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.
Wednesday, 29 February 2012
Monday, 27 February 2012
A week ago or a bit more I picked up a paintbrush for just about the first time in three years. Was very disappointed with the results; but looking at it today, unless it's flu speaking, I see it's not that bad! It's a start, anyway...
Sunday, 26 February 2012
February in England is so often a sunny soft month, contrary to our expectations and beliefs. I remember many occasions when my daughter and myself would eat outside our cottage high up on the Bere peninsula, overlooking the river, on a sunny February day. As I think this I remember, to my shock, how so often I was ill and wrapped up in the weak sunshine. February seems to be an annual lowpoint, at least for me; the year's equivalent of the nadir of diurnal biorhythms; and once again I'm at a very low ebb physically. Stress and continual exhaustion take their toll, and flu has wiped me out.
I recognise that I have a problem with living within my own personal limits, energetically speaking. I'm not good at being sensible with my own internal resources – I'm too enthusiastic for too many things – which is another way of saying I'm greedy with life and don't recognise when I've hit the end of my rope. I put out a lot of energy, but don't take the time to let my well refill itself.
I have been thinking a great deal, as I have for many years now, of what living within our limits means. I'm speaking ecologically, not personally, now. We have exhausted this planet, and we're at a tipping point. It's as if we believe we have divine right to take what we want, from where we want, simply by virtue of being human, 'top of the tree', as we mistakenly, in my view, see it. The planet may or may not survive; ecosystems simply won't, humans included, if we don't change things. I know this is a view that many people find hard to swallow; some of the changes are unpalatable. But I believe we urgently need to address this – the issue is too desperate to be dressed-down (or do I mean dressed up?). If we don't reduce our consumption, it will be drastically reduced for us. We worry about the economy: without an ecology there is no economy.
We need – and I am saying nothing new – urgently to revision our relationship to the planet and the needs of her other inhabitants. We need to understand, really understand, what it means to live genuinely ecocentrically rather than anthropocentrically – to live as if every other species which shares this planet with us has the same inherent rights as us within their own different sphere. We need to perceive and relate horizontally, for a change, instead of heirarchically. We need to stop seeing other beings and other parts of the planet as 'resources', and instead as integral and crucial parts of a healthy functioning ecosystem. Think it doesn't matter that we are losing species at the rate of – what, three a day? It does. Everything has a place in the web of being, even if we can't see it.
Globally, I have a reasonably low impact – it matters hugely to me to walk lightly, and I'm continually looking to shave my footprint. The way of living to which I'm drawn is extremely simply, in tune with natural rhythms, in a wild place, with very few 'conveniences': I'd be genuinely happy in a small wooden cabin in a clearing in woodland or perched on a wild coast, with a solar panel, candles and a woodburner, big enough simply to house my books (OK it's true I'd need a small study/studio), with no or few gadgets or 'white goods' (a solar powered computer would be essential, though), no debts (I don't have any money but I also don't use a credit card or have loans or mortgages), and minimal overheads, so that one is not hooked in to working forever simply to pay for 'stuff'. It'd be good if there were others living out an eco-vision nearish – communities, sharing vision, work, ideas and bartering skills, sharing harvests, co-operating with each other as well as the natural world. 'You can call me a dreamer...'
Last night I watched again Martin Crawford's DVD 'A Forest Garden Year'. Building on the work of Robert Hart, Crawford, who lives close by, promotes a permaculture lifestyle based on agroforestry, where the natural conditions of a woodland garden are followed to provide a genuinely sustainable method of food production based on perennial crops that work in synergy with each other. (Crawford is also developing any number of fruit and nut species that yield well in the British climate; the increase in which is one advantage of global warming.)
There are many benefits, to both us and the planet, of this system: for a start, the input for upkeep on the part of the human is much less demanding than a high-production veg bed, once the system is up and running; although the yield is less. For the planet, there are many positives: by using a diversity of plants one can accommodate and mimic a natural and healthy ecosystem where shade-loving and sun-loving plants can work together, where heights are 'matched', where bees and hoverflies and butterflies and other wildlife are an integral part of the scheme, and where trees can contribute moisture and act as a carbon-soaks.
