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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A fall of poems in early autumn

Words

i

By the stream in the mountains

There we found words

To nullify the hurt we’d done with words,

Bridging the space they made between us

Inching our way back by slow steps of instinct and reason

There are words hewn out from the origins of stones

Broken on the valley floor,

Ages old the gods still listen for

Consolation, lamentation, lacrimae

ii

Between an abyss and the blue sky

Fine as lightning, a crack opens up

Where the man of thoughts

Always hesitates, the dreamer always moves

We see only what we can admit

In the eternal discourse of Man and Myth

Here I scratch old words out of hard stone

With broken fingernails while another stands

Beside me and puts a feather in his hair

A simple act can bridge the worlds

Where eyes burning black

Distinguish darkness

From the deeper dark

iii

Below us the stream is not dumb

Speaking only the language of eternity

It is we who do not understand unless

Deep in the memory, something stirs

A solitary harebell is wide eyed,

Breathing in the world on the flood tide

Words were forged here out of fire

Long after imagination found dark caves

To ship the dead across the sea

And back again, returning endlessly

Reincarnation is only what the world offers us

Year by year by way of explanation

Making love between snow and snow

iv

Still the words with every utterance seem to

Separate us always by a hairsbreadth

From the ones we truly know

The things we really want to say like

Currents flow between us

As between coastlines where

Salt water floods the eyes

We pick out truth from lies

Words clothe the world

But always shroud the instinct

And still we work our passage home

The only way back, the only way in

As Adam named the beasts so they became,

It’s the naming makes things real-

A gift for angels

What the angels want?

A handful of hazel nuts

Or the feeling of wet berries after rain that stain

Inky fingers, a nettles sting

All more potent than a prayer, these being precious things

A messenger calls, a dream unfolds

And we return with all

We have contrived to be of worth

Simple gifts, clay, corn, earth and

A brief song forged in work

Between our deaths we come to make

Our own annunciation

Black Sun  For Paul Celan

i

 Black sun rise, black water,

Dawns cold light

I knew Celan had died

By his own hand

Before I’d read a word

Of Margarete or Sulamith

ii

Oh Poor Celan,

Scrape music from your violin,

Play up!

Even as death walks in and all about you laugh

We are too late for the gods

And too soon for being

Verfremdung;

iii

Such strangeness,

How the artist holds us

His face haunted

Hard against the fire

Of our small anxieties,

Traversing worlds, he dances

Sees all things mythically;

iv

Outside Eden men will always fight

Out among the third day mountains

Tight between Picasso

And the Tomb of Holbein’s Christ-

Christ if he were right

And we are all forsaken?

To make us aware of our destitution

Is that what the artist does?

Fintan

i

Fintan Mac Bochra,

Sits alone in his chair

Where the paint chipped door remains

Forever unlatched

To welcome those who find him there

A stranger in their dreams

ii

A slow, low embered fire

Lives in ash in the hearth

Where a small flame tongues

Words in ancient Gaelic, borne

Out of the double mystery

That comes with the incantation

Of fire and burning roots

The mystery of root

The mystery of fire

Entwined forever

Travelling way down…..

iii

Motionless in the smoky downdraught

He asks those that enter for a feather

They do not possess

But never the matter

The body is warmed,

The psyche hovers peregrine

The man was a salmon once

When his wife and children died

Became an eagle

And a white hawk too

Changing the way light will

In a blowy autumn wood

iv

Beyond the stream on the lake that was a mist

A swan glides into the form of a girl

With auburn hair curling to her hips

She has eyes that will turn a man to stone

He cannot name her,

Banbha, Fodhla, Eire.

No incantation would save him from her kiss

You have made me cold with neglect She said

Leaving him stone dead, departing with a hiss

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A Gift of Plums and Other Things

Way and weighing

Stile and saying

On a single walk are found.

Go bear without halt

Question and default

On your single pathway bound.        Martin Heidegger

Since moving here some three years ago, I have come to know the local countryside well and there is a particular walk that is especially important to me. There are detours I take sometimes, but the basic pattern is the same and the small tracks and fields are very familiar to me now.

As I look back through my notes, I notice how the walk has been such a steady and true companion over the years, how it has at times comforted me through great difficulty, given me space to think, to reflect, to take on things and let go of things, how it has lifted me up in moments of grace, gifted me real insights and despite its familiarity, frequently surprised me. It was Rilke who advised that we should each have a favourite tree to company us through dark times and this walk has been that tree like companion for me over the years.

