There is a moment, fruity and hazy-afternooned, just before the sun loses its heat and falls out of the marmalade-smeared sky, when I am stopped. Arms scratched and itching from the day’s garden toil. Tweaks of sharp discomfort here and there, yet still a sigh of deep contentment escapes.
I sit on my haunches, rabbit-like and watchful. The cat picks his way over broken soil and in one leap, alights to the bannister in a clear request for food. I oblige, seizing a stolen moment to boil the kettle for tea. In a short while, tools will be downed and I will tear Husband away from his newly-planted trees and towards the cosy evening. Lemon, orange and mandarin. Tangy grapefruit and dark, sweet plums. Into this timeless pause, the citrus-blossom scented future falls.
I’m not sure if I’m a fan of Christmas but I do love fairy lights and I love bringing red plants like cyclamen and poinsettia into my home at this time of year. In folk lore, cyclamen is said to increase self esteem, love and protection. It has a brightness that speaks of happiness and hope. I love how Yuletide can conjure an air of enchantment, bringing magic to the mundane, but this mystical awakening is available every day, when I am able to slow down enough to let nature speak. This year, after a bumper harvest , I can also add threads of red hot chili peppers to the decorations!
As well as the warmth of cosy fireside and roasting chestnuts, I do feel internal pressure from a few too many social events. It’s lovely to connect with friends and family, but winter also signals a turning inward, a pause in time and space inviting reflection. There is some agitation, too, when I am asked to “set intentions” and while I’ve no doubt that making single-pointed wishes can be successful, I wonder, how can I leave space for the unexpected? The magical? The divine? When I loosen the grip on my wishes, I feel a welcome sense of leaning back, relaxation and even relief. Do I have to “get” everything I want during the coming year? What if I don’t know what I want?
Since arriving in Spain three years ago, I’ve felt a lot less clear about where life is taking me. This is very challenging! Turbulent political situations make future plans uncertain and our ecological landscape portends disaster. My spiritual practice has slowed to a kind of paso a paso approach, but what a delight it can be to live in the slow lane. The hard work of renovating our small casita home is almost complete and increasingly, I just want to remain really still and let life come to me.
In establishing a way of being that destroys neither us nor the earth we on which we depend, a transition has to be made. So many of us, like the earth, are running on empty. Over ten years of the Living in the Future project, we’ve told many stories involving outer transition – towards affordable, sustainable homes and vibrant communities. But outer transition is inevitably accompanied by inner transition and as well as enjoying stories about ecovillages and low impact living, I thrive on deep work around inner transformation.
New from Living in the Future in 2019
In an attempt to help facilitate this inner shift, in 2019 you can expect online group meditations from Living in the Future, offering support and community for the inner journey. We also have an upcoming book publication which straddles this inner/outer divide. If you have time over the holy days, take some personal space to discover our existing guided meditations on Insight Timer and for a unique Solstice celebration, I invite you to join our little group on the beach in Spain!
Wishing you all a Happy Yuletide and a Peaceful New Year.
Helen and the Living in the Future Team
PS. Use the YULE18 to claim 50% off Living in the Future online films.
What stories are you telling yourself today? What are you reading, hearing, thinking about, and passing on? If you started your day with newspapers – whether print or online, it’s likely you were bombarded with bad things that have happened. For me, wildfire, murder and political chaos dominate my headlines today and while it’s possible that my social media feed offers some light-hearted relief, I might need to scroll past the shouting in order to find it. In this kind of environment, it’s no wonder our mental health is suffering. Hope is an emotion that lifts heart and mind, but in a world smothering in greed, hatred and mounting CO2, hope is fast disappearing.
So when I got a call to help edit a film for the Permaculture Association about a programme of theirs called Thriving Communities, I leapt at the chance to be part of a different story. The film brings together clips from projects around the UK using permaculture principles to address community needs. Though permaculture is often thought be only relevant for rural dwellers, many Thriving Community projects are urban- based, showing that the values of Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share are relevant, practical and can make a difference just about anywhere.
Contrary to popular understanding, permaculture is much more than gardening, though growing food is a good place to start. Planting and nurturing seeds brings us into relationship with the earth and if we do it in a group, with other people as well. What’s more, it’s hard to miss the parallels between our own well-being and that of the plant, so growing food is educational as well as nutritional. Somehow, in addition to looking after soil and seedlings, we end up looking after ourselves, too.
