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Posts Tagged ‘Christopher de Bellaigue’

Man is organic with the world. His inner life moulds the environment and is itself also deeply affected by it. The one acts upon the other and every abiding change in the life of man is the result of these mutual reactions.

(From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, 1933)

I was definitely beginning to think there was a difficult problem here.

Until The Overstory cropped up, that is. I needed something to fill the gap left by Unsheltered. I scanned my crowded shelves. After a frustrating few minutes, I spotted something.

I had bought Richard Powers’ book in June this year, and made a definite attempt to read it after I came back from the cruise with a strong sense that I needed to build on my connection with nature. It didn’t click at that point and I gave up the attempt after only a few pages. It was far easier to immerse myself in Braggini’s How the World Thinks and McGregor’s Living with the Gods along with Bellaigue’s The Islamic Enlightenment.

However, after reading Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver, I was strongly drawn to The Overstory. I went back to it again.

Patricia’s Story

I still struggled a bit with the rather disjointed opening sections. It seemed to be failing to meet the criteria I mentioned at the start of the previous post. I explained there that for me a novel should ideally combine the capturing of consciousness with some form of interest-sustaining narrative. The story skipped from character to character too swiftly for me to easily engage, at first, disrupting any sense of both narrative and consciousness.

But at page 119 I was hooked. It was Patricia’s story that did it. Whereas before I was just getting glimpses of interest in each short section of narrative, here I found a sustained and deepening exploration. Through the eyes of this character Powers made the existence of trees not only come alive: he made it magical. For example, she and her father had been running an experiment with a newly planted tree and its soil, which they had carefully weighed at the start. A few years later, and two years after his unexpected death, she remembers the experiment they started. She regrets the delay but immediately begins to check out the results. She wants to find out how much soil a tree consumes in growing:

. . . the soil weighs just what it did, minus an ounce or two. There is no other explanation: almost all the tree’s mass has come from the very air. Her father knew this. Now she does, too.

The book drew me deeper and deeper into the life of trees. Something important was going on here. I was resonating unexpectedly strongly.

There was the issue of interconnectedness, which helped (page 142):

Her trees are far more social than even Patricia suspected. There are no individuals. There aren’t even separate species. Everything in the forest is the forest. Competition is not separable from endless flavours of cooperation. Trees fight no more than do the leaves on a single tree.

And the experience of writing (page 221):

The slow push of graphite across paper reminds [Patricia] of the steady evaporation that lifts hundreds of gallons of water up hundreds of feet into a giant Douglas-fir trunk everyday. The solitary act of sitting over the page and waiting for her hand to move may be as close as she’ll ever get to the enlightenment of plants.

And much more of course, with many other characters, now more fully developed. But I sensed that at some level there was even more than that.

Passages like the ones quoted above moved me to tears. What was going on, I wondered.

Reconnecting

It felt as though I was reconnecting with something whose importance I had kept discounting. My poems have always been wiser than me, and the ones I’ve written about trees should have been enough to bring the full depth of my feelings into awareness, but somehow they never did.

My Entishness has always been a hint, as was my Hearth dream. But it was the intensity of my feelings in response to the book that took me by surprise. As other posts have explored on this blog, I’ve never managed to link my pool of pain to anything specific. Some of it clearly relates to the atmosphere of grief in my childhood home, but that never seemed an explanation for the whole of it.

I found myself wondering whether this could account for the residue. Just as when I went into hospital as a child that second time and leapt to the conclusion that I had only myself to rely on, which had the effect of distancing me from my parents, especially my mother, was it possible that the grief I felt at the cutting down of the companionable tree of my childhood caused me to pull back from nature in the same way, and with equally enduring and destructive patterns of feeling and behaviour that I have not revoked as yet.

On top of that there were further parallels. I was not simply grieving for the tree: I was identifying with it. I knew what it was like to be alone and held down by power against my will, to be anaesthetised and then cut in my case: to be simply held and cut in the case of the tree. I’d learnt that to connect with any other living being risks harm or the pain of loss or both. Connecting so closely is not safe. And yet I knew we cannot live without connections.

It took me decades to rebuild a trust in and connection with people, which even now can be easily damaged in terms of any particular relationship. I have never worked anywhere near as hard to do the same with trees and nature, except for a brief period in Hendon when I took pains to at least identify most of the neighbouring trees by name. Otherwise it has been token gestures such as high-speed walks up hills or in woodlands, more in the interests of fitness than the exploration of nature at close hand and with affection.

It might not therefore be that my idea of hearticulture’s calling is incorrect, but rather that it is seriously incomplete if I do not bring nature deeply into the mix. My emphasis has been on being of use to people rather than trees, intense involvement with which I have probably dismissed as a rather flaky tendency captured by the dismissive phrase ‘tree hugger.’

I was still not sure how this would play out. It was not clear how I could balance my need to respond to people with my need to connect with trees.

The Overstory made it clear that trees stand in need of my protection, and that by protecting them I would be protecting humanity as well from the consequences of an aspect of our folly. It felt as though I might be on the right track.

Then came the final insight triggered when I read on page 321:

‘Is the house on fire?’

A shrug [from Adam]. A sideways pull of the lips. ‘Yes.’

‘And you want to observe the handful of people who’re screaming, Put it out, when everyone else is happy watching things burn.’

Adam is the psychologist visiting the protesters to research, as he puts it later, ‘What keeps people from seeing the obvious?[1]’ He then mentions the bystander effect and I burst into floods of tears.

I spoke to the tree that was cut down in my childhood.

‘I was not there when they cut you down, my friend. I let you down. I knew the pain of being cut and did nothing. I’m so sorry.’