A few days ago whilst wandering the familiar pathway I discovered a lone cherry plum tree hidden away in a hedgerow mainly of hazel and field maple. The wild plum tree had naturalised in the hedge from a pip that had fallen there somehow many years previously. The fruits of the wild cherry plum are smaller than commercial varieties, larger than the blackthorn sloes that were ripening nearby but with a similar velvety blue, black colouring-though they can appear sometimes as yellow. The discovery of the tree, laden as it was with its cargo of ripe fruit was both a surprise and gift-the fruit is delicious and it was all the better for being wild.

Picking the fruit reminded me of another discovery-this time of a quite unusual Mirabelle plum tree- which we came across beside an old and little used track several weeks previously at the edge of the Wiltshire downs. We had hoped to break our walk with lunch at a pub only to find that the pub had closed down-something that seems to have been the fate of several pubs in the local area in recent times as habits and ideas of community have shifted and changed. The Mirabelle had shed the majority of its fruit all over the track-a galaxy of small, bright yellow suns that were the best plums I have ever eaten and were our free and unexpected lunch. The Mirabelle is rare in England; I had never come across one before that day. A few are grown commercially in Essex and Suffolk  but their true home in Europe is France, the Mirabelle de Lorraine accounts for most of the commercial Mirabelle plums in the world and they are harvested primarily for jam and Eau-de-Vie.

We discovered the Mirabelle as we were making our way back towards the village of Codford St Peter which had been our start point for the day. The Parish Church is the home of a remarkable Saxon stone which we had gone to visit. The carved stone was discovered in the chancel of the church in 1864 and now resides in the sanctuary there. It is thought to date back at least to the 9th century and quite possibly much earlier. The carving is in Bath stone, the piece is slender and around 2 or 3 feet in height and shows what appears to be a dancing man looking up at the sky. In his left hand he is holding a rattle and in his right, a branch of alder. The images on the edges of the stone are less easy to distinguish but there is a small Saxon cross, a pair of eels, an otter and a pair of fish to the east whilst willows, honeysuckle buds and comfrey leaves decorate the western face.

It is a wonderful, almost mythic stone and it evokes a relationship with the surrounding landscape that is of such intimacy and vigour that it made me think more about the ideas of gift, celebration, feast, season and blessing. There are no comparable stones in England to offer us guidance about the meaning of the work. It does seem surely that he is performing some kind of dance; we might imagine a ritual or ceremony closely linked to fertility and harvest. Dance, song and celebration were key means by which the year and its tasks were marked in ancient times. William Anderson in his book, The Green Man writes;

‘Actions ritually performed become memorable, the ritual sets a pattern in the memory for the timing and due sequence of tasks and actions….they impressed essential knowledge of the phases of the moon, of gauging when to plough, when to sow, when to cut the hay, when to scythe the corn and how long to let it stand in stooks and when to kill the cattle before the winter set in’

The dancer dances the relationship between earth, land and people. It is part propitiation, part celebration and part practical action, feeding the communal memory, marking the key points of the yearly cycle. There is a sense of celebration in the dance, in the uplifted face. Perhaps we can recall the May Day celebrations-the exuberance of Beltaine as it was once known; the May Queen and the May Lord dancing about the hawthorn amidst uproarious dancing or the wassail, common still in Somerset.

Wassail, being a derivation of the Saxon word Haile, meaning health-may have been a celebration that our dancer would have been familiar with. Wassailing the apple orchard was an act of thanks, of blessing and reinvigoration, thanking the earth for the cider to come, thanking the tree in expectation of a healthy harvest. Three gunshots over the apple tree served to wake the orchard to the labour of another year. It was of course a time of feast and celebration too;

Wassail and wassail all over the town

The cup it is white and the ale it is brown

The cup it is made of the good ashen tree

And so is the malt of the best barley

 

Our Saxon holds a drum, lending the scene an almost shamanic quality and the alder is not in hand by chance. Alongside the willow, the alder is the tree of the waterways and rivers both of which like blood, give life to the land, so we might imagine an honouring here of the River Wylye itself that runs its course  close to the village. Indeed the willow and alder were considered King and Queen of the waterways; the alder was held in considerable esteem by ancient peoples because it appears to bleed when cut, its sap quickly turning red when exposed to the air. This quality meant the alder was considered sacred, a tree that represented both the generosity of the gods and the health of the land.