Living in the Future has always been about telling positive stories, but we need them more than ever now, as the clock counting down towards runaway climate change and species extinction ticks relentlessly towards ground zero. In the face of this, taking personal action can seem like an overwhelming task. Sorting the recycling, whilst important, seems too small a response.
Given the enormity of the task we face, you may be drawn to take part in some way in the growing protest movement that is Extinction Rebellion. Organised on a grass roots level by activists calling time on government apathy and inaction, XR invites contributions in all sorts of ways, from engagement in non-violent direct action and associated support roles, to writing, artwork, and more contemplative practices. The question for us personally might be – how can I express my own response to this devastating global situation, in a way that feels both possible and sustainable? For instance, as I write this, my email is pinging notices from companies advertising Black Friday deals – is there a way we can make seasonal giving more earth and people-friendly? Can we show our love without buying more unwanted and unnecessary stuff?
As our leaders charge headlong and blindfolded towards who knows what, my own experience of grief, anxiety and disempowerment has led me deeper into my own spiritual practice. Gardening is undoubtedly a part of this. Movements like the Permaculture Association and the Transition Network have long recognised that as well as positive actions, the alignment of our outer/inner worlds is an important and crucial part of the work and storytelling can really help with this. By bringing our expectations more in line with reality and suggesting new ways of dealing with challenges, stories help align our inner and outer worlds, helping us move more easefully through times of change.
So let me ask again, what stories are you telling yourself today?
We start early, woken by the keen energy of other Camino pilgrims and greeted outside by a star, falling through crisp, dark sky. Since we began our walk, the moon has waned from a full, bright round to craggy quarter. A dirt road takes us around lanes, between village homes still quiet with sleep, until we reach an intersection where a highway, already busy at this early hour, leads us precariously onward. Spooked by huge trucks passing at fierce speed, we’re relieved to see the beckoning lights of a cafe, countertop replete with warm empanadas, fresh croissants and an almond cake named for Saint Santiago. As we offer our credential booklets for the pligrim’s stamp I wonder, are cafes the new churches?
Although there is some sadness in this being the final section in our Camino Way, my feet will be glad to finish. These past few days, I’ve been walking with the assistance of efficient painkillers that I’m pretty sure were not available to the first pilgrims in mediaeval times. Blisters upon blisters upon blisters. Ouch. I blame the asphalt roads – hard and unyielding to human feet. There are too many of these for me. I prefer the quiet of forests which, being full of eucalypts, are achingly reminiscent of our time in the forests of Tasmania. Imported to control erosion and as fast-growing timber, eucalypts are causing havoc in Portugal, covering up to 7% of the land. As in Australia, they make great fuel for forest fires, and as climate change ramps up the summer temperatures, both these countries are re-considering how to manage these magnificent trees.
Stepping aside from the path, we lie down on dry, sweet-smelling leaf litter and gaze up through the cathedral of trees to a denim blue patch of sky. After a scramble for beds at the auberge on the first two days, we took the decision from then on to book ahead and skip the stress. After all, what Way does not include time to stand and stare? In addition to soulful wayside dreamings, my companions and I make time for daily reflections. These practices add richness and meaningfulness to our journey – an inner element to weave alongside the outer scenery.
During the tough bits, I plugged one ear into my i-pod and listened to The Good People by Hannah Kent. Kent iridescently imagines rural Ireland in the 1800s when the local “doctress” – a local medicine woman – finds her ‘old ways’ outlawed by the church. Treading these ancient Galician pathways graced with autumn fruits and nuts, elderberries, blackberries and hedgerow mint, I am reminded how the land holds so many cures for our ills and how women were mostly the ones who held the knowledge of how to use them. It was a male-dominated clergy who helped push them out and a patriarchal university system which monopolised the medical profession to which women – no matter how skilled or priviliged – were not admitted. What was I doing then, walking along a Christian pilgrim route? And amongst the masculine icons, where were the peregrinas – the symbols of female power? I sit quietly in a wayside chapel to contemplate this, but am interrupted by a babble of pilgrims, bustling into the chapel to take pictures and gather a stamp for their Camino credencial. Once again I question – what am I doing here, hoping for a spiritual experience at a time when the spiritual path has been replaced by the route to the next coffee shop?
