Five days in retreat and five cows who wrecked the schedule
The rain began to fall. Gently. In soft feathery strokes. I’d finally decided to carve a five-day meditation retreat for myself out of my schedule. Schedule? You may ask. Well yes, I’m asking too now you mention it, but more about that in a moment.
I stood up and opened the door of my hut. The two great ashes that hold court over my barn were glistening. Their slender fingers held tightly onto buds, buds that were on the brink of bursting. The land absorbed the precipitation hungrily. It was almost silent. Almost. Except for the clank of a cowbell...
I started. Cowbell? Walking to the kitchen hut, I peered over the wall. And then I saw them. Three cows were chomping contentedly on my grass as though it was heifer Christmas. Agh! I could have imagined many auspicious beginnings to a retreat. A cow break-in wouldn’t have been one of them.
Grabbing a fence rod that happened to be next to me, I held out my arms and proceeded to shoo the marauders out. After a fair bit of coaxing and chasing and running, I managed to hoof them through the gate. Job done! I thought. The rain began to thicken at this point with the nimbus sinking lower, threads of it breaking off and wafting ominously towards the gulch at the bottom of my land. The hazels and birch trees swayed a little.
Having worked up an appetite, up I went to my kitchen for a hearty breakfast. I think I was just polishing off my second piece of toast when I heard a cowbell clang again. I took a deep breath. But it wasn’t deep enough, really. Because when I stepped outside this time, I saw five cows were in my land. Oh heck, a bovine invasion!
Thus began my rather comedic (if you’re the observer) adventure in cow-herding. I don’t know exactly how many times I ran the circumference of my land, but it was definitely too many. By the time I’d hoofed four of the five heifers into the gulch (they weren’t going near the gate now), I was wheezing and my thighs were starting to burn. And there was still cow number five at large, and my they are large, aren’t they? It’s like chasing a Peugeot Partner with horns.
Last month the Earth whispered about bioanarchy. Well, if ever there were a living example of nature not bending to authority, it was embodied in cow number five. She wanted my grass, and she didn’t want the gulch, so she just ran round and round my land, with me chasing her, shouting and swearing and threatening to turn her into a hamburger. It was when she finally cantered up behind my barn, trashed my yoga space and threatened to take my lovely new roof off, that my frustration turned to alarm. I mean these animals can do some serious damage. It’s like a bus without brakes.
Sprinting faster than I’m probably designed to, I managed to get to the far side of the barn before the cow galloped any further and wrecked my entire living space. Seeing me, she panicked, turned around, and very fortunately for me decided to run back out. I hurled myself after her, grabbing a broken tree branch and raising it. Arms aloft, tree branch menacing, I managed to push her down down down the land to the rim of the gulch. Finally she descended, and I fell on the wet grass, chest heaving. My thighs were on fire now and my heart was pounding. Good exercise this cow herding lark, I can tell you.
Once I’d caught my breath, the truth dawned in crystal clarity. I was going to have to fence off the gulch. The deep winter snow this year had crushed the brambles to such an extent that the pathways were far more open than they usually are. I also know, once animals lose their fear and get used to something, they’ll keep on doing it. We are all creatures of habit on this planet.
Happily, Farmer Quilo had left his fencing stakes and electrical string on my land. So I fetched my hammer (up and down the land again), and one by one drove the thirty odd poles into the dirt. Then I connected them with the string. There were so many gaps where the cows could enter, it took me until mid-afternoon to finish it. “There goes day one of my retreat,” I thought.
I didn’t realise. Day one was the initiation.
As I was winding in and out of the gulch that day, in and out of the trees and rocks, feeling the moss on my fingertips, pulling back vines, and spotting freshly opening snowdrops, I realised what a magical spot that gulch is. And I wondered why I don’t spend more time there. Actually I know why. I’m not in the habit. Just like the cows, I’m following familiar pathways. But are they really paths now? Or are they ruts? It’s a dangerous crossover.
I decided to be like the cows and explore the new pathways that lead into the arroyo, to shake up my routine a little. Thus this beautiful shaded gulley became my retreat space.
