots in the word sanctus, to mean ‘holy place.’ Psychologically if we follow the same linguistic root we discover a place that is deliberately put aside for the development of wholeness, a place also of healing. Finding sanctuary, taking time for retreat from the push and pull of the daily round, is essential to life; essential to our capacity to hear the story behind the story. It is worth taking the time to consider where and with whom we find such space, what happens when we make space for sanctuary in our lives and what happens when we don’t.  It is my conjecture that no serious conversation about leadership in a VUCA world can take place divorced from a conversation about the human need for sanctuary; it is the place we go for shelter and refuge, refreshment and renewal, solitude and companionship, to make sense and meaning of our experience to find the courage to re-engage creatively with the things that matter to us. We know it in our lives both by its presence and its absence.

To deny the value and importance of sanctuary is to deny the depth of our experience and the conditions necessary for proper human formation. In times of change and transformation it is natural that our questions become more philosophical. We inquire of ourselves; about who we are, what are life is for, what matters, and in this way we create and re-create meaning. The work of becoming a mature human-there is no free pass to adulthood based on the number of years lived-includes this process of reflection and honours our need to make meaning of our experience as a central part of our development. It is a process that takes time and is connected to other practices of interiority such as contemplation and meditation, practices of being that balance the bias for action so prevalent in our society. To ask the ego created in earlier life to carry us through our total life experience in its entirety is naive and asks too much of a psychological system not designed for such work.

A divided life is always destructive and the consequences are felt both personally and organisationally. When an executive weeps in a coaching session, the clues or inner warnings that might have mitigated the ‘breakdown’ have been dismissed, ignored or in some other way, waived aside. I suspect that in nearly every case the act of dismissing is unconscious, encouraged by the environment in which the person ‘makes their living’ to use the term ironically. That it happens so often tells me how badly organisations fail to ensure the well-being of those that serve them. Perhaps it is too much to ask of any organisation that they should think of such things though it seems incredible to say so. Nonetheless, this being the case, it falls into the hands of the executive leaders themselves to ensure that they include access to times of sanctuary as an integral part of their leadership practice and it is, I submit, the work and responsibility of executive development facilitators and establishments to ensure that such spaces are available and such practices encouraged. At the moment it seems to be something that happens only rarely but it can be developed and must be.

Greater complexity and ambiguity require greater interiority. The rational and objective mind so highly favoured by leaders and organisations brings great advantages to a company but it is of little help when it comes to dealing with our hearts and souls. It is, as the poet Ted Hughes put it, ‘useless in the most vital activity of all; that of understanding ourselves’.

If we are to stand our ground with dignity in a VUCA world then it will demand a level of maturity not available to the rational ego alone. The path to adulthood, to becoming human is just that, a journey, a way, a discipline that is open to the live encounter with life itself and with other people. In the imaginative space between our inner life and the world around us we form, deform and reform meaning throughout life. This process of human development is soul work-James Hillman describes soul as ‘the imaginative capacity of our natures’- and it requires time and care including the time apart that I am referring to as sanctuary. Through this work we might if we are fortunate, develop, expand and enrich our lives, deepening our inner dialogue that is sensitive to times of transition that can navigate the VUCA world and act as our most faithful and  trustworthy guide. The sun does indeed have a story that no curtain can stop. It is the work of a lifetime to honour that story and let it speak.

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The feeling of walking: a poetic journey on foot

The feeling of walking: a poetic journey on foot

The following poem is an account of a journey on foot through a part of Wales that I took a week or so ago. It is that and, for me, much more. When I got back I sat down and wrote about the walk for almost a day. At the end of the day I was dissatisfied. I had spoken about the walk but had not touched the walk itself, the imaginative or creative spirit of the walk-the feeling of it. On the second day I wrote what I have chosen to share.

It was James Hillman that offered up a definition of soul as the ‘imaginative possibility of our natures’. In exploring soul this way, experienced through dream, image and fantasy, Hillman suggested that the idea of soul referred also to that component in each of us that makes meaning possible, deepens events into experiences and can be known whether through love or religious experience through its special relationship with death.

If we attend to Hillman’s words; love, depth, meaning, religious experience and death we come to see that the territory of the Imagination is indeed the territory of soul making, that it is intimately related to matters of the heart and represents the real work of a lifetime.

To live fully has to do I think with living closely to the forces that Hillman speaks of. I have come to experience poetry as a means by which it is possible to do just that, to move , to journey even, between the worlds that form and  inform (sometime deform) so much of our lives. Poetic work inhabits and navigates the world of meaning making, experience, death and so forth as no other medium of language can. In the space between my inner landscape and the outer world I meet a capacity for Imagination, the capacity that Coleridge called ‘the shaping spirit’, something that seems to be both personal and universal in nature.

William Blake declared that Man is ‘all imagination’, Yeats saw Imagination as the conduit through which each of us might seek to remake the world according to the impulses of the Great Mind, the Anima Mundi. It is through the Imagination that we shape the world, that we come to know it, that we come to change and to be changed by it.

An olive tree is what it is until we see what Van Gogh sees. The woods around Capel Y Fin where I was walking last week are ‘only woodlands’ until they come under the gaze of the artist David Jones, until he can show us as every artist and poet must-just what we are missing. The world numinous is none other than the world fully imagined.

In his essay on the founding of the Arvon Foundation, John Moat, a poet who I had the very good fortune to know, described imagination as ‘a formative force’ that he felt was ‘universally inclusive’. He wondered whether;

‘ the failure to grasp how this formative, determining mystery, properly reverenced, as the guide and unfolding force of the lives and venture of every individual and their society and above all their education, amounts to a serious missing of the mark. One that leave individuals and society…unfit for purpose’.

Were the Imagination to venture forth in each person, as a primary way of knowing the world, which in John Moats estimation it surely could, being the gift of us all, I would contend that much of what we allow today in the name of culture or society or education would become quickly intolerable.

