Posts Tagged ‘Neil McGregor’

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.


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.


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.


[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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Lost Connections

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Johann Hari’s book, Lost Connections, about his journey out of the medication trap surrounding depression. I’ve been recommending it to anyone I know who seems to have been struggling with similar issues. A close friend in Australia was initially intending to borrow the book from her library but the waiting list was so long, even though they had several copies in stock, she gave up and bought her own copy, which she is now lending to others. This gives a pretty clear indication of just how many people in our society are fighting these same battles.

For some reason I never found time to do a proper review of his book, and things have moved on since then, but I thought it was still important to mention it here before I move onto to fresh woods and pastures new.

So, what strange tracks have I been wandering along recently?

Three recent books kept me hooked from start to finish, a pretty unusual state of affairs as my habit is to move from uncompleted book to uncompleted book, sometimes only coming back to finish the first one in the sequence years after starting it.

Not quite so this time.

I obviously got a lot out of the first two books, my most recently purchased. I won’t be dwelling on them at great length though. They both tackled closely related subjects in slightly different ways.

How the World Thinks

Julian Baggini’s How the World Thinks is, as its sub-title spells out, a philosopher’s take on the world of ideas. It’s refreshing because it sets out to modify our Western tendency to think that ours is the only approach. His book is devoted to undermining this arrogant complacency and is replete with telling points such as (page 24):

It is perhaps no coincidence that insight as a source of knowledge is stressed most in the traditions the West finds least philosophical. Western philosophy’s self-image has largely been constructed by distancing itself from ideas of the philosopher as a sage or guru who penetrates the deep mysteries of the universe like some kind of seer. This distancing has blinded it to the obvious truth that all good philosophy requires some kind of insight.

And concerning a broader sense of what aesthetic means in Eastern traditions (page 294):

One problem I as a Westerner have understanding this is that the primary connotations of aestheticfor me concern art,… But the original, broader meaning of aesthetic is ‘relating to felt experience’… It was only later in the nineteenth century that the meaning ‘concerned with beauty’ became common. To say that Japanese philosophy is aesthetic rather than conceptual is not primarily to say that it is concerned with the appreciation of beauty – artistic, natural or otherwise – but that it centred on the experiential.

He spreads his net very widely over a number of topics and a vast range of traditions.

Living with the Gods

As does Neil McGregor in his book, Living with the Gods: on beliefs and peoples. Although Braggini dealt with spiritual and moral systems of thought, McGregor is more focused on religious traditions. He has a lighter touch and uses colourful illustrations to bring his points to life.

He deals with important issues that resonate across traditions such as (page 385) ‘the growing trend towards literalist readings of holy texts,’ which need to be taken poetically or mythically. This trend reinforces the tendency we are seeing across the world of faiths and ideologies to develop ever fiercer levels of conviction.

Another that crops up in his book is our different relationships with the natural world, for instance in the Yup’ik culture of south-west Alaska (page 70) which asserts ‘a respectful, entirely equal partnership between animals and humans, where the animals have a real agency,[something which is] almost impossible for a highly urbanised society to grasp. Most foreign to us is perhaps its assumption of such close inter-connectedness and mutual obligation.’

What’s Missing?

Given that both books cover such a wide spectrum of beliefs and world views, it was a shade disappointing to find that they neither of them mentioned the Bahá’í take on some of their issues, even though it would have been relevant, and one of them even quotes from a book by Christopher Bellaigue, The Islamic Enlightenment: the modern struggle between faith and reason,that doesn’t fall into that trap. More of that next time.

What issues do they each raise on which the Bahá’í perspective might have shed some light? A couple of examples will have to suffice.

Braggini first

Braggini deals at some length with the complex issue of the relationship between the individual and the community.

In his discussion of the self in the third part of his book (pages 175-220), he explains two concepts: the relational self and the atomised self. Although the Japanese are identified in our minds with a ‘collectivist’ emphasis (page 194) this is too simplistic. A leading figure in the Kyoto school (page 195) ‘stressed that nothing in this philosophy is against individualism’ and that ‘individualism and egoism must be strictly distinguished.’ He also discusses (page 201) the ‘default conception of self in Africa’ as ‘a relational one. One manifestation of this is the South African concept of ubuntu. This word defies translation but means something like ‘humanity towards others’ or ‘the universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity.’ He believes that the individualism of our Western culture came about ‘as soon as selves were conceived in Platonic terms. Unlike the relational selves of East Asian thought, such selves are discrete, self-contained. They may interact and cooperate with others but each is a separate unit, entire unto itself.’

His concluding section of this part discusses the concepts of integrity and intimacy. He feels that ‘a lot of what is going wrong in the West is a breakdown of a stable equilibrium between intimacy and integrity. Consider the distinction in terms of autonomy and belonging. More of one inevitably leaves us with less of the other, and in the West the autonomy culture has become so dominant it has squeezed out belonging.’

