Hoping against hope

My post for #Advent 12 on the Parkology blog on the theme of hope.

Today is the feast day of St John of the Cross, Spanish mystic and poet. He is best known for “The Dark Night of the Soul”, which describes the difficulties met by the soul in seeking union with God. Here’s an English version of his poem “Tras de un amoroso lance”, which beautifully captures a number of types of hope: the initial optimism leading to seeming success; the ‘nearly there’ hope; the ‘shot in the dark’ hope; the hope in the face of despair; and the willed hope – hope is achieved by hoping.

Full of hope I climbed the day
while hunting the game of love,
and soared so high, high above
that I at last caught my prey.

In order to seize the game
– the divine love in the sky –
I had to fly so high, high
I floated unseen and became
lost in that dangerous day;
and so my flight fell short of
height — yet so high was my love
that I at last caught my prey.

Dazzled and stunned by light
as I rose nearer the sun,
my greatest conquest was won
in the very black of night.
Yet since love opened my way
I leapt dark, blindly above
and was so high, near my love,
that at last I caught my prey.

In this most exalted quest
the higher I began to soar
the lower I felt — more sore
and broken and depressed.
I said: None can seize the prey!
and groveled so low, so low
that high, higher did I go,
and at last I caught my prey.

By strange reckoning I saw
a thousand flights in one flight;
for hope of heavenly light
is achieved by hoping now.
I hoped only for this way
and was right to wait for love,
and climbed so high, high above
that at last I caught my prey.

St John of the Cross
English version by Willis Barnstone


Watching for the Kingfisher

The Parkology group is posting (mostly) daily during Advent, focusing on ‘What gives you hope?’ Here is what I posted for #Advent 3. The poem is from Ann Lewin’s book “Watching for the Kingfisher“. I see she has also recently published “Come Emmanuel: Approaching Advent, Living with Christmas.

Prayer is like watching for the Kingfisher.
All you can do is
Be where he is likely to appear, and
Often, nothing much happens;
 There is space, silence and Expectancy.
No visible sign, only the Knowledge that he’s been there
And may come again.
Seeing or not seeing cease to matter,
You have been prepared.
But sometimes, when you’ve almost
Stopped expecting it,
A flash of brightness
Gives encouragement.

Ann Lewin, “Disclosure”


Synod and the unengaged majority

So the measure got 94% approval in the House of Bishops, 77% in the House of Clergy, and 64% in the House of Laity, but it was still lost, by six votes. It might not be a rejection of women bishops, just the enabling legislation, but it sure feels like a rejection to me.

A lovely priest in Exeter has written: “I for one am a total mess today and don’t mind admitting it. It has nothing to do with aspiring to a ‘pointy hat’ (what woman wants to be 6ft8 anyway?) but everything to do with feeling that you are second class in every way, an issue for the church and problem to have around…”. She put the words into my mouth.

I feel angry, disheartened, frustrated that the vote means women will remain second-class adherents for at least three more years. I don’t want to be Bishop, and I don’t feel called to be a priest. I actually think in some way I’m called to be a lay person.

When various commentators express their sadness for women priests, and not for women laity too, they are making the issue more about advancement than equality and justice. So alongside the anger, a feeling of almost fierce gladness has surfaced – that of all the houses it was the House of Laity that brought it down, because now the laity are in the spotlight. If women are second-class citizens, the laity are third-class citizens, well behind the bishops and priests (so I guess that makes the women laity sixth-class citizens).

Christina Rees, a lay member of Synod has said: “It feels as if the House of Laity betrayed the entire Church of England last night.” To me, it feels as if the Church of England has betrayed the laity over many years.

Many have said that the House of Laity result is not representative of the views of the laity: 42 of 44 dioceses supported the proposed unamended legislation, and 80% of active church members are in favour of women bishops. But the House of Laity is where decisions are made, and decisions made by those who show up. The House of Laity not representative of the laity because it has become dominated by special interests, by those of extreme views who tend to be more energised and self-selecting.

