Tasbih*

crickets

http://www.whydontyoutrythis.com/2013/12/someone-recorded-crickets-then-slowed-down-the-track-and-it-sounds-like-people-singing.html?m=1

It seemed a hiss

the drone of mating call

of insects lost in long grass

grating on short nerves

white noise on a muggy August eve

but that is just the speed

we think at. That’s the pace

we expect all else to race to

and when their mindless buzz

is heard with their ears

it becomes
 song

for no reason but to sing

because that is the thing that must

be done

in ecstasy at being small before the One

How many more songs are being sung

by entities so small and fast-lived

that their chorus doesn’t register for us?

Too fine

cat’s purr five thousand hertz wide

distant whirr of planetary slide

a jive when played apace with human lives

and now I hear sense in my daughter’s cries

as tantrum slows to feverish high

I hear the words she tried to croon

the Mama, listen, Mama, pick me up –

it was a tune that spun on faster wheels
than mine, mismatching my headbeats

but that was the song her fever sang
the exultation it expressed
while I was too depressed
with longing for a quiet night
the silence of the stars as they creak past or
gentle buzz of crickets on a lawn
the white noise Nature gives the
world-worn so they’ll find peace there
in music they can’t hear

All things are in tasbih
for One who is to all these things
Listening.

(* Tasbih is an Arabic word meaning glorification – i.e. of Allah, of God. It is said in Qur’an that every thing in creation has its own unique way of singing its ‘tasbih’ to God.)

School: The Ultimate Desert Island

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  Another teenager ends her life after being bullied relentlessly by schoolmates, both in person and online. The heartrending story of Izzy Dix’s suicide, told by her mother – a single mum, for whom Izzy was her only child – has hit me at a particularly emotional moment: my kids are away and the house is thunderingly silent. God only knows how Izzy’s mother is coping with her solitude.
  And it makes me wonder – not for the first time – what the deal is with education. What good is a school if it teaches kids how to regurgitate facts for exams, which they will certainly have forgotten two weeks after finishing school, and yet is so blinkered to the facts before its eyes that it cannot see when a child is teetering on the edge?
  What, more to the point, are they teaching their students about social responsibility, ethics, compassion? At times it looks more like the mechanical imprinting of information than the careful nurturing that a bunch of insecure adolescents need.
  After blogging about my trepidation in taking Caveboy to state school, concluding that it wouldn’t harm him since, comparatively, we live in a beautiful, open, natural wonderland, by the end of term he’d come down with double pneumonia and ended up in hospital on an antibiotic drip for three days. (He did fine with treatment, thank God, and even went to the UK for Christmas).
  But he was still not back to peak health by the beginning of the spring term, so I took the executive decision to keep him out of school. It was only Infant’s, in any case, and therefore not obligatory, though if you don’t take up the offer of free state education most Spanish people look at you like one of those creepy mums who tell their kids that everyone is evil and probably still breastfeed their teenagers.
  Since I had to organise a babysitter to look after my daughter (then nearly three), I got together with two other mums and we had a babysitter-share at my house, three mornings a week. It worked a treat. There’s lots of space to play here, lots of sunshine to be out in, trees to climb, kittens, toys, craft materials…I think I can safely say they had a ball.

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  I was, meanwhile, optimistically planning a home school co-op for the following year. I could teach music! I thought. And poetry! And history! We could do whole theatre productions! And make up group stories! And plant things! If, that is, I could generate the extra six hours a day I needed to get everything else done…
  Thank heavens, then, that someone else did know that particular conjuring trick. Two wonderful friends got together and had a wooden cabin built in an olive and orange grove, filled it with Montessori equipment, kitted out a patio to the side with art things, and set up a Montessori-inspired playschool.

  Three days a week, too – the magic number I figured would work best with my kids, so I’d still get enough time to see them and be able to juggle all my other projects.
  It seems that in the two years since their dad and I split up, I’ve felt less like I needed my own space and more like I want to relish my time with my children. Partly that’s because they are growing older and more able to potter around with paints and playthings, without leaping on my back and pulling my hair or wailing over something inexplicable every five minutes.   
  And partly it’s that they go to their dad’s for days or even weeks at a time, and I realise that the house really isn’t so much fun without them in it. I don’t really inhabit it when I’m on my own here; I barely cook, which means the washing up pile is slow to accumulate, and the same could be said for the laundry too…which might sound like every housewife’s dream, but in a strange way, I appreciate these little daily tentpegs that moor my restless mind into something tangible and satisfying to finish.
  So the idea that next year Caveboy will be starting primary school leaves me feeling quite bereft. Before I know it he’ll be doing after school activities, going to friends’ to lunch, or having to contend with the increasing amount of homework that kids are being set – often, it seems, by blockheaded teachers who make them repeat the same inane tasks over and over, until all love of learning has been thoroughly stamped out of their tender heads.

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  Learning, I believe, is something that any child who has been encouraged to do so from an early age will do quite instinctively. And once they can read for themselves, the pedagogical world is their oyster. Some of the best read people I’ve met have not gone to school.
  “But it’s the social thing!” anti-homeschoolers rant. And they’re right: there are those kids whose parents, in their earnest wish not to see their kids being bullied, end up stymying their children’s own ability to work things out for themselves.
  However, it’s an argument that is just as valid in many schools, especially large, impersonal schools in which kids like Izzy Dix can fall through the net. Izzy had moved back to the UK from Australia two years before she died. She came into a high school eager to make friends, but instead found nothing but cliques with their backs turned to her, firing bitchy comments from behind their battlements to keep the stranger at bay.
  It makes me want to work hard to keep this Montessori project flourishing through to primary. Not just because the kids seem happy, interested, relaxed, engaged, alive, but because they would be fortified on all sides by a society they understand, people they know, kids whose parents meet and chat and laugh together in the street. I wonder if this isn’t really the secret ingredient to a successful school ingredient – the wider society being something that children do well to mirror.

