Hope and the ecological crisis (4): Water music

After a bit of a gap, the last in a series of four posts on hope in the face of the ecological crisis…

My life flows on in endless song
   Above earth’s lamentation,
I hear the sweet, tho’ far-off hymn
   That hails a new creation;
Thro’ all the tumult and the strife
   I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul—
   How can I keep from singing?

                      Robert Lowry, 1869

Read time: 14 min.

Finally, water – the long black plastic pipe first gurgles, expectant, then jumps to life with an unruly gush. We cheer, those of us who hold its sudden weight, and begin running it back and forth while Nick takes the end and tries to control the torrent. He drenches this dusty aloe, that lanky sapling, then fills the shallow channels dug into the dirt, which like fractal veins carry this salvation right across the grove.

This shouldn’t be happening. The arterial river runs right next to us, or would. In spring, when the snowmelt tumbles off the sierra, the river swells half a mile wide, but it ran dry months ago and the autumn rains are late again. The Andalusian sun still bakes the ground daily. Even the evergreen, ever-patient olives, now close to harvest, are wrinkled for want of water.

For weeks, the water pit has gaped empty. Until the river comes back, every cup counts. When we’re done with the puddle’s-worth we use for the washing up, we pour it under whichever plant seems to need it most. We wee strategically, under a different tree each time. There’s no shower; you climb the hill to a neighbour’s inch-deep irrigation channel no wider than your hips, and splash away.

Now that the giant steel cistern is down to the dregs too, a brand-new pipe has had to be run a mile or so down-valley to a diesel pump. This small, off-grid eco-community, so used to recycling and upcycling, keenly feels the impact on their pockets and the earth. And we’ve only two hours before the pump’s shut off, hence all the frantic capering from tree to tree.

Still, we’re glad – the wait for water’s been long. Now it strikes the ground like a spell, turning grey dust to dark mud in an instant. Rubbing it between finger and thumb, it’s possible to believe once again that this is soil, the ground of all life. By noon the next day, the same ground is back to bone-dry, but Nick checks the olives and they’re plumping up…

A month on and these daydreams of Andalusia swim back to me as we wade through floodwater outside Falkirk. It sluices sideways off the farms and over the towpath, sloshing over our sodden boots. Bridges tip their streams onto the path in a brash clatter. The canal simmers with the downfall, silver in the half-light.

All is drunk with the deluge. The grasses, laden with it, sprawl across our way. It rolls in languid, heavy drops over the umbers and ochres of old oaks and beeches. It hangs from new haws in hundreds of glass beads, each one holding the world still, preserving it perfectly upside-down.

Few of us know this land well, but as we make our way west, the company of its life has been introducing itself. From the curlew’s clarion purl on the estuary to the private symbiosis of lichens along the canal, we’ve all been getting acquainted.

But the infrastructure of violence has been with us, too. We’ve skirted the aristocrat’s estate, passed the place warships are made, picked out pellets from the plastic factory washed up on the strand. Last night, we climbed to the crest of a bluff and looked down on the massive oil refinery at Grangemouth, wondering at the alien noises that burst sporadically from its tangle of pipes and towers. I thought of the Babylonian patriarch Nebuchadnezzar, who with biblical hubris looked down from his palace: ‘Is this not Babylon the Great, which I myself have built by the might of my power… for the glory of my majesty?’

It hit home that this unintelligible machinery pumps power to our shopping malls, motorways, and mail-order warehouses, and to the oil wars that keep the whole torpid phantasmagoria artificially alive. And I recognise myself in it, too, it has shaped my whole life. The entire complex glistens up from the mudflats, lit a sickly orange by flaring gas-stacks and security lights, and I feel I’m looking in a mirror.

Our walk bears towards the COP26 climate summit on the ancient pattern of a pilgrimage. But as with all pilgrimage, the true destination is not a place on a map but a change within us, a turn of the heart. The point is not in getting there but in returning home afterwards: more alive, more present – more available, as the Taizé abbot Frère Roger once put it.

Our walk is just a walk, but it’s one with intention. If Babylon’s machinery is pushing Kiribati under the sea today, we want to hold this knowledge tight and keep asking what that means for us and our society. We don’t want to forget, either, the children waiting for us in the wet to show us the posters they made to encourage us to care for all life. Or the community choir who stand around them, coats dripping: Thro’ all the tumult and the strife I hear the music ringing; / It finds an echo in my soul— how can we keep from singing? We let their song soak in with the rain.