What might the Bahá’í point of view add to this?

There is the obvious aspect: the core belief that all humanity is one. Also the powerful sense, as expressed by its central body in 2001 that there has to be ‘a fundamental change of consciousness, for a wholehearted embrace of Bahá’u’lláh’s teaching that the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family.’

That may not deal clearly enough with the question of the best relationship between the individual and the community. The Bahá’í NGO addresses that more adequately in The Prosperity of Humankind.They wrote:

Human society is composed not of a mass of merely differentiated cells but of associations of individuals . . . As social organization has increased, the scope for the expression of the capacities latent in each human being has correspondingly expanded. Because the relationship between the individual and society is a reciprocal one, the transformation now required must occur simultaneously within human consciousness and the structure of social institutions. . . in the achievement of human progress, the interests of the individual and those of society are inextricably linked. . . .Concern that each human being should enjoy the freedom of thought and action conducive to his or her personal growth does not justify devotion to the cult of individualism that so deeply corrupts many areas of contemporary life. Nor does concern to ensure the welfare of society as a whole require a deification of the state as the supposed source of humanity’s well-being. Far otherwise: the history of the present century shows all too clearly that such ideologies and the partisan agendas to which they give rise have been themselves the principal enemies of the interests they purport to serve. Only in a consultative framework made possible by the consciousness of the organic unity of humankind can all aspects of the concern for human rights find legitimate and creative expression. . . . Present-day conceptions of what is natural and appropriate in relationships — among human beings themselves, between human beings and nature, between the individual and society, and between the members of society and its institutions — reflect levels of understanding arrived at by the human race during earlier and less mature stages in its development. If humanity is indeed coming of age, if all the inhabitants of the planet constitute a single people, . . . — then existing conceptions that were born out of ignorance of these emerging realities have to be recast.

I have cherry-picked key points from across a number of pages to try and illustrate that this perspective is adding something significant into the mix: first, the idea of the global family of humanity and, secondly, the notion that we have an understanding of our relationships that has evolved in the past but now needs to evolve far beyond its current level.

In a letter written to all Bahá’ís throughout the world in March 2017, our central body went into more detail about the implications of this for our economic system:

The welfare of any segment of humanity is inextricably bound up with the welfare of the whole. Humanity’s collective life suffers when any one group thinks of its own well-being in isolation from that of its neighbours’ or pursues economic gain without regard for how the natural environment, which provides sustenance for all, is affected. A stubborn obstruction, then, stands in the way of meaningful social progress: time and again, avarice and self-interest prevail at the expense of the common good. Unconscionable quantities of wealth are being amassed, and the instability this creates is made worse by how income and opportunity are spread so unevenly both between nations and within nations. But it need not be so. However much such conditions are the outcome of history, they do not have to define the future, and even if current approaches to economic life satisfied humanity’s stage of adolescence, they are certainly inadequate for its dawning age of maturity. There is no justification for continuing to perpetuate structures, rules, and systems that manifestly fail to serve the interests of all peoples. The teachings of the Faith leave no room for doubt: there is an inherent moral dimension to the generation, distribution, and utilization o f wealth and resources.

This not only refers to the same idea of human progress, but also extends its reference to the relationship between the individual and society from the socio-political sphere to the economic one.

That’s the main reason why I feel the absence of an awareness of the Bahá’í perspective significantly reduces the sought-for inclusiveness of this otherwise excellent book. He is the writer who refers to Bellaigue’s book in a discussion of Islam (page 48), which means he should have had some idea of where the Bahá’í Faith is coming from.

McGregor next

I can deal with McGregor more briefly. He discusses polytheism at some length (pages 322 passim). He is concerned to examine how monotheism has tended throughout its history to be more intolerant than polytheism in terms of the societies it shapes. He is not simplistic about this though (page 329): ‘But as we shall see  . . . polytheism, no less than monotheism, can in the modern world also provide a vehicle for exclusion and political intolerance.’

The potential Bahá’í contribution here can be stated briefly. As far as I am aware the Bahá’í Faith is the first major monotheistic religion explicitly to accept that Hinduism, a polytheistic Eastern religion, completely separate from the tradition of the so-called ‘people of the book,’ is a valid divinely inspired faith. Not only that but it explicitly includes Buddhism and, not so surprisingly given its country of origin, Zoroastrianism, in the same category. The international Bahá’í website lists the founders of the great faiths as follows: ‘Throughout the ages, humanity’s spiritual, intellectual and moral capacities have been cultivated by the Founders of the great religions, among them Abraham, Krishna, Zoroaster, Moses, Buddha, Jesus Christ, Muhammad, and—in more recent times—the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh.’

This is not so significant an omission, perhaps, given the nature of his book, but it indicates that he fails to mention a monotheistic faith that has enshrined an inclusiveness that hopefully will avoid the intolerance trap.

Time to move on.

The last book in today’s list is Bellaigue’s on the Islamic Enlightenment.

More of that next time.

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