Saturday, 19 November 2011

Of falling leaves, and bones and the heart of things

The streets around where I live in outer London are still exploding in the colours of autumn. 
I am blessed to live in streets with trees - tall ancient guardians, young treelings with whippetlike branches.  I haven’t swept the front garden, like some of my neighbours. I don’t have the heart to do it, because every time I come home, I walk on this exquisite carpet, a road literally paved with gold, where doubloons grow on trees. In the light of the streetlamps, the leaves gleam not only in gold, but in copper , ruby and garnet too.  The wind strikes through the branches and harvests a few more of the precious pieces and I watch them slowly float to the ground, beauty all around me.

Some people find the falling leaves a sad thing, the end of the lighter pleasures of summer, the beginning of a long dark time. But I see in the leaves an outpouring of the infinitely complex web of the world, an inevitable result of one of its many processes. A lavish show of beauty before the starkness of winter sets in. All this treasure below my feet, above my head and swirling all around me, a wealth that I cannot put into a bank, nor invest in stocks and shares. I cannot hoard it, and if I tried, the wind would disperse it quickly, as is its right. It cannot be transposed into binary code on a computer screen and transferred between countries in fractures of a second. I cannot use it to buy anything. I cannot lose it, for I don’t own it. And yet it is mine, on this November evening in London, all that beauty mine to behold right here in my heart. In a short while, when the leaves will have all gone finally and the bare skeletons of the trees reach their bones towards the winter skies, then I’m reminded that underneath, that’s what we are too, bare skeletons to be revealed again one day.

This is the world I move in, a lot of the time, even here in the heart of industrial civilisation, a world which is full of beauty, honesty and simple truth even as it goes about its highly complicated business of being. And at the same time, I have to move in another antagonistic manifestation of the world, the one of bank statements, gadgets, global markets, reality TV shows, processed food, efficiencies, conveniences, entertainment. I have not yet cracked the question whether it is possible or even right for me to somehow try and live outside it, or if the challenge is to find the pathways that connect that other world with this one that looks to me unreal and unhinged. 
I have only recently started to speak of that other world, in situations where intellectual argument is expected of me, and facts and figures. That is a funny experience. I love an exciting idea and an elegant argument. I don't at all deny the merits and uses of theoretical discourses and frames of reference. But increasingly, the way we use theory and abstraction seems to me like a language designed to lie on top of the real language, like an elaborately tailored suit that clothes the naked flesh which in turn covers the bare bones of how things really are.

So I find myself saying that I know things in my bones – such as that we cannot have unlimited growth in a finite world. Or that there are so many more wonderful and extraordinary things we could be doing instead of making money, amassing things, arguing about ideologies. I say things like: I can feel in my gut that we won’t be able to pay or engineer ourselves out of the various crises we have manufactured. I say stuff like: I can sense in my heart that that’s not the point anyway. Often the reaction to me speaking like that, of my heart and guts and bones, on the faces of those around me seems to be: what an incurable idealist, naive romantic, lovely words, but of course none of this is of relevance in the real world at all. This is common. But recently, more and more, I see a different reaction. People saying, almost whispering behind their hand, you know what, I FEEL the same.

I went down to OccupyLSX the other day, and spent an afternoon listening to talks on the steps of St Pauls. There too it struck me that many of those speaking referred to feeling things or knowing things in their hearts. With the odd exception, these were no airy fairy kinds of people either, a lot of them were elders, and they were not talking in cerebral lines of argument or advocating drop out dream worlds. But of course, delving into the language of heart and guts will attract always that line of criticism.

Yet it seems to me that more of us are starting to root our thinking in a different ground, that of concrete things, and are looking for concrete changes we can make to our concepts of wealth, for example, how it should be distributed, how we should organise our affairs, what justice could look like in practice for humans and the non-human world. This is not a small thing and I wonder whether we are seeing something important happening. It’s just a hunch I have, that our frames of reference may really be changing.

I see it also in the spreading desire of people to get in actual touch with the material world again, the resurgence of crafts, baking bread, gardening, relearning forgotten skills, being in nature, upcycling, mending, improvising, doing stuff for themselves. All this has flown from the fringes right into the middle of mainstream society. Yes I know, capitalism has already co-opted these desires, as it always does, and sold them back to us as glossy fashion accessories and luxury pursuits. But just looking at the people I know – and not all of them are the rebellious and alternative kind – these desires are very real. I wager that capitalism would have had a very hard time selling this stuff in any quantity even ten years ago – something has changed.

It is not really that people are trying to develop new values. The values I hear people speak of these days are old: justice, equality, truth, beauty, kindness. We have had these values for a long time, they have lived in the realm of ideas and declarations, but we hardly live by them. They are theoretical constructs. What strikes me as different right now is that people seem to draw them from somewhere else, not from abstract ideas, but from the visceral spaces of their hearts, guts and bones. That they are trying to pull them into the world of tangible things: flesh and blood people affected by the insanity of the economic and political system, dying rivers, forests for sale, animals used as raw material, the very body of the earth ripped apart.

