Edge time

A couple of weeks ago, I spent a day in some woods staring at the trees. Always time well spent, I find. img_20170201_111748It being a beech wood, the floor was covered in thick leaf litter – just a uniform sea of brown. After a while, I noticed some green near my feet. And then I noticed more specks of green. The bluebells were just starting to poke living leaves through the dead beech leaves. My point is that I didn’t notice them until I had stopped for a while and slowed down my brain.

I went for another meditative walk in nearby woods yesterday. img_20170215_114135This time, I tried becoming attentive from the start, by identifying the trees at the edge of the wood. Then I deliberately walked slowly so that the point of the walk was to become aware rather than to reach a destination, even though I had one in mind. I found I noticed more things, including some badger snuffle tracks, img_20170215_114055a tree stump where a bird of prey had plucked a wood pigeon and more signs of spring: elder coming into leaf and a clump of snowdrops.

I have commented before that I think trees keep to a different sense of time than do humans. So much of my life is lived by the clock, with deadlines to meet, work to be done, places to get to. Possibly the most frequent response I get when I ask people how they are is, “Busy,” and I find myself saying the same thing, perhaps, if I’m honest, just to keep up. I wonder if any of us really know why.

I think it’s important to create an edge to time. It is unnatural and therefore unhealthy to travel so fast all the time, and keep spinning so fast, and filling every moment with activity. It’s important to go to the edge of this fast time sometimes, and stop. Life becomes grey and dull without contrast. img_20170215_105325There was wisdom in the old idea of a Sabbath day – one day in seven that was different to the other six because you didn’t work in it. I’m trying a few things, like not gardening or doing laundry on Sundays, which means I can sit in the garden and enjoy it without thinking of the jobs I need to do. I try to sit quietly with a coffee in the garden every morning after breakfast. It’s not always possible, but I don’t want that to be simply because I’ve got stuff I want to get on with. The stuff can wait for twenty minutes – it will still be there. On my way in to the office, however late I may be, I stop and look at the sea, if only for a minute. It is such a privilege to live near the beautiful sea, and there is rarely as much need to hurry as I think. And I am trying to get regular time in the woods. These are just some of the ways that I am trying to apply the brakes and create some edge space in my life, some contrast between on and off.

In permaculture thinking, the edges are especially fruitful places, and maybe it is the same in the times of our lives. When we slow down and pay attention, we notice things about the world around us and about ourselves that would otherwise go un-noticed in the normal frantic whirl. Noticing the bluebells made me tread very carefully, as they are easily damaged and it will be lovely to go back in April and see them in flower. I find that attentiveness leads to appreciation and that leads to loving action, although perhaps not as much as it should. There really is little to be gained from the ceaseless high-speed stampede of modern life, but applying the brakes and introducing some contrast, some edge time, could be a big gain for you and for the world.img_20170201_135935

Natural time

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?

Living in the woods

img_20160921_104038I’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. img_20160919_150304Of 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 img_20160922_095556longer 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.

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At one with nature at any price

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.

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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.

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.”

 

 

Identity

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.

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.

 

The sound of drums

The garden is an oasis of peace and quiet.  As I walk down it, often I can feel the stress falling away. When I had my little breakdown three years ago, the garden was a great source of healing.  My habit most mornings is to sit down at the end of the garden with a coffee and then pray.  If it’s rainy I sit in the shed, which is down at that far end.

The wild end of the garden
The wild end of the garden

Sitting in the garden early this morning with my coffee, across the birdsong and the peaceful rustle of the leaves in the breeze came the sound of drumming.   Our neighbour behind us put up a shed last year at the end of their garden.  It’s a luxury shed, with a slate roof and velux windows, so I’d hoped it was an office of some sort.  Now it seems like someone in the family has taken up drumming and has been sent out to practise in the shed.

I know how much enjoyment you can get from playing music.  I know that there is nothing like being in a band.  I know that the band practice is usually at the drummer’s house (or garden shed).  I have played with some drummers who needed to practise more.  I know that drums have to be hit, not tapped, and that electronic kits are rubbish.  So I have every sympathy with the drummer in the garden, and also with the rest of their family not wanting to have to put up with drums in the house.  I feel very mean about feeling angry about drum practice wrecking my peaceful garden (coming on top of another neighbour who plays country and western hymns at high volume).

It’s a challenge to me.  This morning, I felt like living in a cabin in the woods, miles from anyone, had never been more attractive.  But that’s not a way to build a viable future for the world.  We all need to learn to get along together so that we can all (including, of course, animals and plants) flourish.   There is a time for drumming, but there is also a time for silent out-doors coffee drinking.  The big flaw, I think, is that I have never talked to those neighbours in six years of living here.  I don’t even know their surname.  That’s modern suburban living for you.  I talk about community but really, I would rather live in isolation from others and their noise.  Perhaps negotiating creative co-existence at the end of the garden is an opportunity to reach out beyond my bubble and build a bit of what I say I believe in.  On the other hand, drummers are a bit scary – there’s something of the animal in them.  It’s often easier to stay with broken-ness than to grow, as I was preaching last Sunday (John 5.1-15)

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