How To Connect
one of us is different: don’t try and count the ways. As our fingerprints make
us unique, the ways we can connect reveal the many different states of mind that
make us individuals. Connection doesn’t require some mystical transference of
wisdom from master to student; it doesn’t demand that you sit in a darkened
room for hours; it doesn’t even need peace and quiet – every second of every
day through every sensory link we make with the world, myriad connections are
taking place. The key is to capture that information and recognise it for what
it is, not ignore it as just one more rogue signal amongst the noise of life.
With a little help and guidance, everyone can make their own connection.
that’s what takes me there. The repeating bright, sharp calls, over and over
again, calling to each other and calling to the sky – that takes me somewhere
else. There must have been some perfect moment, some idyllic situation in the
past when everything fitted together flawlessly, and burnt the connection
between myself and the coast into my consciousness: maybe it was the endless,
sun washed days in the summer of 1976 when I could walk from our guest house to
the beach and play until the sun disappeared behind the cliffs, and then play
some more in the fading light. Memories help unlock those connections for me.
find the coast is what draws me back to nature; makes me understand the endless
play between the sea – the immense volume of life-filled water from which
everything first came – and the land on which humans, and immeasurable
quantities of life now thrive. The coast is the interface between the two: a
place of constant change and disruption; its contents turned over by the tides
and the waves; eroded by the sea, the rain and the wind; moved relentlessly
along the shoreline – always in motion, intimately connecting one thing with
another. The coast, with its sensory wash allows me to throw off so many of the
distractions and worries of modern life, leaving behind something much simpler.
August. A concrete sea wall is behind me, scooped deeply inwards and then thrown
back out in a curve designed to deflect the beating of the winter waves. Traffic
moans, the pitch shifts as each vehicle moves from one ear to the other –
towards then away – in an irregular, artificial beat. Footsteps above me and a
shadow flits across my head, then one more, making elongated human patterns on
the sand. I close my eyes and shiver as a breeze ruffles my clothes, taking with
it a patina of sand grains that gently patter down onto my arms. The sun warms
my back and my head, and I relax onto the undulating surface of the beach.
Shoosh…shhhh! The sea sweeps in and out across the gentle slope at the edge of
the water; the lightest of sounds – white noise. Then a disturbance: a seagull
takes off from its perch on the sea wall and another shadow crosses my face, the
sunlight flickers off for a moment, then back as it wheels towards the sea
taking its incessant song with it. More birds join it – a chorus of plaintive
cries as they jostle for space in the open sky, swooping and crying, swooping
and crying, effortlessly merging with the high shouts of children that mimic
their sounds. Running, thump…thump…thump…thump and joyous cries from
friends who push into the water, turning the glossy surface into foam, and
immersing themselves in the ocean; shouting in harmony with the seagulls that
continue their avian music.
the sand on my back, between my shoulder blades and ruffling my neck – hot
from the morning sun – the grains falling and rising with my breathing;
tumbling into gullies beneath me. The redness on my eyelids gradually turns to
black: I am growing drowsy and the sounds of the seagulls, the laughing children
and the metronomic sea wash, merge into a sound of restfulness. I could stay
songwriter David Hughes suggested, being a poet, “you’re working all the
hours that God sends, your soul never sleeps, your heart never mends.”[i]
This was never truer than in the case of John Clare, a man for whom nature and
love were his twin muses; and Connection with either or both was a golden thread
running through all of his work.
– or perhaps because of – his poor education, and lowly social position as a
farm labourer, Clare managed to express a connection with the rest of nature
that few people, before or since, ever achieved. “There is a sense of organic
harmony between poet and nature discoverable in the bulk of Clare’s work.
