Last weekend, we stole a couple of days away again. Again in the van. Again to Wales. Land of the Dragon. Mid-Wales this time. North of the Brecon Beacons. Around Builth Wells. An area we know less well.
Sam was away camping with friends in Pembrokeshire. We had been working like crazy on the house and garden. Painting the bathroom. Installing the new greenhouse. Clearing a lot of old stuff out. We are thinking about doing bed and breakfast to generate some income. We have a house that has spare rooms. Is too big for us, really. But, we love it. So, if we want to stay, we have to find a way for it to generate some cash. So, in preparation, we have been tidying up two bedrooms. Making them potential guest rooms. Which means going through all the rubbish that has accumulated over the years. Filled up cupboards and drawers. Deciding what we need to keep. What we need to throw away. Which is hard. Takes a surprising amount of energy. Had left us exhausted. So tired we almost didn’t bother to go. Let’s just stay here. Not bother. But, deep down, we knew we needed a break. A change of scenery. To spend a couple of days away from the house and decisions regarding it.
We were glad we did. We stayed at a lovely campsite called Fforest Fields at a place called Hundred House. I highly recommend it. Especially if you have a dog. Wales can be a challenging place for dog walking. Due to all the sheep. Much of Wales is covered in hills. Which is part of why we like it so much. The hills make it unsuitable for a lot of arable farming. But perfect for grazing sheep. Consequently, Wales is covered in sheep. Dogs like to chase sheep. Fun for them. But not the sheep. Or sheep farmers. So, Holly often has to spend a lot of time in Wales on her lead. Which she doesn’t like. She is a dog that loves to run. Has to run. She is half collie and has a strong genetic impulse to herd sheep. The other half is spaniel, so she has an equally strong impulse to chase things that move. Rabbits and squirrels rank highly in her list of things to chase. If she catches them, she kills them. We don’t want to find out what would happen if she caught a sheep. Which part of her genetic coding would win? The collie’s desire to herd and gather together? Or the spaniel catch and kill? We do not care to find out. We are very careful with Holly around sheep.
Now, Fforest Fields is a campsite on a working hill farm. A working sheep farm. You would imagine that this would not work well with dogs, but the site is very cleverly thought out so that dogs and sheep are kept separate. The dogs have miles of footpaths to explore where there are no sheep. Dogs can be safely off lead. Owners can relax. So can sheep. Brilliant.
So, Day One, we spent exploring the maze of paths in the campsite grounds. We enjoyed getting mildly lost in the woods. Finding the fishing lake. And the boating lake. Following signposts to the pub in Hundred House. Buying a meal there. Making our way back to the campsite as darkness began to gather around us. Earlier now. A sign that we are in late Summer now. Just enough light left for a final circuit of the boating lake. Whereupon, Holly picked up the scent of a couple of ducks and decided that it was a good idea to hurl herself into the lake in pursuit of them. It took a while to coax her out. So, as night fell, we were presented with a soaking wet shivering dog smelling powerfully of duck pond. The perfect companion for a cozy night in a small campervan. We towelled her off as best we could. Banished her outside for as long as our consciences could bear. Then allowed her in and tried to ignore the smell.
As we lay, sharing our bed with the disgraced, disgraceful hound, we planned Day Two. We had both noticed that there was a way-marked walk across a nearby ridge to a dog-friendly pub. There were reputed to be fantastic ridge-top views of the Wye valley. The pub was supposed to serve good food. 5 miles there. 4 back by a shorter route. Sounded great. We didn’t have an OS map but we had a photo-copy of a part of one which showed the route. And it said the route was way-marked. Just follow the white-topped posts. Easy. No problem.
Which is how we ended up on Day Two completely lost, having walked considerably more than 5 miles, trying to find the right way off the ridge. Now, I know that, in past blogs, I have been an advocate of the benefits of getting lost, but, let’s be honest, sometimes being lost is just a massive pain in the back-side. We ended up coming down off the ridge heading for a farm, following a way-marked path, finding ourselves in a small churchyard. Which was, indeed, in the middle of a farm. The tiny church was an attractive building, if in a somewhat incongruous setting, but what attracted our attention more was the massive yew tree that grew beside it. Dwarfed it. It was clear that this was an old tree. It must have been at least six feet in diameter. I am not good at estimating size – a UK child of the 70s, I am perpetually caught between imperial and metric, the result of the never-ending British indecision over embracing Europe or holding on to our watery separation – but this was the biggest yew I have ever seen. So, probably the oldest. It certainly felt, looking at it, that the church was the younger element in the scene. That the church was there because the yew had been there and not the other way round. The yew was the senior partner here.
A friendly farmer appeared from an adjacent agricultural building and confirmed what we had felt. The tree was old. It had been carbon dated at three thousand years old. The farmer cheerily informed us that there was another yew in a nearby valley that was over five thousand years old and the oldest living thing in Europe. So, our suspicions had been correct. The yew we were looking at had been there a lot longer than the church. It had been here before the Romans even brought Christianity to our island. Probably, the church was here because the yew was here. Probably, marking a place of worship from before Christ was born.
Yew is often associated with church yards. And so with death. And it is poisonous. But this tree seemed more to do with life than death. A natural monument to the endurance of life. And a reminder that human life is not the only life on this planet. That our human measurement of Time is only one possible measurement of time amongst many. We tend to think about Time in a very human-centric way. We judge the results of our actions in relation to this notion of Time. We want to see the results of our labours. If we work on a project, we expect to see the results. Generally, the quicker, the better. So, the Government of a country is judged on what it can achieve in a three to five year term of office. A school is deemed to be successful if it can train it’s students to achieve good exam results – again in a five year time frame. A business has to keep showing growth year upon year or the shareholders will jump ship. We seem incapable of thinking beyond a five year future. We have become so impatient.