What's more one can use a very small space effectively for us, wildlife and the planet: Hart's pioneering approach worked in just one eighth of an acre – a very small garden. This seems to me to be a wise way to go; and if the deep green views are correct, it may be that our survival as a species might depend on small groups of people buying up land for the forest garden method of local production, with its returns to the eco-sphere as well as to the human.
Thursday, 23 February 2012
Some of you might remember, if you were of the right age and of that inclination in the 70s, several books written by Carlos Casteneda of his time with the Yaqui shaman Don Juan. The first, The Teachings of Don Juan, and the succeeding books shaped my own vision.
Built on similar foundations but much simpler and with an altogether shorter scope, but nonetheless insightful, is the book by Toltec medicine man Don Miguel Ruiz: The Four Agreements (Amber-Allen Publishing).
There was a time in my life when, living alone, one of my biggest joys was sitting by the kitchen window early in the day with a first cup of tea, watching dawn come back to light up the river, and the garden slowly fill with birds. Gradually, as my cup emptied and I filled myself with riverlight and birdsong, I'd turn to my journal and also some book of sacred texts or spiritual writings, or poetry – so much more warming a way to wake up than with, say, the news.
This morning, with TM off to work early, instead of rushing to meditate, shower, then walk the dog straightaway, I sat with a cup of tea watching the birds in the courtyard, and then picked up Ruiz's book.
Ruiz has four proposals; he says they're Toltec, but in content and range I'd say they are also in effect a distillation of psychospiritual perennial wisdom teachings from all times and cultures. If we live according to these four, he says, we can transform our lives. Need a shot of transformation? See what you can do with these.
Be impeccable with your word
Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.
Don't take anything personally
Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won't be the victim of needless suffering.
Don't make assumptions
Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.
Always do your best
Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you're healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgement, self-abuse, and regret.*
*I'd qualify this one by saying that our problem in the West, (or maybe it's a British problem), is not that we don't do our best, but that we believe that our best isn't enough, or good enough. We may need to challenge that deeply-ingrained belief.
Wednesday, 22 February 2012
In the valley the pair of egret seems to be a fixture, often comically mirroring each other in a pose on the bare oak tree. Daily, duos or trios of geese fly over, and a heron will lift off from the little pool as I pass. The last few mornings and evenings the air has a scent of spring, and freshness, about it, and the first dog violets are out here.
Yesterday I was distressed to see an hour-old lamb being rejected by one after another of the ewes in its cold and wet field. It's undoubtedly my concern about the wellbeing of everything that puts a strain on my heart, physically and emotionally; old habits die hard, and for various family reasons I learned how to be an over-responsible eldest sister very young.
Also there's the Bodhisattva vow, to do with caring for all sentient beings/saving all sentient beings from harm or suffering. I do take this seriously and with great commitment; but how much is enough, or even too much? And there is also the Buddhist view on non-attachment to everything, including outcomes, so somewhere there's a balance here: to do what one can (ah yes, but where are the reasonable limits??), and then let go.
There's a lesson in all this for me. I find it very hard to know the range, extent and commitment that's appropriate in each situation, and how to separate that from a pathological fear-driven need to fix stuff, and a sense of indispensability. It's about trust, really, in the end; but it's also about going the extra mile. Because my health has suffered badly as a result of the stress of the last few years I now have to challenge this pattern, and work out what's healthy connected concern and what is a step too far. Was it John of the Cross who said, reputedly, 'Hooray! Another obstacle!'? I smile in recognition at that. Anyway, I rang the farmer, who said he'd come up.