Clare was a happy poet; there is more happiness in his poetry than in most
others. This was no mere animal contentment of body and senses, but a quiet
ecstasy…Such happiness is not to be had except at a price.”[ii]
For John Clare, the price he paid was resentment by his peers, and a mental
turmoil that had far more to do with a lack of respect shown by the people who
exploited him and threw him back when his commercial potential was spent, than
his submission to the simplicity and perfection of the nature he loved.
tiny loiterers on the barley’s beard,
happy units of a numerous herd
playfellows, the laughing Summer brings,
the sunshine on their glittering wings,
merrily they creep, and run, and fly!
kin they bear to labour’s drudgery,
the velvet of pale hedge-rose;
where they fly for dinner no one knows –
dew-drops feed them not – they love the shine
noon, whose suns may bring them golden wine.[iii]
is a testament to the man that, despite the demands of the newly emerging
industrial economy, Clare stands almost alone in just wanting to express his
feelings for the natural world that surrounded him. The poetry is flawed, often
dreamy to the point of indulgence, but never short of wonderfully descriptive
detail: “This querying attention to detail epitomises Clare's poetry: he is
looking into the nest, seeing it for what it is, and simultaneously seeing it in
words. Even in the finished poem, you can glimpse the notes he made while
peering between the branches, and hear him struggling to do justice to these
embryonic nightingales, which will one day fuel Keatsian fantasies, but which
are for now simply brown-green eggs.”[iv]
subtle is the bird! She started out,
raised a plaintive note of danger nigh,
we were past the brambles; and now, near
nest, she sudden stops – as choking fear,
might betray her home. So even now
leave it as we found it: safety’s guard
pathless solitudes shall keep it still.
there! she’s sitting on the old oak bough,
in her fears; our presence doth retard
joys, and doubt turns every rapture chill.
on, sweet bird![v]
lives on a small lightly-wooded, elongated triangle of land in the east of
England. His bedroom is built from a mixture of discarded wooden pallets,
plastic sheeting and a few bits of timber he bought himself. The few items of
electrical equipment he has – a phone, radio and torch – are charged from a
solar panel that is propped up in front of this small structure. He splits his
time between domestic duties – chopping wood for the burner, cooking, cleaning
– in the communal area, which itself was constructed from donated items and
waste materials; growing food in the shared allotment a couple of miles from the
site; campaigning for the protection of the area onto which he moved in order to
save it from a new road; and discovering what it means to be connected to
something special. All of this is a far cry from his previous career as an
engineer for a large motor manufacturer.
happened by accident: “It was a process that evolved over the time that we
were here, and that’s something that can only happen with time, effort and
people really so I feel more connected to the camp, connected to a degree to the
people around me at the moment – and there are various people living here –
so, it was a result of other things. If you go looking for it, you wouldn’t
necessarily find it; it’s a very experience based thing.”[vi]
He reflects on the type of people that he meets at similar protest camps –
society’s cast-offs, in a way – and suspects that rejection, whether by
family or society at large, makes the act of connecting a little easier:
“It’s interesting that it’s almost like you fall out of the mainstream
culture and I guess for me, and I’ve thought about this, it probably goes back
and starts for me with being a mixed-race kid growing up in the ‘70s here, and
you get subjected to racism and you’re made to feel different, and the one
time when it’s really important to feel a part of things, and connected, you
don’t get that opportunity.” For S., connection is as much with other people
as with the wider natural world.
you go looking for it, or whether you happen to come across it – this
connection – it takes time, and that’s why I wanted to do this [interview]
here, and particularly sitting under this tree, because it’s about having that
sense of place and feeling more complete and feeling more whole, and it sounds
really pretentious, but it’s the only way I can describe it.
