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January 26, 2012

Kings

 

 

 

 

 

 

Emmanuel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the middle of January, Elizabeth and I visited her mother, Lily, for her birthday. She lives in a small village just outside Cambridge. It’s a lovely sunny winter day, so we used the excuse of taking Lily’s sewing machine to be overhauled to go into the city to wander around.

It must have been in 1963 that I first went to Cambridge. My headmaster wanted me to go to University there, for as I was School Captain he thought it would be good for the prestige of the School. I was reluctant, as along with many of my contemporaries I wanted to go to one of the then ‘new’ universities—hopefully to groovy Sussex, just opened on a new modern campus outside Brighton. But I went for an interview anyway—and lucky I did, for with the A level grades I got, I had absolutely no chance of getting into Sussex.

I remember finding my way to Emmanuel College, where I was put up in a room in Old Court. I was so impressed with the Elizabethan brickwork, the ancient oak beams, the rickety stairs to an elegant sitting room with views over the grounds and two small bedrooms attached. Next day, I was interviewed by the Master, Edward Welbourne. Well, it was not so much an interview as a conversation over tea and cakes in the Master’s Lodge—Welbourne was well known as a conversationalist. I was charmed by the setting and charmed by Welbourne, and charmed by Cambridge. When I was offered a place, of course I went.

So here I am, some fifty years later, wandering through streets that are both utterly changed and absolutely the same. And I feel both utterly different and yet, really, quite the same chap as I was then. I had a similar when, feeling several years ago, I came back to watch the rowing in May Week. I dug out my College First May Colours blazer in all its extraordinary bright cerise, found my bow tie and white flannels, and walked down the towpath crammed with others in similar strange attire. I looked like I belonged. But I soon realized that then, as Captain of Emmanuel Boat Club and well known for my rowing and coaching I was a (minor) power on the towpath. Now I was just another nostalgic old fart.

I am rather embarrassed to remember how when I went up to Cambridge I wanted to belong, and in the class-privileged atmosphere of the time, this meant trying to conform to a social milieu dominated by Eton, Radley and a raft of minor public schools like Tonbridge (because I was at Emmanuel, which is a rather middle class college, rather than elitist Trinity, it was mainly minor public schools). Of course, I couldn’t conform, so I tried instead being the boy from ‘Ba’ersee, sarf Lundun, up the Jungshun,’ which was possibly more successful. While I was engaged in this social climbing, my friend Lesley at Sussex was befriending young people who would soon be minor celebrities defining the swinging sixties, and radical Africans who would shortly be significant political actors in their newly-independent countries.

I also found the economics that I was supposed to be studying most uncongenial. I spent most of my time rowing and developing my relationship with Elizabeth. And drinking quite a lot. Now, I am quite appalled at the waste of an educational opportunity. What would I have been like, I ask Elizabeth as we walk along St John Street, if I had really found something that had interested me, maybe someone who inspired me, at that time? I reminisce about my friend John, who was accepted to do a DPhil at Cambridge on the basis of independent research into seagull flocking he undertook at his university, which started him down a research path that lasted his whole academic career.

We go into Heffer’s bookshop, walk past Great St Mary's, down Kings Parade where we visit the craft shop Primavera, on past the Examination Rooms and then up Downing Street to Emmanuel. Wren’s Chapel in Front Court is just as it was when I last saw it, and North Court, where I had rooms for two years, remains deeply familiar, although the trees have grown and the gates now have security locks on them. Before leaving we look into Chapman’s Garden, and laugh together as we remember how Elizabeth fell into the pond, full of Pimms at the end of a cocktail party.

It is a weird and disconcerting feeling: walking in a strangely familiar town, with the woman I met there nearly 50 years ago, doing the same kind of things, but in ways that are subtly different. Nostalgia is both sweet and bitter. But on reflection, I am grateful I was a bit of a dilettante in my twenties: it gave me time and space to find what I really wanted to do—and thank goodness I didn’t get locked into a career as a professional economist! And yet, every choice to do something is a choice not to do something else. Wandering through Cambridge, and so wandering through my youth, it is so easy to regret all those paths not taken.

