The Triptych of Disconnection - 1. Land
Updated: Jan 20, 2022
I have been mute here for some months and yet I have had such a discomfort and sense of constriction in my chest; a need to release words but I was not able to find the words ... so now I exhale and begin.
I have felt disconnected from so much recently, from my words, my body, my family and loved ones and it has forced me to reflect on what this means, not just for me but for many of us at this precise time. I feel there is a triptych of disconnection present now: we are disconnected from each other, from the land and from our bodies.
Covid is a part of this, particularly when it comes to the connection and contact we need with each other, but I feel that our separation from land and body was happening way before Covid struck and perhaps it is one of the reasons that Covid happened. In the next 3 blogs I want to focus on each of these areas of disconnection and I want to start with our disconnection from the land we walk upon.
(I am aware that these words are not flowing as they normally do as there is so much pain attached to them, so much sadness and loss and this is part of the problem.)
As a human species we were always connected to our landscape. We needed to understand it and be 'literate' in it, in order to survive. We would not wake in the morning and read the paper, we would wake and read the clouds and the soil and read the tracks of animals in the dirt. Many groups of people can still do this and I envy them that. Since moving to Sweden I am becoming more literate in reading my landscape and am now able to recognise some different tracks; hare, deer, elk, fox and I cannot begin to describe the joy that this knowledge gives me. I have also became more aware of the rotation of the earth, the change of the seasons and how the song of the Willow Warbler is a herald for spring. One of the most powerful experiences I have had, when it comes to landscape here in Sweden, is witnessing the arrival of the cranes in their 1000's at the start of spring.This is made more remarkable for me because I have also seen bronze age petroglyphs at Tanum that also show the arrival of the cranes. Those prehistoric peoples marked the arrival with a 'chip, chip, chip' on stone and now tourists gather and mark the same arrival with a 'click, click click' of cameras. There is still some thrumming urge in us to notice and mark our environment yet this has now become almost a 'tick box' activity, showing the countries we have visited or birds we have seen as opposed to a way of knowing 'place'. As opposed to a way of belonging, as opposed to marking a deep, symbiotic relationship.
This idea of 'place' is vital and important to us as human beings as it gives us that sense of belonging. We start to develop it in childhood and it exists just as much, (though in a different way,) within urban areas as in rural areas. However, lack of access to free space and free play within these environments has profoundly impacted on our ability to develop a meaningful connection with the land and our neighbourhoods and I want to start my thoughts here.
I was brought up on a council estate in Birmingham where there were, urban foxes, a huge array of birds, plus squirrels and of course, rats! Sutton Park, which was a 15 minute walk away, gave us a sense of wilderness with its lakes and common ground where cattle grazed. As children we would go up to the park in gangs and build damns across streams, get stuck in the bogs, climb trees and have a sense of ourselves in our bodies as well as in nature. It was a remarkable place and I am grateful for what it gave me, which is a curiosity and love for nature. However, we did not need to be in the park to know about the arrival of the different seasons. Summer was signalled on my road through the ants appearing between the paving slabs (many a piece of privet hedge was stuck down into those sandy holes) and there was always a day when the flying ants came out and dropped their wings on the pavement, which we children would then gather like treasure. The turning of the year was also marked by 'rituals' like 'a penny for the guy' in November. We would make a type of cloth man, (meant to symbolise Guy Fawkes), by stuffing old clothes with rags and then sit outside with him and ask people to give us 'a penny for the guy.' This guy would then be tossed on top of a big bonfire on November 5th, which was when we had fireworks and toffee apples. Halloween has only recently become bigger than bonfire night in the UK. We also went carol singing in winter and shared out any money we made. We marked the seasons without knowing it.