Last week there was a small dunnock – hedge sparrow – hopping around alone, mostly in hiding, clearly not well. I came back from somewhere one day and the whole sturdy upright birdtable had been slammed into, hard, to the extent that the house-structure on top had been demolished. Where pole and ex-house lay in the broad bean bed was a burst of little brown and grey breast feathers. I can only imagine that the local sparrowhawk visited, and maybe took that dunnock – but the impact of that smash! They travel at such speed (a peregrine can top 100mph) – I wrote here last year about a sparrowhawk cutting the air from the ridge of the roof above me, where I sat invisible to it below, at such speed it sounded like a sheet tearing an inch from my ear, or a fast motorbike on the track. My sister says that there are a huge number of hawk (or do I mean falcon, counter-intuitively?) fatalities from impacts of various kinds.
On an altogether lighter note, the wild garlic here is now through. Jubilation! I used some, with a little wild sorrel (I love foraging), in buckwheat pancakes using my daughter's ex-batt hens' eggs, stuffed with our leeks, home grown garlic bulb and mushrooms in a creamy (vegan) sauce. Delicious! And here's another recipe for you: take a can of, or some cooked, kidney beans and mix with equal quantities of nuts (any of hazel, cashew, brazil). Add lemon juice, soy sauce, tomato puree or sundried tomato paste, pepper and a handful of wild garlic if available (or regular garlic, spring onions/chives). Blend. Makes a great paté/dip for carrots, celery etc.
And while I'm at it: nothing like deciding to lose some weight to prompt my Inner (and usually very well hidden) Biscuit Maker. The rationale, of course, was to send some to work with TM. But although I'm an inventive savoury cook, I'm a bit rubbish at sweet things – mostly because I hate following recipes, and I think you need to for cakes and biscuits (that's my excuse for the rock-hard biscuits and floppy cakes...), and because we don't each much sweet stuff. But you know how you come across those biscuits from time to time that are soft and chewy, but with a little crunch, too? Ha! Smugness here. I made this one up:
- Pre-heat oven to 160 degrees (can't find the symbol); just under for a fan oven
- Melt together 100gms of either unrefined dark brown sugar or honey with 150gms of butter/or margarine/or sunflower oil
- Stir in a heaped teaspoon of powered ginger (or chunked crystallised ginger, buit maybe reduce sugar content above) and the grated peel of a lemon (I'd use organic, to avoid wax/pesticides). You could instead add chunks of chocolate, berries, or orange and cardamom, or lavender flowers, or...???
- Add 250gms total (or more if mix is too 'loose') of polenta grain, coconut, oats and flour (I used spelt) in roughly equal proportions. Stir well and throw in
- a small handful of chopped nuts. Make sure it more or less holds together.
- Plop spoonsful on greased baking tray, mould gently with fingers and flatten.
- Bake until just going golden and still soft!
For me, back to the assignments (by the fire, on the sofa...). Have eaten all the biscuits – with a little help from TM.
Monday, 20 February 2012
Sunday, 19 February 2012
Buddhism is a path of profound simplicity. It doesn't require religious belief; it's a psychological practice that can be tested via our own experience.
I guess one could summarise it as being about waking up. The heart of Buddhist practice is to do with weeding out whatever it is that gets in the way of the flow of love, understanding and wisdom, of our alignment with essential nature.
The Buddha spoke of our suffering as being largely to do with the 'three poisons', or obstacles that get in the way of our living in an enlightened way: greed, or attachment/craving (whether to people, situations or, for instance, our own opinions, likes, preferences, or getting our own way); hate, or aversion (to people, situations, aspects of life that don't suit us); and delusion – an unwillingness or inability to see true nature, essential reality, exactly as it is, to truly see into the heart of things.
This makes good psychological sense; startlingly insightful and revolutionary in many ways, especially given that it is as relevant now as it was when the Buddha, Siddhartha, was alive nearly two and a half millennia ago.
In a culture that cannot, on the whole, see beyond the individual ego and its needs, the practice of this examining of what sits between us and waking up usually means heading in the opposite direction from societal norms and materialistic values; like the salmon, swimming upstream.
In the past, a monastic cloistered environment was seen as strongly preferable for doing the work of enlightenment. However, out in the world, engaged with the world, every minute can bring us a prompt to challenge the lazy, fearful, greedy, delusional self-protective ways of the ego.