In his essay on Ted Hughes and the mythic imagination, Keith Sagar reminds us of the performance of Aristophanes’ The frogs at the Great Dionysia in 405, at the point when Athenian civilisation was close to collapse. In the play Dionysus is sent to Hades to bring back the greatest of the dead poets. The ghost of Euripides asks him what he wants a poet for and Dionysus replies’ to save the city of course’. Sagar makes the point that what’s remarkable here is that Athenian society might imagine that a poet could indeed be the very person to save a city, something that would be little understood today in our own society.

And yet, is there not something essential in this observation, something that we should actually take seriously?  Who else, (what else in ourselves) should we turn to when our trouble, our crisis, is one of absolute exile from ourselves and the natural world around us? Is that not at the root of the malaise and ennui that we see all about us? To quote Ted Hughes;

The story of the mind exiled from Nature is the story of Western Man. It is the story of his progressively more desperate search for mechanical and rational and symbolic securities, which will substitute for the spirit-confidence of the Nature he has lost.

The spirit-confidence that Hughes speaks of is what has indeed been greatly lost. It is a lovely phrase because it lifts up the sense of confidence, not as hubris but as something closer to its original meaning of ‘with trust’ and in so doing it has something to do with faith.

To engage the Imagination is the pressing work of our time, it is nothing less than the work of soul making. It is everyone’s work and everyone’s privilege since Imagination and heart are not merely the province of the few but the greatest gift of us all. That we foster and encourage the gift matters because it enriches our lives and our shared world, connecting us to one another and the vital pulse of the earth itself.

As John Keats said, we do this work with the material of our lives; the hurt, the suffering the delight of our experience. This work is both heart breaking and healing.

How we imagine our life, the story we tell about it, is what makes us and it is through Imagination that our lives become our personal and collective healing fictions. In the poem I will share now the great split in the oak is both its wound and its gift. The Ravens dance out a dance for all time. The waters of the well of a murdered hermit can heal. What happened, happened.

It is through and with Imagination that we address the facets of the soul for meaning making, depth of experience and work with the forces of love, of religious concern, of death. It is the gift to each of us who are given life and breath and it can be reclaimed. That done it is a work of discipline that requires us to hear and stay with the call, as Philip Larkin meant it, to be serious-to get to work with the gift we have been given. When we hear it with faith, with good heart, we might just be met.

The feeling of walking: a poetic journey on foot

The mountain is uttering

Blood and again blood. Ted Hughes

 An aperture

A Skylight

A window into the world

Awake now.

Outside the first sky is a patchwork of slow moving whales, blues and greys

In Wales, in a dream.

The treetops sloping left to right are hints of the valley that was hidden last night and the snow is gone and the day is bright.

The mountain looms larger then I recall but what is memory anyway in this place?

White topped peak, close and far away at once. My breath fogs the glass, the mountain disappears

The sun has returned from a long night crossing, shipped oars, he flushes the hillside unexpectedly with a gift of newly minted gold. The bushes and hedgerows, burst into life, the colours and lines pulled out of themselves while the northern hill casts a sullen look

The radiator ticks and the stairs creak. The old barn has a new face, I make my way downstairs to

A kitchen, a pic sits wrapped in a towel that kept it warm last night, a freshly baked freshly offered gift. Currants, eggs, mixed spice, caster sugar, flour-warm, slices thick, dripping butter. Tea never tasted better.

Boots sit by the door. Waterproofed and solid on the stone tiled floor, patient as a dog before the scent of a walk.

Wear clothing that knows the elements are gods that would kill you without any change of face. The terrain, the way things can turn on the mountain in a moment. Always fickle.

Such is the way with gods.

Boots.

Sure footed, ankle deep, tough toed, strong gripped. Like a compass, they know themselves precisely. The feet find their way in, the laces pull up

Tight.

The sound of buttons, the sound of zips,

Shucking the rucksack, the sound of clips,

Locking into place, the sound of our breath when the

Door shuts tight the warmth behind, out here

The air is cold.

Snow lies patchy, dripping gently under a cold sun and a breeze, not too much on the lee

But the clouds tell me that the mountain will give us the full force of the wind

Which is riding down from the north, what news from the north will it bring?

Lambs leap and daffodils doze in the quiet corners, water trickles everywhere, a million streams and rivulets are a prayer to the land both to and from itself.

First steps and the pattern of the boots begins, the track starts here, the traces of my being here, these footprints are barely markers for those that follow lasting only until the weather washes all away. The grass is greasy, slipping, sliding, giving no purchase, slowly climbing up into the valley where the mountain waits.

I am in a wood. The trees are as old as the hills. Oak and ash, beech, rowan, birch, cling to the side  with gnarled roots fingering out, the path of broken rocks falls indistinct .The track winds its way high into the foothills out of the valley which narrows and steepens down to the tumbling river runs lyrical, slight and full of song.

Her song finds me here, her rhythm of labour, glistening sun, easy and urgent, smelling the Usk, smelling the sea, she knows she must go on. She longs for home.

O I see a ship

Sailing on the sea

And her mast is made of

The Ferun tree.

 

Here is where I meet the fox. Here is where we exchange the look that’s ours for a lifetime of work

Down by the stream I am all fox.

I smell the flowers and the water, the first hint of ramsons and the scent of earth is strong. I see a man, up on the ridge; like looking through water, what kind of animal is this? He watches me curiously, he is still, I have no fear.

We exchange eyes. I see the fox and the fox regards me steadily. Engaged but what kind of marriage is this? I am not the first to be visited by fox, the strange housekeeper and friend of Macha, she of the horse;

Welcome to the great world she said

It’s a nothing, a nowhere I’ve walked into he said

 

Beware when the animals come

What kind of animal I am?

I hold my walking stick, cut hazel, forked end;

I took a knife to it to make a few marks of significance.

The fox and the river make their slow way down hill, following the scent and I too am following in another way. Is there a scent that the mountain gives? Am I called by bell, pelt, flower, church, the earth of old red sandstone? What am I longing for?

I am in a tree. Up above the treeline where the sheep graze, where the land was cleared, where the forest used to be, long stone walls and a ruin are today

What were you once? I was home, store, shelter. See how the rowan prospers here

I am in a tree, an ancient ash, split top to tail on its northerly side. From the south it stands sentinel. From the north it is entrance to another world.

