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 benefiting 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.
Not everyone who relocates into the wilds is content. There are many who buy land, build houses and wind up just as dissatisfied as they were before, sometimes more so. I’ve heard one or two say they felt so traumatised by the experience they moved back to the city.
Nature is an awe-inspiring, plan-crunching, target-ignoring, and largely unsentimental beast. It can also be the most accepting, supportive and rejuvenating friend. And as far as I can see, the deciding factor is the human spirit.
After ‘Don’t you get lonely?’ the next most frequently voiced question to me is ‘Don’t you get scared?’ And yes, sometimes quite frankly, I do. On a moonless winter night, a night so dark that even the shadows are in hiding, my road turns from a scenic strip of nobbled, red earth into the gulf of Hades. Occasionally, I’ll walk up that road to a friend’s house. Sporadic blips of orange poke through the rucks of the hillside opposite; lights from the hamlet nearby. They give the valley the appearance of something from Lord of the Rings, and for some reason I can’t quite put my finger on, I find that rather comforting. But it’s when I reach the top that the background music changes. There, at the triangular junction where my dirt track and a tarmac road meet, is the cemetery. By day it’s the quaintest village cemetery you are ever likely to see; a random clutter of small graves nestled in a mountainside olive grove. The dead occupy a glorious vista with the Mediterranean in the distance. But by night? There’s no sea view, no olive trees, only the vague outline of gravestones poking up from the inky soil. I always stride past that graveyard doing my utmost not to search out shadows moving beyond the stone wall. Then, I hear the dog, or rather the local Hound from Hell. It belongs to the shepherd who lives in the web of wooden struts and plastic up the bank. The dog has smelt my fear and is now burning a trail of snarling carnage in my direction. I start running. I reach the turn-off to my friend’s house, the barking growing closer by the minute. I flick my torch back and see the dog’s eyes; two soulless glass buttons flashing in a cloak of endless black. I can’t see the teeth. But it doesn’t matter. I know what they’re like; huge flesh-ripping, saliva-coated fangs rasping to get stuck into my leg. The torch becomes a weapon. I flick the beam towards the eyes and dazzle the dog for a few seconds. I use those moments to back as quickly as I can down the track.
Scared? I'm so mortally petrified it will take a good half hour before I utter a sentence without a swear word.
And yet, nothing at all has really happened. The dog hasn't killed me. It didn’t even reach me. There were no zombies in the graveyard, and no cold hands stretching out from the graves. If I draw the dark half of my mind to one side and peer beyond it, I see the night is an open face spattered with freckles of starlight. The darkness is a mystery that the pine trees are now pumping life into. And the sky is wise and profound. I am part of that dark, profound mystery. I am breathing it.
Alone in the wilds these things will happen. Boar may come cantering out of the forest and nose round your tent for a midnight snack. You may be faced with winds rushing at 60 kilometres an hour, and all you have over your head is a sliver of flapping canvas, or perhaps the track into your land has
morphed into a mud slick and you realise you might not be able to leave for three days. In such situations, bravado and a few positive affirmations just aren’t going to cut the mustard. Nor is a gun, a torch, or a dog. You need other sturdier tools in your psychological toolbox if you want to mitigate the panic.
Personally speaking, to truly derive the immense pleasure available from the natural world, and to be able to reconnect with it without dissolving into a blubbering wreck, I have needed a practice. And for me, that practice is meditation in general, Vipassana more specifically. Though sometimes a few yoga asanas will do the trick as well. Now, I’m not a meditation or yoga evangelist (been there, done that). The meditation malarkey is simply one of many ways to deal with the fog of fear and worry that can quickly blanket the human spirit when things don’t appear to be as they should. Other people have other techniques; walking barefoot on the earth, Tai Chi, hiking.
Once the fog clears, I can reconnect, not just with the Earth, but with the thing that underpins it all. I’d call that thing the spiritual world for want of a better phrase. The trouble with words is they drag so many connotations behind them. A word is never just a word. It’s a story. What I’m trying to allude to when I use the word ‘spiritual world’, is not a belief system, nor a religion, nor angels and devils, nor pixies and woodsprites. For me, the word 'spiritual' refers to everything that is not physical. Things you can’t see, hear, feel, touch or smell. I could use the term ‘non physical’ world, but that implies a ‘non’ event, or an absence of something. The Other world that lies beyond the senses is not a nothing, it’s a whopping great something, and without it, whether you live in a tent in the hills or in a basement flat in a honking city, there’s not much difference. Sorry, scratch that. There’s light-years of difference! Nonetheless, it’s the spiritual element that defines the quality of the experience.
