a roof of stars

star tree blue star tree blue

Image copyright Laura Joy

I'm a writer and a traditional musician living in Sussex with a love for the natural world and for walking in it in particular.  I thought this was as good a time as any to offer some thoughts as we grapple with our new reality.  I wish all my readers well as we navigate this slightly strange horizon.  I look forward to a better day when we can all meet free of restrictions and able to see this old world with new eyes.

By Jim Hindle, Apr 12 2021 12:24PM

After all these months, when at times it almost seemed waiting was never enough, the restrictions have finally eased. We stumble into gardens, drink beer or wine or otherwise and many of us will choose to count our lucky stars. We’ve come through a terrible time. We don’t need reminders of what we have been through, the people we’ve lost, the bewildering attrition on our patience and reserves of fortitude. During the winter’s high tide of cases we knew that for many – the nurses and doctors, the patients themselves, it must have been like a kind of white heat while all the rest of us could do was wait, like so many army families in times of war.

We tumble our way onto greens, blinking and buoyant or simply taking it in; the seeming unlikeliness of it; the actual Spring, the tangible immanence of life restored to something much closer to normal. Finding our feet on the way out of this may be like limbering up after a long convalescence. After all, how do we expect to stride full tilt into a return to old ways after so much solitude, so many hours whiled away or spent in steady enterprise? It may take time: we should be patient with ourselves.

In the meantime, is it too much, too soon, to wonder just how we go forward, to think on the things we have learned, how we choose to calibrate our lives; tempered or battered or mauled as we may be but still enduring or champing at horizons so newly redeemed? And will we remember those little points of newly discovered significance upon our daily walks, urban or rural as they may be? Will those young shoots, the weeds in the pavements, the actual woods help inform us as we step into our renewed freedoms, as we cast off the shackles of life lived indoors for so long?

If we can retain a little poise, we may be able to integrate our reflections of these last twelve months as life cranks up another gear or two. We may be able to remember old and new acquaintances, fresh resolutions, priorities granted by the bedrock of life that sustains us, the knowledge in uncertain times when old securities are stripped away: the land herself still underpins the basics of our lives. Without her we are almost literally at sea; her fate is ours just as sure as the dawn.

It’s far from an untimely reminder. As we emerge from one crisis, we are called to engage once again with that much greater emergency – the future of the biosphere itself. The greatest dangers here barely need stating; they are to be found first and foremost in ourselves. We can wilfully ignore it all, perhaps because it seems so large and so intractable a problem, perhaps because we like to think that someone somewhere has it in hand and we need not exercise our own agency. Or perhaps we feel so overwhelmed, so caught-in-the-headlights we don’t know which way we should turn, or we feel it is hopeless or we despair at humanity at large in our apparent heedlessness. Or we stare at it all like a mountain we haven’t yet climbed and wonder if it’s still within our gift.

For many, it doesn’t need stating – those taking to the streets for the climate in some of the biggest protests ever seen in that distant summer of 2019 for example. Or those living out a bitter winter in those many woodlands cut into and despoiled by HS2. Anyone who’s ever been engaged in protest knows the sense of liberation it can bring – that, after the anxiety and soul searching of what’s to be done, action brings catharsis, even peace.

But, of course, to place yourself on any actual front, to witness face to face the destruction and perhaps, historically at least, the brutality of those charged with its execution, is no easy thing and many know only too clearly the toll it can take. But such protests are a reminder, certainly, of everything at stake. They can serve to make society that much more conscious, that much more determined to do what we can.

However much we may like to, we can’t all go off and set up in the woods, whatever the value of life out of doors. But, as this last year has reinforced for so many, time spent in nature can bring a great boon and can certainly help should the going be hard. And it can inform how we act, what we do.

One thing anyone concerned with the climate can do is get behind the campaign for the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill, currently making its way through the ‘Commons. The Bill is principally concerned with picking up where the Climate Change Act and the Paris Agreement left off; pressing for targets bolder than ‘net zero’ emissions by 2050; a target that has been described by Caroline Lucas as “calling for the fire brigade thirty years down the line”. The campaign is principally calling for people to write to and lobby their MP’s to urge them to support the Bill (100 MP’s in Parliament already do so). But there is an almost infinite scope of other means to lend your support, from banner drops to holding public meetings and principally spreading the word however you can to help make the campaign one no politician can afford to ignore.