There is now a campaign to give legal personhood to the living world and establish the concept of ecocide, and there have been demands for a while to remove legal personhood from the abstract entity of corporations. This is important. There seems to be a shift from arguing about ideologies, to a desire to build things that we can touch and be in, like communal gardens, alternative spaces for learning, different kinds of dwellings, even more tangible ways to bank. 
There is real anger too now at being lied to. People want to know the truth behind things, where only a few years ago many were content with not asking too many questions. There is a desire to be in control about the processes we use to organise and govern ourselves.

It is said that this may only be happening now here in our societies because all of a sudden the myth of endless growth and progress has started to shake, and we feel, even in the more affluent layers, a little more of the pain that most of the world has been feeling all along. Well, at least we are feeling again.

These are just observations, and if anybody wants to accuse me of it all being empirically unfounded, please do. I want to make something crystal clear, because it is so easy in this culture to ridicule anyone who dares to bring feelings and senses into the hard edged oh so real world of politics, economics, science: Our senses and bodily being - that we have somehow left behind, maybe since Descartes split it in two, maybe much earlier - how these are in the world and how they relate to it, is highly complex and full of wonder.

I am losing patience with those who refuse to engage with any possibility of seeing the world another way than this: with us as the controller, with a control centre sitting in our brain, which thinks up ideas and plans and then commands to execute them on the un-thinking world around us. I find them just a little simple. And I would suggest to those who are of this mindset that they go and educate themselves. There are many ways to do this, things like sitting on a patch of earth in the rain, growing vegetables, making something with your own hands, creating a compost heap and watching what happens there, being with someone who is dying, delving into the cosmologies of people in other cultures and times. And even those who dismiss these ways of learning - you can always read a book! I have mentioned David Abrams and Jay Griffiths before. Last week I came across the work of the anthropologist Tim Ingold of whom I must talk more in future - if you're ready to have your worldview challenged in a more academic way, start there. Coming from his knowledge of different cultures, of Western philosophy and consciously observing the material world, he speaks about the world as a meshwork. A fabric, where everything, including us, is no separate entity, but a certain gathering together of the threads of life. How differently might we be in the world if we could see and sense it like that?

Who knows how we will play all this out, but I do know that without daring to see the world and our place in it differently, we'll probably just continue to medicate the symptoms. Because the fundamental beliefs we have about the world, those we don’t even recognise as beliefs but think of as “how things are”, they determine how we act.
I used to think that complexity was the issue that made us so lost, that the structures we have created had become all too much for us and that simplicity was the thing we needed to aspire to. That is part of it. But I’m beginning to think that complexity is not the real issue, but abstraction. We can handle complexity - our engagement with the material world we move through is incredibly complex. It seems that where we are involved in complexity with more than just our abstracted brain-machine, we can handle it. Farmers master complexity, so do craftspeople when they create things through their understanding of the properties and reactions of materials. But I'm starting to think that when complexity resides only in the realm of the abstract, then we have a problem. Then waters are muddied and noble ideas can be divorced from their material reality and remain – ideas, beautiful, but dead.

I didn't write this to offer any answers, which I know is always frustrating for some. Like a few people have now understood about the Occupy movements, we are not even at the stage of answers yet. We have just started scratching the surface of asking the right questions. Life as it unfolds, with the damaging results of how we have participated in it, may not afford us the time to find the answers. But the questions we are asking now may give us more wisdom and better tools to deal with what might be coming. I’d rather face this time with my feet on the earth and my hands in the mud, my mind open to other ways of seeing and doing, able to look pain in the face, dancing with the leaves and with the ability to do stuff for myself. And most importantly with other people who can do that too.

Before I put this post up on the blog, I went for another walk. Within thirty minutes, I had come across a young tree in my road, vandalised, broken. Rubbish strewn across one of the most beautiful urban green spaces in East London. I thought, what did I write all this stuff for just now, about how a desire is growing to reimmerse ourselves in the world. It was all a pretty despairing sight. But then, I’m someone who thinks seeds are important, and those are there, some seedlings even. If we don’t give them light and care, by talking about them and tending fields for them to grow, then I might as well stop breathing now. 

I'm grateful to have first heard about Tim Ingold on Jason Antrosio's fascinating blog Living Anthropologically , in his post  Anthropology, Moral Optimism, and Capitalism: A Four-Field Manifesto.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

A wildness lives at the bottom of my heart

2008 Daniela Othieno

I'm sharing some poetry on this new page here:
Some Poems. 

Mostly stuff I have written a while ago, but it still sometimes changes. 

Let's see where it goes.