The following morning, we arrive in Pontevedra, its ancient town centre now lauded for extensive pedestrianisation. Walking the quiet streets, we are drawn into a rounded church where, to my surprise, the image of a woman gazes down at us from the vestry. The frieze above her depicts a donkey on which rides a pregnant woman. In this way, the elegant Capela da Virxe Peregrina seems to answer my question.
During the final three days, I ask my social media community to help me find purpose in my walk. “Walk for all those who can’t”, one says. “For equality and justice.” “For love”. “For justice for refugees.” “For the Earth.” Walking with these prayers in mind, a warmth spreads through my heart and for a while, I am able to forget my own sore feet.
In the Anglo-Saxon calendar, September is known as Hāligmonath, or “holy month,” when traditionally, people came together to celebrate the bounty of summer. I remember Harvest Festival from my childhood, bringing ripe plums and crisp apples to school and church, piling them up on the table amongst pumpkins and sunflowers. I was thinking about this last week whilst clearing and tidying our garden beds. After the crazy abundance of July and August, it’s satisfying to see things clear and fresh again, but it’s also time for taking stock – what worked really well for us this year and what might need re-thinking? In gardening, as in life, you tend to get out what you put in and once again, we’re considering which vegetables and fruits give the best value for our time and money. This summer, aside from the reliable abundance of tomatoes, we’ve been lucky with the squash family – not only courgettes but also pumpkins, butternuts and delicious, sun-ripened melons. As a result, we’re looking forward to an autumn of soups, tarts and warm salads, generously sided with this year’s chutneys and relishes.
Gardening as a spiritual practice
Gardening is often used as an analogy for inner work. Buddhist teacher and activist Thich Nhat Hahn has this to say :
“When I am experiencing a difficult feeling, I often choose to bring to mind a beautiful, positive memory to comfort me and to water the seeds of hope in my consciousness.”
Back in my own garden, whilst pulling up deep, far-reaching weeds, I contemplate how I need to keep working at the root causes of anger and fear, preparing the ground for the seeds of peace and contentment. One of my teachers, Christopher Titmuss, has a meditation he likes to do with children. Holding a biscuit, he asks the children to tell him where the biscuit came from. Initial responses are obvious. “From the packet”, “from the shop” or maybe, if they are lucky, “from the oven.” If the biscuits are home made, it might be easy to see who put the ingredients together, but they still need to look deeper to identify the work of transporting the grain, making and selling the butter, shipping the sugar. Looking deeper still, they eventually see the farmers, but even deeper inquiry shows them the earth, the sun and the rain. Growing food gives us this kind of connection on a daily basis, along with a healthy dose of humility when attempting to manage the elements of sun, rain and wind!
Here in Catalunya, harvest time means grapes. Last weekend, we took a meditation group to the vineyards and spent a pleasant afternoon wandering mindfully amongst rows of juicy fruit. When we came to taste the wine, we paused to remember the rich, red soil; the smell of ripe grapes and the many farmers who have tended the vines over generations. With focussed awareness, we were able to taste in the wine the lightness of air, the freshness of rain and the heat of summer sun. In addition to feelings of joy and gratitude, we were able to connect with our own deep knowing – sowing seeds of hope and wisdom for when we next meet difficult times.
“When times are easy and there’s plenty to go around, individual species can go it alone. But when conditions are harsh and life is tenuous, it takes a team sworn to reciprocity to keep life going forward. In a world of scarcity, interconnection and mutual aid become critical for survival. So say the lichens.”
This is a quote from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s beautiful book Braiding Sweetgrass, a book so inspiring that I used another excerpt to begin a recent article for The Ecologist. That article draws a parallel between the way sweetgrass is grown and the way wisdom is passed on “hand to earth to hand” and how, in places such as Off Grid Festival, we can practice this reciprocity whilst learning tools and techiques to help bring about a more resilient world.
The Economist article discusses the permaculture principle of the edge effect, which is about all the juicy stuff that goes on at the edges and how the zones between systems and cultures tend to be creative, fertile, abundant places. Off Grid Festival is one such space, perched as it is on the edge of mainstream culture. Braiding Sweetgrass is an example of this too – a book exploring the intersection between modern science and traditional lore. A botanist who is also a member of the native Potawatomi people, the writer speaks from the margins – between two cultures each running counter to society’s established norms.