For those younger, or more inclined to get their hands in the earth, there are all kinds of tree-planting initiatives, including ‘The Children’s Forest’ project, affiliated with the Forest School Association and which I will be writing more about soon. For now, it may be enough to say that it is rooted in envisioning a positive and bountiful future and to let that inform our actions, in this case creating abundant forests for future generations, borne first and foremost in our imaginations.

Perhaps that’s as much as we need to go on for a guiding light; we all know the pitfalls of despondency, denial and despair. But if we can picture the world we would like, strive for it sinew and soul, perhaps that can give us not only the wind in our sails but can help to tangibly create a kind of harbour for our future, however distant arrival may be, however much work it will take.

By Jim Hindle, Oct 25 2020 03:59PM

So for a while now, several years infact, I’ve been working on a book about the Pilgrims’ Way in England. Given one thing and another, it seemed wise and somewhat necessary, for me, to concentrate on something other than purely political writing for a while. And pilgrimage in general has been a pretty major backdrop for me these last few years; its potential for healthy transformation felt like the best thing I could do in a world that has sometimes felt harder to understand, or at least second guess, than at any time I can remember. The book’s in its final stages and I’ll certainly provide some notice here in the event of publication.

So, far from unmindful of everything at stake, I’ve set out on The Pilgrims’ Way and other routes at various times during this preceding decade. This particular Way takes in 120 or so miles through Hampshire, Surrey and Kent, begins in Winchester, ends in Canterbury and forms one of our most iconic pilgrimage routes on native soil. I was partly drawn to it for this reason alone; to help highlight a route more immediate, more accessible than continental options, which holds many merits in its own right and which a greater interest in would help take pressure off other, more popular, pilgrimage paths.

It also occurred to me early on that the story of - and stories associated with - this given route deserved fresh attention; not least that of Thomas Becket, whose martyrdom (850 years ago this December) inspired pilgrims to travel to the site in apparently huge numbers from all over Europe. His story is tied up with Henry II of course and the tale of power and piety, both taken to extremes, makes for a fascinating tale. But the story of the Pilgrims’ Way is also one of historical and cartographic myths, recounted as I make my incremental way along the many miles. Was Becket as Holy as they say? Or Henry that bad? And was the route itself as popular as the Victorians tells us? These questions and more rebounded in my mind as I began my research. But one figure encountered along the way stands out as much as that of Becket. Any visit to or treatment of Winchester cannot be complete without some kind of reference to the man.

Tomorrow, October 26th, is King Alfred’s Day; once a more-lauded date in our collective and not-so-distant past, a personality cult that was certainly in no way diminished by the extent of Victorian attention. But he was popular down the centuries ever since his reign; a saviour of the Anglo-Saxon world and founder, in effect, of what we now know of as England today. If Victorian sentiments in any way smart, we can remember that he was also - at one point - an underdog, faced repeated invasion at the hand of the Danes, endured constant threat and actual defeat for years. His story is immortalised in G.K. Chesterton’s ‘Ballad of the White Horse’; a poem which - as preacher and poet Malcolm Guite reminds us, (and whose rendition of the poem can be found here) - provided psychological sustenance for many soldiers in the two world wars. Both wars had been partly foreseen by GKC; both were partly products of a cult of violence, of that of the superman and of a nihilism the ballad was meant to offer some kind of antidote for.

As we gear up for this particular winter, can we draw some comfort from the story of this most iconic of our historical figures? Is it valid, at such a time as this, to think of Alfred beleaguered on the Isle of Athelney in the marshes of Somerset, his army reduced to little more than a bodyguard, resorting to guerrilla warfare, his fortunes at the lowest of ebbs?

As Guite puts it, at the heart of the poem is a call to courage regardless of the chances of success, a 'joy without cause' that Alfred is urged to adopt during a vision of the Virgin Mary. Perhaps the challenge the phrase presents; a kind of call to arms in a psychological sense, is as much as we need – to go forward out of a kind of bloody-mindedness, putting away expectations for now, not attaching our endeavours to thoughts of any particular results. Alfred was eventually successful of course, he led Wessex to victory over the Danes and won peace for a generation and the survival, and actual flourishing, of the Anglo-Saxon world; a world that, back in the marshes, had seemed in pretty dire straits.

Our own challenges of course are enough to focus our minds. And we can certainly say that, where the climate is concerned, there’s never been a point of greater focus, of greater attention paid to this ultimate threat to us all. That alone gives me hope that, even if the scale of the challenge looks daunting, and probably has been nothing else for some time now, if we can act with unity we can tap into the great reserves of what can happen when people come together from the knowledge of this greatest of crises.

