Lessons from Burdock

When people find out that I forage a lot for wild foods and engage me in anything more than a cursory discussion on the subject, I’m often surprised by how quickly they jump to the question of whether it would be possible to subsist entirely off plants gathered in this way. Sometimes they use this as a fast-track to denial – ‘you can’t feed a family on weeds, so why bother?’ – while other times, at the other end of the all-or-nothing spectrum, you can see a utopian vision of freedom invading their imaginations in a heartbeat.

Usually, in these hyper-individualistic times, they then want to know how to do it for themselves, perhaps imagining it would help them in a survival situation – giving them a competitive edge over the panicked hordes in a zombie apocalypse – or allow them to retreat into the woods away from any contact with society. Sometimes they want to know if hunting and gathering could sustain a global population of 6 to 7 billion human beings (again this often functions as a dismissal of the whole concept of gathering wild foods).

Only rarely do they ask about specifics relating to their present situation: what’s available for harvest in their immediate surroundings; what’s a good plant to heal an ailment they or a friend or family member are suffering from; what’s a good recipe for including a new plant in their diet, etc. Only rarely do they show signs of a slow-burn commitment to expanding their knowledge and practice over the years in a considered attempt to improve the quality of everyday life both for themselves and for those around them.

But the more I learn about plants, and the more I gain practical, first-hand experience of how they can support me in my dietary, nutritional, medicinal and even spiritual needs, the less I find myself caring about the big, worldwide questions or about driving at maximum speed towards 100% pure, personal self-sufficiency. I’m already on my way. I can intensify my efforts if I want to get there quicker, but really, what’s the rush? It’s unrealistic to expect somebody to turn all their inherited culture’s ways upside down in one lifetime. I do what I can in my given circumstances.

In the meantime I needn’t fall prey to the new religious guilts of carbon footprints and hosepipe bans (which come with the implied message that all human activities are inherently destructive and suggest that the only responsible course is to minimise the ‘impact’ as much as possible) because I know that it’s possible for human beings to act in ways that actually benefit other plant and animal species while satisfying our own needs in a mutually supporting relationship. Working slowly to maximise my impact in this way feels about a million times better than the self-loathing embedded in most contemporary environmentalism.

Here are some specific experiences with a specific plant that led me to these conclusions.

It’s been over two years since I last dug up Burdock for the roots, and something like five since I first started searching for this plant after seeing Ray Mears unearth some huge specimens and talk about their potential, not only as an important starch-filled survival food, but as a likely caloric staple for the hunter-gatherer cultures which lived here before farming took hold some six thousand years ago. In my eagerness and enthusiasm to partake in this (pre-)history and get my teeth into a hefty wild food that could even compete with cultivated rootcrops like carrots, parsnips & potatoes for size and bulk, I jumped in head first and ended up making my first serious foraging error – mistaking the first spring growths of Lords and Ladies (aka Cuckoo Pint) for Burdock, based on the aforementioned TV footage and a handful of pictures and descriptions I’d seen on the internet.

I’d dug up a few plants that had hallelujah’d at me during a walk along the Thames near Oxford and brought them back home in my pocket. They didn’t have the same huge, deep roots, and came with a funny little tuber which I’d not heard mentioned. Nevertheless, ignoring the lingering sores on my hands (which I had attributed to unseen nettles during the digging), I proceeded to steam the stems and do a taste test on them. This was unremarkable by itself, but when I took a tiny nibble from the freshly cut, white inner flesh of the raw tuber, it was a different story.

roots

Apparently Lords and Ladies defends itself using microscopic dagger-shaped crystals of calcium oxalate interspersed between the cell walls, and these shoot out when the plant’s body is broken or disturbed, embedding themselves fairly reliably in the flesh of the hapless creature responsible for the disturbance. Youch! So after a promising initial rush of sugary starchiness while I mixed the tiny morsel with saliva in the front of my mouth and gave it a cautious nibble, my mouth started to tingle, then ache and then burn all the way to the back of my throat, even though I’d spat and rinsed with cold water almost immediately. I finally identified the plant correctly (thanks mainly to my symptoms) and learned that, while they do have a recorded edible use as a ‘poor man’s potato’ and of being rendered into ‘portland sago’ (a thickener akin to arrowroot) or laundry starch, this requires careful baking and/or pulping in water to destroy or denature the crystals, and when eaten raw it has even been known to cause death through inflammation of the throat tissues and subsequent asphyxiation! Happily the burning died down within a couple of hours, but it was still noticeably sore for the following two days.

Lesson 1 – Respect the plants!

Spend enough time to be able to identify them confidently and be careful what you put in your mouth!

It turns out that burdock comes up significantly later than Lords and Ladies, and I did manage to find and dig up some plants later in that same year, learning to look for the dried-out second year stalks and remaining sticky burrs to indicate where I was most likely to find a community of younger plants poking through. It was during this time that I found some properly massive specimens, growing in gravelly clay soils by an artificial irrigation ditch.

root-triumph

These gave me my first indication that it might be possible to subsist entirely off foraged foods in this country (hence the triumphal, ‘take that, surburbia!’ pose struck in the second image above), especially after I got my eye in over several long-distance walks and started noticing the plants growing in large patches in many different places. My eyes swelled with fatness* from seeing a new abundance of food in the landscape in this way, but I also felt a new sensitivity towards the plants themselves and a growing reluctance to swoop in and put an end to all their hard work before they even got the chance to reproduce. I couldn’t just take from these beings. So for a long time I avoided digging plants up or, more generally, any kind of harvesting that would prove fatal to them. A small portion of the leaves, fruits, seeds – okay; whole roots – no, unless they had to come up for other reasons, eg: gardening operations.

Lesson 2 – Don’t kill unnecessarily.

Consider the plant’s needs and, where possible, try to fit yourself around them so that both parties can get what they want.

A couple of things clicked in me over the following years. First I heard about Australian aboriginal practices of digging up edible roots and replanting the crown and the rosette so the plant would grow back again, allowing for a sustainable harvest, albeit over a long timespan. Then I saw Derrick Jensen talk about the fundamental law of the predator/pray relationship – ‘If you consume the flesh of an Other, you now take responsibility for the continuation of the Other’s community’ – and how life was only possible through this respectful bargain of looking after the land and all the species sharing the same space with you. Most importantly, ensuring that the sum total of your actions contributed to the health and resilience of the community, because in the end every species gets weighed in the balance** and those that are found wanting lose their right to life and become extinct.