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  I went to a state school, quite large (1500 at the time, and it’s grown a lot since I left). It was competitive; we had dozens of sports teams and dance shows and charity performances; people talked about Oxbridge at Sixth Form.
  But my parents had nothing to do with anyone from this microcosm of society, except on Parent’s Evening. There was not much point me telling them about things that happened to so-and-so; they didn’t know who they were. We were relative hermits, bookworms inhabiting a miniature classical Islamic library, or making music to ourselves. We had our own friends, other Sufis who’d come to our house to sing and do dhikr (the remembrance of God) together. We made sense among ourselves.
  Nobody from my school would have understood us. I know why my parents didn’t want to hang out with other parents; our lives ran on different runners. We didn’t drink alcohol, that ubiquitous social lubricant. We didn’t watch EastEnders. We didn’t take much of an interest in the usual English things (house prices, football, Jonathon Ross). The weather was about the only thing that affected us equally as our neighbours.

Image

That, of course, and our sense of humour.

  But growing up in this bisected way, with one outer life and another inner, was not much fun. I developed a hard shell to deal with everyday England that took many years of difficult work to emerge from. My interaction with people was premeditated, edited, cautious. Nobody got the full picture, which perhaps is what made me turn to writing and music with such passion.
  So in the imaginary schools of my children’s future, I hope I will always be there, brandishing trays of prawn blinis at every event, enthusiastically welcoming other parents and insisting on being their acquaintance, not just for the sake of appearances but so that my kids won’t feel that I am deserting them on a strange island every time I leave them off at the school gates.
  I intend to make it plain who I am, without shame, without fear of judgment, since if you have no shame about your real self, there is nowhere for any hater to pin their hate onto you. It’s as if you have become a transparent ball of light, melting their needles whenever they get close. And if you carry baggage around, writhing with embarrassing secrets, you can be sure that someone, bully or snark or spineless invertebrate, will take pleasure in opening them for you.
  Don’t let your light be barnacled by self-doubt. You are every bit as awesome as you wish you were. And you always have been.

Vetch

DSC01041

Pulling vetch out of the thyme
velcro-fingered cleavers clinging
borage and bees for company
I rack my brain for that one word
in Spanish that manages to
hold this feeling in its palm.
It isn’t satisfactorio,
enriquecedor, or realizador.
I am, as they would say,
walking on the branches
dragging fingertips across
the cliffs and valleys of the bark
but never quite holding the trunk.
It was a funny Sufi woman with
stained buck teeth who sold buttons;
she used the word once
when I gave her a ride
and it struck me but never
fully stuck. Unless
I made it up.

Pulling chickweed and
pallitory-on-the-wall
out of the land’s most farflung lips
there is the orange-black striped slither
of escalopendra through the grass
each leg a scorpion’s sting,
and there are
hundreds of them.
I wait in the hammock for it to pass
and root around in the archives
worm-embroidered
laced as dead leaves
in search of the match that
kindled this joy. It must
be a word for every
dirt-nailed dervish
hitch-hiking seeker
wild food forager
punctured by needles
from cardoons and nettles
hunting on still
ungloved.

Pulling pink-tipped white
earthsmoke out from
the charcoal of sodden earth
– to slice and douse in vinegar
and steep and strain and dose with –
this word buzzes round my head
bumbling about its business.
It is a word that predates
dictionaries, anyone
who digs enough will know
what it feels like
before the mouth
has had its way with it.
Orange blossoms. Nectar deep in
berryish buds burst
to pale trumpets: the smell
insists you close your eyes
the better to inhale it.

I can live without
knowing how
that word went.
The feeling is
enough.

DSCF0642

The Heart Pools

I’ve recently started a course led by two friends about medicinal herbs and plants. We study anatomy, drink teas, meditate and listen to trees. That might sound like a holiday (and it is pleasurable enough to make it seem so). But the truth is that it’s changing my life.

Yesterday’s focus was on the heart and lungs. After a huge download on the anatomy of these organs and the way they work, the subtler aspects of the heart were discussed – in a way I had never heard before. The word ‘heart’ has become a signifier for all that is mawkish and silly in our society. Spanish songs aren’t complete without a few corazones, but in English, just mentioning the word, especially with ‘my’ before it, usually triggers a wave of cynical responses even before the sentence is complete.

And yet the subtle action of the heart is quite tangible and even documentable. Western science was only discovered in the 1980s that the heart is also an endocrinal gland: it produces and secretes hormones and neurotransmitters, particularly noradrenaline and dopamine, as well as oxytocin – the love hormone or bonding hormone, released in large quantities at orgasm, when in love, and during and after a natural labour.

Even more fascinating is the electromagnetic function of the heart. There are known to be 40,000 neurones in the heart; together with the intestines it forms one of the largest ‘brains’ in the body, after the brain itself. The heart of a foetus actually begins beating before the brain is sufficiently developed to send it the message to do so; one of the first functions of the brain in the womb is to regulate the heartbeat.

The heart sends messages to the brain by many means, hormonal, chemical, electrical and so on, not just about blood pressure but also about our feelings, sadness, joy, love, pain.

There is an electromagnetic field generated by any organ with neuronal activity. This is what women with flowers in their hair and crystals in their pockets (just check out my prejudices!) might call an aura. Every living entity has one of these fields. With greater awareness of what is happening in this field, it can be expanded to overlap with the field surrounding another living entity, whether it be a person or animal or plant. This is when communication takes place. The words are after-effects.

One of the ways to effect this greater awareness is through the breathing practice pranayama, while visualising the air coming in and out of the heart. This is really powerful. Suddenly it seems that the heart has a mouth and can breathe and therefore talk. It is a living entity its own right.

