Strange times

What a puzzling time to be alive. In the world that surrounds us, beauty and the comforting familiarity of seasonal rhythms. The ospreys have returned from West Africa and are putting on a grand fishing display in Findhorn Bay.

The last of the winter snow still lies deep on the mountaintops, glistening and melting in the now warm spring sunshine. (I spent last weekend walking in the magnificence of the Highlands and am now sporting a deep sun-snow tan.) We wait for the return of the swallows in the next week or so and the long, northern evenings hold out the promise of the return of life in all its fullness.

And yet, news carried on the wind speaks of melting ice, food riots and starvation and, closer to home, fuel strikes and long queues and fights at the petrol stations. Meanwhile, oil expert Matt Simmons declares it to be entirely feasible that petrol will rise in price to $300 a barrel within the next five years.

All this focuses our minds sharply. Since the end of the Positive Energy conference a month or so ago, there have been numerous gatherings to re-watch DVDs of conference presentations and to explore what the building storm means for us as a community and for the bioregion of which we form a part. Plans for basic skills training programmes are hatched and a hundred plans to build resilience into our systems take shape.

But how does all this news of the unravelling of the natural world and of global society land with the young people who are on the point of moving into their inheritance? Old enough to understand the implications but not generally yet in positions of power to be able to do much about it, how must the current unravelling feel?

We have with us at present a group of 13 students from US universities, here under the aegis of the Living Routes educational programme http://www.livingroutes.org/. I would say that among the strongest emotions they display is one of impatience and a desire to get stuck in, to ‘do something’.

So, while there is a general appreciation of the need for a sound theoretical understanding of how the world works – and how it can be made to work a whole lot better – I find with this group of students, as with none I have worked with before, a real urgency to engage on a very practical level. They demonstrate a highly commendable desire to use what power and control they do have to make a difference in their own backyard.

So it is that today, they are hard at work beautifying the area around an old RAF bunker (the land that the community sits on used to be part of the neighbouring air base). This involves clearing it out, disposing responsibly of the rubbish and creating ‘seed-balls’ – flower seeds folded into balls of the earth they dig out of the bunker that they will then distribute around the area at the end of the day.

This is formally part of their educational programme – their ‘service learning’ project, where they have an opportunity to create something of beauty for the community. Through the summer and autumn, we will remember their smiling faces as the woods teem with colour and fragrance.

This may seem like a fairly paltry response to sheer scale of the challenges that lie before us. And yet, all journeys begin with the first, small steps. To identify that over which one has control and to choose to exercise that control to create beauty is a fine first step.

The woods this morning felt alive with the positive energy of young people choosing to make a creative difference in their own backyard. They will carry the memory of the morning in the cells of their bodies – and all will be the richer for it.

Jonathan Dawson is a sustainability educator based at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. He is seeking to weave some of the wisdom accrued in 20 years of working in Africa into more sustainable and joyful ways of living here in Europe. Jonathan is also a gardener and a story-teller and is President of the Global Ecovillage Network.
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Why do the words “soup, swoop, loop de loop” come to mind every time I lift a spoon to my lips?

It’s all thanks to Barry and Anita.

A while ago I was lending a friend the keys to our house. We keep spare keys in a ceramic pot I was given years ago by someone who made it while on an art-school pottery course. “That’s er . . . quite challenging,” the friend said of the pot.

“Is it?” I replied. “I’d stopped noticing how ugly it is.”

“Then it’s a grunty,” she said.

“A what?” I asked.

“A grunty. It’s something you have in your house that’s hideous and useless but you’ve stopped noticing it completely, so it’s effectively invisible.”

I was much taken with this idea and realised that as well as “grunties” there are also “gruntyisms”: things you say or do, though the reason why you say or do them has long since been forgotten. For example, every time we drink soup my wife and I say the same thing, uttered in a strange monotone: we say, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop.” How we came to say “soup, swoop, loop de loop” came about like this.

For a married couple, the years between your mid-thirties and your late forties might be seen as the decade of the bad dinner party. You’re no longer looking for a partner, so the hormonal urge to visit crowded bars has receded, but you are still full of energy so you don’t want to stay in at night, either. Instead, you go to dinner parties attended by other couples you don’t necessarily like that much.

One such couple were called Barry and Anita. Every time we ate at their house Barry would make soup, and when serving it he would invariably say, “There we are: soup, swoop, loop de loop.” After the dinner party, as soon as we were in the minicab going home, me and Linda would start drunkenly talking about what an arse Barry was, saying to each other, in a high-pitched, mocking imitation of his voice: “Please do have some more of this delicious soup, swoop, loop de loop.” Then we’d collapse against each other laughing, convincing the Algerian or Bengali taxi driver once again of the impenetrability and corruption of Western society.

Pretty soon whenever we had soup at home, Linda and I would say to each other, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop,” at first still ridiculing Barry, but eventually we forgot why we were saying it and it became part of the private language every couple develop, employed long after we’d gratefully ceased having soupy dinners with Barry and Anita.

In the early Nineties we had an exchange student staying with us for a year, a Maori girl from the Cook Islands in the southern Pacific. When she returned home she took the expression “soup, swoop, loop de loop” with her and spread it among her extended family, until finally the phrase appeared in an anthropological dissertation: “ ‘Soup swoop, loop de loop.’ Shamanistic Incantations in Rarotongan Food Preparation Rituals” – University of Topeka, 2001. 

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt