There is a great deal of extinction going on these days. Part of what it means to be born into these times is that the music of your life will be threaded against a deep background roar of loss.Dougald Hine, At Work in the Ruins (Chelsea Green Publishing 2023, 194)
Everything is beautiful and I am so sad. This is how the heart makes a duet of wonder and grief.Mark Nepo, Adrift
Here is a snapshot of what I’ve been doing lately: picking brambles (blackberries) along the river Kelvin. It’s been a particularly good year for brambles, and I’ve been harvesting lots, discovering new good brambling spots in the process. Strolling the river walkway down from our high-ceiling flat in the Westend of Glasgow, I follow it past the 26-storey Wyndford flats that are due to be demolished, against fierce community resistance. This is a strange landscape of abandoned aqueducts and disused railway bridges, amidst haphazard fencing. I follow muddy “desire lines” through the wilderness between the river and the official river walkway, slightly wary of straying into some gang’s territory. In the shade of a massive aqueduct stone pillar, surrounded by the invasive, but pretty looking Himalayan balsam, I stumble across a camping chair, early autumn leaves gathered on the seat: someone else likes their solitude. But they don’t have an eye for blackberries—I can see that the abundant surrounding crop has not been touched here. Perfectly fine berries have shriveled on the branches, but there is still a lot to pick. The ripe ones have a particular shiny plumpness and they roll into my hands at the lightest of fingertip touches. I leave the equally black, but less juicy looking ones alone, for others or for a later visit. The shrubs tell a story about who’s been here before, or who hasn’t. Such stories must have formed an important part of the “Umwelt” of our tribal ancestors, which was of course much more thinly populated.
I treasure gathering food like this at various times in the year—wild garlic grows thickly along the river in early spring – and it always stimulates this kind of ‘deep time’ thinking. This autumn particularly, after a few of these collecting expeditions, away from the computer, I get a glimpse of an intimate, animistic connectedness with nature. I partake in an intuitive, natural and direct kind of knowing, made up of the roiling river, the smell of damp leaves, the twinge in the lower back when reaching across the thorny brush towards that cluster of ripe berries, angling the wrist in the most efficient way to avoid those stinging nettles. A multitude of obvious and subliminal sense experiences tell me that it’s almost autumn again, and it’s the autumn of my life too, and that is how it has always been and there is an earthy-smelling comfort in it. And there is also the festering smell of another dying here that is harder to surrender to: the spread of the environmental destruction these past generations have wreaked and the expectation of the hard times ahead, as climate change unravels.
In his book At Work in the Ruins the social thinker Dougald Hine writes:
In the rooms where people come together to talk about the trouble the world is in, the agency is assumed to lie not with humanity in general but with people like us: the world’s most modern, most developed humans, the ones who live closest to the future. It doesn’t occur to the people in those rooms that they might not be the protagonists, that the unknown world ahead might be made by others, and not through human attempts to know and manage and control the world but in the encounters that begin when we show up as one kind of creature among many.(194)
I do feel like one such creature, scrambling about for juicy black treasure along the Kelvin, remembering my ancestors. I am getting better at reading the vegetation from a distance, whether it’s worth climbing up that slope or whether that patch has already been picked clean. Some part of this ancestral awareness is always scanning for dangers—no snakes here, but nettles and youths from the social housing estate, likely to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs. But somehow the connection with nature makes me feel basically safe, even if somewhat mournful. Grieving for loss often is the base-layer of the music of life. As is gratitude.
Past generations are also with me when I make blackberry jam or wild garlic pesto. Unlike me, they didn’t have pectin-enriched sugar for making jams and couldn’t freeze them either, for any length of time, but they had ways to dry them into “fruit leathers.” If it came to it, or when it comes to it, I know how to grow some food, I can knit, sew and darn, I can make pots from clay and paper from plant fibres. 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 am looking for in my Buddhist practice must be in relation to that. I meditate, go on retreat, contemplate the nature of consciousness, read, write and make art, see mindfulness supervisees and coaching clients, spend time with children, run retreats on ecological themes, on-line meditations for activists and, every other day, make dinner for my husband and me. And there is this sadness about the madness of modernisation, how much we have damaged this beautiful world. And how we don’t really know how to make it better, at least not in the terms of the modernist, scientific paradigm. But perhaps we do know, in small, meandering ways and in companionship with others.
“The end of the world as we know it is also the end of a way of knowing the world,” Dougald Hine says. He manages to write about climate change and the pandemic in well-informed and passionate ways, without polarizing. He examines the role of science and statistics, how it is used to bolster up views along the spectrum, on vaccinations and other hot topics. “Can we imagine a science that has recovered a sense of its limits and can show up with its gifts, without claiming to provide the frame within which all the other gifts that make the world take place?” Some of these gifts, sealed in old jam jars, are now stored in our kitchen cupboard, waiting to be relished by us and our friends in times to come.
Related features from BDG
Death and Decay, Birth and Rebirth: Cycles of Life in Nature and Ourselves
Supply and Demand: How Are We to Do More with Less?
Buddhistdoor View: A New Relationship with Nature
Buddhistdoor View: The Pandemic – Nature’s Patience Has Run Out
Buddhism and Nature, and the Relationship with Human Suffering