Searching the way home

Mac Macartney, Writer, speaker, eco/peace activist

Published in JHH 18.3-Shifting the paradigm

I walk with grief and joy cupped together in my hands, rejoicing to be alive at such a time, and happy that the storms, droughts, blizzards, and beauty-blessed wonderment of years past seems to have enabled me to love other humans and myself with some measure of compassion and delight.

In the Devon village I have lived in this last four years all is well. People acknowledge each other as they walk to the village shop, the primary school prepares to open its doors for the new term, the tea house is an oasis of calm, gardens are lovingly tended, and the river continues to delight all who take the time to pause, watch, and listen. Our local GP training practice is friendly, responsive, and professional. Doctors, nurses, and reception staff are all widely appreciated and the service feels personal and supportive. I am grateful to live in this village, but I also see how easy it would be to succumb to the fantasy of imagining that this surface commentary encompasses the whole truth. It does not. This village is probably one of the most privileged places on earth to live. Privileged, because if poverty exists it’s hard to find, because we see far more of the open, generous, and hospitable aspects of human behaviour than their opposite, because we are safer than almost any other community I know of, and because the location is rural while not being isolated.

The same gardens that are so assiduously cared for have, over time, become bereft of the diverse wildlife that once lived alongside. Armed with all kinds of machinery, weedkiller, pesticides, and artificial fertiliser, most of the gardens are mercilessly controlled, and managed only for the benefit of humans. Bird feeders of infinite variety occupy a place in most gardens but bird populations continue to decline as suitable habitats are smoothed away and naturally occurring food supplies dwindle. The nearby fields, along which numerous public footpaths meander, are subject to even more rigorous treatment. The food they produce comes from an industrialised farming system that progressively destroys our soil, poisons our rivers, and delivers huge amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. The village is blessed with many children and young people, but outside of school hours we hardly see or hear them. Like the one I use to write this short article, I understand that screens of one kind or another have now largely replaced the outdoors. The church still draws a small congregation but it is no longer the beating heart of the community and for most people, aside from the comforting feeling of continuity it embodies, it is nevertheless an irrelevance.

‘To lose connection to the natural world is to lose connection with ourselves and the responsibilities that our privileged lives bring’

I read the most wonderful book recently, Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. The author is a university professor in environmental and forest biology, and is an enrolled member of the Potawatomi tribe, the ‘keepers of the sacred fire’. As I turned the pages of this beautifully heartfelt, wise, and compassionate book, I once again pondered how it is that we have so carelessly abandoned the knowledge that all life exists in relationship. To lose connection to the natural world is to lose connection with ourselves and the responsibilities that privilege brings. It is as if we live inside a story. A familiar story. In the centre of the village the tree of life grew and flourished. It was loved, revered, and tended by the people. Couples were married under its vast spreading canopy, babies were blessed, each spring garlands of flowers were laid on the soil surrounding the great column of its trunk. Next to the huge roots that plunged beneath the earth’s surface there was a small spring from which flowed the sweetest and purest crystal-clear water. While the tree stood the people prospered. It was entirely reciprocal and everybody understood this. But then, as life became more comfortable and the seasonal rhythms of the year less influential, a slow yet pervasive amnesia insinuated itself into the collective mind of the people, and little by little the tree became less important. It became inconvenient. It came to symbolise antiquated ways of living, a reminder of the people’s naivety, a relic. An embarrassment and therefore disposable. The tree was neglected and slowly died. In time it was almost entirely forgotten. Something like this happened to us. We chose a different story that capitulated to our hubris and reflected back to us the ego-mania of a species that believes it is entitled, unassailable, and superior.

2000 years ago on these islands of ours we still built our homes with the doorways facing the rising sun. They were round, and the hearth was the heart. We were no less intelligent and, in many ways, no less sophisticated. We saw through eyes that gazed in wonderment at the world into which we had been born, and we responded as all original peoples do. We created ceremony. The land upon which we lived was animate and it spoke to us in a language we both understood and loved. Around the same time we were visited by the Romans, an imperial power already deeply immersed in the story of colonisation, enslavement, the diminution of women’s role in society, power and control. While the occupation only spanned a period of 367 years it left an open suppurating wound in our unconscious cultural memory. A wound that, powered by ambition, greed, and eventually coal, allowed us to export this trauma around the world, to the great misfortune of many indigenous peoples. We have to find ways to dissolve our cynicism, accept our lostness, and become once again open to mystery and the profound essence of life’s beauty.

