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meridian systemPeople have been asking me about my practice of Tai Chi recently and, naturally enough, they also want to talk about Chi. What is it? they ask, or more likely: Does it even exist?

I’ve always been uncomfortable with the concept of Chi, at least in so far as it is presented in many books on Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Martial Arts – i.e. as a form of “subtle energy” moving about a pathway of invisible meridians. I am more easily accepting of it as an amalgam of effects produced by normal physiological processes – improved blood and lymph circulation, oxygenation, also a psychological component that works to induce a relaxation response. This is fine, it is within the realms of my experience.

But the sensations induced by practice – tingling, numbness, fullness – also suggest a bioelectrical component, that the nervous system is becoming activated when we practise, and in ways no other physical exercise can duplicate. This is where the going gets tough. The more one reads about it, the more confused one becomes, especially when seeking a coherent explanation in those books that deal with the so called “meridian theory”. Here, the texts, be they written by Chinese or Western “practitioners” talk of the flow, the storage and even the projection of chi. But they vary so widely in their explanations, to the extent that the principles each book appears to be describing are more the author’s personal interpretation of a myth to which the reader is invited to subscribe entirely on trust.

This is not a reliable basis on which to deepen one’s understanding, nor less for explaining it to someone else, or one risks merely perpetuating the myth while most likely also adding something of one’s own equally groundless twists to it.

My actual experience of Tai Chi and other mind-body techniques like Qigong, is that these methods do have a positive effect, both mentally and physically. I’ve used them to successfully tackle back injury and tinnitus. They are also deeply relaxing, so I do not suggest a decade of practise is now exposed as a monumental delusion – only that attempting to pursue a deeper understanding of them through meridian theory is perhaps not a good idea.

More recently my investigations have led me to the writings of western medical professionals and to a persuasive argument that suggests the “meridian system” is a myth, and a surprising one at that, being actually a Western, rather than a Chinese invention, a product of the “new age” rather than deepest antiquity.

Western medicine is often accused by the more holistically inclined (myself included) of being a bastion of wooden minded materialism at the beck and call of Big Pharma, but among its more open minded practitioners there is also an increasing willingness to look at the results of TCM techniques, like acupuncture, and to ask intelligent questions, no longer in order to merely debunk it as has been the case in the past, but, where it works, to document its efficacy, and to attempt an explanation of it in less mystical terms.

On the physical level, the health benefits of Tai Chi and Qigong are derived from improved circulation of the blood and lymph, also increased levels of blood oxygenation induced by means of deep, abdominal breathing that is an integral part of practise. But anyone who has read up on the subject is also inevitably beguiled by this dense mystical heritage of “meridian theory” and the idea of an all pervading “subtle energy” somehow superimposed upon the physical body. Consequently, I have always felt that to deepen my knowledge and my experience, I would have to understand it from this esoteric, traditional perspective. It’s ironic then that my efforts to pay homage to it in this way have had the opposite effect, only grinding my progress to a halt.

But what if the notion of chi as a subtle energy were an invention, not born of ancient Chinese superstition, but of fairly modern western adepts reacting against the materialism of their own times, and simply mistranslating the original texts? It sounds flimsy, but the evidence presented by Donald Kendall in his book “The Dao of Traditional Chinese Medicine” is very persuasive, that indeed since the dawn of the twentieth century we have been perpetuating a myth born out of a popular need for the magical and the unknown – a need that continues to this day, and to which I am also prone.

Nearly all “energy work” titles quote among their primary sources the Yellow Emperor’s Handbook, a Chinese medical treatise compiled around the first century BCE. But what’s puzzling is that if we do indeed refer back to this book, we find no mention of the meridian system as it’s depicted today, nor any reference to chi as a form of energy. This is surprising because I have always surmised that it did. However, as Kendall points out, it reads more like a conventional medical textbook with sections on anatomy and pathology.