And the Buddha emphasised that this waking up should not be simply for our own benefit, but for every being's.
I liked this summary of the Buddha's teachings, adapted from againstthestream.org:
The Buddha said his path to awakening was one of rebellion – a subversive path that challenges greed, challenges hatred, and challenges delusion. It is a path of radical, engaged transformation, a path of finding freedom and spending the rest of our lives giving it away.
Friday, 17 February 2012
This is the first time I've smelled spring in the air. I'm quiet, dog at my feet, just watching night steal the land, listening. In the distance, a curlew. There's gooseyip from the channel in the middle of the tidal creek, owlcall from a tree to my left, and now a flock of lapwing circling, circling, with their plangent peewitsongs. If you listen long enough to birds you start to be able to identify them from their wingbeat, with your eyes closed. Lapwing, winter visitors here, with their wide blunt wings, have a kind of two-time ragged beat, like the heart's pulse and echo: a fast DEEduh DEEduh DEEduh. Like rooks and jackdaws, they like to do a small flypast before roosting at night.
I've seen two lots of frogspawn now. Let's hope they survive the freeze due.
Speaking of things amphibian: Ecological Ethics, Patrick Curry's book that I'm currently reading, is prefaced by this beautiful poem by Joseph Bruchac:
The old man
must have stopped our car
two dozen times to climb out
and gather into his hands
the small toads blinded
by our light and leaping,
live drops of rain.
The rain was falling,
a mist about his white hair
and I kept saying
you can’t save them all,
accept it, get back in
we’ve got places to go.
But, leathery hands full
of wet brown life,
knee deep in the summer
he just smiled and said
they have places to go, too.
Eco-issues: the last time I lay in the road over a nuclear issue was at Hinkley Point in the 1980s (though I've been in protests since). My daughter was young, and was getting used to being dragged around to places like the Peace Camp at Greenham Common, and Hinkley Point, instead of going on holiday, like other kids (we did go to festivals, though). Looks like I might need to do it again, as this Government is about to refurbish and boot up the nuclear activity there. That time, Paddy Ashdown, MP, sailed in in style from South Wales to join us. Maybe I should invite him again. There again, maybe he'll join us anyway...
Our work, psychospirituality suggests, is in integration of our fragmented parts, and of inner and outer. I think a lot about these words by Anais Nin (thank you Karen). How simply they sum up the whole of Jungian psychology, and the obstacles to enlightenment spoken of in Buddhist thought: 'We don't see the world as it is, we see it as we are.'
And on a similar theme, I have caught myself caught up, as it were, in the second arrow of the 'two arrows' teaching, a theme favoured by my Zen teacher, Ken Jones. The first arrow is what happens to us. 'Shit happens'. The second arrow, as I've mentioned before, is entirely down to us – it's not an inevitability. This is how we react to the first arrow, and therefore multiply the pain – or not. Someone said: You can expend energy on working out who launched the arrow, what tribe they came from, what their motivation was, what wood the arrow was made from, what tree grew the wood, what tool shaped it. Meantime the wound festers. Or you can pull it out.
Mhmmm. I've practically got growth rings around that particular wound from a month's hard begrudging.
Today I came across these words from the wonderful Jon Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness teacher, and I suddenly saw what I was doing: 'If you distinguish between pain and suffering, change is possible.'
Again and again these teachings! Can't do much about the pain. The suffering though is in my own hands...
Thursday, 16 February 2012
Wednesday, 15 February 2012
'It is the stick with which the greens are beaten daily: if we spend money on protecting the environment, the poor will starve, or freeze to death, or will go without shoes and education. Most of those making this argument do so disingenuously: they support the conservative or libertarian politics that keep the poor in their place and ensure that the 1% harvest the lion’s share of the world’s resources...'
