Fallow Time: Idleness Is a Virtue

Work is a very human concept. If the animals related closest to us are acquainted with its tedium, it is because they are domesticated by us and forced to aid us in our endeavours. Other mammals tend to take shortcuts through life. If their needs can be met by doing the bare minimum, they will, anyone who has ever had a pet will agree. It is highly likely we lived in much the same way for most of our history. Even though our lives were short, and harsh, a nomadic hunter gatherer lifestyle would guarantee ages of empty time. Time must have seemed as abundant as the vast landscape that surrounded us. There hardly was an elsewhere to think of, and as a consequence, people must have lived fully present in the here and now, eating, hunting and sleeping in accordance with the demands of their body and their environment. Before we adopted a sedentary lifestyle, there was no reason to acquire a multitude of tools and stores. Only that which could be carried or stored safely was useful. At the dawn of agriculture, an insidious, inadvertent trade-off began. Material security was exchanged for leisure time. Yet traditional agriculture inevitably ensured quiet times, when little work could be done, and fields had to be left fallow at least every few years.

"Dolce Far Niente (1904)" by John William Godward - Art Renewal Center – description. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John_William_Godward_-_Dolce_Far_Niente_(1904).jpg#/media/File:John_William_Godward_-_Dolce_Far_Niente_(1904).jpg
“John William Godward – Dolce Far Niente (1904)” Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Paradoxically, it was the horror of the industrial age that led to a clearly defined concept of leisure time and recreation. Now, in the west, the majority of us at least have an inkling of what leisure is, while people in the developing world still slave to sustain our spoiled lifestyle. At the same time, within our society, there are groups of people who are unemployable, and have more idle time on their hands than they could possibly need. But in general, leisure to us, means time to do whatever you love doing. Technology, which promised and indeed delivered so much opportunity for leisure, has lately turned out to be the exact opposite. Omnipresent interconnectedness has enabled the colonisation of idle time. Even time waiting for a bus or a train can and will be put to good use. The company phone works as a modern ball and chain, ever anchoring us to or at least reminding us of duty. If the phones are not calling our attention towards our paid jobs, then we are allowing it to continually reminds us of filling up a void with experiencing and consuming, or being elsewhere. Idleness has become subversive. If you fail to do anything, you are not fully realising the potential to “make” something, to consume or to experience some extraordinary.

I often think of my grandparents. My grandmothers are in their eighties now, of course not as active as they used to be. My grandfathers have passed on. I can hardly remember a time my grandfathers and grandmothers were truly idle. They were always busying themselves with something. They had quiet rituals and mundane chores around the houses and gardens. All their activities and rest were governed by a blessed cadence that governed their life, according to season and necessity. My grandparents were always occupied with something, with the exception of the evening hours. Yet there was peace in their house. I find that peace hard to come by in a modern day household. We crave the clutter and permanent question marks in our head of books and opinions other than my own. This is of course our own doing, but I find breaking this habit hard, as the same restlessness is mirrored in the people that surround me. We seem to have plenty of leisure time, yet we hardly ever get round to doing the things we love most. Spending time with your children, your love, your pets, or puttering in the garden or walking the woods. In my case: doing some embroidery that has no other object than being pretty for pretty sake. Visiting those beloved grandmothers. Reading a book for the thirtieth time, letting the words wash over me like familiar friends. Ordinary stuff. These moments are rare, and becoming even more so.

The collective moments of downtime have slowly but surely wilted as well. The shops are open every day now, which is convenient since there is always someone working in an average household. Even holidays are not what they used to be. Do not get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with being active and loving what you do. I do believe, though, there is a structural problem with always wanting to maximise and squeeze everything out of life. All that hustle and bustle does not take into account all this going back and forth has on our environment, whether it concerns paid work or leisure. The compulsion to be active sidelines the need for contemplation. As a society, we have lost track of the value of fallow time and space, which was once considered as a prerequisite for a good life. As fallow fields have now little or no place in mainstream agriculture, an idle mind is considered equally undesirable. Sleep is used to balance the budget, while a good night’s sleep is one of the most important things anyone can do for their health. I could think of many reasons why work and activity in general has established itself as the defining aspect of our culture. It has to do with past hardship, fear of scarcity and dutiful religion. But one of the reasons, it seems, is that an idle mind is useless to a capitalist system. Idle minds are no longer a human resource that is either producing or consuming. In that sense, indulging in empty time and space, refusing to run in the rat race at least some of the time, is a small act of resistance. It wordlessly ridicules those who define themselves solely by what they do.

