Psalm 147 – Bringing everything together

This is just to flag up, for those of you who like such things, that I’ve posted a new Creation Psalm bible reflection.

Psalm 147 brings several things together, including Catholics and Protestants. Impossible, do I hear you say? Well – have a look and see how the psalmist managed to do what the ecumenical movement has so far failed to do, and how they managed to do it hundreds of years before there even were such things as Catholics and Protestants. I make other points as well, about creation and salvation, time and space and… well, why not just click here and read it?

Creation Psalms

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:

http:\\creationpsalms.wordpress.com

 

Dartmoor

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.

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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.

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Water purification stage 1

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.

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Water purification stage 2

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.

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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.”

 

 

Multiplication

Light-bulbs are boring. Carbon emissions are boring. Reducing your footprint is a worthy aspiration, but it’s reductive, it closes down and diminishes. It’s putting the cart before the horse.

Carts are boring. You can jazz them up, but it’s still a cart. The interesting bit is the horse at the front – that living being who can look you in the eye, who needs feeding and grooming and who might return a pat on the neck with a friendly nuzzle. Life is interesting. Tools are tools.

In the bible, in Genesis 1, there are two charges from God to creation. The first is in verse 22, at the end of the fifth day, when God blesses the fish and the birds and tells them to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” The second is verse 28, spoken to humans: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it …” OK, the charge to subdue and have dominion is problematic, although some argue it depends how you interpret it. What I want to reflect on is the charge to humans, birds and fish to “Be fruitful and multiply.”

There is a similar two-fold charge after the flood. In Genesis 8.17, Noah is told to bring out of the ark every living thing – “birds and animals and every creeping thing” – “so that they may abound on the earth and be fruitful and multiply on the earth.” A few verses later, (9.1) the same blessing is given to Noah and his family – to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.”

What do you think? Have these verses been over-fulfilled by humans and it’s time to stop multiplying and scale back? Could be. Certainly, we cannot continue with a way of life that would require more than three planet Earths when we only have one. The danger of multiplication is that it leads to more and there is an urgent need for us to stop at ‘enough’.

But I want to go back to my horse and the thought that life is good. Just as environmentally-concerned Christians have morphed Genesis 1’s fearsome concept of ‘dominion’ into the gentler ‘stewardship’, I think we may be able to find a way of being fruitful and multiplying that will lead to life that is flourishing, abundant and life-giving – for all.

Here I am going to borrow from Naomi Klein (in This Changes Everything) and her contrast of two mindsets – extractive versus regenerative. An extractive mindset is what’s been governing human behaviour for centuries. We take for ourselves what we want – coal, oil, timber, ore, food, water, whatever. Our focus is on what we want, and we apply our ingenuity to solving the problem of extracting as much stuff as we want. We are just starting to realize that we need to apply some ingenuity to the problem of what we do with the waste, because there’s too much of it. To an extractive world-view, multiplication is simply about having more. We will grow the economy, multiply the value of our property, have more stuff.

An extractive approach to the problem of excessive waste (including pollution) is to find ways of extracting less, mainly through becoming more efficient. We expect to maintain our way of life – keep the lights on, for example – while using less energy and other resources. It sounds worthy but it remains, at its core, extractive. It takes. Taking less is reductive and it’s still taking. And it’s like a boring cart. May as well make it a car (but a very efficient one), then there’s no need for that horse – because at the end of the day, there’s no need for life in an extractive world.

A regenerative approach would be more immersed and participative. It would be very mindful of what is put back into the natural system. We have to take – we have to eat and heat and so on. The question is, how do we give back and replenish, so that regeneration – new life – can happen? In a regenerative society, multiplication would mean putting more in than was taken out. A guiding principle would be that if you can’t add more back in, you can’t take anything out. We would live in order to multiply life.

In a regenerative world, we would pay attention to the relationships within systems. People more interested in giving than taking would naturally build strong and joyful communities. They would apply their ingenuity to inventing ways of growing food, travelling, acquiring and using energy, and so on, that multiplied life rather than diminished it. As more is put in than taken out, carbon emissions would go into reverse. But the focus would be on life, not on stuff. The focus would be on life that is abundant and flourishing, for all, including horses.

 

 

Front Gardening

This is only the second front garden I’ve had.  In the last house, the back was so large I just kept the front as lawn.  Here, though, the back is small and quite shaded; also I want to leave enough space out there so that the tent can be put up to dry if we have to bring it home wet.  So I’ve decided to put some vegetable beds in the front garden instead.  Here’s a photo of progress so far:

Front veg beds

The frames are old ones we brought with us, the rear one being made of old floor joists.  I’m a fan of ‘no dig’ gardening, on the basis that the soil is a living complex of fungi and other important beings that are better left undisturbed … plus it’s less work.  So I put down a layer of cardboard to cover the grass, then added the compost and some manure.  Then the seedlings went in: sugar snap peas, lettuce, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower and strawberries.  A surface mulch of straw should help with moisture retention.  In front I’ve planted a couple of rosemary bushes and some dwarf sunflower seeds.

The first night, a fox (probably) dug everything up.  I was really annoyed.  I thought, “What makes the fox think she can just dig where she likes?”  Then I thought, “What makes me think I can just install raised beds where I like?”  Still – I’ve put a sheet of wire mesh across the rear bed, about 6 inches above the soil.  The front bed frame was a kit and had a kind of square poly-tunnel over it. The plastic rotted but I’ve used the frame and covered it with chicken wire.  So far, that’s kept the animals away and the re-planted seedlings seem to be recovering.