As a female scientist, Kimmerer faces the derision of male counterparts who consider her thinking irrelevant, insignificant or just plain wrong. Her Native American wisdom exists only thanks to the stubborn refusal of her ancestors to surrender their world view to those who thought they knew better. From these cultural edges, she creates a fusion which is a powerful testimony to motherhood, belonging and indigenous wisdom that manages to be both unique and universal.
Braiding Sweetgrass was recommended to me by Claire Dunn, an Australian writer and wilderness guide who has made it her mission to bring nature wisdom to urban dwellers. In this way she, too, creates meaning from the intersection of two cultures – three, if you count also the culture of the feminine. In addition to ancient and modern wisdoms, both Claire and Robin Wall Kimmerer offer a perspective that my Catalan friend and healer Esther Pallejá Lozeno might call mano izquierda.
“No tener mano izquierda” is an expression said to originate in the bull fighting ring, where the right hand – mano derecho – is the hand of action and force, and the left – mano izquierda – is the hand which is linked to intuition and skilful means. A person with mano izquierda has the ability to handle difficult situations with sensitivity, even using a ‘sixth sense’, whereas someone said to be lacking in this will appear tactless and undiplomatic. It’s not hard to see someone with mano izquierda is displaying qualities associated with the feminine.
In traditional medicine and yoga, the left side of the body is linked to the feminine, but as with many other left-handed associations, the expression in Spanish also has the sense of acting with cunning and trickery. In some cultures, left-handedness is said to be linked with the devil and children have been discouraged from writing with their left hand. It is painful, yet unsurprising that in a patriarchal world, this left-handed/ left sidedness, along with many other ‘feminine’ qualities, has been devalued.
Gently yet persuasively, Kimmerer asks us to re-evaluate. What if, along with honouring Mother Nature and Mother Earth, we could honour this more intuitive, feminine approach? Might it bring about a more gentle, respectful way of being in the world? A more attentive way of listening – to ourselves, to each other and to Nature herself? And in so doing, might we facilitate a more reciprocal kind of culture, the kind of culture about which indigenous people – both male and female – speak so wistfully?
“Science and traditonal knowledge may ask different questions and speak different languages, but they may converge when both truly listen to the plants.”
Reciprocity requires that we recognise the value of the other and enter into a mutual relationship. We see that masculine energy allows us to act decisively and with strength, while the feminine brings a more feeling tone, concerning itself with the WAY that we do things – or sometimes, the way that we do NOT do things. A feminine way of being might ask that we wait longer, rest often, take more time to be. Between these two cultures – the culture of the masculine and the culture of the feminine, we can find harmony, balance and equality as well as reciprocity.
Circling in…re-tuning and re-attuning…this is a key foundation for sustainable living.
To keep growing and learning, we all need to find our edge…
Back in 2008, Living in the Future began as a project documenting ecovillages and low impact communities in the UK and beyond. It was hard not to be concerned about the way things were going but as well as saying ‘no’, I wanted something to which I could say ‘yes’! Our team set about recording positive alternatives to mainstream lifestyles and twelve years on, Living in the Future engages in all aspects of this question, from natural building and offgrid living to food, health and nature connection. As well as the physical impact of this way of living, the human context is becoming increasingly evident. Society is facing a collapse in emotional and mental well-being and we find ourselves embracing an eco-spiritual edge. In permaculture, the edge effect describes how there is a greater diversity of life in the region where two adjacent ecosystems overlap, such as land/water, or forest/grassland.
Where is the fertile ground between ecology and spirituality?
Sustainable Living is more than an eco-house, more then a veggie garden, more than planning laws and turf roofs, though all of this is relevant and necessary. Sustainable living has to encompass the whole of it. The soul of it. The way we live includes our humanity, our community and our relationships – with ourselves, with the land and with each other. Filmmaker, writer, environmentalist and human rights advocate, I am also a yoga teacher and a meditation guide and my lifestyle encompasses all of these aspects. Many years ago, I made a commitment to earning my living through Right Livelihood and with your support, the Living in the Future project has helped me do that. Part art, part activism, we endeavour to bring fresh conversations, fresh inspirations and a fresh perspective.
The data laws in Europe are changing and whilst we understand from our providers that we are fully compliant and feel comfortable that you do not object to receiving these updates, we’re taking this opportunity to reach out with a question that those who publish always ask themselves. What you want to hear from us?