Sunday, 31 July 2011

The Carnival Ain't Over

The drum beats louder now. A movement going through the crowd. Dressed up and painted people everywhere. The man with the stag mask is banging his stick on the ground. A gaggle of children, faces smeared green and flowers in their hair, weave in and out of the crowds. The Jack is coming, the Jack is coming! they scream. Everyone's attention now focused on the spot where the Jack will come out, as he does every year. The woman with the raven feather coat is brushing past as she makes her way to the front of the crowd. Louder the drums and louder still, and then he is there. The Jack has emerged to earsplitting whoops and clapping. They lead him now, the tall figure entirely covered in leaves, lead him on his path through the town, watched and cheered by the crowds. Even though the sun is shining, a strong wind blows in from the sea, the seagulls riding high on its gusts. The people follow the Jack through the narrow roads, past the brightly decorated houses, more and more of them spilling out into the streets to walk with the Jack up the steep hill to the ruined castle, where he must go. And they keep him there all day, surrounded by drums, the drums never leaving his side, never missing a beat. Groups of people, adorned with ribbons and leaves and flowers are milling about. Wild men with beards and straggly hair, their bodies smeared in green paint. Wild women too, proudly displaying their womaness. A small group has gathered around a band of itinerant musicians. The townsfolk and the strangers, old and young, all strangers to their normal selves today more than to each other, they sit and dance and drink and sing together. All the while on the highest point of the hill, they fiercely guard the Jack. And when the dancing fades, finally, the drumming rises again and they bring him down now. Right into the middle of the baying crowd. The people are waiting for him, they want him. They all know the Jack must die, as he dies every year, after he has given his lifeforce to the land. He dies to rise again in next year’s spring. This is so. Drums and whooping now drive each other to a crescendo and then, suddenly, all fall silent for an instant. And now they erupt again. The people batter and push the Jack until he topples over and they descend on him, ripping the green fresh leaves from his body until none are left, they slay the Jack until he is spent. The crowd scrambles for a piece of him, cheering for every green leaf and twig. And then he is gone. An excited calm settles. The people now disperse over the hill, happily chatting and laughing. Some will make their way home now, but many will stay and there will be much merriment across the town tonight. 

And all around for another year, the cycle continues.

This is not a scene from a tribe in a remote corner of the world, nor is it from a long gone time in England. It happened in May 2011 in the town of Hastings on the East Sussex coast, exactly so.
The Hastings Jack in the Green celebration – despite involving May queens and Morris dancers - is not a quaint little festival of people stuck in a romanticised past. Neither is it a fringe alternative hippy gathering. It isn’t even a disneyfied rehash of a traditional festival. It’s a bit of old and a bit of new, lots of peoples’ love and effort. Surprisingly, it has managed to avoid commercialisation, and I almost don’t want to talk about it, so nobody gets to know. But judging from the growing crowds there every year, word has got out anyway.

Much has been said and written about the traditional folk festival and the carnivalesque (not just in the Western sense but also in other cultures under different names) particularly in cultural anthropology and literary theory: the time outside time when normal rules are suspended, when masks and costumes adorn bodies, when the grotesque reigns in the streets, when power is mocked and hierarchies are turned upside down temporarily. Also where natural forces and cycles are given reverence above those of human society. Much has also been argued about the revolutionary potential of Carnival and folk festival as a cultural phenomenon – some see in it a tool for a permanent overthrow of the established order, others argue that it is a particularly cruel and effective way of strengthening this order by allowing the masses a temporary release. As with most things, I would argue that it’s neither completely one or the other, but I don’t really want to argue here at all. I want to share what I see and feel in my fellow human beings on occasions like Jack in the Green.

I have talked before on this blog for my love of wild things. I don’t mean the wild as something out there, remote, past, far from us. I’m interested in the wild inside us, every little half forgotten remnant of it, and in shining a light on the corners where it hides in the perceived normality. And I feel that the carnival, the folk festival (in the widest sense of the word) is a time and space where we can experience that which is wild in us. Where the wild creeps up on us and maybe not everyone notices, but it leaves a little imprint, a little memory. Note that a lot of these kinds of festivals happen outside, in nature, in the streets. What strikes me also is the palpable sensuality in the air on those occasions, and the revelling in it.
People come together who would not mingle in everyday life. And meet each other not looking like they do in normal life. While there are a lot of dedicated Jack in the Green participants who take the whole dressing up aspect very seriously, I notice that many other adult visitors do it tentatively, maybe spurned on by their kids, and then seem completely surprised by the sheer joy it brings them. I’m sure that many use the opportunity to embody and express those aspects of themselves that “normal life” - the rational, ordered culture of productivity - has no sense or use for.  
Next weekend, there is another festival in Hastings. The good people of that town love a festival, and they love a bit of mayhem, it seems the more theatrical, the better. So a couple of years ago, they invented Pirate Day. Last year, over 6000 people of all ages and backgrounds dressed as pirates descended on Hastings, and a Guinness Book of Records accolade was awarded. But that is really not the point and to those smelling a ploy to inject life into the local tourist industry, well maybe, but that’s not what concerns me. The day was a blast.
As with the Jack, the town was harking back to some aspects of its history and identity (piracy, smuggling, irreverence and rebelliousness). Of course, there is a major romanticising of the image of the Pirate going on with all this. Pirates are popular, and they even had a Jack Sparrow lookalike in Hastings. Disney got in on that one. But let’s examine this pirate image more closely. Irrespective of what real historical pirates were - what are pirates to us? They are rebellion, self-determination, flamboyance, wildness. Not exactly the qualities that our culture demands, nurtures or even tolerates. But qualities we crave, however domesticated we may seem. You can sense the desire for this in the air on Pirate Day, just as you can sense the desire for a remembering of natural forces and cycles and the aliveness of it all at Jack in the Green. 

