Friday, July 20, 2012

Under the Greenwood Tree

I apologise for not posting anything last week but, as you might have guessed from my previous post, I have been in England making funeral arrangements for my father. It had occurred to my sister and I that the way most funerals are conducted these days leaves the mourners in something like a state of shock. Not only do they have to put up with a standard issue priest reassuring them that their dearly departed has gone to a heaven that they never believed in, but the final farewell is turned into a grisly moment marked by the sounds of an electric motor starting up as the coffin rolls off through a polyester curtain into the awaiting gas-fired inferno to the sound of a scratched Bach‘s classical organ works CD.

That wasn’t what we wanted for our father (who art not in heaven) so instead we arranged for a humanist ceremony in a small flint chapel conducted by an ecumenical hospitallier descended from an order of the chivalric knights of St John. Yes, I was surprised they still existed too.

On the plane flying over from Copenhagen to London Gatwick we passed over the Netherlands. Holland is instantly recognisable from the air because of the shape of its fields, which are neat geometrical patterns giving the country the appearance of a printed circuit board. The town and cities too were visible and I was reminded of (I think) W.G. Sebald in The Rings of Saturn in which he noted that from a plane leaving Amsterdam Airport you can observe human civilization for what it is, being able to see the buildings and bridges but with all people and cars too small to make out. From that height you see us for what we are, how we have spread over the landscape, and you realize that nobody could ever be in charge of such a monstrously large and sprawling colony of organisms such as we are.

England was washed out. Flooded. Three months of near continuous rain had made rivers burst their banks and fields were under water. Nobody had ever experienced so much rain and all the shops were sold out of wellington boots. Festivals and garden parties were cancelled and a kind of fatalistic anguish had taken over everyone I spoke to. As my train trundled southwards, skirting the southern coast of England, I gazed out of the window and reflected on how sodden and wretched things looked. So this is what climate change looks like for England. So much for all those dreams of turning England into the new South of France which people had been happily going on about last decade; the grape harvest was wiped out and there won’t be a 2012 vintage. Sorry chaps, better blame the Met Office for this particular climate malfunction.

For a week I stayed at my sister’s Victorian house, living in a top attic room and listening at night as the heavy rain beat down on the roof. We wrote a eulogy, screwed it up and wrote another one. And then another. Father John asked us what poems he would have liked to be read out. I Googled ‘poems for funerals’ and read through dozens. Anything with any mention of God was out. As was anything over sentimental. Anything vaguely Wordsworthian was similarly out (we could just imagine Dad grimacing with displeasure at the ‘ponciness’ of it all). In the end we drew a blank; we just had to face it, he was not a poetic type. In any case he once told me that death, when it comes, is like a TV set being switched off. Afterwards you are just left staring at a black screen.

The day came. I was exhausted and had been unable to sleep for most of the night. I had spent the last 20 years wanting to get along with my dad again, fully aware that I never would, and that now it was too late. We had wanted to bury him in woodland and plant a tree above him, but it turned out that he had expressly requested cremation in his will, so that option was out.

The country hotel was about a half hour drive away. As we approached the long cedar lined drive we saw the hearse pulling in just in front of us. There he was. We followed it, the rain splattering against the windscreen as we drove along in silence.

Three of my cousins were there waiting for us in the chapel. I hadn’t seen them for sixteen years, the last time being my aunt’s funeral, and now they were all greying and middle-aged and dressed in black. We were the new oldest generation; my father had been the last of the generation above us.That was it – twelve of us in all. After the service, which saw us sitting six a side around my father’s coffin to the strains of Debussy, we retired to the sixteenth century music room and poured cups of tea and nibbled on little sandwiches. It was all very English. The manager, a kilt-wearing Frenchman with multiple piercings kept popping in and out – it was like a missing scene from Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Conversations with my relatives proceeded in the standard fashion. What car was I driving? Where did I live? What are property prices like there? It occurred to me, as I was addressing these queries, that I’m not much of a conversationalist. I mean to say, I enjoy conversation, but I rarely meet anyone with whom I can have the kind of conversation I would like to have - the kind of conversation that takes place on this blog and others like it. I used to try and converse but I'm not much good in an argument and it seems to me that there's little point trying to tell people what they don't want to hear if you want to remain on good terms with them. 

