Reconnecting with nature; the talk that never happened.
Back in September Charlie Heasman from Sustainable Skerries was invited to talk at the Wellness Festival in Skerries Mills.
The talk never took place.
Unfortunately he had been allocated the first slot of the day, which proved a little too early for a prospective audience, and no-one turned up.
Here’s what he would have said:
If the first part of this presentation appears to be ‘me, me’ I apologise; I am speaking only from experience, which is all any of us can do…
So where do I start?
…When I was a 14 year old schoolboy back in England I was forced to read a book.
“Forced” might be a little too strong of a term; no-one twisted my arms behind my back or made me sit at a table and not get up until I’d finished, but nonetheless I had very little choice in the matter.
The book was part of my O level English Literature curriculum and if I didn’t read it I was not going to pass. So I sat down with adolescent bad grace, groaned inwardly, and turned to page 1. Two chapters in and something strange had happened: I realised that I was actually enjoying it. In fact I enjoyed it so much that that book has been on and off my bookshelf all my life since.
The book was Cider With Rosie by Laurie Lee. Some of you might know it.
For those who don’t it is an account of the author’s life as a small child growing up in rural Gloucestershire at the end of the First World War. This was a world that had not yet seen a tractor; horses still ploughed the fields. An occasional motor car – an enormous novelty – would occasionally rattle down dusty roads that would not see tarmac for many a year yet, and life continued (for the present) much as it had for generations.
I was green with envy. Laurie Lee had been born in exactly the right place and at exactly the right time to live through and experience the greatest change in history that would ever happen; the arrival in the village of Chad, near Stroud, of the Industrial Revolution. I had missed it by being born in London 40 years too late. There would never again be an opportunity to witness anything like it.
All this occupied my thoughts to a considerable extent and eventually I decided to do something about it.
I left home at 16 and went to work on a small hill farm in Wales.
The horses were long gone but had left reminders of their previous existence in the form of horse drawn agricultural implements – mowers, hay rakes etc – which were now pulled behind either one of a pair of ancient and monstrous Nuffield tractors which required a starting handle to get them going and which I couldn’t because I was too small and puny.
The farm had no mains water. Rainwater was collected from the roofs and water for the house fetched in milk churns from a well a mile away. This didn’t provide enough for the needs of the farm and one of my jobs was to drive the cattle down the mountain twice a day, morning and evening, to drink at a spring.
In truth they took no driving at all, they were quite happy to amble down and be escorted back up. While they drank I sat on a rock and chewed a grass stem. And you can’t get much more bucolic than that.
The farm is still there of course, but with mains water connected, modern farm buildings constructed and a shiny green John Deere tractor with an aluminium Ifor Williams horsebox parked beside the Toyota Landcruiser.
I got there just in time after all; clever me!
Oh, clever me indeed. But there was one thing I got wrong; very, very wrong.
I thought that Laurie Lee had witnessed the greatest change in human lifestyle that could ever possibly happen. That’s what I got wrong.
I refer, of course, to the digital, electronics and communications revolution which everyone here over the age of 20 has themselves lived through. This change has been every bit as big and very, very few of us would want to give up the benefits: mobile phones, the internet, apps to tell you when the next bus is or what the traffic’s like on the M50, social media, chat rooms, whatsap and twitter, computer games and everything else.
Where it goes next none of us know, but we are removing ourselves further and further away from where we came from, from the natural world.
This might not seem like a problem to many. After all, we can control nature can’t we? And as long as we can manipulate nature to provide us with food and whatever else we need why bother ourselves further?
Nature has become largely superfluous; indeed, messy, unreliable and inconvenient. Nature is muddy footprints in the house, having to rake leaves off the lawn in the autumn, keeping an anxious and watchful eye on the kids in case they get stung by a stinging nettle or fall out of a tree. Nature is rain and the necessity of taking an umbrella on the morning commute; worse, wind and rain blow the umbrella apart and it’s dumped in a bin; leaves on the line cause disruptions and make us late getting home in the evening.
Nature is disruptive and, unlike our modern daily lives, cannot be sanitized. Better to distance ourselves from it as far as possible. So we do.
And there’s the problem: we were never meant to.
As a race, as a species, we evolved over thousands of millennia with natural rhythms and a pulse that shaped our consciousness and our psyches. Over the course of just two human lifetimes we have become so clever, so technologically advanced and so self-centred that we feel we can do without it.
But we can’t.