I like to imagine that we see gathered here in the multitude of symbols surrounding the man a cosmology of reciprocity. Reciprocity is about balance and the harmony of relationships, about reflexive action and correspondence. Harmony is assured through acts of renewal that recognise the principle of fair exchange. The dance is an act then, not merely born out of an age of ignorance and superstition, but rather a physics of renewal and sustainability in time and space, and it is an act of humility. The seasons and cycles are set more or less in their mighty ways  but there is always surprise in store in weather, in the favour of the spirits and the gods and the balance must be kept where it can through respectful and sometimes raucous intervention. We cannot expect fair weather and a good harvest without first preparing the way for it through the rituals we make and keep. A society without rituals is poorer for the loss. The act of the dance is so important here that craftsmen memorialised it in stone; an act of commemoration that bridges centuries of time and aeons of thought.

It is simply too easy to write off the dancer as a superstitious image borne out of pre-scientific magical thinking. There can be no feast without gods so there is a cultic element to the stone that speaks of an animate world, an enchanted place. Feasting and festival are divine acts always; they have a transcendent quality that speaks to us of the possibility of transformation. In a world marked out mostly for acts of survival the dancer points beyond the mundane world to something else. Such actions, imbued with meaning-the work of affective presence, are the hallmark of a society and a culture that is still in touch with the hidden, the very essence of reality.

The community must have been very familiar with the vagaries and uncertainties of rural life. Hunger would have been familiar, alongside sickness and death.  Hard work marked the days in the labours of ploughing, sowing, reaping and storing and the management of livestock. The community would have been skilled in managing every aspect of the farming year that was in their power to control. What we imagine here is a wider interpretation of what power is, where its sources are, what we see is the non-ordinary expression of a radical acceptance of the conditions of living, of the harmony and unity apparent in the world between man and a land still only partially tamed.

In the dancer we see how the community recognised the hidden or unseen aspect of the work, the spirit of the land and the relationship between land and community that must be kept healthy through acts of renewal, through voice and dance. In this way the absolute servitude of labour-work characterised by its usefulness for something else- is offset by the dancing which is an action that is simply meaningful in itself. As such it is a contemplative action as well as sacred, holy and divine- allowing the dancer and the community to be in relationship with the core of all things, ‘the hidden, ultimate reason of the living universe’.

We are always called to contend with the tension between what we know, what we can account for, what we can achieve with our own hands and our own knowledge, and the eternally mysterious aspect of life. Our Saxon points to a different kind of relationship to these tensions than is familiar to us today, and we might too easily dismiss it as foolish. Nonetheless, any time spent immersed in the countryside will make us think again about the mystery in which we find ourselves. We encounter the small mysteries as surprise in a hedgerow- and receive the gift of plums for which we give thanks-it is a simple enough kind of gift or grace. We meet mystery in the glimpse of a fox or a deer whose eyes startle us still in the deeper recesses of our ancient brains, or the sudden  eruption of birds that were stone still as we approached but lost their nerve at the last moment. In wild places we feel the way a stream moves in eternity;

We never have pure space in front of us,

Not for a single day, such as flowers open

Endlessly into…

 

So lamented Rilke; in the natural world we are still called to reconcile our different ways of knowing the world and we feel the distance that intellect alone cannot bridge. It is in the dancing that we come closer to the flowers’ experience,  through the rituals we create that embed us in the land, bless its many forms, mark time and space with movement and voices;

Rustically solemn or in rustic laughter

Lifting heavy feet in clumsy shoes

Earth feet, loam feet, lifted in country mirth

 

The favour granted by the spirit of the land for a good harvest is a thing bestowed, not calculated. The good will of the spirits cannot be guaranteed but it can be propitiated and blessed. We forget in times of abundance the very tight margins that allow our lives to be led in comfort.

I want to imagine our dancing Saxon as a man fully alive, inhabiting the world between the poles of feast and famine, life and death, the explicit and the hidden. dancing in ecstasy, beside himself even-as one touched by the gift of enthusiasm-the being filled by the gods, marking the season, sealing the memory of the community, propitiating and celebrating the New Year and the possibility of fertility, bridging the land, the community, the mystery in word and movement and a carefree abandon.

We cannot say when or in which moments the world will offer itself up to us more fully. The gift is always, must always, be a surprise, be it a harvest of plums, a field of mushrooms, the flash of a fox or a landscape that quivers out of the mundane for a moment into some extraordinariness that leaves us awed. We can walk out, we can pray for insight, we can and should give thanks for the wonder of the natural world but we should remember with good faith and humility that no matter how smart we are the gift is always withheld until it is given.

