Monday, 22 June 2015


Tim Veater

I have been reading an excellent book. It is titled ‘The Old Ways’ by Robert MacFarlane and recounts many of his walks across England, Scotland, France, Palestine, and Nepal, some of them in the steps of Edward Thomas, poet and traveller. Thomas left his last footprint on Easter Monday 1917 on the first day of the Battle of Arras. Just another life snuffed out in an episode that proved the total stupidity of human-kind. Nothing that has happened since encourages us to think it has learned anything.

Last week when coming-to after an evening doze, as dusk was falling like a cloak, I was startled by a dull thud against the glazing. When I looked out I witnessed the last living – or dying – moments of a Swallow, that perhaps inexperienced, had made the fatal decision to dive between oak posts, unaware of the transparent silicon barrier that would interrupt its air-slicing revelrie. Swallow flight somehow epitomises the joyful essence of life and freedom.

I rushed outside and cupped it in my hand and hoped for a miracle, but despite being still warm, its independent contribution to aerial display was at an end, and although unseen and unknown by the world, it constituted a very real loss.

The Robert MacFarlane book is a wonderful evocation of the interconnectedness of life that happens, is happening, all around us, all the time, of which we are quite unaware. Every living creature shares this paradoxical experience of autonomy and interdependence. We are all ‘conscious’ of ourselves, whilst ‘others’ pass through’ registered by our five senses and eliciting emotional responses. The individual Starling, in a ‘murmuration’ of sweeping and turning, almost like demonic smoke, possesses an innate, intuitive, survival instinct and life force that is inexplicable.

The arrogance of humanity, particularly ‘post-scientific rational humanity’ if there is such a thing, sees itself as detached and superior, able to use and abuse nature and fellow creatures – even fellow travellers – to its own advantage, and damn the consequences. It is an arrogance we frequently see in big business, politicians, government and even the law. We see it when animals are experimented on in their millions, it is said for human advantage. We see it when the air and sea is polluted without compunction. When the aquifers and pristine environments are polluted in a search for ‘cheap’ fossil fuel. We see it in modern intensive farming and husbandry, when animal welfare and the intricacies of nature are abandoned to greed and profit.

We see it when men who claim to be leaders make decisions that involve death, destruction and misery for their fellow man, and present it triumphantly as laudable. As I think Wellington – hardly the most empathetic of men – commented, “There is only one misery worse than defeat – and that is victory.”

MacFarlane quotes one of Thomas’ poems thus:

And heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead
Returning lightly dance:

Whatever the roads bring
To me or take from me,
They keep me company
With their pattering

Crowding the solitude
Of the loops over the downs,
Hushing the roar of the towns
And their brief multitude.

It seems to me that humans, capable of great thought and moral reasoning can also be guilty of losing it to selfishness, power and dark institutional forces. It can result in losing touch with a deep and pervading philosophy that accepts we are part of a wider complex, remarkable and unique planet. Lovelock’s spirit of ‘Gaia’. It is a philosophy. It is an attitude. It is a way of behaving.

It is also inimitable to the behaviour of ‘judges’, officials and others witnessed in the ‘Hampstead case’ where humanity and natural affection has been replaced with hard, cold, insensitivity – something any individual still connected to nature, must find deeply repellant.

Perhaps poets and composers best sum up the mood and sentiment, as in one of William Blake’s famous poems:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

A Robin Redbreast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage.
A dove house fill’d with doves and pigeons
Shudders Hell thro’ all its regions.

A Dog starv’d at his Master’s Gate
Predicts the ruin of the State.
A Horse misus’d upon the Road
Calls to Heaven for Human blood.

Each outcry of the hunted Hare
A fiber from the Brain does tear.
He who shall train the Horse to War
Shall never pass the Polar Bar.

The Beggar’s Dog and Widow’s Cat,
Feed them and thou wilt grow fat.
The Gnat that sings his Summer song
Poison gets from Slander’s tongue.

The poison of the Snake and Newt
Is the sweat of Envy’s Foot.
A truth that’s told with bad intent
Beats all the Lies you can invent.

It is right it should be so;
Man was made for Joy and Woe;
And when this we rightly know
Thro’ the World we safely go.

Every Night and every Morn
Some to Misery are Born.
Every Morn and every Night
Some are Born to sweet delight.
Some are Born to sweet delight,
Some are Born to Endless Night.

The battle for decency continues and only such as we, ordinary but extraordinary individuals, unconnected but connected by a common humanity and concern, can take it to the enemy – pacifically.

Arvo Part’s “Spiegel im Spiegel’

'The Old Ways' by Robert MacFarlane. Penguin. 2013.

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