Wednesday, 23 October 2013

EARTHLINES: Rewilding the Future

As the autumn issue of Earthlines (no 7) is about to appear, I am republishing my summer Life in Transition column, written in late Spring. Strange how my focus is entirely on gathering and storing fruit whereas this copy was written as the blossom was in full sway. The pictures are taken from a year of wellbeing walks I helped organise and lead around Bungay (to be mapped this November).

I’m reading George Monbiot’s Feral, flicking the pages and following his description of kayak trips over  seas full of jellyfish and rough waves. I’m reading it in one sitting under the apple trees in a day of rare sunshine, occasionally pausing, eyes closed to listen to the sounds all around me. It’s late May and the bittern is booming in the marsh, goldfinches chattering on the wire down the lane. Young jackdaws  squabbling in the chimney, almost ready for flight. Just above my head a crew of bees are working the apple blossom.  

Five years ago this apple tree fell over in a big wind and, inspired by Richard Mabey’s talk on Beechcombings, instead of cutting it for firewood, I left it to do its own thing. Now it has regenerated itself and become a small apple collective. Five years ago I would not be aware of the presence of these bees, or made the connection between their presence and the fruit that will appear this autumn.  I would not have treasured its apples, or gone around the neighbourhood, foraging  for other varieties,  or learned how to make cider from my neighbour. I would not have been grateful the sound of the now-rare cuckoo flying overhead, or the sunlight on this day, the land held in a haze of golden light, the sea a vibrant blue strip in the distance.

It’s a different time and requires a different sensibility - a mix of old knowledge, new awareness, and some  bold and unprecedented moves in uneasy waters. Not least in our own minds. 

I am reading Feral intensely today, because it questions a lot of assumptions about nature and has engaged my attention in the way scientific and literary books have been unable to for a long time now. It is making me rethink the land within a depth of time and see its received aesthetic  in terms of governmental policy, but most of all because it brings a totally new dimension into focus a rewilded country for the future.  

We live in a time of loss and control. Over half of the wild things on these islands are now in decline, corporations have made the world’s seeds, lands and water their private property and no one seems to know how to respond to the increasingly alarming messages about the biosphere  .At times  it is easy to lose heart, or to feel as hemmed in as those fledgling birds in the chimney. The book talks big spaces, deep time, and makes room for something else to happen. It makes suggestions that spark an imagination dulled by too many facts and figures:  bringing the extinct creatures back into the hinterland,  making  the rivers  plentiful again, describes how it once was when the North Sea was pristine and clear and could be again.  

To be alive you have to make moves that go against the flow. You have to fight for wildness and freedom in a civilised world. But most of all you have awaken  the imagination, let your mind take flight into blue air: breaking out of what is perceived as normal, and widen our knowledge, seeing in deep time, archaic time, Palaeolithic time, and start building a culture around renewal  and getting back on track. All those Re words. Remember, regeneration, rewild. 


Working with the fabric 
If you live a life governed by heart, you live in a different world than the one if you live governed by the rational mind. They are different universes. Something that the heart can feel and intuit has a currency and an agency that the rational doesn’t even recognise. It doesn’t even know what you are talking about. 
I am talking with fellow Dark Mountaineer, Jeppe Graugaard about working with the fabric of the world. It’s like an invisible matrix that informs everything that happens in this visible world. Writers and artists understand this fabric, even though they might not describe it in this way. When people make a strategic act with a good intent it has a power and an agency that we cannot see, but affects the whole picture. It echoes in all places, like a hologram, or a homeopathic dose in the body. It’s tiny move - a small trip in a kayak, a conversation by a fire -.but it speaks to the whole world. Everything is contained in that event when it is communicated. The rational tick-boxing ’left-hemisphere’ mind doesn’t understand these kinds of acts – instinctively distrusts them, fearing its own loss of control. Their meaning and value come directly from a creative’ right hemisphere intelligence that is almost impossible to articulate or commodify. Somewhere however we understand it. We get a feeling for it in the core of ourselves, in our bones. Somewhere we trust this feeling with our lives.  

That’s why when I sit down with Jeppe and we talk about time and dreaming and the old myths, I know it matters; why introducing the wolf and the lynx into the mountains, and letting trees regenerate themselves is key. Because these counter-intuitive acts can speak directly to the heart, and a people who have heart are capable of extraordinary things. The heart can turn everything around. Everyone knows that inside themselves. People light up when love and belonging is around. Imagine what that can do with a whole planet. The reason we have to imagine large wild things and do small strategic acts, is because we have got as far as facts and information can take us.  

And now something else, sometimes creative, has to kick in. 

Rewild the body, rewild the mind 
I am leading a walk around the castle in Bungay. It is the second Wellbeing walk in a series we’re running this summer, mapping the town and all its green spaces.  We are threading our way through the Garden Market, past the Punch and Judy show, past the historical ruins,  exploring  alleyways, backstreets and river paths  with fresh eyes. I say I am leading but in fact in front of me there are two small boys running ahead and I am following their track. Suddenly they disappear. Come back now! calls their father. That’s someone’s garden.  They jump out of a lilac hedge, laughing: 

It’s not someone’s garden, corrects the elder brother. “It’s a hedge.  

We have become  a cautious people and  this does us no favours, nor the planet. I like to follow the feisty writer as he go fishing miles out to sea, I like to kick stones with Reuben and Tristram and climb trees, to talk about the deep North with Jeppe at the tail of winter, because these stories are not on the agenda, and yet are embedded in the fabric of life. I know we need to live the opposite of micro-managed life. We need to burst open like flowers,  leave home at dawn walk through the dark, trespass and reclaim our fields, connect with people on the wrong side of the tracks. Encounter the wild creature, stand up in front of strangers and share our story. Listen. Eat nettles and blackberries. build fires, sleep in rain, swim in wild places. Let ourselves go feral.   

So having followed the Transition ethos of relocalisation and community resilience in these five years I realise what I have really been doing within its well-managed civic remit is fostering a culture that cherishes all these  wayward,  earth-loving  actions.  Paying attention to things that civilisation has scant time for, or has forgotten in its pursuit of power. I have come to see that return and regeneration - of soil, neighbourhoods, people, places - is the wild card in the pack, the card all of us have up our sleeves.  

Because a mindset that only understand the value of life including our own  - insofar as it makes money for the economy, that only understands water and plants as commodities, comes from a civilisation that has already outplayed itself. One that has run out of storylines.  And that a culture governed  by  good intention, that springs from  the vast savannah of our imagination, from the deep ocean of our memory,  from our ancestral  beings,  held intact by a long lineage of dreamers, poets and activists, indigenous wherever we live, will never run out, can constantly renew itself, because it holds the  future of the earth in its heart. 

Gazing into the long water reeds of the River Waveney on a bridge with ten people on a Spring day is a good place to start - bringing our feral imagination into play and loving where we really are. Bird by bird, flower by flower,  stream by stream, human being by human being. Truly, wildly, deeply.

Cover of new EarthLines; fruits of foraging along the Waveney (October); on the bridge to Falcon Meadow (April); en route to the Queen Head, Earsham (October); evening primrose behind Castle Meadow (July); collecting cherries on Bath Hills (August); on the bridge to Earsham (May).