Reflections on perception by the Lea
Am I co-creating exactly the problems that I wish to mend?
Having been an environmental activist for most of my adult life I find myself carrying some pretty bleak images in my head. The overarching narrative is one of unstoppable planetary destruction. In my mind I carry around an idealised version of the natural world; abundant and overflowing with life. When I walk around my current habitat, the streets and wetlands of east London, the world does not live up to my expectations. I observe it as a wasteland. A baron, undernourished, human-centric dump verging on a cesspit.
I sit on the bank of the river Lea. As I sit I am surrounded by plastic rubbish. On the banks, in the trees, dangling into the water and wrapped around the branches and trunks. I can’t take my eyes off it all. My senses are flooded with evidence of our abusive relationship with this land. The power station hums. The smell of fairy liquid emanates from the river itself. My senses are dominated.
Today I am bleeding. On such days I am called unavoidably to convene in the wild. Sometimes I am called into the earth, and I find a cave to crawl into. Sometimes I am called to the water, and I immerse myself in rivers and lakes. Being, as I am right now, in lockdown in London, I am forced to satisfy the call to water by sitting by the river Lea. So I sit, quietly, and listen.
It is quite a task to quieten my mind from the murmurs of my own dissatisfaction at the state of my surroundings. The inadequacy. The guilt. The pain. The bitterness. I am full of judgements about how this space should be and I wield them with my psyche like some kind of justice of virtue of the natural world. This world is not how I would like it to be. I have placed an expectation on the world and it has not met it, so I have closed myself off to what she actually has to say. Just like any relationship, with any human or with myself, my expectations have gotten in the way of my simply being present. While I expect this earth to be something that she just isn’t right now, I am severing my connection with her. All she needs right now is to be listened to, and my judgement has stopped me from hearing.
With this thought I try to let go. I feel the rage burning with all of my perceived injustice to the natural world. I try to listen to what is underneath. It takes some time to allow myself to fall beneath the rage and slowly find a more peaceful state. A calm, vibrating hum. Two birds fly into view and skim across the top of the water as they land in the river. Coots, I think. These birds have the choice to be anywhere. Within a few miles they could be in an RSPB nature reserve, or a much nicer section of the Lea. But, counter to my wasteland perceptions they choose to be here. Just as I do.
My awareness of this humming vibration grows as I tune into it. A gentle tone that, if I allow my imagination to play, I fancy has sung life into this space for thousands of years. The horse parsley on the opposite bank dances in the wind, its leaves reflecting a green so vibrant it can only mean that spring has arrived. The tree overhead reaches out to me from behind. I imagine it is aware of my presence.
‘Hello old friend’, I say in my mind. ‘Are you an ash?’
I’m not sure the tree appreciated my labelling as the first question I posed. Perhaps it is as insulting as asking ‘where are you from?’ in passing small talk with strangers. All the same my eyes follow along the twisting branches to find the tell tale buds of an ash tree. They’ve turned from their winter black to the green of spring. The leaves will be uncurling soon.
A plastic sheet catches my eye. Wrapped around a low hanging branch it dangles in the water. The wind comes in occasional gusts along the river valley, each time catching the sheet and causing it to billow with the swollen embrace of the breeze. The tail of the sheet catches in the flow of the river guiding it into ebbing back and forth. Together the river and the wind cause the tree branch, laden with plastic waste, to bounce up and down. This is a dance between the wind, the river and the tree, made visible to my eyes by the plastic sheet. Have I become so blinkered in my perception of this world that I need such a scourge of our habitat to appreciate its beauty?
I’m suddenly embarrassed to have held this space, in my mind’s eye, to be an industrial wasteland. Could it be that my heartache at our destruction of this world is participating in bringing into being this destruction? Am I imagining a wasteland into existence? I could have been spending my Saturday cleaning this river bank, tending it and nurturing it to health. Instead I am mourning a world that I’ve never seen. Until this moment I was imprinting the image of the wasteland into my own psyche. I am co-creating exactly the world I wished did not exist.
As I have this thought the dancing sheet picks itself out of the water and attaches to another branch. Like two ideas connecting together, the sheet has brought another tree into its waltz. The wind, the river and the trees all seem to be agreeing with me.
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