Tuesday, 14 February 2012
from All the Missing Names of Love; Roselle Angwin, IDP April 2012
Saturday, 11 February 2012
Dog and I go up to the field now to dig a couple of leeks in the deep dusk; our approach sets a clatter of woodpigeons from the trees. Above me Jupiter and Venus are blazing; and is that Mercury over in the east? In the little orchard, the silhouettes of apple trees show swelling nodes; secret buddings going on. I've forgotten so many things this winter: to wake the apple trees with a Wassail on the 17th January; to plant garlic before that, on the winter solstice; to order onion sets; to continue with my druidic studies. I haven't forgotten the sound of my mum's voice, nor the softness of her hands, nor the way her face would light up at my arrival.
In the dimpsy the trees rustle. Above, high high up, a plane's contrail stitches the stars together.
Friday, 10 February 2012
I love train journeys, especially starting early in the morning; and I love that I can get on a train in dozy alternative Totnes and arrive in gritty-city Glasgow, say, or Edinburgh by teatime; or Cardiff for lunch. I love too that meditative rhythm, and the gazing/dreaming/reading as one is in a kind of time-suspension bubble, and work is on hold (for me, usually) in this cocoon of the travelling present moment.
Yesterday I was only going to Exeter. Just as driving the moor's high upland between here and my dad, or my daughter, means that I journey on one of the most beautiful roads on Britain, so catching the train from Totnes to Exeter is one of the UK's most amazing journeys, as from Newton Abbot onwards the rails run by the estuary of the Teign, then the open sea at Teignmouth and Dawlish, then back inland alongside the Exe estuary. (Not infrequently the trains are brought to an abrupt halt by a particularly high tide with, presumably, water getting into the engine's secret places, like the points.)
Yesterday morning was high tide, and amongst little cocktail-stick clusters of silver-tipped ochre reeds huddled wild duck floated. (Later, coming back, low tide: the patterns of channels and mudflats and clumps of ochre/silver-green/peatbrown wetlands topped with swaying rushes so made me want to reach for my paintbrushes – idle for two or three years, due to family stuff and overwork in the admin department.) The Teign was silver in that haunting atmospheric way that some marshy pools in the French countryside can be at dawn – do you know what I mean? (Anyone seen the film of that wonderful coming-of-age book by Alain Fournier: Le Grand Meaulnes? I think in English the film was called The Lost Domain – can't track it down on DVD anywhere; would love to know if anyone has info.) And then suddenly you're out by the blue and gold high water lapping the red sandstone cliffs of Teignmouth and Dawlish with their dramatic stacks and your senses are so full you can't think.
As the sea morphs into the Exe there are any number of swans on the flooded meadows, and Canada geese, duck, egrets, divers and some little birds I can't identify – dunlin? sanderling? – at the saltwater's edge. On the inland side of the track Powderham Castle grounds host a few hundred fallow deer lazing on frosty grass in shafts of light beneath sessile, pedunculate and the evergreen holm oaks. The willows near the water are starting to blaze red at the tips, and the silver birch (oddly punctuated by pampas grass escapees) are turning magenta – signs of approaching spring.
This is such a treat. So I'm smiling when I arrive in Exeter; and am thinking again that, erratic and low-level income notwithstanding, there's little I'd rather be doing right now than what I am. Having made such a journey to come to Exeter, I'm to be paid for doing something I love: being audience and co-facilitator for an intro and q&a session either side of a really great gig. I'm doing some work for the Prince's Trust and its PoetryQuest project which in the southwest, is currently, via myself and fellow poet Anthony Wilson, taking poetry workshops into small rural primary schools. Partway through the workshops Anthony and I are providing is this performance put on by Apples & Snakes as part of their SPIN project for the pupils as inspiration for their own forthcoming performance.
The line-up is three extremely funny performance poets: Jon Hegley, whose dry humour I've enjoyed for many years; the eccentric and wonderful Ashley Harrold, whom I met when he attended an Arvon course I was tutoring (and who then booked me for a reading in Reading); and the engaging Joe Coelho.
