contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Nature

POEM: CONFRONTED BY CHRYSANTHEMUMS

For his morning tea

A priest sits down

In utter silence –

Confronted by chrysanthemums.

Matsuo Basho The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches London: Penguin Books, 1966 (translated with an introduction by Nobuyuki Yuasa)

The introduction names Matsuo Basho (1644-94) as one of the greatest figures in Japanese literature, and describes his life and work. A younger son of a minor samurai family, at nine years old he was sent to the Todo family as page and study-mate for Yoshitada, its eleven year old heir. Yoshitada, born with a delicate constitution, was more interested in literary than in military arts, and he and Basho studied the fashionable art of linked verse under the poet Kigin.

When Yoshitada died at the age of 25, Basho left the service of the Todo family by running away to Kyoto where he spent five years studying Japanese and Chinese classics at Buddhist temples. Later he based himself in the younger city of Edo (now Tokyo) where he felt greater freedom to find his own direction as a poet.

Dissatisfied with the, to him, superficial culture of Edo’s ‘floating world’, Basho turned to Zen and learned meditation from the Zen priest Buccho. Poetry still came first for Basho, but his understanding and practice changed. He wrote of his own work: “What is important is to keep our mind high in the world of true understanding, and returning to the world of our daily experience to seek therein the truth of beauty. No matter what we may be doing at a given moment, we must not forget that it has a bearing upon our everlasting self which is poetry”. Basho is a pen name, and the name of a species of banana tree about which Basho said: “the big trunk of the tree is untouched by the axe, for it is utterly useless as building wood. I love the tree, however, for its very uselessness … I sit underneath it, and enjoy the wind and rain that blow against it”.

Discussing the relationship between the poet and nature, he wrote: “go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so, you must leave your subjective pre-occupation with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn. Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one – when you have plunged deep enough into the object to see something like a hidden glimmering there. However well phrased your poetry might be – if the object and yourself are separate – then your poetry is not true poetry but merely your subjective counterfeit.”

By the time Basho came to write travel sketches, mixing haiku and prose in the genre known as haibun, he had spent some years casting away his material attachments. Now he had “nothing else to cast away but his own self which was in him as well as around him. He had to cast this self away, for otherwise he was not able to restore his true identity (what he calls ‘the everlasting self which is poetry’ in the passage above). … He left his house ‘caring nought for his provisions in the state of sheer ecstasy'”.

I love the haiku at the top of this post. I love the freshness and naturalness of the priest’s encounter with a flower that is steeped in the formal (and auspicious) symbolism of both Buddhist tradition and Japanese national culture, but is offered here in its simple yet extraordinary essence.

I cannot claim real understanding of traditional Japanese Zen culture and its relationship to creative arts. I have a smattering of knowledge and an awareness of some principles. But I am sure that much is lost in translation. What I do have is the capacity to open myself up to the words and images. Here I find the resonance of a richer experience of being, better grounded whilst also more spacious.

For his morning tea

A priest sits down

In utter silence –

Confronted by chrysanthemums.

MIDSUMMER CELEBRATION 2022

The place is called Lower Parting, though it is actually a joining. The parting is 3km (just under two miles) up river. There, the River Severn divides into two channels, east and west, to flow around Alney Island. When taking the picture above, I was standing near the point where the channels meet again. It was around 9 a.m. on 22 June. I had not been there before.

Although every time and place is ultimately sacred, some times and places are easier for me to honour. In my experience this is partly a property of the times and places, partly down to culture and tradition, and partly to do with my own inner and outer availability.

On this occasion, I was within a midsummer period which for me lasts from a day or so before the solstice until around 25 June. I like to acknowledge the stasis (standstill) element within the solstice experience. It is not just about a point of time. Like its midwinter opposite and twin, my midsummer allows an extended pause before the wheel of the year turns. My walk on 22 June was an intentional celebration of the midsummer stasis, something between an outdoor walking meditation and a miniature festival pilgrimage. It was built around my first encounter with an intuited special place, now that I am fit enough once more to walk the required distance.

I can easily understand why people in many parts of the world have seen water, especially flowing water, as sacred. I am on a quiet part of a quiet island in the middle of Gloucester city. The wetland here is blissfully unfit for development, and now a nature reserve. I was able to stand here and look out at the joining of the waters, under a blue sky, and surrender to a benign spirit of place. I didn’t have to attend to my attention. In this extended, flowing, moment, nature was doing that for me. I found, here, a generous horizon, and a living peace that invites participation. I am glad and grateful to have discovered this place on this day.