 

January 24, 2012

Rain

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Weather fronts have tracked in from the Atlantic overnight and a brisk southerly wind blows rain against the windowpane. The drops cling to the glass for a while; then, merging with others, run down in little cataracts, leaving a line of wet behind. Larger accumulations hang on the parting rail, teardrops blown around in the wind. They grow bigger, hang precariously, until a gust takes them away.

Cars stream down the hill on their way into Bath. As they come over the crest, their headlights catch the raindrops. They glisten against the dark, tiny round jewels reflecting the light. Misty condensation inside the window diffuses the lights, which cast delicate shadows from leylandii trees in the garden below.

For a moment there is a gap in the traffic, no headlights. The pattern on the window shadows into grey, grey on grey. Trees at the top of the hill stand black against the morning sky. The streetlights punctuate the dark and shine on the wet pavement, an orange ribbon of light winding up the hill.

Two, three more cars appear, their lights bursting onto the wet window. The headlights track down the hill, the shadows move across the glass, the raindrops hit the glass and run down. It’s a shadow puppet show, a kaleidoscopic of patterns. It’s the morning waking up.

It is strangely quiet as the double-glazing keeps out the sound of the rain and the traffic, but I can hear the wind moan lightly in the chimney. The cat finds her way into the bedroom and leaps onto my chest. I cover her with the bedclothes and she purrs contentedly while I drink my tea. Elizabeth stirs next to me.

One by one the streetlights flick off. The sky lightens. A touch of blue seeps into the sky and there is the possibility of green in the shadowed trees.

 

 

January 18, 2012

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wll

In my book The Call of the Running Tide I try to make sense of the words wild, picturesque, and pastoral. The idea of the ‘wild’ is of course problematic. We might define it as a state of the natural world that has not been significantly modified by human activity. But this definition rules out humans as part of the wild, and so immediately creates a dualism between subject-object. In any event, places that civilized people regard as wild, such as the west coast of Ireland, have been inhabited and modified by humans since Neolithic times; and even there the wild is tamed by buoys and lighthouses, charts, electronic navigation and sailing instructions.

So rather than think of wildness as separate, maybe we should consider that wildness is everywhere interpenetrating human ‘civilized’ space. As I walk up the footpath toward our walled garden at home, I pass through the pungent smell of badgers and see their diggings at the side of the path. The square ashlar blocks of the garden walls are extravagantly decorated with yellow and black lichen. The violets growing at the side of the path are self-seeded. Frogs come each spring and lay their spawn in the pond. As Gary Snyder has it, ‘Wildness is not just the "preservation of the world" it is the world'; 'Nature is not a place to visit, it is home.'

Picturesque is easier to get a handle on: it is a landscape that is pleasing to a certain civilized human perspective, usually one that has been modified through the use of a ruin, folly or other intentionally romantic device to be more. And pastoral is a landscape cultivated through husbandry: open fields and hedges, market gardens, extensive gardens.

These are not open or shut definitions. They are clearly a matter of taste and perspective, but I have enjoyed using them as a basis for thinking about different places and landscapes.

A few months ago we bought the walled garden adjacent to the one we have tended for the past thirty-five years. It has been neglected for many years, and we bought it because we could and because to do so protected the value of our own property. We don’t actually need another, larger, garden, but see ourselves as trustees, able to bring it back within the curtilage of Bloomfield Crescent where we live, and make it again a beautiful cultivated space. Doing this brings up all sorts of questions about our relationship with the land, the plants and the animals that live there.

When we first learned that our offer to buy had been accepted, we had no easy access. There is a door from the lane that runs along the back of the gardens, but the padlocks were rusted shut. The doorway from the footpath that leads from the Crescent was soundly barricaded with concrete blocks. The only way in was by using two ladders to climb over the party wall. We found a garden that was completely overgrown. A pathway had been laid along the perimeter, but to follow it we had to use a hedge trimmer and shears to cut the undergrowth ahead of us with the hedge trimmer—brambles, old man’s beard, ash saplings. Over the years some fifteen quite substantial buddleia trees had grown up in the vegetable bed in the middle, and in one place the ash saplings had grown into a tiny spinney that almost blocked our way. Bramble bushes had found their way right to the top of the two mature apples trees and were choking the life out of them.

