Where or why I set off I couldn’t tell you, and neither am I sure where I’m heading. There is a path of sorts, but from time to time it disappears, only to reappear again in a slightly different guise, like a sand furrow on a tidal beach. But I’m not lost, and neither do I feel alone. In fact, there are times when I feel I have too many companions vying for my attention. Sooner or later, I trust, the fragments of path will join up to make a map of sorts.
In the meantime, here are some brief dispatches from where I’m at.
A book. Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk is, as it’s title suggests, about raptors, yet it opens with her learning of the death of her father. Fascinated with falconry throughout her childhood she finds herself responding to grief by buying and attempting to train a goshawk. Yet this is no superficial attempt to disengage from the pain of loss. There are no empty words like ‘moving on’. On the contrary, she moves towards. Towards a closer engagement with the world, with the only place where life can be lived. A third of the way into the book I’ve come to realize how little I know about raptors. But grief, pain. That’s a world I’m familiar with, and Helen Macdonald makes for an honest and eloquent companion. Click here to read an interview she gave to Caught By The River.
A documentary. Curiosity, humility, patience. These are just some of the qualities we need if we are truly to learn something from our encounters with the natural world. To learn, in the words of the psychoanalyst W.R. Bion, from experience, rather than viewing life and the world through a lens carved from preconceptions. I first came across Nan Shepherd’s book The Living Mountain in the autumn of 2010, and since then I’ve returned to it whenever I start to sense that I’m losing sight of the land, and of our dependence on it. Although I have never walked in the Cairngorms of which she writes, the way in which she opens up that landscape is a gift for the imagination. A documentary about Shepherd’s book, presented by Robert MacFarlane, was broadcast this week on BBC Scotland. It’s available on iPlayer until Tuesday 9 December, and can be downloaded for later viewing.
A report. There are many necessary criticisms that can be levelled against psychotherapy, but one that has always struck me as misplaced is the charge that it generates dependency. Children are acutely aware of their dependency on their parents, and later, in adolescence, must rail against it in order to make the transition into adulthood. Maturity, however, requires a rediscovery of our dependence on others, an awareness of our interdependent relationship with all living things. We are not very good at this. Take an issue that has attracted much media attention this week: mothers breastfeeding in public. Our social landscape is saturated with images of breasts as objects of desire, yet the breast on which the infant depends, the one upon which, if all goes well, we are placed when entering this world, that breast is apparently too much for some to bear. We want to consume, to possess, but we don’t want to think about where things come from, or what is involved in producing them. A report just published by the Chatham House think tank reminds us that the global livestock industry produces more greenhouse gas emissions than all cars, planes, trains and ships put together. This is not new knowledge, yet as the report also states, the majority of people continue to believe that transport is the biggest contributor to global warming. Importantly, the research on which this report is based does not suggest we give up meat. But the findings should lead us to reflect, and to a greater acknowledgement of our interdependency.
A song. As the year comes to a close, those of us who enjoy meat may be drawn by the opportunity to eat seasonal venison. Nowadays, wild deer populations are generally managed by wildlife rangers, since natural predators like the wolf are extinct outside some national park areas such as Yellowstone. This management is necessary, since in the absence of top predators the numbers of deer will otherwise become too large for habitats to support. Free to roam without fear, deer can have a detrimental impact on the local ecosystem, not least through the overgrazing of new-growth vegetation. Have we, like the deer in a wolf-free land, come to believe we can feed with abandon? Might an unintended consequence of austerity be that those of us with plenty come to learn the meaning of enough? You will arrive at your own answers to these questions, but along the way, step off the path for a moment and listen to The Wolfless Years by Chris Wood.