The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.
Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made
is star-stuff too?
– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –
dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.
Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.
Thursday, 13 February 2020
As we, the dogs and I, walk up the lane past the old lightning-blasted oak, wave after wave of redwings swim out of the neighbouring ashes, chattering to each other.
Each time I witness this I think of that beautiful passage in Annie Dillard’s classic mystical and scientific Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a book I have read over and over since I first found it in the 1970s. ‘For a week last September migrating red-winged blackbirds were feeding heavily down by the creek at the back of the house. One day I went out to investigate the racket; I walked up to a tree, an Osage orange, and a hundred birds flew away. They simply materialised out of the tree. I saw a tree, then a whisk of color, then a tree again.I walked closer and another hundred blackbirds took flight. Not a branch, not a twig budged: the birds were apparently weightless as well as invisible. Or, it was as if the Osage orange had been freed from a spell in the form of red-winged blackbirds; they flew from the tree, caught my eye in the sky, and vanished. When I looked again at the tree the leaves had reassembled as if nothing had happened.’
I’m so fortunate: I live in a little hidden valley where we have plenty of woodland and scrub to support a diversity of wildlife. It’s the sort of lost valley in the deep twisting Devon lanes where compasses are scrambled and little conventional agriculture happens. Although we only have one immediate neighbour, all sorts of tiny off-grid low-impact steadings have sprung up in the locality: forest gardens, permaculture, someone growing mushrooms, others like ourselves growing enough veg for themselves only, and like ourselves planting broadleaf trees. We tend a small orchard as well, and pruning time of year is a ritual that makes me feel deeply connected to each tree.
All of us are organic and care about the land. The woodland near the brook is privately owned and not managed: the valley is home to a healthy deer population as well as foxes, hare, some badgers (those who haven’t been culled or gassed), any number of rodents, woodpeckers, owls, sparrowhawks, buzzards, jays. I can count six species of tit that come to the feeders. This time of year little egrets come up from their colonies on the Dart and perch in the big oak.
I walk out and notice the apical helispheres of the local ash trees, some twigs blown down in these gales, announcing the soon-advent of spring. Yes, some ashes are diseased; others aren’t.
I notice the new beauty of the alder trees with their almost-luminous greenygold catkins alongside their cones (top of page). If we can’t see these as signs of hope and renewal, a reminder of the eternal cycling of it all, we are lost.
In the garden, at last some purple sprouting broccoli is – well, sprouting. I’ve already had a couple of harvests of wild garlic, and made pesto with it; now that new young nettles are beginning it’s time for leek, potato, bean, wild garlic and nettle soup – a nourishing bloodcleanser that is full of nutritious minerals.
This is my refuge. I’ve known since I was a teenager that the way to restore personal equilibrium is to get out into the surrounding land. When I was a student locked into (as I saw it) an urban flatland university, I starved for the hills, woods, moors and coasts of my native Westcountry and the kind of freedom I’d had to wander on foot or bike or horseback (we weren’t a wealthy family but I’d used my Post Office Savings – all £25 of it – to buy a wild colt straight off Dartmoor, with whom I had many adventures, some of them downright dangerous), and later by kayak or surfboard alone in the relative wild.
Now, I take refuge in this land and its many shapes of consciousness to offset the terrible dumbness, grief and despair I feel, as many of you reading this undoubtedly do, too, at what is happening in our world. It’s a way of restoring some kind of belief, some kind of hope to keep on being an activist for positive change. If we give up believing we can make any changes, any difference, all is truly lost.
So now, all my work is directed to our relationship with soul and with the other-than-human, hoping that if we can find new ways of sustainable living as a result of relating differently and more profoundly to Other, remembering that they too have rights, as we do, they too are sentient and conscious beings, we can also find new ways of being truly human.
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