Finally I got to grips with the notion that humans weren’t exempt from this law, and with the rather counter-intuitive idea that our direct involvement, even through heavy-handed, apparently destructive techniques such as fire setting, coppicing, hunting etc, could actually have a beneficial impact on ecosystems, as well as for the individual plant and animal species concerned. As Kat Anderson put it in Tending The Wild, an exploration of land management in preconquest native Californian cultures:

Several important insights were revealed to me as I talked with elders and accompanied them on plant gathering walks. The first of these was that one gains respect for nature by using it judiciously. By using a plant or an animal, interacting with it where it lives, and tying your well being to its existence, you can be intimate with it and understand it. The elders challenged the notion I had grown up with – that one should respect nature by leaving it alone – by showing me that we learn respect through the demands put on us by the great responsibility of using a plant or an animal.

Many elders I interviewed said that plants do better when they gather them. At first this was a jarring idea – I had been taught that native plants were here long before humans and did best on their own without human interference – but it soon became clear to me that my native teachers were giving me another crucial gift of insight. California Indians had established a middle ground between the extremes of overexploiting nature and leaving it alone, seeing themselves as having the complementary roles of user, protector, and steward of the natural world. I had been reading about how various animals’ interactions with plant populations actually benefited those plants – how grizzly bears scattered the bulblets of Erythronium lilies in the process of rooting up and eating the mature bulbs, how California scrub jays helped oaks reproduce by losing track of some of the acorns they buried – and it seemed plausible that the many generations of humans in California’s past had played a similar role. If it was true that native plants did better with our help, it meant that there was a place for us in nature. (Tending The Wild, p.xvi)

I remembered that in the footage I’d seen† Ray Mears had in fact made a point of planting the seeds from nearby mature plants when harvesting his Burdock root to help the plant propagate itself and hopefully replace what he had taken.

Lesson 3 – Others have to die so that you can live.

In return, you have an obligation to look after their brothers and sisters and help their kind to thrive. Someday you too will die, and the loan these others have given you will be repaid in full.

This year, as part of my herbal apprenticeship, I had it suggested making a tincture or vinegar from burdock and mullein roots. Unfortunately I’ve not yet seen the latter growing anywhere near to me, but about a week ago it felt like a good time to go out hunting for Burdock again, so I grabbed my digging stick (made from a stout piece of Hawthorn), a small hand-trowel and fork and headed down to the river, where I’d gathered from successfully in previous years. Unfortunately there were no signs of growth yet in any of the usual spots, so I made do with some early ramsons (wild garlic) and baby nettles, and started making tracks back home via a different route. All of a sudden, in a sunny patch by the side of the path, I spied some old flower stems, and – hooray! – some of the flannely, white-bottomed leaves just starting to emerge from the sandy soil in several places nearby.

I judged that there were enough new plants to spare three for my purposes, so I selected a small group suitably close together and set about digging my trench. It was hard, sweaty work. A few horseriders and dogwalkers came past during this time, which made me slightly nervous because technically I think you need permission from the landowner before uprooting any plant in the UK. Because this was beside a public footpath I didn’t know who to ask, so I went ahead and assumed it was okay as long as I tidied up afterwards. Who within a ten-mile radius, apart from me, considers burdock anything other than a noxious weed, if they even can even recognise it in the first place? I disagree with Richard Mabey when he instructs his readers:

Never pull up whole plants along any path or road verge where the public has access. It is not only anti-social and contrary to all the principles of conservation, but also, in most places, illegal. (Food For Free, p.23)

Honestly, I don’t care what the current lot of bandits and gangsters ‘in charge’ of this country have defined as ‘illegal’, and generally view these as suggestions that I’m free to ignore as long as someone isn’t actually there & prepared to back up the law with violence or the other usual forms of coercion.‡ Anyway, nobody complained, and people appeared interested when I explained what I was doing. When I was done I scooped all the soil back into the hole, tamped it down a little, seeded it with a few handful of burrs and covered it with a loose mulch of leaves and twigs, making sure to thank burdock for its generosity, explain my intentions and promise that I would be back in the future.

Back home, after a couple of days, I got round to scrubbing one of the roots, slicing it up, leaves’n’all, in the food processor and dunking it in vinegar for a liver-supporting tonic that should be ready in a month or so. The following morning I sliced up another half-root’s worth to go into a breakfast fry-up:

breakfast

(Ingredients: eggs, bacon, onion, red pepper, beechnuts, nettles, linseed, butter all fried together, plus tea, toast, tomatoes, salt, pepper, herbs, ramsons butter, nettle infusion. Mmmm…)

The root has a very distinctive smell when freshly cut. A sharp, slightly abrasive smell, at the same time earthy and musty, that seems to reach deep into your throat and lungs. As if it’s angry about being exposed to the air. The taste is more pleasant – vaguely nutty and radishy raw, but blander when cooked.

If you want to read more about the medicinal side of things, I recommend you read about Home-Sweetening Christine’s experiences with Burdock and check out this comprehensive page of info. PFAF go into some of the other edible uses for the aboveground parts. I’ve experimented with their suggestion to germinate the dark-brown woody seeds and eat them like bean-sprouts. They are actually quite nice this way – the taste resembles that of the older leaves, but takes a week-or-so to get to their shocking, bitter potency.