Opened up, the tree invites me in to close again. There is barely room but I am in and down. Inside the tree I breathe and the breath makes sounds against the rain stained wood.

The red stained wound.

How so alive? How rooted still, how reaching still after all this time and trouble?

A temple here thinly disguised in which I

Sing softly, and call down a hollow branch- a didgeridoo to the world, to the river, to the fox. It could close up anytime and then what?

Downwards or upwards or simply standing still.

A shaman’s way out-to the animal beings to the spirit beings. Can you hear the sounds of the drum calling? What sounds do I recall?

The hut, the wheel of a cart, the razor, and the prickly beards of shepherds, the barren moon, the flies, the damp cupboards, the rubble, the lace-covered saints, the wounding lines of eaves and balconies……

That was always the sign of life. Here is a place for prayer sure enough.

The sky is blue. Clouds cut south in streams, the wind catches leafless branches, they bend and give, sag and sigh-I feel the giving-ness.

Forgivingness surrounds me from the tip of her crown to the deep down work world centre of the earth where the roots the filaments end.

I am much says the tree. I am much. There are wounds that never heal. Therein lies the strangeness, the inventiveness of the work.

Guardian and Threshold.

Wounded and healed at the same time and in the great crevice, out of the vulvic crevice, born again into the day. The tree is nothing but itself. A skylark and a kite sing out, cry out, death and life.

I feel the sweat on my back from the climb, I feel a sigh run through me river deep, filament deep, through my solid boots, into the thin grass and down. Sweat from my brow will dewdrop the earth.

We drink together.

Bog and heather.

How the name is recalled like a distant boat.

The way comes and goes the mountain grows the stream runs down between the thighs of the foothills and the path cuts away on contours that suit the climb. The fox follows the stream, traffics away from the path of men and the paths that they make through heather bells and bilberries, civilised.

Where the fox runs home is thistles and broken stones and the cold water that quenches thirst. Home as marginal as life. With fox there is neither map nor discipline. Remember this-

Snowline, the sun breaks out above the mountain and lights the world-emphasises the immensity in cold, biting wind that hits the face hard as stone. Buttons click, zips, water from the flask, red faced, heart surge out to the peaks that rise out surly to the west.

The snow settled here, deep and more to come, an ink blot sky bleeds out before the sun.

Ravens have found the wind; the wind and the Raven are dancing out the great duende. Fox watches on.

I remember  Jerez de la Frontera, how the old Spanish lady arrived last to the dance with the water waisted girls all raven haired and she raised her arms, threw back her head, a single stamp and won the day.

A country open to death. Sweeping the earth with its wings made of rusty knives.

The duende works on the dancer’s body like wind on sand. The ravens are wind and sand, whirling up, caught up in the blast of things.

Behind the great pillars of stone, the backbone of a dragon or so many dice scattered by giants playing for bones. Behind the great rocks there is only stillness.

In the foothills Blackthorns are gathered in a witch’s circle, washer women at night they tend the stream by day, feed it blossom in spring and dark berries when autumn comes. How old is the lichen that clings to the branches, how the wet roots finger these places how they ignore the dead one, plucked up in a storm, where decay worms slowly in.

The witches do their work. Magic is everywhere

We are the keepers of Samhain, when the veil is most thin. We are crone, we are strife. Mark us well

We are those that made a crown for the one below

Now there is smoke, smoke from lazy fires of peat and coal and wood. My feet have rhythm my voice is a song that the birds can understand.

Like a ghost, smoke wanders through quiet lanes unpeopled though the ghosts of the past are everywhere. The school bell is silent though the bell and the laughter are still gathered here in a dark recess of memory

Soft cherry blossoms of spring- not at the school gates but home in bed and sick while the sun danced outside, while the curtain lifted in the first warm wind of spring while the children were at play

A first exquisite solitude. I have never forgotten that day.

A poem springs to mind, a poet, the track near blind, wants the river, insists on bringing the sound nearer to my ear, by the bridge, houses huddle and take in the mountain, perpetually astonished by the view, backs to the gentler hill and ancient woodlands where a royal beech spreads itself wide as a king the silver birch on the march where deer work the land with sharp ears where merlin walked and a hermit found his way to a final resting place.

Here was the home of a hermit once. Perhaps he came the same way through these dense woods and found his god , resting by the stream a crown of thorns put to one side and water wetting that bristled beard. Still the eyes pierce deeper than any thorn. The man almost naked, naked as any poet should be, saving the cloth around his waist- all sinews, he was Baskins hanged man once, full sized, wood carved, each line cutting out a life knife sharp from the world of time.

The stream is called nant mair. Marys stream.

Mary the mother says the man of thorns under his own breath

The duende wounds,

We will have a straight fight beside the well.

The duende wounds and in the healing of the wound which never closes-is the prodigious, the original work of man.

Here says the naked man, kneeling, and never taking those blue eyes from the hermit, piercing, let me give you water. On this path, not for the muse or the angel, we are baptised in this dark water.

Issui built a home here a hermit’s cell and drank dark water from the dingle well.

A traveller came and in some dispute, was there a struggle- we cannot say-Isuui fell down dead.

Issui murdered.

Methur Issui.

Issui dead.

Where does death lead except to life it seems then back again slowly or suddenly it winds us in and on, serpentine.

In sudden death we find the footmarks of pilgrimage. Here, out of the blood, out of the suffering, out of the wound I put my fingers in, rises water, a well and a sharped eyed hawk. Here is a place of healing and poetry.

People have been healed here. On the other side of the mountain, the tree split from top to toe, her filaments reaching all the way to the dark well where we are baptised out of blood and into life. If we cannot smell death there can be no fight. No life. We will not come they said.

Mana breathes. Mana lives here by the dingle stream. The cross is only small but the goddess is another thing, she the source of everything, this terrible life, the substance of all substance born to die. Mana will come to you sufferer, as your own response to the deep hurts that you bear. She is healing and medicine. She is redemption. You pay for it here with your suffering.