Still, I think we can walk with the possibility of such gifts in the way we live out our days in nature and know that our lives, that our souls will be the better for being touched by the small moments of sweetness that the natural world can give us. That we take ourselves out into the world in good faith, matters, since it makes the wonderful and the marvellous possible. That we carry with us on the single pathway bound a questioning and enquiring mind, matters too. That we mark seasons, transitions, the vegetative year with song, ale and dance matters, that we carry the drum and the alder, the world of otter, eel, fish and honeysuckle-carry them inside us, matters, not as mere sentiment, but as a holy task.

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Lessons From Hare

I love this land. The season here is turning. I love the way that the mist clings to the hills on the far side of the valley, there is a faint wind from the west and to me the trees, though still green, seem somehow relieved that the intensity of the summer is coming to an end. I am the same, the low cloud and gentle drizzle suits my mood.  It is the end of August. In modern times we still think of August in England as the summer, but our forebears, the Celts marked August as the first month of Autumn which feels more accurate when I am out wandering  or working  on the land and when I am in the weather. Everywhere the fruits of summer’s efforts are ripening. This year the valley-alongside the usual cattle pasture- is full of wheat-it gives the landscape a beautiful golden hue. The first blackberries are ready, rosehips too and with a closer look the still green leaves on the oak trees and in the hedgerows are showing the first signs of decay.

Chlorophyll is a word derived from the Greek; chloros and phyylon, meaning ‘green leaf’. It’s a quirk of nature and science that the leaf itself cannot absorb light from the green part of the electromagnetic spectrum, preferring blue and red, hence the reason that it is, or appears to us at least, as green.The leaf performs the alchemical labour of conversion;  sunlight into new growth and life and its brief greenness hides temporarily at least, the imperfections, markings and bruising’s, the yellow, brown blotches of the true leaf, that are always there, though lost to sight briefly in the exuberance of our spring and summer months. There is something revelatory about autumn, even-maybe especially, in its first utterings. Not that, but this, she says, neti, neti; not that, not that. Reminders of the Upanishads, the world forever changing.

This morning I took my familiar walk down the hill and then back up the combe, following the stream to its source below Creech Hill. The land that borders the stream has been divided into several fields, wide strips of pasture and meadow divided by pollarded hedgerows of mature hazel, beech and oak. The footpath meanders out of Spargrove and really peters out these days at the combe’s head but it is still joined- field by field for half a mile or so, by a series of stiles. There is a particular stile that I like to sit on for a while most days and this morning as I sat there I was greeted by a hare.

The hare is a wonderful animal and truly a wild-as well as mythical- creature. The hare is very shy-except in springtime-the mad march hare. In the real world it can run up to 35 mph. In the mythic world, the Irish consider the hare to be sidh-one of the fairy folk. This particular hare didn’t see me sitting still on the stile so today I was really gifted some considerable time in its company and in the feeling for the world it inhabits. Noting its physicality first- this adult hare is a strikingly big animal, about the size of a small dog. Its ears were long, oversized, and stuck up like a pair of brown, black feathers, always moving, always sensing the environment. Its markings were quite beautiful; thick, coarse fur that had in it every imaginable quality of brown, and patches of black about the legs and face. It moved gracefully enough, a kind of lolloping gait, nonchalant not knowing I was there, stopping, sensing, nibbling the grass, moving on, both deeply relaxed and exceptionally alert all at once.

What came to me as I watched the hare was the Celtic word ‘neart’. Neart really describes the ancient Celtic understanding of the creative life force that is understood to pervade the universe, to be found in all things. Neart as a cosmological principle recognises ours as an animate universe, one that is alive in every sense and form, constantly changing and shifting but forever present.

The Celts had a particular love of trees and woodland and these were places where neart could be closely felt and directly experienced.  In writing about the spirit of the American Redwoods, Stanley Coblentz wrote;

‘I think that could the weary world but know

Communion with these spirits breathing peace

Strangely a veil would lift, a light would glow

And the dark tumult of our lives would cease’

Trees reside within the flow of neart-they are vivid expressions of it, and I read in Coblentz’ words the elucidation of the relationship between neart and trees and the power of trees to heal; to speak to the dark tumult in our own lives. Trees, and more generally, nature as healer and guide would be typical in the Celtic understanding of the world and I love very much the image of the tree as a spirit breathing peace.