Why is burdock root not known as a foodstuff in Britain (unless you count the dandelion and burdock drink, which most often contains only artificial flavourings)? Under the name gobō it is well-known in Japan (Masanobu Fukuoka grew it ‘semi-wild’ in his orchards), where they often cook it with pork, fry it with carrots or even snack on it like crisps. Perhaps chronic famines compelled the Japanese and other Asian culinary traditions to diversify their foodbase away from simple grains, as happened in France (and surely during earlier times in Britain). Or maybe they never saw any reason to totally supplant and forget earlier subsistence strategies from the times before intensive agriculture. Either way we’ve not been so lucky here. As Ray Mears & Gordon Hillman wrote in Wild Food, the book accompanying the BBC series:

Roots were an extremely important food source for our ancestors. In Britain we have more than 90 indigenous species of edible root of which most were probably used by the combined populations across the country. Even an individual band of hunter-gatherers probably used 20-30 species in the course of their annual round. Compare this to our present-day diet, in which root foods are dominated by a single introduced species – the potato – and in which our cultivated carrots, turnips, swedes and radishes were probably much later additions, domesticated in the Mediterranean Basin from where they were introduced into Britain, although wild forms were native here. The bland taste of these domestic forms probably appeals to a lot of palates in contrast to the broad range of distinctive and often strong flavours offered by wild roots. (pp.80-1)

I’ve wondered if, in the days before fossil fuels, the civilised/imperial culture put a premium on energy density in the foods it chose to cultivate, especially the carb-heavy grain staples. These provided a coarse fuel for the greatest possible amount of work from the slave classes of manual labourers and domesticated farm animals (neither of which are particularly well adapted to the food), and later fed the armies which would spread this way of life through conquest of neighbouring territories. This appears to have been the case with the potato which, freeze-dried and stored over long periods in the form of ‘chuño’, originally underpinned the Inca empire and was subsequently adopted by Spanish conquistadors, mainly because it ‘proved a convenient food for slaves in the Spanish silver mines and sailors on the Spanish galleons’ (link). Whenever I’ve done work that requires a lot of physical exertion I’ve found that I need bulky foods like bread, pasta or porridge to sustain the effort employers expect from me.

But then, why choose these field crops to cultivate as staples instead of tree crops like oak, hazel or chestnut, or wetland crops like reedmace – yields of which have been shown to compare favourably to grain harvests, and which don’t require the huge energy inputs of deforestation, drainage or annual tillage of the soil? As Patrick Whitefield has written:

No-one went to the trouble to invent a northern form of agriculture using the indigenous edible plants. If they had, the landscape might look very different now, perhaps more like the native wildwood and less like an imitation of the south-west Asian steppe. (The Living Landscape, p.85)

Others report that foods rich in animal fats and protein give just as much – if not more – energy to humans than starchy foods. For example, ‘Less than two pounds of pemmican [a mixture of dried meat and saturated fat from buffalo] per day could sustain a man doing hard physical labor. The ratio of fat to protein in pemmican was 80%-20%.’ Perhaps if the first Neolithic farmers and the subsequent waves of invaders hadn’t been so aggressive in imposing their foreign plant and animal domesticates, Britons would still be eating foods like nuts, berries, tuberous roots, fish, and meat from woodland animals and wildfowl. This would undoubtedly result in better human health as well as being more appropriate to the indigenous ecology. I don’t see why burdock wouldn’t fit into that mix.

Lesson 4: A plant may give you energy, but what do you need that energy for?

If some start to harness it in a bid to concentrate and increase their power, using you as the tool (or weapon) through which it is channeled, then maybe you had best leave that plant, like the fossil fuels, safely in the ground.

I wish you luck and excitement as you get to know this remarkable plant.


* – Psalm 73
** – Daniel 5 (dunno why all these biblical references were springing to mind – maybe because I originally wrote this during Lent?)
† – Has anybody else come across this? I did find it on YouTube a while ago, but haven’t been able to track it down for the life of me.
‡ – As I’ve written elsewhere, ‘People (or a class of people) who have degraded and brutalised the landscape so comprehensively over the last few centuries/millennia have no business telling the rest of us how, when (or if!) we will relate to the land.’

Art, Protest and Walking the Boundaries

‘For one long moment in my life, I heard the earthsongs of England. For one exquisite time, I saw the old gods honoured with an authenticity that left me in tears.’
– Jay Griffiths, ‘This England’, Dark Mountain: Issue 1

Twenty years ago, a band of travellers and activists took a stand against the extension of the M3 over Twyford Down in Hampshire, not far from the venue for this year’s Uncivilisation. Their action marked the beginning of a radical response to the government’s road-building programme. Looking back, the sustained protests at Twyford and at other sites such as Newbury, Pollok, and Solsbury Hill seem now to represent a high-water mark in the history of the UK environmental movement.

With a sequence of talks, exhibitions and workshops, Unciv2012 will commemorate the road protests and explore their legacy. In curating this strand of the festival I’ve chosen to focus not so much on the history or politics, but rather on the culture of the anti-roads movement and the creativity it unleashed: the protesters’ stories and songs and wild art, forged through an intense relationship to the sites they were protecting. Many of those involved speak of this relationship, of a passionate identification with place, with particular trees, streams, and glades, and of the distress felt when they were destroyed. At Unciv we will look at the ways people responded to that destruction, to the violence being done to the land and to those who defended it.

I’m also particularly interested in weaving links between road protest culture and some of the ideas behind the Dark Mountain Project. It seems to me that the protest camps embodied a distinctly uncivilised alternative to mainstream life, an imaginative defiant dwelling on the edges. Not that they should be romanticised: a recurring theme in all the accounts is how cold it was, how wet, how endless the mud and squalor and the tensions between groups and individuals, between those who ‘did’ and those who ‘lunched out’. And yet despite the hardship, so many found the experience to be transformative; found that they relished gathering fuel and food, cooking over an open fire and sleeping under a plastic tarp; found themselves most fully alive whilst living out of doors through all the seasons, or up on a platform in the trees in a storm. The camps were no utopias, but in their rawness and simplicity, their glorious dirt not just beneath the fingernails but clogging every pore, they remind us that it’s still possible, even desirable, to live beyond the pale.

Guiding us through this exploration of anti-road culture will be, amongst others, Jay Griffiths, reading from Anarchipelago, her dazzling novella based in the camps; Andy Letcher, musician, scholar and one time member of legendary protest band The Space Goats; and Adrian Arbib, whose photographs and films provide a defining record of those times.

Stories and songs and wild art, the honouring of old gods, a fitting theme for other strands woven into the section of the programme I’m curating. Distinct yet linked: a session on ‘dark fairytales’ with Simon Lys of the Gaia Theatre Collective; workshops offering the possibility of a shift in perspective, whether through wilderness rites of passage with Tom Hirons, or with Steve Wheeler who will invite us to ‘unprogramme the Apocalypse’!

And finally, a theme which culminates in Mearcstapa: a collective of artists and performers who have been granted a fool’s licence to bring something of that anarchic creativity, that honouring, to the festival. We will provide an extra layer, or under layer, to the scheduled programme: shape-shifting theatre, art and performance on the edges; the festival’s dark fringe spilling from the woods into the main spaces, looming and receding without set times or the gathering of audiences. There will be opportunities to take part, to make your own art, and to join us on a wild hunt and a dance in the dark to the strange enchanted music of Wod!