The children loved it all. My cheeks ached. How is it that Jon could make us laugh so much with a poem that consisted entirely of the word 'me' repeated maybe 30 times in different voices and with accompanying facial contortions? And then, on the heels of that, again with a different poem, consisting of the word 'tea', nearly ditto? And then again, in his poem about a sick octopus on the heels of the last two, when we all expected a particular rhyme to be 'tea' (having been well-primed), wrongfooting us by saying in a deadpan voice: 'No, seawater. You've just had some tea. Haven't you? You've just had some tea.' OK, you'd have to have been there.
I'm not a performance poet. I work better on the page, so to speak. And I can barely write a funny poem to save my – whatever; or, at least, maybe once a year I manage. If I have to.
But I learnt a lot about the art yesterday: that humour depends
- on setting up expectations and then thwarting or subverting them;
- on juxtaposing two apparently contradictory or mutually exclusive ideas;
- on the presence, maybe, of other ingredients below the humour (quite a lot of these had a slightly sad or poignant undercurrent that hooked our emotions even as we were laughing);
- on timing;
- on delivery (voice, body, face);
- like a pantomime, on some degree of audience participation;
- and on that most essential ingredient, a childlike simplicity and appreciation of the absurd.
I also realised that, as in so many other things, just how much depends, like the spark needed to ignite the process in a combustion engine, on the gaps....
Wednesday, 8 February 2012
Monday, 6 February 2012
Maybe twenty years ago a friend and I worked separately but together through Stephen Levine's book A Year to Live. The core of this book is living as if you knew you had only one year to live.
In my New Year 'Thresholds' workshops I ask a key question: 'What would you change if you had only one year to live?' Its corollary of course is 'What's stopping you – what's really stopping you – making those changes now?' The answer, of course, usually involves fear, one way or another.
A couple of days ago The Guardian ran a piece on the findings of Bronnie Ware, a palliative care nurse, who's recently written a book based on the five most common regrets of terminally ill people as they lie dying.
(TM drew my attention to it. 'Strange!' he said. 'Why don't they mention not getting enough sex??' No comment.)
The Top Five Regrets of the Dying states that these top five are (and note that all are within our own power to change, with the possible exception of the working one – although we have more choice there, at least in terms of what we consider to be essential to our lives in terms of expenditure, than we are comfortable with admitting):
For it is life
The very best of life.
In its brief course lie all
The realities and truths of existence,
The joy of growth, the splendour of action,
The glory of power.
For yesterday is but a memory.
And tomorrow is only a vision.
But today well lived
Makes every yesterday a memory of happiness
And every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well, therefore to this day.
Sunday, 5 February 2012
just a slight thickening
of the molecules that
make up water
is almost more wave
Saturday, 4 February 2012
Henry Beston (from The Outermost House: a year of life on the great beach of Cape Cod)
From an early age I was lucky enough as to be brought up with animals, both as family companions and as wild species whom I was taught to recognise, respect and learn about, and from. Our house was always filled with animals, whether chosen pets or wild animals in various states of injury and healing (both I and another sister had wounded animals brought to us from when we were quite young).
It's inconceivable to me to live one's whole life without developing relationship with one or more animals. There's a dislocation, a dissociation, happens in a society where humans form an isolated stratum in the eco-system, disconnected in any real way from our near-neighbours. For a child, time spent looking after an animal is a natural and important way of learning compassion and empathy.
More, it seems to me that the measure of an enlightened culture is not just its treatment of other humans, but its treatment too of the animals from whom and with whom we've evolved. We have grown up as a species alongside (other) animals; and some, like dogs and horses, have been close companions to humans for thousands of years.
At an ancient and profound level our souls resonate with the animal kingdom, and we can learn much about our own species and this planet by learning from them and their (and our with-them) interrelationships. Spending time with the animal kingdom opens doorways we may have forgotten, and can restore a kind of meaning as we are reminded of our interconnectedness with them, and the whole great web of life. It's through the animal kingdom too that we can start to reclaim our healthy instinctual nature.