The effect of this was as a dim wilderness, both charming and mysterious. We crept around it, wondering what we might find, keeping out voices down. Yet even at the end of our first round, our presence was evident in the newly cut through path. Of course, it was in no way a true, mature wilderness. The plants that had grown were the early colonizers, quick rooting and fast growing. Some of them—notably the buddleia—are not even native to the British Isles. Others—the bramble and old man’s beard—had taken advantage of every support they could climb up—the netting of the old fruit cages and the apple trees—to reach toward the light., and then created a horizontal tangle of vegetation which deprived competitors of light. Many ash and sycamore had seeded but only a very few had yet penetrated the canopy into the sunshine.

We had the concrete blocks knocked out of the entrance so we had easy access. I made a new door. We started clearing the undergrowth, getting the brambles out of the apple trees, disentangling the netting, chopping down the lighter growth. After several weeks of work most of the ground is clear and we have started uprooting the buddleia—their roots are quite extensive but fortunately relatively shallow. There are now several heaps of cuttings waiting for the right weather to have a bonfire. No longer mysterious and picturesque, the garden now is a project, a work in progress, signs of human intention everywhere.

On the whole, cutting back this riotous growth feels appropriate. This piece of land was first enclosed as a garden in the 1790s and has been continually worked since then. What we are doing, in clearing the ground in preparation for planting is an act of restoration. Our work includes pulling bramble and old man’s beard out of the three mature apple trees, pruning them and the two espaliered fruit trees—we think one is a pear and one a greengage—on the south facing wall, so that they have light and air they require to blossom and fruit.

As we have cleared the overgrown vegetation we have become more aware of the walls. They are about twelve feet high and two feet thick, constructed of coursed random Bath stone with lime mortar and capped with flat coping stones. When they catch the sunlight they a dark honey colour; in the shadow they turn toward grey; but always they are patterned with lichen, some yellow, some olive, some nearly black. They are beautiful and the amount of material that has gone into their construction, the quantity of skilled work they represent, is astounding. I find myself taking great delight in them, exploring the details of their construction, wondering what creatures may inhabit the occasional holes and cracks between the stones.

But while I am enjoying this process of restoration, I am realizing it will have an impact on other creatures who have used the garden as home and as a source of food. The walls of the garden keep out the foxes and badgers, but where there was shelter for small birds there is now an open space. This will extend when we cut down some of the overgrown trees that overhand from outside the walls. Are we destroying a wilderness in creating a more pastoral habitat? Are we entitled to modify this land for our human purposes since it has been cultivated for centuries? What is appropriate human action in relation to this piece of land? And how would we know?

 

January 4, 2012

book cover

 

I have been enjoying reading Anthony Weston’s The Incompleate Eco-Philosopher (SUNY Press, 2009)—a rather expensive book I was able to get hold of through the University of Bath inter-library loans, thanks to my position as Emeritus Professor, which gives me library access for life!

Weston is quite radical. He really does want to take us back to our roots, by which he means our roots as an animal among other animals on a living planet. ‘Environmental ethics emerges here in another key; in radically different axiological biome, as it were, with thicker air and life already abundant; and two-footedly “grounded” on the actual ground.’ He is seeking a thorough going naturalism to challenge the process of anthopocentrization, the process of ‘narrowing and relentlessly humanizing of the actual world. We need, he says in his introduction, to de-athropocentriize the ‘actual world in such a way that a new ethic, only barely conceivable now, might evolve.’

I was particularly taken by his chapter with Jim Cheney ‘Environmental Ethics as Environmental Etiquette’, which argues for an ethics based epistemology. What does this mean? The argument is that: ‘Ethical action is a response to our knowledge about the world’: we need to understand things in order to know what ethical stance to take in relation to them, and that such knowledge is possible, leading to a progressive extension of ethical response in sorting the world into ethical categories.

All kinds of consequences fall from these assumptions. We are drawn into compulsive categorizing; language becomes purely descriptive rather than expressive. And our ways of creating our knowledge will necessarily blind us to some aspects of the world: an obvious example is the way animals are treated as objects of inquiry that is all we learn about them; and if we assume the world works in a mechanical cause and effect manner we are blind to systemic and ecological self-organization. The empirical starting point itself is suspect.

