To be a pilgrim

by Caspar Henderson

Sometimes there are events that make you question whatever hopes you may have.  For me, and for I guess quite a few others, the fires in the Amazon rainforest — with 74,000 reported in Brazil this year, but some 10,000 in just the past couple of weeks —  have been like that. The fires are not just in Brazil but, enabled and encouraged by the Bolsonaro administration, they are particularly large and widespread there, and reported to be accompanied by a strategy of hate speech against indigenous forest peoples.

The fires will destroy life forms that have taken millions of years to evolve, and add to the risks of dangerous climate change.  So is it time, as the activist Greta Thunberg has put it, to panic?  If by ‘panic’ one means what it says in the dictionary  — that is, ‘sudden uncontrollable fear or anxiety, often causing wildly unthinking behaviour’ — then I think the answer is no. Because, in addition to a deep and visceral recognition of the severity of the situation, we also need undivided attention, thought and action: careful work to (re)organise economically and politically.

Still, the emotions remain, and can become chaotic and destructive, and sometimes we need methods to help channel them to more constructive ends.

Rituals can do this, and among the rituals that humans have often found sustaining and restorative is pilgrimage. Some of my colleagues at Perspectiva are exploring the practice over the coming months, and I am pursuing my own experiment at present. In a series of ‘deep time’ walks, I am hiking with friends to places in the British Isles where the rocks hold the story of mass extinctions in the history of life. 

Radioactive vanadium nodules in end-Permian mudstone near Budleigh Salterton, Devon

My idea is partly inspired by Peter Brannen’s The Ends of the World, a fine work of popular science-writing about the cataclysms that have, on five previous occasions, wiped out most life on Earth. In each case, the living world took millions of years to recover. These past mass extinctions cast light on the present moment, with its rapid churn of destruction and — possibly — creation.

There is also a personal element to my pilgrimage as I continue to remember my father, who died last year. In recalling him, and in reflecting, as I walk, on my own mortality and the mortality of all of those I know and love, as well as those I don’t, I am trying to process the fact of death and deaths, small and large: a deliberate but perhaps futile attempt to engage in the opposite of what Ernest Becker saw as the almost inescapable human tendency to deny death.  

If this all sounds a bit heavy (and I even have a weighty word for it: ‘psychogeology’) let me add that my very brief walks through land-shapes, with friends, have been a joy and wonder. There is also an absurd side to my stumblings and mumblings, which are more Wallace and Gromit than Humboldt and Teilhard de Chardin.

Whether the present environmental crisis proves to be as consequential to the history of life as past mass extinctions remains to be seen.   I think the journalist David Wallace-Wells expresses a key point well in his book The Uninhabitable Earth: yes, the situation is very bad, and much worse than we generally think; but at every stage it can get even worse still, and that’s why it’s worth fighting at every step. I also welcome an observation by the writer Jeremy Lent: “Hope is not a story of the future, it’s a state of mind. In Vaclav Havel’s famous words, it’s not the belief that things will go well; it ‘is a deep orientation of the human soul that can be held at the darkest times.’”

The author on the trail of the Ordovician/Silurian boundary in the Howgill Fells, Cumbria

P.S. In a briefing posted at 13:14 BST on 23, August Jonathan Watts, global environment editor at The Guardian, writes that the best thing individuals can do is:

Join a party or campaign group that makes the Amazon a priority. Through these groups, urge your elected representatives to block trade deals with countries that destroy their forests and to provide more support for countries that expand tree cover.

Caspar Henderson is an Associate at Perspectiva

The NASA satellite image of the fires across the Amazon basin on 21 August is in the public domain. The other images are the author’s.

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