Viriditas: fecundity, divine verdancy. Hildegarde von Bingen
For the time being, I am marooned on this island. Pellucid skies, snowy swooping winds, and cloud-shadows drifting over the mountain are the walls of no mean cell.
I grew up in a nomadic family: four countries, nine towns, thirteen houses by the time I’d finished high school. Rootlessness was coded into me. Even when I settled in Tasmania, determined to give my children stability of place and community, I was still mentally afoot, dreaming future journeys on the world map tacked above the sink. Yet throughout those years, my roots were weaving capillary-wise into the bedrock, and the choice to stay was inevitable and profound.
While some find Tasmania bleakly oppressive, my overwhelming sense is of the dance of light, from mid-winter douce to shimmering summers. I thrive on the unpredictable glory of weather – rainbows, strong seasons, winter’s brief austerity – and the haecceity of dwelling on an island at the interface of land, ocean and air.
Industrial culture has reified place, turned it into a function as disposable as any other artefact. Yet the more I live my way into this island, the more sentient, intricate and profound our relationship becomes. Now I’ve crossed another threshold; it appears that my wellbeing is dependent on being here. Even when I could leave, the whole time I was away, Tasmania would pulse in me like magnetic south, and as often as not I’d come home ill. Then there were the transition years; I’d make a ferry booking, and suddenly I’d be drowning in deafening inner static, like salmon forcing their way up a waterfall. Toxic anxiety would flood my being with the biochemistry of meltdown. The only option was to cancel. Now, when I’m asked, I can say without cringing, “I have a panic disorder. Leaving Tasmania triggers it. So for the time being, I stay.”
I practise being marooned with grace.
Albertine of the ferocious thorns is in sumptuous bloom. To simply call her pink diminishes her; her buds are coral, her delicately perfumed blossoms blush silken, apricot, creamy. Our everyday language of colour is as unimaginative as ‘peace’, that conflates the Pentagon with the Dalai Lama, or ‘power’ that can’t distinguish brutal dominance from puissance embodied as liberation, reciprocity and trust.
I’m intimately acquainted with abusive power, since I share my being with a Moloch demanding continual sacrifice. Its lair is my body, its current introit any spot or mole. Between one breath and the next, I’m as demented as an animal in a trap, gnawing its leg off to escape; once I tried to cut a lesion from my face with nail-scissors. Never yet has this vicious control freak told the truth. I am she who terrorises and she who is terrorised.
There are two powerful paradoxes here.
First: I’m committed both to the right use of personal, ecological and political power, and simultaneously in thrall to an internal Lady Macbeth who would rather crucify her country than relinquish control.
Second: the locus of terror is my body. Fear impregnates all its cells. Yet I revere the everyday miracle of the sensuous; black cats sunlit in long green grass; bread yeastily rising. We’re all of us – rocks, roses, spiders, bacteria – made from stardust. I’m both filled with wonder, and trapped in dualistic terror of my own physicality.
Five years ago, in the depths of clinical depression, I saw that in habitually overriding tiredness and instinctual wisdom, and flogging myself to struggle on regardless, I was bullying and enslaving my body just as humankind abuses the Earth; and that entrenched in my psyche was a hologram of fundamentalism, of the evil underpinning the Inquisition, ecocide, patriarchy and war.
A black hole is formed when a giant star, six times the mass of our sun, collapses into a point smaller than this full-stop. I encapsulate its psychic equivalent. Jung claims that in healing ourselves, we also heal the world’s shadow. Is the unpacking of my particular full-stop – my Moloch – my infinitesimal part in the redemption of the whole?
I am bound to this island. Fear binds me here. There is nowhere to go but inwards, into the labyrinth, the black hole.
The honey-lemon flowers of the bottlebrush by the front gate look like plump beeswax candles. The stems, with their sparse, spiky leaves, are knobbly with fused clusters of woody seeds. Ants and birds feed on the nectar. Last evening, while I was watering, the bush hummed with suckling bumble-bees.
Mental health, too, is an ecology. I chart my own light and shadows, and practise trusting who I am even when I wish I weren’t. As I work to fully inhabit myself, am I learning the simplest, most difficult lesson of all: how to live well not just on this island but on Earth? How does our species come home to ourselves, to our true place in the scheme of things, before we self-immolate?
Ten years ago I planted a wattle that’s now a planet in microcosm, a glory of birds, bonking-beetles and spiders. In early summer it bursts into small yellow dandelion clocks of blossom, whose dense pollen convulses me with hayfever. Until recently we knew nothing of pollen, nor of the billions of bacteria that power compost heaps, flourish like a rainforest in a healthy gut.
I’ve lived all my life with the invisible and the intangible; the older I get, the more trustworthy these qualities become. Every morning I plunge down the rabbithole into an imaginal world more real than real; I don’t have to think it into being, it’s simply there, waiting while I surrender to the inchoate that slowly transforms via my pen into compelling, unexpected vividness. By the end of two hours, the well and I are wrung out. The next day, the well’s brimful again.