One bonus of gardening in front of the house is that, while I was working, I had loads of short conversations with passers-by.  It seems that vegetables make people happy.

Why don’t I get out into the countryside more often?

On Monday, it was my day off.  My older son (just back from university for Easter) and I set out on our bikes.  We went down to the sea-front, along the eastern arm of Shoreham Harbour and crossed at the lock gates.  At Shoreham, we turned up the old railway line, now a trackway, and cycled along the river bank to Bramber.  Then through Upper Beeding, Edburton, Fulking and Poynings, where we had lunch at Rushfields Garden Centre and stocked up on supplies at their farm shop. Then we toiled up Devil’s Dyke and then coasted down back into Hove, barely having to pedal.

It was a dull day but mostly dry.  These little Sussex villages are so pretty and the countryside is just super, breath-takingly beautiful.  We really enjoyed our ride.   One of the things I love about cycling is that if you want to stop and look at something, you can.  You don’t have to find a parking space.  The freedom is half the exhilaration.  Physical achievement and going fast down a long hill combines for the other half.

Most of Sussex is covered by licences to explore for oil and gas through fracking.  I know that the landscape is already post-industrial (it used to be covered by trees – hence “Weald” from the Saxon for wood – which were cut down for ship-building, construction, iron-smelting and cleared for agriculture).  However, I think that it would be a crime and a sin to turn this beautiful countryside into a gas field – not to mention the harm that would do to the environment at large by burning all that gas and by the extra road traffic on the little winding lanes.  It seems a bit simplistic, maybe even sentimental, but is the beauty of the earth the best reason to look after it?

Talking of sentimental, I took some pictures and put them into a film.  It’s a bit rough and ready, but I enjoyed putting it together and I hope you’ll enjoy watching and listening.  One day I might part with some money to upgrade this blog so that I can embed video.  For now, you’ll have to click this link.

 

Pruning

I spent a happy day in the garden, pruning shrubs and doing a bit of general tidying.  Here’s one of my big fuchsias before:

Fuschia before

 

And after:

Fuschia after

 

They love a good prune! I wasn’t as severe as usual. I normally wait for the leaves to drop, but this winter’s been so mild that most of the fuchsias stayed in leaf, and now the spring leaves are bursting out.

In fact, spring seemed to be bursting out all over on this sunny February day.  Some of the daffodils are out, and the crocuses have been in flower for a few weeks.  A bumble bee was enjoying this crocus:

Bee in crocus

 

The dogwoods are next on the pruning schedule.  Not long now.

Cornus and crocus

 

My day in the garden was tinged with some sadness, as this will be my last spring in it.  A change of job means a change of house, even though my new church is only in Brighton and is nearer this house than the one we have to move to.  I hope that whoever succeeds me in Hove and in this garden learns to understand it. In particular, I hope s/he doesn’t chop down my trees and continues to let it be semi-wild. For example, those brambly log piles are home to all sorts of animal life, including frogs and newts. Hey ho – it’s not my garden. However much time and energy and planting I’ve invested in it, I was only a participant in nature, and that silver birch and that liquidambar were never going to mature in my time here.  But – it’s hard to be pruned.

 

 

Daybreak

I’ve just had a very timely retreat at Sheldon, in Devon. I spent much of the week putting off dealing with the big emotional issue that I’ll soon be leaving my present churches and moving on. But if you’ve got to deal with something tough, or try to avoid doing so, you may as well be in a place of extraordinary natural beauty and an atmosphere of loving care. So I was in the right place.

Teign Valley

 

On Sunday morning, there was a thick frost.  In the twilight, I walked out to a sheltered dell and sat and waited for the sunrise, which I expected over the crest of a hill quite soon. It was a beautiful morning, crisp and quiet. No wind blew, no birds sang, all the humans were snug and quiet in their distant beds. The only sound was the patter of leaves dropping from an ash tree. I sat and waited for the sun. I waited and I waited. I could see sunshine on the hills behind, across the valley to the west. Maybe the sun was going to leave me out today. I waited and I waited. Maybe the sun had risen as much as it wanted today. There was a bright patch just above the crest, but it was just sunlight diffracting in a cloud, that drifted away. I waited and I waited, growing steadily colder. Then it came – at first a dazzling too-bright peep but once it had started, the sun rose rose very quickly. The dell was filled with light. The leaves shone vivid green. The birds started to sing. It was stunningly glorious.

Sheldon sunrise

“My soul waits for the Lord,

more than watchmen for the morning.”

(Psalm 130.6)

God does come. In his time, and with light and fire for a frosty world, and with the gentle rain of blessing, like falling leaves in an autumn sunrise.

“O Israel, hope in the Lord!

For with the Lord there is steadfast love,

and with God is plentiful redemption.”

(Psalm 130.7)

 

Leave the leaves

This is what an autumn lawn should look like:

Leafy lawn

 

It’s not a very good photo, but you get the idea. The leaves are supposed to lie under the tree, rot down with the help of the fungi and bugs that eat them, and then enrich the soil to feed the tree. The blackbirds flick through the leaves to eat some of the bugs. A man in wellies kicks through the leaves just for the fun of it. If you rake them up, none of this good, life-giving stuff can happen. A lawn rake is a tool of the devil, and don’t get me started on motorised leaf blowers. Leave the leaves alone! Everyone is happier when things are left the way they should be.