In shamanic cultures animals are recognised as spirit-guides, representing not only themselves but archetypal aspects of our human psyches too; they may well perform the role of soul-restoration.
Animals in vision and dream can be teachers. In shamanic practice, 'meeting' in the Otherworld of dream or vision a particular animal or type of animal three times is seen as significant, and the dreamer does well to find out all he or she can about the characteristics of that animal in order to see more deeply into his or her own psyche, and its messages and needs.
Animals can be healers: there's much documented testimony to the power of pets to alleviate symptoms in humans, whether psychological or physical (though of course that's a false dichotomy; my guess is that being around animals is restorative to the soul which in turn boosts the immune system). For myself, time out walking with the dog, time alongside horses, time watching the birds feeding in the courtyard is profoundly healing and uplifting; sometimes subtly, sometimes more obviously.
Today, with my poetry group here, over and over in my writing and the gaps between I returned to watching the birds, with their different characteristics: the woodpeckers flitting in – the youngster who hangs on the feeder motionless for ten minutes, digesting the nuts and preventing anyone else from arriving; the nuthatch with its insistent upside-down fierce pecking; noting the bluetits queuing up to sip drops of water from the forest of ice-spears on the quarry-face that walls one side of the courtyard, their comic acrobatics, their speed, their little tricolour faces and clockwork head-tilts; the little drab-shy dunnocks, hedge sparrows that are not actually sparrows at all but members of the robin family:
Watching all day
in the courtyard puddles
on their little stick-legs
playing 'grandmother's footsteps'
with the rain, with my gaze –
how big the world is,
And how wise it would be
to be in love with
As a child I was, and as an adult, too, I am entranced by those stories of animals who help each other, and help if needed humans, also, to survive: the stories of dolphins who raise drowning dolphins, and humans, to the surface to breathe; that video on YouTube of a small dog dodging traffic to pull its injured dog companion across a three-lane highway to safety; stories of dogs who trek hundreds of miles to find their human companion; those stories of children raised by gazelle, by wolves.
And how do we reward them? With captivity. With torture. With eating them. What we do to others we do, of course, to ourselves.
Our relationship to animals surely needs to change as we move towards meeting the spiritual, and material, demands of our time.
The transport of live food animals from Britain to Europe has started again. Calves just weeks old are shipped to Europe to be raised in the dark and have their throats slit for veal (darkness and bleeding to death makes the meat white). That is, if they've survived: far more often than one would like to hope they arrive broken-limbed or with dislocated hips from being dragged, pushed or dangled by one leg in being winched on and off planes or ships.
Geese are force-fed for paté de foie gras. Ducks are intensively-reared, and like hens de-beaked.
Pigs, these most intelligent of animals, are largely confined to tiny cages as breeding sows throughout the 'developed' world, where they literally go mad. Smuggled video cameras in abattoirs show pigs being kicked, punched; having cigarettes put out on their snouts.
Many if not most cows in the UK, hard though it is to believe, spend at least half their lives and sometimes all of them away from grass, close-confined in barns. If the big corporations have their way, much more of this will happen in intensive mega-dairies.
Salmon are farmed, which means that their natural migrations simply don't happen. In common with all farmed animals, quite apart from the misery, the intensive farming methods used, plus interference with their natural health and welfare means that disease is rife.
Shark are de-finned live for the tables of the East, being thrown back into the water to die.
Dolphins and whales of course are hunted for food.
Monkeys are, or were until recently if not any longer, served as 'delicacies' in Japanese restaurants where, live, they are penned by the necks and their brains eaten.
And dancing bears, caged, live a life of utter misery with rings disfiguring the soft tissue of their noses, being beaten and electro-prodded to make them 'dance' for tourists.
Of course this raises questions about 'right relationship'. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could restore animals to their rightful place, as respected co-habitees of this amazing planet – third in line from the sun, conditions just right for life as we know it; one degree hotter or one degree cooler and we wouldn't even be here – alongside us? How would it be to ease back on the pedal, to consider how many lives are given to satisfy our appetites, and whether those appetites and therefore lives lost are truly necessary?