The most obvious element of the spiritual world is thought; ideas, concepts and images in the human mind. Thoughts hold no physical space. They can’t be touched, smelt or seen by others. Yet they are the most powerful element of the human being and shape the very fabric of our lives. For most of us, thought is based on two drives; fear and desire. Freud called it the pleasure principle, the endless psychological struggle to seek out pleasure and avoid pain. Vipassana meditation talks about craving and aversion. Watch your thoughts for any given moment and it’s easy to see; either the mind is galloping down a track of worry and strategizing how to avoid trouble, or it’s chasing after a dream and fantasizing. And if there isn’t a memory of a real experience for the mind to grasp onto, it will use those plied to it by the media and advertisers instead.
So when you arrive in your wilderness paradise, nature will be there waiting for you with her well of magic and nourishing secrets. But will you see her? When a gale force wind begins to crush your dome tent, will you feel awe, or simply terror? Will you trust your instincts, and the movement of
the land around you? Or will you be overtaken by the images generated by any number of horror films? For me, it is often a very fine line. And the only way I can cross that line is to sit each morning, breathe, watch my mind spouting its gibberish, see through it and sense the vast benevolent power of the spiritual realm within. Without that, I know I wouldn’t be here. I would have packed my bags two-and-a-half years ago and run away as fast as I could.
Ten days ago I hurt my knee. It’s a recurring injury exacerbated by car driving. The repetitive tension while pressing the gas pedal has caused inflammation of my knee tendons. Hmm. Am I the only one seeing the metaphor?
Being the obstinate sort that I am, it’s taken a while for me to accept that I might need to slow down a little. I really don’t want to. I have so many plans and ideas, and I’m itching to bring them to fruition. No chance right now. My knee has given up the ghost, temporarily at least.
So, with all this immobility, there has been time on my hands for a little reflection.
A few mornings ago, I took time to stretch my ailing leg. Stepping onto my wooden platform, I struck a few yoga poses. I inhaled the clear, late-spring air. Looking over the yellowing hill, a slope that was as verdant as a rainforest a month ago, I was reminded of how quickly things change. This plot of land, the valley, in fact our entire worlds are perpetually dynamic pictures.
As I finished my yoga session and lay in relaxation, I heard a flurry of activity from the pine tree next to my kitchen. A swirl of bee-eater birds rose like a plume of electric blue smoke. The cloud pulsed in the air. It looked like a genie, inhaling and exhaling.
Bee-eater birds migrate from Africa in late spring. As their name suggests they munch on bees. My village holds a huddle of bee-keepers, which is why these attractive and vividly-marked birds grace us with their presence. Naturally, bee-keepers and bee-eaters are not the best of friends, and the locals will routinely pull a shot gun out whenever they see a bee-eater swarm in the vicinity. Seeing as both bees and bee-eaters are dwindling in numbers I’m ambivalent about the ethics of that. But I’m not of the shooting disposition. And the bee-eaters choose my pines to overnight in.
As I lay on the platform post-yoga that morning and stared into the sky, I was mesmerised by those bee-eaters. They circled and dove directly above me, creating a living, moving display of such beauty and precision it was almost hard to believe it hadn’t been choreographed for the purpose.
My mind returned to my knee and the gas pedal, to driving at break-neck speed after goals, to all the grand plans of my life, none of which have ever turned out how I thought. This adventure, the mountain-house adventure, is an anomaly in my life. It was never planned for. It was never on my ‘to-do’ list at all. I had no great vision of building my own home because I had never considered such a thing could ever give me so much pleasure. But this space apparently didn’t need a plan. It was almost as if it grew by itself, a little like the wild grape vine next to my toilet.
Before this home, I thought I had to do yoga, to breathe and meditate, and follow a set path, in order to find peace and happiness. I was driven, hot on the trail of the elusive goal of enlightenment that so many people bang on about. But awakening is everywhere. It surfs along the sunlight that illuminates the leaves, it flirts with the movement of the air, it thrives in the plants bursting through the soil, it lives in us too.
It’s all quite peculiar really. My bank balance is fairly pathetic. I have no romantic relationship, no prestigious job, no luxury car. In fact I have none of things the powers-that-be would have us believe we need to for success or happiness. None of this matters one iota, because however it appears on the outside, on the inside I feel overwhelmingly complete, almost as though I’ve made it.
I think life is like the bee-eaters. It swirls and dances and makes us gasp in wonder. Things appear and disappear in their own time. Often when we look back over our shoulders, we haven’t a clue how it all came to be. It’s almost as if it just ‘happened’.
Even so, every now again I’ll still kid myself into believing there are things I have to do. I’ll look life in the eye and issue it a few ultimatums, things like, ‘the kitchen MUST be finished by next month.’ or ‘We’re going to get that plaster on, whatEVER it takes.’
And life looks at me, nods ironically and grins. ‘Really?’ it says. ‘You think so?’ Then it’ll give me a knee injury. Or send a deluge of rain. Or make my car break down. Because the picture of our lives can’t be forced or mapped, or even perhaps imagined. We are both creators and creations simultaneously .
I still do yoga and meditate. I still drive too fast as well. But honestly, it was participating in the creation of my home – a home that listened to the Earth – that was ultimately the most enlightening.
Atulya K Bingham
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