I clutched the book tight as I cried.

The depth and complexity of my largely discounted sense of connectedness with trees was beginning to reveal itself.

I felt I had just reconnected with something of immense importance, far greater than I had so far realised. I’m still not sure how far it extends exactly. It will take time for me to understand this properly. I just knew at that moment how intensely I love, and always have loved trees.

The loss of the tree, my Entishly slow ways of processing experience and reacting to it genuinely (I can fake normal, react faster and betray myself all too easily), my love of clothes with an earth colour, my dream that powerfully linked my heart with the earth, and the way my name echoes peat for me, have always been strong hints.

I never realised until now though just how powerfully certain feelings were running under the surface, generating irresistible currents that carried me away from the fertile ground of this insight. I never recognised they were almost certainly part of the river of pain within, flooding into the cellar of my mind from interrelated experiences of grief – my parents torn apart by my twelve-year old sister’s agonising death, my pre-school self feeling abandoned in hospital a second time, my defenceless tree cut down in minutes by my own family.

I now need to learn how to integrate this insight into my hearticulture calling. I need to learn how to express my love of trees. Ideally I’d like to save a rainforest, but I guess I’ll have to find something closer to home to act on.

Hopefully in the future I’ll at least be able to deal more calmly under pressure of time with a frustrating queue. An Ent would be more patient after all.

Coda

I’ve finished The Overstory now. It was a sandwich. The best flavour was in the middle, but it was well worth reading, even if towards the end it had lost most of its power to move me. It has shifted my consciousness, lifted it –  decisively I think. What more can I fairly expect of a book?

What next?

I was thinking I might buy Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, until I suddenly remembered that I’d already got a book of almost the same title, The Secret Life of Trees by Colin Tudge. I started to read that one but got derailed by Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything.

More of that soon.

Footnote

[1]. The answer he gives is ‘Mostly other people.’ While this wasn’t a key insight for me right then, it resonates with the Bahá’í emphasis on the imperative need for all of us to independently investigate the truth.

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It’s fatal when I’m left to wait with time on my hands near a book shop, especially with three book tokens burning a hole in my wallet – well, it’s perhaps more accurate to say they were making it too thick to fit comfortably into my pocket. I had nearly half-an-hour to kill within one hundred yards of a Waterstones. I gravitated first towards my usual ground floor book-stacks – Smart Thinking, hoping I’d learn how to do it one day, and Biography. Zilch. History was tucked into a corner to my left. I usually don’t bother. History books bore me as a general rule.

Not this time. For some reason one book I wasn’t remotely looking for leapt out at me: The Islamic Enlightenment. I pulled it down and skimmed the inside of the dust cover. I saw the words ‘brave radicals like Iran’s first feminist Qurrat al-Ayn.’ I flipped to the index. ‘Baha’ism 144-147.’ 

Having declared the redundancy of the Muslim clergy, Bahá’u’lláh and his son and successor, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, proposed one of the most enlightened social systems of the time.

I quickly Googled for reviews and came across this one from the Guardian. There were clearly many other good reasons to buy this book, which is lying on my desk at this very moment along with several others, waiting its turn to be read in a rather long queue. Below is a short extract from the review: for the full post see link.

A celebration of an age of reformers in Istanbul, Cairo and Tehran provides a powerful corrective to lazy, prejudiced thinking.

Fifteen years ago, I sought out the oldest surviving folios of Plato’s philosophy. My hunt took me first to the Bodleian library in Oxford, and then past vats of indigo and pens of chickens in the souk in Fez, through the doors of al-Qarawiyyin mosque and up some back stairs to its archive storeroom. There, copied out and annotated by the scribes of al-Andalus, was a 10th-century edition of Plato’s works: in my hands was evidence of a Renaissance, in Islamic lands, three centuries before “the Renaissance” was supposed to have happened.

The jibe too often heard today that Islam is stuck in the dark ages is simplistic and lazy – as evidenced by this vigorous and thoughtful book about Islamic peoples’ encounters with western modernity. One of the pertinent questions Christopher de Bellaigue asks is: did a rational enlightenment follow on from Islam’s deep-rooted interest in the works of Plato and other classical philosophers? The answer he gives is: yes, in certain places and at certain times.

The author has a keen eye for a story, and our companions as we follow his argument are those vivid heroes (and occasionally heroines) who had the vision and the guts to bring about reform. The narrative takes us through Napoleonic Egypt, Tanzimât Istanbul and Tehran in the 19th century, and the swirl of nationalism and counter-enlightenment beyond. De Bellaigue makes it clear that in the Islamic east, after Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, a lot happened – in some cases reformation, enlightenment and industrial revolution – in very little time. The telegraph appeared within a heartbeat of the movable-type printing press; trains arrived at the same time as independent newspapers. Many of the challenging concepts being gingerly embraced by Islamic pioneers were also being given a name for the first time in the west – “human rights” in the 1830s, feminism in the 1890s. The tsunami of modernity was both thrilling and fearful.

On occasion, as with the Albanian-born Muhammad Ali Pasha of Egypt and the Ottoman sultan Mahmud II, the enlighteners were “both modernisers and martinets”. Often they died for their ideas. The story of the Persian feminist-martyr Fatemeh Zarrin Taj Baraghani [Qurrat al-Ayn], who read too much, wrote too much and, veil-less, promoted the social vision of the Bahá’ís (a united, anti-nationalist, monolingual world), is poignantly told. As well as big history analysis there are delightful incidental details. Egyptians, for instance, were horrified to discover that Napoleon’s troops trod on carpets with their boots and didn’t shave their pubic hair – at a time when Egypt was instituting such hygiene reforms as the fumigation of letters before delivery.

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