like the feeling I get if I walk into the allotment site, or if I go to a
cemetery of all places; it’s that feeling of peace, of stillness, that sense
of tranquillity which you don’t get the opportunity to experience so much in
modern life. It’s about stopping; it’s about slowing down, and it’s about
feeling rooted – and as stressed as you might be and as hectic as things might
get, you know when you go to that place, when you stand by that tree, you light
the burner, it all just goes out the window when you realise that all the things
that are constructed by society ultimately are pretty meaningless; it’s all
very…transitory, it’s a passing through and people don’t make the most of
the moment, living in the now. I think that is forced upon you here – I always
feel more grounded in this place than I do elsewhere, and when I’ve been
around and working in London and doing other things, it just feels alien, it
feels bizarre, it feels wrong: when I’m here, as bad as things might be…you
a sense of stillness, a sense of safety, a sense of feeling more complete. You
can go away, it can be hectic, but you can come back and it’s all right,
it’s always there…it’s something you can dip in and out of. Like going
somewhere quiet, I guess for some people it would be like the stillness on top
of a mountain or walking along an empty beach, it’s that sort of feeling; but
it’s not something you would just have for two weeks of the year when you go
on holiday because the rest of your life’s all fucked up, because you’ve got
to work doing a job you hate. It’s more readily available but you’ve got to
make the trade.
going to make an assumption about you – forgive me, I would love to know more
about you but it’s difficult from where I sit. I am assuming that you live in
a fairly technological society, or at least one where technology plays a major
part in the lives of the majority of people. I think that might be right for
most of you. If you are living the kind of life where technology is unimportant
to you then you almost certainly have a good connection to wild nature –
another assumption, but a nice one to make, I hope you’ll agree. The point of
this assumption is so that I can guide you through an exercise that is relevant
to the majority of people reading this book. If you find it’s not relevant to
you, persevere and it may suddenly pick you up along the way – you’ll see
what I mean when you read it. Of course, if you already feel you are well
connected then you don’t need to take part: but I still recommend you read the
text, even if only as an interested bystander.
* * *
you to take yourself to a place where you can hardly hear yourself think, where
the lights are bright and ever changing, where space is a luxury and green is
just a picture on a magazine or the paint on the walls. This place is indoors
– away from the wind, the sun, the rain; away from animal life and plant life:
not even a potted fern sits in the corner. You are encased in a synthetic
environment: air conditioned and artificially heated; chairs and tables made of
plastic; and the noise! The humming of machinery; the sound of ringtones and
cellphone keypads; the television calling out sports results. Voices merge into
the noise, barely intelligible; faces are illuminated by the screens of
computers, gaming machines or TV sets; smells are processed chemical odours –
microwave meals, air fresheners, artificial reality. You need to relax: stress
hurts. Too much pressure; so little time; a web of activity linking deeper and
deeper and ever more complex as you struggle to process each signal, while
another ten whizz through your head and out into the ether. This is a place
called Civilization. It is where you live.
to your senses. All of them: not just the five we are told we have, but the
countless senses that are tiny variations on those familiar ones, and those
senses we hold inside us – that gut feeling that tells us when something is
wrong; the sense that knows when we are standing upright, and where our hands
are even when we can’t see them; the sense that time is passing too quickly
and we need to slow down. Take a breath and slow down: let the sharp sounds
become gradually muffled as though you are lying back into a bath, your ears
being immersed in the warm, deep water. You can hear the beating of your heart
and the indeterminate rushing sounds as your body carries on its work unabated.
The high-pitched bleeping of each electrical device becomes sparse and muted;
the television announcer is cut off; the humming motors and roaring engines
sputter out as they are enveloped by stillness. You tap your fingers and feel
the vibrations coming up through your arms. The outside world is silenced.
another breath; taste the air; smell it. Smell and taste are direct paths to our
digestive system, but are far more besides: they trigger memories; they identify
friend and foe; they give us some of our deepest pleasures. There is no space
for them now. You smell nothing – just the moist closeness of the densest fog:
the droplets of water coat every hair and every passage with a neutral,
distilled cleanliness. A cold, fresh stream of water washes your tongue and
mouth, removing every trace of flavour. You are left with total blandness –
sensitive to the smallest molecule of scent or taste.
sharp edges and hard surfaces that dug into you, pushed you and shaped you are
numbing. A cushion of air seeps around you: warm, perfectly warm, like a second
skin that lifts away any sensation of touch. Imagine the feeling as you wake up
with no sensation in your arm – push this to your whole body, your chest, your
head, down your trunk and through your legs all the way to your toes. Don’t be
scared, don’t move: you are perfectly safe. All around you are the sights of
your former life: switch them off now.