Mana is the source of this and every well worth the name.

In the moment of unbearable pain, I begin to flow she says.

What is the total wound, the head to foot wound that you carry?

That is the question. The Agony rent for agony to be redeemed.

That is the work here where Issui fell and still falls with the light tumbling from his eyes.

I drink the water. Time here is written in blood. Whitewashed more than once as though time were some kind of heresy, still it pushes itself out again or so it is said, a man of work, a spade, a scythe, an hourglass. Beneath time a hollowed trunk of oak where the men of god would keep their valuables thrice locked.  Here the stones speak;

Menhir made me, in the time of Genillin.

A thousand years of incantation, Menhir and Genillin are joined forever in stone and time watches on.

Bread for the birds, welsh scone and butter, a gift passed on, never better, snow hints at the red earth, the water is sweet, the wound deep. The goddess ascents and the man of thorns returns his gaze to the stream and distant lands. Nant Mair. Carry me home.

Spiral up, above the hills, the red earth oozes,

A red kite seeks out death,

Eyes search out signs of weakness in the flock jostling earth.

The track divides and the cairn is a single footprint, an earthprint not in stone,

Here mud marks the way as the snow finds itself in a flurry of hoods and gloves.

A long march by mud pools and a group of boys rise up like young horses shy at the top of the second mountain. I ask them where they will sleep tonight and the mountain ascents to keep them here away from the petty worrying of home

The voices begin to break, and Adams apple swells. A new hair on the chin in the morning

The nick of a knife.

Here is a sense of the real Eden where the boys in huddled shelters dream of serpents, dream of Eve and here the cry that screams across the mountain side. Murther Issui, Murther. Innocence dies here where Pan walks even in times of desolation.

Here you will discover with Herrera that the snow does not kill though it bites.

The ache of Baskins legs are in me. Walhaz, or a dream or maybe both, the place where the world thins easily into silence, the mud here speaks, like stones.

Annwfn.

Dragon’s home.

The greater sea moves here in that which is not seen, in what is in the deeps

Or by the well where we are baptized darkly from our suffering,

Where we travel from sleep to sleep

Walhaz,

Stranger.

Dream.

The fox follows the scent downstream as the river does.

Issui falls and in falling is redeemed.

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Marginal Land

Showing its back

And showing its front

A falling maple leaf

Ryokan (death poem)

 I met a roe deer this morning for the first time in ages. There is at least one small herd that lives around here but they appeared to have moved off to graze other land over the last couple of months, a noticeable absence. The roe is common in Somerset, preferring to live in woodland and feeding on grass, leaves, berries and the shoots of young plants. I wonder if their return now is connected to the first thick blush of grass that has shown in the fields hereabouts from last year’s autumn sowing.

The one I saw appeared out of a small thicket of hazel trees right at the bottom of the hill where the path I take on my daily walk turns right at an old wooden gate and leads down towards the river. I was struck by how quickly the deer moved. Startled by my footsteps, it bounded away along the line of trees and hedgerow that trace out the small brook as it heads down to feed the Alham. It was gone in a moment and by the time I reached the bend to look down across the field, it had vanished completely.

It’s always a wonder how one thing; one event will draw attention to another and set off a train of thought. I spent a while looking at the pencil line of trees and brush that follow the brook and was struck by the mixture of colours there; dark, brown, reddish, almost auburn in places. The deer, like the fox, is a marginal animal perfectly suited in colour for a life along the stream amongst the hedgerow scrub, hazel and alder groves. Its coat had that auburn look to it. Indeed I had not seen it at all until it crashed out of the thicket and ran. There is a symbiosis here between landscape and animal, a kind of mutual arising or cooperation that feeds, shelters and gives near invisibility to the deer which in turn eats the leaves, shoots and berries and distributes the latter on surrounding land.

The deer is only really exposed on the wide green pasture fields that patch work the landscape here. This is dairy farming land. Looking around its clear that this is a domesticated landscape, pastoral and beautiful in its own way but intensively farmed and greatly shaped by human activity since the Bronze Age peoples and then the Romans lived on the hill above our house thousands of years ago. The network of green fields here today are an example of biological simplification, the very art of the European agricultural system developed since the 18th century. The picture is civilised and neat but a closer look reveals another story.

It’s extraordinary how sodden the open fields have become after weeks of rain. Perhaps that seems obvious or perhaps odd to say but it’s not. Water lies in pools at the gate entrances and puddles out in all directions over the land. Parts of the fields are a liquid mud that makes walking hard. The freshly sown grass is hardy and coping and will recover with the spring but its striking how different things are in the margins and among the neglected copses that define the edges of the fields, the remaining pockets of wilderness.

Where the pasture fields really feel empty of life; strangely barren, bedraggled, exposed and defenceless, the pockets of copse are vibrant. Squirrels, pheasants, owls, woodpeckers and numerous other birds come and go constantly. Foxes and badgers move through the woodland terrain along with mice and voles. The natural mix of ground cover, trees and shrubs has prevented any saturation and the soil under the fallen leaf mould and ivy, smells sweet and is full of life. I noticed something similar when I took a walk through a Birchwood forest recently in Surrey. In any place I stopped I could put my hand down through leaf litter into deep, rich sweet smelling soil. The unmanaged forest was effortlessly abundant, filled with an extraordinary diversity of life.

The same is true on our own land. The 2 acres we bought last year as a smallholding is currently pasture grass having been most recently a pony paddock. The site is interspersed with a few newly planted fruit trees, fruit bushes and some older cider apples that recall its recent history as a productive orchard. In one corner of the field there is a small area of woodland; a mix of mature deciduous trees including oak and ash. This, I imagine, would have been the natural state of the land before it was claimed for agricultural development; it’s a mystery how that parcel survived when the orchard was first planted sometime around the Second World War. Today after the wettest winter on record, the field, which has a gently sloping southerly aspect is flooded in many places and terribly saturated in others. The wooded land is fine. It’s our hope to rehabilitate the field to its natural state in the coming years, to create something that is both productive and a pleasure to spend time in.

