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.


  1. Hi Daniela,
    Thank you for writing this--it's beautiful and makes me happy, and am honored to have played a small part.

  2. A heartfelt Bravo Daniela for writing this.

    Thanks for being a flame-carrier.

    It is important, to base our judgements on the feelings and sensations our bodies give us - what else are we? We are not politics or abstraction, we are flesh and bone and earth and feeling... we should trust this. And I don't believe that captalism can actually ever bottle this and sell it back to us - it's a fakery and people know it really.

    Art is important because it calls to the bones in us, the heart and the feeling - and people respond powerfully because that animal part of them is being re-jangled and they are reminded that it is there, after perhaps a long while of ignoring it.
    I tend to get rather tongue-tied trying to speak these "idealistic" thoughts to a rational audience.. so I applaud you doing so :)

    And as for your little tree - I don't think this transition is going to be smooth - I think we as as humans will revolt and trash and kill and scream in the re-birthing, alongside those of us who nurture and shine and plant seeds...


  3. Jason - thank you for reading and commenting. I am really excited to finally have found ideas and a language to possibly engage the more academmically minded about these things I have sensed and experienced all along. I'm also really pleased to have found a path leading back to Anthropology, remembering that there was a damn good reason why I was drawn to it in the first place. Maybe it was just the wrong time for me then, but thankfully there are now other ways to do things outside academia, or lightly connected to it!

  4. Dear Rima, thank you so much for your encouragement. I guess I am always feeling like I'm a bit of a bridge between the sensing and the intellect, quite rooted in both, and that it may be my role to connect that inside me as well as with people who may be only leaning to one side. And you are so right - there will be pain and thrashing about like in any birth. I shall remembner that when I feel despaired! XX