Once ‘The Bluebells of Scotland’, a lament for the beloved gone to war, began chain-sawing in my head night and day, accompanied by rabid anxiety. It was like wildfire, or uncontrollable arterial bleeding. And it was causeless. Was I going truly mad? Then the phone rang. It was my son, who I’d thought was peacefully in Geneva. He said, “I’ve just got back from Afghanistan”. I wasn’t mad, I was simply responding to a truth I didn’t know I knew.
Sixteen years ago, at a time of personal anguish, I sought sanctuary in a monastery chapel. Between one heartbeat and the next, I was flooded by a starburst, a boundless, lucent wave of peace, compassion and joy. It was both multi-faceted – lilies, music, the sea at sunrise – and seamless. It radiated authority and truth. Wild sweetness, luminous ecstasy suffused every fibre of my being.
Similar experiences are chronicled across all times and cultures. Sceptics scoff, tell us we’re deluded or perhaps having a seizure. Just because it’s unquantifiable doesn’t mean it’s not true, it means we haven’t yet evolved the right instruments.
I would argue that the human psyche – consciousness – is the last great mystery, and that we know as little of who we truly are as our forebears knew of pollen or DNA. Scientists take for granted that their questions have answers. What if consciousness has answers commensurate with the physical universe cosmologists are attempting to plumb?
Are there metaphysical laws as clearcut as gravity? Is there a mathematics of soul? Does not the very conceiving of the questions – who are we, where do we come from, where are we going – imply meaningful answers, like an oak-tree impossibly enfolded in an acorn?
Humankind, as we’ve construed ourselves till now, is on a collision course with the biosphere whose health is interdependent with our own. Survival entails a self-transcendence as radical as a single-celled bacterium in the primordial soup imagining a butterfly.
Perhaps, just perhaps, the answers are inside?
The woodland outside the window is riding a spring gale. The leaves, in their octaves of green, are luciloquent in the morning light.
I desire the fierce verdancy of Hildegarde of Bingen’s viriditas.
This entails re-scripting all my choices – how I eat, dress, travel, work, play, waste – in the light of biospheric laws and verities. Boiled down, this means living as scrupulously within my ecological and carbon footprints as I do within my financial or medical parameters.
Humankind is in infantile relationship – exploitation and dominance – with our only planet. Even those of us who aspire to greenness are still adolescent; we push wilfully at the boundaries, self-justify and self-exculpate, simultaneously embrace and debauch the biosphere. We’re trapped in a dysfunctional relationship with Earth that’s not just schizoid – we think we can have our planet and eat it – but addictive, since it seems we’re powerless to change our self-destructive behaviour. We live as if Earth’s resources, and its capacity for absorbing our excrement, were infinite. This lie, this false entitlement to boundless consumption, mobility and waste, is destroying the very ground of our being. We’re Molochs, cannibalising and pimping the future, sacrificing the wellbeing of our descendants to our own insatiable desires.
There is no ‘away’ on a finite planet to throw our faecal, nuclear, toxic, industrial detritus. Ecocide – the irrevocable fouling of our own nest – is the ultimate displacement; exile with nowhere to go and no possibility of return. Our economy is based on endless commodities being created and destroyed at an ever increasing rate; its only yardstick is profit, its biggest earners are people trafficking/slavery, pornography, the trades in arms and illegal drugs, and cybercrime. We’re in thrall to a system that heaps rewards on pillagers and powermongers malignantly preying on their fellow humans, our commensal 8.7 billion species and the future.
And here we are, back full circle, with my own demonic fractal; the toxic co-dependence of fear and power misused.
Fear mugged me again this morning. I was washing my face, when the Minotaur, myself, sighting a mark on my nose, lunged, shook me like a dog with a rat then plunged back into its bunker. I simultaneously wanted to die, and just stopped myself reaching for a nail-file to excise the spot.
While anywhere in my body can be terror’s catalyst, skin is the primary battleground. How is it that this osmotic boundary – the place where island meets ocean, this skilfully sensing tactility and interface with air, water, blooming verdancy, life – has become a gateway where fear annihilates all narratives but its own?
Yet it’s this self-same fundamentalism, this terror that we’re inflicting on the future. Unless we change. Unless we impossibly, inevitably change.
Clouds, neither buff, apricot, yellow nor pink – honeyed? – float above the estuary in the lucent gulfs of evening. Weather surges up the river from the Southern Ocean. Our mountain, kunanyi, is a weather magnet, a moody glory of cloudscapes; I’ve been caught near the summit in a blizzard on a hot autumn day. Its dolerite rocks formed from the bodies of polar organisms a hundred and eighty million years ago, when Tasmania was part of Gondwana and drifting at eighty degrees south. What kind of toxic heritage is our generation laying down in geological time?
Earth’s wellbeing, and hence our own, is dependent on the resilience of a number of interlocking global systems; healthy freshwater and marine environments; robust phosphorus and nitrogen cycles; rich biodiversity; ozone health; pollination; climate equilibrium; clean air; rich soil. At least four of these cycles – climate, biodiversity, nitrogen and oceans – are already tipping into irreversible damage.