We have to find our way back to the tree that once grew in the centre of our village, sow some seed, and nurture the small beginnings of a new era. We have to find our way back to the garden. My dream, and the actions I take, search a collective epiphany rooted in the emotional, psychological, philosophical and spiritual aspects of our humanity. What will it take to bring our leaders – political, institutional, business, religious, academic – to the point that they are willing to fully embrace the task that has been laid at their feet and accept the self-evident wisdom that so many indigenous peoples have attempted to offer, as exemplified in the Haudenosaunee Confederacy’s principle of seven generations? What will it take to bring enough citizens together and peacefully, lovingly, to insist that leaders of all kinds must serve the wellbeing of all life on this earth, human and more than human? How we achieve such an epiphany I do not know, but I do know that for as long as we celebrate cleverness and sidestep wisdom, we will continue to saw through the branch upon which we sit.

‘As long as we celebrate cleverness and sidestep wisdom, we will continue to saw through the branch upon which we sit’

Accepting my failure in masterminding a plan that will turn our unconscious march towards the cliff edge away to safer ground, I choose to be attentive to the host of small things that have enabled me to be more present and attentive to everything I have been given rather than that which I lack. I find restfulness in the Mohawk people’s way of prayer. In the journey of a year the Mohawk’s prayers are always prayers of gratitude. Only once in the year do they ask for something, and this takes place over the winter solstice, when the dark advances and the light retreats. At this time the Mohawk permit themselves the dispensation of asking that the sun once again begin to climb in the sky and bring about another cycle of renewal. After this, they return to gratitude.

I plant a single potato with my small son. He knows that we only planted one potato. Every few days we water the ground and ponder on the potato’s fate. Periodically I ask how many potatoes we planted. He is certain that we only planted one. Leaves show above ground and he is triumphant, assiduously caring for the plant and taking pleasure in his contribution to its well being. One day I suggest digging up the potato to see how it is doing. My three-year-old son is both surprised and intrigued by this unlikely idea. We do so, and his eyes widen in wonder. Twenty-five potatoes are revealed. We marvel, joyful at the deep magic of earth, water, sun, and air. The potatoes are cooked on an outside fire and eaten with butter, a little salt and pepper. This short story describes a ceremony. We go for walks in the nearby woodland carrying a small bag of grain. On the occasion of spotting the entrance to some small rodent’s home, we place a tiny pile of food. A thanksgiving, a gift, an expression of gratitude. This too, describes a ceremony. I feed the birds outside my writing cabin. One day I am again reminded of how used they have become to my presence. I can stand right next to the bird table and they alight taking food without fear. A robin comes so close I slowly extend my hand and she/he places their small life in my palm. Each morning I offer food. Each morning the robin blesses me with trust. Some months ago my son asked if the robin would take food from his hand. We practice stillness together and now the robin feeds from his hand as confidently as it does from mine. The boy shines with delight, with pride, with the joy of being trusted and the deep magic of being in relationship with the wild. This too, is ceremony.

When we begin to recover the eyes that we once had as children, when we find the profound beauty that exists in the heart of everything we call ordinary, when we find ways to quiet our anxious fearfulness and allow gratitude to fill our hearts, everything will begin to rebalance. All may yet be well in our village, but we do need to care enough to make this possible. Seeds must be sown. New shoots must be tended. The renewal of our species will take place when we remember the trust placed in us by the rest of nature and pledge ourselves in service to life’s wide, wide altar. Even as I write this, even as you read this, the planets of our solar system dance their great dance around the sun. We live inside a ceremony, and each small acknowledgement on our part describes a connective thread binding us to life, to our children, to beauty. Peacefulness will inhabit our hearts when we join the dance and link hands with the trees, the rivers, the mountains, the forests, the grasslands, the deserts, all life, and each other. We simply need to care enough, be brave, participate, be kind, be generous, and be thankful. Even as modern humans living in the complex messiness of the 21st century, we can do this, if we so choose.