A fallow field rarely lies fallow for long, just like an idle mind is almost immediately occupied with something else. New thoughts, new life germinates on black bare soil and empty minds. There is always the possibility of vice sprouting from too many idle hours. Enjoying time can easily become killing time. On healthy soil, though, soon other vegetation and pursuits will take over. The essential difference is that the new life consists of thoughts and seedlings that come into being effortlessly, and defy man-made structures and plans. They embody the distant wild, that lives on, in a dormant state, below our cultured minds. A novel, a painting, a garden or any other creative work of significant size can hardly be conceived of and nurtured within sparse stolen hours only. And if you are forced to make a living with something other than your heart’s desire, then it is a lot harder to hear the call of the world beyond, for your mind is often cluttered with anxious thoughts of duty.

I like to think more fallow fields and idle minds would do the world a world of goodness. Whether you are working or not this summer, I wish you all moments of true idleness. For in silence and stagnancy, we can hear the whispers of the Gods and the wailing of the world worn thin. Who knows what will start to grow in the quiet reception of a idle mind or a fallow field.

 

The thin line

girlinthegardenI walk a thin line that leads past the woods
A dusty path few friends will take
I will emerge from among the leaves
Only, alone, when I need to. Locusts and honey
For the woman in second-hand jeans
The sackcloth and ashes of the 2010’s.

Awkward knowledge comes in instalments
With every new fact I pay with peace of mind.
The clothes I wear, the shoes, leather or oil
Crude is the currency of my innocuous existence.
I strip myself of pleasures until joy unsold rests
On the stack of my debt, a fraction lower.

Force-fed with oil and blood every day
My dearest and I sell our hands and hearts
And hide at night in dreams of another way.
While our souls fly under the canopy,
The machine mindlessly steals our years
We stay put for our boy and our girl.

For their existence we choose to walk this line.
Our dirty hands cherish our replacements
Until they too are sanded by urbanity
To serve as cogs in the march of progress
Towards decline. Were the world an orchard
I would wait for the apple to roll into my palms,

But the trees need shaking, or we die
Destitute, in dishonour. For every step I take
Yet another soul is trampled on. At night
I hear the wailing of the silent suffering
As the unwilling accomplice, maiming love
For the guilt of living on the eve of destruction.

But the rays still caress my cheeks, and as the berries
Ripen outside my door, unaware of winter winds
The blackbird sings a lustful tune of longing
And happily rips a slug to shreds. Every quiver
Of its beak proclaims our noble right
To be alive until we too are subsumed.

The Mother’s face will not answer.
A dark smile of woe and woo hides between the shrubs
Her dazzling smile upon the waters, defiled
By the trawling and choking of her children.
Her scream so long and loud, a cosmic echo
Thumping in the background of my existence.

Yet I live a distant memory of a world
Thousands of turns around the sun ago
When I hear the mother’s daughter’s daughter’s daughter
Sing in the garden of original sin. Let me be considerate
But unburdened. Like the blackbird with his slug
I ask for no more and no less than to see her today.

I walk the thin line that leads into the woods.
I wriggle between guilt and joy, and try to trample
Just what I need to stay alive. To carve a path
Into a luscious dawn, for the dearest of my blood
I carry the light of life and pass it on to all
Who follow in my trail. I guard my line.

After Hendrik van Schuylenburgh (circa 1620–1689) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commo

Lady Take Your Blessings Back

By Linda Boeckhout

Dear Nehalennia,

I hope you do not mind me addressing you in this manner, for all the world to read. I do not think you do. I perceive you as such an elemental Goddess, so attuned to the needs of ordinary men and women. Demanding capitals to every you and your is the prerogative of a fearsome desert God, set apart in unforgiving sky. But in your own land, all is flat and even, the damp land kisses the sky undivided. So I will speak to you like I would to anyone else.

Just yesterday I stood at your shores, not far from where your temple lies buried in the sea, by tons of sand and waters. Your name set in stone lies sleeping under the blankets of sand, or in the musty corner of a museum. Forever? Your devotees were Frisians, Romans, Gauls. They came to you from as far as Cologne and Besançon. And those are only the ones we know about. How many nameless women and children honoured you with flowers, fruit and cakes? Their humble gifts could not withstand the test of time, but I like to believe you valued them even more than the ostentatious votive stones the more fortunate left at Ganuenta. Even in archaeology, we cannot help but hearing only the voices of the bold.