In my tradition, at every seasonal festival, we are asked to think not only of the time we are celebrating, but also of its opposite. Walking back from Lower Parting, I see features in the landscape that help me. My pictures below do not evoke winter, but they do show light and shade within a single image. On planet Earth, the time of my summer is the time of someone else’s winter. These are both ways in which opposites complement each other in an interconnected world.

BOOK REVIEW: BEYOND SUSTAINABILITY

Highly recommended. Beyond Sustainability – Authentic Living at a Time of Climate Crisis – offers an insightful exploration of the changes we need to make at the personal and collective levels. It is part of Moon Books’ Earth Spirit series, and will be released on 28 April 2023.

Author Nimue Brown says that, “as a Druid, I’ve spent my adult life trying to live lightly. There is a great deal to learn about what is possible, and what’s effective, and this is always a work in progress and never as good as I want it to be. I feel very strongly about the need for real change and quietly rage about greenwashing and the ridiculousness of ‘offsetting’. Harm cannot be offset”.

The book is economical with words and rich in content. Its introduction reflects that “humans are increasingly a miserable species, caught in ways of behaving that give us very little and will cost us the earth”. Brown argues that it doesn’t have to be this way and in seven chapters she sketches out pathways to an alternative.

Chapter 1 – What Makes an Authentic Life?- advocates ‘conscious living’, in which we resist the pressure to “to construct our identities out of consuming products”. Instead, we are challenged to discover what inspires and uplifts us, and to build meaningful relationships, with creative and productive communities emancipated from the trance of consumerism.

Chapter 2 – Authenticity and the Unsustainable – explores the narratives that limit and distract us, the stresses of high speed living, the hunger for possessions and ‘experiences’, and the rise of debt culture.

Chapter 3 – Slow Life Sustainability – suggests that ‘life in the slow lane is gentler’. It includes sections on slow fashion, slow transport, slow food, and slow shopping.

Chapter 4 – Wealth in Relationships – looks at ways in which we can support and appreciate each other, and has specific sections on spiritual community, community action, privilege/prejudice and the power of sharing.

Chapter 5 – Creativity for All – emphasises that “being able to imagine is an essential skill for moving towards more sustainable ways of life”. We are nourished by our own creativity and each others.

Chapter 6 – Privilege, Poverty, Inclusion – looks at bigger picture political change, starting with the thought that “sustainability cannot be just a middle class hobby”. There are a lot of things you can’t do if you are poor; shaming and blaming poor people is cruel and useless. Redistribution of wealth is therefore an essential step towards greener living.

Chapter 7 – Political Changes – discusses specific measures such as right of repair, universal basic income, a four day working week, radical changes to agriculture, reducing waste, ‘stop making money out of money’, and not relying simply on changes in technology.

Beyond Sustainability is an informed and distinctive contribution to an increasingly important conversation. It deserves to be widely read and discussed. I suggest that readers of this blog make a note or add it to their lists.

(1) Nimue Brown Beyond Sustainability: Authentic Living at a Time of Climate Crisis Winchester, UK & Washington, USA, 2023 (Part of the Earth Spirit series)

PEONIES IN LATE MAY

As I look at these peonies, I delight in their lushness. But the word ‘poignant’ also comes to mind. Delight is mixed with sadness, and a sense of time slipping away. These are probably the last pictures of these peonies that I will take. They are in the back garden of our old home on the day it was emptied of our remaining possessions. Historically they have ushered in the first fullness of summer. They have confirmed a warm sense of home, year after year, as the wheel turns.

But now I am leaving a place Elaine and I called home for many years, at a time when the future remains uncertain on many levels. The stability of the wheel itself, or at least of its local manifestations, is palpably in question. You have to work perversely hard, now, to maintain an ignorance and denial of the climate crisis. Even here, in a cool temperate island.

I cannot dwell in sadness alone, potentially drawn down into a stuck and demobilised distress. The health and viriditas in my bodymind won’t allow it. I find myself staying open to a delight in what is given, here, in these seasonal images. The invitation to celebrate the bounty of nature in an everyday modest setting is very strong, and I respond. The nudge to make a record is likewise strong. Records and memory matter. They change any living moment to which they are invited. The opportunity to contemplate this image of peonies, knowing the context of the picture-taking, is a resource for future times.

ST DAVID’S DAY 2022: A WALK IN THE PARK

It is 1 March, a mixed day – bringing together grey sky, bare branches, emerging blossoms and vivid daffodils. It is chilly, and rain is likely, though not just yet. Daffodils (here the strongest sign of a changing year) are linked to St. David, the patron saint of Wales. 1 March is his feast day.

