A bit of tree-wisdom on the subject of mess
Things were very different when I moved up onto my land nearly three years ago; I was a teacher, a yogi, and disillusioned with both. And so I was in a mess. I had joined the teaching profession years ago, and like many teachers, it was with the intention of benefitting the human race in some way. After twenty years, I was questioning whether I did ever actually benefit anyone, or merely participate in a system fundamentally damaging to the human spirit. Then there was the other disillusionment with what I shall term ‘yogi-ism’ (as opposed to the art of yoga). The realisation had dawned on me that no matter how inspiring the teaching, it inevitably becomes a religion. There is a poorly cloaked aura of superiority that surrounds the spiritual climber. ‘Do as I preach, not as I do’ is an unspoken premise of pretty much every guru around. Except for one.
Nature is what it is. It doesn’t have a self-image to protect, nor a living to earn. It doesn’t need followers, nor praise, nor a curriculum. It doesn’t care a hoot about concepts like good or bad. It just is.
I remember one of my first ‘awakenings’ up here in this small square of Eden. It was the time I suddenly began to see everything the other way up. It was as though I’d been wearing my life inside out for the past 40 years. It happened under my grandmother olive tree. It’s a wonderful tree with a peculiarly stout, straight trunk. Olives normally possess gnarled old branches that coil like dry-bark snakes. But for reasons best known to nature, my grandmother olive has a pine’s trunk. She’s proud and upright holding bundles of leaves in her rich branch hands. Naturally, with all that foliage she is the best sunshade on the land. One of the first things I had done once my camp was established was to sling a hammock between her and another olive up the bank.
That day I was swinging in the hammock watching the pomegranates ripening in the field next door, and feeling glum. Nothing had worked out how I wanted it to. My plans had gone up in flames. I didn’t want to teach any more but had no idea what else to do to keep the coppers rolling in. I was living in a tent. The mayor had just refused me water. My life felt like a mess. As I rocked, I looked at the other olive the hammock was tied to. Unlike the grandmother tree, this one has nowhere near the strength or classic aesthetic appeal of her sister. She’s a twisted old crone by comparison. Her branches are weak and full of knots, her trunk has split into three and she’s hanging onto a poor display of leaves. I closed my eyes feeling more than a little empathy.
But when, a few seconds later, I opened my eyes again, I began to see it all a little differently. From my rope bed, I scanned the vista of trees on the upper part of the land, and behind there into the forest. Bent pines sent branches jutting off asymmetrically this way and that. Olive trees were stunted. Prickly holly-like bushes exploded in the gaps like a mess of hag’s hair. Nothing followed any sense of decorum, nor any human preconceptions of orderliness. The word ‘mess’ turned over and over in my head. I realised my life, and nature had quite a lot in common.
I blinked again. And then that wise old gal, Gaia started talking. You see, nature is beautiful. Intoxicatingly, uncontrollably, irrationally, unreasonably beautiful. The greens, the browns, the ochres, the burnt siennas, the patterns, the non-patterns, the clutter, the spaces, the hollows, the glades, the carpets of pine needles, the dust, the speckles of flowers, the dried up stalks. It’s magical and enlivening and transformative.
I’ve learned so many things from nature, it will take me a lifetime to whisper her secrets. But one of them was that about mess. Mess isn’t a bad thing at all. In fact, mess is where the truth happens, the stuff that tests your mettle, the stuff that makes you shriek in wonder and jump up and down in delight. So if your life is a mess, I say wallow in it. Yes, drink in the unruly chaos of it all. Tidiness is for robots not humans.
For me, it’s taking a while for that little nugget of nature wisdom to sink in. In truth, I have issues with mess. I like things to look just right. Everything has its place. But I am slowly starting to get it. That everything already looks just right, and is already in its place. Because nature just is. It’s not a climber. It’s not a wannabe. It’s an evolver. And now I see. They are not the same thing at all.
One summer morning back in 2011 something significant happened. The sun had turned into a blazing white ogre. It had a pelt of fire and a stare that could fry the skin clean off a capsicum. It was the end of July. And July on the southern coast is when folk run for shade, or water, or air conditioned malls. Nothing can survive in that heat. Grass withers. Mammals flop dejectedly under trees. Even the great pines, some at least a hundred years old, no longer stretch for the heavens. Their stance becomes one of stoic endurance as a lifeless dust slowly coats their branches.
This wasn't in itself significant, however. Summer happens every year. Granted, we always forget. From the lamenting every July you’d be forgiven for thinking it was the first summer to ever see the wrong side of 40 degrees. Streets empty, people flake out in gazebos. Sometimes they refuse to get out of bed at all.
