The explorer Bruce Parry has recently made a new film called Tawai, in which he spends time in Borneo with one of the world’s last truly nomadic tribes called The Penan. There is a lovely moment where a tribesman explains to Bruce that when a certain bird in the jungle calls, they know a particular fruit is now ripe and ready to pick. I am paraphrasing here, but Bruce asks, ‘when do you expect that to happen?’ ‘When the bird calls,’ the tribesman explains. ‘And when is that likely to be?’ Bruce asks again. A rather perplexed tribesman responds again, ‘when the bird calls.
This little exchange touches upon a core difference between communities that are connected to nature and those that are not. Deeply in tune to the rhythms of nature, what The Penan want and what nature can provide are carefully in balance. They see themselves as part of nature and are plugged into a system that renews itself. They know that nature delivers, without fail and according to its own rhythm. They listen and they wait.
However, outside of communities such as The Penan, we have a very different relationship with time. We’ve become obsessed with it. Wasting time is the ultimate sin, but wasting other resources seems to be allowable. Over consumption is related to nearly all the environmental issues that this planet is facing, from deforestation to urban sprawl, from intensive farming to species extinction. According to the Living Planet Index, we have lost over half of the world’s biodiversity in the last 40 years.
I live near one of the biggest malls in Europe. It’s full of ingredients taken from the earth, processed and manufactured into stuff, which will then be discarded. I often wonder when I walk in there (which is as infrequently as I can manage), how much of this stuff is something that people actually need. I wonder how many people enjoy their new stuff, before they buy even newer, shinier stuff. Perhaps the act of browsing and purchasing has become the true moment of enjoyment, with the law of diminishing returns applying to every moment that the purchase is in our home?
We engineer ways and technologies to give us more time, but we never hang around to experience it once we have got it. We want more, we want it faster and we want it better, but of course that’s a paradox. The more we want, the less likely we are to satisfy ourselves and the more exhausted we become. As Plato said, ‘Poverty consists not so much in small property, but in large desires.’
Always wanting more comes from a place of lack, from a place of ‘not enough’. Perhaps we feel there is not enough time, not enough resources to go round and that we ourselves are not enough, and so we consume to regain some semblance of control or certainty. We busy ourselves to distraction, because it’s easier not to be with our feelings and problems. It’s easier to pretend we aren’t aware of the consequences of our actions and the trauma that they are creating at an ecological, social, psychological and spiritual level. We shut out the groans and exasperations of the planet; we shut out the injustices and pain we see in each other’s eyes and say ‘that’s the way it is - it’s the system’. It is however, delusional.
To resist time is, however, to resist ourselves. Ironically, by allowing ourselves to sit with the unknown, we actually discover more. Perhaps deep down we know that if we were to stop doing and just listen we might find out that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves. Thankfully the philosophy of Deep Ecology, which takes a holistic view of the planet as one big ecosystem, is taking firmer roots as more and more people are making this connection. Yet, in bygone years there was never any question of this. Chief Seattle, a prominent native American figure in favour of ecological responsibility, put it powerfully when he said, ‘What is man without beasts? If all the beasts are gone, man would die from great loneliness of spirit, for whatever happens to beasts also happens to man. All things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth.’
On several occasions when friends have asked me how I have been, I have said ‘busy’, with some degree of pride, as if that were the right answer. They normally validate that assumption with their approval. But it would appear that I want to be even busier. This week I’ve changed broadband providers, because my current one is unreliable and ‘slow’. I want a faster connection: I don’t have to wait those two or three precious seconds for something to load. I called up the old provider for an address to which to return the router, but was told they don’t accept returns and advised to just ‘bin it’. More plastic for the landfill, and little choice for me. Clearly I’m a part of the problem, whether I want to be or not.
The faster we go the more resources we use, the more mistakes we make and the less efficient we become. When we go slower we are more aware and effective. We have a more realistic grasp of what we have and what we need. We realise that the race towards the next thing is just in our head and the moment of life itself deserves more attention.
If we spend enough time out in the wilderness, we see that ‘progress’ is a man made construct, that allows us to justify our setting of expectations, projections and assumptions. People talk about economic growth as if it is the only metric of success, when Mother Nature knows otherwise. Of course growth is important, but in the wilderness, things grow and then they die – they don’t keep growing. There is no ‘time’ in the wilderness and thus there is no concept of progress. What could nature possibly be progressing towards? The world is not a machine to be controlled, measured and manipulated, but a living organism. It doesn’t operate in a linear fashion, but evolves for the purposes of survival, with a deep acceptance of its inevitable death. The overriding theme is not one of progress, but of balance and renewal.
Likewise, we shouldn’t be looking at ourselves as if we were machines operating in a linear fashion. Ask yourself why you are so busy? If we were all to trust that we are enough, that we have enough and that this moment is enough then would our world still be facing a problem? If we were truly connected to nature, would we feel so lonely, impatient or dissatisfied? Go out and spend some time alone in the woods or mountains and you may find that you rapidly stop judging yourself as you instead put yourself into the context of the wider world around you.
Nothing in the natural world busies itself purely for the purposes of distraction.
Plants and animals give back to the earth what they take from the earth. They know what renews them and they survive on the principle of necessity.
Perhaps we should all ask ourselves what renews us? I have a strong hunch that it will not be the continual pursuit of more. Life doesn’t flourish where there are high winds or fast flowing water, save those few organisms that have had the time to evolve to those conditions. We haven’t evolved to the extreme pace of life that most of us are witnessing. Record rates of depression and anxiety are testimony to that. We need to step back towards the middle, to a more balanced existence. Because one thing is for sure, nature is not going to speed up for us.
As the author Mary Evelyn Tucker says, ‘it is renewable human energy that we seek. We must embed ourselves in deep, geological time.’ If we renew our personal energy, then we can renew the wider organism of this planet.
What if we were to devalue the currency of time and increase the value of self-renewal? What renews and nourishes you? If you need help in understanding this, then let nature be your guide. Sit under a tree and give it your undivided attention and see what happens.