The Great Humbling S4E5: ‘Belief’

Dougald poses a big question for this episode: what do we believe in? Ed responds playfully and paradoxically with ‘self-delusion’, citing Robert Trivers work on self-deceit that includes gay pornography and erection-o-meters. And lasers. Here’s his RSA talk

Dougald talks about the formative influence of spending the first two-and-a-bit years of his life in the grounds of a theological college and what happened when he told his Sunday school teacher that he didn’t find Hell ‘a particularly helpful concept’. 

Does it matter more what we believe, or what our beliefs make us do? If there is a throne at the heart of a culture, what do we put on it?

Ed shares his own inherited belief from his late father: ‘Brickshit’. A story that entails psychedelic adventures and an uncanny set of synchronicities, a recurrent theme of these conversations.

Dougald asserts that he does not believe in coincidences, and expands on the idea of culture’s empty throne in the inter-generational absence of church-going, and the unarticulated loss that results in society. 

Does religion start as a joke that falls into the trap of taking itself too seriously? If everyone we meet is God in disguise, how might that influence our metaphysical manners? Is prayer a shortcut to ancient mysteries? 

Ed concludes with some thoughts on ‘interbeing’ and finding magic everywhere amongst the ruins.

Introducing Traps, Cages & Spells

A stream where hunters could still find saola 20 years ago. Pu Huong, Vietnam (Do Van Thoai)

It was during the Climate Sessions series that we held in late 2020 that I first crossed paths with Nicholas Wilkinson. In between the big Sunday night sessions with guests like Martin Shaw and Vanessa Andreotti, I was holding calls on weekdays when participants were welcome to drop in and talk about whatever had been coming up for them.

In one of those sessions, Nicholas spoke about a question he’d been carrying for twenty years, since a lecture that he attended as an undergraduate studying Natural Sciences at Oxford.

— For a biology course it was a very odd lecture, and a very beautiful lecture, in which my tutor told a story: once upon a time, there was a world where people were hunter-gatherers. He used the word ‘palaeolith’ to mean hunter-gatherers, and ‘neolith’ to mean agriculturalist, which aren’t the words we would use now. The palaeoliths were better off than the agriculturalists, their food sources were far more diverse, whereas life for the early agriculturalists was grim. It was the first time I’d heard something that went against the assumption that the transition to agriculture was a form of progress. There’s been a struggle between the palaeoliths and the neoliths throughout history, he said – and the neoliths always win.

What Nicholas realised was that he had carried that story into his work as a conservation biologist: a tragic version of the story of progress, in which whatever you might wish for, decisions still need to be informed by an inevitable logic running through history.

— Against that background, I hear you guys talking about ‘hospicing modernity’, and I respond to that in a confused way, because I want to say, are you sure? Because modernity seems to be… doing pretty well.

Something about the way he told the story on that first call held the attention of all of us who were there, and Nicholas and I went on talking over the months that followed. One of the fruits of that was ‘Beast Dreaming’, an essay that was published by Dark Mountain last summer.

In it, he tells the story of the saola, a forest antelope of southeast Asia that may or may not already have gone extinct. Nicholas has spent his career studying the saola in the hope of rescuing it from the brink. The essay starts with a dream he has, shortly after a decision has been taken ‘to seek out any surviving saola and bring them to bay with dogs and so into captivity’.

The dream is horrific: the Greek army is camped outside Troy, Achilles tells the assembled captains that he has a way to win the war, and this will involve a journey through the Underworld to Ithaca where they will take part in the gang rape of Penelope. ‘In the logic of my dream,’ he writes, ‘this plan made perfect sense.’ It is hard not to see this act of violence as corresponding to the plan to hunt the saola in order to save it.

Two years later, a second dream includes an encounter with a being which ‘regarded me with a vicious intelligence I had thought was uniquely human’. This leads him to the question of whether there might be something else involved, beyond the agency that he and his colleagues see themselves holding in their decisions about conservation.

So ‘Beast Dreaming’ ends with a scientist contemplating what it could mean to take seriously these dream encounters, ‘to attend with curiosity’ to the possibility that they come from somewhere beyond his own mind and are telling him something about the work he is engaged in:

Perhaps the truth is that, if I want to act, and I don’t want to behave like a rapist, I have to choose communication. But I am frightened of who I’ll end up in communication with. The forest spirits in the saola’s own hills once fed enthusiastically on the blood of kidnapped children and the people feared them still. I remember a man rejoicing that they’d been driven back to their sources by the power of ‘the Revolution’, by which he meant the modern world.

from Beast Dreaming

When Nicholas told me that he had realised he needed to follow this further, connecting it to the story he had told us during the Climate Sessions, I offered him the use of a corner of the Homeward Bound site to pursue this in a series of letters under the title, ‘Traps, Cages & Spells’.

— During all my work on the saola and during my PhD, everything I thought and did was under the shadow of the idea that modernity was going to win and there was no point fighting it. Under that shadow, the saola could not be seen as anything other than an object and “practical” plans required treating it as such. That’s why I ended up dreaming of a dispassionately calculated rape. And also why the dream didn’t give me a new plan. Under that shadow, within that world, all workable plans were tragic if you thought about them hard enough.

I want to let that grim, “practical”, tragic voice speak. I think it is most dangerous when it doesn’t speak; when it listens to alternative views and prompts me to smile and nod and say nothing. When I let it speak – as when I first spoke about my tutor Barrie and his story about the ‘neoliths’ – then it seems real.

So now I am returning to Vietnam; to the universities, villages, park offices and cafes. Maybe maybe maybe to the forest for a little time. I’m returning to my maps and statistics and I’m wondering whether I can find a way out this time and whether I even want to.

