GreenBiz Reads

Why we shouldn't try to save the world

What would we see if we slowed down and paid attention?

Excerpt from “Withdrawal,” from Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, by Paul Kingsnorth. Copyright by Paul Kingsnorth. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota,

In 1966, the Scottish artist Ian Hamilton Finlay bought a derelict farm in the Pentland Hills, which he spent decades transforming into a sculpture and poetry garden he named Little Sparta. For years, he barely left the place. But when friends suggested that he had simply built himself a retreat in which to hide from reality, Finlay put them straight. "Certain gardens," he replied, "are described as retreats when they are really attacks."

What did he mean? Perhaps that the beauty and meaning he was constructing around him was an attack on the kind of world that thinks it is meaningless to do something so small, so local, so specific. To tend a garden, to learn to be humble, to use your skills locally rather than globally: none of this will "save the world," none of it is easy to rally large groups of people behind, none of it makes a good slogan. And yet, it has an impact. Finlay said that one of the things he learned by building his garden was simply that "you can change a bit of the actual world by taking out a spade of earth."

We live in a culture that idolizes "big-picture thinking" and dismisses small-picture anything; that puts a premium on action and belittles contemplation. Even those of us who would like to see a very different world from the one we are living in often help to perpetuate its values with our habitual rushing around and our insistence on change over stillness. We are the people of the West, and we believe that the world must be gripped and turned to a shape. Sometimes I think that "saving the world" is just another way of controlling it.

I see this every day in my own life. I’m writing this essay in a hut at the top of our field. It is a small field, about an acre and a half, hemmed by blackthorn and maple and oak trees, which runs flat for half its length and then rolls down towards an old boreen. The previous owners had cows in it, but with the animals gone it has been running riot. Dock and creeping buttercup have sprouted everywhere, and everything has grown faster than I would have imagined possible. Until I moved here I hadn’t known that a bramble creeper can grow by a foot a day. Or at any rate, it seems like it.

In reaction to this, my first instinct was to panic and my second was to take control. Something had to be done! The place was a mess. We had to decide what we were going to do with this field and then do it, quickly, before it became unmanageable. In other words, we needed to grip and dominate the field, shape it to our use, even though we didn’t know what that use was because we haven’t yet decided what to actually do with it.

Slowly, very slowly, I am learning to relax about this. I am learning that it doesn’t matter if I don’t know what to do and I am learning, more significantly, that the field itself is not simply a canvas on which I can impose my designs, but a living thing with which I need to negotiate a relationship. Until I see what it is doing, what is growing where, where the wet parts are, where the frost gathers in winter, what trees are in the hedges and what birds are feeding from them, I can’t make any useful decisions about anything.

Until I slow down and pay attention, I am more likely to do damage than anything else, and I am more likely to create unnecessary work for myself.

So, recently, I had an idea. I would walk the boundaries of this field once a day for a year, and I would write down what I saw. By the end of the year, I would understand the land better. I would force myself to pay attention: something I’m not instinctively good at doing. I would tear myself out of my head and put myself into this place. I would slow down.

These days, when I feel like mounting an attack, these few green acres seem like the best place to plant my weapons. Because coming here is an attack on myself as well. It is a challenge I issue to the part of me that likes to build abstractions or theories designed to pin the world down and is tempted to issue rallying cries and sketch out easy answers. It says: here is the mess and the complexity and the hard work. Never mind your concepts. Do you know how to use a mattock?

Of course, I would be lying if I pretended that coming here wasn’t also a retreat: it is. It is a retreat from the noise and the stink of the cities, from people with their heads buried in their iPhones. It is a retreat from the tech-soaked iniquities of the modern school system, a retreat from all the marketing bullshit that is thrown at me as I walk down any urban street any day of the week. 

It is a retreat to a place where I can make myself known, and that I can begin to know. A place where I can gather sloes from the hedges and make them into gin and stack the bottles on top of my fridge and watch them turn slowly crimson over months. Where I can stand on my porch, as I did last night, chopping seasoned beech logs into kindling and watching the sky grow pink in the west. 

Where I can take a walk down the lane with my small daughter, and on the way back I can watch her climb a farm gate to pick wild plums from a roadside tree and run home with her pockets full. I doubt I had even seen a wild plum at her age. I call that an education.

This is what I came here for, and in these small moments I remember that. Yes, it is a retreat. But it is not just a retreat. I have more work to do than ever; it is just a different kind of work. I’ve thought for years that the best way to put a spanner in the consumer dystopia that is unfolding is to ground yourself in a place and to learn to do things with your hands — actually learn to do them, not just write about learning to do them. Grow your own carrots, learn to use an axe and a scythe, know where the sun falls and what the trees do and what is growing in the laneways. Get to know your neighbors, put down roots and stay even when you don’t want to stay. Be famous, as Gary Snyder so wonderfully suggested, for fifteen miles.

So I’m trying to tune myself into where I am. I’m trying to force myself to slow down and listen. It doesn’t come naturally, but when I do it, I feel my perspective subtly shift. I notice the different sounds made by red-tailed and white-tailed bumblebees, or the cackling of the rook on the chimney pot in the morning, or the different times the hawthorn and the blackthorn flower.

Most of what lives on this land never notices me. I am learning what to make of it, slowly and clumsily and often impatiently, and it is work that I will never get enough of, and I will never master. Nothing can be done, I think now, except what can be done. Whenever I leave this place, and however, I’d like it to be richer than it was when I found it.

"Do you think it could be a general rule," Berry asked Snyder towards the end of 1979, "that the only place one is urgently needed is at home?" I think it could be. I think it is.