Each day was so incredibly different down there. Some days the sunlight pierced the tree branches, turning the small chasm into a dappled caveland. Other days the mist descended and the moss oozed. Bluebells burst into flower, branches snaked, and the creases in the towering rocks began to speak. Then it rained and rained, and the arroyo was brought to life by the replenished stream. I was brought to life with it. Rejuvenated. Enlivened. The creative fire that had been slightly dampened these past months with the hard work of barn-building, was suddenly reignited.
The Lost Fire of Creation
Creation is my middle name, as I suppose is obvious. I write. I build. But I also love to sketch and paint. For a couple of years now, I haven’t done either. The will or inspiration just wasn’t there. I wasn’t unduly concerned about it because there are many epochs in our lives, and I was sure once the building was over I’d find my pens and sketchbook again. But after five days of sitting still, meditating and returning to the gulch within, that desire began to flow. I sketched for the first time in a good two years.
As the days meandered on – days I had reserved to be without purpose, days that I’d set aside purely for existence and contemplating it – I sensed the joy of life returning. And I realised, as we all do from time to time, that an imbalance had been occurring. I had been driving myself on. Pushing and pushing. There was too much work and not enough play. As the rain drove down on day number four, I sat in my little hut wondering how the heck I’d slipped onto the all-work-and-no-play conveyor belt.
As you all know by now, my aversion to The System is as all-encompassing as The System itself. As far as I’m concerned its entire ideology is hogwash, and has been for a long while. Mindless career ladders, the work ethic, competing with your peers, nauseating shopping malls, struggling to have more and more until you’re nothing but a flogged carcass or a drugged-up zombie, rushing around so fast you’re afraid to stop still for a second, the ideology that everything has to keep “growing”, that money is more important than basically everything (if you look at how most people operate it’s pretty obvious that’s the myth they’ve bought into).
The System Within
But The System is a sneaky bugger. It’s not just “out there”. And that’s why it’s so insidious. As the days of my meditation passed I saw The System inside me. It rose before me like a colossal, pollution-spewing factory, with its bossy supervisors barking at me to hurry up, its rapacious appetite for my energy, its demand for increased output and fixation on deadlines.
Day five of my meditation I wandered down to the gulch. The pathway slid between clover banks, it was a gleaming clay basilisk guarding the well-spring. As I trod carefully along the mythical serpent back, a crescendo of birdsong echoed eerily about me. The arroyo was now a roaring stream, the water coursing over the clay in silvery cords. I stopped in wonder, for is there anything on this planet quite as beautiful as water? Hearing a cascade, I turned around. And there before me was the most exquisite waterfall. For a moment I thought I’d tripped into a miniature version of the Amazon. It is experiences like these, so magical, intimate and special, that hold the true meaning of life. And they cost nothing. No one can take them from us. The planet gives them to us for free.
As I gazed at the luminous elixir cascading from the rocks, somewhere in the distance I heard the sound of an engine. A flywheel began to turn inside me and a familiar voice piped up. “You can’t stand here all day, there’s work to be done! Look at that barn, you’re getting nowhere! It’s got to be done. It’s got to be done. It’s got to be...” The System within. It was cranking up again. But I remembered the Earth’s message from March. No need to comply. No need to obey these obsolete, lunatic instructions. So I ignored that tired old mechanical voice, and walked further into the arroyo, following the life of the stream down down down into pure mystery.
Somewhere far away on the distant rim of my world I could sense many humans going “back to normal”. They were dying to get on planes, itching to rush back to work and earn more money to save for a swimming pool or a holiday or a new tech device to suck out their consciousness. A long way back now, I heard a spluttering and a clang as something fell off a conveyor. But it was nothing do with me. Nothing to do with Gaia either. And definitely nothing to do with being truly, vitally human.
These words are a gift, and come to you thanks to my land, the Earth, the generous support of The Mud Sustainers, and everyone on Patreon, without whom I would have no time or funds to keep the free material on The Mud Home coming.
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Atulya K Bingham
"Reality meets fantasy, myth, dirt and poetry. I'm hooked!" Jodie Harburt, Multitude of Ones.