This is more of an announcement than a blog post – a sort of housekeepy admin thing. I think it’s time to refresh this blog. I want to keep posting reflections on a wide range of issues, as before, and, as before, some of these will be light-hearted and others more serious. I would like to post more often, but experience makes me reluctant to promise that. I’d also like to incorporate some things I’ve been writing elsewhere, which are more serious (and often longer), plus some resources I’d like to offer. I want to make stronger links with some of the projects I’m involved in too.
I’m inclined to be wary of self-promotion, but it seems to make sense to simplify the web address and make it easier for people to remember. So it’s goodbye to my alter-ego Mabbsonsea – it’s time to be myself. The name of the blog will change to alexmabbs.com Hopefully if you’ve been following me, that will carry on as before.
I’d like to thank those of you who have followed my blog and read my rambling thoughts. I hope you continue to enjoy it.
I am feeling quite gloomy at the moment, but this Blog post is so true, and I know that the actions I take keep me from despair – after all, when I am doing something positive and creative, I can’t at the same time accept that all is hopeless…
So you are depressed about the politicians in your country and their environmental credentials? I’m not just talking about the US now… things aren’t any better in Australia, the UK or much of Europe. Well, in that case take control. YOU can make a difference and here’s how:
Don’t want fracking and all the associated pollution and greenhouse gas emissions? Then make sure your energy supplier doesn’t support this. In the UK the Big 6 all support fracking, but there are plenty of smaller, green suppliers who don’t, so give your business to them.
Worried about greenhouse gas emissions from transportation? Optimise the use of your car – never drive for a single purpose, always try achieve several goals on each journey. And, if you can, walk, cycle or use public transport instead. Buy local – locally produced goods have not been transported long distances, plus you are keeping your money…
It’s now three weeks since I finished my sabbatical and returned to work and I am really struggling to adjust. Three months of camping and hiking and staring at trees (as well as a few other trips and things) must have really slowed me down and it’s been quite a shock to come back to the pace of ‘normal’ life. I think I hadn’t realised how fast the merry-go-round was spinning until I tried to climb back on it. It’s just exhausting. And I think, “Why?” Why are we so accepting of such a fast pace of life, or is it just me who is struggling to cope?
Trees have a different timescale. I read somewhere that oak trees take 300 years to grow, 300 years to live and 300 years to die. To sit and spend a couple of hours watching the leaves flutter on a tree is less than a blink of an eye to the tree. I find myself wishing I could just be amongst the trees again, because I think life seems to make more sense in the woods.
At the other end of the spectrum, perhaps, are insects like the Mayfly, who lives in its adult state for just one day. In Rob Cowan’s brilliant book, ‘Common Ground’, he writes about the day of the adult mayfly and weaves that story around a story of some young people seizing the moment and living for the day.
Somewhere between the 300,000 days of an oak tree’s life and the one day of the mayfly, is my life. I wonder, what is my natural time? What is the natural pace for a human life? I can’t sit around all day staring at trees as if I’ve got all the time in the world, because I don’t. Some things have to be done, to live, to work, to love. But they don’t all have to be done right now as if today is all I have and I must frenetically pack as much into each minute as possible. In fact, much of the living, working and loving can only happen well if given time for paying attention, to listen, to think and to feel. How can we – how can I – live like a human being in a mayfly culture?
I’m just back from a short week in a cabin in a small wood in Devon. It’s part of the wonderful Sheldon retreat centre (Society of Mary and Martha) where I’ve been for luxurious retreats in the past and where we go annually for a clergy family holiday.
The cabin is pretty basic, although it has electricity and a cold water tap. The best part was having the wood to myself – part of the deal is ‘Go away’ signs to hang on the gates. Of course, I didn’t have it to myself. I was sharing the space with the creatures for whom this is home, from the little mouse living in a hole in the porch, to the rabbits across the bridge, the birds, spiders, insects and so on. The best wildlife moment for me was sitting outside the cabin one evening, enjoying watching dusk fall on the wood, when I heard a tawny owl’s “kee-vick” call. All of a sudden, there she was, clinging to the trunk of an ash tree, not seven yards away. She turned her head around, gave me a long stare out of big black eyes, and flew off silently. I hadn’t seen a tawny owl in the wild before, so it was a special moment, made more special because I had earlier been reading about tawny owls in Rob Cowan’s fabulous book, ‘Common Ground’.