And so what, says a voice, what will it change? I don’t know. I suspect some will go away and forget how they felt that day when they experienced forgotten parts and other possibilities of themselves. The little memory packed away safely to be able to return to the machine and function. Something old and wild and flamboyant, something about nature and cycles and the joy of green leaves and face paint, shared with many. But for others, the temporary physical embodiment, the theatrical experience of another kind of being  may be a spark, a desire for more of this taking a stronger hold, an ignition of the imagination, a crack in the veneer, a growing seed. Something.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Come and get Uncivilised - The second Dark Mountain Festival 19-21 August

Last year in May two friends and I headed to the beautiful Welsh town of Llangollen for the first Uncivilisation Festival  that grew from the Dark Mountain Project. In a poetic stroke of foreboding I came across the DM website months before (don't ask me how) while scouring the web for a cheap B&B with an open fireplace  to stay on New Year's eve. 
I found the perfect B&B in Shropshire. I also found in Dark Mountain this other welcoming place to sit around a metaphorical fire place and connect with people who craved new and fresh approaches to the well known issues of our time. Dark Mountain's motto of the end of the world as we know it not being the end of the world full stop, greatly appealed to me. Much good discussion happened on the Dark Mountain blog in the months leading up to the festival. 
Once we got to Uncivilisation the inspiration was palpable in the air all weekend. While the venue wasn't ideal, the ideas, music, poetry and just the pleasure of connecting with amazing people left us buzzing. And it wasn't a flash in the pan - for me personally, the experiences took me back to a path I had left for too long, opening up a lot of new possibilities. Lasting connections were built at the festival, and new ones are still growing. I'm looking forward to talking, sharing, learning, celebrating, story telling and sitting round fires with those I met last year, with others I've only met virtually so far and hopefully with a whole lot of new mountaineers and uncivilisers!  This year's venue in Hampshire promises to be a lot more Dark Mountainish too!
So if you want to participate in this exciting discussion, to inspire and be inspired, go and book your tickets while you can! And as if that wasn't enough, there is also the beautiful and thought provoking second Dark Mountain book  just out!


Friday, 24 June 2011

The Great Compost Heap

I have not posted anything here for a few months.  I have started writing five blog posts or so about books I've read, topics I thought important, but nothing flowed to any kind of conclusion. The simple truth is, my mother died in February, and it seems like this was asking to be written about first, some simple basic things.

The experience of loosing someone close makes all that is here sharpen in colour and contour. This is how I experienced it. The immensity of someone being here and then simply not being here made me want to  immerse myself in the actuality of life. Being in life rather than writing about it, I suppose.  In the elements around me, air, ground and living things; food; music; dance; fires. The very basic old stuff of Life.
I used to think of life as a big wheel or river. Now I feel more and more that it is the Great Compost Heap, and that is a good and beautiful thought. Death, I think, can only push us closer to Life in all its material and simultaneously spirited actuality. That which is here, in the face of somebody not being here any longer. And to see the breathtaking preciousness of it all.

Somebody tweeted a Jules Verne quote a while ago, that deeply touched me in this context:

"Reality provides us with facts so romantic that imagination itself could add nothing to them."

In my experience, our human imagination even in its most abstract form is deeply rooted and grown from reality – reality as the material, embodied world around us. And bound to it by similarity.

I spent last weekend in an amazing wood. It was a thank you trip for my good friend who helped me with so much when I had to organise my mum's funeral in another country, look after my dad, and deal with my own grief. It was also – to me – a trip in honour of my mother. Staying inside a wood in a yurt’s round structure, I felt as if I had returned to be held by green and motherly arms. Arms that let me mourn the loss of a life and cherish Life itself at the same time.
We spent an afternoon roaming through the woods with a man who has lived there for ten years. He was like a guardian of that place. As he was sharing his knowledge and stories, he also showed us a beautiful spot in a willow grove where he had buried his dog, beloved companion to him and co-guardian of the woods. The dog had in fact given the wood its name. As we were admiring the beauty and serenity of the place, he told us that foxes had dug up and eaten the dog’s body, everything apart from the head. I expected to feel bad about this but didn’t. And he added calmly “It’s ok. He has simply gone back into it all. This is how it is.”

There was the Great Compost Heap again, and the pleasure of a kindred soul sharing my feelings about it.

