When Gaia puts her foot down.
Sometimes I wonder whether I make it all up. Does my land really communicate with me? Is there anything outside myself with which to engage in exchange? A little scepticism is always healthy. Back in the 18th century, the ultimate sceptic David Hume argued “Objects have no discoverable connexion together; nor is it from any other principle but custom operating upon the imagination, that we can draw any inference from the appearance of the one to the existence of the other.”
Hume pointed out something crucial. Just because we see two things occur in sequence again and again, doesn't necessarily mean one caused the other. In one paragraph all hope is dashed. I’m making it all up.
And then, out of the blue, something untoward happens between me and my land; a coincidence so peculiar or outrageous, I struggle to remain sceptical in the face of it. So I shall relate my latest Mud tale and let you decide. Did my land communicate with me? Or am I just imagining a causal relationship?
Winter was long this year, and it dug cold, wet trenches into spring. Spring became water-logged and thus waded through the months in pursuit of warmer climes. Even in June nights slid down to a chilly 15 degrees rendering sleeping outside unpleasant. As a result, just like the reptiles, I was slow leaving my nest. The outside remained out. The wilderness seemed to retreat from me. I’ve been sensing it retreat further and further every year.
Initially, I mourned the loss of my Eden; the first grazes of the wild, the first breaking apart of my ‘civilised’ shell, and those early conversations with my land. This year a cooler wave of acceptance began to slosh over me. Change is inevitable, I sighed. Perhaps the loss of the intimacy I first experienced here was to be replaced by growth and experience.
And then again perhaps not.
It couldn’t have been more than a month ago. The sun finally struck a decent ray over my hill. A pair of agama lizards raised their dragon heads on my rock garden, and I could hear tortoises rustling in leaves. Summer was timorously making her move. So I stepped out of my mud home. For the umpteenth time I ignored the heap of rubble that is still my back step, and walked toward Grandmother Olive. Rotty the Dog lazily poked her head out of her kennel eyeing my direction. I was holding a tablet and headphones in one hand and a cushion in the other. For the first time this season I had decided to indulge in a bit of hammock swinging.
My hammock is tethered to Orandmother Olive. This is where I recline, usually at dusk, with the express intention of listening to my land. It was only 11 am, and the area was still draped in a leaf-dappled shade. I said I was clutching headphones. Now, I listen to music in my house. I’ll listen to it in my gazebo too. But I never listen to music in that hammock. Ever. That area has always been special for me; a magical point of exchange between me and nature.
As I said, the wilderness was receding. Things were changing. I was changing. I slung the cushion onto the web of rope. Then I slid on my headphones and lowered myself into the mesh cocoon. Fiddling with the settings of the tablet, I glanced up at Grandmother Olive. The thought loomed in my mind. I never do this. This is my place to listen to my land. I wonder if this is OK? Batting the question from my mind, I gamely pressed the play button.
I was a little over a minute into the first song. Just one minute. One minute into the first time I had ever brought technology onto that hammock. One minute since posing the question. I had just shut out my home and the wildlife around it and was lost in another electronic world, when Rotty began barking wildly. I turned to face her, irritated that she was disrupting my reverie. What now? I fumed. My vexation turned to perturbation. Rotty was barking at me. And it was the type of barking she reserved for wild boar, cats and rather irrationally tall, blonde females.
I yanked off my headphones and stared at my hysterical dog, hackles raised on her shoulders like a row of furry spikes. “Rotty, what the hell is up with you?” I shouted. And then I noticed she wasn’t actually barking at me, but a little below me, just under my hammock. I turned and looked down, half-expecting to see a Swedish long jumper.
It was my turn to feel my hackles rise.
There curled into the crux of Grandmother Olive’s trunk, fangs glistening, head raised and ready to lunge was a one-and-a-half metre long, five-centimetre-thick black snake. It was squiggled up about 70 centimetres from the back of where my neck had been. We were now facing each other off with nowt but the hammock strings between us.
I’m used to snakes. Once upon a time I was terrified of them, but through familiarity my fear has evaporated. Snakes look disconcerting, but are basically shy harmless creatures that will slope away at the first opportunity. I’ve seen plenty of them, and they are always moving in the opposite direction, as fast as they can muster. I have never in all my 18 years of living in Turkey seen a snake raise itself up ready to lunge. I had never until that moment seen a snake’s fangs close up. I’ve never before felt the visceral and powerful life force they represent as they coil up like springs, open their huge mouths and hiss.
Did I mention it was about 70 centimetres from the back of my neck?
Adrenalin is amazing stuff. I vaulted out of that hammock and found myself at least three metres from it. Then I dragged back my heroic Rotty, who was waging an impressively loyal ‘one for all’ barking attack upon Snake. Snake, seeing a window of escape, slid out from Grandmother Olive’s trunk. The last I saw of it was a thick, black cable burning a trail to Dudu’s land.
Heart pounding, I ran to the house. I opened the door and hurled the tablet onto my sofa. The close up image of Snake rearing, fangs bared, ready to kill, seared an impression on my mind like a psychic branding iron. It was terrifying, and it took me a good half an hour to calm down.
But calm down I did. Soon, I stepped out of the house again, and tentatively made my way over to Grandmother Olive. Shuddering, I looked up and down her thick sinewy trunk. Her strong sculpted arms bore the magnificent designs of mature bark. Grandmother Olive must be at least 60, but she’s in great shape. She stood there like empress of the whole damn world. She bristled. I lowered my head guiltily.
“Ok Ok I get the message!’ I muttered.
A light breeze picked up. She rustled her leaves.
I won’t be listening to music in that hammock again. I’ll be listening to Grandmother Olive. Hume could be right of course*. Perhaps it was simply one event following another, and me perceiving causality between the two. But these things happen so often, it beggars belief. At some point you have to be sceptical about scepticism.
I’m sceptical. Very sceptical.
Following Grandmother Olive’s clip round the ear, I have made a concerted effort to reconnect with the outside this summer. I completed my gazebo and sleep once more within an Aladdin’s Cave of stars. I’ve recreated my outside bathroom, so I now shower upon an open-air rock feeling like Eve in the Garden again. My forest reading room has been refurbished with the pines, oaks and crickets weaving it into a hive of creative thought. The spirits of the wild are creeping out once more. And they’re whispering new secrets I want to hear.
(If you want to see the pictures of my outside spaces, look here.)
*NB. Hume, one of my favourite philosophers, was a true sceptic (as opposed to the posses of pseudo sceptics about today who pick and choose when to be sceptical). He argued that just because you've seen B follow A a thousand times, doesn't prove that B will follow A on the 1001st occasion. He would have made the same claim of gravity, and indeed his philosophy basically created a dead-end in purist empirical theory. The point of his philosophy was to show that we don't actually know anything, and all claim to knowing is little more than belief. "When I am convinced of any principle, 'tis only an idea, which strikes more strongly upon me. When I give preference to one set of arguments above another, I do nothing but decide from my feeling concerning the superiority of their influence."
Atulya K Bingham
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