David lived during the sixth century CE, a flourishing time for Celtic Christianity. His defining early achievement was the founding of a Celtic monastic community at Glyn Rhosyn (the Vale of Roses) on the west headland of Pembrokeshire (Si Benfro) where St. David’s Cathedral now stands. He went on to become a Christian leader of great authority, and was eventually canonised in the twelfth century, a different historical period with the church under stronger Vatican control and Welsh identity under threat from the English. David became the patron saint of Wales and his day is celebrated in Wales with parades and other public events.

Gloucester is very much an English city, though not so very far from Wales. Today’s weather conditions would not be out of place there. My wife Elaine and I went out on a morning walk with a sense of the saint’s day and how both the day and the coming of March represent a shift in the year. I noticed, too, how I can honour a saint without thinking of sainthood as a model, or even remotely wanting to be one. I acknowledge that I am on different kind of path, less defined, less heroic, and less religious.

When out walking, I see how the ordinary world seems to transform in the light of a loving gaze. I am looking at the world as it is, not for signs of a creator’s hand or influence or expectations. For me, laid out below – at the micro level – I find grass, earth, twigs, purple crocus and dead leaves. They are simply themselves. All ordinary in an ordinary moment. But an ordinary moment, as we might conventionally call it, is an extraordinary event. It is a small miracle, in its naturalistic way, yet easy to access in a receptive frame of mind.

I do appreciate that a ‘receptive frame of mind’, as a private experience, is facilitated by favourable public conditions, like a well-managed public park. I may not be dependent on such external conditions, but they do make a difference. I am grateful for their current presence in an uncertain world.

WAITING FOR THE STORM

I took this picture from an upstairs window before 9 a.m. on18 February 2022,. It shows blue sky and the tower of St Mary de Crypt, Gloucester. The image is calm, and I enjoy its simple beauty. But I am bracing for a severe storm, officially named ‘Storm Eunice’. We are on red alert, which is very rare in this country. I contemplate the tower, which stands both for longevity and impermanence.

It is 10.15 a.m. now and the wind, at first just playful, has moved into serious gusting. Paper and leaves blow about in a courtyard. The sky is grey and there are raindrops on my window pane. Taking another picture, I notice I have lowered my sights. I have included more material substance, roof tops in particular. The invitation to skyward contemplation, so poignantly encouraged by towers like this, isn’t so present for me in this moment. The theme now is embodied endurance and solidity, weathering the winds of the world. For they don’t seem at all celestial, their current force at least partly the result of our own collective behaviour. Strong walls and a decent roof are the focus of my desire. I am, after all, a Pagan.

I am an urban Druid now, more clearly than before. It gives me a different view of nature. On one hand I am reminded that everything is included in ‘nature’. But in so far as I make a city/country distinction, I do notice a different experience of the elements, seasons, and the varieties of life. In an old and relatively small city (pop. 165,000) it is easier to see the evolution of human culture as a gradual and organic process than in other built environments. Today is a special day because raw and conceivably violent nature is coming on a visit. Whilst I notice fears around this, and am distressed by the notion of harm to anyone, I also find an aspect of Spring, and renewal, in this. I do feel energised, now, just after 11 a.m., and this at least is welcome. I have no idea of how the day is going to play out here, or what I am going to feel about my experience of Storm Eunice at the days end.

THE COMING OF AUTUMN

Walking in the woods yesterday I saw the coming of autumn, in the sky and in the trees. I felt it too, and not just in my physical sensation of coolness. I experienced a mood of loss and ending, not limited to the summer of 2021.

The natural wheel of the year, where I live, has classically been one of soft transitions. Our seasons have merged gently into each other, with September as a modified extension of summer. Leaves gently turn, but there is not much of a fall. For much of my life I enjoyed the sense of a predictable pattern in the the turning of the wheel. That sense has eroded in recent years and has now reached vanishing point. Hence the feeling of loss.

Summer 2021 seemed to die in August, after a short and faltering life. It may be succeeded by a once unseasonable hot spell, or it may not. Considering the effects of the climate crisis in other parts of the world, this is hardly dramatic. But this weird summer season, including a background awareness of developments elsewhere, has ended my already weakened feeling of security. The phrase ‘winds of change’ comes to mind. I think, what next? And when?

I feel challenged to be open to whatever happens, without obsolete expectations to confuse me. In the state of openness, I find that an inner peace and clarity are present. They act as my guides through a shifting, changing, world.

THE SUPPORT OF NATURE

“Carl Jung coined the word synchronicity to refer to the remarkable coincidences most of us experience from time to time. They are remarkable in that they usually involve two or more unconnected events coming together in an unlikely way. These events seem to be more than coincidences, more than pure chance. They often seem like miracles, bringing us just what we need at just the right time, opening up new opportunities in our lives or supporting us in some other way.