We’d love this to be an opportunity for constructive feedback, so we’ve created this little survey. If you have 5 minutes to spare, please help us refine our content to keep you curious…
My feet hurt. You know that kind of “Festival Foot”, when the balls of your feet are sore from tramping through fields all weekend? I peeled off my slightly soggy socks to find four, sore, bright red patches. At least my Festival Foot did provide an excuse to lie around in the unexpected Welsh sunshine, contemplating the incredible weekend I just spent at Off Grid Festival in Devon, England.
I wasn’t planning to go, but for the past five months I’ve been helping to promote the Festival. As I posted news of each fascinating new workshop, speaker or band, I gradually convinced myself what an amazing event it would be! The Off Grid College offered a platform for pioneers to talk about practical sustainability and appropriate technology. Low impact building, solar installation, permaculture and medicinal foraging were just a few of the themes on offer. At Thrive, it was all about all things healing. Massage, mindfulness and yoga, as well as in-depth discussions around activist burnout, trauma and the future of elderly care. At the Community Convergence space, discussions ranged from The Power of Networks to Co-housing to the Economics of Happiness. Plus, of course, there was uplifting, original music from live bands all weekend.
As usual, my Festival experience was filtered through the lens of my camera, which gave me an excuse to grill various inspirational people about their passions. I also learned a lot about the art of podcasting from fellow festival journalist Carl Munson, aka the Barefoot Broadcaster, who set up his “field” studio to interview passers by and had them uploaded within minutes. Unlike my interviews, for which you’ll have to wait a bit, you can hear his exchange with Guy Coxall, Compliance Officer for CBD (cannabidiol, the non-psycho active ingredient in cannabis) right now!
Carl’s Barefoot Broadcasts are a from of alternative media, which, in this time of “fake news” are more important than ever. I spent more than 15 years working as part of the Undercurrents collective, reporting on environmental activism. We trained hundreds of people to create their own media and to get their voices heard, enabled by the revolution in video camera technology which made high quality recordings both accessible, portable and affordable. Now, everyone carries the technology for citizen journalism but instead, what do we use it for? Spruiking ourselves on socal media and pinging selfies around the world in an effort to gain attention. What a waste.
Alternative media relies, more then anything, on an alternative ideology. Offering a fresh view on the world requires contemplation, discussion, a willingness to question and to go against the mainstream. The off-grid culture provides a natural home for alternative media, since it challenges all the mainstream systems and approaches which underpin culture and way of life. Off Grid means a challenge to the growth economy, the religious hierarchy, the mass approach to education. To Big Pharma, Big Oil and Big Banking. To top-down government, just-in-time commerce and housing as investment. To prioritising profit over people, humans over animals, and development over nature. An alternative media practitioner needs a strong stomach, a deep curiosity and a fearless attitude.
My involvement with Off Grid Festival, combined with this latest damning report from Reporters Without Borders, has reminded me of the importance of alternative media organisations and of how the people that contribute to them need our support. With this in mind, I’m making this the first in series of blogs featuring journalists and filmmakers who, in the widest sense, are spreading the Off Grid message. I’m beginning with James Light, a talented film maker who gave up his job in television news 8 years ago in order to tell the stories he thought really mattered. James has made some beautiful films for the Off Grid Festival but this year, was unable to attend because of a calamity which put his van off the road and himself into debt. As part of this profile, I’m sharing his crowdfund page, in case you feel like helping him get back into action.
James’ inspiring film “What’s Your Story?” is the true-life documentary about people who are daring to ask life’s ultimate questions. “Through sharing and listening to each other’s stories and experience we not only make everyone feel like a valued member of society, we also help drive innovation, as though sharing our thoughts and ideas we will be able to harvest more wisdom from our collective intelligence. Together we are stronger and through changing our story we can change the world.” To this end, James is a committed supporter of Off Grid Festival.
“The most enjoyable part of Off Grid Festival is feeling part of a strong, resilient community” says James. “What I really love is seeing passionate debate and people talking and the quality of that conversation across the board. Even if they disagree, there’s a way to which they disagree which is really comforting and nourishing and given the current paradigm of arguing across a room, that’s what fills me with hope.”
Hope is a big theme for James, having overcome personal tragedy when his brother died young of epilepsy and going on to pursue his dream of becoming a film maker.