Why do the rest of us not stand for Deanery, Diocesan and General Synods? Many reasons. Because many talented people have not been encouraged to stand – it has not occurred to them, or they consider themselves not worthy. Or because they have work and families, and General Synod requires taking three weeks out of a busy schedule. Or because they have tried church meetings in the past and found them rife with conservatism, boring and irrelevant – in my case, two PCCs, one Cathedral Community Committee, and occasional guest attendance at Deanery and Diocesan Synod meetings. Exeter Diocese is more clericalised than most, and maybe I should have tried harder. Maybe I would have tried harder if I hadn’t had to address the chair (as “Madame Chairman”) before I could speak, or submit items for AOB in advance – the Spirit blows where she wills, anyone?

So why did WATCH not manage to pack the House of Laity with supporters? Did they try? And why does the Church of England not quote the views of the laity in its press responses to the vote? The secular media at least managed that. Could it be that the laity are not valued in the church? What in fact we heard yesterday was the still small voice of the unengaged and unloved majority.

Some links and sources:


Changed “days out of a busy schedule” to “three weeks out of a busy schedule”.

More links and sources:


Surname migration

The Great Britain Family Names website allows you to find out where your surname comes from, and how many people share it. Bryden isn’t that common, but what interests me is the geographical spread. Even though the last century has been one of unprecedented mobility, there is still a clear concentration around southwest Scotland. My family and I are all diaspora, south of the Watford Gap.


Interestingly, Brydon is concentrated in southeast Scotland. The suffixes have different origins:

  • DEN at the end of the place name is usually derived from denn, which meant pasture, usually for pigs.
  • DON is usually derived from the word ‘dun’, which meant hill. The South Downs were the South Duns.

The Power of We: Congo Calling

Yesterday was Blog Action Day, and I’m late again! But I’m using the opportunity to highlight the Congo Calling campaign. Mobile phones are powerful tools for communication and bringing people together, but they leave a bloody trail. I lifted the following from the Congo Calling website, where there is more information on the issues and how to take action. 14-20 October is also Congo Week.

Congo Calling

We demand fairtrade food and fairtrade clothes. It is time to demand fairtrade phones.

What has this to do with the Congo? Well, every mobile phone contains the mineral Coltan, which is mined in the Congo. This natural wealth could bring many benefits to the ordinary people of the Congo, but instead it is funding armed conflict and horrific abuses.

Congo Calling’s vision is for a peaceful and just Congo, where people can live in stable and prosperous communities, where children are not enlisted, where women are not raped as an instrument of war, and where miners work for fair wages in human conditions.

Mobile phones are currently part of the problem, but could be part of the solution. Our first aims, therefore, are:

  • the UK government leads enforcement of pre-existing UN regulations on illicit mineral trade;
  • mineral supply chains are vigorously regulated by sympathetic governments; 
  • those who exploit the natural wealth and the people of the Congo for their own gain face sanctions, whether large corporations or corrupt individuals;
  • manufacturers make conflict-free phones that include minerals from the Congo;
  • purchasers and users of mobile phones are aware of the situation in the Congo;
  • the ethical consumer choice is transparent and appealing.

Congo Calling was launched off the back of Bandi Mbubi’s thought-provoking talk given at TEDxExeter on the 20th April 2012 – to a standing ovation. There was so much enthusiasm and interest in working towards fairtrade phones and clean mineral campaigns, and a very real human momentum has built up in response to Bandi’s talk.

A seed was sown, an idea worth spreading. Please use your mobile phone and be part of the solution.


Buy this

In The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith, Walter Brueggemann writes: “A symbolic sense of the term affirms that land is never simply physical dirt but is always physical dirt freighted with social meanings derived from historical experience. A literal sense of the term will protect us from excessive spiritualization, so that we recognize that the yearning for land is always a serious historical enterprise concerned with historical power and belonging. Such a dimension is clearly played upon by the suburban and exurban real estate ads that appeal to that rapacious hunger. Land is always fully historical but always bearer of over-pluses of meaning known only to those who lose and yearn for it. The current loss of and hunger for place participate in those plus dimensions – at once a concern for actual historical placement, but at the same time a hunger for an over-plus of place meaning. This dialectic belongs to our humanness. Our humanness is always about historical placement in the earth, but that historical placement always includes excess meanings both rooted in and moving beyond literalism.”