My cousins and brother in law, all pleasant people, are collectively a health and safety professional, a medical IT equipment salesperson, a medium sized construction company director and a respected nutritionist. All of them are materially successful and they are all older than me by at least ten years. So when I mentioned that I was interested in taking over a piece of woodland and learning all the skills to manage it and extract a meager income from it there was a polite silence. More tea anyone?

We got onto global warming. Unlike in the US, the majority of people in Britain accepted this as a reality a long time ago, albeit without realising the full implications of it (see reference to vineyards above). My brother in law, the construction business owning civil engineer, had become pessimistic. Not only had the office phone stopped ringing three months ago (meaning they would have to lay off half of their 200 strong work force and the business owners were facing ‘no’ pension (i.e. only a regular one, rather than the one they were expecting which would have kept them in French gĂ®tes and Jags)) but he had come to the conclusion that large areas of the south would be swallowed up by rising seawaters. For all the talk of building dykes, he said, in his professional opinion as a civil engineer there was absolutely no way that enough resources could be mobilized to build an effective network of defenses against the sea. His grim prognostication was that, perhaps even in our own lifetimes, we would see property prices in the south take a hit. Believe me, that was radical talk for him.

The next day we took delivery of a smart-looking paper shopping bag with imitation Paul Smith stripes adorning it. Inside was a plastic tub containing a grayish powder that had once been my father. It sat there on the table in the dining room and nobody really wanted to go near it. It was strange to think that here was the man who had been irrepressible in life, reduced to occupying a plastic container with the name of crematorium printed on it. Later that morning I put it in the car boot and we drove out west to the New Forest. It was here that we had taken some of our holidays when I was a child – a vast forest covering 150 square miles and filled with wild ponies, pigs and cattle. It was also here that I had first learned to ride a bicycle during one of the many caravanning holidays that I had enjoyed so much. We were pretty sure our father wouldn’t mind ending up here rather than on some chemically-treated lawn in a municipal garden of remembrance.

We drove to the heart of the forest where a giant oak tree stood and was still going strong after six hundred years. A short path led to where it stood in a forest clearing and we were dismayed to find that a fence had been erected around it to prevent people from getting too close. We stood by the fence dithering. What were we to do? We wanted to scatter the ashes close to the huge 25 foot diameter trunk, but the fence prevented us from doing so. Holding the pot of ashes it was almost as if I heard my father’s voice speaking to me. What it said was “Stop standing there like Piffy on a rock cake and get the job done you big girl’s blouses!” Without further ado we vaulted over the fence and took it in turns to pour out his mortal remains on this site, which seemed in some way sacred to us, although neither of us actually said as much.

As I scattered them I felt a sense of grief – not just because he was dead but because we had butted heads so many times for so long. We had only done so, I now realise, because we were so similar but the different circumstances of our upbringing had given us different opinions, different personalities. I felt a sense of forgiveness through the sorrow, and also a sense of gratitude. The gratitude was there because I know that he made me (and my sister) individuals, unwilling to settle for the fake organ music and polyester curtains of life. Instead we were free to conduct things our own way, even if it meant breaking the rules placed in the way by petty officialdom (the tree had been fine for 600 years – why does it need a ‘keep out’ fence now?).

We stepped back over the fence – a group of tourists were approaching with their cameras – and walked back to where the car was parked. It was a hasty business, a guerilla interring, but I know that I will come back one quiet night when nobody else is around and when the nutrients from the ashes have leeched down into the soil and nourished the roots of that mighty oak, and perhaps I’ll have a conversation with him to make up for all the conversations that we didn’t have these last few years. Perhaps I’ll finally get to ask him who the hell Piffy is and why he stood on rock cakes.