To complete this sense of expansion and warmth, it is necessary only to remember a time when you felt very thankful, and a time when you felt great love and tenderness. It is like watching a plant grow rapidly before your eyes and open its petals, like in a David Attenborough documentary on your own being.

This pool of warmth and tenderness, when it notices another pool that is in pain, immediately rushes to make contact with it. There’s no sense of ‘ooh look at me, all compassionate like’. The heart pools are compassion in action, without the brain to stick price tags on it.

All of this is probably making a lot of sense to you, dear readers. Everyone who has ever been in love or created a work of art or lost a dear friend or family member knows there is a capacity for feeling in the heart that cannot compare to the cold, tickety calculations happening in the brain – no matter how useful these might also be.  

But whether you decide to keep the seat of your sense of being up there among the mechanisms of thought and analysis, or down here in the centre of your body, makes a huge difference to the way you approach the world.

Remaining in the head enables us to make justifications for behaviour that destroys other people’s worlds or harms the environment. There is always seemingly good reason. Remaining in the heart, however, makes it impossible to witness any suffering without wanting to do something to alleviate it – especially when the cause of the suffering is ourselves.

This is where we come back to these split opinions about the heart.

I get a strong sense that there are two ‘Wests’: the corporate West, and the human West. The corporate West has no heart. It exists entirely in the sphere of analysis and justification. We can make more money doing something a particular way, and thus make life easier and more comfortable and apparently happier doing it, so we can justify the suffering of sweatshop labourers, child miners, displaced indigenous peoples, and invaded oil-rich countries, or the plunder and poisoning of natural resources in order to do it.

Then there is the human West. (That’s you, and me.) If we were to see this suffering first-hand, there’s no way we would accept it. Our hearts would break. Yet the distance between us and them, combined with the primping effect of the corporate West, make the justifications seem worthwhile. Of course you’d say yes to a gadget or product that made your life easier, prettier, nicer-smelling, or more comfortable, if you didn’t know what kind of chaos its production entailed.

The problem is that swaddling our hearts against the horror of what our actions as a society end up doing to the rest of the world is also suffocating. It feels unnatural not to witness any pain or discomfort. When the aged or disabled are sent to care homes, we forget they exist and expect everyone to be young and fit and gorgeous. When beggars are rounded up by police and moved on, we forget what poverty looks like. When doctors can reassure you that disease is not the end of the world, we forget that any one of us could die at any moment, forgetting also to treat every drop of life as a gift. All of this allows us to get on with our lives more comfortably, and yet our hearts are being numbed in the process.

To react to this slow, icy death, we come up with all sorts of hairbrained methods to reactivate our hearts. We go in for wildy passionate, toxic love affairs that end up hurting us. We flirt with danger in the form of tobacco, drugs, alcohol. We jump out of airplanes with backpacks and goggles on. Anything to make us feel alive again, to feel that leap in our chests, the thud of adrenaline or the buzz of dopamine.

And then love itself is marketed in so many ways. Films posit love as the ultimate trophy, the happy ending that won’t dissolve into acrimony a few years later. Love as a commodity is mawkish and icky. The internet is rife with photos of kittens, in baskets, with bows on, looking perplexedly at the camera in sailor suits…in the absence of an orphaned child living in a train station, the most extraordinarily silly things pass as heart-rending.

There is an ultimate sense to things. Sometimes it takes age or experience or distance covered to have any perspective on them, but there is a sense there, overall. Even disease could be seen as an expression of our underlying need to know what death is in order to be able to get back to the present moment, to get back to the centre of our being, to feel the jolt of life pumping away inside our bodies and remember to appreciate it instead of getting swamped with worry and the frantic accumulation of things.

Am I just getting old?

If getting old means seeing the small in the large and the large in the small, then perhaps I won’t mind the discomforts.

A Place to Disconnect

The internet, with its ability to free or enslave us, has changed the way we relate to money, and its ability to free or enslave us. We can work online from anywhere in the world as long as it has an internet café. We can even use BitCoin, the fastest-growing and stablest currency in the world, and one that is (almost) completely digital.

The internet has changed the way we relate to people, mediating our exchanges by way of social networking sites or chat apps and converting personal conversations into freakishly ungrammatical bursts of hyperbole. Now we can have the pleasure of video calling anyone we want to talk to, and witnessing their downcast eyes while they observe the pictures on screen, of us, also with our eyes averted.

The internet is also, I am realising, changing the way we think of place. Websites are, we assume, places to connect, meet, share, download, learn. It seems to be a word that pops up frequently online: Google’s Places for Business for example. Forums are another virtual meetingplace; the word refers back to fora, “a public square or marketplace used for judicial and other business” in Ancient Rome. Foro in Spanish has a general meaning of ‘capacity’, or the number of people you can fit into a place.

There it is again! And even if the word is not physically present, it is thought; because we’ve only ever known things to happen in a place, as most of us are not prone to conducting our daily basis on the astral plane, therefore whenever we ‘do’ something, there is the assumption that we must be doing it somewhere. In all our 58 million year history on earth, we’ve never had to deal with this concept of placelessness before, of carrying on an ordinary life in the depths of the void.

Nelly and Smudge.

Nelly and Smudge.

I am writing this with a little black-and-white furry bundle on my lap, two kittens abandoned by their mother and rescued by my best friend. The mother had abandoned them; one sibling had already died when the other two were taken, soaked in pee and sticky-eyed, out of the cardboard box they were born in, wrapped in a bit of hessian.