The Celtic Christians respected and embraced the concept of neart and re-homed it in their own understanding, speaking of the immanence or nearness of God in all things. In the Vita Tripartia, St Patrick said;

Our God is the God of all things, the God of sky and earth, the God of sea and stream, the God of sun and moon, the God of the great high mountains and the deep glens, the God above heaven, in heaven and under heaven.’

As the Irish monk and writer Sean O Duinn puts it;

‘Advancement in holiness, according to the Celtic way, involves an effort to develop an awareness of the presence of God in everything and everybody, above us, below us and all around us at the four points of the compass.’

The Celtic tradition share’s much in common with many indigenous traditions. Here we see O Duinn’s reference to the four directions and the invocation of a whole world of cyclical or seasonal thinking. The Celtic language, with its cyclical rhythm  is participative and inclusive and encompasses paradox; this and that not either/or, for them God is here and there.  It is, for me, a language which gives me place, an axis mundi from which to make sense and meaning of the world.

The Celtic people were called muintir na tuithe: People of the land. The land and its creatures were teachers as well as providers, protectors as well as food- forming and informing the world through constant movement  and flow. The hare as teacher?

Here in the valley I can hear the simple words of the Irish mythological text, Cath Maige Tuired

Spring for ploughing and sowing, and the beginning of summer for maturing the strength of the grain and the beginning of autumn for the full ripeness of the grain and for reaping it. Winter for consuming it.

These are the words of a culture, whose ears, over large like feathers, sense the landscape, the weather, the signs for what will give and renew life, honouring the cycles of life and death and the proper place for both.

The hare’s presence is what connected me to the principle of neart. I watched the way in which its ears constantly moved, absorbed in the world around it, every sense alert in every moment, absolutely awake to every sound and smell, noting the familiar, seeking out or perhaps better put-absolutely receptive to-the unfamiliar. Receptivity seems keen when life itself depends on it.

There was a quality in the animal that made it both distinct but at the same time indistinct-It was indeed hare-in the world and yet, it was so profoundly connected and immersed in the world around it that it seemed in another way-not separate or at least ephemeral. It was both hare-in-form- and yet also it was the unexpected expression of an eternal principle-it was like witnessing a single thread of an immense, inter-connected web, pulsing with brown black, hare-shaped life. In this space, the animate quality of the trees, the wind, the bird, the call of a buzzard, the cows moving like slow clouds in the distance-became at once apparent to me. Where does the hare end and the rest of the world begin?

When I finally moved, the hare showed its other neart quality-its capacity to shape shift. Neart, is the creative force of life; on- out, back and forth, forming, re-forming, melting and freezing.

We listen here in this place and what comes are echoes of the soul. Once a hare, now in a moment, a clump of grass, a bushel of wheat, an old rock-absolutely still, no longer itself and yet entirely itself but with dark black eyes that see everything. The hare is a fine exemplar of the universal principle of change.

I am reminded of the Welsh poet, RS Thomas’ Taliesin, which expresses the deep Celtic understanding of neart so beautifully;

 King, beggar and fool, I have been all by turns,

Knowing the body’s sweetness, the mind’s treason;

Taliesin still, I show you a new world, risen,

Stubborn with beauty, out of the heart’s need.

 Sitting on the stile, watching the hare, I saw the old world well today, ‘stubborn with beauty’. Perhaps we see such beauty in the times of greatest flux, the space between the seasons, the uncertain times. Here it is no longer summer. The days are shortening, the nights are cooler, the leaves are tinged, the corn full and waiting, old John Barleycorn. Yet it is not entirely Autumn-the leaf fall is still to come, not yet the rituals of smouldering fires and burnings, Samhain is still far off.

We are feeling the shifting of the season only gently but its certainty and the rhythm it evokes gives me a sense of calm and assurance. The green leaves of summer are only a brief mask, a brief monotony in the shape shifting of the leaf through the seasons, from bud unfurling, through the green months and then showing themselves in their ‘true colours, their blotched and decaying maturity, before the fall and return to earth. I look at my hands and see the slow decay there, the season gently shifting-inevitable. I welcome it.

The hare hunkered low as I walked very slowly past it and away along the track. Its huge feather ears were pinned back against its head, its unmoving eyes, watched me intensely, it was stone made animate. At some moment, it deemed me far enough away and ran for it, fast and low; it set off bounding for the hedgerow and having made it, stopped and considered me. I waved my thanks –the breeze made a slow sound like sidh in the trees and the hare was gone.