As an alternative, Weston and Cheney suggest that ‘Ethical action is first and foremost an attempt to open up possibilities, to enrich the world.’ In the case of animals, we will not know what they are capable of unless we already treat them ethically, which means allowing space and time for relationship to develop. Love, therefore, is a way of knowing, a way that comes first because it opens up possibilities. Ethical action, love opens us to the hidden possibilities that may surround us all the time, which we don’t see because we are so busy trying to understand first. All this means that it doesn’t take the human as the measure of all things and progress outwards from there, ‘ethics is pluralist, dissonant, discontinuous.’

This leads to an argument for a ‘ceremonial’ approach to the world and a ‘performative’ function in language. I don’t want to skim the surface of the argument, but one quote may point in the direction of their perspective.

‘If language is performative, and if we have our being and identity fundamentally within ceremonial worlds, then the coherence we should be listening for is not merely the logical coherence of one sentence with another, one belief with another, but something more like the harmonic coherence of one note to another. Practices, including linguistic practices, create ceremonial songs of the world, songs of meaning, within ecological niches.’

It is important to say grace at mealtime, to thank the world for its gifts, to create through our performative language a world of which we are a part. In contrast ‘Swaggering, talking too loud, not knowing how to listen: this very (often innocent) clumsiness we now conceive as the fundamental failure: failure to acknowledge and understand ourselves as living in a larger animate universe. This failure ‘drives it into silence’ which we then take as a confirmation of our own centrality, as the only ones with anything worthwhile to say.

 

January 3, 2012

rainbow

Yesterday, storm clouds blew up the Avon valley from the Severn Estuary and the Atlantic Ocean beyond, great heaps of darkness, bringing periods of heavy rain, sleet and hail on a bitter westerly wind. Between the showers the sky cleared, its blueness intensified by the charcoal grey clouds. I was working at my computer, aware of the rattle of heavy rain on the glass conservatory roof, when Elizabeth called urgently, “Look outside!”

A startlingly bright double rainbow arced across the sky, two lines of intense colour penetrating down into the valley and seeming to land in the field below our garden. It picked out buildings in Bath in ethereal green, yellow, orange. I had time to find the camera and take some pictures before it faded as the sky darkened again.

Last night the wind howled around the Crescent, gusts of up to fifty miles an hour reported by the Met Office. And today the rain is persistently heavy, falling in diagonal streaks, mixed with lighter clouds of spray blowing across the valley. The bird feeders sway alarmingly and only the occasional blue tit braves the elements to perch momentarily on the peanuts. A lone pigeon tramps about on the lawn picking up crumbs, and the cat comes in through her flap soaking wet and is cross because I won’t let her sit on my lap.

We phone son Matthew to wish him happy birthday. “I can’t find a way to write about the weather that isn’t clichéd,” I tell him. He replies that Heidegger says something about how we can only see the world through stereotypes, but they can still be windows through which we can still experience afresh. I Google ‘Heidegger and cliché’ and find what he says (or rather what others say he says) is rather more complex than that. But I like the idea: just because my description of a rainbow across the valley might be clichéd doesn’t stop my heart leaping.

He also tells me that my four-year-old grandson Aidan called down to his mother while sitting on the loo, “Mummy, is our lavatory a work of art?” She replied that it might be but was not presenting itself as such. “Am I a work of art?” he then asked. “I think I will present myself as one.”

The wind has eased. The windowpanes are covered in raindrops. The landscape outside is a study in muted tones. Is the rainbow a work of art? But there is no rainbow today.

 

December 18 2011

plastic

The previous owner of our new walled garden was a builder, and he has left behind piles of old doors and windows, tiles, drainpipes and gutters, and other materials that might have come in handy for some project. Buried among them are plastic sacks, the kind that contained fertilizer or builder’s rubble. There must be hundreds of them, some still whole, but those exposed to the light have become brittle and are disintegrating into tiny flakes. It is a mess. We take the big pieces down to the tip, but there is no way we can collect all the little bits. They will just have to stay in the soil.