It’s very exciting to be helping to organise this year’s festival, and to watch as all the ideas and different layers to the programme are developed. I’m also delighted that we’re going back to the Sustainability Centre, which seems to be an ideal venue – Mearcstapa have met there once already this year, sniffing out trails and plotting mischief …

So do join us in August. I think it’s going to be quite good!

Smock Frocks and Curlews

Once, rather a long time ago, I had a nice job looking after a forest nature reserve, an ancient woodland. It took more than an hour to walk from one end to the other, along maintained paths, where, most days, certainly on holidays, I might meet a few locals or visitors, enjoying a ‘wild’ place.

I’d be friendly and polite, but secretly, these occasional people appeared like aliens to me. That was because I was really part of the forest. I belonged. I didn’t leave and return to civilisation. I walked those paths in the dark thick with moths and bats, meeting badgers and foxes and owls. I slept nested in the heart of the forest, blanketed by scores of acres of trees in every direction, so that I felt safe and secure. My identification with the place was reciprocated. I was it and it was me.

This may seem odd, to people who find forests at night scary and threatening, but I grew up in a house in the centre of a large wood, so I was bred to feel at home, with the rustles and bird calls, rather than tarmac and streetlights and car doors slamming. I was a four year old who spent hours alone, playing in leaf litter, looking for beetles and centipedes, scraping bark off twigs, crawling through bramble patches. Later came ponies, a pet fox, ferrets, a pet buzzard, pigeons and owls and magpies, grass snakes and slow worms and whatnot. Not quite Gerald Durrell, but that kind of thing… a farm family and other animals, dogs and cats and cows and sheep and pigs and poultry, including an ancient retired great aunt who blessed me with The Natural History of Selbourne, Tarka the Otter, Wild Wales, Jock of the Bushveld, and other classics in that vein.

 

So, I’m a country boy, I know the bird’s eggs, their calls, their discarded feathers, how to tickle trout and snare rabbits, how to move softly and unnoticed across the landscape. It was never anything special or unusual, until I understood that only 10% of the population live outside urban areas, and of those, how few know anything about the wildlife and the plants. I have neighbours who have likewise been raised in ‘rural bliss’, who could only name ten bird species and possibly get five correct, who don’t know an ash tree from a walnut tree, or a hazel from a field maple. So just because folks dwell surrounded by fields, it doesn’t follow that they have any depth of knowledge, contrasted with previous generations. Perhaps true country men and women will vanish, become extinct, like the embroidered smock-frock which was once the common outer garment for agricultural labourers, shepherds, waggoners and carters. Vanish like the drovers, to exist only as ghosts of the imagination, conjured by old texts and photos, fragments and crumbs of history.

He was a man seemingly about forty years of age with a broad red face, with certain somethings looking very much like incipient carbuncles, here and there upon it. His eyes were grey and looked rather as if they squinted; his mouth was very wide, and when it was opened displayed a set of strong, white, uneven teeth. He was dressed in a pepper-and-salt coat of the Newmarket cut, breeches of corduroy and brown top boots, and had on his head a broad, black, coarse, low-crowned hat. In his left hand he held a heavy whale-bone whip with a brass head. (George Borrow, Wild Wales, 1862 )

What did it feel like to be that man ? To inhabit his thoughts and resentments and ambitions ? Did he ever wonder what his life might mean as he took the cattle and the sheep hundreds of miles, along the ancient grassy drove roads, perhaps from Pembrokeshire to Kent ? On that day, he made that impression upon another human mind, and Borrow portrayed it in words, like a tatty portion of sepia photo, all else is long lost and forgotten, as I too shall be.

 

How can country culture produce country characters, like, say, Laurie Lee or Winifred Foley, when there is no more country culture ? The old ways have mostly gone, like the sailing ships, like the lapwings and curlews, like the working horses, displaced by agribusiness and holiday cottages and retired city folk. Does it matter ? Most of you will never notice the loss of what you have never known. Like vanished species from distant mountainsides, sea floors, grasslands and deserts, like the languages of dispossessed tribes, they were never part of your world, so won’t be missed. World War II fades into history, like Victoria and her Empire, and Napoleon before her. Once it was now. Now it is gone. You have the Green Party to turn to, and the Archers to feed you a faux simulacrum of pastoral sentimentality as you sit on those vinyl chairs, as you breathe traffic fumes and block out the noise of aircraft and lorries and worries about the tax demand and the kid’s exams, and go home to the spectacle of horror and trivia on that tv screen.

Down at the far end of that forest nature reserve, where visitors could not penetrate, across the boundary upon private land, far from roads, protected by some deep ravines, rarely, if ever, visited by the farmer, I discovered a special place. I wonder how many of these remain ? Secret, unknown, overlooked, forgotten. I’m sure there are still patches of the Earth’s surface that no human foot has ever touched, because they are so hostile, remote and unattractive. But on these crowded islands ? The next best thing might be places that haven’t felt human presence from year to year. This is not something you can buy. Not for a million pounds. This is not something you can hire a guide to show you. It’s not something you can even repeat. Think about that. More like a miracle, a singularity, a one-off magical event.

Here, two or three stone cottages, abandoned for 150 years, roofs and doors long gone, a few oak window frames still partly intact, all overgrown with dense ivy and brambles and trees… I crept around as if alone in an art gallery, noticing an ancient bottle, a piece of earthenware, the stub of a clay pipe, a box hedge, once clipped to size, but released to become feral and grow to tall maturity. Best of all, like a snapshot from some exotic jungle, rising out of the bracken, an astonishing clump of Pyrenean Lilies, Lilium pyrenaicum. Here they are, photos of the very same, flowering just in time for the summer solstice.