“I now know that I am here to help tell a more compelling, loving and sustainable story of self. I am here to help shift the cultural narrative from unsustainable selfish greed to self-sustaining and sharing freely. The stories I tell are to help us all find or clarify our story, to help everyone discover their gifts and hopefully inspire them to share it.”
I haven’t used this site for party political campaigning before, being somewhat of the opinion that ‘whoever you vote for, the government always wins’, but with the 2017 General Election, the UK is experiencing nothing short of a revolution and that’s pretty exciting stuff! The massive sea-change of support backing Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party has not been seen in British politics since 1945, the year that Clement Attlee’s Labour Party achieved a 12% swing against Winston Churchill’s Conservatives to gain a mandate for post-war reforms. These post-war reforms included the creation of the National Health Service, which guaranteed free health care for everyone. How fitting, then, that one of Corbyn’s strongest election pledges has been to reverse the privatisation of the NHS that has been accelerated under the present Tory government and is set, if they are elected, to continue under advice from the Naylor Review.
It would be wrong to suggest that this revolution has been bloodless. The terror attacks perpetrated over the past year have left a nation stunned and heartbroken and in this, I include the murder of Jo Cox. While the mainstream media glossed over this latter atrocity as the actions of a single lunatic, other murders have been railed against with the shrill indignancy of a country whose values are under siege. But the truth is, our shared values have been under attack from within, from cynical, greedy and violently racist political leaders and these murders are being used to justify the erosion of our human rights.
Living in the Future is not an overtly political project, but the values which underpin ideas of community and environmental care are undoubtedly left wing. What’s more, Living in the Future was born out of Undercurrents – a not-for-profit organisation which rose out of the public unrest under Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative policies. At that time, it was the protests against road building and the poll tax which were ignored by right wing media. Now it is the left wing opposition itself which has been ignored. As Gill Scott-Heron predicted, the revolution is not being televised.
As a student and teacher of media studies, I have spent a lifetime arguing that there is no such thing as objectivity. That the ideologies drummed into us at home and school, by he church and other influencers, seep into our words and actions, not least as journalists. But the deliberate slanting of mainstream journalism against policies of peace and social care as put forward by Jeremy Corbyn has been nothing short of lying. And not only by the right wing tabloids, but disappointingly, by the so-called left wing Guardian newspaper as well. In a society where the gap between rich and poor is propped up by Conservative policies, with tax cuts for the wealthy and companies evading payments though they benefit both from the people and the infrastructure of the country, it’s not hard to see why a vote for the Tories is a vote to maintain the status quo.
And at a time when depression, mental illness and loneliness spread like epidemics in our world. At a time when the earth needs us to stop pillaging her bounty and start giving back, at a time when climate change threatens our very survival on this planet, we can no longer afford to appease the rich. We can no longer allow hate and division to prevail. We have to find a way to work together.
In our most recent film, Deep Listening, we explore how intentional communities, in harmony with ancient aboriginal ways, practice a quiet way of being with themselves, with the land, and with each other. This way involves us hearing the profound messages needed for healing. Healing of ourselves, of the earth and of our communities.
We need to listen to each other.
It’s not a coincidence that Jeremy Corbyn, his values and principles miraculously intact after many years in politics, expounds these very practices and aims to bring them into his government. If ever we needed someone who understand how to listen, we need it now. It won’t solve everything, of course, our system is undoubtedly broken and needs urgent attention, but if you are in the UK, it’s time to perform an act of revolution and to vote Labour on June 9th.
Note : Re: “For the Many, not the Few”
Thanks to Steve Coogan for clarifying the source of the Labour Party election slogan. In this poem, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley is speaking about non-violent direct action.
Written on the occasion of the Peterloo Massacre, Manchester 1819, Shelley begins his poem with the powerful images of the unjust forms of authority of his time “God, and King, and Law” – and he then imagines the stirrings of a radically new form of social action: “Let a great assembly be, of the fearless, of the free”. The crowd at this gathering is met by armed soldiers, but the protesters do not raise an arm against their assailants:
“Stand ye calm and resolute,
Like a forest close and mute,
With folded arms and looks which are
Weapons of unvanquished war.
And if then the tyrants dare,
Let them ride among you there;
Slash, and stab, and maim and hew;
What they like, that let them do.
With folded arms and steady eyes,
And little fear, and less surprise,
Look upon them as they slay,
Till their rage has died away:
Then they will return with shame,
To the place from which they came,
And the blood thus shed will speak
In hot blushes on their cheek:
Rise, like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you:
Ye are many—they are few!”