I don’t think it is the big pieces that do the most damage. They can be collected and to some extent recycled. It’s the tiny bits that are the most insidious. I can’t find any research about the impact on gardens, but the oceans in are awash with microscopic plastic, which as the break down release toxic contaminants and are ingested by the barnacle, the lugworm, the sand-hopper as they feed along the seabed, and the mussel as it filters sea water. And these animals are at the bottom of the food chain

I was talking about this with Glenn Edney, a student on the Masters in Holistic Science at Schumacher College. He pointed to research reported in Scientific American finding much of this particles is the kind of plastic commonly used in clothing—polyester and acrylic—and that most of this comes from the discharge of washing machines which rub bits off our clothes as they wash them.

Yesterday I returned from a shopping trip with two plastic bags, threw out two more when I cooked fish for supper, opened a new plastic tube of toothpaste…


 

December 13 2011

oaktree

Despite all the wind that howled around the Crescent last night the leaves still cling to the oak tree Ben planted outside the garden gate. He was about eight, and had picked up a sprouting acorn when we were out on family walk in a wood. It thrived in a little plastic pot until it was large enough to plant outside.

That was nearly thirty years ago, and the tree has grown to a substantial size, its branches hanging over both of our gardens.

The fresh green leaves of spring have crumpled and seem to glow golden brown in today’s December sun, which even in the dead of winter keeps on powering life on earth. It is bitterly cold in the wind but in precious sheltered places where the sun shines there is a grateful warmth.

As I walk back to the house I am reminded of Daniel Levinsky’s rendering of the Sufi Master Hafiz:

Even
After
All this time
The sun never says to the Earth

“You owe
Me.”

Look
What happens
With a love like that,
It lights the
Whole sky.

 

December 12, 2011

It feels like an absolute age since last April when I sailed Coral round the Blasket Islands, back around Mizen Head and across the Celtic Sea to the Scillies and home. And it feels like another world; I can’t imagine how I did it. Of course, it is in the nature of all retreats and wilderness experiences to be separated off from everyday life. Joining them up is the challenge, bringing the experience of the vastness of the night sky at sea back home.

Since I returned I have been writing the manuscript of The Call of the Running Tide (thanks to Sarah Bird at Vala Publishing Cooperative for the title) and preparing 40,000 words of this for my Manuscript submission for the MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University (and yes, I passed, and yes I got a distinction—just!). Now I am completing and revising the manuscript, responding to the critiques of my tutors and writing colleagues—they want more of me and my emotional vulnerability and I am not finding it easy to respond

I am also working on another book co-editing Stories of the Great Turning with Melanie Newman for Vala. We want to make available the stories of how people are responding in their everyday lives to the crisis of sustainability as challenges and inspirations.

The other big development in my life is the new garden, or should I say the Orchard. My wife Elizabeth and I live in a Georgian Crescent in Bath. Within the ancient curtilage of the Crescent is a line of walled gardens of which we have one. The adjacent garden was worked very thoroughly as a vegetable garden by a couple who live some distance from the Crescent, and we have been interested in buying it and so helping to restore the integrity of the Crescent grounds. Seven years ago we negotiated with the owners but were not able to agree a price.

About a week ago Elizabeth telephoned the owners to say we were going to cut the ivy off the party wall, adding, by the by, that we were still interested in buying. By the end of the five-minute phone call she had agreed a price. Suddenly, we have a second walled garden, twice the size of our original one, which has been neglected for seven years! It was full of buddleia, bramble, old man’s beard, and ash seedlings, as well as old doors, tiles, and plastic sacks (the previous owner was a builder.

We have made great strides to clear it—there are three huge heaps ready for a bonfire, and we have made eight trips to the recycling tip—and there is still much to do. This has revealed beautiful stone walls, maybe twelve feet high and still in good condition; and rich soil, full of enormous worms. We teeter between being delighted and overwhelmed. Once we have cleared out what we don’t want—there are some mature Bramley apple trees and possibly a greengage tree espaliered on the south facing stone wall—we are going to plant an orchard.

This is a picture of the garden before we started to clear it: garden1button
And this is me putting up the new door I made in the old entrance we opened up: garden2button

 

Peter Reason web pages last updated December 5, 2012