Hope and the ecological crisis (2): Piece work

Reading time: 9 min.

I ask the internet to show me ‘English countryside’ and up pops the usual: long vistas over fields of green and gold; trees coddled in dawn mist; gentle hills at sunset. Here is England as the pastoral sonnet, the place we ‘get away to’, and a kind of beauty – but the skin-deep kind.

I can’t unthink the thought that those rolling hills should not be bare. Or that the few remaining trees are stunted, perhaps destined to die without seeding offspring. The valley’s vast patchwork of summer crops, so easy on the eye, is the scar-lines of industrial agriculture. I don’t want to ruin your walk in the country! There’s nowhere one can look and fail to find life. But it’s life in pieces.

I usually keep all this to myself, so I was relieved to hear the ecologist, Alan Watson Featherstone, say it out loud. A walk in the Highlands has become ‘very painful’ for him, he says in his Ted talk, because their encounter with human beings has left the landscape bereft. The spare beauty of the mountains belies a lost habitat of astonishing natural wealth.

Alan shows two maps. The first shows the old Caledonian forest stretching for hundreds of miles across the Highlands. Moving in the green would have been beavers, wolves, lynx, bears, boar, elk, and the massive aurochs; all keystone species co-creating their abundant home over millennia.

Alan’s second map shows the same forest today, radically reduced, he says, to ‘scattered fragments, isolated from each other’. These few words give us a fitting definition of a crisis of ecology as life pulled apart. That goes for our human affairs too, as the experience of ‘scattered fragments, isolated from each other’ gradually becomes a defining experience of consumer-capitalist societies.

Looking at the blotches of vestigial forest on Alan’s map, I grieve the sheer, ungraspable loss that they reveal, and I long for the forest to become whole again. That visceral grief in the face of a violation, and the longing for restoration, is incredibly valuable. If I didn’t feel it I’d wonder if I was still alive. And it drives the impulse, which I suspect is there in all of us, to help take away the causes of the violence and look for more life-giving ways of being.

But I also want to throw a sceptical question-mark over this. While I want to see the forest restored for its own sake, I want it for my own sake also, because it promises to take the discomfort of my grief away. If only the world can be well, then I will feel well, so I cry, ‘Make it whole again!’ without noticing that I’m also (not) saying, ‘Make me whole again!’ And I name that longing ‘hope’.

When all hope hangs on an imagined state of wholeness, I wonder what gets pushed to the edge. If ‘worth’ means ‘whole’, where does that leave people whose losses can’t be restored? What becomes of a person with a disability, for example? Are they an ‘invalid’, the term that I was taught to use as a child?

And yet hopes of wholeness, like Hollywood happy endings, are manufactured on an industrial scale. We don’t have to look very far to find the damage that this can do. The consumer economy trades on it, by egging on our sense of lack, then promising to satisfy it for a price. Newspaper headlines scowl at faces that don’t fit, as if the world would be well if only it were purged of its fragmentary ‘otherness’: Muslims, refugees, homeless people… There’s always someone to blame for holding back the clean and tidy dream of a world made complete.

This habit is common to all societies, but the ecologist Wendell Berry located it as a particular illness of the affluent: ‘The industrial economy… is always striving and failing to make fragments (pieces that it has broken) add up to an ever-fugitive wholeness.’ Even the goal itself, however it may be pursued, relies on a fiction: that wholeness can be achieved in a world of fragments. I can think of nothing less ecological, nor indeed less possible. It’s also an exhausting fantasy to entertain, because the promised relief of its achievement never quite arrives. And if the only hope is in getting to wholeness, what happens when something can’t be made whole? Hope dries up.

‘The industrial economy… is always striving and failing to make fragments (pieces that it has broken) add up to an ever-fugitive wholeness.’

Wendell Berry

It seems to me that, to be in an inescapably fragmented world is to be inescapably fragmented. It is to live with wounds – the legacy of countless violences, small and great – and to carry existential disabilities that are here to stay. It’s precisely this condition that lends itself to hope, for our wounds and losses speak simply and directly to what still has worth, and still needs preserving against violence.