Note on the note…
(Shelley’s poetry sometimes had only an underground readership during his day, but his poetic achievements are widely recognized today, and his advanced political and social thought impacted the Chartist and other movements in England, and reach down to the present day. Shelley’s theories of economics and morality, for example, had a profound influence on Karl Marx; his early—perhaps first—writings on nonviolent resistance influenced both Leo Tolstoy and Mahatma Gandhi.) Wikipedia.
Husband has found a novel way of dealing with pests in the garden. He eats them. Though he’s not keen on slugs (he ate one by accident and it took two days to cleanse his mouth of slime), he has developed quite an appetite for snails. In Catalunya, where we live, snails are a delicacy. So when they proved to be the culprits who were munching all the tender, young plants in our community garden, he started collecting them up. He feeds them on carrots until their poo turns orange and then fries them with garlic.
At Gaia House Retreat Centre in Devon, I discuss pest control with Will Newitt, the Garden Co-ordinator. His approach to slugs is to pop them into a container with some greens and then tip them out some distance from the centre. “It’s a real way to explore non-violence”, says Will.
I’m at Gaia House on a work retreat. Five hours a day in the garden, four hours on my cushion. It works well, not least because my body is so tired that my mind is happy to sit still. Engaged so fully in the physical world, I notice how joy arises from simple things. The sensation of warm sun on my back as I push tiny potential lettuces into pots. The chatter and squawk of crows. The excitement as seedlings I have sown emerge as bright green shoots. Will explains that the garden relies on volunteers like me to make it work. “Often people will compliment me on the garden and I accept the kindness of that, but it feels a bit fraudulent, because I’m just here for a very short amount of time. It’s whoever comes in who actually creates it. It’s many people over many years, with open hearts and with a sense of care and loving kindness and joy for what they are doing. I think that contributes something precious.”
Working in silence, I become more aware of how this cycle of being recreates itself. The garden only grows some of the food eaten at the centre, but their scraps are returned to the earth as compost, which enriches the soil to produce more food and the cycle begins again. As I harvest the last of the sprouting broccoli, other helpers are preparing beds for the next crop. Slowing down, I begin to notice the cycles everywhere. In the rhythm of day and night; the cooking and eating of lunch. Beginnings and endings. “When you really stop and look”, says Will, the teachings are there in every moment.”
Will remarks, too, on how friendly the wildlife is here. ‘I feel they are drawn to this place because it’s a safe haven. They’re not scared.” I, too, feel safe to dive deeply. Stripped of all the doing in my normal life, there is plenty of time to simply be. I feel content with this. It is enough. I am not seeking excitement, nor entertainment, nor distraction. I am not even seeking ‘liberation’, but it occurs to me that this might, in fact, be something like it.
In his talk one evening, the teacher, Stephen Batchelor, speaks about solitude. On a retreat, he says, we seek solitude amongst others. Alone with our thoughts, feelings, sensations, we have an opportunity to slow down, to watch our breath and feel the beat of our heart. At this time, he suggests, we come close to the fragility of our own life. We understand that any moment, it might end and we will come face to face with death. He directs us to the walking room, where a real skeleton sits in full meditation pose.
As if to reinforce the teaching, the following day as I am sitting in meditation when I hear a thud at the window. I look up just in time to see a dark shape fall away. A fluttering blue tit looks down, a quizzical tilt to its head. I get up and go outside to find a thrush, lying face down, wings spread. Reaching out towards the bird, not yet sure if it is alive, it startles awake and hops into the undergrowth. The following day, underneath one of the apple trees I find a thrush. Its body is stiff, wings tightly folded. Will and I agree to leave it there for a while and I garland the body with dandelions, strung together in the way I wove them as a girl. Bright yellow encircling the small, dead form.
Back in our garden in Catalunya, I meditate amongst the rows of vegetables. In the warmth of the midday sun, I arrive briefly at a place of stillness before words bubble into my consciousness. Limpiar. Cuidar. Plantar. Esperar. Weed. Care for. Plant. Wait.
With this simple set of gardening instructions, the land speaks to me. But then wait, there is more…”Don’t forget to Disfrutar!”
Enjoy. Don’t forget to enjoy.
Because who knows when we will be halted by our own fly-into-the-window moment?