Under the spreading walnut tree
An introduction to these essays
Two years ago, I was hoping I could retire.
It wasn’t a realistic hope, and I knew it: my writing and teaching is the only income source my family has, so unless some anonymous donor had looked kindly on me, I was going to have to keep going. But I thought seriously that I might be able to find some other way of earning: gardening, maybe, or working in a shop. Anything but writing. I had come, literally, to a full stop.
I had just published a non-fiction book called Savage Gods - still my favourite piece of non-fiction, as it happens. It’s a raw, short book that I began in 2017, in the midst of a personal night-sea journey. I was lost: spiritually lost, not at home in my (fairly) new country, and most of all, lost as a writer. I had stopped believing in words. They had come to seem less like a liberation, and more like a trap; less like a glass I could see through, if darkly, and more like a wall which prevented me from touching the real world on the other side.
So I wrote it all down - inevitably - and then I stopped. I made a vow to write nothing new for a year and a day. I kept the vow, the date passed, and I still had no words. I thought, well, that was that. I had written ten books in my life, which was a nice round number. But what to do instead? What else can a 45 year old writer do? How to feed my children? I said to God: show me what to do. I’ll burn all my pens if you want. But show me the way. I didn’t even think I believed in God, which just goes to show how confused I was.
Still, it turns out that God doesn’t care whether you believe in Him or not, and it seems also that He has a sense of humour. Savage Gods turned out to be - and I had an inkling about this when I wrote it but I couldn’t face the implications - a prelude to a spiritual drowning. Under the water I went, down to the bottom, and when I emerged earlier this year I had become, much to my surprise, an Orthodox Christian. Meanwhile, the strange plague raged all around, and everything and everyone was changing, including me. That same year I completed the trilogy of novels I had been working on for a decade. Things rearranged themselves inside me and all around me - around all of us. I had no further commitments. I had no plans. I was not the same person I had been. I could do anything I wanted. I was free.
But the world was not, and it is less free daily - the Machine is closing in on us all, and this is what I am doing here, back with words again. I tried not to. But it became clear that what was going on all around me was enormous, and that I could not avoid its implications and the changes it was bringing. My unexpected conversion to the Christian faith felt like the result of some spirit moving in the world, racing through the waters and the woods and through our minds, shaken from its slumber by apocalyptic times. I was, I discovered, not the only one feeling this way. Something is happening, and we are all part of it.
For a while I have been watching the poisonous so-called ‘culture war’ flooding from America into my homeland, and I have been mourning my country when I haven’t been confused or angry. But above all I have been wondering: what does this signify? Why is this culture so broken, so weakened, so lost? What is going on beneath the surface? I have watched, as we all have, these growing divisions as I have watched much bigger problems enveloping the world - forest fires, droughts, climatic shifts, ongoing extinctions, the dark litany that I have written about for so many years now. And I have watched, especially this last year, with the covid pandemic as an accelerant, the rapidly growing power and reach of the digital matrix of surveillance, control and manipulation, further eroding freedom, community and reality itself.
The churning of the surface waters of our societies - the fights, the divisions, the polarising ‘issues’ dangled before us like carrots to squabble over - these are all symptoms of deep shifts beneath. Add it all together - the coming-apart of (supposedly) liberal nations, the ongoing global eradication of rooted cultures and so much of the wild and non-human world, the rise of a techno-feudal new order, the replacement of older values with those of the globalised consumer machine - and what you get, I think, is a revolution.
Or, perhaps, a revelation.
Either way, it becomes hard to sit it out, at least if you are the kind of person I appear to be. I would like to be a gardener, but I am not. Nearly a century ago, in the 1930s, George Orwell, came to the same conclusion. He had also tried his hand at gardening, living in a small village in Hertfordshire, keeping goats (Muriel, above, appears not to be hungry), running the village shop with his wife. But the twentieth century was enfolding him. Hitler had come to power. The Spanish Civil War was on the horizon, and Orwell would later go to fight in it. Yet he always wanted to be somewhere else; in another time, in another England. In his essay Why I Write he reproduces a bad poem he wrote at the time, as he tried to resolve the pulling inside:
A happy vicar I might have been
Two hundred years ago
To preach upon eternal doom
And watch my walnuts grow
But there was to be no happy vicarage for George, not with Stalin and Hitler on the prowl. Later in the poem, you can see the wistful backwards-look as the angel of history drags him unstoppably towards Auschwitz and the Ministry of Truth:
But girl's bellies and apricots,
Roach in a shaded stream,
Horses, ducks in flight at dawn,
All these are a dream.
Roach in a shaded stream. What an image. It takes me back to the last remnants of an England I knew growing up, to the brooks of the south country which were being bulldozed for motorways and housing estates even then. But the point is this: Orwell also wanted to retire, but the times would not let him. I wasn’t born for an age like this, he wrote plaintively at the poem’s conclusion. And yet from some angles, pre-war England looks like a golden age now.