Yesterday I cycled past this estate agent’s sign. Its confused message beautifully illustrates Brueggemann’s words.

On one hand, it presents us with the possibility of buying a “piece of Devon”, which, even though it applies to one of many large properties in the street in the middle of Exeter, conjures up images of England’s green and pleasant land, a piece of bucolic, rural, real and rooted heaven, your own cosy and snuggly-safe place.

On the other hand, the instruction is to “Buy this”, and not “Own this”. It is merely a financial transaction, an unloved impermanent investment which can be sold on tomorrow. The appeal to purchase power is set against the promise of belonging, and so our “rapacious hunger” goes ever unsated. After all, this “piece of Devon” turns out to be a second floor maisonette!

Brueggemann continues: “Most of all, it has been the failure of an urban promise that has reopened the question. That promise concerned human persons who could lead detached, unrooted lives of endless choice and no commitment. It was glamorized around the virtues of mobility and anonymity that seemed so full of promise for freedom and self-actualization. But it has failed… It is now clear that a sense of place is a human hunger that the urban promise has not met.”

This leads me to the question: “Is it possible to develop a sense of place in ‘my piece’ of suburban Exeter?”, or more optimistically “How can I develop a sense of place?”, or even “Are this blog and the activities it describes helping me to develop a sense of place, and can I extend that to my neighbours?”


Municipal-planting-rowan jelly

There’s a rowan tree planted beside the bus stop on Grecian Way, and this autumn it’s laden with bright red berries.

In the spirit of my wamble with forager Mark Lane, I nipped out on Thursday to cut a few sprays of berries. There’s something about suburbia that makes me feel slightly guilty whenever I do anything more exotic in public than mowing my front lawn or walking or cycling to get somewhere. Certainly, the dog-walker gave me strange looks as I jumped to grab branches and snipped away with my secateurs. But it’s not in anyone’s garden, I was taking a very small fraction of the berries, and the rest will only fall down and make a mess on the pavement. So it’s probable I should feel eccentric*, but why feel guilty?

Anyway, way back in the time, my uncle gave me a book on Wild Food, which includes recipes for rowan wine and rowan jelly. The jelly offers more instant rewards, and a chance for a case-control study of the impact on taste and clarity of the addition of apple.

First things first, the interweb-thingy suggested ‘denaturing’ the berries by freezing them. So I did, even though boiling them to a mush might be thought to have enough of an effect. Here they are, just out of the freezer; only 300g, but it took me not much more than a minute to pick them, and there’s enough for my experiment.


And here are the finished products. I started off with the same total weights of fruit and volume of water, so it’s odd that I got more than twice as much from the rowan-apple mix. I tipped the rowan-apple mush on top of the rowan mush in the jelly bag, so a bit more wouldn’t have been a surprise, but twice as much? I think the rowan-solo is slightly clearer, but the taste is pretty astringent, and adding the apple makes a milder jelly. I think I’ll try them both with plain scones and clotted cream, and with lamb.

One further note. It would be better to take berries from trees that are not by the side of a road. The concern is that run-off from the road – oil and general toxic yuk – gets taken up by the roots and concentrated in the fruit. Grecian Way isn’t very busy, but there are a few buses. So if I ever make any more, I’ll pick the berries on Dartmoor.

* On the other hand, is it possible to feel eccentric, given that I’m at the centre of my zone of perception, or can I only be eccentric from others’ perspectives?


Autumn audit

In honour of Silent Spring, I spent two hours wandering around my neighbourhood and listening. Listening not just for birds, but for everything, including all those sounds we usually tune out. But yes, especially for birds, even though I could identify only a few and was reduced to trying to describe their calls.

In The Living Mountain, Nan Shepherd writes: “Each sense heightened to its most exquisite awareness, is in itself total experience. This is the innocence we have lost, living in one sense at a time to live all the way through.” I was attempting, albeit only for a short time, to live in my hearing.