Not native, but acclimatised. Why do I think it must have been a woman, who decided to embellish the home with a glamorous foreign flower ? She looked out of the window, as she struggled to get the fire lit, on a morning when smoke wouldn’t rise, and the baby was squalling and mewing, and the bitch was about to give birth to a litter, the pig squealing in the sty wanting its breakfast… the pleasure of bright colours, newly opened… Not everyone could boast of possessing such strange scented evocative loveliness. Perhaps the seeds were a special tender gift. Nearby a few remnant raspberry plants. No doubt, there would have been a plot of potatoes and carrots. But Pyrenean Lilies, that’s an aesthetic choice, sentimental and romantic, to brighten these little hovels, miles away from anywhere. I don’t know how they earned their living. Farm labour I suspect. Possibly as a drover. Perhaps they even wore smocks. Perhaps they oiled them to make them waterproof.

 

After an hour or two, lost in this enchanted fugue with no intruding thought of what my day was about or any attending to the wider world, I climbed over a fence, back into the artificiality of the standard field, the monocultural pasture that produces silage for cows, and sat down with my back against a fine oak tree, pondering the dreamy remembrances in the afternoon sunshine. Suddenly, a yard behind me, on the other side of the tree, a vixen screamed. So loud and shocking I almost leaped out of my skin. My hair stood on end. Well, maybe not. It’s the apt figure of speech, but I don’t have a lot of hair anymore, nor was there a handy mirror to check. But it felt like that. And then the exhilarating zoom of adrenaline… and a big grin. It was good. The entire Universe blessed me, and approved. What more than that could a man like me want or hope for? I belong.

The Reality of Being Here

I kept two stories in my head as I scrambled into dense pine forest, winding my way upwards through the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. The first was the legend of Iorgovan, who travelled to Transylvania to obtain a mace with which to fight the dragon who dwelt in these peaks. After a long, bloody battle he managed to defeat the dragon, who scorched all the grass and trees from the mountains in his fury. The dragon told Iorgovan he would send plagues of flies to take revenge on him and his herds, before crawling away to bleed to death in the Mountains of Mehadia. His fire heated up the cave and roused swarms of angry flies, which have been tormenting the cattle on the mountain ever since.

The second story was even more fantastic. Before there were mountains here – before there was even Iorgovan – this region was a subtropical island lying in the Tethys Ocean between the long-vanished continents of Gondwana and Laurasia. The island was roamed by horse-sized sauropods, miniature dragons whose dwarfism was caused over millions of years by their environmental isolation, shrinking to fit their landscape. In these steep, tangled woods, both the ‘legend’ and the ‘science’ seemed equally strange and wonderful – I found it hard to truly believe in one more than the other. Of course, the fossils of dwarf dinosaurs have been excavated here, so the second story is backed by physical proof. But I’d also been told that on Piatra Iorgovanului, Iorgovan’s Rock, two days walk to the south, the mark of his horse’s hoof could be seen imprinted on the summit…

It certainly felt like a magic wood. The moss-covered rocks resembled hunched forms, the rounded backs of lurking beasts, a suggestion probably made more potent by the knowledge that bears lived here. (‘Oh yes, we have many bears,’ said the mountain rescue man cheerfully as he helped me plan my route, ‘but they only attack occasionally.’) On several occasions I was sure that one of them lurched in my direction, but when I looked again, everything was frozen. The roots of trees, tentacle-like, clenched and embraced the stones in innumerable suggestive ways, and at one point I was sure I heard voices – garbled words and fragments of sentences – until I realised it was the water gurgling over pebbles in a stream, changing its tune and pitch with every step I took. It was enough for me to say, without really meaning it out loud: ‘I’m friendly. I’m just passing through. I appreciate you deeply.’

After several hours I broke through the tree-line, wandering through a rubble of rocks and shoulder-high juniper groves. Suddenly there were patches of snow, stubbornly clinging to their winter in furrows that never saw the sun. And above me rose Mount Retezat, the highest mountain in this chain, dazzlingly crowned in white. I saw from my map, with a note of shock, that the trail I was following led directly to its peak.

The path began to tilt sharply upwards, and soon I found myself slipping and sliding on a slope of pure snow, walking in the eroded bootprints of a previous climber. I was unprepared for this – from down below the snow had looked like a decorative touch to the landscape, and I hadn’t really considered the reality of walking through it. The slope got steeper, the bootprints vanished, and I found myself having to chisel steps in the snow with my walking poles. By the end I was practically crawling, hands sunk deep into snow, until at last, with a final push, I could grab at juniper branches and haul myself back onto solid rock.

I realised I had reached the point where there was no easy way back – the realisation felt good, for it meant I could only go on. It was a hard climb now to the peak, avoiding precipitous slopes of snow that were too tough to scale, even using the poles – scrambling up slides of broken rock, hand over foot, stones clattering behind me, my legs suddenly trembling from exertion, or altitude, and probably from fear. At last, heaving for breath, I emerged at a great rounded dome of snow, with nothing beyond it but the bright, cloudless blue of the sky. There was something strangely terrifying about approaching the peak, knowing there was nothing above me now – that I could go no further up, and everything else was down. It felt like walking off the edge of the world.

From the top of Mount Retezat I could see almost two days of walking behind me. Immediately below was the grey, snow-veined rock I’d just climbed, the menacing darkness of pine woods, dropping steeply to the almost luminous green of the lower beech forests, and below that the flatlands, the scattered villages, the road I had followed to get here. Beyond that somewhere, lost in the distance, would be the line of the Mureș River I’d traced almost a month before. I knew that once I descended this peak, I’d have turned my back on that whole green world. Ahead – for the next few days, at least – there were only mountains.

Psychologically, there is something different about walking through mountains, in order to get from one place to another, to recreationally walking in them – leaving your car at base camp and looping around to return to the same point in order to drive away again. Looking back at the way I’d come, knowing I would not see it again, I felt this very strongly. The mountains stood between me and where I wanted to go – I had no choice but to cross them – it felt more daunting, but somehow fundamental.

As I turned from the peak the next view opened up, and it seemed too much. My eyes didn’t know what to do with it. They couldn’t comprehend the scale. A dizzying plummet to a river-tangled valley hundreds of feet below – I could distantly hear the crashing of water, snowmelt cascading into the valleys – and beyond it the rock soared up again to another, vaster chain of peaks, a visual collision of plunging angles, deep creases of snow shining brilliantly white like arcane calligraphy. A complexity of tormented rock, scooped and gouged and chiselled and scarred, utterly empty, utterly strange, hidden from the world below.