What the Yellow Emperor’s Handbook says is that the lungs extract “something” from air that is vital to life – what we’d now call oxygen – which is then carried around the body by the blood. This does not read like a witches cookbook of pre rational beliefs, but rather an early and highly competent description of how the body works. If this book is the true basis of TCM then something significant was lost in the translation, to say nothing of the fact that something was added that was highly misleading.

The Yellow Emperor’s handbook was translated by several westerners, most notably Georges Soulie De Morant, whose 1939 version is still in print, still influential, but also controversial in that the mystery of chi arises first here with a critical mistranslation of the word as “energy” when a better translation would be simply “air”. The Yellow Emperor’s handbook also details points on the body which we would recognise now as acupuncture points and elucidates upon the theory that needling or stimulating these points produces therapeutic effects. De Morant made copies of the diagrams, then added his own interlinking lines and, so the argument goes, invented the meridian system. Acupuncture points do exist. We now understand them to be areas particularly dense in fine blood vessels and nerves. Stimulating them does produce effects in the body – reducing inflammation, pain, and restoring the body’s balance, but the medium of transmission here would appear to be more accurately the nervous system, not De Morant’s meridians.

The Yellow Emperor’s handbook does not describe chi moving along meridians, but rather some essence of air moving along blood vessels. So, what we think of as a uniquely Chinese system of medicine involving a mysterious energy called Chi, is in fact a western invention, and a fairly recent one at that. What the ancient Chinese actually developed in the first millennium BCE was an understanding of the body’s functioning that the west did not catch up with until the seventeenth century. But if any of this is true, and I’m persuaded that it is, what’s equally remarkable is how so many Chinese scholars since then have themselves adopted and helped perpetuate the essentially meaningless “western” myth of the meridian system.

Contemporary western medicine is looking more into the therapeutic effects of acupuncture, with many medical professionals performing acupuncture themselves. It is available as a treatment for certain conditions on the NHS and for which there is good evidence to support its reported efficacy. But further acceptance of the technique, and progress with an explanation for how it works has been slow in coming, held up in part I think by the obfuscating myth of the so-called meridian system. Only by dispensing with it can progress be made in truly integrating Traditional Chinese Medicine into the west, and also, perhaps ironically, of deepening one’s own practice of Tai Chi and Qigong.

Be aware then that to get hung up on the nature of chi is to risk becoming lost in the labyrinth of a bewildering myth, and if a man would make progress it is always better to keep both feet on the ground than to flap one’s arms uselessly as if they were wings that would take flight in thin air.

References:

Kendall, Donald, The Dao of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Kendall, Donald, Energy – meridian misconceptions of Chinese medicine (article)

Kresser, Chris, Acupuncture (blog)

I am on the A565 Trunk Road(quaint name), heading into Southport. It’s a beautiful afternoon, warm, sunny. There’s the usual weird wobbly rumble coming from Old Grumpy. I think it’s the CV joints, though the last mechanic I discussed this with reassured me it’s more likely the tyres.

I’m doing about 45 mph, trailing at a respectful distance behind a Nissan Micra. The speed limit here is 60, but there’s no hurry. We’re overtaken with an impatient flourish, and in swift succession by a BMW and an Audi, then another BMW, each brightly lit. This is such a  cliché.

Numbers one and two son complain, and enquire of me if I am comfortable being so humiliated.

“Humiliated?” I enquire.

“You’re just too patient,” they say.

Ah! At this point I am supposed to “burn” the Micra off, and regain face by doing battle with the arrogant, hectoring haste of the BMWs and the Audi.

Grumpy is capable of a respectable 120 bhp, and I am capable of the occasional burst of speed, so all things are possible,…

However.

“The funny thing about patience,” I say, “is that I’ve spent my whole life waiting patiently for something to happen, only to realise that it does not exist.”

“Profound,” says number one son, facetiously.

“Sad,” says number two son, ironically.

But it was not “sad”. Nor had I wasted half my life waiting for that certain something that it turns out did not exist. The realisation itself is a valuable thing, profound if you like. Softening of ego the prize of middle age; anything else, by the time you reach your fifties is, in some regards, a failure.