Then the water came and devoured your sacred places, leaving your children to flee, or rather forcing them into the arms of a foreign God. The water came and went again and again. For hundreds of years it flailed the land, until your children did no longer perceive the water as inevitable force. Instead, it became but a jealous lover to be whipped into submission. From silt and shell and mud a nation arose. Over your waters they travelled and traded. Everywhere they sailed they were met by wealth. And if they were not, wealth was squeezed out of other people’s land, or even their flesh and blood. Upon both their ingenuity and their ruthlessness I feed today. Most of the time in blissful ignorance, sometimes in shame. Did you bestow our wealth upon us? Or did you yield, for once and for all, like a tired mother would with a screaming toddler?

After Hendrik van Schuylenburgh (circa 1620–1689) [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommoNow few know your name at all. And the ones that do, often only acknowledge it as an echo of a very distant past. It seems you do not mind. Like a good mother you have given of yourself, so that your children may live. As long as we are happy. Most of us are happy still. I know I am. Yet many are not. There is an aching loneliness in many of us. No matter how much we have, we always crave for more.

Your face is placid and unfathomable today, a dead calm. I know you must have raged before, but have never known you to do so. Seagulls plaintively and shrilly scream for more more more. But it seems you have been done giving. Your apple basket is emptier by the day and so are our hearts.

Your loyal companions, the dogs, still lead a good life here, in general. Maybe this is why you have never lost your patience with us, up until now. We even travel across Europe to pick up discarded mutts from less forgiving places. We are not so inclined to take in our human brothers and sisters though, who cross the Mediterranean, looking for a promised land.

There is no easy answer to their plight and our own decline. The golden days are behind us. In the twilight of the western world we are forced to forge a new era all by ourselves. My wish is that it will not be an age defined by metal for once. Let it be something that grows nonetheless, like samphire grows on brine and sand, and the apple tree blossoms in the western winds.

I have come to ask you one thing today. You have given us so much, now I have come to ask you to withdraw. Let the low tides come and force us out on the beach, to look for treasures we have never given the time of day. Cut down the apple tree, before we spray insecticides all over them again. Yes, we will moan and complain. But we have had too much and no amount of apples will fix our belly-aching. So, dear Lady, take your blessings back to sea. But stay anyway, and lead us beyond the waves of greed, to your simpler shores of generosity.

Your daughter,
Linda

 

 

Loitering at the Gates of Paradise

By Linda Boeckhout

What exactly do we want from the animals and the plants? At first sight, it seems we have tried very hard to distance ourselves from the natural world we were once a part of. We wear elaborate, impractical clothes. We make sure our houses have comfortable savannah microclimates. We cook and process our food, undoing it of its natural flavours. Our bodily functions are usually locked out of our social discourse or distorted, buried in conventions and assumptions. Yet, at the same time, we cannot seem to leave the animals and the plants alone. Throughout the year man hunts, without being hungry. We have bred a whole class of domesticated animals that are exempt from having any function at all. We treat them as children, albeit disposable ones when we have no longer any need for them. We prefer to wear the skins that belonged to others, even though many alternatives are available. We grow flowers which will never set any seed and can only be propagated with our assistance. We try to retrieve peace of mind through mindfulness techniques that essentially boil down to being present in the moment, like the animals are. There are great differences in these pursuits. Some are invasive, others are harmless. Yet, all of these pastimes and habits reflect a pining for communion with nature, however clumsy or misguided at times. It seems we want to stand with one foot in the animal kingdom, but where is the other? We keep hanging around the Gates of Paradise.

From The Gates of Paradise by William Blake, Wikimedia Commons
From The Gates of Paradise by William Blake, Wikimedia Commons

Old myths, new myths

When did we start to be human and leave the animal way of life behind? It is something that cannot be agreed on by scientists. Was it when we started to use tools or started cooperating in the hunt? Some animals display similar rudimentary behaviour. It is more accurate to say that we are, as a species, defined by immaterial things, the very things that do not leave a trail in a cave or in the ground.

The first circumstantial evidence of uniquely human behaviour is relatively recent. The oldest evidence of artistic endeavour is no older than 100,000 years. Long before these manifestations though, there must have been a gradual shift towards thinking beyond what was present in the here and now. The most human we can be however, is by using the word to shape the world around us. The spoken word, our sharpest sword, however, has not left a trace for the larger part of our history. As a result, even the scientific theories about our cultural origins, are little more than conjecture. Old myths that no longer explain anything, give rise to new ones. The story of Adam and Eve is one of many blueprints for the creation myths of men. While it is an easy myth to ridicule, in the light of all we have come to know about our evolutionary path, it should not be discarded altogether. It tells a powerful story, not about our biological origins, but rather about the birth of our mind. We once lived in a large garden, unaware, and unquestioning of our world. The concept of our own death was unknown. But our sly mind began to live a life of its own. Once we started listening to its ambiguous tongue, knowledge became the glossy apple we sought after. From that moment on, the way back was shut. It is impossible to untaste the fruit of knowledge. And then the world ceased to be a garden and became a hostile place, with danger and death always eminent.