On the plane back to Denmark that night I started to read The Dark Mountain Project’s first edition and the page fell open at a story by Paul Kingsnorth relating to his journey from child to adult and the love of the natural world his father had instilled in him. As I flew through the dark skies above Holland I read these words, written whilst remembering the long and arduous treks through the Lake District that he had taken with his father as a child:

I look out across the moonlit Lake District ranges and it’s as clear as the night air that what used to come in regular waves, pounding like the sea, comes now only in flashes, out of the corner of my eyes, like a lighthouse in a storm. Perhaps it’s the way the world has changed. There are more cars on the roads now, more satellites in the sky. The footpaths up the fells are like stone motorways, there are turbines on the moors and the farmers are being edged out by south country refugees like me, trying to escape but bringing with us the things we flee from. The new world is online and loving it, the virtual happily edging out the actual. The darkness is shut out and the night grows lighter and nobody is there to see it.

It could be all that, but it probably isn’t. It’s probably me. I am 37 now. The world is smaller, more tired, more fragile, more horribly complex and full of troubles. Or, rather: the world is the same as it ever was, but I am more aware of it and of the reality of my place within it. I have grown up, and there is nothing to be done about it. The worst part of it is that I can’t seem to look without thinking anymore. And now I know far more about what we are doing. We: the people. I know what we are doing, all over the world, to everything, all of the time. I know why the magic is dying. It’s me. It’s us.

And so it becomes more clear to me. The gifts my parents bestowed on me, and the gifts that many these days don’t know how to bestow on their own children. I am trying to move beyond fear and anger and grief and all the other things that are associated with the death of a parent or the death of your own civilization. I can see the way forward clearly now, and it doesn’t involve putting up with people prattling on about how many Apple devices they own, or how much their stocks are worth. I want to seek out more people I can have conversations with, and if I can’t find that many then I’ll just have to create some new conversations with people who don’t yet realize why they need to have these conversations. 

But more important than conversations are acts. My father was a doer. I’m a doer trapped in a situation where doing things is not looked kindly upon unless they are the kind of socially sanctioned acts demanded by an industrial civilization in terminal decline and terminal denial. What we make of our lives and whether we choose to make a go of this one life is up to us. The choice is ours alone and in the end the only physical presence we leave behind will be the carbon and a few trace elements that are stored within our bodies. 

So what exactly am I going to do? The first thing is that I’m going to do is nothing. More precisely I’ll be doing nothing on an organic farm on an island in Greece, guarding endangered turtle eggs on a beach with my family and spending my last few credits at the great carbon footprint bank. I’ll be turning off the computer and the phone and every other ‘indispensible’ device considered important by modern life and instead opening a few of those books that keep screaming at me from my bookshelf but which my full time job doesn’t allow me to delve into.

Below is a picture of my father at the moment when we returned his mortal remains to the Earth from which they came. So here's to my dad the jazz aficionado, beer brewer, tomato grower, blunt talking stick in the mud, professional penny pincher, fearless ommelette maker, barbequer in all weathers, class buster, occasional nudist, risk taker, anti-authoritarian, communist then capitalist, nature lover, old smoothie, property fixer-upper, practical joker, countryside walker and loving husband and father who only ever wanted the best for his family but sometimes didn't know the right way to go about it.  

When I return in late August I’ll  be replenished and will have plenty more to say on the matters that matter. In the meantime, I’ll wish everyone a pleasant summer and pray that the internet won't have melted down before I return in three weeks.


Peak’ n Oil Number # 5

The Beautiful South
After a lengthy break, we return to Peak n’Oil with number 5, which is The Beautiful South. Perhaps an unusual choice, but the song One God seems to sum up beautifully the artificial nature of contemporary life and the fake answers we are subjected to by popular culture and politicians. I’d even go so far as to nominate Paul Heaton for Poet Laureate for the wonderfully subversive lyrics in every song he writes.

Like a toupee on a fading fame,
Final whistle in a losing game,
Thick lipstick on a five year old girl,
Makes you think that’s it’s a plastic world.