Some see Athelney as Holy ground as it stands in remembrance that even when things seemed at their most bleak, the fate of the country was buoyed by resolve and a vision; a hardiness under duress. Chesterton’s account is mythic of course but while it may not be historically true, it taps into the spirit of the story, into the spirit of the tradition of the balladeers themselves. As such it takes its place as one of the last great epic English poems.

It takes its title from the most iconic of our hill figures; the White Horse of Uffington, under whose eye Alfred’s first great victory over the Danes at Ashdown was fought. Later in the poem we find him return to the horse, the scouring of weeds from its chalk symbolic of the value of vigilance in times of peace, renewing the spirit of the land and its people. Perhaps we can be at such a point of renewal now; that our current trials can temper us, give us new impetus to look again at our priorities, take stock of what is truly of value or not. Perhaps just as in the fires of the Second World War a new social contract was drawn up for the people, our efforts in this time can set a better course for the times ahead, where the earth herself is bestowed greater respect and protection, where the poor are lifted up from their duress, where we step forward into a greater equality, with a stronger belief in and vigilance towards our hard-won freedoms.

It’s easy to wheel out fine sentiments of course, just as we know that this winter and indeed the times ahead may not neccessarily be the least challenging we've ever faced. But this is surely not the first time we have faced a common foe. We could do worse than remember the spirit that drove our various historical efforts; it may yet be the best teacher we have for how we can hold fast, overcome and endure. And sometime soon, when this year is just a crazy memory and an excuse for endless anecdotes, may we all of us thrive, just as Alfred in his fought-for peace planted the seeds for a new wave of learning and bestowed a better future for an age.

By Jim Hindle, Jun 20 2020 03:14PM

listen and you’ll hear the silent pulse

of languid anglers in their linear host

Glastonbury week and all the small town dogs were pulling strings. But I wasn’t going there. Not to Glastonbury. It was a fierce June day, the tarmac was melting on the streets - which was bizarre because the man at the bar in the pub said he laid tar for a living, only on roofs for his part, not on the now liquefying roads. It was his day off at any rate and he’d been at a funeral. The bikers had been out, Hell’s Angels, to see off one of their own and later, having heard him talk about them, it was almost like they’d been crowding in the pub there with us, though the impression of this may have had something to do with the heat, or the beer.

Even then, half an hour later, lying in the little shade on the station’s single platform, watching the royal train hurtle by and feeling somehow let down that it hadn’t stopped, there seemed some sense of promise in the air. I left the station later in the absence of boardable trains and made my way up along the canal, the metal frame of the canvas rucksack heavy on my back.

I’d slept by a river the night before, in between it and the canal, a tributary snaking off directly opposite where I’d pitched my tent in the rough of the woods. This other body of water dropped away out of sight between two sandstone pillars but the noise of the invisible weir made its presence more than obvious and it lulled me into a kind of trance as I sat there, eating frugally from my ex-army hexi-block stove, wondering just when I’d have to get inside my old-school ridgepole tent to escape the midges. There in the twilight, surrounded by trees and the sound of the water and the simple fatigue from having been walking all day, it felt like many things suddenly made some kind of extra sense, or amounted to some sense of heightened awareness that was more about the peace of place than anything cerebral. That sense has not entirely left me even now.

The walk had been a kind of induction to canals, from the crusties squatting in the disused railway grounds by the towpath in Oxford, being disparaging about the size of my rucksack (a criticism that strangers are prone to making two decades later) to the silent pulse of lines of anglers that populated much of the rest of the way. The flat-backed brown of factories north of the city slowly gave way to green fields and thickly overhanging sycamores and I’d return to Oxford later on, walk along other waterways, begin to grow familiar with willows. Tolkien knew these rivers well, and the Cherwell which I sat by that evening and which runs so close to the Oxford canal, chimes in with his description of ‘a dark river of brown water, bordered with ancient willows, arched over with willows, blocked with fallen willows, and flecked with thousands of fallen willow leaves.’

In meadows further on I met a couple of fellow travellers, tied dyed and purple and red in early-nineties archetypal glory and it was like an initiation, the height of things, the rolling call of summer on the move so that even the dual carriageways, where the water and footpath passed beneath them, seemed to help define the things they weren’t; the things that summer held that the carriageways’ constant scour of tires on concrete didn’t hold and simply never could.