What speaks to me in this exchange and in the Jules Verne quote, is the idea that the real glory, beauty, ecstasy, comfort, sustenance and learning – of lessons lovely and lessons dark - is right inside the material world, those romantic  facts, here, now. The glory is not in transcending it all, but in experiencing us at one with it. All the spirit you could want is contained right in it. And us humans, we need to understand fully, with our minds as well as our bodies, that we are it. There is a most beautiful chapter in David Abram’s book  The Spell of the Sensuous, 'The Forgetting and the Remembering of the Air' where he talks about a Navajo concept:

For the Navajo, then, the Air - particularly in its capacity to provide awareness, thought, and speech - has properties that European, alphabetic civilization has traditionally ascribed to an interior, individual human "mind" or "psyche". Yet by attributing these powers to the Air , and by insisting that the "Winds within us" are thoroughly continuous with the Wind at large - with the invisible medium in which we are immersed - the Navajo elders suggest that that which we call "mind" is not ours, is not a human possession. Rather, mind as Wind is a property of the encompassing world, in which humans  - like all other beings - participate. One's individual awareness, the sense of a relatively personal self or psyche, is simply that part of the enveloping Air that circulates within, through, and around one's particular body; hence; one's own intelligence is assumed, from the start, to be entirely participant with the swirling psyche of the land. Any undue harm that befalls the land is readily felt within the awareness of all who dwell within that land. And thus the health, balance, and well-being of each person is inseparable from the health and well-being of the enveloping earthly terrain. ( p. 237)

The other day a wonderful Permaculture teacher, shared this gem of information:  It is estimated that the number of microorganisms in our large intestine alone is ten times higher than the number of all our own cells in our body. So in a way, we carry more of “something else” in us than we carry “of ourselves”. Ponder this. We are it, very intimately.

Jay Griffiths has written an entire love story to our affinity and kinship with the whole of existence. In Wild: An Elemental Journey, probably my most beloved book of all time, she urges: 

Don't waste your wildness: it is precious and necessary. In wildness truth. Wildness is the universal songline, sung in green gold, which we recognize the moment we hear it. (p. 103)

I wonder what other religion, spirituality, basis for ethics and law, impetus for philosophy, social organisation, art, technology and general action we really need? And where from that human drive to look in other places?

Instead of cherishing the beauty and immense potential of our deep bond with all other life forms, us humans have spun a big story about the supremacy of our imagination, intellect and inventiveness above all else that exists. Of our rights above all else that exists. The world for our use, and if we ever recognise the ingenuity of other life forms, it is usually to exploit it for human gain.

As the story of human supremacy is beginning to unravel all over the place, I talk a lot about beauty. Championing beauty does not mean denying difficulty, suffering, violence, death and decay. It depends on understanding these things. My mum, incidentally, was a great believer in beauty and a close acquaintance of suffering at the same time.
This is at the core of this blog. Not a superficial rose-spectacled vision of how pretty the world is and how everything will sort itself if we just feel at one with it.

The only way really is here and now in our highly complex and destructive cultures and in whatever we choose to do, to take our inspiration from and for the living world. To breathe it in, to get intimately close to all its manifestations. Or to simply remember that we already are and never have been otherwise.

Because the Great Compost Heap requires of us to accept limits, loss and decay even as its beauty asks us to celebrate and to care for it with loving and inventive action.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Walking as 'subversive detour', urban hunter-gatherers and why we need to put our bodies into the world

I have just finished reading Wanderlust - A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit. Rebecca is a special kind of writer, who takes on seemingly mundane subjects, links all kinds of sources and her own sideways look at things and weaves it all into an intricate tapestry. I was blown away by her small volume A Field Guide to Getting Lost last year, where she looks at the idea of loss and living with uncertainty with very fresh eyes.

Wanderlust is a much thicker book, tracing the history and meaning of walking from theories about the origins of our upright walk, via the great tradition of Wordsworth and British walking, Alpine Clubs and mountaineering, philosophy, pilgrimage, political marches, Parisian flaneurs, the obstacles to walking that women have encountered through the ages and her own very personal accounts of walking in places as varied as urban San Francisco, the Mojave Desert and the Las Vegas strip.

Of all the amazing stories and insights she relays, it is her love for urban walking that struck the deepest chord with me. I absolutely love walking and hiking in wild places, and those walks are among my most beloved experiences and memories. They are the peak moments of exhilaration, of feeling completely at home in my place on Earth. But like Rebecca, I have a longstanding love of walking in the city. It's a more low key and slow burning love, more an everyday love, because for the last 17 years, the city has been my everyday environment. But there is, at the bottom of it, a similar kind of exhilaration often when I - consciously - walk through London. That is, walking here with the same interest and immersion that I would have on a walk through an ancient forest.