I’ve appreciated the way that Nicholas is willing to bring that voice to our conversations at the Long Table, the membership community that grew out of the online series I taught over the past two years. He gives me a glimpse of some of the things that are at stake in our talk of modernity, and of the struggle to show up differently to the encounter with other ways of knowing, while carrying the things a scientific training has taught you. So we’ll be publishing his letters here, and you can also follow them on Substack.

The Turn in the Road

I have had such grand plans for what I would write to announce this site’s arrival in the world, to do justice to the scope of what we hope can fit under its roof. No wonder it’s taken so long to finally get here! For it’s obvious enough, in the end: to be homeward bound is not a grand condition. It’s not conducive to declarations about the state of the world and what is to be done.

In any case, making manifestoes is a young man’s business, and I am no longer young. With that thought, an old Welsh poem comes to mind, smuggled across the borders of our century by Martin Shaw and Tony Hoagland:

Past forty
a man can carry

the flush
of a tree in leaf,

or shoulder a
quiver of speech.

He can laugh quietly
over his scars.

But the sound of
a vault being opened

lets the
crow settle

on the soft acres
of his face.

from Cinderbiter

‘The Turn in the Road’ is what Martin and Tony call their version of the poem, and that title in itself might be a clue.

So let’s try this, as an opening claim: to be homeward bound is to have turned aside, to have left the big path, the one big path that was meant to lead to the future; no longer to be in service to its promises, and to ask what else is worth doing with the time we may have left.

Even as I put these words together, I know they raise more questions than they answer. In what sense can any of us truly turn aside? What does this way of talking bring into view, what does it invite and what could it obscure?

There will be time to think harder and feel deeper into all of this. For today, though, I’m happy to fall in alongside the questions, to walk together for a while and keep them company. I look forward to seeing where they lead us, to having this space as a travel journal, a public trace of the conversations and collaborations going on around our school, and a platform where it is possible to make room for other voices.

Homeward Bound is the commonplace book of a school called HOME: a site to share the lines of thought we are following, the voices we are learning from, and the places this is leading us. Like anything with life in it, this is a work in progress, and our understanding of what we are up to here will no doubt shift as we go along.

Homeward Bound is also the title of the live Zoom series we offer as a way to get to know the school. A new seven-week series of Homeward Bound Live begins on 9 & 10 November 2021. Read more about this invitation on the school website, or watch the video below.

To follow what we’re doing with Homeward Bound, sign up for Writing Home, a Substack where I’ll be sharing my writing for this site. You can also take out a paid subscription which will give you access to subscriber-only posts and discussions.

The Great Humbling S2E3: ‘State of Panic’

We start as is traditional with what’s been getting us thinking this week… Ed talks about the film My Octopus Teacher and Nick Cohen in the Observer on ‘Sweden as the right’s fantasy land’. This leads us onto some memorable Swedish expressions: ‘there is no cow on the ice’ (= don’t panic!); ‘Now you’ve really shat in the blue cupboard’ (another Swedish expression!).

Phoebe Tickell’s Medium post, ‘Hall of Mirrors’: 

You think you will find a magical “leverage point” that will magically change everything. You sound like those who became sick looking for the elixir of immortality. You are sick with how desperately you want to save the world. And it’s not a bizarre response at all. You have every right to feel desperate to make this world better… The systems of oppression you are complicit in by being alive are hellish. But this desperation is also what is leading you to be trapped in dissociated loops of pseudo-change.

Alastair McIntosh, Riders on the Storm: 

Nick Hayes’ ‘Book of Trespass’: 

“and then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fulness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, [Mole] looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper; saw the backward sweep of the curved horns, gleaming in the growing daylight; saw the stern, hooked nose between the kindly eyes that were looking down on them humourously, while the bearded mouth broke into a half-smile at the corners; saw the rippling muscles on the arm that lay across the broad chest, the long supple hand still holding the pan-pipes only just fallen away from the parted lips; saw the splendid curves of the shaggy limbs disposed in majestic ease on the sward; saw, last of all, nestling between his very hooves, sleeping soundly in entire peace and contentment, the little, round, podgy, childish form of the baby otter. All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.”

Wind in the Willows, Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Kenneth Grahame

“Pan Demic” – From the Greek; Pan (All) Demos (People)

Indi Samarajiva from Sri Lanka

“If you’re trying to carry on while people around you die, your society is not collapsing. It’s already fallen down…Collapse is just a series of ordinary days in between extraordinary bullshit, most of it happening to someone else. That’s all it is.”

DEFINITION: Panic is a sudden sensation of fear, which is so strong as to dominate or prevent reason and logical thinking, replacing it with overwhelming feelings of anxiety and frantic agitation consistent with an animalistic fight-or-flight reaction. Panic may occur singularly in individuals or manifest suddenly in large groups as mass panic (closely related to herd behavior).

Leonard J. Schmidt and Brooke Warner describe panic as “that terrible, profound emotion that stretches us beyond our ability to imagine any experience more horrible” adding that “physicians like to compare painful clinical conditions on some imagined ‘Richter scale’ of vicious, mean hurt … to the psychiatrist there is no more vicious, mean hurt than an exploding and personally disintegrating panic attack.”

“Don’t Panic” is a phrase on the cover of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The novel explains that this was partly because the device “looked insanely complicated” to operate, and partly to keep intergalactic travellers from panicking. “It is said that despite its many glaring (and occasionally fatal) inaccuracies, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy itself has outsold the Encyclopedia Galactica because it is slightly cheaper, and because it has the words ‘DON’T PANIC’ in large, friendly letters on the cover.”

Arthur C. Clarke said Douglas Adams’ use of “don’t panic” was perhaps the best advice that could be given to humanity.