I just love being in the woods. There’s something holy about dappled light falling through branch and leaf. I love the smell of damp leaf mould in the morning after rain. There is so much life in a mixed woodland, even a small one like this, that it feels like a privilege to live amongst it, even as a short-stay guest. Trees seem to keep their own time, much longer than mine, that means that a couple of hours spent watching the leaves flutter was just a moment’s glance. At the beginning of my stay, I had that panicked sense, common for me at the start of any retreat, that I hadn’t brought anything to do, not even a notebook. As usual, that feeling was mingling with a sense of urgency to get something meaningful out of the time. It took about a day for that inner urgency to quieten down, and I found that while there was little to do, there was plenty to be, and that even with such a good book to look at, there was plenty more interesting to look at, not going on but just being, all around me – the life of the woods.
At the end of August, Mrs Mabbsonsea and I celebrated 25 years of marriage with a short trip to Berlin. We first met there in 1989, spending two weeks on the same volunteer team. It was just three months before the Berlin Wall fell in November that year and we have wanted to re-visit for some time and see how the city has changed.
What people seem to be finding hard to believe, as we bore them with our holiday stories, is that we travelled there by train. Not part of the way, but all the way. And back. Who would do such a thing? It cost two or three times as much as air travel and took much longer – about 14 hours, door-to-door.
Flying uses a lot more fuel per km than trains, short flights more so as a greater proportion of the journey is take-off and landing. For that reason, I have decided not to fly. I have been thinking about the givens we work with. For many in my society, their non-negotiable given is that they should be able to do what they want (if they can afford it, and if not, get it on credit). Two examples: they should be able to travel where they want and they should be able to use as much electricity as they want when they want it. But what if the non-negotiable given is the chemistry of the atmosphere? For that to be non-negotiable, other compromises will need to be made, which may be costly. I am lazy and a product of my culture and I don’t make enough of those compromises, but one thing I am doing is not flying.
Travelling by train from Brighton to Berlin, changing in London, Brussels and Koln, gave us a sense of the distance we were travelling. Through the window of the train (except when we were in the Channel Tunnel) we could see how we were moving across the earth. A high-speed train distorts this a bit because I don’t have much of a reference point for what 250 km/h really means, but this sense of place and movement was enhanced on the outward journey because the high speed train broke down. We had to board a slow train at Brussels and travel for an hour and a half through Belgium. At Verviers, buses had been laid on which took us on an extraordinarily scenic tour through the Ardennes to Aachen. There we caught another slow train to Koln. None of the sense of the distances or the grandeur of the countryside or the width of the River Rhein, or views of the cathedrals at Koln or Aachen (where Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800), would have happened from a plane. Nor would a nostalgic glimpse of the Schwebebahn, Wuppertal’s historic suspended monorail, which I rode during a school trip in 1980. I think a train goes too fast for my soul to keep up, but it is a whole lot less disconnected from reality than an aeroplane.
Berlin is a long way from here. I think that length of journey is about my limit. So there is a lot of the world I will never see, even if I manage to cobble together enough leave at some point to do a more complex expedition. Part of me feels a bit sad about that, but then even without my flying ban, I couldn’t visit everywhere. I read recently that Jesus lived a fulfilled life without seeing the Grand Canyon. Our greedy consumption of as much oil as we can afford has removed many of the limits to our expectations, but like most over-consumption, it doesn’t seem to have made us happier or better people. Perhaps it is time that we put some limits back on what we will do individually, in order that the limits might be expanded on the chances of the world having a flourishing future.
We loved our trip to Berlin. It’s a fabulous city, with so much thought-provoking and interesting history, incredible architecture and with a great big wood in the middle of it. I’d recommend a visit … but only if you travel there by train!
Yesterday I set out on a hike from home, over the Downs, to a campsite in the woods about 12 miles away. It was always going to be quite a challenge as I haven’t walked that far with a big pack since my legs were younger, but I liked the idea of doing the round trip from home on foot (although Mrs Mabbsonsea’s offer of a lift for the first mile was too good to turn down – and perhaps that signified what was to follow …)
I hadn’t gone more than half a mile, at 9am, before the sweat was pouring down my face. It wasn’t the heat so much as the humidity. Without a breath of wind, the humidity was so high that you could feel the water in the air. I pressed on, feeling increasingly uncomfortable, miserable and tired. Shortly after crossing the by-pass, out of the town and into the fields, and after much dithering, I gave up. I turned around, walked back to the nearest bus stop and caught a bus home. The weather had beaten me.