It had been one of many walks that summer, the first a walk to a girlfriend in a village out on the edge of the fens. It took me three days walking, two nights under a tarp or a tree, skirting reservoirs and long, low paths and villages with older women half deranged with solitude or just with the green of the hills. And at the very end, in the kitchen of the old farmhouse my girlfriend’s family called home, there was a sweetness half made up of every yard and mile I’d covered, knowing it had bought this moment closer. There was a sense of timelessness, of being far removed from phones or networks, even from roads and travel at high speed. The old house stood in witness to all this, like the building knew us all already and somehow smiled on us all being there.

Up at the end of the towpath, or at least the end of it for me, past scores of boaties offering me tea, the fields of the camp laid themselves out with the sense of something now fulfilled, the village full of alleyways and déjà vu, the beer as sweet as anything I could remember. It was a first induction to a summer on the paths and tracks and what it meant to be out walking all day long. The flattened fields of Fens and what led to them, the starlit market towns, the paths that led up to the hills and borders and the country on their other side – these things all lay in wait or stretched behind in diminishing perspectives as all the new paths opened out. For now there was just that weekend and everything that summer held; all tiredness transformed with the knowledge of an immanent arrival.

By Jim Hindle, May 11 2020 01:28PM

And so the days roll on. Has it been two months now? Even longer? We wait for a change in the days, some uptick of experience where we can all walk bold and bright and put away this tribulated moment.

Is it enough for now to think of the bird on the bough, the flower ringing loud from out the wood? Spring is still a heady brew, the jackdaws make their way from roof to roof, scavenging the gleanings in the tiles and wrens sing out like crests of sun made audible, a buzzard soaring somewhere like a memory of grace.

And can we still believe or even dream that there was once some kind of covenant, a pledge between the world and us, when we were humble husbands and the earth was vast and it never seemed there’d come a day when her resources would ever run scarce?

I walk through the invisible arms of the green in the air and only know that this is our inheritance, as sure as the ground and the sun and wonder whether, if we still took care of all the world would that improve our worldly lot, the sum of our existence in our too-brief lives that are spun down generations past and generations still to be so that we are no less a part of this unbroken chain than the thrush in the dawn of the day.

When the virus has played out, when immunity grows or the vaccines come good or we somehow fudge or stumble or calculate our way into some sense of better reckoning will we remember all this? That we are as dependant on the leaf of each tree as they are upon our every action when we hold such great responsibility? We have a chance, if only just, to change our ways and that is a charge for for each and every one of us in our collective surge – for just as surely as we hunker down in flats or bedsits or other dwellings relatively palatial, humanity is at a crest of knowing how we all can be, alone together as the saying is but reaching out as if and in the knowledge that our very lives depend on it, depend upon it like the air that drifts so sweet down city streets as we enjoy deliverance from engines.

We can point fingers at wet markets, the demand for wild meat in certain far flung corners of the globe, even if it’s useless now to cast the blame. We can draw quite obvious conclusions, anthropomorphise the natural world when anthropocentricism arguably forms much of our original sin. If this was the will of the world we have wounded can making reparations in our will and intent and every action help right the ship? Whatever the cause, however meaningful or arbitrary, there’s certainly poetic truth that this human crisis rides on the back of that of our ecology.

As wiser minds than mine have pointed out ecology and economy share the same root; ‘Oikos’ in Greek. ‘Oikos’ translates as home, ‘Logos’ as knowledge. ‘Nomos’ as management. And so ‘ecology’ gives us ‘the knowledge of home’ where ‘economics’ mean ‘the management of home’. How can you manage a thing you don’t know? We cannot have one without the other. Just as home means a place for the family, ecology implies a knowledge of the families we share this planet with.

Would it help in our hour of need to promise to the world outside our doors that when we all come through from this we’ll make a place again for the green in our lives; honour it, give back to it, make a greater space for it in our hearts and in that of our children?

We all know that so much of what we’re going through is far from easy. Nothing I say here is meant to make light of or ignore the challenges so many people are dealing with. But we all know the situation as it is; it doesn't need further rehearsal here. Suffice to say we still have choices in how respond to all this, with the attitude and stance we choose to meet it.

The very experience of having something so fundamental as human proximity removed can counter-intuitvely hold a strange potential, an enforced denial that will make our eventual freedoms all the sweeter when they are finally restored. We will certainly be less likely to ever take them for granted again. Temporary separation can strengthen our inner reserves. Even as we open up to one another, reach out across seeming divides, our spirits tempered by the distances but still unbowed, we can all walk out of this the stronger, warmer, ready to make the most of every moment, to not turn a blind eye to given opportunities, to see each neighbour as a sign of, an expression of humanity itself.