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The Woodland Garden

The Woodland Garden

I was talking with my brother on a recent car trip and the conversation got around to work. He asked me to try and describe clearly what it is that I do with leaders and leadership teams. We have talked about my work in vague terms many times before but he seemed to think the whole thing a bit of a mystery and wanted some better explanation. It was an interesting invitation-it’s something I find difficult to talk about- and I was quiet for quite a while-because it doesn’t lend itself easily to discursive thinking. As ever, once I got started, I found it really hard to get to what it was exactly that I do with those groups and individuals and it all sounded clumsy. Words came forward like listening, exploration, coaching, enquiry, emergence, but they sounded light weight and they lacked the purpose and meaning I feel when I’m ‘in the work’. I felt troubled and vague.

When he asked me what he would look up in the yellow pages to find me, I laughed out loud. I gave up. ‘I have no idea’. I replied.

The conversation turned to other things and eventually after a time, moved onto the woodland garden that my brother has created in the last couple of years at his home. I asked him to tell me more about it.

The woodland garden had originally been a vegetable garden, surrounded by grass. In the first few years after moving to the house, the veg grew well and the lawn was in pretty good condition. Over the years however, as the environment changed, the productivity of the land fell away year on year and the grass started to get mossy and fell into poor condition. The main reason behind the change was due to the growth of a line of trees in a neighbouring farmer’s field that now threw the area in to shade for much of the day.

We spoke about the moment when it was clear that something needed to happen or could happen-that movement from redundancy to opportunity. In the end it boiled down to a couple of choices; either get the farmer to cut down his trees or adapt the land to the new context. The former option was not viable as this was a new plantation and thus attention turned to the question of adaptation.

It took a while for the potential to become clear but in the end the clue was in the small number of trees that already occupied parts of the land-that were growing well despite the changing conditions. During the winter, the direction became apparent to my brother- it was clear; he could re-invent the space as a woodland garden and bring it to life in a different way.

Over the course of the winter he and his son took long walks in the surrounding woods and  collected fallen tree limbs and branches and began to create a pathway through the land, one that snaked and weaved with the contours of the land, creating a pattern that became clearer with time, that took shape, felt solid, felt ‘right.’ With the arrival of spring, the path was complete and at some point he brought in some woodchip to define the pathways clearly-using that specific material because it felt sympathetic to the principles of the developing project. Slowly over several months, he found specific trees that seemed right-that had the right ‘feel’ for the space and the planting began. As we were speaking in the car that afternoon, things were well advanced, the woodland garden was established where the vegetables had been and it was looking really beautiful.

We talked for a while about the relationship between planning and listening, the way the design first made itself known to him, how it occupied a space in his mind that was at once clear and yet emergent, liable and vulnerable to change and adaptation as the eye sought and found possibility in the space. It was, I suggested, a living project defined in the space between the land itself, its inherent limitations and possibilities and his  capacity to think laterally and to hold uncertainty in a creative and playful way. It was not something he had considered but he agreed with it. It was a project that wanted to happen and that had its own life force.

We were quiet again for some time after he told the story. I was struck by the joy with which he shared the story; the experience itself was a pleasure-something that I have reflected on since in relationship to questions of purpose and meaning. However, something else fundamentally important happened as I listened. A sense of clarity came to me. After a while I laughed and said,

‘What you just described- that’s what I do in my work with leaders and leadership teams- that was a perfect description.’

‘People talk to me when the vegetable garden has stopped producing vegetables and when the grass has got covered in moss. Conditions have changed. So we sit together and we wait to see what else we could do with the space- what else wants to happen. The analogy is a good one.’

‘Old things must die off in their time and space needs to be made for whatever wants to come forward-the work is to sit very quietly- just like you did and hear what wants to happen-to notice the conditions-then follow what wants to emerge- into existence-in your case a forest garden is what wanted to happen-now its thriving.’ That’s what I do, I said.

We both laughed-it was one of those aha! moments and one i shall not forget. We both understood each other a little bit more that day-we both got what i do as though for the first time. We share a lot in common-for which I am always grateful.

‘One thing though,’ I said, ‘I still have no idea what heading you would give it in the yellow pages!’

‘Three words come to mind’, replied my brother; ‘deep, creative, potential’.

I like that.