The world’s oceans are acidifying from excess carbon dioxide, a by-product of burning fossil fuels. Phytoplankton – diatoms –.are single-celled algae, so small that a million live in a litre of sea-water. Each of the ten thousand species is as exquisitely diverse as snowflakes. Their habitat ranges from oxbows to oceans. Diatoms generate half of Earth’s oxygen, catalyse cloud formation hence weather, are a major carbon sink and the basis of the marine food chain. They cannot form skeletons in acidifying seas. A biospheric matrix is dying.
If we have a generation – perhaps less – in which to restore a planet, which part of the work is uniquely mine to do?
First, I practise living ethically in my place. I tend my garden as a microcosm of Earth; eat as far as possible local, in-season, vegetarian food; divert greywater and urine onto the fruit-trees. Everything I own, except books and underwear, is a hand-me-down or a gift. For my primary work of wordsmithing, I travel with a fountain-pen across reams of salvaged paper. An elderly recycled laptop takes care of the final stages. I refuse to be on-line at home – more throwaway geegaws – and out-source web-truffling to internet cafés. I viscerally dislike cars and have never owned one. They’re acts of violence waiting to happen; they foul air and airwaves, drive climate change and oil wars, and so uglify our cities – where they usurp thirty-five per cent of land – that people are forced to drive ever further, despoiling as they go, to find a modicum of peace in our shrinking wild places.
Second, I wield my pen as passionately and compassionately as I know how in the service of Earth.
And third, I’m committed to entelechy, to the dynamic sum of potential flowering; all our flowerings. I risk living as if life were purposive. This means trusting that being marooned, bonsai’ed, is somehow integral to my unfolding.
Like Jung, I believe that part of my task is to make the darkness conscious. I hold firm to the possibility that Lady Macbeth – brutal, desperate, terrifying and terrified – can be redeemed, personally and globally.
Whenever my children come home, we walk on the mountain, regardless. There we’ve slithered on ice, basked like lizards, encountered winds so elemental we had to cling together as we crawled to shelter. My daughter was eight months pregnant when she and I walked miles across the lunar plateau beyond the summit – dolerite pillars, bogs, air spicy with Christmas bush – to the Women’s Rocks. The first time her son met kunanyi he was six weeks old, and tucked into a pouch against her heart. Recently, at twenty-one months, he intrepidly walked the Organpipes Track; snow was feathering down, then the moiling clouds cleared and we had a picnic among great screes of weathered boulders and staunch, writhen eucalypts. Far below, the intricate, blue and honeyed landscape of estuary, inlets, peninsulas and islands melted into the ocean. The light was like nectar.
The poet Margaret Scott described Tasmania as a jellybag slung beneath the Australian mainland; a place of extremes, where quintessence is distilled from the draff. Since, like Ariel in The Tempest, I am for the moment bound to this place, I surrender to the alchemy of the jellybag. In being forced inwards, I discover the unimaginable riches of my own small well. Confined, I am set free.
The core question reshapes itself; how, faced with a precarious temperament, and tethered to an island at the end of the world, do I embody my passionate commitment to a whole, healed, holy Earth?
Humankind has reached the end of an evolutionary cycle. Perhaps we can’t imagine the next phase any more than stardust in the silent, fiery darkness of the Big Bang could have imagined Beethoven. Yet Beethoven was there, in the template, biding his time – eons of it. We don’t have eons to radically re-imagine and re-embody what it means to be human. Is our DNA already coded with that knowledge? Might it be lying dormant in our cells, awaiting its evocation?
Our task is to move into right relationship with the biosphere whose wellbeing is covalent with our own; from the anthropocene to the ecozoic era.
How might we anchor personal and political morality in an ecological ethic, and create a truly sustainable civilisation based on biospheric justice? Can we legislate Earthism – crimes against lifekind and the future – as rigorously as we’re beginning to tackle other fundamentalisms? How can economics be transformed into a subset of ecology, with all costs internalised, and whose primary concern is with the equilibrium of the ecos, the household, multiple hearths where the children of all species can eat, shit, sleep, love, play, pray and work in peace; and where true wealth is defined as rich tilth, pure water, clear air, rampant biodiversity? What provision needs to be made for the repayment of the massive burden of anthropogenic environmental debt, and the restoration of crippled ecosystems? I dream of the creation of a doughty eirenikon – a matrix for the restoration, keeping and making of peace – to replace the lie of war as our central cultural narrative; here, oxytocin, the ethical hormone that generates trust, kindness and reciprocity, overrides testosterone, which has passed its evolutionary use-by date.
I propose an eleventh commandment: “Love your planet as yourself.” How do we learn to think like a biosphere, reinhabit this beloved body of Earth, and take our true place in the cosmology of which we’re a unique, integral and highly conscious part? Whichever way we look – towards galaxies, sub-atomic particles, or our own souls – the view is inconceivably vast. We’re marooned here on this silky blue jewel hanging in the lustrous darkness between the stars. It’s time to slough off the past, transform, wake up, come home.
Annie March © August 2014