When does my life begin? When I finish school? When I finish University? When I get a job? When I find someone to marry? When my kids are born? When my kids have left home? But already I am forty five, I am fifty, I am fifty five, and I am still waiting for my life to begin. Patience. Patience. How about when I retire?

Will my life begin then?

Of course your life began when you were born. And you knew how to live it then, one day at a time, one moment at a time, until you were slotted into society, probably around the age of five, and your first day at school. And then for the rest of your life, you were living it with your eyes either focused on some point in the future, like hometime,  or looking back with regret or longing. Maybe tomorrow I will begin my life, or, if only things had been different, I might be living it now.

What would it be like, I wonder, to live one’s whole life as a child, a child unsullied by the corruption of a “civilised” education, a child untainted by the virus of “ambition”, the egoic craving for attainment, of rising to the perpetual aspirational arrogance of the brightly lit BMW and the Audi?

Focussing our attention, our hopes, our aspirations, even our fears in the future leads inevitably to the negation of the importance of our lives as they are right now. So no, I did not mind that the BMWs, nor the Audi had blasted past rumbly Old Grumpy, nor that the little NIssan Micra seemed in need of a bit more speed. I was preoccupied only by the beauty of the afternoon, that the chestnuts we passed were in blossom, that the yellow tassels of laburnum were unfurling, which placed us precisely a week away from number one son’s birthday.

BMWs and Audi, rear view hoggers and cliche’s, were gone into the far distance now. Transient. Unimportant. Is life a race to the bottom? No. More important is the realisation that what you’ve spent your whole life waiting for does not exist, that life, actually, is “now”.

Don’t Panic

The_ScreamCome Friday my flexi-time balance is usually in credit, so I finish at lunch-time, then head up to Rivington Barn for an egg and bacon butty. It’s a popular spot, and you’ll probably have to queue. I was there last Friday, and I was about half way down that queue before realising what I was doing would once have been impossible. When was that? Ten, fifteen years ago? It wasn’t just queues either – the cinema was out of bounds too, and music concerts, and the theatre – anywhere with lots of people in a captive environment, so to speak. Some things you can avoid, of course, while some you can’t, and the ones you can’t are a nightmare. You live in dread of them.

We do not always realise the distance we have travelled; nowadays, I’m pretty much functioning with a level(ish) head, and grateful for it because living like that was awkward. Panic and anxiety, these are manifestations of the psyche, a storm of sorts, and therefore a reaction to living in a way we find somehow threatening. But when we watch the news bulletins, we see so many have died now on the long migration routes to the west, gambolling their lives on a chance at sharing even a little bit of what I take for granted, it seems immoral I should even question it. After all, mine is an ordinary life, secure in the bosom of the west, and it’s irrational to panic, when my life is clearly not threatened. But I never said it was my life I felt was threatened, more my sense of being.

I worry now if even writing about it will open a door on the past, that the next time I stand in a queue, I will have cause to regret it. A panic attic is like being turned inside out. We focus obsessively on our own mental noise and we imagine the eyes of others upon us, imagine ourselves seen through their eyes, this person, wobbling, perhaps looking strange, perhaps about to faint. The fear feeds upon itself, reaches a terrifying resonance in which we simply must flee the scene. Anyone who has suffered this will tell you it’s deadly serious. It’s also becoming commoner in the general population.

The cure? Well, obviously there is a cure, or I could not have waited the five minutes for my bacon butty, and received it in the same calm mental state as when I had joined that queue, nor even sat and enjoyed it. Medication? No, I don’t take medication. I have nothing against it these days, though I’ve been guilty of an anti-med zealotry in the past. Medication can save lives, so I accept it has its role to play. But medication is never without risk or side effect, and it’s true to say I have also felt uncomfortable with the psyche that remains, after medication, a psyche that is, in a way, still imprisoned, and prevented its desired freedoms, only this time, apparently, for its own good.