These days it is especially heavenly in this valley: the intoxicating smell of orange blossoms; poppies, sorrel, hundreds of kinds of wildflowers pepper the green; the sun is at its most benevolent, warm enough to get a tan but not so hot you roast. So when the kittens got their first look at the outside world they gazed with hazelnut-shaped blue eyes in wonder at the blue of the sky they had never seen, the sun they had never felt directly, the landscape and colours they would not have known existed.

They were badly dehydrated; I’m back to a newborn baby sleeping schedule to keep them pipette’d with Pedialyte. They’re washed and suddenly adorably fluffy. But mostly they are sleeping, if not on me, wrapped in an old towel, or in a box next to some stones heated up on the woodburner. They are still too young to be able to walk or lap milk out of a bowl. All they are wanting is warmth, stroking, contact. Cold means death; touch is life.

And so I return to this double falseness in the thousands of sites online that promote themselves, or are simply thought of, as ‘places to connect’. There is no place to actually meet or feel the presence of another person, let alone any touch being really got into. What can that connection boil down to? The flinging of scraps from a digital diary out into space with the confidence that other pods floating around this vast emptiness will be able to find and see them.

I am also understanding more now about why cats are the way they are. They like to be scratched or stroked on the forehead, on the ears, and all down their backs, because this is what the mother does with her velcro-coated tongue when they are still too young to see or move about on their own. The world is still a blur beyond the edges of the hedge, or cardboard box, or airing cupboard. The look of bliss is enough to signal that this is what they need, not only as babies, but as adults if they are domesticated.

The internet cannot produce this look of bliss, because in no way, and at no time, is anyone ever really connecting. There are words that are flung out of passing spacepods that might reflect the light or resonate for someone in another. But they are no substitute for the warmth of a gurgling stomach, an embrace, a kiss.

I fear that we are becoming a generation of emotional lepers, only capable of throwing out an emoticon instead of really feeling and sharing an emotion. It is easier, less painful, less raw, and less dangerous. Not having to deal with another person’s emotion means you can sink into the protective swaddling of your own ego, where the wounds can only fester.

In a more obvious way, internetic events are anachronistic echoes of real events. Information is a means to an end, and so the internet is a wonderful means – the kittens’ lives were probably saved by information found instantly online – but the information alone does nothing. Only when it is put into action, by a person, in a place, is it of any use. You have to get up in the night with a pipette to save a cat’s life – and even then you need something else, grace perhaps. The email won’t do it for you.

The void is filling up with scraps of information, some of it valuable, some of it poisonous, most of it junk. The trouble is now not how long it will take to get the information needed – we have spiders that find and select the information when we ask them to – the problem is using it appropriately.

Calendulas.

Calendulas.

The more time I am spending outside, finding herbs, sowing vegetable seed, planting trees, engaging my hands and eyes and feet with what there is around, the more perspective is opening up to me. A river from a distance, with all its tributaries, could just as well be a leaf close up, with all its veins. There is a sense of utter bliss, unlike anything I could receive from a screen, or even from a book.

I find the internet horribly addictive, especially sites like YouTube or Facebook, or even Wikipedia, where new information is added by users all the time. This design website sums it up quite well: http://huttonbrown.wordpress.com/2013/04/11/are-you-addicted-to-facebook/

The volume of information online is paralysing. My head feels like a million hamsters are ticking away furiously to keep up, and then where does it all end up going? The pressure it creates has to be vented by watching something truly stupid online for a giggle. And the cycle begins again.

gate

Oh I am tired of all this information. Let’s go to the garden instead.

A Place to Disconnect

The internet, with its ability to free or enslave us, has changed the way we relate to money, and its ability to free or enslave us. We can work online from anywhere in the world as long as it has an internet café. We can even use BitCoin, the fastest-growing and stablest currency in the world, and one that is (almost) completely digital.

The internet has changed the way we relate to people, mediating our exchanges by way of social networking sites or chat apps and converting personal conversations into freakishly ungrammatical bursts of hyperbole. Now we can have the pleasure of video calling anyone we want to talk to, and witnessing their downcast eyes while they observe the pictures on screen, of us, also with our eyes averted.

The internet is also, I am realising, changing the way we think of place. Websites are, we assume, places to connect, meet, share, download, learn. It seems to be a word that pops up frequently online: Google’s Places for Business for example. Forums are another virtual meetingplace; the word refers back to fora, “a public square or marketplace used for judicial and other business” in Ancient Rome. Foro in Spanish has a general meaning of ‘capacity’, or the number of people you can fit into a place.

There it is again! And even if the word is not physically present, it is thought; because we’ve only ever known things to happen in a place, as most of us are not prone to conducting our daily basis on the astral plane, therefore whenever we ‘do’ something, there is the assumption that we must be doing it somewhere. In all our 58 million year history on earth, we’ve never had to deal with this concept of placelessness before, of carrying on an ordinary life in the depths of the void.

Nelly and Smudge.

Nelly and Smudge.

I am writing this with a little black-and-white furry bundle on my lap, two kittens abandoned by their mother and rescued by my best friend. The mother had abandoned them; one sibling had already died when the other two were taken, soaked in pee and sticky-eyed, out of the cardboard box they were born in, wrapped in a bit of hessian.

These days it is especially heavenly in this valley: the intoxicating smell of orange blossoms; poppies, sorrel, hundreds of kinds of wildflowers pepper the green; the sun is at its most benevolent, warm enough to get a tan but not so hot you roast. So when the kittens got their first look at the outside world they gazed with hazelnut-shaped blue eyes in wonder at the blue of the sky they had never seen, the sun they had never felt directly, the landscape and colours they would not have known existed.

They were badly dehydrated; I’m back to a newborn baby sleeping schedule to keep them pipette’d with Pedialyte. They’re washed and suddenly adorably fluffy. But mostly they are sleeping, if not on me, wrapped in an old towel, or in a box next to some stones heated up on the woodburner. They are still too young to be able to walk or lap milk out of a bowl. All they are wanting is warmth, stroking, contact. Cold means death; touch is life.