Plastic world were all plastic too,
Just a couple of different faces in a dead-mans queue
The world is turning Disney and there’s nothing you can do,
You’re trying to walk like giants but your wearing Pluto’sshoes.

And the answers fall easier from the barrel of a gun,
Than it does from the lips of the beautiful and the dumb.
The world won’t end in darkness it’ll end in family fun,
With Coca-Cola clouds behind a Big-Mac sun.

Here’s a video of it (which for some reason doesn’t start for 22 seconds).

The second song is pre-Beautiful South and is actually the Housemartins, which was Paul Heaton and Norman Cook ( aka Fatboy Slim). It’s called Build and it’s about ... building developers. Or is it? You decide.

Clambering men in big bad boots
Dug up my den, dug up my roots
Treated us like plasticine town
They built us up and knocked us down

From Meccano to Legoland
Here they come with a brick in their hand
Men with heads filled up with sand
It's build

It's build a house where we can stay
Add a new bit everyday
It's build a road for us to cross
Build us lots and lots and lots and lots and lots

Whistling men in yellow vans
They can and drew us diagrams
Showed us how it all worked it out
And wrote it down in case of doubt

Slow, slow, quick, quick, quick
It's wall to wall and brick to brick
They work so fast it makes you sick
It's build

It's build a house where we can stay
Add a new bit everyday
It's build a road for us to cross
Build us lots and lots and lots and lots and lots

It's build

Down with sticks and up with bricks
In with boots and up with roots
It's in with suits and new recruits
It's build


  1. Your stay in England with the rain, the mood, and the elements of business as usual reminds me of Robert Edric's Salvage. If I recall, in it, the dikes had been tried and failed already. But property development in the "dry" areas was a big deal.

    1. Yes, 'dry' areas are where it's at. Still, now the rain has stopped there and it is hotter than Hawaii. Things have gone a little crazy.

  2. Imagine the conversations without the Internet. We would not have known we were again contemplating very similar things this week, from 6000 miles away: grief, anger and forgiveness.

    No 2012 vintage? No tart cherry harvest here, or, more ominously, a serious reduction in the corn harvest, which accounts for a bulk of America's caloric intake. Sounds like the Russian wheat harvest is threatened too. How many signs must the earth send, before this species awakens? And they are poised even now to start drilling in the Arctic.

    Holiday in Greece. I will eagerly await the stories. I've no doubt, they will be infinitely more informative than anything I have heard about Greece from the MSM.

    Blessings, in the contemplation of relationships.

    1. William - yes, and JMG also covered that in his post last week (well, grief and anger).

      It keeps occurring to me that I don't really feel grief for much of the stuff that is going away - in some ways it is more like joy. I think I was born a genetic freak with an anti progressive (materially, religiously) outlook, and sought escapism in fantasy books and games. I never believed all those stories we were told about flying cars and living on different planets - I just assumed things would be more or less the same but with more people and less wildlife.

      What I really feel is fear - not irrational fear - but the kind of fear that one would do well to pay attention to i.e. useful fear.

      So I suppose I grieve for the loss of feeling relatively carefree and know that my kids may not even get to feel that at all. I also grieve for all of those people and species that are about to disappear as our race violently thrashes around trying to resist the gravitational pull of entropy.

      Yes, Greece in a few days, assuming the entire country hasn't gone into meltdown first ...

  3. I am glad to see you found a picture, and to hear that you have found some kind of reconciliation with your father. From your last description of him I thought he seemed quite intriguing if not always easy to get along with.

    When my daughter was on break from vet school in Glasgow in 2007 I took her and her roommate on a trip to the south. They wanted to see Stonehenge and I wanted to see the New Forest. I was horribly disappointed, it wasn't at all what I expected. I thought it would be dark and verdant and mysterious, and instead it was empty and hot and bright. I didn't know then it was in decline, just like all the other forests in the world. I didn't figure that out until 2008, so I was just vaguely perplexed. And I didn't even mention it to the girls, they were just thrilled with the wild ponies.

