As an individual, it's hard to know what to do in face of the worsening ecological crisis, apart from feeling sad and powerless. Yes, we can avoid plastic, do our shopping by bike whenever possible, and generally avoid activities that emit extra carbon into the atmosphere. But what else? I recently got inspiration and some good practical ideas while on a visit to Schumacher College in the midsummer Devon countryside.
GROWING MORE EDIBLE PLANTS
Even as I was arriving at Schumacher, I spied the growers returning from the vegetable gardens with mountains of broad beans. Every mealtime I eagerly anticipated the next delicious vegetarian dish to arrive on the table, prepared in the kitchen by Julia Harding with the help of volunteers and course participants. This all got me thinking about the bounty of nature and the pleasure and satisfaction of growing your own food if you have space and time.
As I write this, I am in our French house, which has a generous garden in the middle of a village. In the 10 years we have been coming here, the question of whether to produce food in the garden, and if so what, has been a constant one, given that we are only here for part of the year. But the food I enjoyed at Schumacher, and my visits to the vegetable gardens there, left me feeling encouraged to grow more edible plants on our own small piece of land. We have recently introduced artichokes, rhubarb and raspberries (all perennials) but now I want to add more fruit bushes beneath the plum and apple trees (following the forest garden principle of planting in layers).
While visiting the Schumacher gardens, I noticed comfrey growing under a hazelnut tree; a volunteer explained that the growers cut down the comfrey and leave the cuttings on the ground as a mulch and fertiliser. We already have a large comfrey plant in France (see below) but it is tucked into a corner behind an outhouse. I now plan to propagate it and plant loads more of it in our orchard to help feed our fruit trees.
SPENDING MORE QUIET TIME IN NATURE
The days at Schumacher also inspired me to take plenty of time this summer to sit quietly in the shade of the trees, paying attention to my senses, letting my mind wander, and watching the teeming activity around me. One of my fantasies is to have a garden shed or shelter made as a space not just for writing, but also for sitting quietly and watching all the creatures going about their business. Maybe I will call it my hide.
On one of the first evenings here this year I went out into the orchard at dusk and just sat still. Within minutes, small bats were swooping soundlessly around me, no doubt feeding on insects among the trees. I felt a surge of pleasure at their willingness to share the garden with me.
In the same week, I couldn't help noticing that one of our human visitors was doing even more wildlife watching than I was. He photographed all kinds of creatures, including the gorgeous swallowtail butterfly below.
I must admit at first I found the comparison with my friend rather sobering; maybe I spend too much time at my desk, I asked myself. But since then it has occurred to me that it is not just writing that keeps me from nature. Even when I am in the garden, I get caught up with weeding for much longer than I would like. It is getting clearer to me every day that I need a different relationship with weeds, which takes me to my next resolution.
While at Schumacher, I was struck by the “rewilding” that they have introduced in the former lawn area around the college building (see below).
In France, we have been experimenting for some time with leaving grass, weeds and wild flowers uncut in at least a section of the garden. It's not straightforward, because neighbours understandably don't like the seeds blowing over into their plot. But we will find a way somehow, and the result will not just be lovely to look at but will also provide a haven for insects and other creatures. More wildlife for us to watch close up too!
STARTING NEW CONVERSATIONS
A lot of what I have described so far requires access to a garden. But I did leave Schumacher with one idea for urban life, and that was to gather a small group of like-minded people together to meet regularly and explore our relationship with life on the planet. This might include watching films together and discussing pertinent books. I love the idea of expanding my “conversational life” in this way and I am already thinking about whom to approach.
I can't end without mentioning one of the most magical experiences for me at Schumacher. It was the "Deep Time Walk" led by Stephan Harding on the rolling hills above the Devon coast. We covered 4.6 km on foot, or 4.6 billion years of the planet's existence. (Each metre we walked was 100 million years.) We paused to eat our picnic, looking out over the blue sea.
For the first time it really sunk in for me how last-minute the appearance of humans has been on the Earth. Yet in that short time we have already contributed not only to disrupting the climate but also to precipitating widespread extinctions. By the end of the walk, I felt sadder and wiser. (You can download the Deep Time Walk app here.)
While in Devon, I barely heard or saw any news, so when I switched on the radio for the first time back at home, I was struck by something odd. The newscasters seemed to be going on and on, first about Brexit, and then about a dramatic attempt to rescue some boys trapped in a water-logged cave in Thailand. I was acutely conscious of the absence of any talk of ecological issues, and this underlined for me that as a society we really do have our heads in the sand. Shortly after this, I read a report that more than 26,000 of the world’s species are now on the red list and may therefore soon be lost forever. I shuddered at the thought.
The small steps I am taking to develop a closer relationship with the Earth seem almost puny against the scale of the problems we face. But we all have to start somewhere, and I hope what I have written is useful and a tiny bit encouraging. This morning as I sat with my cup of tea in the speckled shade of a hawthorn tree, a male and a female blackbird made an appearance on the grass under one of the plum trees several metres away from where I was sitting. I had some binoculars on me and watched as the birds picked at fallen plums, constantly twitching and alert to potential predators. For a moment I felt fully present to life on the Earth, and this made the shortness of my own life seem less unbearable.
In this brand new blog, I intend to explore what I call ‘interpersonal moments’ or 'meaningful moments'. These typically arise in everyday conversations, or spring from something I have read or witnessed. Sometimes recent experiences, sometimes more distant memories.
My aim then, in the words of my friend and onetime doctoral supervisor, Patricia Shaw, is "to reflect on our concrete, actual lived experience". Ultimately I want to show that social patterns (e.g. power, bullying, racism, organisational culture, as well as trust, cooperation, defiance) have no real existence outside specific human exchanges. Without paying attention to the human encounters in which they emerge, we cannot fully understand them.
The flipside is that I do not want to write a grand theory of communication or a book offering unsubstantiated opinions and generalisations. That wouldn’t be me. For some reason, I have always wanted to understand things in sufficient detail, and from different perspectives, before I was willing to reach even a provisional point of view. But this will not be my last word on this matter - I am already exploring what it means to 'make a judgement'.
As a writer, I am all too familiar with the temptation to produce an artefact that is unified and comprehensive. One way for me to resist that urge is to stick to reflecting on meaningful moments. To quote Hannah Arendt "...to stop and think; to pause and reflect; to allow yourself the alertness to be struck, surprised, and to respond without too much presupposition or prejudgement." *
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* Why Arendt matters by Elisabeth Young-Bruehl (2006) p.16