A mythical character of modern times is the noble savage. In a way it mirrors the symbolism that can be perceived in Genesis. It is a myth that often grows on well-meaning soil, a crumbly mixture of environmentalism and cultural idealism. Its underlying premise is that the emergence of organised religion and urbanism, tore our societies from a previously deep, wholesome communion with nature. The attractiveness of this idea lies in the promise of its possible retrieval. If we were once able to live ethically and in harmony with our surroundings, it can be done again. It is fair to say that a myth could not be successful if there was no amount of truth to it. Our ancestors must indeed have worked with their environment instead of opposing it. It is also true that our ancestors revered at least certain elements in nature. Animism is common among almost all indigenous people. It is suggested by cave paintings and body ornaments. It also resonates in the personas we find in various pantheons. Many of them display characteristics of animals. The question is whether our forebears revered nature out of innate wisdom or whether many of their cults were largely driven by fear. However lovely the first thought might be, the second assumption is just as likely. The best way to know ourselves and our ancestors, is to honestly regard the evidence of our contemporary attitude towards nature in today’s society. We are endowed with great knowledge of biology and ecosystems. As a group, though, we tend to be ruthless and at best indifferent about the effects of our behaviour. Now that we believe the laws of nature can be tweaked to an extent, the majority no longer sees any need to confer with it. Our ancestors, on the other hand, wielded little or no power over their habitat, so they feared to tread in this unknown universe. For them, it was better to be safe than sorry. Their reverence for the forces of nature must, at least in part, have acted as a makeshift insurance against a fickle fate. It is also safe to conclude that our ancestors lived in an apparent harmony with their surroundings out of their sheer number. At the dawn of agriculture, about 8000 years B.C., there were most likely only a couple of million people in the world. Without modern technology, their impact on the natural world must have been minute.

What would be a good way to commune with nature, to lessen our universal pain of the paradise that was lost? Our current way of connecting with the rest of the natural world will soon be at a dead end. Even in our seemingly harmless enjoyment of cut flowers and pets, we support an industry that pollutes and corrupts on a large scale. Neither does it do to pine for a glorious past that in all likelihood never was. Life was harsh, people died young. Maybe it would be more fruitful, to put the very knowledge we chose over the garden to work. Our understanding of the workings of nature’s laws provides us with great advantages. We no longer have to fear the forests and the rivers, as long we respect their innate qualities and the creatures that live in them. We must acknowledge that we have shut ourselves out of Paradise, cruel and beautiful at the same time. We can choose, however, to preserve Paradise without us in it. We can live just outside its gates, and be sustained by its renewable life forces. We have to kneel for nature’s forces, like our ancestors. No longer out of fear, but in reverence from where we came, and celebrate that which we now know to be fragile.

Questions for an uncertain future

The future looks bleak. Society as a whole is indifferent or unwilling to see the widespread destruction. The ones that do acknowledge the direness of our situation, have until now been powerless to stop it. But we must remember our departure from the animal kingdom is only an evolutionary second ago. We enter the world as a orphaned, self-destructive adolescent, with no support to fall back on. It is up to us how we deal with our inevitable banishment from the realm of our birth. Do we continue our spree of self-destructive, selfish behaviour or do we get it together? We can choose to put our best asset, the mind, to work and educate ourselves. And if there are no parents around to guide us, we must look for new role models. Our voices call once again upon the Gods and the Spirits of the Land, as we have done for the larger part of our history. The ways of our ancestors can help us, but we ourselves have to reinterpret these ways for a new world and age. If we take the time to stop yelling, we can still hear their voices. They cannot tell us what to do, as we find ourselves in an utterly singular situation, but they might inspire us.

We do not have to invent a new way of life all in one go. The question of how to live a good life outside the Paradise breaks down into countless smaller, but important questions. How would a responsible human community relate to domesticated and farm animals? How do we organise (or better still, disorganise) work in a way that encourages and enables us all to contribute our best? Is it acceptable to eat meat? Under what circumstances? How do we deal with issues of population and finite resources? How much do we really need? There are tiny pinpricks of hope. Permaculture puts the best of nature and our wits to work together. People can, when truly confronted with misery, rise up to display great acts of compassion. Global connectivity increases awareness and causes good ideas to travel and evolve faster. It is time to come into our own, because the window of opportunity is closing. It is time to stop loitering around the Gates of Paradise and vandalising all we get our hands on. We should grow up. Now.