And so I return to this double falseness in the thousands of sites online that promote themselves, or are simply thought of, as ‘places to connect’. There is no place to actually meet or feel the presence of another person, let alone any touch being really got into. What can that connection boil down to? The flinging of scraps from a digital diary out into space with the confidence that other pods floating around this vast emptiness will be able to find and see them.

I am also understanding more now about why cats are the way they are. They like to be scratched or stroked on the forehead, on the ears, and all down their backs, because this is what the mother does with her velcro-coated tongue when they are still too young to see or move about on their own. The world is still a blur beyond the edges of the hedge, or cardboard box, or airing cupboard. The look of bliss is enough to signal that this is what they need, not only as babies, but as adults if they are domesticated.

The internet cannot produce this look of bliss, because in no way, and at no time, is anyone ever really connecting. There are words that are flung out of passing spacepods that might reflect the light or resonate for someone in another. But they are no substitute for the warmth of a gurgling stomach, an embrace, a kiss.

I fear that we are becoming a generation of emotional lepers, only capable of throwing out an emoticon instead of really feeling and sharing an emotion. It is easier, less painful, less raw, and less dangerous. Not having to deal with another person’s emotion means you can sink into the protective swaddling of your own ego, where the wounds can only fester.

In a more obvious way, internetic events are anachronistic echoes of real events. Information is a means to an end, and so the internet is a wonderful means – the kittens’ lives were probably saved by information found instantly online – but the information alone does nothing. Only when it is put into action, by a person, in a place, is it of any use. You have to get up in the night with a pipette to save a cat’s life – and even then you need something else, grace perhaps. The email won’t do it for you.

The void is filling up with scraps of information, some of it valuable, some of it poisonous, most of it junk. The trouble is now not how long it will take to get the information needed – we have spiders that find and select the information when we ask them to – the problem is using it appropriately.

Calendulas.

Calendulas.

The more time I am spending outside, finding herbs, sowing vegetable seed, planting trees, engaging my hands and eyes and feet with what there is around, the more perspective is opening up to me. A river from a distance, with all its tributaries, could just as well be a leaf close up, with all its veins. There is a sense of utter bliss, unlike anything I could receive from a screen, or even from a book.

I find the internet horribly addictive, especially sites like YouTube or Facebook, or even Wikipedia, where new information is added by users all the time. This design website sums it up quite well: http://huttonbrown.wordpress.com/2013/04/11/are-you-addicted-to-facebook/

The volume of information online is paralysing. My head feels like a million hamsters are ticking away furiously to keep up, and then where does it all end up going? The pressure it creates has to be vented by watching something truly stupid online for a giggle. And the cycle begins again.

gate

Oh I am tired of all this information. Let’s go to the garden instead.

A Place to Disconnect

The internet, with its ability to free or enslave us, has changed the way we relate to money, and its ability to free or enslave us. We can work online from anywhere in the world as long as it has an internet café. We can even use BitCoin, the fastest-growing and stablest currency in the world, and one that is (almost) completely digital.

The internet has changed the way we relate to people, mediating our exchanges by way of social networking sites or chat apps and converting personal conversations into freakishly ungrammatical bursts of hyperbole. Now we can have the pleasure of video calling anyone we want to talk to, and witnessing their downcast eyes while they observe the pictures on screen, of us, also with our eyes averted.

The internet is also, I am realising, changing the way we think of place. Websites are, we assume, places to connect, meet, share, download, learn. It seems to be a word that pops up frequently online: Google’s Places for Business for example. Forums are another virtual meetingplace; the word refers back to fora, “a public square or marketplace used for judicial and other business” in Ancient Rome. Foro in Spanish has a general meaning of ‘capacity’, or the number of people you can fit into a place.

There it is again! And even if the word is not physically present, it is thought; because we’ve only ever known things to happen in a place, as most of us are not prone to conducting our daily basis on the astral plane, therefore whenever we ‘do’ something, there is the assumption that we must be doing it somewhere. In all our 58 million year history on earth, we’ve never had to deal with this concept of placelessness before, of carrying on an ordinary life in the depths of the void.

Nelly and Smudge.

Nelly and Smudge.

I am writing this with a little black-and-white furry bundle on my lap, two kittens abandoned by their mother and rescued by my best friend. The mother had abandoned them; one sibling had already died when the other two were taken, soaked in pee and sticky-eyed, out of the cardboard box they were born in, wrapped in a bit of hessian.

These days it is especially heavenly in this valley: the intoxicating smell of orange blossoms; poppies, sorrel, hundreds of kinds of wildflowers pepper the green; the sun is at its most benevolent, warm enough to get a tan but not so hot you roast. So when the kittens got their first look at the outside world they gazed with hazelnut-shaped blue eyes in wonder at the blue of the sky they had never seen, the sun they had never felt directly, the landscape and colours they would not have known existed.

They were badly dehydrated; I’m back to a newborn baby sleeping schedule to keep them pipette’d with Pedialyte. They’re washed and suddenly adorably fluffy. But mostly they are sleeping, if not on me, wrapped in an old towel, or in a box next to some stones heated up on the woodburner. They are still too young to be able to walk or lap milk out of a bowl. All they are wanting is warmth, stroking, contact. Cold means death; touch is life.

And so I return to this double falseness in the thousands of sites online that promote themselves, or are simply thought of, as ‘places to connect’. There is no place to actually meet or feel the presence of another person, let alone any touch being really got into. What can that connection boil down to? The flinging of scraps from a digital diary out into space with the confidence that other pods floating around this vast emptiness will be able to find and see them.