” … The Maharishi, with whom I had the good fortune to study in India, explained this as ‘the support of nature’. When he wanted to assess how we were progressing in our practice, he was not interested in our experiences in meditation itself … he was more interested in whether we had noticed what he called ‘increased support of nature’. By this he meant, did we notice the world supporting our needs and intentions? That is to say, did we notice more synchronicity in our lives?

” … It might sound like magical thinking, but I’ve noticed that the degree of synchronicity in my life often reflects my state of conscious. When I meditate regularly, especially when I have been on a meditation retreat, life seems to work out well, with many little coincidences leading me to just what I need at the right time. It’s as if the Universe has my best interests at heart and arranges for their fulfilment in ways I could never have dreamed of.

“Conversely, when I’m stressed, not in touch with myself but caught up in worry or in some other way off-centre, synchronicities don’t flow so abundantly.

“Furthermore, synchronicities seem to happen more often when I’m engaged with the world. I can sit alone in a cottage in the middle of a forest, at peace and in touch with myself, yet few synchronicities occur. Significant ones nearly always involve other people in some way. It is as if my interplay with others gives cosmic choreography greater opportunities to reach me.

“Although we cannot make synchronicities happen – it’s in their nature to occur ‘by coincidence’ – we can encourage their occurrence. We can support nature by taking time to step back from our egoic thinking and reconnect with our essential being. Then, grounded in our true nature, we can go out and engage fully in the world. We can go out and play – play whatever game or role best fits our intentions and best serves our awakening, and that of others.

“And then enjoy, and perhaps marvel at, the way nature responds by supporting us.”

Peter Russell Letting Go of Nothing: Relax Your Mind and Discover the Wonder of Your True Nature 2021 http://www.newworldlibrary.com – (Foreword by Eckhart Tolle)

SUZANNE SIMARD: FINDING THE MOTHER TREE

Dr. Suzanne Simard grew up in the Monashee Mountains of British Columbia, in a family of low impact traditional foresters. She worked for many years a researcher in the Canadian Forest Service, before moving into academia. She is currently Professor of Forest Ecology at the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Forestry. Throughout her career she has had a leading role in changing the way that science thinks about trees and forests. Her research on tree connectivity, communication and cooperation – and their impact on the health and biodiversity of forests – has shown how the imposed monocultures of commercial forestry are a disaster for forests, forestry and the wider ecology of the planet.

Her book Finding the Mother Tree: Uncovering the Wisdom and Intelligence of the Forest was published by Penguin Books in the UK, USA, Canada, Ireland and Australia in 2021 in paper, kindle and audio versions. It describes both a personal journey and a scientific one, and shows how the work Simard came to do grew out of the place and culture in which she was raised. It is as if her achievement had her name on it even at the beginning. I highly recommend this book to any one with an interest in ecology and the sentience of trees.

I cannot do justice in to this inspiring book and its thesis in a single post. Instead, I refer readers to a TED talk on How Trees Talk To Each Other (1), which Simard gave in 2016, summarising her work and its implications in just over 16 minutes. If the talk whets your appetite, the book will likely satisfy it. It says more about Suzanne Simard’s personal and family journey. It describes her ground-breaking (though also fraught and frustrating) time within the Canadian Forest Service in some detail. It also says something about the ecological wisdom of the indigenous peoples of the forest and takes Simard’s own research up to 2020.

(1) http://www.ted.com/talks/suzanne_simard_how_trees_talk_to_each_other?language=en/

SUMMER’S GATEWAY 2021

For me, 2021 has been a testing year so far. Part of the test has been a cold, wet and hesitant spring – very different from the tantalising splendour of 2020 and the first lockdown. But this morning, 19 May, I had two hours of what I most love in the transition from spring into summer. It was a refreshing and healing experience to be in the woods, hard to describe in words. I am letting pictures do most of the work.

The woodland I walk in is hardly pristine. It grows in a long-disused railway cutting, now refashioned into a cycle track. At this time of year, and throughout the summer, it is wonderfully green and vital. Here, in this early stage, it feels especially fresh and alive.

Although it is limited in size and partly defined by a path, there is enough room in this little domain for both a tangle wood effect and for a spacious carpet of wild garlic among the trees.

Since I was very young, hawthorn and cow parsley have been a feature of this time, in woods and hedgerows. I was pleased at their presence today, and glad to be able to show up and be present for them.

The overall effect was one of exuberant abundance, a life that will declare its power and beauty given any chance. I will give the last image to the hawthorn.

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