Monday, 26 March 2012

The Map is not the Territory (Original Remix Version)

Last week it was Spring Equinox and we ran a Connecting with the Living Systems week on our "sister" blog, the Social Reporting Project. So today I'd like to republish one of the posts in response to our own week here on This Low Carbon Life on documentaries. Unusually none of us focussed on peak oil or climate change films, but on films that worked to join up the dots. The last two posts in particular looked at fragmentation and the urgent need for coherence: the splitting of the modern mind (Divided Brain) and "silo" society (Crisis of Civilisation) and how these artificial divisions affect the world we live in.

Nafeez is talking about social and political fragmenation, how the radical step is to connect these areas up, including the seemingly diverse focus of Transition and activism. McGilchrist is talking about bridging the left and the right hemispheres, how we need both reason and imagination to live successfully on the planet. Eco-systems are resilient in proportion to their ability to connect and communicate; empires maintain control by separating and dividing the people against one another and alienating them from their neighbourhoods and the wild earth.

Natural systems diversify and co-operate. They work within a frame of symbiosis. Artificial systems, which are parasitic on natural systems, pull towards monocultural domination and replication, and run the danger of destroying the host. How we, as a "civilised" people, reverse this fate is by working in symbiosis with the eco-systems of the planet in everything we do. We see and then change the pattern. Mentally, emotionally, physically.

So this week I'd like to talk about the moves Transition and other initiatives make to link up, not just as individuals and communities, but with all beings on earth. How that in order to to find a new co-operative narrative to live by, we need to end an old and hostile story that has been running the show for a very long time indeed, in our heads and in our cities.

How we need to realise it is not the planning and the mapping of the left hemisphere that will bring this into play, but the wild imaginative realms of the right, an "uncivilised" people making themselves at home in the territory.

And so: first things first . . . .

Happy Spring Equinox!

This morning we went out to our local tumulus to welcome the tip of the year. Everything is happening out there! the earth making her first moves on the dance floor: cherry plum unfurling, thrush singing, hare crossing, woodpecker drumming. We walked across the frosty watermeadow and stood on the rim of the sheep field, etched by oaks and hedgerow, and watched the sun rise. I climbed a black poplar with the carpet of wild daffodils below me. We didn't see one person. The world felt pristine.

This is the grove I come to each spring, first with the daffodils, and later with the bluebells and red campion. This is the season, between the Equinox and May Day, when England is her most green and exuberant. I love this spring moment. I love English marshes and Welsh hills, the deserts of Arizona, the valleys of Ecuador, the islands of Greece, the forests of Mexico. I have traversed many lands, sat with a thousand flowers and learned their medicine. I have climbed trees, swum in wild water, and spent a big part of my life immersed in the fabric of nature, trying to find words for the wild, the beautiful and the free . . .

But what on earth has this got to do with Transition?

Heart and Soul

In the Heart and Soul, Arts Culture and Well-Being group everyone is talking about themselves and their emotions. Oh the sorrow and the grief! they wail, The earth is angry and in despair. Are you sure it's not you? I ask. We are the earth, they tell me.

I look around and see people with closed eyes, sitting on cushions in a circle. A candle is flickering in the twilight. This is it says a notice on the studio wall. Outside the rain is falling softly, the cherry blossom is on the grass, a blackbird is singing gloriously. It's Spring 2009. I am about to leave the group, which is in the process of divesting itself of art and culture and wellbeing. I have loved coming into the city, bringing branches of blackthorn and bay into these speaking circles, the way we could share our untold stories and dreams for the future. It was fiery and liberating and new at the start of Transtion. But old spiritual hierachies are reasserting themselves, pressing on all sides for us to conform. And I'm not feeling connected to the song outside the window.

Somehow I know we have to connect with that Spring and agreeing we are All One and Connected to the Web of Life is not cutting the biscuit. Sitting alone on the mountains of Arizona, the Andes, up Cader Idris, that's not hard. Here in the middle of Norwich, in the arable district of East Anglia with others, it's another story. We're trying to find common ground, so we can tell that story, first to each other and then to the world. But this is not It in the workshop arena, where everyone is worshipping Joanna Macy and Thomas Berry, intrigued by shamanic ritual and talisman, enmeshed in the power of Me and Deep Ecology. People are meditating under willow trees outside the UEA. But the willow trees are not getting a look in.

One thing I know: you can't communicate with the planet without Art and Culture or Well-Being, without dance and poetry and medicine. On the community blog we start up later that year, Reconnection with Nature is our top topic. We are unabashed, creative and very free-form. John talks toads and woodpiles, Mark talks seeds and bees, Jon talks sea, Kerry talks hedgerow, Elena talks bird. We rediscover our neighbourhood, exchange foraging tips, write in praise of all the seasons. We love the planet. We have that in common. (we still have that in common). It's a thread that runs through all of our pieces.