Thinking on our relationship with the land brought to mind a piece of writing I came across recently in a journal written for the Akwasasne first nation peoples-a review written some years ago on the life and work of a Japanese farmer and philosopher called Masanobu Fukuoka .

The article offers an interesting reflection on the traditional methods of agriculture employed by the Hau de no sau nee or Six Nations people of Eastern North America and the impact that European farming systems had both on productivity and the culture of these people. Culturally it was traditional that agricultural work was undertaken by women whilst men were responsible for hunting and fishing, both working together to provide for and sustain the community.

Typically gardens were laid out amongst trees some of which had been girdled to encourage leaf fall and provide firewood. Seeds were sown in groups on hillsides directly into the forest-enriched earth. Fertiliser was provided by fish scraps but beyond that, things were left to grow on their own; put simply, nature was entrusted to do the work of growing and providing for the people. The primary crops were inter-planted corn, beans and squash, a grouping today popularly known as the three sisters, a reference to their mutually beneficial relationship as plants.

Historical accounts of the agricultural practices, taken from military journals suggest that crops were typically bountiful, even extraordinary to European eyes. However, with the arrival of European methods in the late 18th century came a dramatic change in practice. Ploughing was introduced, using draft animals and the iron plough. What differentiated European methods from first nation practices was belief in the efficacy and importance of clearing the land in large swathes in an effort to produce biological simplification such that, in the end, only one life form remained on the land. This was thought to be the best method for plant control and the maximisation of crops.

As I see it now, it was the arrival of the plough borne on a philosophy that sought to subdue and commodify nature that began the divorce from the natural world that we now take for granted. In the 1790s, our relationship with the earth tilted irrevocably from a place of sanctuary to one of commodity. Here are the roots of the timber industry and the beef industry. The forest and the cow were objectified and that objectification made all manner of acts of mistreatment possible in the name of progress. The marriage between people and the earth which had been at the heart of life for millennia was broken.

The consequences of the broken agreement have been varied and many. For the six nation’s people the consequences were catastrophic. Early positive results with the plough proved to be unsustainable. Traditional farming methods were replaced by clear felling of land. Ploughing and monoculture began to reduce the fertility of the soil itself requiring the land to be fertilised more regularly with animal dung and later chemical fertilisers in a bid to sustain productivity.

As the land lost its vitality so the crops weakened and became vulnerable to disease and parasite infection. The inherent balance of natural pests had been broken by the plough and the single cropping system and the ground was laid for the introduction of artificial insecticides and pesticides to manage the apparent deficiencies in the soil. The cost of growing food escalated as the nutritional value (life force) of the crop itself diminished. Slowly the soil died.

Of course ploughing required animals and thus more land for hay and grain was needed to feed the animals. As the cycle of events unfolded, men increasingly became involved in the work, first supporting and then finally taking over from the women not because of a need for strength but simply because of the volume of hard work now required to grow the food. The archetypal balance of masculine and feminine itself began to shift as stewardship was replaced by land management. Centuries old patterns fell by the wayside and were lost forever.

It is important to recognize that the practice of farming introduced to the Akwesasne by the settlers rested on a philosophy born out of the enlightenment. Across the distant lands of civilized Western Europe, reason was replacing faith as the primary touchstone for society. The new civil order would be based on natural law and a science based on observation and experimentation. The plough and the single crop are reasonable extensions of a philosophy of separation and discrimination, a triumph of science and technology and the rational mind built on the profound belief in humankind’s capacity to both dominate and improve on nature. A space appeared definitely and finally in the western mind that could separate out the observer from what was observed.

The reflections I have shared by the Akwesasne come from a review of a book that had been published by a relatively unknown Japanese man, a farmer and philosopher called Masanobu Fukouka (1913-2008). The book, published in 1975, was called ‘The one straw revolution’ and it took fundamental issue with the precepts of European agriculture that he felt had blighted agriculture and life in general for over 200 years.

Fukuoka-san, who was born on the island of Shikoku, spent 60 years demonstrating by his own efforts, on his own farm that a wide variety of crops could be grown completely naturally to a quality, quantity and standard that could equal or better the crops being grown by neighbours using modern scientific methods. Over that time he developed a method of agricultural production that many would say has the potential to reverse the degenerative momentum of modern agriculture. It was simply called natural farming.

As a young man Fukouka-san, then a microbiologist specializing in plant diseases, had a realization which changed his understanding of life completely. He describes the experience which occurred at the end of a long sleepless night during a bout of depression;

As the breeze blew up from the bluff, the morning mist suddenly disappeared. Just at that moment a night hero appeared, gave a sharp cry, and flew away into the distance. I could hear the flapping of its wings. In an instant all my doubts and the gloomy mist of my confusion vanished. Everything I had held in firm conviction, everything upon which I had ordinarily relied was swept away with the wind. I felt that I understood just one thing. Without my thinking about them, words came from my mouth, “in this world there is nothing at all”….I felt I understood nothing….I could see that all the concepts to which I had been clinging, the very notion of existence itself, were empty fabrications….everything that had possessed me, all the agonies, disappeared like dreams and illusions and something one might call ‘true nature’ stood revealed.

From this realisation a simple philosophy was born. At its heart Fukuoka-san recognised as fallacy the belief that we can improve on nature at all. His observations in the fields he worked every day suggested that all attempts to improve on nature lead to consequences that require further effort to address. Thus a vicious cycle is born that is never ending, detrimental to all living systems and leads the great majority of people into an endless life of largely pointless toil.

The more people do, the more society develops, the more problems arise. The increasing desolation of nature, the exhaustion of resources, the uneasiness and disintegration of the human spirit, all have been brought about by humanity’s trying to accomplish things’

As Fukuoka-san saw it, nature is already ideally arranged and abundant without any interference. Each effort at improvement creates adverse reactions that require measures to counteract those side effects. It was his view that, in the modern world, pretty much everything people are doing today aims to mitigate problems caused by previous misguided actions. It would be better, suggested Fukuoka-san if people did nothing at all. This philosophy underpinned his method of natural farming. No ploughing, no digging, no fossil fuels, no pesticides or compost. A simple life lived in harmony with nature-very practical and indeed, a considerable act of service.

