Welcome back, dear readers, to another month of taking metta off the meditation cushion and out into everyday life.
In last month’s article, “Metta’s Peace of Cake,” I shared how food helped build community volunteering at a large free-range farm open to the public. June found me downsizing again to being the only volunteer on a no-dig smallholding that the owner calls her “forest garden.”
While I loved primary school as a child, outdoor playtime was my favorite part of the day. I can still remember the speed at which I’d change into my “play clothes” to spend as much time as possible in the treehouse. I don’t have many regrets in life but if I could turn back time, I’d love the chance to attend an actual forest school at that age.
Although the term is only a few decades old and only formally recognized in a dozen or so countries, for the past 400 years various philosophers and writers have sown the seeds for alternative education movements such as Pestalozzi, Steiner, Montessori, and Scouting. Forest schools, as they are known today, simply let nature be their classroom.
The first clue that this placement was already going off the beaten path was my hostess picking me up from the bus station in an electric car. As we quietly rolled through the countryside to her smallholding, she explained some of the history of the area and that when faced with an empty nest 12 years ago, rather than moving away to downsize, she’d built an eco-house from an outbuilding next door instead and still used the original house for family (for visits), volunteers (for help), and AirBnB guests (for funds) as needed.
When we pulled in, it was love at first sight and all I could secretly think looking up the steps surrounded by bird feeders and dozens of birds was, “It’s VillaCulla Cottage, so this is what happened to Pippi Longstocking when she grew up!”
If the name is new to you, Pippi is the nine-year-old main character of a series of Swedish children’s books written in the 1940s. She lived happily alone in a forest with her horse and her monkey, not living by any of society’s conventions, while back in the real world, readers were facing World War II. To this day, tales of this little rebel who never did what was expected are the fourth most translated children’s books in the world. According to their author, Astrid Lindgren:
Give the children love, more love and still more love—and the common sense will come by itself.
They’re delightful stories—and subsequent films—and, in 1994, Astrid Lindgren was awarded the Right Livelihood Award, an alternative to the Nobel Prize, for “her unique authorship dedicated to the rights of children and respect for their individuality.” Some 50 years later, Pippi also inspired a much darker fictional character, Lisbeth Salander, a computer hacker not living by any of society’s conventions in Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s excellent Millennium trilogy: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Knopf 2008), The Girl Who Played With Fire (Knopf 2009), and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (Turtleback Books 2012).
Over the next fortnight, I discovered what had brought the ultimate self-sufficient rebel to mind on arrival—not least of which were two horses and a little black cat who liked to be carried just like a monkey!
Everywhere I looked, there seemed to be an experiment underway or something just a little different, like a 200-liter underground rainwater collection tank for feeding toilets and washing machines and outdoor taps; meadows growing on any flat roofs, like the one covering the stables; and an attempt at zero-waste living by either recycling or composting or exchanging or finding a new use for everything. Rather than the pressure of commercial growing—like my first placement—or being on show to the public—like my second placement—I basked in feeling inspired and learning something new wherever I turned.
Just as fun were our conversations over elevenses—a quaint British tradition of stopping at 11am to drink a morning tea or coffee—about ways to do anything differently, favorite books, my hostess’s work in the sustainability sector, and her efforts to provide the right habitats to welcome rare woodland species such as dormice, pine martens, and barn owls.
Possibly my two biggest a-has were learning no-dig gardening techniques and how to scythe.
Yes, just like the Grim Reaper.
No-dig is often nicknamed do-nothing or non-cultivation gardening, not unlike Pippi Longstocking being left to her own devices to raise herself. One technique I learned was lining a wooden fruit box with cardboard, lining it with a layer of spent compost for bulk—already been used before—and then topping that with fresh compost from kitchen waste, shredded branches, and horse manure, adding various young plants, and simply dropping it somewhere over unwelcome weeds or long grass to disintegrate, take root, and flourish in its own time and way. Rather than digging out what is unwanted, you’re simply replacing it with what is wanted, along with all it needs to thrive: space, nutrients, and companion plants, rather than interventions such as pesticides, fertilizers, and monoculture.
Mastery of scything, on the other hand, eluded me no matter how carefully I sharpened the blade or practiced the sweeping arc motion to cut long grass for hay. Everywhere I attempted ended up looking as patchy as someone’s first shave, and the following day any grass I thought I’d actually cut—rather than just flattened—would stand right back up again like one of those clown punching bags!
Fresh air and fun and only wearing the equivalent of grown-up play clothes unexpectedly led me to feel incredibly sad at the end of some days. As I sat with emotions welling up within me, I was struck that now I no longer regretted not attending forest school, I was grieving something more intangible.
And then, one day, my hostess asked me to clear the public path that ran past her property. Any day now, a trailer would be dropping off a neighbor’s young cattle to graze for the summer.
Suddenly, the grief I couldn’t quite put a finger on had an outlet. And I magically knew just what to do.
Out came the grass hook—a one-handed version of a scythe—the secateurs, the pruning shears, a saw, the telescopic lopper, the strimmer, and plenty of metta. For two days I hacked away at the overgrown hedgerows on either side of the path for all the ways my nature had been “schooled”—or rather often fooled—while growing up. And then a deeper layer surfaced of all the ways we humans had been “schooled”—or rather outright lied to and manipulated—over these last few years.
Interestingly, just about every person living in the local area walked or rode their horse past as I worked. They stopped to chat and thank me for my trailblazing efforts. While I don’t pretend to know what needs to go to get us all where we’re going from here, perhaps adding enough of what’s wanted to crowd out what’s no longer wanted can provide the space, nutrients, and companionship for personal truth to bury media lies and for nature to reclaim our schooling for a truer common sense to emerge?
Dear readers, have you ever heard the saying that it’s never too late to have a happy childhood? Well, maybe it’s also never too late to attend forest school either? Perhaps, rather than fighting over who and what got us into certain messes, or who and what we no longer want, we can compost what feels spent and instead let metta clear a path to what comes next?
Or, to metta-morphose the lyrics to the Cowboy Junkies song “Still Lost:”
Here metta stands at the end of paths taken
(guiding light inspiration)
The slow decline
The crumbling foundation
And now the cross
But we’re still lost
Dull roots twinning
For new roots shining
Related features from BDG
Every Choice Is a Mistake
The Soul of Soil: A Portrait of Frith Farm
Cultivating Wild: The Miracle of Dharma’s Garden!
Poetic Symbiosis in the Midst of Global Deforestation
Education Versus the Employment Factory
Planting the Seeds of Enlightenment