In early February this year we invited friends over on 2 consecutive weekends to help out with our ‘woodland management’ work. This meant taking out some of the trees that have grown up naturally on the land – in the part beneath the ‘cultivated zone’ that produces our food.
It came as a shock to me, as we were preparing for this undertaking, to realise that we three human denizens of this place hold such very different perspectives on what I call ‘the wilderness’.
In permaculture, it is considered core practice to leave a part of the land wild: “The principle of zoning in permaculture is that whatever is in most need of human attention should be placed closest to the centre of human activity. The furthest zone is ‘zone 5’. It is the wilderness… i.e. the place where the needs of wild plants and animals take top priority. Yields of produce for human use are only taken when to do so benefits the wild species, as when a flower meadow is mown for hay. Every permaculture design, however small, should have a zone 5.” (taken from Permaculture UK’s knowledge base). Over the years, ‘zone 5’ at Dorpsstraat 136 has become a gorgeous profusion of over-the-head greenery, wild flowers and trees – primarily birch, but now other species are starting to come in. It is also the burial place of my cat Ninja, who’s benign shade now presides over the grove in the centre, stalking ethereal moles and mice. In the summer it is a sun-dappled, fragrant, rustling, buzzing, chirping paradise of cool presence, where the Earth Power is thick enough to cut with a knife. At least, that’s how it seems to me.
Last month I learned that Ria’s concern lay more with our capacity, or lack of it, to handle trees that are really too tall and too thick for our women’s hands and strength to manage. It sobers me to think that all that life and those years of growth will keep our stove fueled for about 7 days in a cold spell! And to Chrisje, the wilderness seemed more like a mess that we haven’t gotten around to taming yet, and the trees block the view of the valley (especially in the summer!) Learning these differences of perspective was physically and emotionally painful for me, and that got me to thinking about what it is, specifically, that I am so attached to in our pocket wilderness.
It is the part of the land I am always drawn to. When Ria is in among the vegetable beds or in the greenhouse, when Chrisje is mowing the grass, you can find me either out on the boundaries or in among the wilderness, cutting the long grass, and following the instructions I clearly receive – along with permission from the ‘place’ – to groom the beauty, removing brambles here, pulling nettles there, picking up dead branches over there. And mostly, just sitting, feeling the life of nature coursing through all my channels and bringing me joy and nourishment. Being quiet and still and communing with Wren, Birch and Wild Cherry. This is where I come to weep for the beauty of the Earth and spill out my love when it gets too much to contain. This is also where I do much of my Soul’s Work – the work that cannot be articulated – that isn’t related to the human domain. I recognise that both my ‘sisters’ are deeply nourished by and commune with this land in their unique ways, just as I do in mine. I also recognise that I am the guardian of this small plot of ‘what wanted to happen’, that part of the land that we have not in some way shaped or designed. I also acknowledge that that has been changing in recent years, as I have been invited in to tend and tidy, clear and groom. There are even some man-made statues now gracing Ninja’s grove…
On previous occasions when we have taken out trees, I have not experienced the inner conflict that arose in me this time. When I agonise about the death of these loved beings, I am given images of cutting toenails, which I interpret as reassurance that things are more interconnected and less straightforward than they seem. I don’t know what has changed in me – I guess I am at a different phase in my relationship with all of life, with coming to terms with impending ‘environmental catastrophe’ and awakening to the many ways in which I am complicit in our life-denying civilisation. In a conversation with Ria about all this, she asked me why I viewed these trees on this land as different from other trees that feed our efficient, hi-tech wood-burning stove. All I can say, upon reflection, is that I would rather not have to endure the cognitive dissonance that this will provoke in me every time I see our stove!! Ria also asked me what difference there is between cutting a tree or harvesting a vegetable? The only answer I have is one of scale, which I acknowledge is no answer at all! She told me that for her, it is much worse that I buy vegetables (organic, but we still don’t know in which conditions they were grown…) and then sometimes don’t get round to eating them before they rot. That really is dying for nothing. I haven’t yet told her that I apologise to those veggies as I lay them ceremonially on the compost heap and bless their future back in the soil… But her point is well taken. Will I ever get to the bottom of my own infinite subtle hypocrisies? I was so grateful for this conversation, and I hope they will continue regularly from now on. They help me – I hope all of us – think more deeply and slowly adapt to lighter ways of living.
At the time, though, my decision to go with the proposal to take out those trees came from a concern for the harmony of our human relationships – in other words for my own well being as a human among humans, rather than as a member of the ‘hoop of life’. Despite the soothing voices of the trees, I still feel a residue of conflict within me around this – and I guess I carry that on behalf of more than just myself, as more than ‘just’ the planet’s precious trees are destroyed by humanity for humanity’s reasons.
Our work days went well – the first day, Fernando came and helped, the second day Momodou, Eike, George and Stella showed up. We are so grateful for their presence! Everything got done in friendship and ease. In between cutting branches and carting brushwood to the boundary fence, I ran around ahead of the chainsaw, touching in with my condemned friends, to let them know what was about to happen (in a bit of a panic, to tell the truth!) My human friends were indulgent and understanding. I had some moments of trauma when I tuned into one of the felled birches and felt its shock. I had to sit and process the intensity through my body for about 15 minutes, until it subsided.
When I tune into nature, I receive information, communication. Sitting astride the downed trunk, drenching my father’s big white handkerchiefs with my generic grief, I learned that trees are not like humans: cut off a human’s head and the sentience of the whole ceases. (There’s still a whole lot of life that continues inside a human body after death, but that’s another story.) Cut down a tree, and it gradually stops growing. Whatever life force is in the roots flows out into the underground community of the woodland. Whatever sentience is in the tree – and there is plenty, believe me! – continues in the logs, in the twigs, in the leaves, as they compost down into the soil, nestle into the body of the brush wall, dry in the log pile, and finally find their way into the fire, where that sentience transmutes into the flames and whisks away up through the chimney and into the night sky. To me, that sentience feels just like love. It is unconditionally warm, forgiving, mild and wise.
This profoundly unscientific understanding has helped me sense more deeply into the nature of the living systems that support and surround us, that we normally consider (if at all) as so much ‘environment’. Most of the folks that I know don’t tend to switch on their relational sensory systems for what lives outside of the human sphere. One of the strongest impressions remaining with me like a haunting since the second work day is the picture of our friends striding around, efficiently and joyously “getting it done”, oblivious to the possibility of treading on sacred ground, terminating the lives of living beings. I am in no way reproaching them for this. There was nothing in our invitation to them that would bring this dimension to their awareness. I sit with my own failure to frame our enterprise in any way. We just all went to it, without any of the hosting practices that normally hold our work together and give it significance and meaning beyond the banal humdrum of the everyday.
The rawness of my heart as I write this tells me that next time it will be different. I can hope that I will approach our next work day, whenever it transpires and whatever it involves, with more consciousness, and absolutely trust that our friends will know how to hear and honour that request and invitation to tread with care and intention on this Earth. The more I learn from this small piece of wilderness, the more my being expands and comes alive with the scintillating life, love and wisdom that surrounds us. If I am lonely for company, all I have to do is visit the woodpile. When I do, though, I have to be sure to take my handkerchief!