The philosophy expanded beyond agriculture to life in more general terms. Fukuoka-san was convinced that the demoralization of society had much to do with the separation of the human being from nature.

Sickness comes when people draw away from nature. The severity of the disease is directly proportional to the degree of separation”

There are echoes here of Freud’s observation when he said that

the consequence of civilization is our neuroses.

Fukouka-san felt that beyond agriculture, the effects of our disenchantment with the natural world were seen in a growing dependency on doctors and medicine that were only necessary when

‘people create a sickly environment’.

Formal schooling he said,

has no intrinsic value, but becomes necessary when humanity creates a condition in which one must become ‘educated’ to get along’.

His thinking was indeed revolutionary and yet, radically simple.

When Fukuoka –san talked about ‘doing nothing’ he was not commending a life of laziness in the western sense, but was really reflecting a cultural philosophy seeped in a Buddhist and Taoist understanding of the universe. He and his students worked long hard days but always within the limits of a natural life. He lived simply, ate simply, made few demands on the earth or his fellow man. The key to the practice of natural farming was to live humbly. His understanding rested in the Asian experience of the universe described by David Hinton as;

‘existence burgeoning forth, an ongoing generative present in which things appear and disappear in the process of change…clouds drift, wind rustles wildflowers and trees, day fades into night and night into day. Seasons come and go, one after the other. You die. Other people are born. On and on it goes…everything is moving all the time without pause, without beginning or end’

We can find many descriptions of the philosophy underpinning his work in writings such as the Tao Te Ching;

‘In the pursuit of learning one knows more every day. In the pursuit of the way one does less every day. One does less and less until one does nothing at all, and when one does nothing at all, there is nothing that is undone’

What is interesting in this case is that the philosophical insight followed on from activity in the world-it unfolded out of direct experience. Conceptually, ‘doing nothing’ is perhaps best understood through such principles as we find in the Buddhist eightfold which speaks of such things as ‘right effort’ and right livelihood’-really a pragmatic guide rather than a moralistic set of rules that describe a way of being present to the world in harmony; not resisting the nature of things to change, appear and disappear.

Practice is the path’ said the Zen Master Dogen. No doubt Fukuoka-san would agree. Perhaps this is another way of saying that actions speak louder than words but that actions themselves may be in harmony or antagonistic to the natural or ‘great way’ and therefore more or less useful from a universal perspective. Sometimes inaction is the best way.

The real goal of farming is not the growing of food but the cultivation and perfection of the human-being.

It is not hard to imagine the kindred spirit felt between the Akwasesne peoples of North America and Fukuoka-san in Japan. They share a deep and profound philosophy about the nature of human life on earth that places our relationship with all life and the practice of growing food at the very heart of the experience.

Turning to another first nation tribe, the Yurok Indians have the word mrwrsrgerh which means beauty. The word is a verb; to be beautiful in this context is to be unpolluted and pure or natural. It speaks also to the capacity to make medicine and be part of rituals. It was understood by elders of the tradition that ‘Creation’ was ‘everything’ but that it was impossible to name. The Yurok could not conceive of a personalised god so they used a variety of words to describe the Creation itself including nahwok, which translates as ‘you see how it is but there are no words to say it’. Though it could not be spoken it could be understood through the study of beauty. This seems to very closely mirror the experience of the universe as described in Taoism-when it is said that ‘the Tao that is talked about is not the real Tao.’

It is a powerful thing to the educated western mind to imagine what Creation might really mean to the Yurok peoples-what it might mean in the formation of a human being. Describing that relationship Harry Roberts said;

When a man made communion with Creation so that he could walk with beauty he stood forth on a mountain top and opened his hands and held his arms wide and looked full into the breaking dawn and let the Spirit of Creation flow into him. He didn’t even wear moccasins or a necklace lest some portion of him should be shielded from the light of creation…these were real men. I don’t mean big bruisers stomping around, but complete people. We say man, but some were women. These people became complete by studying very hard, training hard from their early life.

Here again we see that to ‘do nothing’ does not mean doing nothing but to act in accordance with natural principles, that are beyond naming. There is a symbiosis here. The Yurok human being feels to me like a marginal being, kindred to the copses and woodland that still remain around my home as outposts, edging the grassland where the slow cattle move and eat.

It’s funny how thoughts run into each other. Turning towards home after seeing the deer, I walked along the path beside another stream. Here where the land is more neglected you can see the tendency of the earth to stretch back and reclaim the pasture. A generation or two of neglect and things would look very different here. The hazel and alder, the brambles, the ivy, want to establish themselves, want to claim the earth back. Much effort is put into land a management here, much effort to keep it civilized.

As I walked down the hill towards home I recalled a radio interview I had listened to a few days ago with the Irish philosopher John Moriarty. In it he describes a time when he felt compelled to leave his post as a professor at a Canadian university to return to a more simple life in his native Connemara. He describes walking across a bog and coming across a hare, hidden among tussocks of grass. The startled hare ran for its life just as the deer had run this morning, but left an indent in the grass where it had been lying. Moriarty immediately lay down and rested his head where the hare had been and asked that the soft bowl of earth there might work to suck his western knowledge out of his head; that the warmth of the earth where the hare had been might act as a kind of poultice for his European mind, as aching full as it was with academic knowledge and intellectual facts. It’s a powerful thought. After becoming civilized, perhaps the only thing left for us is to become de-civilized again, to let nature run over us, guide us home. We need, said Moriarty, to be inhumed-a wonderful term-to dig our way back down into the soil. Perhaps he meant it literally -Moriarty himself returned to Connemara and exchanged his academic life for one as a gardener, writer and in my view something of a mystic-shaman. He meant it psychologically, spiritually and philosophically too-surely it is true that to be alive in our nature we must be alive in the nature into which we are born. To say we have lived a life, that we were here on the earth albeit briefly, mustn’t we reconnect with the soil of our inner lives, to meet the serious life we lead, the archetypal longings we feel, seriously?