We can replace friendship with Facebook, conversation with texting, emotions with emoticons and customer service with a synthetic voice on the end of the phone instructing us to press buttons 1 through 6. But it’s somehow not the same.
Even going to the bank has lost its charm; I never did enjoy being summoned to be bawled out by my bank manager because I was overdrawn – again, but at least it was personal; he did once admit that it was the likes of me who paid his wages. Now as close as you get is internet banking and the ATM out in the street.
Kids fare no better. Whether by their own choice or because their parents are too afraid to let them outside unsupervised, they spend too much time playing video games inside instead of playing with other children outside.
Supervised “Playdates” are little better. With a hovering adult on hand to step in the moment a squabble threatens to break out the kids learn nothing of the boundaries they can or cannot push when interacting with their peers. One way and another they end up not learning essential social skills.
And we’ve all seen those social media posts: “when I was a lad we climbed trees, played conkers and got stung by stinging nettles; it never did us any harm”. It’s true; I stand before you as living proof that it is possible to survive such dangers and deprivations.
Earlier this year we went camping in the Wicklow Mountains – wild camping; not a campsite – with our daughter and three grandchildren. Before we could even get the tent up 5 year old Loki had managed to run, trip, and end up in a gorse bush.
He was dragged out looking like he’d been mauled by a bear and he howled. His mother and Granny picked out the prickles, smothered him with kisses, he sobbed and off he went. Twenty minutes later he was playing in a waterfall with his siblings. He’d just learned a valuable lesson: don’t mess with gorse bushes.
He didn’t; they were still all around the place but they didn’t faze him. He’d learned his first lesson about the natural world and in a very, very small way knew where he fitted into it.
So what about us adults? We’ve been knocking around long enough to know what’s good for us?
And in some ways we have. Many people have swimming with dolphins on their bucket list. Fine; wouldn’t mind doing it myself.
But that’s just one day. After you’ve done that and bored your friends and family to tears with the tale, what do you do next; what do you do with the other 364 days of the year or indeed the rest of your life?
People pick up on all sorts of exotic (to us) forms of meditation and spirituality, believing that if it doesn’t come from a cave in the Himalayas, or somewhere east of that, it’s not worth bothering about. Which simply isn’t the case.
Meanwhile we have Zen, transcendental meditation, feng shui, and 101 different forms of yoga.
The latest that I’ve come across is the ancient (since 1982 in fact) Japanese art of shinrin-yoku. Any guesses as to what it is?
Shinrin-yoku is the art of ‘forest bathing’, whereby stressed-out residents of Tokyo pour out into approved and designated (you heard that right: designated) woods to soak up the ambience and find peace with nature. There are instructors to help them do this, and it costs a lot of money.
We’ve done it here before now for free. In simpler times like Laurie Lee’s or mine it was called one of two things: ‘go for a walk in the woods’ or simply ‘sit under a tree’.
It’s not rocket science, it’s not a mysterious art requiring a lifetime of training and self sacrifice. You don’t need an instructor or pay to go on a course and no-one needs to give it a fancy name. Just do it.
You can do it alone or in company. If the latter, you don’t even have to impose a vow of silence. All talk of the outside world, the world you have just left behind, is banned: no work, no money worries, shortage of school places, the car’s coming up for its NCT. None of that; but if you want to draw your companions attention to some small detail or something you’ve seen but they’ve missed, that’s absolutely fine.
And detail is important. Look, really look, at what’s around you. Smell it, feel it and listen to it too. You might find yourself asking questions like what and why?
What sort of tree is that? Why are those birds flocking to that bush? What are they feeding on? What are woodlice for? What’s the point of wasps?
When you start answering these questions and begin recognising the trees and plants around you a woodland ceases to be a tangled green mess and becomes a living forest of which you are part and which you understand.
Take your phone with you, I mean it, just put it on silent. You’ll need to know the time after all. Maybe mess around with the compass. After all, even Neanderthals needed to navigate. I have an app on mine which is brilliant. Point it at a plant, take a photo, and it comes back with the name and all the info about it.
Want to learn more and faster? Extend your trip by Googling what you’ve seen when you get home; technology is not all bad after all.
And when you’ve got good at doing all of that try (having taken all sensible precautions) doing it in the dark. With our primary sense disabled it is utterly amazing how the others – including the ones we’ve forgotten we have – are heightened.
All this works equally well on mountain, moorland, river and stream by the way.
I’ll leave it at that but before throwing the meeting open for comment or criticism I’ll leave the last word to American comic strip writer Bill Waterson who can say it much better and more succinctly than me.