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Asking Forgiveness of the Birds

I'm gradually reposting here some of the blogs from my old Google Blog, "Marginal Musings". This was a new year reflection in January 2010 which seems even more relevant today. I'm not changing the content of the blog, but there have been several changes since it was written: my lovely mother died in 2016 so I no longer make regular visits to Fairlie; the Hunterston B nuclear power station is being decommissioned, and that gaunt industrial structure stretching out into the Firth of Clyde has been removed. The literary references remain evergreen.

This is the outlook from Fairlie, a village on the Firth of Clyde where my mother lives. The glorious view includes this shipping terminal, built in the 1970s for shipments of iron ore, here silhouetted against the snow-covered island of Arran. It would be easy to rage against this industrial intrusion in a space of such natural magnificence, but it also has a strange kind of beauty. There is a nuclear power station a little further along the coast—Hunterston B. So this is a place on the edge of things, somewhere liminal, perched on the very brink of a wilderness of sea and sky, but still bearing the deep gouge of our human presence. Is this a violation, or is it in some sense also part of the natural environment, an expression of the kind of animal we are perhaps? But if so, how can our species learn to adapt so that others might live? On these bitterly cold winter nights, it seems romantic in the extreme to lament the industries which brings us light and warmth, but surely our human genius can find a better way of doing all this, if only there was the will?

Walking along the shore yesterday evening, I saw a curlew and I thought of my friend Mary Colwell, whose blog is called "Reflections of a Curlew". It was a solitary curlew, feeding among the plovers and the gulls and other birds which I can't identify. One New Year's resolution might be to learn to recognise more birds. I came home and looked up "curlew" on the RSPB website, where I learned that "there have been worrying breeding declines in many areas due to loss of habitat through agricultural intensification". On Mary's website, I learn that curlews were once blessed by St. Beuno.We no longer understand such acts of blessing and grace between humans and creatures, and yet if we don't rediscover them, what hope is there?

In today's Guardian there are reviews of two books related to such thoughts. The poet John Burnside has written an autobiographical account of how his turn to solitude and nature allowed him to escape his addictions to drugs and alcohol. The book is called Waking Up in Toytown, and in her review Aida Edemariam (wonderful name) quotes his "sober, thrilled meditation on 'the roads, all that God-in-the-details of the land: the sway of cottonwood in the wind, the black of a secluded lake, the monumental quiet of a Monterey cypress near a roadside motel on the way from nothing to nowhere', or the 'gloaming just beyond the hedge, where the night begins'."

There's another review by Mary Midgley on the same page, of Ian McGilchrist's The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Burnside discovered that he had to listen to the voices which played in his mind rather than trying to silence them—"To ignore the voices is to be chased by them (into the pub, more often than not); to try to forget that he believes in what he calls the afterlife, in which 'the dead we once knew ... will go on forever, or some element of them will, folding endlessly into rain and leaves and new animals hunting in the first grey of dawn'." McGilchrist argues that modern culture conditions us to privilege the left side of the brain—the side which is concerned with particularity and practicality—at the expense of the expansive vision and intuitive insights of the right side, so that we have become captive to a dualist vision which has all but destroyed our capacity to see meaning and transcendence in the world. There is surely a deep connection between these two thinkers—the poet and the philosopher, the one learning to live with the voices which speak to him of other worlds, the other analysing what has gone wrong with our culture that we no longer allow such intuitions space in our minds.

I love these serendipitous connections between texts and worlds. I'm reading The Brothers Karamazov, and today I read the chapter on "Talks and Homilies of the Elder Zosima". Here is an edited extract of the passage that lingers now in my thoughts:

Love all of God’s creation, both the whole of it and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love animals, love plants, love each thing. If you love each thing, you will perceive the mystery of God in things. Once you have perceived it, you will begin tirelessly to perceive more and more of it every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an entire, universal love. Love the animals: God gave them the rudiments of thought and an untroubled joy. Do not trouble it, do not torment them, do not take their joy from them, do not go against God’s purpose. Man, do not exalt yourself above the animals: they are sinless, and you, you with your grandeur, fester the earth by your appearance on it, and leave your festering trace behind you—alas, almost every one of us does! ... My young brother asked forgiveness of the birds: it seems senseless, yet it is right, for all is like an ocean, all flows and connects; touch it in one place and it echoes at the other end of the world. Let it be madness to ask forgiveness of the birds, still it would be easier for the birds, and for a child, and for any animal near you, if you yourself were more gracious than you are now, if only by a drop, still it would be easier. All is like an ocean, I say to you. Tormented by universal love, you, too, would then start praying to the birds, as if in a sort of ecstasy, and entreat them to forgive you your sin. Cherish this ecstasy, however senseless it may seem to people.

Maybe that will be my New Year's resolution: to ask forgiveness of the birds and to learn to cherish the ecstasy of praying to the birds. That surely is a form of prayer which comes from the right side of the brain, and which requires us to listen to rather than run away from the voices that haunt us.

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