But for all the cherished values of the west, the way we live is the cause. If you want to get philosophical about it, it’s the feeling that in our guts we are more than the material world gives us credit for, that we are not machines, yet are being squeezed at every turn so we might fit into a machine-like world, a machine driven in such a way that even a dollar profit will outweigh the most basic, uncosted, intangible human need.

Happiness? Who needs it? Purpose? So what? Love? Buy it. A sense that things can never be any better than this, that we have killed God, and even the priesthood seems not to have noticed? Who cares? Well, we all care, but we feel powerless to bring about change, so we do nothing. And some of us panic.

But standing in that queue, I was no longer aware of my own mental noise. My thoughts were few, my head was quiet. I was aware of my body, my breath, and I was aware of others, but not in the sense of morbidly and self consciously wondering how they saw me. I was more the observer, observing them – snippets of conversation, body language, their choices, demeanours. I had become the watcher, rather than the watched, but not in the sense of judging others – just watching, and I was no longer inside-out of myself. I was simply more my self. It is a state that allows one to become quietly curious of the world and all that’s in it. We become more grounded.

But one should never take these things for granted, hence my abiding interest in the secrets of the psyche, and its various palliatives. Meditation is perhaps the most powerful of these, but also methods that reconnect the mind with the sensations of the physical body, both in motion and at rest – things like Tai Chi and Qigong. Notably these are not western techniques, but things we borrow from the east.

As I sit now, I am aware of my energy body. This will already sound unpalatable to many who are steeped in the materialist tradition. But there’s nothing spooky about the term “energy body”. If you close your eyes, how do you know your hands are still there? Obviously, you can feel them, but what you are feeling is the mind created sense of your physical being, the energy body, for want of another term. If you wiggle your fingers you can feel it more strongly. If you take an inward breath, and let it out slowly, the feeling becomes stronger. You can play with it.

Once you show the mind a way back inside the body, it will crave a deeper exploration: arms, legs, chest; there is no part of the body that cannot be felt this way, and in feeling it we ground ourselves, root ourselves back in our selves, and in the world. The feeling is one of great calmness, and allows an alert resting awareness in which the world seems all the more alive for the undivided attention we can now give it.

There is no single reliable method of attaining this state. You have to experiment and find the one that works for you. This is part of the journey into the inside of yourself and worth undertaking. Although it takes years to de-program the stress response entirely, meaningful results should come within months or even just weeks of daily practise. That said, I find having been once been prone to panic and anxiety, it is something one needs to keep working at.

I have not suffered much hardship in my life, but it’s an unfortunate fact that the mind can create hardship where there is none. Our quiet backwaters then become personal warzones, and the most innocuous activity fraught with imagined danger. Returning to our selves then, we are also reminded that, compared with the actual physical suffering of so many others in the world today, how lucky we really are.

And yes, that egg and bacon butty was well worth the wait.

jungI’ve had a few pieces lined up for the blog recently, all smoothed and polished and ready to go, but something held me back, a little voice asking if that’s who I really was, that person, saying those things. And the answer, on reflection, was no, so I deleted them.

As bloggers, online writers, independent authors, whatever we want to call ourselves, our voices are often vanishingly small but we still have a responsibility to be true to ourselves, to say what we think we mean and to avoid saying that which is only a reaction born of personal prejudice, which is itself a reaction to the prejudice of others.

Sniping and grumpy, I had fallen foul of what Eckhart Tolle calls the pain body, the entity within that awakens when we are out of sorts, low on energy, or just lost in that nameless malaise that comes out of the shadier places of the collective unconscious. His name is Grouch.

I have a sketchbook in which I keep drawings of personal meaning – inspired by dreams, and journeys into guided imagination. They form threads of fertile thought, little half trails leading through the forest of the unknown. In the quest for wholeness, for the truth of us, the mythic trails lead first to a confrontation with our only real nemesis, the shadow, the grouch. Neutralising the grouch (if we are a guy grouch) releases us into the care of the unknown woman who, if we can avoid corrupting her into a sexual fantasy, or just as uselessly projecting her onto real women, will lead us to the wise old man, to the Senex. These are ancient trails concerned with the transformation of psychic energy. They are little understood, also quickly overgrown if we neglect them.