And we have the chance, made all the starker by any dwelling on mortality, to step up to take care of the living green lungs of our forests, the bloodstream of our rivers and oceans, the land itself, the very earth: our heart. For we’re bound to protect this as surely as we care for one another, as surely as when this current crisis is finished it will feel like stepping out from a cave, into a world all the newer, the brighter, its potential simply ringing in our ears.

By Jim Hindle, Apr 5 2020 02:26PM

Is this the time to look for compensation? At least we finally can say it’s truly Spring. Those that can will walk and listen to the birdsong and maybe even find a little peace; unlooked for or prayed for, unlikely but making a pure kind of sense. God knows we need such moments. A friend of mine watches a raven for how long he doesn’t quite know. Others gather weeds along newly familiar paths. I shelter from the suddenly seasonal sun, think about summer, feel a strange sense of assurance that might have nothing and everything to do with my own one temporal fate.

Will things be different after all of this? Will the flights resume, the factories stutter back into some kind of guttural life? Bars, cafes, shops stammer open like nothing has happened at all and we’ll wipe away the salt of weeks alone or crammed in close confinement? Gratitude right now seems pretty likely; a bloody-minded courtesy, acknowledging we still can breathe, we still can take in each day in the air like it was our first.

And somehow we must all of us come through; survivors, witnesses, beleaguered or hopeful and strong. It’s no time for sweeping statements, triumphalist crows that we know when the end is in sight, or that this is all part of some grand scheme of nature, that there is reason for this other than some random roulette. We can give in to terror, despair but we might as well be optimistic or look for very major silver linings.

It’s not some random fantasy to say there may be some grace in this, or chance of it, if we can take the perspective that we might in the long run be getting thrown a line. A frenetic world of global commerce, global travel has just hit the brakes. We might as well enjoy the sudden peace. We have a chance to stop and think, reflect on the lives we’ve been leading. Can we imagine our way out of this?

Maybe we’ll be able to step forward into a world where just-in-time networks of supply and demand are replaced by something more resilient, that we can source and grow the goods we need a little closer to home, where we’re all weaning off a glut of luxury but still live well and maybe a little more honestly, not dependent on imports whose source we can’t name, where conditions of labour or livestock are hushed out of sight. Maybe we’ll see a return of the domestic economy, hollowed out in the 20’s and 30’s, where we’re all a little more self-reliant. How many containers of latest electronics does the world really need? How much of our once innate ability to source our needs at home or close to it are we happy to continue to acquiesce? How much do we really want to spend large parts of our working week in little boxes, hurtling their cargo to horizons whose value we’ve only too nearly forgotten?

No one would wish these times on another or any others we do not consider our clan. For we all connected now, connected in brightness and grief. But we owe it to ourselves and one another, to everyone huddled in hospital beds and most of all to the children to see there are gifts here if we can only see them as such. Somebody somewhere appeared to hit pause and now we can think and plan and even dream. We can think on the state of the planet today, her all-too-clear signs of distress, how we can help her, the habits we can break, how we can renew our commitments (or make them at all if now new), how we can seek to redeem the unspoken bond we have broken, a rift that may have something to do with our current plight, as if our collective survival rests in a natural corrective.

Whether we see the virus as a desperate manifestation of the will of the world to endure or something far more arbitrary is arguably besides the point. Whatever the reason for it and whatever our thoughts, we can see that while no one would wish for the virus, it’s still giving us a chance. The kind of world we all step into when the its threat recedes may depend on the degree to which we can reimagine our world, reimagine our place upon it, how we can serve it, cast away the things that hinder or obstruct.

We’re used at times like these to being told we are enduring a great trial, are being put to the test, tempered, told we must be strong. And all of these are true. We can pull upon the deep well of our inner reserves; our patience, compassion and will to endure. We can show the extent of collective resolve, our ability to adapt and our strength in adversity’s face. And we can meditate on that which can bring us all peace; our own peace of mind and that of those all around us; at times like these its necessity is only made clearer than ever.

But there’s another element as well; that we are being given opportunities, if we can see them. The degree to which we can make the most of them may depend upon our ability to walk with eyes open, to imagine, and dream again, dream harder. Our future remains a thing we can all of us shape. We now have a chance to just stop and slow down and reflect how we do so. We have a little time. And perhaps time is all that is called for, for now, that all our haste and rush, our daily and global migrations, our obsession with efficiencies has been for so long such a part of the problem. We have the chance to remember to just be ourselves; an estrangement its high time to heal.

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