2.35 – I left the house and turned right along Grecian Way

Cars. Wind in the trees. Carpentry. Wind pressure on my ear-drums. Chirping. One crow on a roof-crest and one caw. My boots on the pavement. The zip tag on my hoodie. A distant mew of a gull. School sports (St Peter’s).

Left into Quarry Lane

Chirping. Leaf blown along the pavement. Peeping. Traffic (omnipresent). Churr/caw.

Left into Quarry Park Road

Chitter chirrup. Chirp. Dogs barking. Lawn mower. Peep. Beep-beep.

Right into Woodwater Lane

D and H buses. Peep. Peep-peep-peep. Churr/caw. School playground (Walter Daw). Three-wheeler buggy. Moped nipping past.

Right into Heath Road

Water feature. Chirping. Building. Humming from a BT box by the pavement.

Left into Rifford Road

Digger. Cars, vans, buses, traffic, traffic. Bicycle’s tyres. Light aircraft. Wonford Brook. Loud humming from another telecoms (?) box. Squeal of brakes. Acceleration. Go slow strip. Baby chuntering and two women talking. Music from iPhone earphones. Prolonged chirping. Gull mewing.

Left into Ludwell Lane

Buzz of insect. Reeds in the wind. Water feature. Mewing. Car door and couple laughing.

Right into Wonford Playing Fields

Cheeping. Prolonged mewing. Car fob. Trees in wind. Some crunching of leaves. Churr/caw. Light aircraft. Buzzard’s keen. Glissandeek. Chip chip. Dogs barking. Horns. Herring gulls on the field, mewing in full view. Boots on the grass. Jogger’s tread. Commercial aircraft. Dog. Wings beating as doves start up from bushes. Insect chirping. Baby laugh turning to cry. Scolding mother. Building. Churr/caw. Chirp. Wonford Brook. Boots on gravel. Weir. Falling acorn. Twittering. Shouting children. Insects. Ford. High caw. Squeaky gate. Muddy steps.

By 3.15pm I’m in Ludwell Valley Park

… where I put my notebook away. I found it a struggle to focus on just listening, and not to observe with my eyes or retreat into my head, and I constantly had to retune my attention. And most of what I was attending to was the grating urban noise that I usually and automatically tuned out.

I began to feel very weary as I walked round the perimeter of the Park, so I took it into my head to try out another trick of Nan Shepherd’s: “the senses must be trained and disciplined… I can teach my body many skills by which to learn the nature of the mountain. One of the most compelling is quiescence. No one knows the mountain completely who has not slept on it. As one slips over into sleep, the mind grows limpid; the body melts; perception alone remains.”

I lay down on the nearest bench, warm in the sun, a couple walking their dog on a distant slope but otherwise in solitude. I wedged my right arm between the backrest and the seat, clasped my fingers, crossed right ankle over left, and shut my eyes. I didn’t actually fall asleep, but in my snoozing found that it was my sense of touch that was sharpened – the warmth of the sun, and the cool as it went behind a cloud, the wind as it rose and fell, the warmth of the bench, my clasped hands and crossed ankles. As Shepherd wrote, “Touch is the most intimate sense of all”, and I truly found that lying down in green pastures restored my soul.

As for my auditory audit, other than prolonged mewing of gulls, birdsong was occasional at best, even in the playing fields and park. It was a rarity that the traffic on Rifford Road parted for long enough to hear background noise, let alone birds. Granted that it was the wrong time of year and the wrong time of day, but I find it sad that there is so little song, and so much drowning out the call to rise above the mundane.


Silent Spring

Today is the 50th anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. In its honour, I am spending a couple of hours walking around my neighbourhood listening for bird song. In the meantime, here are three short posts I wrote a year and a half ago, reflecting on the book:

White to Carson

I’ve been doing a bit of catch-up reading of a diptych of eco classics; today I finished Gilbert White’s “Natural History of Selborne, and started Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”.