My drawings petered out some time ago, the trail lost, ending with a curious, unfinished portrait of Carl Jung, a man whose writings on depth psychology introduced me to these arcane concepts, and prevented me from becoming rigidified in an unexamined and entirely unconscious life. To what extent I’ve been successful in exposing my shadows, I don’t know except to say there are many fragments left and I suppose my challenge is always to recognise them for what they are before I do or say something stupid.

It’s a start at least.

i ching

I remember during one of our earliest encounters, Jung said: “Take three coins,…”

So I took the coins,…

There have been coincidences too – trivial things, but each of them pregnant with a personal meaning. Jung called them syncronicities, valuable for their ability to release trapped energy, to open up a path in the personal psyche, to open up the trails again, if we can only discern their traces after long neglect.

That which changes remains true, he said, and conversely that which does not change cannot be true – or something like that. And of course the pain body never changes, is always bitter, always sniping, always disapproving of some thing or another, or some one or another, always shouting warnings of the Apocalypse if we give but an inch to the shadow forces that have put our pipe out. You’ll see him in his various guises on the news tonight, or in the headlines of the tabloid press tomorrow – whatever article or snippet gets your blood up.

Do not blog when drunk. Do not blog within 24 hours of an emotionally upsetting incident – two valuable maxims, to which I would add another: be careful of your shadow, and ask: for whom do I write? The shadow or the light? The grouch, or my self?

I finished that drawing off, added some depth to it, then deleted the stuff I’ve been writing, writing that poked a shallow kind of fun at things that ran up against my pain body, and which in turn I was looking to run up against someone else’s. Left to his own devices, the grouch resorts to a vitriolic rhetoric that only reinforces the negativity the grouch apparently derides. It adds to the black cloud, to the gathering zeitgeist of doom that would enfold us all in its shadowy wings. The grouch resists change, but that which cannot change is not true.

Speaking for myself I think I write best when it’s with a smile, or more often with the pursed lips of a sweet longing for something that perhaps never was, but one day might yet be.

Zeitgeist. Mood. These things are important, and as writers we must decide which side we’re on, because we are not only subject to the zeitgeist, we are also the shapers of it – not as individuals of course – we are, individually, too small for that – but collectively we each add a little power. Shadow or light – we take our choice.

So I began afresh. Began to write what I’m writing now. And I’m listening to Joni Mitchell as I write, to Shadows and Light, an album I enjoy, but haven’t listened to for a long time. I’m waiting for one track in particular, in my opinion the best rendition of “Amelia” in all of Joni Mitchel’s recordings. And in it there’s this one line. She sings:

It was the Hexagram of the Heavens, the strings of this guitar,..

The Hexagram of the Heavens is a reference to the Yjing, the ancient Chinese oracle, popular in western counterculture around the time of this song’s writing, popular still among spiritual wanderers and psychological depth workers. That’s why Jung gave me the three coins, to get me going; it’s how you consult it, after first suspending disbelief and being at least willing to dissolve your own prejudice.

The Hexagram of Heavens is also translated as “the Creative”. It describes inspiration, the urge to write, to express oneself, to achieve something. It is positive, it is lightness, it is spring, and summer. It is life.

Nobody else I know likes Joni Mitchell, but I connected with her music as a boy, and she’s always been there; she touches chords, some of nostalgic longing, others of an eternal capacity for love and for life, singing always sweetly through the rain and the pain of her own life. And listening to her now I feel something stirring.

I did Tai Chi, today, after a long break, born of the grouch’s resistance. The knees were creaking for want of practice, but the heart eventually attained the soft current that subdues the pain body, and then one is left looking at the world afresh: ruby leaves of Japanese maple, freshly unfurled over green lawn, all washed to deeper shades by dusk and spring rains. It vibrates, it dissolves the vitriol, it lives and lets live the freed soul. I must do it again, soon.

