What we call the beginning is often the end and to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from-TS Elliot
Suppose for a moment that it was true; something I heard a First Nations elder say recently; that we should think of ourselves first and foremost as guests on this earth. At a time that seems more alive than usual to the possibility for reflection on matters of endings and beginnings, consideration of our relationship with the earth, as guest or otherwise, and with the living things of the earth including one another should be something we take seriously. In a time of Great Stopping, this is surely a rare moment for us to deeply re-evaluate, to think again on what it means to be a human being on earth with the very particular skills and gifts that we have.
Thinking on the words of the elder I turned to some thoughts on the subject of the destruction of the First Nations people in the 18th and 19th centuries in America written by the metaphysicist Frithjof Schuon. In his summary of their plight at the hands of the ‘white man’ he wrote,
‘This great drama, might be defined as the struggle, not only between a materialistic civilisation and another that was chivalrous and spiritual, but also between urban civilisation (with all its implications of artifice and servility) and the Kingdom of Nature considered as the majestic, pure, unlimited apparel of the Divine Spirit. And it is from this idea of the final victory of Nature (final because it is primordial) that the Indians drew their inexhaustible patience in the face of the misfortunes of their race; Nature, of which they feel themselves to be embodiments, and which is at the same time their sanctuary, will end up by conquering this artificial and sacrilegious world, for it is the garment, the breath, the very hand of the Great Spirit’
There is something prophetic in Schuon’s words of course. We sense it as the tension that would accelerate dramatically over the following century in the growing schism between materialistic civilisation and other more ‘chivalrous and spiritual’ ways of life, between an urban civilisation and the Kingdom of Nature, a conflict that has come to be a leitmotif of our own times. We gain from Schuon a deeper sense of the perspective that the Indians had; their inexhaustible patience in the face of misfortune based as it was on a relationship with nature that was intimate, holy and reciprocal and finally we see it in the clarity of foresight that recognises that Nature is in the end, as an expression of the Divine Spirit, greater and more powerful in every regard than our modern capacity for conquest and dominion.
In the Great Stopping I have read that the air in our cities has, in recent weeks, become cleaner-that the smog has lifted in Delhi to reveal the long hidden blue sky over the Taj Mahal, that birdsong can be heard again in London, that the water in the canals of Venice is running clear and clean. Around the world, in the strange abiding silence, in the absence of our ‘artificial and sacrilegious’ behaviours, it seems we can feel again, if we have the capacity and inclination, ‘the garment, the breath, the very hand of the Great Spirit around us.’
The earth, so the graphs and tables and images in the media tell us, does not miss our incessant activity, nor is she, I imagine, interested in the loss or continuation of our self-created obsession with growth and progress. To watch her systems at work, it feels reasonable to surmise that she wouldn’t understand what has possessed us so frantically for so long to be so discordant with her own rhythms and cycles. It reminds me of the words of Chief Mountain Lake in his conversation with Carl Jung when, observing the behaviour of the ‘white man’ he said;
‘…they are always seeking something. What are they seeking? The whites always want something. They are always uneasy and restless. We do not know what they want. We do not understand them. We think that they are all mad.”
I wonder, were the earth to speak, if she might draw a similar conclusion. It is to the Kingdom of Nature that final victory will always come wrote Schoun. This was the patient understanding of the First Nations people and we see today that it is true. Man it seems is not the measure of all things after all.
The Great Stopping presents us with the rarest imaginable opportunity to realise that our continuation as a species is not necessary for the earth to thrive, though we are dependent on her for our lives in every regard; this is surely an inescapable truth. The notion that our self-centred activity over recent decades and centuries has somehow ‘improved on nature’ per se is clearly an absurdity, the belief that we can bend natural systems to our will and rapaciously take from the living earth whatever we like without consequence for the purposes of profit can be seen today for what it is-a flawed, hubristic misjudgement of our proper place and role on the earth.
As a small scale organic farmer, working with the land every day as I do, I see quite clearly that our lives unfold within a system that is exquisitely and intricately balanced. Alan Brockman, a pioneer in the field of Biodynamic agriculture made the point once that every civilisation on earth has been dependent for its survival on the top few inches of soil that are hospitable to raising crops. Life and death are that marginal. As a farmer, my work, as I understand it is to care for the soil and to encourage an abundance of life to thrive within it so that the food we grow will be strong, resilient to pests and diseases and vibrant in its life force. The food we all eat every day, often with little or no regard, depends on this and without it, we will not be. Plants depend on good soil, a healthy earth, to grow, and they depend as well on clean air, fresh water and sunlight. The interrelationship between the basic elements of earth, air, water and fire make our lives possible and they exist in a balance that is dynamic, rhythmic and cyclical, a balance that is surely robust yet, in regard to unconscious human activity, greatly vulnerable.