After an hour of following the ridge, I descended into a new landscape of fissures and moraines, a great stepped bowl of glacial lakes and still half-frozen marshland. The nearest lake was an improbable robin’s egg blue with peculiar cracks running through its ice, the shape of a giant footprint with splayed toes. Below that lay a darker lake in a scalloped crater of snow, and below that on yet another level were two more lakes, all straight lines and angles, and still below that was a fifth, weirdly patterned and mottled, shattered like an exploded crystal. This was where, in my tent on the shore, surrounded on all sides by mountains, I would spend the night.

On my way down, skirting the marshland over a stretch of dirty snow, I found myself following a line of paw-prints I took to be a dog’s. Then I realised there was no sign of human tracks alongside them – and what would a dog be doing up here, alone, miles from anywhere? The cheerful mountain rescue man had told me that wolves lived in these mountains, ‘but you probably won’t see them.’ This was as close as I got, following its solitary trail for a while before it branched away downhill, back towards the forest below – I was fairly glad to see it lead away from my sleeping place.

That night, sipping whiskey as the light slowly leached from the lakeside, I found myself saying these words – again, out loud, without meaning to (you can get away with this sort of thing in the wilderness): ‘When I die, my death will not change the fact that I was here.’ And this was my best attempt at summing up the feeling of being in these mountains, my overwhelming gratitude that places like this exist. In the same way that my eyes couldn’t cope with what they saw from the peak of Mount Retezat, my conscious mind couldn’t describe the reality of being here. It seemed incredible that the same road I’d started following five months ago – from the ferry terminal at the Hook of Holland, along a cycle-path and down a canal to Rotterdam and the suburbs beyond, through petrol station forecourts and supermarket car-parks, along railway sidings and business parks and in and out of cities inhabited by millions of people – had taken me to this point. It is only one road – a road with many twists and turns, but still only one road – and it leads to this place directly, if you follow it a certain way.

The following morning, having regretfully left the glacial lakes behind me, I stopped for a last look at that range and saw the peaks suddenly disappear, obscured by a swooping mass of white cloud. Within minutes, it had swooped on me as well, reducing my world to an opaque whiteness.

A horrible mixture of sleet and hail splattered down without warning. I spent the next few hours inching along a bare limestone ridge, barely able to see the next paint-daubed rock that marked my trail. Sight, sound and sense of direction were swallowed up in the gloom. Occasionally the cloud would lift and the forested valleys open up below, allowing a few minutes of clumsy orientation, and then it would descend again and I’d be alone in the murk. Staggering up a narrow, snow-filled gulley, practically blind, unsure of my trail, my boots squelching with cold water, a sense of despair came over me. The journey seemed shapeless, endless. I was suddenly aware of how alone I was up here.

And then suddenly, out of nowhere, it appeared – Iorgovan’s Rock, my final landmark, a hump of lichen-spotted limestone looming from the haze. I dropped my rucksack and my poles and scrambled deliriously up to the peak, the last one I would climb before descending these high places. The cloud fell away and the land swam into focus, a glimpse of how far I’d come. There was the plunging void to my right, and there to my left the tree-tangled slope that would take me, zig-zagging down through scree, back towards gentler, greener land – the far side of the mountains.

And there at my feet, as promised, was the hoof-print of Iorgovan’s horse, unmistakably scarred in the rock. A mighty-sized horse, for a mighty man.

Walking… Philosophy… Waking: A Reverie

I was reading Rousseau’s wanderings when I fell into a reverie.
I heard her whisper, ‘Good night Andrew,’ and promptly awoke to you.

I.

 

She showed up cold, wearing dark clothes, holding herself closely. I wanted to touch her dark nails, warm her pale skin, rub them back natural.

I wanted her to look attentively at the first sprigs of slender violets, to breath in the yellows and whites, the expectant magnolias and flowering quince of this sempiternal garden, of our earthly verdant home.

It was the penultimate day of February, early afternoon and already unseasonably warm, the Conservancy Gardens already alive, alight with life. We strolled through the English Garden, then sat for a while on a bench in the Italianate Garden and talked. She held onto herself, spoke unevenly, concernfully, looking inquisitive, dubious, yearnful. I saw hope.

Alexandra had first written to me four days prior on a ‘seeming autumn day’, I wrote, had written ‘from beneath the largest umbrella ever: a brick-encased four-story one’, had intimated anguish and despair and sorrow. It had rained all day that day. ‘This weather,’ I said, ‘puts me in mind of Chaucer. Whoever said that rain patters must have got his onomatopoeia from the drier. The rain crackles and splinters, window warping.’ So across the dour East River she must have felt, the dark dampness of life.

After our garden conversation, I walked her to the subway, kissed her on the cheek, hugged her warmly, tilted my head, and said, ‘Goodbye for now.’

I wrote, ‘You want for human warmth.’

She wrote, ‘I seek for soul warmth.’

We have been going to gardens and on walks and into the countryside ever since. We have, while smiling at ‘the praying mantis octopus trees’ of the Upper West Side, been learning to inquire about our lives, to hold good and gentle converse with ourselves, to hold fast – fast and firm yet flexibly so – to our conclusions. There is a sense of wonder in a life transformed.

II.

Dear David,

In your Convergence With Nature, you write of attentiveness in terms of good speech. You write of good ‘speech which chimes in this way’ as being a ‘part of, not an obstacle to, mindful attunement to nature’ (87). Chimes, yes. I thought of my short meditation from two mornings ago:

Last night when I couldn’t fall asleep, the wind chimes dangled their silvery fingers, twinkling the breeze, now & again, against each other.

Every so often the wind chimes ask the breeze to introduce them. It does, they speak softly.

This dawn comes, moving me to move. I cannot help but be moved, being moved to move.

I thought also of my lavender meditations on nightfall:

The morning sky was turquoise, the colour of Swedish eyes. Moments before nightfall, the sky is fair, reticent, a woman dressed in fall. I know them both, mother & son.

To each home a different light, a different ensemble of lights, a different shade of orange, and no orange the same shade exactly.

I have been thinking quite a bit about the close-knit relationship between the good and the beautiful, about the kalon in fact. Like you, I have sought to draw virtue and grace closer together, going so far as to argue that the good life is a radiant way of being. I am still early in my thinking, now flushed with the first grace. Now, at any rate, I want to say that ‘the mother exhibited kindness with grace,’ that ‘the man exercised compassion with composure,’ that ‘the runner hiker thrummed along the trail exquisitely.’ I am hanging the beautiful on the adverb, you see. To me there is something wanting in crude kindness, in disjointed compassion, in clumsy running. A sythe sings, a dancer breathing expressed as wonder.
As I say, I dwell in this the first grace.