The Spirit of the Free Market

thespiritofthefreemarketThere are many ways of looking at the problems western societies face today. All have their uses: larger than life problems call for numerous and varied angles of analysis. Seeing a spiritual dimension to the issues at hand is one way of seeing the world. Yet this angle is often overlooked, ignored, or even ridiculed in a general discourse. We leave it to monotheists to interpret the world in terms of a spiritual battle between benign and evil forces. They are welcome to this monopoly, it seems. Pagans and the like often shy away from the monochrome dualism of good and evil. In our world, it comes in shades and hues. But while acknowledging nuance is a good thing, closing our eyes to clear and present evil is not.

The birth of a bully

During my lifetime, an ill wind stirred once more in the west and now blows freely, like a chilly draught we only truly start noticing while we are already shivering. From where does it hail? ­The spirit who insidiously tears down the fabric in societies formerly striving for equality and opportunity was not born yesterday. Maybe it arose from the first larger villages, where specialised trades started to develop.

Just like children are not born bad, this spirit was not either. It was born from the buzz of free people, working and competing with each other, bringing out the best in themselves. You could even call it a noble and a just spirit, for as it grew, it rewarded the ones who put in the extra time and effort into perfecting their craft. Enveloped in a strong sense of community, it could do little harm.

Yet as soon as coin came into existence, the spirit clung to it. It started to travel the world and broadened its horizon. The spirit grew strong and tall in the cities and was no longer satisfied with impartially hovering in the marketplaces. It fed itself on greed and selfishness. This bloated youngster drew quite a following to itself. Many who understood its mechanisms worked with the spirit to get what they wanted. Their opulence came at a high price, but others were forced to pay it with their dignity and humanity. Through these priests and priestesses, it came of age during the time of the industrial revolution, until people united against it. Laws bound it and tied it down. It was never banished though. It just bid its time. ­

Western European countries have a modest tradition of strong, public institutions. It is easy to forget how young this tradition actually is. 200 years ago these institutions did not exist and many public services only came into being after the Second World War. It seems that lack of awareness of how things used to be has made us careless. Our forgetfulness has left us prone to the same old spirit again. And it is smarter this time around. It has been forced to clean up its act, like a white collar criminal. It has done its homework. The spirit has smelled greener pasture. There, it can feast upon a domain in which it has no business at all. It feeds on public healthcare, utility companies, education, railway services, indeed on all former collective institutions that everyone needs at some point in their lives. Its priests and priestesses are not factory owners with top hats. They are politicians and administrators; many of them even mean well. Demographic and economic trends call for new, sustainable public services. But they fail to recognise that the spirit is not the one who will help to solve their problems. It only drains the public domain and favours a select class of people, while the collective is impoverished. The spirit lures them in with promises of efficiency and effectiveness. It spins the story like cotton candy and its priests sugar-coat the mechanisms by which the spirit aims to rule, saying that we will all profit from it. The numbers add up, don’t they? They do at first. And they certainly do for the high priests and high priestesses, who have created a caste of minion-managers, marching like blinkered donkeys with a carrot dangling in front of them.

It is dangerous to meddle with the spirit of the free market. Even the ones that have served it loyally throughout their life, might find themselves sidelined in old age, when help is no longer available and pensions have evaporated. The emphasis on work and profit has dismantled communities. The lucky ones, with either money or family to take care of them, make good their escape. All for one and none for all.

Exorcism

There are many sociological and political explanations for the state of our society. It has to do with the weakening of communities, growing individualism and globalisation. That is all true. Yet none of these reasons can, by themselves, explain the blind faith our governments have put in the mechanisms of the free market. This ruthless automaton, which goes about its business-as-usual, takes no heed of what it destroys on its path. We should recognise it for what it is, something that was long ago wholesome in itself, but spoiled and rotten now, like a bad egg. Pagans and indeed all people who consider themselves spiritual beings should be aware of this powerful ethereal dimension. The acknowledgement of its presence will help us to fight it accordingly.

So question its precedence over all other values. Strip and flail it, expose this spirit for what it is. Interrogate its priests and priestesses, for the havoc their blind trust in the spirit’s mechanism has caused in our societies. Fight it with words, images, and actions that are inherently valuable. Truth.  Beauty.  Art.  Quality of Life. Nature. Compassion. Escape its narrow confines and its desire to capture the world in numbers and graphs. Put it back in its place, where it belongs, as an impartial mechanism in the free exchange of goods and services, in a strong community of people unburdened.