And although Nebuchadnezzar’s story confronts the vanity and corruption of our own society’s ways, I want to remember that it’s also a fable of forgiveness and hope. For all his hubris, the biblical story spares the king from death. He was sent instead into exile to live in the wild among the animals. His freedom would be restored, but not until he was ‘drenched in the dew of heaven’ – until the arid patriarch learned for the first time his place on earth.

Today we crossed the watershed. All day, the rain’s been crackling off our hoods. Now and then we let it land in our hair and listen to the susurrating canal guiding us on to Glasgow. Along the way, these notes of falling water have been an enchantment all of their own, bathing us in their music. And as we move through the land, so it has been moving through us, tilting us towards its peace. In a word, it woos. In leading us away, astray, it even seduces – though by no power pushier than the perennially open invitation of our ecological place.

I realise I’ve been slowly falling towards a feeling of home. We all talk of this or something like this, plumbing for the words, but it speaks most clearly when we fall quiet. We are awed, but that’s not the point. Awe comes pretty cheap, as anyone knows who has marvelled from the mountaintop at nature as a distant spectacle. This is different, intimate, a kind of learning. We feel moved, certainly, but we’re also being moved, turned around. In coming to know, little by little, the company of this land, our feeling for its worth moves from abstract principle to visceral knowledge. We learn to love it.

We may even be learning the converse: that ‘in your loving is your knowing’, as the theologian Liz Templeton once insisted. It’s a bold a beautiful possibility that certain kinds of knowing – the kinds that keep life well – only come to us once ‘loving’ matures to be more than a way of feeling, but also a way of thinking. I look up into the rain, watching it fall from high heaven, letting it splash in my face. I’m skin to skin with it now, drenched.


Stepping back, I hear a sceptical voice, too, which wants to interrupt. It’s suspicious of the idea that the way out of our ecological emergency is to spend more time wondering at the natural world, any more than it’s to fix it with better tech. Doesn’t our crisis shake down to a radically relational cleft: a social and political culture that treats much of the life around us as expendable, without worth of its own?

This does indeed seem to be the underlying violence of our predicament, the place where the real hurt comes from. To face it, the imperative has to be justice – social and ecological justice at the level of the biosphere. We don’t need to spend time with the trees to know that the likes of Grangemouth are making the whole world sick, sending entire peoples, cultures, species to oblivion.

Or do we?

Very belatedly, I’ve been taking a closer interest in how elders and activists of indigenous peoples have been talking about the crisis. Without wanting to romanticise their lives, they’re clearly better placed to speak than I. They’ve been living closer to the earth, and to the harm of our latter-day Babylon’s domineering violence. And what they have to say is not the aloof, we-can-fix-it narrative that often prevails in climate debate.

Each time I hear indigenous elders speak, in their diversity, about the ecological crisis, a common, twofold refrain comes to the fore. First, the way to survival lies in honouring ecological and social justice, which nature knows as balance. If we think it’s about reducing carbon but not righting relationships then we’re no further on.

Second, the honouring itself is not found in hollow principles like ‘respect for the planet’, but in cultivating mutual, close relationships with its living places. You can’t save the soil if you don’t know what it is, and you won’t know what it is if it hasn’t spent time under your fingernails – and those of your ancestors.

The repeating plea is not only that we recognise a crisis of ecology as one of injustice, but also that we devote time to the ecology itself as the place we ourselves live. Let’s not make the mistake that love without justice is real, but let’s not imagine, either, that justice is possible without love – without being in love with the life now held at risk. For the way to love and justice is though attention.

So sink those hands in the loam. Let the rain reach you. Know the long story of the place you call home. Learn, says Eriel Tchekwie Deranger, to read the language of the natural world. Search for the grammar of its animacy, writes Robin Wall Kimmerer, and find there its laws and government, the democracy of species.

After all, this is an inspirited world, where even water is alive – especially water, says Angaangaq Angakkorsuaq. All beings belong. You, me, the stranger, the refugee fleeing war and hate and other dried-up places, even the stranded soul of a vain and violent king – we all have a place here with the curlew and the lichen.

Such is the saving knowledge of people who have not lost themselves. And it’s not because people of indigenous cultures are a special kind of human being, but because they still come together to remember their place in the scheme of life – to remember what matters, for it is what they love. As for the rest of us, aren’t we all Nebuchadnezzar now? If we are to hope for the same second chance offered him, then we too need to find ways to remember who we are and our ecological place, and so come to know for the first time what it means to be involved in the great society of the earth.


Reaching Glasgow’s edge, we stop off at Lambhill Stables, built to rest the weary horses that once worked the waterway. Like their coats then, ours now are soaked right through, though we get to sit, sip hot chocolate, and warm up while we drip.