For me, I made the decision at 16 to become vegetarian. It was also consonant with my Buddhist practice, in which I've taken the precept of non-harming. (I knew, too, that if push came to shove I couldn't actually kill an animal; if I could, maybe I'd feel better about eating it.)
For many years, though, I made my living as a shoemaker. This was part of a whole drive on my part to learn the basic skills of smallholding: growing, cooking, animal-husbandry, cheese-making, bread-making, wine-making, pottery, spinning, weaving, knitting, vegetable-dyeing, medicinal herbs, healing, woodcraft. And for many years I was aware of a deep-seated hypocrisy in myself regarding the use of animal products that involved taking an animal's life (as opposed to, for instance, eating an egg from a sterile hen – yes they produce eggs even without a cockerel in the flock – or wool shorn from a living sheep). From time to time people challenged me on the leather use, and I'd respond, glibly, that I was using up the waste 'you carnivores leave behind you'. But that was simply a pat answer. It is true that if one is going to take the life of an animal at all, one should perhaps use the whole of it, with gratitude. But I didn't want to be involved in animal exploitation at all.
So then I was eating cheese and drinking milk (albeit organic, which at least guaranteed minimum welfare standards for the animals involved), both of which practices involve cow pregnancy and the killing of unwanted calves, and in any case almost all the male calves; and although many cheeses use vegetarian rennet to set the curd, many still use an enzyme from calves' stomachs.
I'd always said that when my daughter left home (I'd brought her up vegetarian) I'd become a vegan. I didn't. It took me ten years, until very recently, to take this logical next step, ethically speaking.
I couldn't imagine giving up tea completely (I don't have many addictions, but that's a small one), and I couldn't imagine enjoying tea without milk. To my utter astonishment, I actively liked the taste of the Co-op's organic soya milk (and nothing's perfect: there is still the question of both food miles and processed foods); and it only took a week or two before I started to actively dislike the taste of cow's milk – too fatty, too animaly. (And it is, after all, made for calves – who wants bones like cows?? 'We are what we eat...')
Cheese has been much harder. I really miss it. I have found that for me the way forward is not to be utterly rigid. If I cut cheese out completely I crave it badly. My compromise has been that if I go out and there isn't a vegan option I eat cheese; and on a poetry day where everyone brings food to share, I usually do, too. Allowing myself to do this has had the desired effect: I rarely want to; but when I do, I really enjoy it, without guilt.
I confess I do still eat eggs. They have to be free range and ideally organic, and I prefer to buy them from flocks where I know there isn't a cockerel.
I'm lucky that The Man is supportive. He's been a vegetarian for many years, but relies very heavily on cheese, yoghurt and milk. We share the cooking, and he has adapted to cooking a vegan evening meal, topping his dairy levels up (big-time) at lunchtime. There are any number of really tasty vegan meals which many of us eat without thinking about it – veggie shepherd's pie, many cous cous and rice dishes, paellas and risottos, veggie spag bol, soups and stews, pasta and sauce, salads, ratatouille, nut and veg roasts, corn on the cob – and on and on. We mostly make our own dishes up, based on what's in the garden (leeks, potatoes, onions, garlic, purple sprouting broccoli, chard and errr quite a lot of cabbage). Yes, there's an issue with both iron and B12 – dark green leafy veg, nuts and veggie red wine (some is 'fined' with bull's blood) for the iron, Marmite or another yeast extract for the B12.
And now I've run out of steam. I don't want to proselytize; but if I say to you that we could feed ten times as many people, globally, on a veggie diet as on a meat one...?
And can I recommend the wise, beautiful and committed blog of fellow Buddhist and virtual friend, David Ashton, for his insightful and passionate responses to the eating (or not) of animals? http://davidmashton.blogspot.com/2011/06/mindful-blindness-rant-against.html
Also interesting is Jungian Jeff Howlin's blog; this one is on animals and learning from them:
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