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In Conversation with a Robin

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I’d noticed her hanging around. The temple garden is built onto a steep slope and at the top, just outside my office window, is a blue bench with a view of the valley. Behind it is a short green wall of hazel, elderflower, and ivy that hides the aviary where our three bunnies live. As I walked around to feed them nuggets in the mornings and carrot peelings at night, I would see her perched in the elderflower watching me.

I sometimes sit on the blue bench to read and she began to accompany me, observing me with her shiny black eyes. We do walking meditation every Saturday and she followed me around the back of the bamboo and into the blue garden. Then, one morning when I was eating my toast on the bench, I caught her eye and imagined a request. I placed a morsel of toast on my flat palm, held it out away from me and nearer to her, and turned my face away to give her some privacy. Within a few seconds she’d swooped in and taken the toast away into the green heart of the hedge. She left me with a gift of pure delight.

I have enjoyed these conversations with “my” robin. Even if she’s experienced them quite differently to the way I imagine she does, it’s hard to deny the presence of a relationship of some sort. I have taken a great deal away from them—they’ve stitched me back into my immediate environment at a time when I’ve been preoccupied with the eco-activism of friends and colleagues. One of my colleagues, James Brown, is a former Paralympian who climbed onto an aircraft in an effort to highlight the terrible carbon cost of the aviation business. He is registered blind, a father of four, and is now serving 12 months in a London prison that is known to be a harsh one. I have been carrying him around with me, along with friends who are in their third week of stepping out onto motorways to block traffic, and the two rebels in Spain who, as I write, are on their 32nd day of hunger strike.

The actions of these brave people, my own appearance in court last week, and of course the relentless news of our degrading habitats and increasingly chaotic weather have been weighing me down. I needed my conversation with this robin. She has reminded me to pay attention to the beauty that is all around me and to take this in alongside all the horror. She has reminded me that it is necessary for me to sustain myself if I want to continue with my activism.

I heard a new detail recently about Siddhartha Gautama’s experience at the plough festival when he was a boy in Karen Armstrong’s biography Buddha (Penguin Books 2004). I’d known that he’d been left in silence under a rose apple tree while his chattering maids went off together. I’d known that he witnessed the worms and insects being sliced apart by the ploughing and that he’d felt his heart open up. I’d known he’d taken up a meditation posture and spontaneously fallen into a rapturous state. What I hadn’t heard was that nature herself had then noticed Gautama’s special status and that while the shade from all the other trees had moved during the day, the shade of the rose apple lingered in the same spot over Gautama, keeping him cool and sheltered. Gautama was having a conversation with nature. He observed the suffering of his fellow creatures, entered into the first jhana as a result and nature replied with the gift of continuous shade.

If we are to continue to find compassion for our precious Earth and the courage to act in the ways we feel called to act, then we need to keep having these conversations. We need to plug into the wisdom of the Earth by visiting her as often as we can and by keeping our minds and our hearts open.

We run a monthly mindful walk on the Malverns here in England, and I never fail to return from the hills with new insights. All it takes is slowing my usual pace, becoming quiet, and the wisdom and consolation of nature steps forward from all around me.

Yesterday I placed some bird food in the elderflower for my friend the robin, and while I hope she appreciates it I know that our relationship isn’t just about food. For some reason she likes to be near me sometimes and to watch me from a branch not far away. I appreciate her presence immensely. She is a tiny speck of life on this huge beautiful sphere and so am I.

Together we can enjoy the very last of the summer sun.

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