Walking our own transformation

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A walk in this part of the world is a reminder of two apparently contradictory things: the extraordinary impact of human society in the spaces it occupies and the fragile thinness of the landscapes that result.

A ‘landscape’ has long been understood as something difficult to define – its character, quality and boundaries all dependent upon perception, hence inevitably read and experienced differently by each person who encounters it.  What is common in definitions of the term is the truth that landscape in general is the result of interaction between natural and human forces.  This is as clear in Malhamdale as anywhere.

Here the frenetic dance between nature’s will and human craft shapes everything.  Here the very materials of human occupation seem to burst directly from the ground, while the spaces carved by ice, water and wind define the pattern of infrastructure and settlement.  The resulting complexity experienced as ever-changing crazily segmented vistas is as bewildering as it is mesmerising.

The part of the picture that always moves me the most lies between the houses and roads nestled in the deep of the valley and the majestic crags and hilltops of its heights.  In the ancient lynchets and stone walls we see the bones of a civilisation – our civilisation, apparently clinging by its fingernails to the surface of the earth.

In the past few years, the precariousness of the human-nature dance has become clear to most of us, as the human role in the dance becomes ever more dominant.  The consuming fury of our civilisation is laying waste to ever greater areas, making life for all the other creatures in our interdependent web at best challenging, at worst impossible.  Some have seen the Covid-19 pandemic itself as a direct result of that imbalance, arising as it did from the concentrated exploitation of wild animals for human gain – a sign of a broken relationship and an urgent call to healing.  It is at very least a reminder that we scrape away the natural part of the landscape not only at its but our own peril.

On thin ice: are we spiralling inwards to destruction or outwards to renewal?

The diagnosis may be clear but how should we respond?  What new steps must we learn in the dance?  Technological, practical ones yes, but I wonder if we are so entrenched in our ways and so addicted to gain that a far deeper change is required.  To relearn how to relate to the rest of our natural family, we need to transform our whole selves.  Instead of asking ourselves ‘how much can I get?’ we could ask ‘how much do I need?’ – and for this to be an authentic, critical analysis of need.  Rather than saying ‘what do I have to give?’, we could say ‘how much can I share?’ – thinking not only of those around us but of all whose needs are not met.  And where we’ve concentrated on satisfying the needs and desires of the day, however fairly we try to achieve that, it’s clear that we also need to pay forward from our present abundance into a future in which the pressures on resources may be even greater than they are today.

We can look to ideas and movements such as agroecology, permaculture, regenerative agriculture or transition towns to find practical responses to these questions – and the time is long overdue for those with power and influence to do so – but for really profound inner change I’ve found nothing more resonant and helpful than this mantra from the Jain faith, introduced in a talk I heard given by environmental teacher Satish Kumar:

I forgive all living beings on this earth
I beg forgiveness from all living beings
I cherish friendship with all living beings
I have animosity towards none.

A walk through any landscape with these words in the heart or on the lips is one that will transform at least one essential component of that landscape: yourself.

Skin deep: a landscape revealing its own thinness – and that of the civilisation that occupies it.