In Wanderlust Rebecca draws attention to an obvious, but probably often overlooked reason why urban walking, if we only give ourselves over to it with dedication, can resurrect in us ancient feelings and connections because of its closeness to a hunting-gathering situation. Here is - and it's worth to quote at length - the for me most AHA! inducing passage in the book:

The history of both urban and rural walking is a history of freedom and of the definition of pleasure. But rural walking has found a moral imperative in the love of nature that has allowed it to defend and open up the countryside. Urban walking has always been a shadier business, easily turning into soliciting, cruising, promenading, shopping, rioting, protesting, skulking, loitering, and other activities that, however enjoyable, hardly have the high moral tone of nature appreciation. Thus no similar defense has been mounted for the preservation of urban space, save by a few civil libertarians and urban theorists ( who seldom note that public space is used largely by walking it). Yet urban walking seems in many ways more like primordial hunting and gathering than walking in the country. For most of us the country or the wilderness is a place we walk through and look at, but seldom make things in or take things from (remember the famous Sierra Club dictum, "Take only photographs, leave only footprints"). In the city, the biological spectrum has been nearly reduced to the human and a few scavenger species, but the range of activities remains wide. Just as a gatherer may pause to note  a tree whose acorns will be bountiful in six months or inspect a potential supply of basket canes, so an urban walker may note a grocery open late, or a place to get shoes resoled, or detour by the post office. Too, the average rural walker looks at the general - the view, the beauty - and the landscape moves by as a gently modulated continuity:crest long in view is reached. A forest thins out to become a meadow. The urbanite is on the lookout for particulars, for opportunities, individuals and supplies, and the changes are abrupt.Of course the city resembles primordial life more than the country in a less charming way too; while non-human predators have been radically reduced in North America and eliminated in Europe,the possibility of human predators keeps city dwellers in a state of heightened alertness, at least in some times and places. (p173/174)

I like the idea of moving through urban space with a hunter-gatherer mentality, as opposed to the mentality of a consumer, shopper, a commuter, a frightened person, a stressed out person. I recognise this mindset very much.Years ago, when I lived in Brixton (for the non Londoners, Brixton is a lively, very mixed, densely populated part of South London, now like many such parts having become a bit gentrified but still retaining and regaining a lot of its essence), I probably had the purest experience of the hunter-gatherer. It was born partly out of having no money and needing to walk everywhere, needing to find the cheapest places to meet everyday needs, to meet people, to have entertainment, to - yes, actually - survive. The other part however was the genuine excitement of discovering new and unexpected things around corners, of having to learn to deal with unexpected situations, of being a part of a vibrant, not always pretty, but very real sort of urban eco-system. I was reminded of this by the chapter in Wanderlust, where Rebecca describes her walks through San Francisco. In those days in Brixton, I knew my neighbourhood like the back of my hand, I felt safe because I knew it and could move in it with exactly that combination of ease and alertness that Rebecca describes. I still do urban walking in the part of London where I live now and having had the essence of it so beautifully brought together by this great book, I'm going to do it with renewed dedication from now on.

It is interesting that Brixton, being quite a contained area where everything is easily reachable on foot, and where there is an air of subversiveness in the place, made walking so easy and compelling for me. Where I live now, although by no means suburbia, places are more drawn out and less connected. Rebecca Solnit talks at length in the book about the scourge of American cities that have been built only with cars in mind. Where sidewalks have been completely done away with in some places and where with non existent public transport, poor people get practically imprisoned in their neighbourhoods. Where opportunities to experience oneself physically and fully engaged in ones urban environment are taken away. We are - still - lucky in most places in Europe, although there are examples here too of monstrous urban areas where roads cut off places from one another.

In wonderful synchronicity, these thoughts about urban walking link to the gist of an essay by Ivan Illich I read just before reading Wanderlust. In "Disabling Professions", published in 1978, Illich talks about how the rise of 'the professions' such as doctors, lawyers, teachers, have disabled people by concentrating vital knowledge and life skills in the hands of experts, to such  a degree that the very power and decision making about one's health, dwellings, learning, where one can be born or die, have in essence been transferred to institutions and law makers. "Disabling Professions" is a sobering read, really pushing a finger in a wound that we all know we have but rarely allow ourselves to feel the pain it causes.

If we want to break out of all these dependencies, we need to pursue activities that subvert the idea that all our experiences need to be mediated, safe, controlled, in expert hands. We need to claim activites that give us back a sense of our own autonomy, of being able to deal with stuff, to work out, resolve, improvise, face and get on with by ourselves, to reclaim the authority that our hunter-gatherer ancestors had over their life. And part of that is to preserve and defend urban public space - get to know our neighbourhood, be physically in it, keep an eye on and get involved in what happens to the public spaces around us. And just to make this clear: I am not saying that hunter gatherer lives where easy or pretty, but I'm saying that there was a greater measure of self-authority, and that is such an underrated, precious thing.