I am also understanding more now about why cats are the way they are. They like to be scratched or stroked on the forehead, on the ears, and all down their backs, because this is what the mother does with her velcro-coated tongue when they are still too young to see or move about on their own. The world is still a blur beyond the edges of the hedge, or cardboard box, or airing cupboard. The look of bliss is enough to signal that this is what they need, not only as babies, but as adults if they are domesticated.

The internet cannot produce this look of bliss, because in no way, and at no time, is anyone ever really connecting. There are words that are flung out of passing spacepods that might reflect the light or resonate for someone in another. But they are no substitute for the warmth of a gurgling stomach, an embrace, a kiss.

I fear that we are becoming a generation of emotional lepers, only capable of throwing out an emoticon instead of really feeling and sharing an emotion. It is easier, less painful, less raw, and less dangerous. Not having to deal with another person’s emotion means you can sink into the protective swaddling of your own ego, where the wounds can only fester.

In a more obvious way, internetic events are anachronistic echoes of real events. Information is a means to an end, and so the internet is a wonderful means – the kittens’ lives were probably saved by information found instantly online – but the information alone does nothing. Only when it is put into action, by a person, in a place, is it of any use. You have to get up in the night with a pipette to save a cat’s life – and even then you need something else, grace perhaps. The email won’t do it for you.

The void is filling up with scraps of information, some of it valuable, some of it poisonous, most of it junk. The trouble is now not how long it will take to get the information needed – we have spiders that find and select the information when we ask them to – the problem is using it appropriately.

Calendulas.

Calendulas.

The more time I am spending outside, finding herbs, sowing vegetable seed, planting trees, engaging my hands and eyes and feet with what there is around, the more perspective is opening up to me. A river from a distance, with all its tributaries, could just as well be a leaf close up, with all its veins. There is a sense of utter bliss, unlike anything I could receive from a screen, or even from a book.

I find the internet horribly addictive, especially sites like YouTube or Facebook, or even Wikipedia, where new information is added by users all the time. This design website sums it up quite well: http://huttonbrown.wordpress.com/2013/04/11/are-you-addicted-to-facebook/

The volume of information online is paralysing. My head feels like a million hamsters are ticking away furiously to keep up, and then where does it all end up going? The pressure it creates has to be vented by watching something truly stupid online for a giggle. And the cycle begins again.

gate

Oh I am tired of all this information. Let’s go to the garden instead.

The Heavy Fog Dreaming

Aboriginal hollow log coffin

I’ve finally got round to reading Bruce Chatwin’s ‘The Songlines’, a recollection of his wandering through Australia and encountering nude snorkelling Irish priests, sunburnt survivalists with dodgy guts, and of course – most interestingly of all – the Aboriginal people whose Songlines he is on the trail of. Drunks, mavericks, jokers some might be, sleeping under corrugated iron ‘humpies’, or laughing in a bar with beer mats embedded into knitted hats, or brawling slowly, patiently, with broken bottles under a relentless, lethal sun, the undercurrent of Aboriginal culture was still the mode of living that they had successfully followed for millions of years become the white men arrived.

The Songlines are the tracks that embroider the landscape with the songs of the ancestors who walked the earth singing everything into existence. As they walked they strewed the land with souls, and when a woman steps on one of those spots while pregnant, the foetus experiences its second ‘conception’, marked by its first kick, which designated the totem it will have for life. Songs are the maps that mark territories, the currency that can be exchanged for rights of passage, and even a melodic description of the lay of the land.

Every landmark, pinnacle of rock, outcrop of eucalyptus in the scrub is the site where an animal ancestor went back into the mesh that separates the eternal from the mortal. It would be sacrilege for them to inflict any kind of crime against this beautiful, song-studded earth.

Reading this puts me into a near-hallucinatory state of wonder. Of course! If you are a nomad, obliged to move from place to place in search of pastures and water and thus dependent on the open spaces that form your roof and walls, your understanding of nature would have to be close to telepathic. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be any more you.

Then I go online, where the hypnotic rhythm of bad news sends me into a different kind of trance. Fracking. The Keystone XL pipeline. Conflict minerals. Brazilian logging companies rounding up the Awa Indians (of whom only some 350 are left) and shooting them. Epidemics of birth defects due to agrochemicals. Even Amazon.com’s German depot has come under fire for neo-Nazi working conditions.

It is becoming clear that every commodity, from gold to oil to gas to slate to wood to books to vegetables – vegetables! – is a cause of suffering in the world. Every time we buy some gadget or frock or piece of jewellery that we have been conditioned to want, there is a chain of murder, theft, and injustice that trails all the way back to the spot where the Earth was forced to yield its treasure, where human beings were obliged to give their time, sweat, and blood for the brief clink of money – usually in someone else’s pocket.

Where have our Songlines gone? Back when we were all nomads, as we were for at least 99% of human history, the touch of our feet on the earth must have stitched it to us in ways we cannot comprehend today, so rare is it for our bare soles to come into contact with concrete-free soil. Would we have had in England a Ladybird Dreaming, or a Milk Cow Dreaming, or a Heavy Fog Dreaming? I wonder what kind of totemic being we might have now. A Chocolate Wafer Biscuit? A Car Tyre? A Wet Wipe?

Perhaps it is true, as George Carlin says, that the Earth will survive a long, long time after we have gone, that “the Planet’ll shake us off like a bad case of fleas”. In the meantime, though, we still have to live with ourselves. And everything else has to live with us, too. It’s not just about Saving the Planet, even; it’s a case of refinding our songlines, the threads weaving us together and in and out of our environment. Every act that revives our touch, our physical experience of the world, brings us back to that wondrous apprehension of how very small we are, and how in need of each others’ mercy.