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Wholeness and Reciprocity: Lessons in Life and Leadership from Bainbridge Island

Authentic leaders in every setting aim at liberating the heart, their own and others, so that its powers can liberate the world Parker Palmer

Last month I was staying on Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound. I was there to begin a journey that will span the year, joining 30 other souls from around the world on the Academy for Leaders Programme run by the Centre for Courage and Renewal. Before the retreat began I paid a visit to the grave of Chief Sealth, later known as Chief Seattle whose name was given to the city I could see across the water. Looking across the sound from the little graveyard, my imagination felt the span of time and the relationship between two very different worlds. The words that boundary his grave are taken from a speech that he gave in 1854 and they came to me as an invitation to think about what it really means to be a leader, they  spoke deeply to what I had come to explore on the island;

Every part of this soil is sacred in the estimation of my people. Every hillside, every valley, every plain and grove, has been hallowed by some sad or happy event in days long vanished. Even the rocks, which seem to be dumb and dead as they swelter in the sun along the silent shore, thrill with memories of stirring events connected with the lives of my people, and the very dust upon which you now stand responds more lovingly to their footsteps than yours, because it is rich with the blood of our ancestors, and our bare feet are conscious of the sympathetic touch.

Walking later along the silent shore of the sound, I began to think about the kind of leadership that Chief Seattle described in these words. What does it mean to walk with a barefoot consciousness, a barefoot heart and a barefoot mind on the earth? Seattle’s cosmology was living, animate and interdependent. It was a world in which human feet walked as relations amongst the ensouled stones and the dust.  What must it have been like to live and breathe, to sense and feel from this ‘hallowed’ place, to live so respectfully?

For Seattle, every grove and plain was hallowed. To hallow means to set apart as holy, to be intimately and sensually whole. Seattle describes a world where everything is holy thus illuminating a paradox that sets apart each holy thing in a universe in which all is holy, wholes are part of larger wholes.  The depth and quality of a life lived in such reciprocity with the natural world, with such a sense of responsibility and freedom must have been extraordinary.

It seems a tall order for the western mind, the western consciousness to be able to take off its shoes and feel the aliveness of the world again. Yet, it seems to me that the work of leadership today is intimately bound with our capacity to recover and re-imagine the principles of which Chief Seattle spoke.  We must learn to call this capacity for wholeness forward again into our lives and our work, from the earth, from the ancestors from within ourselves.

A Spiritual Crisis

Our understanding of leadership today is intimately connected with big questions about the future of the earth itself. There are so many crises that require good leadership. When I reflect on the root of the crises that we face today it seems that the source of the trouble is not material but spiritual. Chief Seattle’s primary orientation saw the world as holy first, as whole and interdependent and as such, fundamentally spiritual in nature. We sense in the Chief’s words a balance between spirit and matter. This understanding of the nature of reality has been largely lost, certainly as a determinant of good leadership and this must be a profound concern.

In a wonderful essay from Pendle Hill titled Integrity, Ecology and Community, the Quaker writer Jennie Ratcliffe puts it this way;

At the heart of this crisis is a profound-yet false-belief in separation, a way of viewing the world that creates distances, dualities, polarities, oppositions, enemies, shadows and demons

I liken the Chief’s way of seeing with Thomas Merton’s understanding of Tao. He said;

…The way is still ours, but we do not know it since the effect of life in society is to complicate and confuse our existence, making us forget what we really are by causing us to become obsessed with what we are not.

William Stafford in his final poem ‘The way it is’, spoke about the relationship that each of us has with the threads of our lives. Whilst we hold the thread he re-assures us- we can’t get lost. Suffering and death will come our way of course, but they will unfold within a greater reality. The thread speaks to us of relationship with the vastness of reality; it speaks to a sense of place. The thread and our place in the world offer up a central metaphor for our relational lives and this has implications for our sense of leadership. That we have lost our collective thread seems clear.

Integrity and wholeness

Standing at the grave of the old Chief, another word really stood out for me as a summary of the man and his relationship to the world; integrity. The word integrity, in its deepest sense, points to a state of wholeness, to the unity and sacredness of life, the oneness of all that is, to a relationship with the world that is, as Martin Buber suggested,  I-thou rather than I-It.

Integrity as a principle makes certain assumptions about the world, specifically the primacy of the principle of unity. Unity contains multiplicity. Put this way, Integrity is another paradox, a condition that contains both the principles of unity and differentiation, that acknowledges our individual experience but also the thread of connection that binds us and all things, that lies hidden from our ego position and yet is a truth known intimately to the soul.