    Oddly I found a little parcel of virgin wood in New Jersey which I visited last week. I should have known better than to expect it to be intact. I put pictures of it here:

    Better was today, I rented the 1992 Last of the Mohicans from itunes. It's supposed to be set in the mountains of upstate New York, but it was actually filmed in a huge, ancient preserve in North Carolina. It really was gorgeous. Lustrous and lush and glossy dense green. Quite a shock, the difference.

    Anyway have a wonderful trip and I look forward to your return.


    1. Hi Gail - yes, I found I did have one after all. This was from 2005, right at the moment when his mind began to decay (although he was a healthy and active 72). By the end he was almost unrecognizable from this picture.

      Sorry the New Forest disappointed. It has always been a cross between a forest and grazing land and it doesn't look any different today compared to 30 years ago. It doesn't help that they've put a giant road through it though ...

      Still, it looks like you found a nice spot in New Jersey!

  4. Hi Jason,

    I found your blog via a couple of other peak blogs. Thanks for the touching posts regarding your father, written at what I'm sure is a difficult time, although perhaps it was therapeutic to set it all out.

    I grew up in the UK as well, although I'm ten years older than you and live now in the US. But it seems our parents shared the same perspective, founded in the experience of wartime and post-war Britain. Mine were late teens/early twenties during the war and had a pretty bad time of it. They tried to rebuild, raise a family and then got hit hard with the economic troubles of the 70's. I guess they felt they deserved a little material success in the 80s, and saw Maggie T as getting things back to normal in some way.

    So it's understandable I suppose that their generation didn't really consider the resource implications of where everything was headed, much as I didn't until fairly recently. On a personal level my Dad hated waste, but also thought that every new Tescos was a great leap forward. Go figure. They raised their family to be optimistic and go-getting and strive for what they never had themselves. And now I'm trying to counsel my own kids to expect less, and be in nature and walk away from growth. We'll see where they end up. Probably not where I expect. Philip Larkin's This Be The Verse comes to mind.

    Finally, thanks for the Housemartins and Beautiful South vids.

    Sounds like you are going to take some downtime and ponder your next move: good luck and I'm sure the right road will open up.

    1. Hi Mark - welcome. My parents were young teens during the war. Sometimes I wonder what the effect of having bombs raining down on your neighbourhood night after night can have on your childhood. That and the seemingly endless rationing - Tescos must seem like the promised land to that generation!

      You're right, our challenge is to raise our kids to expect less materially but to still lead fulfilling lives - which in a way is a continuation of wanting for your kids what we were never offered (material advancement, yes, but in the context of ego driven wants).

      BTW Tesco is very good at hiding its waste. I know - I had my first job there and had to throw food 'waste' into an underground container. I saw one of my co-workers tossed about 20 frozen chickens in it because he wanted to leave early to get to the pub on time.

  5. This was a wonderful tribute to your father. Thanks for sharing this. Speaking from my own experience, I think that in forgiving and trying to forgive, one integrates one's family heritage into one's life in a new way, seeing it from a new perspective. You have expressed this beautifully. Thanks also for sharing the Beautiful South lyrics--so bitter, so true. Hope your vacation is refreshing.

    1. Thanks Mitty. Sometimes you can't beat a bit of Beautiful South ...

  6. Jason: Your words are lovely and lyrical and really touch a chord. I hope to be keeping up with your blog in the autumn. Enjoy Greece. What you said here:

    "What I really feel is fear - not irrational fear - but the kind of fear that one would do well to pay attention to i.e. useful fear.

    So I suppose I grieve for the loss of feeling relatively carefree and know that my kids may not even get to feel that at all. I also grieve for all of those people and species that are about to disappear as our race violently thrashes around trying to resist the gravitational pull of entropy."

    This speaks to me so directly that it is almost frightening, but also vastly satisfying to have someone put into words what I, too, am feeling.
    Thank you! Words are still important to us, even in the great downfall.


I'll try to reply to comments as time permits.