To Be An Earth Pilgrim
29th August 2008
was recently invited to give the First Richard Sandbrook Memorial Lecture in Wimbledon. Here is a summary of what I said:
It is a great pleasure to give the inaugural Richard Sandbrook lecture. I knew Richard well and we would often share the sleeper train down to the South-West, he travelling to his beloved Eden Project, and me home from London to Hartland on the north coast of Devon. Richard had a supreme sense of optimism, and in this time of mounting concern about climate change and other environmental ills, I believe we need to transform our attitude to Nature from one of fear to one of love. For many environmentalists, global warming has become the new Hell that is brandished to terrify people into action. But if we are to make the changes that are needed to bring our relationship with the planet back into balance, then a new relationship with Nature is required, one founded on the power of love rather than the force of fear.
For me, this relationship of love has its roots in my birth-place, Rajasthan. There my mother taught me to treat Nature with reverence. “Nature is the greatest teacher”, she said, “even greater than the Buddha, for even he learned his philosophy of ‘interdependent arising’ from sitting under a tree”. All of Nature is sacred for me. It is a place of divinity, where I can gather a sense of the sacred. I go to nature to pray and to meditate, recognising that God is present in every blade of grass, in every bee, and in every drop of water. Perhaps the reason that we do not get enough enlightenment these days is because we do not take the time to sit under a tree.
To be an Earth Pilgrim is to revere Nature as our sacred home, and see all our life as a sacred journey to become at one with ourselves, with others and with Nature. The starting point for being an Earth Pilgrim is humility in the face of Nature’s immense generosity and unconditional love. Take the apple tree. We eat the fruit that has been freely given – and finding a bitter pip, we spit it out. Here the pip immediately starts to cooperate with Nature. The soil provides hospitality for the seed, which is nourished by the rain and the sunshine. Soon the pip has literally grounded itself and realised itself as another tree bearing innumerable apples and countless pips. When people ask me about reincarnation, I point to the apple tree. And when offering its fruit, the apple tree does not discriminate between human and animal, educated and uneducated, between black or white, man and woman, young and old. All are equal, and all receive.
Over the past century, we have struggled to rid the world of many –isms: imperialism and the rule of one people over another; sexism and the subjugation of women by men. But one mighty –ism still remains: species-ism, by which humanity claims the right of domination over the rest of creation. Yet the Earth is a community, where no one species is inferior or superior. All species are our kith and kin, as St Francis appreciated when he reached out to Sister Water and Brother Fire. In our modern world, the assertion of human superiority has been reinforced by the misperception that we are somehow separate from Nature, that the environment is something outside of us. But the root of the word Nature is from the Latin to be born – just like the Nativity – and when we are born we become part of Nature. Instead of the arrogance of Descartes’ ‘I think, therefore I am’, we need to broaden our horizons. Without our parents, our friends as well as distant strangers, our lives would be impossible – so ‘You are, therefore I am’. And without Nature, we could not live – and so we should truly say ‘the Earth is, therefore I am’. Gerald Manley Hopkins praised the less lovely parts of Nature: “long live the weeds and the wilderness yet”, he wrote. As a gardener, I have a particular debt of gratitude towards the humble worm, so I say “long live the worms’ and make my own declaration of dependence, “the worms are, therefore I am.”
One of Richard’s great achievements was to be there at the birth of Friends of the Earth, and we need to rekindle this sense of friendship. When we are friends, there is a relationship of equality, based on the beautiful principle of reciprocity. This also requires us to re-examine the relationship between Economy and Ecology. Just like Nature and Nativity, Economy and Ecology come from the same Greek root – oikos meaning home, nomos meaning management, and logos meaning knowledge.
We have to have knowledge of our home planet in order to manage it properly. But industry, business, government and universities only focus on economy and largely ignore ecology – this is a great mistake. Common-sense tells us that we cannot manage our home if we don’t know it. Economy without ecology means managing the human nature relationship without knowing the delicate balance between humankind and the natural world. In my view ecology, or the knowledge, should come before economy or the management. It has been said by many wise people that economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment. Without the land, the rivers, the oceans, the forests, the sunshine, the minerals and thousands of natural resources we would have no economy whatsoever. Nature is our true home and our true capital. That his why I call ecology primary, and economy secondary.
When we are at home, we have a special relationship with a place, and we need to rekindle our relationship with Nature. Perhaps more than just friendship is required – we need to fall back into love with Nature, romance with Nature. And the best way of forging this relationship is to be with Nature, sitting under a tree, working in an allotment, walking on Dartmoor – a pilgrim and not a tourist on Planet Earth.
In the face of the world’s environmental ills, how then do we move forward as Earth Pilgrims? The first step is to be true to Gandhi’s wise saying – ‘be the change that you want to see’: no preaching without practising. The second step is to communicate the blessings of this new relationship. And the third is to organise with others to achieve change more effectively. Take heart – being an Earth Pilgrim requires no training, no university courses and no books, simply the realisation once again of connectedness.