The Quality of Reciprocity

Reciprocity lies at the heart of integrity and wholeness and it was, as I imagine it, a principle that underpinned Chief Seattle’s world view, his profound understanding of the inter-relatedness of all life. In her essay, Jennie Ratcliffe identifies four qualities or aspects of reciprocity that provide us with touchstones for reflection on our own experience and practice as leaders.

The first aspect she suggests is that every part of the universe is connected, inter-dependent and co-creative-as she puts it so beautifully, it is our nature to be connected with nature. This insight is shared by every wisdom tradition in the world and it is very specifically at the core of Chief Seattle’s cosmology.

The second aspect is that the nature of reciprocity is Love.

I remember once watching an interview with Seamus Heaney. He spoke about how he rarely used the world love in his work. He described it as a ‘big ‘word.  I think Love, named in this context is the sense in which Heaney understood it. Love is a big word, big enough in fact to take on our biggest contradictions and hold them all fiercely. It takes real courage to understand and embrace the implications of this kind of love as a guiding principle in our lives.

Love in this reading of it is indeed a fierce condition.  Beyond our understanding of love as a feeling, love in its deepest sense is a state of mind, an attitude, that gets beyond the conditional love which only separates, bargains, demands of others and is capable of hate. Ratcliffe calls love the Great Attractor, it is not something we have but rather, something we live.

Love in the universal meaning is a state of being in relation, response and responsibility. Love is not opposed to hate or to what we call evil; it is that universal force that liberates from the dualistic cycle of love and hate, good and evil.

From this perspective, love is what allows us to carry and own our light and our shadow, to bring them forward as partners in the world, transforming not denying hate, giving us the courage to embrace otherness and others, and transform ourselves in genuine service to our deepest callings whatever they may be. We are asked to attend to what love requires of us and in this was we re-imagine the role of our ego in the deeper process of discernment.

The third aspect of reciprocity is like creates like. Put simply, violence begets violence. We understand from this perspective that the ends and the means are the same. We will never arrive at the truth by deceptive means and the end will reflect the means we use. There is a lawfulness here that surely contains a kind of ethics and morality but again it has a universal quality to it and demands much of us as we seek to understand its principle in our lives and our work.

Finally reciprocity imposes limits. We can experience this principle easily in the natural world. We see this in a forest for example, the way a tree grows in relationship to its surroundings co-responding to the environment with intelligence that reflects balance, sufficiency and proportionality. As with the tree, as with all living, complex systems including human systems;

In human societies, individual freedom of action and competition must co-exist with responsiveness and responsibility if there is to be overall cooperation and stability rather than conflict and instability. Reciprocity imposes limits that are essential if harmony, balance and the integrity of the whole are to be maintained

In these four principles I get a sense of the four cardinal points of a reciprocal life as I imagine it might have been lived by Chief Seattle. It was a tragic fact that the settlers who took the chief’s land had apparently lost or foregone that sense of reciprocity, what the Quaker John Woolman described as ‘the motion of love’.

 

 

Concluding thoughts

Chief Seattle spoke his words as a great darkness fell on his people and on the world but even then he was present to the turning tide of humanity, demonstrating a profound understanding of the cycles of life that have brought us to the place we find ourselves today, nearly two centuries on.

Acknowledging the end of the trail for his own people he said;

Tribe follows tribe, and nation follows nation, like the waves of the sea. It is the order of nature, and regret is useless. Your time of decay may be distant, but it will surely come, for even the White Man whose God walked and talked with him as friend to friend, cannot be exempt from the common destiny. We may be brothers after all. We will see.

Sad to say, our time of decay is no longer distant. Our time has come. Perhaps our fates will indeed make us brothers again for brothers we are, our destinies intertwined today in ways that no one could predict those many years ago.

Standing at the graveside of Chief Seattle one thing was very clear to me. The new leadership that I hear being called for so much today is not new;  what’s new are the circumstances in which we are called to lead; these are certainly unprecedented times.

Chief Seattle spoke his words as a leader 160 years ago and they describe a cosmology of leadership that is both universal and timeless as great wisdom always is. The lessons we can draw from his life and words are absolutely alive today though we have lost our connection with them for many generations. Nonetheless, it seems that wholeness as a core aspect of organisational life and leadership is beginning to take root again in our own times of extraordinary change. We are being called to recognise that unity is a greater force than utility. We are beginning to understand that to thrive as human beings we need to live and work in environments that bring us to life, that speak to our imaginative forces, our passion and our power to live in the state we call love.

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