Harvest Service: Back to Nature

Last year in preparation for our Harvest service I did some reading about farmers in the UK. I suspected that in our modern world, many of the traditional farming practices that we all imagine when we think of farmers had probably fallen by the wayside. But farming had transformed far more than I could have imagined. A farmer sits in his tractor, but he doesn’t touch the steering wheel; the computer guidance system directs the wheat into the ground. The computer detects stonier ground, and so slows down a little, in order to compensate for the increased likelihood of damage, and on rougher terrain they’ll up the seed rate, 110% in order to maximise potential yield. For more seed will go to waste on the rocky soil. Across the field, the computer will attempt to achieve an even crop. On reaching the end of the field, the farmer takes the steering wheel, turns with the aid of his GPS, lining up the tractor with the advised trajectory, and once again the computer takes the wheel. The farmer monitors his crop, keeping a keen eye on his mobile phone. His farming apps will tell him the optimal time to spread the fertiliser, to spray the pesticide. The whole process has really been optimised with technology.

I spoke about how the practices of farmers is really a microcosm of a much larger picture, a picture of alienation from nature. As we move to cities, sit in offices, surround ourselves with concrete, we become completely divorced from that green world which we once inhabited so naturally. The point was made to me though after the service, by Cliff I think, that it’s actually those who are urban dwellers, who by virtue of not being perpetually in nature, are hyper conscious of nature when they are in it. This made me think of all those artists which demonstrate such a sensitivity.

 ‘The Hay Wain’ by John Constable

‘The Hay Wain’ by John Constable

Sometime in the last year I went to the spot depicted on the River Stour in John Constable’s painting ‘The Hay Wain’ - almost certainly Suffolk’s most famous painting, capturing the beauty of the English landscape. You can picture him on the spot, painting the trees, the river, the labourer at work, the clouds in the sky, the dog, the cottage. But actually, that is not how this piece was produced. Though Constable made sketches on the spot, the work was produced in 1821 in his studio in London, in the London of the Industrial Revolution. With smoke stacks filling the sky, smog in the air, at the global heart of this new alienation from nature Constable captured Nature's beauty like no other. And like Constable, the English Romantic poets, like Shelley, did likewise, and following them, the American transcendentalists. All of whom are discovering a language for nature, and internalising spiritually the rhythms of nature, just as in the West all is being swallowed by industry, technology, time management, and urbanisation.

Of course, the trend continues. Today about 80% of people in the UK live in cities, and that number is only going to go up, projected to pass 90% in the next decade. But these artists, or spiritual guides as they really serve in this instance, suggest something very hopeful. That despite the dense globalised techno culture of tomorrow, the space within us to be receptive to a communion with nature, to a deep imbibing of nature, of trees, of mountains, of wide-open spaces, is not at all compromised. As long as we choose to re-enter, and rediscover, and re-internalise nature, there is still a place deeper within us to journey to. A work to be done.

The Harvest Service seems like a particularly good time to be reminded of that. The changing seasons of course affect us nothing like they affected our ancestors. It doesn’t much change our comfort, doesn’t much change what we eat, or what we do, and yet there it is happening. Attesting to rhythms which we become complacent in recognising are an intrinsic part of us and our deepest nature. The changing seasons are just as much in here, as they are out there. I feel like a stuck record in bringing up Ralph Waldo Emerson, but he really does seem to me so intrinsic to this whole project. This is not a side-project of spirituality. This is spirituality. Recognising our relationship to and with Nature. And in that way we have a direct, and not mediated, relationship with the sacred. No need for a priest, or an interpreter of spiritual truths; each has a direct connection, which feeds our souls and gives us strength to perceive and persevere, even in the face of adversity.

Last week I was on holiday with Cat in Bruges, or Brugger as the locals pronounce it. A Medieval city, referred to as the Venice of the North, of course it’s an urban environment, and yet when you’re there you are far more conscious of nature. Partly, I think that has to do with the abundance of canals; water: rivers and the sea bring nature to mind. But it also has to do with the culture, with what Brugger is famous for - its beer and its chocolate. Both of which are inescapable (not that you’d want to escape them). Every street has multiple beer and chocolate shops. I mean there are so many, it’s almost comical. And so, because that is part of the heritage and culture of the city, it’s referenced everywhere. Cat and I also did the chocolate and beer museums, and of course both museums give a huge amount of information about the production of both luxury goods. The large pods, full of chocolate beans from the Amazon basin, transported across in the 19th Century… The history of fermented barley, adding in the hops later to enhance flavour, etc… Being part of the culture, you are made aware of the bigger picture, the history, and the global ecosystem which brought all that into existence.

And I think that we can draw an analogy between Brugger and the self. That just as Brugger has developed a micro-culture, and history, and appreciation for the wider context, so we can do likewise. And I obviously don’t think there is any right way to go about that. It could be through art, through spending time in nature, through learning more about nature, or reading more of the romantic poets, or the transcendentalists, really anything which nurtures that interior connection with the sacred in our lives. As we all know, the unexamined life is not worth living. And so, as pilgrims in a world not our own any more, or with which we’re not familiar any more, we are best placed to experience Nature. We are hyper receptive to that beauty, that transient/liminal reality. Unlike the temporal things of this world, which occupy much of our time, energy, and attention, nature is transient. It’s liminal, it can’t really be touched, it can only be experienced. You can touch the individual tree or leaf, drink the beer, eat the chocolate, but you can’t touch Nature. You experience Nature as a sacred reality; you are privileged to enter, to commune with it.

You could use the word God to describe that sacred reality. That’s a helpful move for some people to make. I find that a helpful move. You’ve got to shed that word of a lot of its baggage though, that God has to die in a sense, before God can become helpful again. And so the temporal things pass on, break up, die, rot, self-implode, estrange themselves, etc. But that liminal reality, Nature, cannot die. And so there’s nothing really to fear then, though we must remind ourselves of that fact. We cling onto a way things were or are, but they pass in time. The seasons change, all things change. But that liminal reality, that mutability, as Shelly our poet puts it, there’s a hopeful sense in that flow, a freedom in it. Nature cannot die. Of course, all that temporal grittiness of life remains. We must discern for ourselves the most just and moral course of action we can forward. Play the role to which we are called. But all that is fleeting. The liminal cannot die, that meta-reality cannot die, and so we turn our attention to these things, that higher reality, that higher purpose, those higher concerns. To Nature, to the sacred within, to the Spirit of God.

Amen.

Lewis Connolly