And I could talk quite happily about all those 98 posts, but somehow this is not what I want to say about Reconnecting with the Living Systems and Transition on this equinox morning, because there is an ur-difficulty here, and that is Transition, like everything else in our culture, is based on the control of what is known as the "environment". And whether this control is sustainable or organic, localised, low carbon, whether we strenuously downshift to mitigate climate change and all kinds of resource plundering, it is not making any real aligment happen. Because we are still human beings commanding the planet for our own use. Even the deep green practices of Permaculture assign wild nature to an unspecified region known as Zone 5. Not in my garden. Not in my country.

The Territory of the Heart

The ur-problem is that we are living in our minds and we look at the planet from that mind. We forget that it is a place of heart and soul. We give the planet to the commanders of the human mind - gurus and gods and government and big science - and think "nature" is a messy strange place outside ourselves, outside our artificial "built environment", something to be kept in reserves or on television programmes for our entertainment. As our economic systems collapse, so does the protection of the planet's eco-systems. Everything is up for grabs. Ocean, forest, mountain top. Economic growth is more important than air, water, tree, bird; the idea of social justice becomes more important than the reality of sandhill cranes. The countryside is portrayed as a place where rich and privileged people live.

What is the right response to this collective madness?

The earth is primary. The sun is primary. The air is primary. The water is primary. Our hearts are primary. These things come first. Our living bodies are made of these elements and everything we touch and feel and eat and breathe is made of these elements, no matter what our imperious and foolish minds tell us. If we do not somehow get aligned to the earth as a collective, the primary source of our own living systems will no longer be available to us.

How can we discuss the future together, if first things do not come first? If everything in our culture says that life comes from the marketplace (see our supermarket week), or from business (see funding) or that ideas are more important than physical reality? That the map is superior to the territory? How can we in Transition find a way to speak with one another that is not couched in dry, academic terms, concerned about top-down management and planning, illustrated by corporate-style photographs of ourselves inside and outside buildings? How can we reclothe ourselves in the fabric of the earth, connect with the high frequency of the trees and wild grasses, liberate our constricted bodies and minds, let ourselves flow like rivers, follow the shapes of clouds and coastlines, flourish, blossom, branch out, leap like the hare, sing like the wren? How can we feel the heartbeat of our fellow creatures, behold all mountains, all seas, all lands in the light of the sun? How can we now leave the room and go outside?

How can we dance with the planet on this Spring day?

Wild places: on the tumulus by black poplar and wild daffodils; valley of Vilcabamba, Ecuador, 1993; Sonora desert morning, 2001; cenote in the Yucatan, Mexico, 1991.


  1. "Even the deep green practices of Permaculture assign wild nature to an unspecified region known as Zone 5. Not in my garden. Not in my country."

    I came to read this blog post just for this quote on the Transition newsletter. I think it sums things up so perfectly.

    The way I've seen many people think of permaculture, it's just like that. I don't think that's how the people who started permaculture thought about it. But many people see permaculture as just another bag of tricks to control the world, a better and nicer bag of tricks, but tricks after all.

    I went once to a permaculture workshop done by a local permaculture person. She was enthusiastic about it, and told us how her favourite permaculture saying was "the only limit to yield is our imaginations". I asked her how was that different from the usual "the sky's the limit" thinking so pervasive among technologists. She was very uncomfortable and defensive. I thought that, for all that she was supposed to be the permaculture "expert", I possibly understood it better.

    It really isn't about a better bag of tricks. It's about understanding your living environment so well, that you know exactly how to work with it. And when not to work with it. It's exactly as it says in Ecclesiastes:

    For everything there is a season,
    a time for every activity under heaven.
    A time to be born and a time to die.
    A time to plant and a time to harvest.
    A time to kill and a time to heal.
    A time to tear down and a time to build up.
    A time to cry and a time to laugh.
    A time to grieve and a time to dance.
    A time to scatter stones and a time to gather stones.
    A time to embrace and a time to turn away.
    A time to search and a time to quit searching.
    A time to keep and a time to throw away.
    A time to tear and a time to mend.
    A time to be quiet and a time to speak.
    A time to love and a time to hate.
    A time for war and a time for peace.

  2. Glad you like the blog, Doly. However I wasn't singling out Permaculture as "wrong" here, merely saying that the Wild is not often included in our view of the planet. My main frame is in the intro para:

    in order to to find a new co-operative narrative to live by, we need to end an old and hostile story

    We need to be as inclusive and as friendly as possible with each other and all lifeforms, not dualistic and antagonistic in the way our culture has taught us to be e.g. a time to hate and kill!