If there is a history of walking, then it too has come to a place where the road falls off, a place where there is no public space and the landscape is being paved over, where leisure is shrinking and being crushed under the anxiety to produce, where bodies are not in the world but only in cars and buildings, and an apotheosis of speed makes these bodies seem anachronistic and feeble In this context, walking is a subversive detour, the scenic route through a half abandoned landscape of ideas and experiences. (p12)

What I like most about Rebecca's passionate plea for urban walking, is that it deals so practically with where we are at. It does not require us to all go and live on the land, but deeply acknowledges our current situation, where most of us do live in urban areas. Where many of us feel unsafe, cut off, have lost all sense of being bodily immersed in our surroundings because of that, and where many of us are dreaming about a life in the country that we may well never have. 

There is a cluster of ideas coming together from different angles about the importance of our actual bodily experience in the world, the reclaiming of individual authority that is embedded in the communality of a larger world, the facing and dealing with things as they are. In another wonderful bit of synchronicity, the thread seems to spin further, as the book I have just started reading is The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abrams, which is all about a deep repositioning in how we experience ourselves in the world as bodily sensing creatures amongst other such creatures - food for a future blog post. 

The recent renewed taking to the streets of people around the world is not quite the same as the kind of walking I'm talking about here. But maybe these great communal expressions of walking to protest and revolt have to be underpinned by the small everyday acts of reclaiming our autonomy, of which I think urban walking is one.

For more on Rebecca Solnit go to her website   and read this lovely interview
For more on Ivan Illich, check out the resources on Dougald Hine's website
For David Abrams go to

(If anyone wants to read any of the books I'm referencing, try to get them in your local independent bookshop or try your local library - that's where I got all of them from!)

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

A bear for a friend

Bear  Pendant made from found components 
 (metal chain, leather, mother of pearl, turquoise, amethyst, glass and metal beads) 

They say it was Bear
Who taught humanity the Shaman's way
Maybe under a pale moon or
An amethyst sky
Whispering the ancient truth
In our ancestors ears by a fire's shine
And we feel the echo of her whispers 
in our hearts today.

Daniela  Othieno   January  2011

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Experience vs Belief

A few months ago, someone who has been a devout Christian all his life asked me, “What do you believe in?”. I had to say that I don’t really believe in the concept of “belief”. For me it is about experience.

I experience the world as fully animated in all its manifestations, with all its inhabitants, human and non human, speaking in their particular languages, expressing their particular wisdom. I know, because I have experienced it, that we can sense and hear this. I know, because I have experienced it, that beneath the superficial appearance of separateness between all beings and things, we are all really the same thing. In a nutshell, that’s what I know.

These are of course philosophical or spiritual notions that have been around for a long time, usually going by the name of Animism. I’m not saying something new. But I am interested how these play out in the lives and interactions of everyday people ( and isn’t that what we all are?).

“But what does that mean for life and society?”, the man asked me. It means there is one simple, you may call it ethical, rule. The only one I think we’ll ever need: Because all is one, harming something outside of us is harming ourselves. Once the notion of self has expanded sufficiently, selfishness becomes a virtue. The fact that our current way of life is completely detrimental to this rule is painful. And the fact of my role and complicity in it on many levels is an increasingly difficult issue.

 So belief really doesn’t do it for me. Maybe the reliance on experience comes from never being satisfied with the common answers to Why-type questions: “because it is written in a book” or  “an expert person says so” are just not good answers, therefore mainstream religions have never had an easy time with me. Ideologies haven't either. A good answer is usually something that I can experience.

I don’t mean a scientific experiment-proof type answer either. I do subscribe to the notion that science is just a particular belief system. “because chemical A reacts with chemical B in a certain way and that’s why C happens” is not a satisfactory answer, it might be only half the story.Whatever goes on between chemicals A and B may simply be the material manifestation of a subtler energy? 

There are plenty of books now talking about cutting edge science nudging ever closer to an understanding of reality that can be found in very old spiritual and cosmological systems. It just seems to have taken western industrialised science a while to come back to ideas that have been around for a very long time. 

Maybe, someone would say, animism agrees with a certain mindset, with those of us who tend to think and conceptualise in images and metaphors  rather than analysis. Those who tend to see connections and correspondences rather than causes and effects. Animist ideas are often perceived by the mainstream as naive (“talking trees??”) and anarchic (“what, you mean you don’t need priests and written rules??”). These are also terms often used to describe children, tribal peoples and our earliest ancestors – not really palatable to the culture we live in. But maybe the animist mindset is the one all humanity had before evolving away from it?

Such an “evolving away” has also played out in my own life. I was an animist when I was a child. I think most children are, especially those who have the fortune of growing up close to nature. But there came a point when I had walked very far away from it indeed.

I vividly remember an evening on a trip to Northern Spain during my university years. It was a place I had been many times before. As I was walking through a bit of forest in the evening I felt an unease at first and then something hit me – I was apart from it. The feeling of understanding and oneness, of being a part of it, it was gone. No matter how hard I tried – I was almost pleading, at some point, with who or what I don’t know – I was cut off. I tried to feel the trees and the nightwind inside me, but I couldn’t. I could see everything, but all seemed shallow and two-dimensional. I was devastated.