Moriarty, in his finest writings, reminds us of what the psalmists knew; that we are indeed;

fearfully and wonderfully made.

He reminds us of what William James knew-

The further limits of our being plunge, it seems to me, into an altogether other dimension of existence from the sensible and the merely understandable.

 What Nietzsche knew

 I have discovered for myself that the old human and animal life, indeed the entire prehistory and past of all sentient being, works on, loves on, hates on, thinks on in me.

And Wordsworth knew

Not chaos, not

The darkest pit of lowest Erebus,

Nor aught of blinder vacancy scooped out

By help of dreams – can breed such fear and awe

As fall upon us often when we look

Into our Minds, into the Mind of Man

 I think had he been with me in the Birch wood, Moriarty might have encouraged me to keep digging into the soil that morning, to let my fingers, my hand, my arm and whole body be drawn down into the soil-to trust the poultice of the earth to heal my own European mind, to help me loosen up around my own incessant need to know. He would say, and I would agree, that we can learn a lot from the margins of our civilized lives, from the trees, plants and animals we find there in the quiet and overlooked places. I was grateful for the deer this morning, for reminding me, for what it had to tell me as it ran away.

Larry Korn, an American student who spent many years in the company of Masanobu Fukuoka recalls the day when he was given some helpful advice by the sensei-

‘There is no need to understand the world, he said, just enjoy it’

It’s a serious point, lightly put.

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The Grace of Darkness

I’m just back in from a lovely walk. It’s still early but winter is now closing in on us here. There is just the hint of a waxing half-moon behind low, scudding clouds-the whole sky has been bruised by a day of heavy rain and gales, the leaves are stripped from the trees and fill the tracks and gullies with their beautiful yellow-brown patterns-decay never looks better than it does in the mess of  fallen leaves . Out across the woodland as the light fails you can hear the strange urgent, rusty calls of the pheasants as they settle up in the trees for the night. It’s a lovely time, the half-light of dusk. There is a quietening after the urgent matters of the day that I feel in myself and that I sense reflected in the land around me.

This is a time of year that brings me closer than any other to the strange patterning of life and death that is woven into the landscape here so clearly. It feels wholly appropriate since it seems that this pattern is what I am being called to name at the moment in my writing.

Out on the land the apples have all fallen and the trees will become dormant for several months, their buds tight packed against the cold, the essence of waiting and patience. Much of the apple crop has become compost but we have enough cider, cider vinegar, and apple juice to mark the year as a good one.

The vegetable garden has changed so much. The dried beans are in jars and the rest is already earth. We have good stores of vegetables and as I look out in the dim light I can see the winter greens sitting solidly in neat rows beside the wheat and winter oats ready for whatever the weather can throw at them.

Elsewhere, the bees are running out of days and daylight to get in provision for the winter. They are working hard now, compromising a lot on their usual love for warmth and sun to get the stores filled. They can travel up to 2 kilometres to find the yellow pollen that is stacked up on their hind quarters. Though lazy and languid in the summer, they are more irritable now and need to be met with respect, care and attention. Theirs is a selfless society I suppose; many will die soon, preserving the queen and a central colony that will live out the winter on the honey they have made in readiness for the coming of spring and a new cycle of life.

Ritual and Pheasants

Each season here is marked by its own rituals that connect people with the natural world around us-the traffic between domesticity and wilderness. This is pheasant country. As game birds, it’s a tough time for them. Pheasant shooting begins here on November 1st and already I can tell that the numbers of birds has dwindled significantly in the two shoots we have already had nearby. In this part of the country, pheasant shooting is without doubt a ritual of the season but also an important part of the local economy. People travel hundreds of miles to shoot pheasants.

It’s not something I’ve ever done and I can’t say it sits easy with me as I favour neither guns nor killing beyond necessity. I see the pheasants up close in the garden and they are large, very beautiful birds. Nonetheless, things are never that simple. The local shoot supports,  among other things, the survival of the dwindling art of game keeping, now quite a rare occupation in this part of England and going the way of most traditional  skills like hedge laying, charcoal burning and basket weaving that have been central to life here for hundreds of years.

Our local gamekeeper is a young man following in a family tradition. We spoke recently, after I had been admiring some of the birds gathered near an ash tree on the walk I take most days. He told me that he works fifty weeks a year, for a meagre income. His margins are tight. His biggest trouble is with the buzzards-there are many here, beautiful to watch when they circle in groups high up on summers days- but, being predators,  they love to eat the young birds. It’s a tough life he assured me though with the grace of freedom and an intimacy with the landscape that, if not romantic, is something he loves. He told me that gamekeepers have the highest suicide rate in the UK. Perhaps it’s the pressure, the poor income or the loneliness of the work.

I see him often in the fields and he works hard. Like so much of my experience the pheasant shoot throws up near impossible tensions. I have wondered how to disentangle my love of life, the quiet of the land, and the beauty I see in the pheasants, from the dwindling of ritual, the idea of ‘sport’, the volleys of gunfire, the gamekeepers  future and the future of game keeping. These are such complex tensions; at best I try to hold them openly and honestly.

Quaker meeting

I went to a Quaker meeting last Sunday. There were perhaps a dozen or so people there. There is no service as such in the Quaker tradition. Silence is the foundation of the hour of worship but any person may stand up and speak if they feel called to ministry. I went because I needed some silence.

Recently, I heard Quaker meeting described rather beautifully as ‘the peaceable inquiry after truth.’  Truth can mean a lot of things of course and I like this path because it doesn’t lay claims on what the truth might be-hence its welcome of inquiry. The only guidance offered comes in a thin book of ‘advices and queries’; a series of short passages that offer guidance and consolation but not more than that. They sit rather like meditations, encouraging consideration and reflection. The advices finish with a short passage written by George Fox in 1656

Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come, that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.

What I hear Fox saying is twofold; first that it is my life rather than my words, beliefs or assumed authority that can most usefully speak to the world. I am wary of words like ‘preach’ but I think Fox is naming something quite specific here that is not about dogma and ritualism but something far deeper. Second Fox suggests that each of us bears within us something infinitely precious that can be met, spoken to, honoured and experienced. It’s an invitation, as I read it, to celebrate the ‘other ‘-it is an invitation to hospitality.