Small indeed is the individual voice, typing things into the metaverse. We will not change the world on our own, but like all lone voices writing out into the inky dark of night, we need to know which side we’re on at least, and what kind of dawn we want to usher in. I prefer my skies red at night, that they will bear the promise of future delight, rather than the blood red warnings of the morning.

Come out of the shadows then, dear writer, and write for the light.

Goodnight all.

Sunset, Lancashire, England September, 24 2009

eleanorThe thing with self publishing online is that, unlike the traditionally published stuff, the manuscript – if you can still call it that – is never actually finished; it’s always open to review. And from time to time one of my stories will draw me back for another look. This week it’s been The Road From Langholm Avenue, a story that predates the Internet, and came out of a much younger me.

The gist of the story is that our hero, Tom, has been cuckolded and chucked out by his wife, so he’s moved back in with his long time widower dad, who has just entered into an unusual marriage of convenience with a much younger, emotionally fragile woman called Eleanor.

Tom’s job is also on the skids, and he must choose between redundancy, or transferring to an office abroad. An easy choice one might think but Tom’s a small town boy, early middle aged and having an emotional crisis, so he sticks his head in the sand and sets out instead to find Rachel, a girl he had a crush on at school. Why? Well, he’s feeling that the fact he never asked her out has left a piece of her inside of him, and that the only way to free himself and clear his head is to find her and ask her out. Irrational? A little crazy even? Yes, but then people are like that.

The story explores Tom’s relationship with Rachel, both past and present, the story of an unrequited love that left him scarred. But the story of Rachel herself is also intriguing, revealed in glimpses as Tom’s search for her progresses, and he realises how little the real Rachel resembles the idealised image he’s held of her all these years. The obvious question though is, if he does find her, and he asks her out, what then? I mean, what if she says yes?

His friend and ally in all of this is Eleanor. Naturally supportive, nurturing and sisterly, her often surprising wisdom helps him navigate the emotional maze his life has now become. But their relationship is not without its dangers, given Eleanor’s traumatic past. Mentally scarred, horrifically abused in her youth, Eleanor’s story resembles Rachel’s in many respects, being one of courage, and a struggle for personal integrity and dignity in a world and in a period when dignity and integrity are no longer familiar concepts. Unlike Rachel though, who lives very much on the surface of her being and is rooted firmly in the world, Eleanor is a woman of secrets cast adrift on stormy seas.

I began this story long ago, when I was still in love with Rachel, looking for traces of her in my own past. I don’t know where Eleanor came from. She is symbolic in a way, consort to the Senex of Tom’s father for a while, and linked to my own quest for an unearthly wisdom. I also ended the story very much in love with her. Rachel was my beginning, a bit like Tom, but Eleanor was the one who opened up the road from Langholm Avenue, led me away from the past. It’s a journey that continues to this day.

In the process of reading, I’ve been able to sweep up yet more typos, fiddled about with commas and colons, but I’ve let the text lie. The story is stable. Mature. No sense in messing with it now. In the process of reviewing it, I began posting chapters on Wattpad to see if I could tease out a few more readers, but engagement has been disappointing. No surprises there – my characters are middle aged, and Wattpad is still predominantly a platform for Emo teens, with just the occasional bewildered adult roaming lost, as if in a desert. Elsewhere though, on Feedbooks and Smashwords, it’s done much better. It was even pirated on Amazon for a while!

I’ve had a lot of mails about this story, and that’s always welcome. There’s nothing quite beats hearing from a reader, if only because it’s evidence a real person is actually reading my stuff. I’ve been asked more than once when the sequel is coming out, but I’m sorry to say I have no immediate plans. It’s clear something about these characters has touched a nerve – in particular the ethereal Eleanor – but I would have to delve back in time some fifteen years to pick up the voice and the soul of it and I’ve come to realise the guy who wrote it is no longer there. He changed into the me that I am now.