What had happened? What had happened, I think, is at that point I had been through long years of the Western industrialised scientific capitalist education system.
I had been very very successful in it. I loved going to school, it’s that curiosity again. I loved soaking up knowledge, although I was sometimes dubious about the knowledge on offer and the methods used to transmit it. I went to university out of a belief that it was about knowledge.  I decided to go into an academic career out of a belief that it was about the furthering of deep knowledge. (And I don’t mean to say that there are no people working in academia who do exactly that, or that I did not get any profound insights from my time in academia).

What I should have done though, rather than going by a belief, is to go by my daily experience. The latent unease. The hours spent in seminars with a nasty feeling in my stomach. Experience should have led me, not belief.

I did get my connection back. Some people may have been able to do it while staying in academia. I had to physically remove myself. It was not a conscious decision, no big moment of break after my epiphany in a Spanish forest. I stayed on the same trajectory for quite a few years after that.
It was a gradual, subtle awakening of a sense that was capable of listening to my experiences, which almost gave me no other choice than to act on them. Once starting to awaken, it would not be quiet again.

So over the last decade and a bit, I got my connection back. Curiously, this happened not while living on the land or the edge of mainstream society, but in one of the biggest cities on the planet, in the heart of western scientific industrial capitalist society, and going to regular 9-5 jobs. Go figure.

I have had many guides and teachers in this time, human and non-human. My human guides and teachers have rarely been conventional specialists, experts or authorities, although there have been some of those too. Most have been everyday people who shared and created experiences with me.
My teachers from the non-human world have been extraordinary, once I could hear them again. There were some peak accelerating experiences with them in the process of reconnection that I may talk about in a future post.

And now it seems the field of us humans to share these experiences is growing and growing, and the time is also coming for me to do something with them.

Over the last year, discussions about this stuff seem to crop up everywhere around me, just in everyday conversations, online, something is in the air. 

Fertile material about all of these questions is growing in and around the edges of the Dark Mountain Project A conversation about animism between Dougald Hine and David Abram in particular sparked my desire to voice these thoughts

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

To grow near to my heart

A while ago I decided to join a local box vegetable and fruit scheme. Really local. Some of the produce is grown a busride away from my house on the outskirts of London. Some is collected, fallen fruit from local trees in public spaces that in the past would have rotted away on the ground (though enjoyed no doubt by the local wildlife and absorbed back into the lap of the earth). Some comes from small local growers, from allotments and back gardens, from growers in East Anglia. A small part of the fruit comes from producers in Europe, and bananas are fairtraded from further afield.

The fruit and veg I get every week I could probably buy slightly cheaper in a supermarket or the local market. Why that is not the point? Because any initiative to grow food more locally needs to be supported - we will need it in the future when (not if) our complicated fragile and highly interdependent system of food production and transportation starts to crack.

But there is something else I have noticed, something much more raw and fundamental - I actually have grown to love the food. Yes, I do mean love. I have always got a problem with wasting food, but I have done it, many times. Bought too much veg and had it rot at the back of the fridge. Remembered that I really don't like overripe pears when it was too late. Not with this food. I cannot bear to throw it away, I cannot bear to ignore it until all I can do is put it in the compost. I use it for a meal no matter what. Last week I found a shrivelled apple in the bottom of the fruit bowl, and I had to eat it.

Of course I don't know if in the big scheme of things the apples and carrots care whether they are eaten by me or turn into compost to rejoin the big wheel of life as fertilizer. But I was stunned how the mere knowledge of where this food comes from, of having been at the growing site of some of it and spoken to the people who look after it, has made me respect it, appreciate it, and given me an almost physical concern for it.

An argument for making things more local, more known? Maybe. I pride myself in "thinking global", in having an awareness of the interconnectedness in the world, but fact is that the actual closer knowledge of this food has made it grow closer to my heart. Like the jam my mum makes compared to the one in the supermarket. Not alienated. Maybe use the experience as a reminder that all food is precious. Maybe a reminder that it is right to be really interested in my food and the people who produce it if it comes from far away as well. Definitely a reminder that waste is not an expression of love.

I like it when I learn a lesson from the non-human world. A workers' cooperative growing food on London's edge in the Lea Valley

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Look at us

See our faces etched on the side of a mountain
Creeks and rivers moving in our veins
The heart of the deer and the eagle
living, beating in our chests -
Our bones the chalky cliffs
by the oceans, our lifetimes
the eternal shifting of a wave
Our thoughts the beetroot and poison ivy 
in the gardens of existence
Our symphonies a verse in the
love song of the world -
All our poems but a line
in the great spirit’s prayer
Our smiles a sunrise on the face of the earth -
And our consciousness not the crown
But a mirror reflecting 
The world's Beauty to itself
And what if this was the end and the beginning
Our journey, destination and plan
This our forgotten holy nature
To share the one true garment
and weave our threads into 
the fabric of the world

Daniela Othieno October 2010