It is said in the Tao Te Ching that ‘the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’. A more accurate rendering of that passage actually would be something like ‘the long journey begins beneath one’s feet,’’ thereby moving it away from a more modern insistence on subjective agency. The ancient rendering recognises the long distance as beginning beneath one’s feet in stillness or potentiality but without movement. It’s a good place to begin. Every quest must start with a well formed question arising out of silence. The Great Stopping is important because it has brought us to a standstill that would have been almost impossible to conceive of a few short months ago. And it has woken us up to our own vulnerability; it has been imposed on us all, something that in itself has manifestly shaken the very foundations of our worn out assumptions about holding ‘dominion over the earth’. Some will see this time as a curse and others will see it as a gift and that is inevitable. There is tragedy unfolding and there is also good, as there is death and life. In either case however, the fact that this is a profound moment, one of immense consequence, a time of kairos in the Greek understanding rather than chronos, is, I think, unquestionable.
When asked what he thought about western civilisation, Mahatma Ghandi famously responded by saying he thought it would be a good idea, and it seems to me that this gets to the heart of the matter at this point in time, a time I would add, that is also a matter of the heart. How might we, how could we, define our ideas of western civilisation for the future in ways that would be at once economically viable and environmentally sustainable? What would it look like to re-shape our ideas and assumptions about growth, progress and development in ways that were ‘right sized’, rather than persistently inflated and hubristic, that were just, equitable and fair, not only within and towards the human population in all its rich diversity but ecumenical with all of life?
As a farmer, I know the value of the balance of the elements of earth, air, water and fire to be essential for the food I grow and would see the long term health of these things, in farming terms; good soil, clean air, freshwater and sunlight as a fundamental measure for any kind of future worth having along with the health and resilience of the communities around me. It’s a good place to start by my reckoning since we all have to eat and be together.
Business as Usual?
I have read articles in the last week or so in both The Guardian and The Financial Times that explore the positive impact that Covid 19 is having on global pollution and the metrics by which we measure our continuing impact on the climate. Reduction in air travel and the use of cars and the slow-down in activity of global heavy industry have had measurable and clear positive impact on the environment in a matter of a few weeks as satellite images of city pollution graphically describe. The earth it seems is saying a big ‘yes’ to life without us and this cannot or should not be ignored.
Both articles raise the vexing question of how we will proceed together in the coming months and years in relation to what is generally referred to today as Business As Usual. I’m not sure there has ever been a more insidious and poisonous acronym than BAU nor do I think there is anything more disturbing and heart-breaking than the possibility or likelihood that we will blindly try to get back to BAU ‘when all this is over.’ BAU is an ugly term, wielded like a blunt instrument, predicated on the fallacious understanding that our collective way of doing business in the world is somehow unquestionably right, inevitable and necessary and that our brutal actions towards one another and the earth are somehow justified if undertaken in the name of economics, market conditions, competition, progress, growth and so on. Today BAU has a question mark placed firmly after it which makes the whole thing more intriguing.
BAU? What does that mean now? It’s a good question.
As we look ahead and consider how we want to live together, how we want to define our understanding of, say, the word ‘economy’ for future generations (literally from the Greek oikos-nomos, meaning ‘management of the household’), we must surely sense the responsibility we hold at a personal, local and collective level to re-evaluate what BAU means for us in ways that might allow us to continue with the global human project within realistic constraints and limitations. If Covid 19 has the air of fate about it, then failures to address this fundamental and causal question will I suspect prove in the end to be fatal for us all. It seems it has fallen to our generation, to the citizens of these strange days to face this fact.
What does it look like to be a citizen of these days? The Great Stopping is asking many things of us both personally and collectively. We are discovering in many ‘developed’ western countries what it means to be citizens of what the author Stephen Jenkinson calls ‘flabby democracies’ which is not great news. ‘The good times look good on us’ he says, but in tough times, it’s seems it’s a different picture. In ‘peace time’ democratic cultures we are not used to unexpected adversity anymore and we have become distanced from and frightened of death in ways that make these days look hard on us. We have difficulty with any notion of limitation. We have been sleepwalking. It will be demanding to face up to the questions that are in front of us now with the degree of maturity, clarity, wisdom and consideration being demanded of us. We need to wake up and grow up fast and maybe too fast. In The Native Indian language a ‘minisino’ was a ‘tried and proven’ person, ‘at all times clean, courteous and master of himself’. It’s a rare thing today to see all three of these things in one person which is a real concern that weights against a good outcome to this story.
Nonetheless here’s something to consider.
Pollution is a powerful metric, a quantifiable, verifiable indicator of our decade’s long, centuries long insatiable pursuit of industrial growth and economic success and it is, as we all know, consequential. Should it be our goal to rush back to what we had, to what we were all into before the pandemic? Should it be a goal, an implicit but necessary bi-product at least of our stated goals for ‘recovery’-to pollute our cities once more, to live our days in smog again, to pollute the waters, deafen the ears, rush about the globe in planes on ‘urgent business’ continue to hold the acquisition of yet more stuff we don’t need in such high regard again, to abuse and plunder the earth still further in pursuit of the now clearly absurd myth of even greater ‘progress’? Wasn’t Ghandi right when he said that there was more to life than increasing its speed? Might there be a different way?