I think when we write, one of the motivations is we want to leave something behind, a marker of our one time presence here in material reality, a kind of digital graffiti on the wall of the metaverse; a cheeky: Michael Was Here! Of course, a hundred years from now no one will be fingering dusty editions of Langholm Avenue in the back rooms of quaint second hand book shops. For one thing, there will be no second hand bookshops – but I trust searches of whatever passes for the Internet in the future will still serendipitously reveal the story to fresh eyes, that it will live on in some form.

A writer is not the best judge of his work. What he is happiest with, others might find excruciating, while what he thinks trivial and worthless, others might enjoy. Langholm Avenue is whatever others take away from it, but whatever that is I am not ashamed to admit that it still touches me, containing as it does by far the most semi-autobiographical material of all my novels.

Is it foolish to hope? It’s a long time since we spoke, but she has yet to return my key, and sometimes in life, as in love, the most we have to go on is a feeling.

Yes, Eleanor still has my key.

But the key to what?

When we see the state of the world, beamed nightly into our homes, the effect can be paralysing – paralysing of hope that things can ever improve, and paralysing of faith any benign God could let this sort of thing happen again and again. It’s also paralysing of the belief that we as individuals can make any difference. But another way of looking at it is that through our individual eyes God sees, and through our individual hearts God feels.

As wars befall the benighted parts of the world, it seems we can only look on in bewilderment. If we could do something, we tell ourselves, then we would do it. But what can we do? Probably nothing. Natural disasters, like Saturday’s earthquake in Nepal, however, are different. Though overwhelming in scale, the need is immediately clear, urgent, and we can help by giving money.

The public response to things like this is usually generous, and I know it will be so again. There’s a lot of trouble in the world we can do nothing about, but this is different. Whenever the Disasters Emergency Committee issue an appeal it means something terrible has happened, on an unimaginable scale, and you can help.

So don’t be paralysed by the news from Nepal.

Please, donate something if you can.

pooI have a special relationship with the countryside, some might say eccentric, even a little Victorian. I see in it reflections of what the old Romantics would have called the sublime. I am a countryman, I suppose. I was brought up in it, still live in a rural village, and have resisted all my life the siren call and the bright lights and the fast food outlets of the ever encroaching environs of  Urbania. Unlike the countryside, Urbania to my eyes is the same wherever you find it, and it is always growing, always flowing, bustling, hustling, and always blowing out its litter into other people’s hedgerows. And to me, for all of its bright lights, Urbania is void of colour; it is a uniform, uninteresting grey.  You don’t need to go anywhere to find it; stand still for long enough, and it will come to you.

The sublime cannot be found everywhere in the countryside; it is a fickle thing, but for sure it is least likely to found where our constructions, or even our footprints encroach too greedily upon it. This is not to say we are always spoiling nature – we can find ways of living in harmony with it, but more often we don’t try, and the closer the borders of Urbania draw near, the less likely we are to care about such cerebral niceties as abiding in nature, and the quest for the sublime.

Rural communities understand how the moods, and even the shape of the land can inform and uplift the soul. The smaller the community, and the further away from Urbania, the more keenly will the rhythms and the currents of nature be felt. Urbanians though, take a different view. They see nature more as an “amenity”, or a convenient open space, allowing them to do those anti-social activities the towns and cities deny them, even if this is so basic a thing as providing somewhere for their dogs to run and dump (no I really do mean dump), or a convenient slope up which they can take their bicycles and churn the paths to slime on the downward run.

By contrast, the countryman will walk a path and leave no trace of his passing, not a bent twig nor torn piece of moss, nor are you likely to hear him passing. But Urbanians will yelp and squeal and eff and blind their way, and they will spill litter from their pockets as they go, like a trail of breadcrumbs as if they fear getting lost; they will set fire to stolen cars in the back lanes, and they will leave calling cards in the form of little bags of poo.

