Many extinctions are happening these days. Part of what it means to be born in this time is that the music of your life will be strung to a deep roar of loss..
Dougald Hine, At work in the ruins (Chelsea Green Publishing 2023, 194)
Everything is beautiful and I'm so sad. This is how the heart makes a duet of wonder and sorrow.
Marc Nepo, Adrift
Here's a look at what I've been doing lately: picking brambles (blackberries) along the River Kelvin. This has been a particularly good year for brambles, and I have harvested a lot of them, discovering new good places for brambles. Walking the river walkway from our high-ceilinged apartment in Glasgow's Westend, I follow it past the 26-storey Wyndford Apartments which are to be demolished, against fierce resistance from the community. It's a strange landscape of abandoned aqueducts and disused railway bridges, amid random fences. I follow muddy “desire lines” through the wilderness between the river and the official river crossing, a little wary of venturing into gang territory. In the shade of an enormous aqueduct stone pillar, surrounded by the overbearing but pretty Himalayan balsam, I stumble upon a camping chair, early autumn leaves gathered on the seat: someone 'another likes their solitude. But they don't have an eye for blackberries: I see that the abundant surrounding harvest has not been touched here. Perfectly fine berries have shriveled on the branches, but there are still plenty to pick. The ripe ones have a particularly shiny roundness and they roll in my hands at the slightest touch of the fingertips. I leave those just as black, but less juicy, alone, for others or for a later visit. The shrubs tell a story about who has been here before and who has not. Such stories must have formed an important part of the “Umwelt” of our tribal ancestors, which was of course much more sparsely populated.
I enjoy harvesting food like this at different times of the year (wild garlic grows en masse along the river in early spring) and it always stimulates this kind of deep thinking. This fall especially, after a few of these collecting expeditions, away from the computer, I glimpse an intimate, animistic connection with nature. I participate in a kind of intuitive, natural, direct knowing, made up of the sound of the river, the smell of wet leaves, the pinch in my lower back as I reach through the thorny brush toward that cluster of berries blackberries, tilting the wrist in the most effective way to avoid these nettles. A multitude of obvious and subliminal sensory experiences tell me that it is almost autumn again, and it is also the autumn of my life, and this is how it has always been and there is a comfort that smells of earth. And there is also the festering smell of another dying here that is harder to surrender to: the spread of environmental destruction wrought by those past generations and the anticipation of difficult times to come, as climate change is crumbling.
In his book At work in the ruins social thinker Dougald Hine writes:
In rooms where people gather to talk about the troubles the world is in, it is assumed that the action belongs not to humanity in general but to people like us: the most modern, most developed humans in the world, those who live closest to the future. It does not occur to the people in these plays that perhaps they are not the protagonists, that the unknown world that awaits us could be created by others, and not through human attempts to know, manage and control the world, but in the encounters that begin when we appear as one kind of creature among many others.
I feel like I'm one of those creatures, scurrying in search of juicy black treasures along the Kelvin, remembering my ancestors. I'm getting better at reading vegetation from a distance, to know if it's worth climbing that slope or if that patch has already been cleared. Part of this ancestral consciousness is always on the lookout for dangers: no snakes here, but nettles and young people from the HLM, probably under the influence of alcohol or drugs. But somehow the connection to nature makes me feel fundamentally safe, even if it's somewhat sad. Grieving a loss is often the base layer of the music of life. Just like gratitude.
Past generations are also with me when I prepare blackberry jam or wild garlic pesto. Unlike me, they didn't have pectin-enriched sugar to make jams with, nor could they freeze them for any length of time, but they did have ways of drying them to make "fruit leathers." If I had to, or when I had to, I know how to grow food, I can knit, sew and darn, I can make clay pots and paper from plant fibers. I don't know how to start a fire without matches, but others in my tribe may be able to. I have a strong sense of the precariousness of our times, and what I seek in my Buddhist practice must be related to this. I meditate, I go on retreats, I contemplate the nature of consciousness, I read, I write and I make art, I see people supervised by mindfulness and I coach clients, I spend time with children, I organize retreats on ecological themes, online meditations for activists and, every other day, prepare dinner for my husband and me. And there is this sadness at the madness of modernization, at how much we have damaged this beautiful world. And we don't really know how to improve it, at least not in terms of the modernist scientific paradigm. But maybe we do, in a small, meandering way and in the company of others.
“The end of the world as we know it is also the end of a way of knowing the world,” says Dougald Hine. He manages to write about climate change and the pandemic in an informed and passionate way, without polarizing. It examines the role of science and statistics, how they are used to strengthen views across the spectrum, on vaccination and other hot topics. “Can we imagine a science which would have rediscovered the sense of its limits and could show itself with its gifts, without claiming to provide the framework within which all the other gifts which make up the world fit in? Some of these gifts, sealed in old jam jars, are now stored in our kitchen cupboard, waiting to be enjoyed by us and our friends in times to come.
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