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Photograph: Ezmerelda


Website article (July 2019)

The River Brue Rehabilitation Board is a project that is planned to last for one year, and it is intended essentially as a piece of theatre – first of all as a way to raise awareness of the various conservation issues regarding the River Brue. It would be wonderful if the local authorities had actually set up a body intended to rehabilitate our local river, return it to its original course, deal effectively with pollution, fully reinstate its wetland context, revive its natural flora and fauna, and return it to being the proud waterway that it once was. This is unlikely to happen however, and it will not help to be attached to any particular outcome. But we can still plant the seed of an idea, and see what grows.

The Vision

I have been making friends with the River Brue since 2014: walking along its banks and getting to know its twists and turns; visiting it in the early mornings and making offerings (or ‘payments’ as the Kogi people of Columbia would understand them); studying its history, writing about it and giving talks for local groups and associations; seeking to converse with the Spirit of the River, and to listen to what She has to say. For me, the Brue has become an allegory for the whole natural world, misused almost beyond redemption – but still alive, and still giving life to plants, insects, fish and birds, and also to the human imagination. This is what I have so far imagined myself, for a project intended as a citizens’ initiative that will press for, and if possible initiate, effective action:

Premises close to the centre of Glastonbury, open to the public (from 9 to 5, Monday to Friday); part shop, part information centre, part community hub; hosting activities related to the River Brue and to environmental issues generally, in the spirit of what I have outlined above; also providing practical services as Unique Publications has been doing for more than 30 years – such as photocopying using recycled paper; encouraging community involvement and incorporating ideas from people who can further the basic aims of the project; and using the premises as a micro-venue, inviting the small-scale participation of performers such as musicians, actors, story tellers and others.

A focus on the river and its environment cannot avoid the over-riding issue of climate change, and the social collapse that looks increasingly likely as a result of that together with environmental degradation and species extinction. This process has already reached a point at which life on this planet will be changed beyond recognition. The materialist culture embraced by most of the world’s leaders and large sections of its human population is failing, to such an alarming degree that the extinction of the human species is becoming a serious possibility. The only remedy – however unlikely – is a complete reversal of this culture; the only realistic response is to respect, nurture and embrace the planet as a living, spiritual being. This theme will be woven into the on-going project, with a local emphasis on the River Brue and the landscape of central Somerset.

Spiritual Ecology and the Four Point Plan

There is another important aspect of this project: I am a writer, and my growing relationship with the River Brue has so far helped me to produce three books. There is a fourth to be written, and to explain this I must go back five years. In 2014 I joined a Sufi meditation group and the following year I started going to meetings with their teacher Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee (this is a western branch of Sufism rather than Islamic, though Llewellyn can trace his lineage back to Baghdad in the middle ages). One thing that he has talked about a lot is ‘Spiritual Ecology’, which I think could be described as the attitude towards the natural world still held by indigenous people whose culture is reasonably intact – that the Earth is a spiritual being in its (Her) own right, and that a failure to respect the planet in that light is at the root of our ecological crisis.

More and more people were asking him what they could do about this in a practical way. At first he did not want to prescribe what we should do, but one day he came up with what he called a ‘four point plan’. The four points are: Witnessing (of the natural world, and the destruction that is being visited upon it by the actions of human beings), Grieving (which will naturally follow the witnessing if it is done honestly and with an open heart), Prayer (which was quite an alien concept to me! – but which should naturally arise from the grieving), and Action (which he recommends should be done on a small scale, not getting involved with large organisations that are so easily corrupted). I was particularly struck by noticing that the first three points seem designed to change our way of thinking before we embark on the action.