I sent a copy of your Daoism book to a friend who is practicing maternal medicine, for a time, in the midst of the burnished, dust-swept desert, out there on a Navajo reservation far outside of Flagstaff, Arizona. The men are poor, the women hypertensive and diabetic, my friend, a doctor, is brave and lithe in spirit. She spent the summer with MSF in South Sudan. She spends her Arizona evenings meditating on solitude out on the edge of the reservation. As I read your book, I think again of Dark Mountain Project, which has a very large and perceptive readership. I know Dougald; he is a friend. A review, or some such, would a small gift from me to you, a placing of hands over heart. More anon.

Andrew

III.

David writes, in Convergence With Nature, of the moods that come over the one (not least the practicing Daoist) who seeks to be at home with nature during a time of great estrangement, the time of modernity. There is, he says, the mood of yearning for communion with the natural world; that of nostalgia for an experience of past fullness; that of disillusionment with the technological orientation of civilisation; and that of mystery in the presence of the ineffable. The philosopher listening in a Daoist key would not attempt to extricate himself from each mood as if it were a snare he need unnoose but would instead give himself up to experiencing each mood in its entirety, much in the way that one experiences the season, opening oneself as much to the moldiness of autumn as to the desolation of the darkening winter.

I am fond of David the philosopher, sensing that I have found a fellow wayfarer on the path of inquiry: an older man, shier, less verbose than I, someone who dwells in a garden in a ‘small village lying north of Northumberland,’ a quiet man I have never met who is, in my imagination, standing now beside a younger man with golden hair who has left his tree house perch to come out and go with him for a walk. I doubt we will ever meet.

I write in philosophical moods, letting them envelop and transform me. I turn in disillusionment from glowering Midtown, I yearn for convergence with nature, I touch shuddering leaves, I look down into the courtyard at the magnolia tree whose flowers have been all but lost. The present alone, says Pierre Hadot; in the present alone I find peace.

In the years since turning to philosophy, I have turned my eyes from the cosmopolitan (the Stoics, the Cynics, the Kantians) to the parochial (the Daoists walking along the forest path, the Epicureans tending their garden and their words); from the universal to the particular; from the public forum to the personal essay. I have given up on universal morality – deontological, utilitarian, the Right’s as well as the Left’s – having instead put my heart and speech into the diurnal project of self-cultivation: a life of the virtues exhibited and exercised among friends, a slow and steady transformation of my soul and theirs through mindful philosophical inquiry, a growing reverence for our shared fragilities and our deepening breaths. I welcome new conversation partners and attend to old ones. This is my life in full.

It was David who first keyed me into one particular kind of attunement to the natural world: what Rousseau calls reverie. A reverie is a mode of thinking in which I allow myself to drift along with the Way, letting one perception lead on to the next, one thought give way to another, with the result that the thousand things all get their turn. Through reverie, I attune myself to each particular thing, to the coming of one and the going of another, to the falling of all, and, by the end, to the whole run and ramble of this wordly, worldly experience. David elucidates further:

The world of experience in which reverie freely moves is a limitless web from which nothing is left out, including those beings–ourselves–who attend to it. Almost anything may prompt and guide a particular route through this web: half-remembered lines of poetry, a recently read book on botany, recollections of some episode in one’s life, images of people and animals who mattered to one, a sense of a place’s beauty, a philosophical thought, an insistent tune in one’s head. For example, Bachelard describes a reverie which starts with attention to a bird’s nest. This reverie has no cut-off point or terminus. Looking at this ‘precarious’ nest leads to thoughts of other fragile objects, then to images of security (of home and household), then to the idea of the well-being of one’s own and other people’s children, then to larger speculation on confidence in the regular workings of nature, then to…. (92)

Perhaps what is most fitting about the mode of thinking Rousseau calls reverie is that it ends as it begins, in ellipsis. A reverie does not trail off into loneliness or become entangled in endless digressions. A reverie is neither mere idle time nor droll laziness nor even mindless self-indulgence. A reverie is a mode of self- and world-reflection, a meandering of thread leading from you to me, because just insofar as we are finite beings passing into each other a reverie cannot do otherwise than put my hands in yours.

Nancy and I are writing an oceanic love song. We float in ocean, green glass rocking us, blue sky behind closed eyes. Salt encrusts our brows, sun warming sand and flesh, flesh and breath. We lay there unmoving while under us all moves, and moves us gently, up and down, side-longing.

At sea we are not ourselves;

At sea we are the Cosmos.

IV.

On Saturday night, Alexandra and I ate raw oysters, briny, icy sea minerals, and afterward she asked me where they had come from. ‘New Brunswick, I think. Beausoleil?’ Which led her to talk about a cruise she and her family had taken to Canada when she was a girl. Then to tell me a story about a kayaking trip with her father. A horror story.

She and her father were in a kayak heading downriver when he turned his stern brow on her. Paddle, he said. And when she shrank from him and refused to row, he said, ‘Just… just sit there.’ She wrote me the next day that in the kayak my father made awkward gestures, painful groans. He paddled alone and I sat in the back, feeling the weight of things. I remember my heart sinking when he initially asked me to go with him. I knew that if I assented, then he’d impose his will on me. But I also knew that if I stayed behind, then he’d ridicule me for ‘being scared.’ I’d feel shameful for declining but I’d be powerless if I went along. He would persist, as he did, and I would shrink, as I did.

Your father rowed, imposing, exhausting his daughter, fighting the river and life.

A police car drove by us with its lights on, passed us, then passed on. By now, we are walking along the southern side of the Jackie O. Reservoir, not far from the Gate House, near the Police Precinct where two boys are smoking weed in the bush. ‘Duuude,’ we say and laugh. ‘Sooo close bro.’

I made that up – not the kids but their words.

