I spent a few days on Dartmoor, camping in a small oak wood up the valley of the River Erme. Piles Copse is an ancient woodland, once part of a farmstead. It’s a beautiful and peaceful place, ascending from the river up into dark, impenetrable, boulder-strewn woodland, filled with oaks so old they have beards. It was fantastic to spend time in it.
And yet … not in it. I could only spend a few days here because I’d carried enough food with me. I could only drink safe water because I’d brought the equipment with me to purify it (there’s a lot of poo on Dartmoor). I could only take shelter from the voracious midges because I’d brought a tent. In fact, I felt it was less a case of being in nature and more like being against nature. Being attacked by swarms of midges quickly shattered my romantic view of the peaceful community of creation. They may well, for all I know, have been thanking God for the food he’d provided for them, as I would have done if I’d caught and cooked one of the fish in the river. Thinking of Isaiah 11, maybe one glorious day the midge shall eat sap like the aphid, but even this magical sylvan grove was far from paradise on that sweltering, still, humid evening.
This struggle against nature goes almost back to the beginning of the biblical story, in the curse laid on Adam in Genesis 3. The transition from foraging to hunting to settled agriculture was possible because we learned how to subdue the earth. But in the end, the earth, on which and from which we have lived through our toil and sweat and struggle against it, will subdue us – “To the earth you shall return.” (Genesis 3.19). A ruined medieval farmstead high on Dartmoor was a good place to reflect on this. Life must have been hard for those farmers – too hard in the end, I guess.
So I think any scheme for harmony between humanity and majority-nature, and any spirituality of nature-connection, must avoid too much romance and take account of the reality of how technological humanity has evolved against nature. We are not simply animals with tools. Our use of technology over millennia has made us what we are today and if the technology were taken away, we would quickly lose the struggle. But perhaps being aware of this could help us set better limits on that struggle and on the harm it is doing to fellow creatures. Spending more time and effort in paying attention to the life around us and enjoying it, combined with humility and frank acknowledgement of how much harm we can do, might help us make vital moral choices about how we use technology and for whose benefit.
One further reflection is about the backpacking experience. Concern for minimal impact made me very aware of my footprint on this sensitive environment. I had to think carefully, firstly, about the food I took because I had to carry all the rubbish off the moor; then about how my washing waste could be minimal both in terms of where I put it and how much precious water I used; then about my own waste. The moor was very dry, so I sourced my drinking water from the river, which meant having to purify it. This took time, as well as gas (itself on a limited supply), and I had to balance keeping myself hydrated in hot weather against how hard-come-by the water was. Then there’s having a minimal impact on yourself, in the sense that whatever you want to have on the expedition you have to carry and every ounce counts. It is sobering to reflect on how little I needed on the trip compared with how much I use in normal life, when water and fuel are on endless supply, the waste goes down the drain and some nice men turn up each week to take our rubbish away somewhere, and the impact of my consumption is not borne by me. I wouldn’t want to live a nomadic life, although an increasing number of people are being forced into one. I wonder if part of the problem is thinking “This is it, this is the good life,” when in fact I am a pilgrim on a journey and not yet settled in a world of peace and flourishing. Settling too soon is, in a sense, trying to cheat God and leads to the huge levels of destructive impact that are presently threatening our civilization. As The Eagles sang so poignantly on ‘The Last Resort’ – “Call someplace Paradise, kiss it goodbye.”