So many of these activities happened because I was out on the street with the other neighbourhood kids. Our gang, (which included kids of different ages, as we always had to take younger siblings with us,) came together to play games like Bulldog or kerbies, hopscotch or skipping, tag or knock-door-run. It is now relatively rare that you see gangs of children out 'playing' on the streets and even more rare to hear skipping songs, clapping songs, or those special chants for the different games that were played. There is a huge wealth of research on how lack of free play, (that is play without adult interference) is impacting on children's development and especially on the development of empathy, resilience and emotional self-regulation. When we were playing, if one of us threw a tantrum none of our parents came out and asked, (in that sugary, patronising voice of many teachers), "can you find a nicer way of playing?" - our parents were too busy in the house, smoking ciggies and desperately worrying about the rent. This meant, as kids we had to sort stuff out for ourselves and for each other too. Now, with the increase in traffic and sensationalised media coverage of child abductions, (the figure of which has not significantly increased in the past 50 years, though the coverage has increased dramatically) children are no longer given access to free space and free play.
This map shows how access to free space has significantly reduced over 4 generations. This directly impacts on our connection with the land around us and our sense of belonging within it. Add to this issues of gang violence, ghettoisation, systemic racism and you will find that people of colour will be impacted more heavily and harshly. (It is no surprise that people of colour form the tiniest percentage of membership to outdoor activity groups or organisations like the National Trust.)
So, if childhood now mainly takes place indoors, in schools or in gardens, (if we are lucky) is it really any surprise that we have become disconnected from our land? Is it any surprise that we have become so disconnected that we have plundered and raped the earth to such a degree that the ozone layer is affected, that climate change is happening now, right now and that many of us feel nothing because of that lack of connection and lack of empathy? Children are plugged into digital devices rather than soil, fed algorithms, rather than seasonal fruits and can identify brand labels more than birdsong.
As I write these words, I realise there is a kind of discrepancy though .... a generational discrepancy. I was born in 1964, I could play out on the streets, I had a sense of place and I feel that I had a connection with the landscape I grew up in. Yet, it is my generation and the ones who came before me, who were the cause of the problems we now face. So am I wrong in my argument? Possibly. But here is the thing, it hurts me too much to think about what we did and are still doing. Witnessing what is happening hurts and I feel that many others might feel the same. There is an overwhelm of fear and sadness and we do not want to 'go there' so we pull away and ignore it. We blinker ourselves, put on the armour of denial, place one foot in front of the other, in front of the other, in front of the other and live in that denial. Yet if we deny pain, sorrow and fear we also deny pleasure, joy and courage, for these only exist in relation to each another. Once again we have to lean into discomfort. We need to face the truth, name the truth and speak the truth in order to have some control over it. It is the very fact that we were co-creators of the climate crisis and the very fact that we have a relationship with our natural world, that makes us the main deniers and least active participants in the fight for climate justice. It hurts us too much.
So, what can be done? Firstly, we have to lean into the pain and sit with it, as it shows how much we care and how much this world means to us. If we avoid trying to feel, it is the equivalent of never stroking, petting or loving your dog, as you are scared that loving them will make you will feel too much pain when they die. All love and care is naturally attached to pain and fear. You have to feel all the emotions.
Next, as I said at the very start of this, I feel overwhelmed with the magnitude of the problem and so I know I need to take small steps forward. I make sure I recycle all our household waste properly, I am once again having a year of not buying any new clothing. I stopped dying my hair many years ago as a result of the chemicals involved. My husband and I use detergents that are better for the climate. I do lots of 'up-cycling' of old furniture and buy stuff second-hand. The list of small things goes on. I know they are small but I feel I can achieve them and thus feel emboldened and stronger and the stronger and more emboldened I feel, the more likely I am to develop the capacity and confidence to do bigger things.
If we are to re-connect with our landscapes, we need to feel again the love and wonder we once felt for it, which means we also have to feel the grief from damage we are doing. We need to reconnect with the wonder we had as children in seeing the ants coming out in the summer, in spotting the first butterflies, in hearing the call of the geese as they migrated south. We were all literate in our landscapes without even knowing it and now we think we have lost that ability. It is like a language you once knew, but have not used for so long that you believe you have forgotten it - but you haven't. Your fluency in reading your landscape, in connecting with it, in belonging to it, is lodged in your heart, hidden there. The trick is to open your heart up and let it flow free again, to feel the wonder and the love again and to weep, to weep and to grieve for what has been lost.