One river story led on to another, this one much calmer and lighter, this one not one about pressing hard and giving way but of being and faring well. In high school, Alexandra and an acquaintance were put in a canoe together. Novices both, they drifted down the river, paddled together, tapped the shoreline when it approached their boat, pushed off in due course. When they came upon a fallen tree, they went around the finger, accepting its invitation. When they got turned about, they laughed and set about again. I imagine these two girls, beautiful beginners, learning to live according to the Way: neither fighting one another nor submitting to each other, neither fleeing the river nor staying put on shore, not forcing and bracing but harmonising their rowing with the flowing flower.

We are in the midst of a season of lessons, breathing like the ocean. I have always loved watching young girls double dutch for this very reason.

V.

The Daoist sage seeks to transform his life through self-cultivation, in solitude and with his fellows. He seeks to make de – the virtues of humility and patience, of pliancy and simplicity, of soft speech and spontaneous action – accord seamlessly with Dao, his body flowing like water, his mind like light, his life one of singing scythes and sternum songs.

But self-cultivation and the ethical life in which self-cultivation is at home have largely receded from the modern world. We do well to remind ourselves how recent is their disappearance and how novel is our inherited conception of morality as an abstract rational endeavor whose essential property is its universalizability. David suggests that our modern conception combines two streams of thought:

I should determine what I do by considering what it would be good for people in general to do [our Kantian inheritance], and what it would be good for them to do is to produce certain practical results [our consequentialist inheritance] – increased welfare, reduced suffering, an improved environment, or whatever. (142, my gloss in brackets)

Like my friend, I have come to believe that morality construed either in deontological or in consequentialist terms does not get us very far. The idea that every time I go to the grocery store or corner shop or airport I should determine what any other rational person in my situation would also pick up or perform seems to me a non-starter. More generally, the claim that, before I act, I must consider my duties to nameless rational persons (Kantianism) or must calculate the highest utility for all faceless sentient beings (utilitarianism) already assumes that I live in a complex modern world characterized by bureaucratic institutions, mega-cities, global networks, a high degree of specialisation, and a general lack of acquaintance with my fellows. I have come to regard all talk of ‘the’ environment, ‘global’ climate change, ‘measurable’ carbon footprint, gay marriage, animal rights, the rights of minorities, human rights, the various briefs against torture, the laws of the state, and so forth as unrelated to the gardenia of ethical life. (It does not follow that this woman coupling with that one couldn’t be good and excellent and beautiful or that the suffering of this animal before me doesn’t matter ownmost to me.) In the case of the state, I will abide its directives and prescriptions but this is all, for I have set my thoughts on beings known to me.

The faceless woman suffering in Iran, unseen and unknown, is not alive to me. The unnamed species whose population is dwindling halfway around the world does not fall within my ken. The deleterious effects of climate change have no meaning for me and not least because I want to examine whether human life is worth living in the first place before I determine whether the earth’s passing out of existence would matter to me were this to be so. Ask me whether the modern state can win ‘our’ moral legitimacy and I will reply that frankly – and then grow serenely silent and likely amble away.

My philosophical life has gone elsewhere. In the past year especially, I have become contentedly parochial, doing well by these my friends here while remaining agnostic about the weals and woes of others who do not appear before me. I love my friends and I invite my conversation partners into my home. I do not know any more what it would mean to act according to a universal principle of morality. I am a member of a small group of fellows. I attend to my Carolina, to my dear Nancy, to my Ali.

I do not know why people despair over the future when the present alone is our home. What of tomorrow? What of the next? It may never come and that, to me, is all right, as all right as it ever was (my Epictetus from amid the near depths of mismemory: You tell me my child has died and I tell us I always knew he was human), for mine is a way of being, not a path of glory, not a final plan for life, not some project posited far into the future.

I confess I have become largely quietistic yet not out of pessimism or melancholy or bereavement but truly, humbly, truly and humbly with my eyes full of wonderment, my vibrating belly the cello of a body. I have become quietistic about all subjects save those flesh and blood beings who come before me, who write letters to me, who ask me for direction. I ask only whether she comes in humility, out of need, with an open heart or, on the contrary, whether she sneers in hostility, in callowness, in meanness. Toward my friend I am attentive, all loving. And why? Simply, as Montaigne says on beat, ‘because it is you, because it is me.’ My reason for doing well by my friend Catlin is, simply, that she is a kindred spirit. She is me and mine and she is also ours. Toward ‘the’ stranger I am, and remain, agnostic, the stranger already subtracted from the very possibility of my knowing him.

I do not want to lead a life of fight, of struggle, of toil; a life filled with vacillations, of iron-clad commitments and rigid plans; a life marked by wayward restlessness and hoarding lonely nomads. I have no grand missions, no ultimate causes, no opuses to score, have no joy but this joy in the presence of this tree, this courtyard, this fragile world, no more joy than the presence of the face of this Alexandra. Living in tune with the Way entails leading a life of grace. I can think of no other way of being which could be greater, more blessed, any more radiant.

VI.

Good Friday.

Dearest Catlin,

As I write, two teams of surgeons are opening up your chest. So I pray:

You and I are walking up to the temple, breathless amid the steepness. Our bodies and mouths are agape. We catch our breaths, yours and mine, then smile, fagged, wide-eyed, brother and sister.

You hold a feather up to me. It is striated, ribbed, largely heather, touched in one quadrant by red.

A feathered heart.

A.

Easter Sunday. Carolyn and I go hiking near Cornwall-on-Hudson. We are feathery love letters attending to the ‘hawks circumambulating from above, catching the sun in their sea wings,’ gliding, glinting lightly. The younger one wobbles, a kite. Trying to get his sea legs, I say, laugh. We are spring friends all. By day’s end, Carolyn’s head aches. She closes her eyes, puts a finger or two below the socket, in the soft hollow, presses gently. I rest two fingers on her temple, rest there, our temple.

Andrew Taggart is a philosophical counsellor living in New York City. Alexandra, Allison, Carolyn, Catlin, David, Dougald, Jennifer, Nancy, and Rebecca are some of his friends.

Attached Note of Thanks

Dear friends,

I was asked to write a few things for the Dark Mountain Project. Here is one of them. It began, weeks back, as a book review and has steadily grown into… a reverie?

When I think, I think of you.

When I was a boy, I used to write and then say, ‘Look, Mom, what I have done?’ Now that I am older I think, beside you: ‘Can you believe that we exist? Do you see yourself in this?’

A gift.

My prose begins where your nose ends and vice versa and back.

How strange this life. Thank you for being in mine.

Ever,

A