Jung described the religious attitude as ‘the careful consideration of superior powers’. I think that’s what is going on here-the art of consideration as it speaks to our work in the world.

I often sit with my eyes closed for the hour of silence that we hold together and enjoy the feeling both of solitude and shared community. I remember on Sunday however, sitting with eyes open watching the sycamore tree outside blow in the wind, listening to the bird call in the trees that surround the old red brick building, listening to the steady deep sound of the clock marking each passing second.

We were sitting together in the aftermath of the Paris bombings. I remember listening to the slow, solid ticking of the clock, wondering what event might cause the clock itself to stop. How painful, how terrible, must it be to stop time, to have time itself, or the tree itself or perhaps the birds stop their movement or their song and acknowledge what had passed.

The first person to stand up to speak was a woman. She shared with us, through tears, a few words from St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians

 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Events in Paris have shaken us all to the roots here and the scenes of death and devastation were the cause of my friend’s tears, and indeed of her ministry-perhaps we might say prayer. I had been sitting; thinking a lot about love and suffering and it was very moving to be reminded of this powerful and perhaps definitive passage on the subject of this most important of principles. I sat digesting the words, feeling them shape the vessel of love itself and another reflection from Jung came to mind;

You cannot change what you cannot accept.

I wonder in some ways if that is what Paul was getting at. Acceptance not as resignation; well that’s just how it is, but a radical acceptance that says yes-this too. For such an acceptance we must turn to love as the only power sufficient to it. Love and justice are conjoined forces, not opposites and are only separated at great price to everyone. As Martin Luther King said;

‘Power without love is reckless and abusive and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

In the face of such immense and terrible power, in the face of violence, force or the outraged cry for justice that exploded on the streets of Paris, my friends voice offered a gentle and powerful corrective, she sought in her own way to right the wrong done-everything returning again and again to harmony, justice balanced by a love that ‘rejoices’. Harmony maybe sounds weak in the face of this trouble but it’s not. In the Greek myths Harmonia was the child of Mars and Ares-the fruit of war and love.

It was both a strange and somehow comforting feeling, sitting with Paul’s words, listening to the clock marking out each moment faithfully and unfalteringly-maybe like love itself-giving me the feeling of  a river flowing onwards of which this whole thing must be a part though I cannot understand it. ‘Panta Rei,’ said Heraclitus, describing his philosophy in two words; everything flows.

Sorrowing

I have been thinking about someone whose friend died recently. When we talked about it the first words that came to me of course were ’I’m sorry’. That’s the first thing a lot of people say I suppose and I have wondered about it and frankly disliked it as a response- thinking it vacuous and timid, the kind of thing you say when you accidently tread on someone’s toes in a supermarket queue but too weak for death. It was what I thought until now. Today I have gained a new appreciation for the rightness of the word itself.  ‘Sorry’ is in fact a very precise and particular word.  I’m sorry, or I am in sorrow, comes from the Middle English word sorg; it means to grieve, or to suffer keenly. It turns out to be just the right kind of word for death.

To sorrow is really a verb, something active, something we do-it speaks to companionship-to be in grief with you who have not died but suffer in the face of death. Sorrow is mindful of the dead not as ‘lost’ but as fully present-to sorrow is to enter that landscape of keen loss that cannot make sense of a friend’s death or the family he has left behind but is simply with the immensity of it all. To sorrow is to meet the grief as a real task of a life-it says life is so much bigger than we are and this is an honest response to what cannot be measured.

It was Wendell Berry who asked us to consider what it means to live and die fully within the limits of human grief and joy. I think to be in sorrow together is part of our native response to that concern since it acknowledges so fully the very edges of the limits of our experience bound as they are by our grieving’s and our joys. This is our common land, our common acerage, our common heritage. I think the act of sorrowing can companion the dead too- I’d like to think so. In this way our grief and despair becomes part of the fabric of the canoe that bears the dead one onwards-homewards perhaps-the Odyssey continuing out of our sight but not out of mind.

 

It’s dark here now. I have heard that the first snow is on its way after weeks of mild days and rain. Winter is all about the play of darkness and light. We are a month away from the winter solstice here, the shortest day, the death of the old year and the birth of the new. On that day the light is diminished to its weakest point, the candle flickers, the weight and balance of the world is held for a time, it seems, precariously. The festival of winter solstice is still powerfully written into the land here. I live about half an hour from Stonehenge, perhaps the most well -known of the megalithic stone circles oriented towards sunrise on the shortest day. I’m not sure if there is a more powerful symbol of the eternal dance of life and death than is felt at midwinter. It is symbol made literal, felt and experienced and sensed. No beginning and no ending. I love this poem by George Mackay Brown, celebrating the winter solstice at Maeshowe, the ancient Viking Cairn oriented precisely to midwinters day on the Scottish Island of Orkney where he lived;

 

Circle of light and darkness, be our sign
We move in the shadows.
Brodgar has burned on the moor a dance of sun

Ring of quern and plough, contain
Our tumults of blood.
The stars’ chaos is caught in a strict rein.

Wheel of life and death, remove
The sweet warm breath.
Ingibiorg flowers in stone, all beauty and love.

Round of sun and snow and seed,
Out of those skulls
Breaks the first green shoot, the full ear, then the bread.

In the pilgrimage towards the solstice itself we must endure darker, shorter days. Endurance is part of the dark trial as, I think, is faith. There is a farmer’s faith that I know well, borne out of years of seasonal work. What appears dead is always intimately connected with what is alive; the apple tree sits, silently holding its vigil for spring. The blossoms will wait, I know, for the right moment-an uncorrupted and universal wisdom that speaks of some intelligence beyond my comprehension. The prunings and dead wood from the years growth will make kindling for a living fire. The blossom waits and its patience and faith will be rewarded we trust, by the warmth of days to come. I am always moved by the ways in which the trees here offer real guidance for my own life. Maybe that is what this season is about, what love is about-being patient and kind. There is I think a real grace in darkness.

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