The lights in the ceiling are extinguished. Sweep your eyes across the walls,
and as you pass by each appliance think, “off”. Your passing eyes turn out
motors, electrical circuits, gas flames. Do you feel comfortable? You have the
ability to take this all out and plunge this place into a powerless state: not a
single watt of electricity is consumed, not a single therm of gas is burnt.
Notice everything that had to be manufactured at the expense of something else:
every brick; every droplet of oil turned into plastic windows, chairs, ink;
every pane of glass. Now take these things away – see them disappear as the
people stand with only each other for company. Their phones, their iPods, their
clothing – simply disappears. Do you still feel comfortable? Nothing exists
except for you and the people around you: do you want them to go? You can wave
your hand and they will be gone, if that’s what you want. Let’s say goodbye,
and leave you alone with only yourself and the cushion of your senses for
stop all the clocks. Listen to your own rhythms, not the schedules being forced
upon you. Leave the working day behind; take a siesta, sleep when you are tired
– wake when you are refreshed. As the sun sets, slow down and turn in: relax
and let your body tell you when to drop off. In the morning you can wake with
the sunrise: but for now you can rest all you like.
do you want now? You can bring back anything you like: just say the word and it
can all come back. You can have a crowd of people, electrical power and
appliances, bright lights, plastic chairs, a cacophony of sound – is that what
you want? Don’t do it yet; instead, just think of something simple that you
crave: a walk in the fresh air with trees above your head and the sweep of a
valley before you; a crackling fire pouring heat into the air around you as you
sit with a good book or a pack of cards, illuminated by the flickering of the
burning wood and a couple of candles; the company of friends, sharing a joke or
stories of good times past, and times to come – talking, being together and
savouring each other’s company; your children, grandchildren or parents,
enjoying a perfect day with you – something you will remember for the rest of
* * *
was Sunday. I spent a lively few hours in the garden; tidying this and that,
cutting brambles and pruning the razor sharp pyracantha that seemed to say to
its trailing neighbour, “So, you think you’re tough, do you?” Pyracantha
is a challenge, but it provides food for the birds throughout the winter –
they don’t seem to mind the thorns. After two weeks of on-and-off rain the
ground spickled and bubbled with each footstep, but now the sun was out and the
warmth was exquisite.
the tools locked away I found myself drifting: my birdsong recognition is
miserable but, somewhere in the concoction of delicate sounds the evening chorus
threw up, there was the unmistakable descending trill of a chaffinch, ending its
call with a jumble of notes as though it had so much to say and not enough time.
This was too good to keep to myself. At the back door I invited my children
outside; they put on mud soaked trainers and walked with me to the little
“meadow” I look after at the end of the garden – just a small patch of
perfection. We stood and listened, and together we connected.
[i] David Hughes, “Being A Poet”, from the album “Recognised”, The Folk Corporation, 2002.
[ii] James Reeves, ed. Preface to, “Selected Poems of John Clare”, Heinemann, 1954.
[iii] Excerpt from John Clare, “Insects”, in James Reeves, ed., “Selected Poems of John Clare”, Heinemann, 1954.
[iv] Jonathan Heawood, “Poor Clare - rhyme, but no reason”, The Observer, http://books.guardian.co.uk/reviews/biography/0,,1091069,00.html (accessed 29 March, 2008). The title of this article reveals much about the way a simple love for nature is treated in the 21st century. There was every reason in the world for Clare to write as he did; more reason than most modern journalists have to write what they do!
[v] Excerpt from John Clare, “The Nightingale’s Nest”, ibid.
[vi] Personal communications.
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