I watch the moon from a fingernail of light right through to the fullness of it, and the delicious phase we call a gibbous moon. I see the sun move across the horizon with the months and then at the farthest point of winter, see it begin its journey back to the sunlit mountain behind which it sets in summer. We are halfway across as I write this and the sun sets behind ‘our mountain’.
Though we live here and bought the acres of forest we technically own, we have no sense of ownership… we are simply the fortunate tenants of this beautiful podocarp forest, teeming with species of tree and plant life.
Here are hidden species of frogs and lizards and fungi, almost extinct in the rest of the world, and rare butterflies are still seen here. Fungi in colours that are psychedelic, brilliant blue and purple and orange, green and red grow in the dense green canopy which shelters them from the brilliant New Zealand sun-shine.
Because it is spring, on distant vistas there are patches of white to be seen scrambling up to the tops of tall trees and the sun-light – the fragrant white clematis. It grows too, on some of the ancient trees surrounding our little home in the woods. The birds we feed are gathering as spring advances, and we hear the sound of the tuis bell-like call, the heavy flapping of the wood pigeon’s wings as they circle our valley, the harsh call of the quails who visit us to enjoy the bird seed we dispense, and the soft hooting of the moreporks – the New Zealand owl – connecting with each other across the dark forest through the night. We watch the kingfisher perching on the branch where the moreporks also sit, and see him dive like lightning into the grass to grab a morsel of food – be it grasshopper or beetle.
Those tend to be the only sounds we hear, just occasionally the drone of a distant aircraft and the rushing water of our stream after heavy rain. We feel the wind on our faces, and hear it in the trees, we savour the soft spring rain filling our water tank, and keeping the forest moist and green. We feel the springy ground beneath our feet, centuries of humus which have accumulated undisturbed.
We feel the mysterious life around us, knowing that beneath the surface the trees are connected and communicate with each other through their root systems; that the abundant life of bees and beetles, moths and grasshoppers, birds and tiny ancient species of reptile are part of a vital chain of life which has existed millennia before homo sapiens conquered the planet. We sit in the sun, and feel the warmth on our faces, and hold smooth sun-warmed stones, and feel a connectedness with the earth and with the natural life that many people who live amid concrete, steel and glass cities, can lose.
Technology has tamed the cold and the heat with air conditioning and central heating; we have tamed the seasons, with imported food bringing us fruit and vegetables from all over the globe, regardless of whether it’s summer or autumn or winter. We may even have become unconscious of the rhythm of our own bodies, of the way we once responded to the passing of the seasons and of the years, as our culture devotes itself to prolonging youthful bodies and a belief that we can conquer the ravages of age and the vagaries of climate – until a hurricane or earthquake shatter some of these illusions.
It seems to me that when we lose this sense of connection with the life which throbs around us, with the rhythms of the sun and the moon and the movements of the starry sky, and the dance of joy in a greater whole, we may lose something very precious… and that in the end, we may in Cardinal Newman’s words: ‘choke up all the avenues of the soul through which the light and breath of heaven may come to us.’
We know that we do not own these acres that we live on and look out across. We call it our mountain but we know that that is just our figure of speech. We are simply the present guardians of this patch of our precious planet. We’ve signed a covenant that we will not disturb the forest, cut down any trees, or despoil any part of it. We cherish its silent solitude, and share the seasons with it. Does this place know or feel how sacred, cherished and unpolluted it is, I wonder?
Robert Macfarlane writes in his wonderful book ‘The Wild Places’, that even on the beaches of the Isle of Skye in the remote north of Scotland, the beaches were littered with: “milk bottle crates, pitted cubical chunks of furniture foam cigarette butts, bottle caps, aerosol canisters…”
Here in this empty place we have escaped that blight of the so- called civilised world. Even the beaches on this remote peninsula are unsullied and unspoiled. We are the fortunate ones, I know, and my heart aches at the knowledge of the poisoned polluted oceans devoid of the teeming fish and life Thor Heyerdahl wrote of during the Kon Tiki Expedition, seventy years ago this year.
John Aspinall was a successful gambler, who, while stripping rich men of their money in London during the sixties and seventies, used his ill-gotten gains to establish two zoos, which are now famous for being animal refuges where he successfully bred species and returned them to the wild, a policy his son Damian is still pursuing (you can follow his work on Youtube)
Before he died, John Aspinall wrote his creed: “I believe in Jus Animalium, the Rights of Beasts, and Jus Herbarum, the Rights of Plants. The right to exist as they have always existed, to live and let live. I believe in the Buddhist concept of Ahimsa – justice for all animate things. I believe in the greatest happiness for the greatest number of species of fauna and flora that the Earth can sustain without resultant deterioration of habitat and depletion of natural resources.
“I believe in the sanctity of the life systems, not in the sanctity of human life alone. The concept of sanctity of human life is the most damaging sophism that philosophy has ever propagated – it has rooted well. Its corollary – a belief in the insanctity of species other than man – is the cause of that damage. The destruction of this idea is a prerequisite for survival.
“I believe that wilderness is Earth’s greatest treasure. Wilderness is the bank on which all cheques are drawn. I believe our debt to nature is total, our willingness to pay anything back on account, barely discernible. I believe that unless we recognise this debt and renegotiate it, we write our own epitaph.
“I believe that there is an outside chance to save the earth and most of its tenants. This outside chance must be grasped with gambler’s hands.
“I believe that terrible risks must be taken and terrible passions aroused before these ends can hope to be accomplished. If a system is facing extreme pressures, only extreme counter-pressures are relevant, let alone likely to prove effective.
“I believe that all who subscribe to these testaments must act now; stand up and be counted. What friends Nature has, Nature needs.”
In the twenty-first century, in the face of overpopulation, pollution and climate change, his words remind us of the urgency of the task. It still isn’t too late to stand up and be counted. And I feel that Lao Tzu’s words written two and a half thousand years ago, can still point the way for us all:
If there is to be peace in the world,
There must be peace in the nations.
If there is to be peace in the nations,
There must be peace in the cities.
If there is to be peace in the cities,
There must be peace between neighbours.
If there is to be peace between neighbours,
There must be peace in the home.
If there is to be peace in the home,
There must be peace in the heart.
The picture is our house in the forest
Food for threadbare gourmets
The cupboard was bare so imagination was needed. Pasta did the trick… with a couple of rashers of bacon chopped and fried with sliced mushrooms while the pasta was cooking. I added cream to the bacon mix, boiled it up to thicken it, added a grated courgette, chopped parsley, a small dollop of mustard, and a sprinkling of nutmeg, salt and pepper. This mixture was poured over the cooked pasta, and then sprinkled with grated parmesan. It went down well !