Growing up in the countryside you experience a sense of intimacy with nature. There is no feeling that nature is something alien or distant from your lived experience. Then my world was that limited by the distance I could walk. Even the occasional trips to distant towns by bus did not change this perception. The slowness of motion meant that I was constantly observing the environment in which I travelled. In spring I knew where to go to pick primroses for my mother, in summer I knew of the best places to pick wild strawberries and blackberries, in autumn hazel nuts and in winter where to look for frozen puddles on which to skate. As a country child you have a sense of oneness, you are part of countryside. Family visitors from the town were different to us, as they were alien to the ways of the countryside. They were missing a vital part of the human experience.
Although as a child you saw the countryside as a friend, you were also aware of the dangers. Never drink black water that gathered in the hollows within tree trunks, that was a warning given by my father. He told by me of two brothers who died from drinking such water. The first when thirsty on a hot summers drank it to assuage his first. He soon died from a bacterial infection and his brother out of remorse committed suicide by doing the same. Usually warning tales were less threatening. Never eat blackberries with the morning dew on them, as it would give you diarrhoea. As the folk tale had it they had been ‘pissed on by the devil’, which is why they made you ill. It was the latter which always stuck in my mind, not the former. These tales were suggestive of an easy going familiarity with nature.
One tradition I remember was the beating of the parish boundaries, something which I always wished to attend, as it sounded fun. I thought because it fell on a school day, that was the reason for which I could not attend. However it was because whenever the men stopped to beat the boundary, they passed around the flasks of spirits. It was an occasion of adult merrymaking which boys were forbidden from attending.
This familiarity extended to the names given to features and places. There was Tom Miles’ pool, so named after the Tom that fell into it. A field given the name the lump of dirt explains itself. There was North America, that part of the farmland which was so named, because it was so remote from the home farm. Later as a teenager I thought no such part of the local landscape could be so named. It must be a joke name known only to the local farmhands and gamekeepers. However a map of locality revealed an area named North America.
There was certain magic to this name giving. There was the fairy glen. A glen created within woodland at the express orders of the lady of the manor. We children were told that it had been made to provide a home for the fairies on the estate. In springtime it was ablaze with colour with, the various yellows of primroses and daffodils. An imaginative child such as myself could easily be persuaded that such a beautiful place was the home of fairies. Often when passing the glen my sister and I argued about whether not we had a spotted a fairy amongst the daffodils and ferns.
What I felt in the villages of my childhood was a sense of ‘at homeness’. Names given to easily identifiable sites gave you a sense of place and belonging. A certain ‘oneness’ with nature. I loved dusk when the darkening sky changed the landscape, when growing shadows changed the shapes of things. Old trees bent over and distorted with age took on new shapes, shapes that I could associate with the stories I heard. The dark hollows beneath the trees became entrances to another world. One of the themes of the many children’s stories and folklore was the luring of people by the fairies down to their magical underground kingdoms. Only returning as old men to there former homes as strangers finding that all the people that they knew had died. As an imaginative child I never feared nature, even at night. Nature to me was a friend somebody or thing with which I identified.
There was a mystery to nature, I was aware of a greater something or presence that was the spirit of nature. Heraclitus explained what I felt when he stated that nature is hiding within plain sight. Despite the evidence of nature being all around us, we don’t really know nature. Nature is that eternal something that gives shape and form to the nature we can see, we can know nature by its appearance but not its essence.
This is an understanding developed by the Czech philosopher Erazim Koháv*. Nature to him as is that mysterious being we cannot know but of which we cannot but be aware. We exist he states at that point in which our temporal being intersects with that eternity which is nature. That eternity has a place for us within its order, a place superior to all the other fauna. This superior position in nature comes with responsibilities. the duty of care. Given the ephemeral nature of our existence, it is our duty to pass nature undamaged to those millions of beings that in the future will be dependent on it. The nameless Saxon noble who compared the human timespan to that of the time spent by a sparrow passing through the Great Hall, understood human existence. Nature is there to be used, but it must be used correctly, exploitation of the type practised today agri-business is to be condemned.
As a father and grandfather I wish that my children and grandson will know something similar to the nature that I knew as a child. Then butterflies were not seen in ones or twos, but as a moving colourful moving mass that swarmed over the green verges of the roadsides. Not so rare that butterfly collecting Fields that were not subject to today’s monoculture, hosted a variety of flora. Wildflowers such as buttercups, milk maids, poppies, birds eyes and lords and ladies slippers gave colour to the dull greens and yellows of the cultivated hay meadows and cornfields.
This philosophy of nature which I share with Heraclitus and Koháv can be dismissed as mysticism. When Koháv speaks of the mystical experience he undergoes with the coming of dusk, when senses the presence of God; his philosophy of nature can be dismissed as mere romanticism. However anyone who has experienced the coming of the dusk in the countryside know that he speaks of a real experience. With the coming of dusk perception changes, certain senses such as hearing become strengthened, while others such as sight become weakened. What were once prominent features of the daytime landscape slowly disappear and the landscape of sound becomes more prominent. I have experienced the same magic to which Koháv has become subject to, it’s a wonderful moment when the world slowly takes on a new shape.
The lived experience of a country childhood has made me a deist. I was aware of a greater presence within nature, which as Heraclitus states is hiding within plain sight. Unlike Koháv although I love the religion of my fathers, I cannot call myself a Christian. Nature for me is still in essence the great unknown, the indescribable. Codifying it, enclosing it with a framework of beliefs merely diminishes it. All the criticisms of my rural mysticism I can understand and find difficult to refute. The only justification is that my country upbringing left me in awe of nature and deism is the only way I can express that awe. It is that sense of the presence of a greater something within nature.
Jaspers wrote that myth is the only means of expressing truths that cannot be expressed in any other way. If my deism is a only a myth or story well told, I can accept that as it an expression my respect for the natural order. Industrial farming that I have witnessed is disrespectful and damaging of that natural order. When I read that with current farming methods that there are only 65 harvests left before the soil becomes too impoverished to support agriculture, I see this as a justification of my deism. No deist would wantonly destroy the natural order for profit our values a very different.
* Erazim Koháv The Embers and the Stars