That, against all the rhetoric of free-marketeers, is where happiness lies. Not is being big and flashy and better than everyone else – how easy it is for ballooning pride to burst! – but by being compatible with life as a whole, interactive, interdependent, intercompassionate. There would be no necessity for all our poisonous trades in glittering stones and metals and black liquids were it not for our desires for them. The less we are reliant on the world of big business, the less we are compliant with it. So, I would like to sonorously announce, the answer to the world’s multifarious ills is quite simply this: to find some joy wherever it causes no harm. Joy cancels out greed, and with it a host of other sadnesses.

Here are some things that I think not only pay tribute to our need for less need, but also gave me a glimmer of joy in the process. Please feel free to add your own!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SBWi3NtND68 (Simple 55w solar lights from a plastic bottle and water)

http://www.ehow.com/how_5240773_make-shoebox-solar-oven.html (Make your own solar oven)

http://inhabitat.com/cyclean-bike-powered-washing-machine/ (Bicycle powered washing machine)

http://www.instructables.com/id/Home-Made-Solar-Panel/step1 (DIY solar panels)

http://deciwatt.org/ (Light powered by gravity)

http://www.ecoinventos.com (All sorts of clever upcycling and eco tricks in Spanish)

http://webecoist.momtastic.com/2009/02/17/green-it-yourself-15-innovative-eco-friendly-diy-projects/ (Particularly loving Elvis the hamster charging Peter Ash’s mobile phone)

http://www.greenprophet.com/2011/11/7-cleantech-arab-world/ (Ice in the Sahara! Really!)

http://ygtainternational.wordpress.com/2012/07/06/the-ecoladrillos-eco-brick-project/ (The Eco brick project in Latin America)

http://pinterest.com/cathybureau/eco-friendly-projects/ (DIY eco-friendly projects)

http://www.ecotippingpoints.org/our-stories/topic-energy.html (Over 100 success stories from around the world – there is hope!)

To Be A Desert In A Monsoon

Rio Guadalfeo, Órgiva, las Alpujarras, Granada.

Summer in the Alpujarras is all about water.

Neighbours have been known to break out into fistfights over whose turn it is to use the acequia, the snowmelt that gushes down from the mountains through carefully dug and maintained channels to the smallholdings in the valley below. From the beginning of June through to the end of September, smallholders get a turn using the water, however long it takes them to water their land (say, three hours to do a third of a hectare) – although that turn might come at four o’clock in the morning.

When it’s your turn, though, you jump at it. The acequia is the difference between this valley being a lush, green paradise where fig trees snake colossal grey limbs up into huge shady labyrinths, mulberries splat you in the face with their fat juicy berries, and orange groves infuse the air with blossom in spring and fruit in winter, and a rocky, yellow plain so dry that firefighters have to suck whole truckfuls of water out of the river daily to keep forest fires at bay. Helicopters overhead is bad news; it means someone’s house has burned down and a mountain slope around it too.

Acequia at work

‘Doing the acequia’ is an utterly magical experience. You open the little metal gate that channels the water to your land, and suddenly you have a powerful, roaring torrent of icy water that you have to rush about diverting so that it reaches the trees and flowerbeds and veggie patch without sweeping everything away. Kids strip off and splash around; little waterfalls appear between terraces of land. On the hottest day experienced in Orgiva in recent years (40 degrees or higher) we did the acequia and the whole place was easily five degrees cooler instantly.

Stream above Capileira. Gives the word ‘cool’ a whole new meaning.

I write this now while fasting; I haven’t drunk or eaten in the daytime now for two weeks, bar a few days when the heat really did get too much for me. This is my first Ramadan for four years, during which I was either pregnant or breastfeeding the whole time. It’s strangely energising.

The first week or so was rough but I have more energy now than I did before, I’m not freaking out at my kids any more, I’m calmer and more patient (let’s see how long it lasts); the process of temporarily wasting away means your body gets a chance to clean out some crap via your pores before having to cope with digesting more food. And with it, whole rafts of negative mental states wash over you with shocking strength and then ebb away to practically nothing. It can really send you into a blissed-out trance, even while you’re cleaning bottoms and puddles of wee ten times a day.

But one thing that fasting heightens is the phantom sensations of taste and texture – specifically, for me right now (can you tell?) the feeling of quenching a raging thirst with cool, abundant water. I feel like a piece of arid land with trillions of seeds buried dormant beneath the surface; one good soaking and they spring into life, coating the tinderbox earth with a thick, moist layer of vegetation.

So when I break the fast at dusk, watching the the pink light disappear from the mountain tops before me, a litre of liquid in various forms (iced hibiscus tea, 0.0 % beer, juice, or just cold Lanjaron spring water) goes down with startling alacrity. I timed it yesterday; one litre of water in seven and a half minutes. I must have had a desert on the inside on my body that absorbed it gratefully in seconds; my skin even felt plumper afterwards.

Many people will think it’s too extreme, and it’s true, in a way, but like any test of endurance, you will always be astonished at how easy it was after all, how much stamina you had and didn’t know it, how much resolve that was there, just waiting to be necessary.

Our lives in the developed world are a doddle compared to those of women who traipse for five miles under African sun to fetch a pot of water and carry it home on their heads. The very fact that we have water piped into our houses means that we waste it. If we had to carry it five miles ourselves, would we leave a tap running while we brushed our teeth? Would we let a single drop go to waste?

Stream above Capileira

Arduous as it may be to fast for a whole month, to shine up a copper pot you’ve got to rub it hard. And the payoff, every evening, is to feel what it must be like to be a desert plain under a monsoon. There is a hadith that says that when a person breaks his fast at the end of a day, there is nothing between him and Allah. Union with the Divine tastes of cold, pure water after sixteen hours’ drought in the baking August heat.

And by God that tastes good.

