Thursday, April 24, 2008

My Need of Mountains

To my surprise, the other morning, I found myself suddenly longing for the sight of mountains. I mean real mountains. And forest. Wilderness. Wildness. The sort of landscape you might get seriously lost in. Just for a change. I don’t feel this often, but every now and then it pops up and surprises me.

It would be impossible to get lost here. In most parts of England, you can’t walk for more than eight or ten miles in a straight line without ending up in a place where you can fill up your water bottle, buy (or beg) a sandwich, or catch a ride to somewhere where you could. And in a way I love that. I love the safety of it, the feeling of being held and cherished by the funny little patchwork island that gave me birth.

And yet, just to be contrary, sometimes I long to be able to turn a corner in the road and glimpse high mountains in the distance. Or to stand somewhere high up, where I can see for a hundred miles without my eye lighting on one single sign of human habitation.

Not to see it on film, either, but to be there and stand in it and breathe it in. To feel the heat coming from the rocks. To catch the green flash of a lizard as it scuttles past my feet and then to lift my eyes and feel them straining to see all the way to the farthest horizon, just as my mind strains to encompass the greatness of it all.

I guess what I want is to be reminded, every now and then, that the Earth is bigger and older and wiser and a zillion times more vast and unknowable than humans seem to think She is. I need to have it pointed out to me, by the massiveness of mountains and the endlessness of forests, how small and insignificant I am compared to the entirety of this planet. I want to be visibly reminded of my puniness and of the stupidity of believing that anything I do or say or write can have more than a pinprick of significance in the great scheme of things. A homeopathic dose of anti-arrogance. That’s what I like. Every once in a while.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Our Need of Woods

In the woods nearby, the bluebells are starting to come out.

In another couple of weeks, I shall be able to walk into the depths of the wood, see a sight like the one above (that picture was taken last year) and breathe in the gentle fragrance of what must surely be at least a million flowers. It is a treat I look forward to every April.

I read the other day that at least eighty percent of people in the British Isles do not live within walking distance of a wood. That felt to me like a sad and very disturbing statistic. Disturbing not just because it reminds us that the destruction of native woodland – which in these islands began with the Romans and continues to this day – is a factor in climate change, but because we really need woods. We need them in all sorts of ways, not only for the carbon they sequester.

To stand alone in the middle of a wood is to be outnumbered. To be one solitary human organism, less than ankle-high to any one of several thousand other living organisms around you is to be, just for a little while, back in the right importance ratio of human to planet. It cannot but make you feel humble. And we all need to feel humble and outnumbered, often.

It was not by accident that Dante chose to begin his journey of mid-life self-discovery at the time and place that he did:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi retrovai per una selva oscura,
che la diritta via era smarrita.

("In the middle of the journey of our life
I found myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost").

Mid-life is like that – or can be, if we allow ourselves to let go of the heroic phase, the ‘outward arc’ of our existence and start along the ‘inward arc’, the deeper journey of exploration that, as Jung, explained, is the true task of our later lives.

I like to imagine, too, that as a species we are coming close to that same point in the evolutionary cycle. Lost in the woods, with no ‘diritta via’ in sight, we are challenged to look within, to examine ourselves, our lifestyles, our priorities and to face the murky shadows of our exploitative, hubristic history. We are challenged to learn, to grow in consciousness, to find a new way out of the wood and into the clear light of a simple, peaceful, co-operative and sustainable way of living in harmony with the rest of creation.

If we don’t succeed in this, then eventually some April day will come that my woods are bare of bluebells and no human eye will ever see a glorious sight like this one, ever again.