How, ridiculous must we look to that yew tree. Racing around, believing that we are achieving great things. That tree knows the truth that comes with a different experience of Time. That tree has seen civilisations rise and fall. Seen the plans and dreams of countless men amount to nothing in the end. Seen stone quarried from the earth, built into churches, painted and worshipped with hour upon hour of toil and attention. Only to be worn down by wind and rain. Slower, more powerful than Man’s will or imagination. Eventually returning to the Earth from whence it came. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.
Which, perhaps, explains the yew’s association with Death. It is Modern Man’s inability to contemplate his own demise that leads to our obsession with quick fixes. An obsession that is becoming increasingly damaging to the planet. It is as if, because we are incapable of confronting the reality of our inevitable deaths, we behave as if the only consequences that matter are those that happen within our lifetimes. If we cannot see the consequences of an action, then it is not real – there is no consequence. But, of course, there are consequences. Consequences that may not be felt for several generations. But consequences none the less.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the way we view the mineral wealth of this planet. We behave as if the earth belongs to us. We need electricity. We need it now. We need power. We need oil. We need it now. So, we will claw the last fossil fuels from the earth. Fuels that took longer to make than Man has been on the planet. And when it is all gone. When we can see there is no more. Then, we will think about where to get more power. We will use our human Time frame to judge how to use resources created by forces operating on a totally different Time frame. We will behave as if, somehow, we are in charge. As if our Time frame is more powerful than the Planet’s. We would do well to remember the yew tree. The Elemental forces than govern our planet. The winds and the rains that eventually reduce all our monuments to dust. Those forces do not care about Human Time. They are like a slowly turning, unstoppable wheel. A wheel which will just grind over us if we stand in it’s way.
We need to stop telling ourselves that we are in charge. That we are something other than just a part of the Natural world. That we are somehow outside Nature and therefore able to control it. That it is just there for us to use. It is the big problem I have with Christianity – it seems to hold as central the concept that Mankind is separate from Nature. Has dominion over it. We are cast out of the Garden. Given stewardship. Forever other. I think that, ultimately, that is a dangerous story to tell. Benign, maybe even useful, as long as Man remains humble. Remembers that he is just a servant. That there are higher forces. But, all too easily, Mankind becomes arrogant. Begins to believe that he has all the answers. That there is nothing that we cannot know. Nothing we cannot understand. Nothing we cannot control. This is the story Science tells. Don’t worry. We can fix it. We can make the planet adapt to our will. Make the planet support our own ends. We can do anything. Given Time.
How arrogant and deluded we are. If only we could see the world through the eyes of that yew tree. Gain some perspective. Learn to live as a part of the Natural world – not it’s owner. Judge our actions, as older, wiser cultures did, not on the effects we see now, but on their impact in seven generations time. Start to look at things in terms of Planetary Time. Elemental Time.
Another way we see the consequences of Modern Man’s warped view of Time is in our cultures worship of Youth and consequent devaluing of Old Age. We put high value on the go-getting, entrepreneurial energy of Youth. The energy that initiates change, gets new projects off the ground, encourages growth. And there is a time and place for that. It is a necessary energy. But, we seem to have forgotten the value of Old Age. Old Age has an energy too. It is the energy of consolidation. Of Wisdom. The energy that grounds us. Reminds us of what is important. It is the energy that gives Meaning. It is just as necessary. Because it is the balance to Youth. Without Age, Youth has no point. Without Youth, Age will cease to exist. They compliment each other. Need each other.
But what does our culture do? It exalts Youth. Over values it. Promotes it outside its proper place. Makes it something to hang on to. And it demonizes Old Age. Makes it something to be avoided. Something to be ashamed of. So, you are sold creams that can “Banish the effects of ageing.” If we buy this product we can “Look ten years younger.” All the time, the same story – Youth is good, to be hung on to. Age is bad, to be avoided. Which is a part of the bigger story we tell ourselves – the Big Lie – that we are not a part of Nature. That we can change it. Fix it. Make it better. And so we try and avoid the Big Truth. We are part of Nature. Subject to Nature’s laws. Ruled by Nature’s Time. We are born. We are Young for a while. Then we grow Old. Then we die. Then there is a bigger Mystery that is beyond understanding. That is how it is. No choice in the matter. It is about time we learned to accept this. Learned to grow old gracefully. Learned to see the older members of our society, not as a burden to be carried, but as a valuable asset to be respected and learned from.
Many friends of mine are retired or coming up to retirement. And retirement as a concept deserves some consideration. Retirement from what? From work. At least from a certain narrow view of work. A particular economic view of what constitutes useful work. It is certainly not retirement from life. The retired people I know put a huge amount back into the communities of which they are part. Freed from the need to serve the economic machine, the insatiable appetite of which they have spent their lives so far feeding, they volunteer their time to look after grand-children, sit on councils, set up fitness groups and devote their time to helping society function well in countless other ways. These people are vital to the good health of our society. But this is not the dominant story of Old Age that we hear. We hear about the economic burden of carrying an ageing population. We hear about Old People as victims of crime. As patients in hospitals. As a problem.
How silly. How sad. How partial. Isn’t it time we grew up and learned to celebrate all the stages of our human journey through Time. Learned to take a wider view. Celebrate Youth. Celebrate Age. Celebrate Death. We may as well. There’s no stopping them.