Out the back, we’re led up to a shallow ridge that looks over Possil Marsh, which curves away from us between a line of pylons and the A879. Nearly 150 species of birds have been spotted here, sharing their wetland home with a boggling profusion of beetles and butterflies. Among the marsh’s ‘ecosystem services’ – or ‘gifts’, as Robin Wall Kimmerer prefers that we imagine them – is to hold safe its share of three billion tons of Britain’s peatland carbon.

Like all homes now, this one’s future is uncertain. With its wee loch, the marsh is already one of only three natural bodies of water left in the Glasgow area. It has to survive the toxic run-off from roads and farms, the loss of keystone species, the absence of traditional land-work that would keep it in health, and the encroachment of ever-pushy ‘development opportunities’. It’s surrounded by life out of balance.

As is Lambhill itself, a former mining community where unemployment runs at 32 percent, child poverty at 40 percent. The life expectancy of a boy born here is just 70 years; in South Kensington, it’s 82. Evidently, this economically cheated neighbourhood has been written off as one more ‘sacrifice zone’ in our socio-ecological landscape.

But it’s not a hopeless place. For a few years now, the stables have been a community hub, worked by and for the people who live here. We’re shown the volunteer café serving good homemade food on a budget, cooked up from the big communal veg patch next door. The stables host a long list of clubs and classes, as well as a low-cost bike repair shop for the local community.

The volunteers are fond of Possil Marsh – it’s their manor. During summer, the aquatic and fenland plants burst into colour, among them the pale yellow of the scarce tufted loosestrife. Right now, under the autumn squall, the muted browns and greens remind me of pike skin. A Google review says the marsh makes for a good date. It’s certainly a place to fall in love.


Water is everywhere now – beneath our feet in the peat, and still hanging heavy in the clouds in every direction. Not far ahead: Glasgow city, its streets already colonised by corporate marketing in anticipation of COP: big business brandishing its ‘green’ credentials in stock images of trees and valleys. Soon and with thousands of others, we’ll precipitate into the same streets as human rivers of grief and anger and hope.

Far behind now: the community in Andalusia. I can still picture the caked ground, the heat of the wind, the ancient olives – and the open-hearted people, whose hope is just to find a place to live well without adding to all the harm. My stay there was too short. ‘You should see it in spring, it explodes everywhere green,’ Nick said with a sudden smile as I was leaving. ‘I’d love to be here for that,’ I said, ‘but I need to get back.’

I am still with them, though, waiting in all expectancy for the mountain river to flow again: that sweet, tho’ far-off hymn / that hails a new creation.


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This is the last of a series of four blog articles exploring hope and the ecological crisis. The first three are here:

  1. Keeping home
  2. Piece work
  3. Doing enough
  4. Water music (this one)

But there will be more blogs about conscious hope – to get an email when the next one goes online, sling your email into this box (you might get an email asking you to confirm your address).

Other recent writing

In other news… over the summer, I placed a couple of other articles about hope’s work in the face of ‘hard power’:

Six-week course: Mindfulness and hope’s work

Do you live in Oxford? From February, Tim Stead and I will host a series of six sessions using mindfulness techniques to explore the themes of my book, Hope’s work: Facing the future in an age of crises. For details and to book, see the events page.

References

The quote from Frère Roger is taken from Brother Roger, The rule of Taizé (SPCK, 2012), p. 7.

Robin Wall Kimmerer is quoted from Braiding sweetgrass: Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge and the teachings of plants (Penguin, 2020), p. 58.

Angaangaq Angakkorsuaq and Eriel Tchekwie Deranger are cited from Science and Nonduality’s Wisdom of Trauma series with Gabor Maté: Climate crisis, fragmentation and collective trauma (YouTube, 2021).

Liz Templeton is quoted from the title of a posthumous collection of her essays, In your loving is your knowing: Elizabeth Templeton – a prophet of our times (Birlinn, 2019).

The reference to love and justice as a function of attention borrows from the philosopher Simone Weil, who wrote in Human personality (1943): ‘The spirit of justice and truth is nothing else but a certain kind of attention, which is pure love.’

Thanks

To Caitlin and Olga, fellow pilgrims on the way, for thoughtful comments on an earlier draft of this article. To Tom for allowing me to use his photo of the pilgrimage near Grangemouth. To all at the Women’s Field, Orgiva, Spain, for their welcome and kindness. To Jonathan for inspiring the Art & Ecology Pilgrimage for COP26, and to all those who gave themselves to it in so many ways of their own.