The Banker's Niece

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Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Immanence and numinousness

I have a memory from childhood, or perhaps it’s the memory of a childhood dream. I am walking across an open grassy area, a sort of heath, and I know that the ground under my feet is alive and conscious. What’s more, it’s slightly malevolent. It doesn’t want me to be there.
            The scientist James Lovelock comes at the subject from a different angle. He says that the Earth is a living being because it regulates itself in the same way that living beings do. I can’t remember the details (as usual), as expounded in his book Gaia (named after the Greek goddess of the Earth), but roughly speaking the Earth disperses pollution and maintains a more or less constant temperature and balance of gases in the environment. However, he says, we are overloading its capacity for self-regulation.
            As you will know if you read an earlier post since deleted, I fled to Australia at the age of twenty-one having made a complete hash of my life (in my opinion then) since leaving school. One day, after I’d been there about seven months, done a few weeks’ grapepicking near the Murray River in the south-east, a few months' working in a hotel in the Flinders Ranges mountains near Adelaide, travelled around a bit and ended up working on an island off the Great Barrier Reef, I woke up and realised I was happy.
            As well as the glorious Australian people – open, generous, blunt, irreverent, democratic, funny, hedonistic – it was the land itself that had transformed me. It wasn’t just that it was beautiful – which it was, it wasn’t just that there was a lot of it – which there was, it was the fact that it was untouched. It was beautiful and powerful and alive in the way that a wild animal is. It was old. I felt connected to the beginning of life on Earth. It was a million times stronger than our puny human civilisation and it didn’t give a fig about us.
            You’ve no idea (or perhaps you have) how relaxing that is. It should be terrifying, like looking up into the night sky and seeing layer upon layer of stars, and to start with it can be. But then your perspective shifts. Perhaps it’s what some people call ‘surrendering to the will of God’.
            These days, I get that feeling in flashes only. In a soaring buzzard. In a bee on a sunlit dandelion. In the two Canada geese who flew over me, honking, when I was walking next to the canal last week. In the tadpoles I discovered yesterday in an old tin bath in the middle of a field. In the dolphins I saw a few years ago from a Greek balcony.
            When I first came to live in Devon thirty-five years ago, the county was poor. Fields languished uncultivated, barns crumbled under thickets of creepers, hedges sprawled. There were plenty of wild places left for me to hide in. Today, it has been spruced.
            Recently, I was sitting on the edge of one of my last refuges, a circle of ancient oak trees and scrub in a dip between two fields. Suddenly I felt frightened. I was not wanted. Something very bad was going to happen to me if I stayed in that place.
            In taming the Earth, turning it into an image of ourselves, we are shrinking our soul. And one day, the Earth might turn on us – if she isn’t doing so already.
            I don’t know what’s happened to Australia. I daren’t go back in case it’s changed too.
            Or, even worse, I might discover that Australia hasn’t changed but I have – irreparably.


Immanence and numinousness are two rather grand words that came to me in the middle of the night. I've not used them in public before. They encapsulate, I think, what I'm saying above, or at least the starting point.

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