Black swans, white geese

Being the odd one out, the unexpected one, is always hard. It was hard for my father, who reviled tourism as an industry that would help the economy in the Highlands of Scotland. He tried hard to work with landlords on understanding how better to allow natural systems to regenerate. In doing this, he was attempting to work with what there was, not, Chris Packham style, with what there ‘should be’. He didn’t agree with the social and class system in the Highlands of Scotland. He couldn’t take the snobbery and hierarchies seriously. That made him very different from his family. It also made him a challenge to work with, because he didn’t want to stand under anyone else’s umbrella, to use a Larkin phrase. He stood aside, and often criticised how policies were put into place.

In a more tolerant society, he would have been treasured for what he had to offer. He might even have been helped, very gently, with the ignominy of addiction, which dogged him all his adult life. Imagine a world in which someone who is very bright, is honoured for coming up with unusual but brilliant solutions. Who persuades a friend, a landowner, to put aside a huge swathe of land to start a Wildlife Park, where all the animals that have ever lived in Scotland are housed in huge open spaces with a view to educating the public, and the possibility of rewilding being discussed. The compromise was the bear enclosure, which he hated. It was supposed to mimic a cave on the side of a mountain, but it was cruelly small, and one looked into the pit – it was really a bear pit – at a foreshortened view of once magnificent animals reduced to crick-necked neurotics.

I wonder if this pattern has shaped me, too. An outsider, seeing more clearly what colour the water is in the bowl in which we swim. I’ve said ad nauseum that I don’t think we’re free to become who we become, except in one very profound sense: we have the capacity to reflect. This, to use a word I loathe but am forced to use, is mindfulness. I prefer to call it awareness. It is the capacity to see what we are doing, as though we are watching ourselves from without. But how we watch ourselves is vital. If we see ourselves with the eyes of despair, or desperation, shame or resentment, we will chain ourselves even more tightly to the inevitable patterns of destruction that already threaten our survival. Instead, somehow, we have to find a way to see what we are with compassion, and even with love. This is not sentimental twaddle. This is what our survivability depends upon.

This week, I spent time with the family of someone I love. Again, I realised that none of us has a family in which all relationships are fair, or kind. We all struggle with the woes of blame and resentment, guilt, fear to the point of paranoia, and anger. The difference between those who survive and thrive and those whose lives become more and more embroiled in point scoring and who has what is searing but salutary. We need to learn the old truths and we need to keep tolerance alive. Going to England after a long absence, it struck me how tenuous the silver threads of tolerance are, how much we rely on the kindness of strangers, which is really just an extension of our attitude to ourselves. This is what I will continue to write about, and discuss, as the ecological emergency manifests itself in all the various aspects of all our lives.

I have been incredibly lucky to have had the opportunities I’ve had, the access to education, and to the beautiful places and people I’ve known as home and family. Success has very little to do with recognition by others: it comes from recognising what one has, and using ones own skill as creatively and generously as possible. I need to remind myself of this. Often. Especially as the days shorten and I am forced to reassess my own situation once again.

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