I don’t suggest we give up on hopes of healing, in the word’s literal sense of ‘movement towards wholeness’. It gives us Alan’s dreamable dream that nature will return fulsomely to the Scottish hills one day, if only we can get out of its way. It’s a story to give ourselves, too: that an authentic, healing hope is to move past our ways of violent fragmentation and towards wellness as individuals, communities, and societies.

But I think we also need a story of hope that looks for meaning in the vitality of the fragmentary here-and-now. The forest may be in pieces – we may be in pieces – but the pieces are alive. They are alive today, whether or not they can be made whole tomorrow. As Hannah, who works with homeless people, put it to me for an earlier blog post: even ‘in a broken world, things aren’t fully broken’. No sooner can we retreat into a dream of ‘ever-fugitive wholeness’ than excuse ourselves that we’re so ruined that nothing’s worth working for.

I’ve been wondering what this means in practice, and I think it means looking for a way for life’s fragments to hang together as they are. Few families, for example, are a seamless, loving whole, but many have enough love in them to hang jaggedly together in a way that sort-of works.

Similarly, work for peace and justice is a healing journey, which bends towards social health. At the same time it can also be a search for a creative accommodation of apparently irreconcilable tensions, which meets all needs well enough, equitably enough.

Our social movements, communities, organisations, and relationships, and ourselves as individuals: all may dream of becoming more whole. And still, fragmented and disparate as we are, we can also be looking for that messy but workable ecology of being, which all our dancing parts can call home. It’s this love of life’s broken pieces – the willingness to tend to the living fragments as we find them – that keeps the dream of healing real.

This is, after all, how nature works. Even reduced to fragments of itself, nature does exactly what it did when it was whole. All around the windswept Scottish mountains tiny saplings push out of boulders, showing clearly enough that nature doesn’t do hopeless. Nor, it seems, does Alan; his charity is planting trees whose mature glory he won’t live to witness.

And that stunted tree in the chemically neutered English wheat field may be ill, but insects and birds still make a home of it, and breathing beneath it is the teeming soil-world. It’s this dying-yet-living fragment-tree, rather than the foggy, picture-postcard illusion of its perfection, that speaks to me of hope.

*   *   *

Not too many years ago, a friend and I packed a tent and took a long chain of trains and buses and a trek to a remote valley in Argyll. Beavers were finally being reintroduced to the wild, four centuries after they were hunted to extinction here. Everywhere were munched twigs and half-gnawed trunks; we marvelled at their mess. Their dam, though, was a bafflingly perfect, carefully pitched wall of branches, built at precisely the right place to make a lake of the whole valley. I can’t quite get over the fact that an outsize rodent doing nothing but nibbling and stacking sticks had turned the valley into a wetland forest, the richest temperate habitat-type on earth.

A clutch of human beings also had a hand in the healing. These had campaigned for many years to persuade the Scottish government to give the beavers a chance on this isolated fragment of land. Did they act for a dream of nature made whole, I wonder, or because they could recognise nature’s wounds by their own? Or both.

At dusk, the water twitched. A ripple, a whiskered nose, a head was looking right at us: what are you? With a flashing swirl in the gloam it was gone, and then it came to take another look at us. I swear that it was thinking, even wondering. We watched, and we watched, and as the sun went down, all the pieces of me sang.


Thanks for reading

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This post is the second in a short series on the ecological crisis; the first is here.

Main photo: Mosaic, Belgrade (detail); Antomoro, Wikimedia Commons. Maps: TreesForLife.org.uk


Hope’s work book update

Not sure I’ve mentioned yet that my book, Hope’s work, will be published by Darton Longman & Todd in May. It’s been really heartening for me to have found a small, socially-engaged press with a particular interest in creative responses to these disturbed times.

Dunno how much it’ll cost yet, but it’ll be less than £10. If you’d like to pre-order a copy with 20% off the price, just get in touch – I’ll write to you nearer the time with the actual price and you can decide then (i.e. no obligation).