Yes poo!

rivington pike

Rivington Pike

I have written of the despoliation of Rivington before. Rivington is one of Lancashire’s most celebrated and most visited beauty spots. But visiting it again myself after the Easter Bank Holiday weekend, I find matters reaching a crisis point, though I say this every year. The first thing my eyes alighted upon after parking my car and fastening on my boots, was a little bag of poo hanging cheekily from a tree. Beneath, and scattered around it were beercans and plastic bottles. As I moved off, I spied another bag of poo in the grass, another hung from a nail on the fence. More beercans were revealed at every turn, also polythene bags, food wrappers, and of course more little bags of poo.

For those of you not acquainted with this peculiar custom, the poo in question comes from dogs. It is painstakingly collected by their owners, and then hung up for all to see. The poo transcends your normal detritus, which seems scattered more in a careless way indicative of the Urbanian’s normal insensitivity for nature. The poo however is a definite statement, obviously, being all the more carefully arrayed so that it can only be taken as a banner, or a bowel churning war-cry:

“I have been,” it says. “And I shall come again.”

There it hangs, or lies, preserved in its entirety, and for eternity, more bags of poo accumulating week on week of course, until one cannot progress literally more than a few paces without finding yet another one. I have no wish to offend doggie people, am very fond of dogs, and know many responsible owners, but these bags of poo are offensive to a countryman. Human beings have a natural aversion to faecal matter, at least that issuing from the bowels of carnivores, including ourselves, and for the basic reason it is alive with pathogens, and can do us harm.

It must be said this is something of a recent phenomenon. In the long ago, dogs would dump in the open while owners looked blithely on. And there the said pile would steam and fester until the rains washed it away. This is now an offence, punishable by a hefty fine so dog owners must pick up their turds and take them home. It is not a task I would enjoy, speaking personally as a non dog owner, but owners do seem most diligent in this nowadays, placing the faecal matter ever so carefully in a bag, and I’m sure many do then take it home. However, obviously, as any walk around Rivington or indeed anywhere else in the countryside these days will tell you, many do not.

rivington village green

Rivington Village Green

I am at a loss to understand this quirk of human nature. Having done the really hard part, I mean handling it and bagging it, why then hang it up for all to see? Really, it makes no sense! Urbanians please explain! Is this a territorial thing? Are you really at war with us country folk? Cease, or we shall drive our herbivorous cows and sheep into your cities, and create perpetual gridlock!

A walk around Rivington, especially after the Easter Bank Holiday makes me wonder if others believe that care of the countryside is always someone else’s responsibility, that if we leave our beercans, our plastic paraphernalia, discarded underpants, brassieres, prophylactics, fast food cartons, shoes, nappies, and little bags of poo strewn about, someone else will tidy it all away. They won’t. Care of the countryside is everyone’s responsibility, so please take your litter, and your poo home.

Oh, it’s easy to rant, and I shall resist the urge, because there’s an inevitability about it. Such detritus is a natural tide, a line of flotsam that projects beyond the boundaries of Urbania, a high water mark to drown all in its path. To avoid it one must travel further afield than Rivington now. I accept it. I mourn it. It is lost to the greyness.

“What is greyness, please?” asks the passing Urbanian, dog bag at the ready.

It is a lack of colour, a lack of depth, mate. It is the subliminal life drained from nature, as it abuts the incoming tide, its roots shrinking as if at the advance of a glyphosphate spillage. It is in short that bag of dog poo you are for some mysterious reason hanging from a tree.

In response a committee is formed, and we put up a notice claiming the land as “Amenity”, as if its authoritative fonts alone will protect it. Then we put up prohibitive notices, which are themselves as ugly as the things they prohibit. Meanwhile we leave the litter to rot because you have to pay someone in man-hours to pick that up, and why bother when several tonnes more will be deposited as soon as the man goes home.

You can still find places unmarked by bags of poo, but they tend to be where the land is large and scary and the wind blows hard all winter. Only there my friend do Urbanians, and their doggies, fear to tread. I should add here in conclusion I do not mean to imply all town or city dwellers are Urbanians. You don’t have to live in the sticks be a countryman at heart. But remember to be a countryman you must leave no trace of your passing, and that includes taking your dog poo home.

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