White’s book is in the form of letters, and he often hopes they “may not be unacceptable” to his two correspondents! He was a meticulous observer of birds, weather and other phenomena, and went some way to interpreting and understanding his observations, for example in the wonderful passage on house martins cited in the introduction. His methods were at times questionable, involving shooting many of his subjects! And his theories did not always fit the facts, for example why clear nights are colder, or whether swallows migrated or hibernated. But science is a process of developing theories and collecting evidence to test and accept/reject/refine the theories, or developing new methods of collecting evidence which may lead to radical new theories. Hence White is not content with just observations, but continues to seek understanding and applications: “The standing objection to botany has always been, that it is a pursuit that amuses the fancy and exercises the memory without improving the mind or advancing any real knowledge… The botanist… should be by no means content with a list of names; he [sic] should study plants philosophically, should investigate the laws of vegetation, should examine the powers and virtues of efficacious herbs, should promote their cultivation; and graft the gardener, the planter, and the husbandman, on the phytologist.”

Carson I suspect is just as meticulous. So far, she has been describing the pesticides and herbicides – DDT, malathion, dieldrin, etc. It’s incredible (now at least) to think that some of these chemicals used on food crops were closely allied in structure to the nerve gases developed by Germany and used during the war.

Silent springboard

After a bit of a hiatus, I have finished reading “Silent Spring”. After her early description of the pesticides and herbicides, Carson goes on to describe their effects on ground water, soil and insect life, plants, birds, other wildlife and domestic animals, rivers and inshore waters, human organs and cell-level processes; the brutality of various spraying programmes in the US and their horrendous results; the common availability of chemicals and the build-up of small-scale exposures; the negative effect on the ecological balance and the build-up of resistance in the pests; and finally, alternative pest control methods. All is beautifully written and meticulously references the latest scientific findings.

Predictably, the chemical industry and scientific establishment (funded by the chemical industry) responded ‘robustly’, as described in an afterword to my edition of the book. Carson was attacked for being a hysterical woman, unqualified to write such a book, and for writing for the public, “a calling the scientific establishment consistently denigrated.”

But the attacks only increased the PR for Carson’s book, and it changed the world. While reading, I caught myself thinking more than once: “I hope someone does something about this”. Which of course they did. President Kennedy directed his Science Advisory Committee to investigate Carson’s claims, which led to an immediate strengthening of the regulation of chemical pesticides, arguably a more significant action than the launch of the Apollo programme. And the book is widely credited with helping to get the environmental movement going.

Now in the 21st century, “Silent Spring” is again being criticised by writers who claim that “environmental regulation unnecessarily restricts economic freedom”. Others say that this is “a cynical ‘better living through chemistry’ campaign, intended to discredit the environmental health movement”. And I would ask how much economic freedom do we have, living as we do on one planet and bound by a web of relationships?

Observing boiling frogs

Two more thoughts on Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”…

The book was first published in 1962, and the science and understanding of cell-level processes has moved on hugely in the last 50 years. But Carson’s description of e.g. the specialised roles of enzymes in mitochondria, and small facts like bone marrow producing 10 million red blood cells per second (the current estimate is 2.4 million) highlight again for me how “I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139.14; NRSV).

And a quote: “Responsible public health officials have pointed out that the biological effects of chemicals are cumulative over long periods of time, and that the hazard to the individual may depend on the sum of the exposures received throughout his [sic] lifetime. For these reasons the danger is easily ignored. It is human nature to shrug off what may seem to us a vague threat of future disaster.” As with chemicals, so with climate change. Are we in danger of becoming the proverbial frog that, when placed in a pot of cold water that is gradually heated, doesn’t realise its peril and is boiled alive? Or do we observe nature carefully, and learn that real frogs would probably jump out of the pot… and so could we?


Richard Long woz ‘ere

Today was the first time ever, at least for years, that I’ve seen another deliberate blackberrier in Ludwell Valley Park: a man in a pale blue shirt, of indeterminate age and build, wielding a plastic bag as he toiled around the bushes on the steepest slope of the amphitheatre.

Other blackberriers, deliberate or opportunistic, unknown and unseen, have made “physical interventions within the landscape” as they move along the bramble-line. Yet they are a relatively rare breed, and their paths are almost indistinct to the camera.

Dog-walker path

Richard Long “A Line Made by Walking”

Blackberrier path