Modernity is a permanent revolution. We were all really born for an age of walnut trees and shaded pools, but instead we find ourselves in the Machine’s maw with the jaws closing, and it is hard to know whether to fight or run, or whether either is possible, or whether all of this is just words, of the kind I should have stayed away from. But these are our times, and those of us cursed to think too much must work out how to live in them. We must work out, if only for our own peace of mind, what we think about the breakdown of forms, the widening gyre, the solidity melting ever faster into air. We have to work it out so that we know where we stand, and what we will not stand for. Where the lines are, and whether to cross them and what we will do if one day the times come for us as we sit beneath the walnut tree, armed with a vaccine passport and the latest official upending of reality, and demand a public pledge of loyalty.
I have not written anything like a blog, or a semi-regular series of essays, for more than a decade, and the world was very different then. I don’t know if I still have it in me, or if anyone will want to read what I have to say or how much flack I will take for saying it. But I am at least partly writing here because I have allowed myself to stop caring. My head is buzzing with the times, and the words need to be released. So I’m going to release them here and I am going to try as hard as I can not to cut my cloth to suit anyone else’s coat. If you like what I have to say: good. If you don’t, and you want to storm out: also good. I am not writing to please anyone, even myself. I am writing to find out what it is that I think, because I don’t think I can escape that obligation anymore.
I plan to write a series of fortnightly essays over the next year or so, in which I’ll break down the mess of the times into two parts: an attempted analysis of that mess, and then some possible responses to it, both of course from my small and necessarily limited perspective. If it goes well, perhaps I’ll write more frequently. If it comes together, perhaps it might turn into something more substantial. And if it goes badly, or doesn’t hang together, or I decide it’s all futile and retire to try the walnut trees after all - well, at least I will have got it off my chest, which is at least half of the point of being here.
You can read a bit more about my project, and how it works, here.
Nearly thirty years after Orwell’s death, in 1978, the American farmer-poet Wendell Berry, writing to his Zen Beat friend Gary Snyder, found himself in a similar bind. He had retreated from New York City and bought a farm, where he hoped to retire to the banks of a river to work the land with horses, watch ducks, maybe angle for roach if they have them in Kentucky. But it didn’t take him long to realise that he was not born for those times either. He could go back to the land, but he couldn’t hide from what was coming. The strip malls were destroying the local town, the tops of the nearby mountains were being sliced off for coal, his neighbour’s intensive agriculture was washing the soil down into the rivers. There would be no walnut trees in Port Royal any time soon.
He wrote to Snyder:
I see with considerable sorrow that I am not going to get done fighting and live at peace in anything like the simple way I once thought I would. So how to keep from becoming evil? Maybe the answer is to fight always for what you particularly love, not for abstractions and not against anything: don’t fight against even the devil, and don’t fight to ‘save the world.’
How to keep from becoming evil? It’s the question of our times. My society is more divided than at any time during my life on Earth, and it is going to get worse. Plenty of those who claim to want to change it for the better are in the process of becoming evil: whipping up mobs, bullying into silence those who disagree, using state or corporate or technological power to impose their will. The higher the stakes get, the more of this we will see.
Forty years ago, a group of Situationists, building on their original 1968 manifesto, wrote of the progress of the ‘spectacle’, the name that Guy Debord had given to the bread-and-circuses face of modern Machine capitalism. They maintained that ongoing, surface-level conflict - what we would today call a culture war - was not a manifestation of rebellion against the Machine, but a necessary part of its functioning:
‘Fragmentary oppositions are like the teeth on cogwheels: they mesh with each other and make the machine go round — the machine of the spectacle, the machine of power.’
Unlike many of their fellow travellers on the left, the Situationists had identified the true tenor of the times: no longer a clarifying class war over the means of production, but a fog of constructed and managed lies, consumer images, competing media narratives and fomented cultural divisions, all of it serving the interests of those who run the show. Fragmentary oppositions, the machine of the spectacle, the machine of power: it’s a description of our time. There are a lot of people out there who benefit daily from us all being at each others’ throats: arguing furiously over surface trivia while the money and the power funnel upwards, as they ever did.
There are underlying reasons for all of this - historical, technological, cultural and spiritual reasons - and I want to dig into some of them here over the coming year. Some of the things I say are going to tread on toes, but I want to tread on them without becoming evil, and without encouraging or tolerating evil from anyone else. Walt Whitman taught us that we all contain multitudes, but these are times which want to whittle those multitudes away until we are all just one singular, angry person, convinced of our own Correctness, screaming across no-man’s-land at all of the Bad People in the other trench. Soon, if we are not very careful, we will stop screaming and start throwing grenades.
None of us can only be one voice, or we will go mad. Perhaps this is the plan for us all in the end.
I will attempt to write here without becoming evil. I will try to fight for what I love and not against what I don’t, avoiding too many abstractions, trying to keep my feet on the ground. I will hope for a good conversation with those who subscribe, and welcome disagreement and alternative views. But I will deny commenting rights to anyone who attempts to bring those fragmentary oppositions into this space. We’re going to try and practice kindness and mercy here. It’s an Abbey after all.
In the end, I think it can be good to daily remind ourselves that we are all lost in this maelstrom. It has probably always been that way. If I have a reason to return to words, it is because I still believe that at their best they can help us find some useful path to follow.