After a shower, a change of clothes and lunch, I loaded my pack into the car and drove to the campsite. Well, I had already paid for it, and I really wanted to spend a night in the woods. I had a fantastic time, with a splendid view of the Downs from my clearing. I listened to the birds, I watched the sunset and I watched my camp-fire until bed-time.
Staring into the flames, it struck me how ridiculous I was being and that I’m a very bad ecologist. Nature had made my plans unworkable, so I beat nature by burning some petrol – precisely the kind of thing I object to when moaning about patio heaters, air travel and politicians saying we have to keep the lights on. I like to argue that we have to start accepting limits to our behaviour and our consumption, e.g. if the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing, you’re going to have to make a cold drink because there isn’t any electricity (burning fossil fuels not being an option). But here was I driving my car because I’d booked a campsite and arranged the time away and I was going to go, come rain or high humidity.
I could let myself off the hook a little by saying that our leisured consumer culture runs deep in me. But the truth is that I had choices at every step but I didn’t think it through. Another truth is that I had a lovely stay in a rather quirky but rather fabulous woodland campsite (Blackberry Wood, near Streat, for those of you within striking distance). If I hadn’t planned it and booked it, I know it wouldn’t have happened at all. But how do I live more in harmony with the weather in my highly-scheduled life? I don’t want to wait until the costly tech is no longer available – I want to do the right thing now. I have much to learn … and there’s some irony with this lesson in that the trees started to teach it to me in Blackberry Wood on my motoring trip.
I am about two-thirds of the way through a sabbatical, in which I’ve been exploring connections with nature. There are a few posts here on the blog about this, but a new project that’s emerging from this period of focused study and prayer is a website called Creation Psalms. I’m writing some reflections on some of the psalms that deal with nature/creation, incorporating some of the insights I’ve been getting from staring at trees and reading the occasional book.
It won’t appeal to everyone, but here you are, if you’re interested:
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.”
Here’s a story that didn’t make it into the bible. I’m sure it must have made the short-list, though.
When Noah was loading the animals onto the ark, he made sure he took as many as the ark would hold, and then some. That meant that there was very little space for any personal possessions. But, however tightly you pack a space, there’s always room for a ukulele and Noah found he could take two.
Noah and Mrs. Noah used to play their ukuleles on the stormy evenings afloat in order to calm down the animals and cheer them up.
That means that all musical instruments on the earth today are descended from that pair of ukuleles, and it explains why nothing cheers the heart like a song on a uke.
I have been doing a bushcraft course, with the assessment weekend coming up fast. One aspect of the course is natural history. We have had to learn to identify trees and woodland plants, as well as animal tracks and signs.
Out and about in parks and in the countryside these past six weeks, armed with my pocket tree guide, I have bored Mrs Mabbsonsea and other companions with my constant stopping to figure out what ‘that one over there’ is. What’s frustrated me is that the pictures in the book don’t usually look much like that one over there, but I have found the process more fascinating than frustrating. I feel that the need to notice in order to learn has made me much more attentive and appreciative of the living being in front of me. I feel that the desire to assign a name to that one over there connects me to it – which was the broad and basic point of doing the course anyway.
In the bible story of Genesis 2, the man gives names to the animals. I’ve tended to see that naming as an act of taking power over them, but my recent experience makes me wonder if I was wrong. Perhaps it was an expression of humble connection in that ideal place: taking an interest in another being and noticing what is special about it. “Hmm… this little brown bird looks very similar to that one, but their beaks are a different shape and one is happy to feed in the trees, but the other only feeds on the ground.”
Richard Bauckham, writing on the praises of creation in Psalm 148, says, “Sharing something of God’s primal delight in creation enables us also to delight in God himself.” I think he is on to something. Perhaps as I learn to identify more beings with whom I share life on earth, the deeper connection that results from that deepens my understanding of my own true identity as one special being in community amongst many.