BAU? What does that mean? What will that mean?
In this time of Great Stopping we might well wonder-and it is good that we do-what the rightful role of the human being on earth both could and should be in the future. What would it look like to be ‘right sized’ on earth? How might words such as reciprocity, humility, dignity, gratitude, kindness, justice, and wonder for example, help to poultice and heal our hubristic, tired, anxious and overwrought souls? I wonder if it is out of these kinds of words alongside a radical act of Imagination- which is surely one of the greatest of human attributes- that a redefinition of the meanings of things such as economy, society and civilisation might slowly emerge as a genuinely valuable consequence of our troubled times. I wonder if we have looked death close enough in the eye in recent days to wake up to our lives and to what it means to be alive on this singular planet. I hope so.
The Irish philosopher John Moriarty once reflected that he thought it a sin ‘to see anything as smaller than it is.’ To see a forest only as so many cubic metres of timber, to see an animal only as so many kilos of meat-is to sin against it he said, and I think he was right in that appraisal. The First Nations Chief Wabasha spoke in a similar way when he described sin as ‘trespass against the laws of the Great Spirit’. He said that sin brings its own punishment because sin is its own punishment. In this we see the burden of sin as the inevitable suffering-mental, emotional, spiritual and physical, of living lives out of balance, the natural consequence of straying from the principles that would support us in living a good life on earth. Giving one example of what a good life-a life in balance- might look like Chief Washaba said;
When you arise in the morning, give thanks for the morning light. Give thanks for your life and strength. Give thanks for your food and give thanks for the joy of living. And if perchance you see no reason for giving thanks, rest assured the fault is in yourself’.
These words, expressing an essential gratitude for and responsibility to life, did not come from a weak man or a fool, rather they formed the solid basis of an attitude to life that began every morning at dawn and travelled with the Chief and his people throughout each day as a fundamental orientation to every event and activity that they encountered from birth until the singing of their sacred death songs. Washaba was a great leader of a great people living in an unforgiving and resplendent world, who understood well the reciprocal nature of human life on earth and who lived life both materially and spiritually with great dignity and a proper sense of responsibility. I would without hesitation invite him, were he alive, to a council that had to do with our collective future. There is no flabby democracy here. I don’t think we see his kind too often amongst modern leaders these days and that is to our obvious detriment.
‘I never led an expedition against the Indians, said Buffalo Bill, but I was ashamed of myself, ashamed of my government and ashamed of my flag; for they were always in the right and we were always in the wrong’
This was the honest appraisal of a dying man of the great cost of the Indian wars and his recognition that the ‘victorious conquest’ of Indian land, was in fact, in the end a tragic failure of vision. Much can be taken I believe that is of value for our times from that man’s ability to reflect well and honestly on the relative merits of certain actions and attitudes of mind, especially those that appeared to be god given and unquestionable. The Indian wars represented the destruction of way of life by a particular ideology that still grips us today at great cost. Sometimes a change of heart is not only important but essential. It will be to our great shame if we fail to recognise the fact.
‘There are no un-sacred places,’ wrote Wendell Berry; ‘only sacred places and desecrated places.’ In this time of Great Stopping we would do well to think on these words as we consider how we want to move forwards with our human project in an uncertain world. Are we done yet with the wholesale desecration of earth, are we able to see the world as other cultures have in times past and as we once did-as a place essentially sacred in nature and worthy of our deepest respect and care?
Perhaps in this time of endings and beginnings it could be helpful to imagine ourselves, at least for a moment to be guests on this earth. Why not? If it were the case, I wonder how it could shift our understanding of how we might think and behave here. How might it help us to reconsider our attitude to the living things we share the earth with who quite plainly don’t need us for their lives to continue well?
Before we take the ‘single step’ of which the Taoists speak we will have to recognise that much struggle lies ahead of us beyond the very obvious, complex socio-economic and political fall-out of the pandemic we are currently gripped by. We will have much work to do together if we are to militate against the worst ecological and environmental consequences that are the fruit of so many decades of thoughtless action in regard to the earth and any talk of BAU must account for this as we seek to find our feet again somewhere down the road. We were, say the First Nations people, put here, not simply to take like greedy children but to pray, to live a disciplined life, to sacrifice, to be kindly, to have courage, to celebrate, to be unafraid to live or die, to be free in thought and action within nature’s limits and to achieve a graceful adulthood, as was once taught; in the Body Way, the Knowledge Way, The Spirit Way and the Tribal Way. This sounds like the basis for a wise, sincere and abiding economy to me and a good place to begin a conversation.