‘Çoook sıcak yaaa!’ (It‘s sooo hot!) They wail before they drop back and reach for an ice-cream.
But that July, the July of 2011, I wasn’t one of those late risers. I had to be out of my tent by seven. It was no longer because I was bounding with enthusiasm vis-à-vis any number of construction projects, nor was it eagerness to watch the pink wave of dawn roll over the mountain peaks. I had to be out, because being ‘in’ was tantamount to wrapping yourself in cellophane and bedding down in a Turkish bath.
I reached forward and pulled myself out of the canvas. Immediately I winced and grabbed back my hand. I’d branded myself on one of the tent pegs that had the misfortune of being in the sun’s path. Finally I stood up and surveyed my Queendom. It was a sorry sight, a rolling slope of yellowing expiration. The top terrace of the land, where my tent was pitched, was even worse. It was south Turkey’s answer to the Gobi. Cracks zigzagged through the waterless earth. And where there were no cracks there was dust.
I turned to head for ‘the kitchen’. It was then that I noticed it. The significant thing. There, a little in front of the tent, was a small patch of green.
I blinked. No. Nothing could ever grow independently on this broiling plateau of death. It was impossible. I moved towards the mysterious green entity in disbelief. There before my eyes a plant was sprouting. ‘Seeing is believing,’ they say. Well sometimes it’s the other way round. Now I believed, and thus I saw. As I picked my way through my desert, I found tens of these plants. Where had they come from? It was as though they’d been waiting all summer for everything to collapse, before they raised their hairy little arms and shouted, ‘Ha ha! Our turn now.’
I think I mentioned that I had read a certain book. And it stated when you love your domain, everything in it tilts towards you. After my experiences with carpet-sweeping ants and kitchen-cleaning lizards, I was gradually becoming something of a natural magic apostle. The land itself was my balm, the animals my affection. What about the vegetation though? Was there a reason this strange little plant had popped up? Should I make a tea out of it? Was it medicinal? Hallucinogenic even?
The days went by and the peculiar heat-spurning plants grew. They weren’t particularly attractive, a little like rosemary but floppier and messier. And that was unfortunate. I can become obsessed with aesthetics at times. The plant was ugly, so I began to ignore it. I think I might have even called it a weed.
Then one day I noticed this ‘weed’ cluttering about a tiny grape-vine remnant I was trying to salvage. At some point in the past either a person or a bird must have dropped a grape seed. The seed had struggled. It had sprouted. Now, in midsummer a few feeble cricket-eaten leaves were hanging desperately onto existence. Every now and again I’d throw my washing up water over them and try and talk the baby vine into surviving. Now here was this opportunistic weed cashing in and usurping the moisture! Grrr. I stormed towards the prolific newcomer with intent.
Ha! In one quick snatch I’d uprooted it. I threw it to one side. Or rather I tried to throw it, because it was sticky, as if secreting oil. Pausing a little, I noticed a smell. It was a cross between lavender and eucalyptus. I took a deep breath. The aroma was out of this world! And it was coming straight from the ugly heat-loving weed. I found the fragrance so refreshing I began to use it for washing in, a sort of natural aroma-therapy. When I did I was swept away by the cooling sense of well-being it bathed me in.
As the summer deepened, our village became steeped in such high temperatures we all developed heat rashes. Our legs itched. Our arms itched. And the hotter it got, the more red spots appeared. I washed in my weed-water. My rash vanished.
Soon enough the sun began to shed its monstrous summer bulk. As it slimmed it dropped lower in the sky. The days drew in. My herb receded back into the earth. I never learned its name. No one around here seemed to know. ‘Smelly weed’ was the best anyone could do.
Since then all sorts of other natural growth has come to my attention. I have only two acres of land but it’s a living, breathing apothecary. Some of it is edible, some drinkable. Some plants heal ailments, others nourish, some are so beautiful to look at you can’t help but feel inspired. There are gels and fragrances and poultices, berries and potpourri, colour therapy, pollen and herbs. And each month the selection changes, as do my needs. We are all–from the earth, to the plants to the animals–moving in sync.
This rediscovery of what at one time must have been common knowledge is enthralling. I’ve merely stroked the grassy surface of my wonderland. But I’m sensing very deeply that well-being isn’t something we have to struggle for years to earn. It’s our birthright. It’s where we come from. All we have to do is go home, live there and notice it.
Atulya K Bingham
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