At that time I was also beginning to take myself seriously as a writer, and so I found myself working with this four-point plan and considering that I could write four books. The basic idea for the first one sprung into my mind after watching the film Aluna, directed by former BBC director Alan Ereira and delivering a revived and urgent message from the indigenous Kogi people from the mountains of northern Columbia. Ereira had already made a film about the Kogi 25 years previously, a message From the Heart of the World: The Elder Brothers’ Warning. Now the Kogi themselves had invited him back to make another film, for they knew that their earlier warning had not been heeded. Watching this film was a special inspiration for me. One of its key statements is, “You don’t have to abandon your lives, but you must protect the rivers”. I felt that there was little I could do myself to protect the world’s rivers, but that I could at least get to know my own local river. Since then I have written three books – The River, Petroc of Glastonbury, and Conversations with the River Spirit. Now I have been giving thought to the fourth. It is time for Action.

Deep Adaptation

Exactly what form that action could take is not yet clear. It will depend a lot on who is attracted to the project and what their skills, ideas and enthusiasms might be. For myself, I have taken a lot of interest in what is called ‘deep adaptation’ and the thinking of Professor Jem Bendell. He is the first academic with the honesty to state publicly that all the reports and predictions that we see concerning climate change are based on data that is already out of date, and that they are habitually understated anyway. There is quite a long delay between carbon being released into the atmosphere and the resulting warming effects, but there are already indications that the graph is becoming exponential rather than linear.

As an example, it is now four years since the New Scientist reported that it was already too late to prevent a sea level rise of five or six metres – which would have a major effect on the Somerset Levels and the River Brue. There are several enormous antarctic ice shelves that are already beginning to collapse into the sea, and each of them could raise the world’s sea level by a metre or so. The waters could soon begin to rise very quickly, and would reach at least to Pomparles Bridge between Glastonbury and Street.

Of course we do not know exactly what will happen, nor when, but Jem Bendell is saying that the result is likely to be ‘societal collapse in the near term’ (i.e. within ten years). This thought brings things rather sharply into focus. Deep Adaptation is about coming to terms with this possibility – meaning a crisis somewhere between social/economic collapse and complete extinction of the human species. It also involves thinking about what is really important to us, and how we can live our lives fully and authentically, if time is being called on ‘normal life’ and that time may be short.

‘Our hearts and hands are needed’

I find Llewellyn’s perspective particularly helpful: he has been saying for some time that our ‘toxic’ culture cannot last; that humanity has not chosen to take a different route but the consequences are catching up with us anyway. The result will probably be just such a collapse as Bendell describes – and its severity will, again according to Llewellyn, necessarily be sufficient to shatter our illusions of materialism and separateness. What would it actually take to shatter these illusions? By separateness he means our separation from the natural world, separation from each other (the planet and humanity is One, and the problem will not be solved by old-style adversarial politics), and separation from our Selves – we have lost our connection with the Divine. His recent article Radical Resilience: An Inner Shift quotes Paul Kingsnorth, Greta Thunberg and Jem Bendell amongst others. He concludes:

“We do not know how our civilization will end, or how long it will take – we are living in a time of radical uncertainty. But we can recognize that it is over, and that the seeds of a new era are already present, even if mostly unrecognized. If our shared future is to be sustainable in any real sense we need to return to a living relationship with the Earth, a state of ‘interbeing’. Only then can we turn our awareness to how to give birth to a new civilization that can exist in balance, in harmony with the Earth and Her living systems. There is an immediacy to this work even if it may take centuries for it to unfold – and it is where our hearts and hands are needed.”

All this might seem to have taken me a long way from the River Brue and the Somerset Levels, but this is the reason that my book The River is sub-titled ‘an exploration of a disconnected river’. The source and the upper part of the river have been physically disconnected from what was formerly the lower part and its outlet to the sea, and I came to understand this as an allegory for our own disconnection from the natural world, from each other, and from our spiritual Source. Making friends with the river, or with any part of the landscape that is nearby and important to us, and of a scale that we can genuinely relate to, is one way to begin a process of healing the disconnection. This in turn will lead us to want the river to be ‘rehabilitated’, to be returned to its natural healthy state; and working for this can be a genuine contribution to the same for the entire world. If I listen quietly to the Spirit of the River, I notice that She is pleased; and that She wants me to write from the heart.