The Peasants Are Evolving

It’s a romantic idea for many people who decide to move to the Alpujarras: buy a plot of land, perhaps fix up a ruin, maybe even get some livestock, put in some solar panels, and grow your own veg.

If you take a walk around the countryside here, especially in spring, you’ll be astonished at how abundant the wild or semi-wild sources of food are here: almonds, olives, oranges, mandarins, lemons, figs, mulberries, quinces, pomegranates, grapes, persimmons, loquats (so quickly bruised you rarely see them anywhere outside of the places they are cultivated); higher up in the mountains there are apples, pears, peaches, cherries; closer to the coast there are bananas, mangoes, custard apples…

There are hippies who almost – almost – survive on, say, the almonds or ruby-red pomegranates that ripen in the mostly unattended fincas, or the figs that drop by the wayside from enormous shady trees that spread out their coral-like arms over garden walls, or the grapes dangling from vines that creep over dusty orange stone ruins.

But the reality of trying to live self-sufficiently, even in such a fertile place as this, is very hard. Taking on this housesit – or rather, sheep-sit – is proving to me just how difficult the peasant life is. Last night we were rushing between farmacies and vets looking for a cure for one of our ewe’s mastitis. Unlike the mastitis I had dozens of times while breastfeeding, it is apparently much more serious for sheep, and potentially reason to cull an animal.

Time for a bit of Home Economics. These sheep are East Fresian milk sheep, which are renowned for being good milkers; on a good day each one will yield 1 1/2 to 2 litres of good quality, delicious milk. But if you were to sell that milk, you’d only get 1 euro a litre, or the equivalent for cheese (once the whey is drawn off, you lose a good quantity of each litre, probably two thirds).

So once you’ve factored in buying oats and straw, watering the land to keep it green enough for the sheep to graze it, then vet’s bills, and the work of milking, feeding, housing, shearing and finding a ram of the right breed to cover the ewes, you find that really, you aren’t keeping the animals as a business; it’s a hobby.

What the land looks like when you haven’t watered

Or rather, it’s a labour of love. I have to admit to having a bit of a special moment with my sick sheep today as I was trying to get rid of some of the milk in her engorged, sore udder. Usually they’re pretty mercenary, kind of “Gimme the oats!” while you get on with milking. But this time she kept lifting her head, seeming to ask to be stroked on her nose and talked to softly.

I don’t know much about sheep psychology (if that isn’t actually an oxymoron) but it was one of those moments that make me realise how deeply feeling animals are. Then I saw she’d wiped snot on my trousers. But it was a special moment nonetheless.

“Who ewe calling snotbag?”

After finishing with milking, I went inside and started ‘work’, translating an instruction manual for an industrial gas cooker. Some friends dropped by to talk about making a film. The flickering light of the intellectual world seems at once distant enough to be alluring and mind-numbingly boring enough to be meaningless.

I can’t give you a clever economical illustration of why it no longer makes financial sense to run a farm. But something has very clearly shifted in the century since Europe began its relentless drag into the Money Machine; now, if you want to live ‘the good life’, have solar panels, keep chickens or goats and grow your own food, you still need to have internet connected and work online to earn the money doing something technological or commercial in order to bankroll your ‘peasant’ existence.

But where have the peasants gone? Even the old toothless goatherds are driving dazzling Suzuki 4x4s – and I haven’t a clue how they can afford to keep up the monthly payments on them. Even the most economically aware twenty-something starting him own eco-farm in order to escape the much-loathed ‘system’ is wired up to facebook and YouTube, where he can observe the banks crashing around him and feel somewhat insulated from the stress associated with bank-dependence – but he’ll never be entirely free from its clutches.

Alright, no need for mass wisteria, it was only a bad pun…

Decided to aim for self-sufficiency is a moral decision rather than a financial one. Whatever you gain by cutting your costs you’ve already spent on installing expensive solar panels, or just by buying land. The point of it is not to break even financially; it’s to reclaim the responsibility for your life, your expenditures, you consumption, to become aware of how much effort and time and know-how is necessary to produce ANYTHING, even one tomato or a lump of cheese.

That consciousness is an exponential one; with each new discovery and shock comes another, and it opens out your horizons to every aspect of our daily consumption: water, firewood, FOOD. It takes the norm of taking such things for granted and dramatically inverts it.

If you haven’t cut wood and let it dry the year before, you have nothing to burn to keep you warm in winter. If you haven’t thought ahead and planted the right seeds, in the right places, with the right fertiliser, you won’t have tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuces, potatoes…If you leave your chicken coop exposed to dogs or foxes, you’ll lose your chickens and therefore your egg supply. If you don’t notice when the 1-year-old lambs of your ewe are still suckling roughly and have thereby caused their mother to get mastitis, you have a vet bill and possibly a dead animal on your hands.

On paper, this lifestyle is not one that would attract many people. It is hard, physical work; there are all sorts of unforeseeable factors that could wreck your productions (severe storms, packs of wild dogs, solar panel thieves, poison leaking in from neighbouring farms, plagues of insects devouring your fruit and veg); and it stimulates your University-educated intellect about as much as the adverts between soap operas.

But back-to-the-landers are devout believers of this path, not only as an antidote to the resource-guzzling lifestyles that are so inescapable in cities and towns but as a spiritual path, a way of regaining a connection with nature – both outwardly and inwardly. There’s nothing like the joy and satisfaction of putting hands to earth and nurturing a seedling to fruition. You gain a deep respect for the earth and its rhythms, its harmony – its music – in closing the theory books and going out and experiencing it.

So we are a peculiar cross-breed of peasant and techno-geek. One foot in the realm of mass commerce and e-technology, one foot in the bucolic bliss of fruit trees and gardens.

The peasants are not revolting – they’re evolving. (Well, OK, we are a little bit revolting. But only when we get sheep snot on our trousers.)