I am a terrestrial

Chris Yeomans

Early morning and the sun makes streaks of golden light on the Common. September just around the corner. There is a heavy crop of plums and those we haven’t picked lie rotting on the ground under the tree, blue purple skins and yellow flesh.  A dozen red admiral butterflies flit from one to the other and through the branches of the tree glutting on the sweet juice. Under the heavy heat, the countryside is still and there is a faint mist hanging over the trees along the edge of the field. Leaves now are the dark green of late summer.  In the shallow pond, set among the flowers in the border for the birds to bathe and drink from, three frogs lurk, eyes and noses just above the water, watching me. We breathe the same air, we share in the same water.  We humans are, as Germaine Greer once put it, ‘terrestrials’ – of and from the earth. I am one with the frog and the muntjac deer that browses on the edge of the wood.

Recently there was a news item about a firm which is breeding insects as a source of food.  Dog and cat food can now be made from grubs and this provides sufficient of the right sort of protein for our pets to flourish.  This is heralded as good news, because it means fewer large mammals being slaughtered and, they said, vegetarians would be very pleased.  I am puzzled.  There is a photograph of wriggling grubs.  Whilst I understand that in one way to kill a grub is less emotionally difficult than it is to kill a cow, or, for dog meat, a horse, it is still killing and the taking of life.  And I can’t really see why this would be welcomed by vegetarians.  The grub becomes an insect of some sort. Both grub and insect are living beings.

It prompts me to ponder on what I mean by life.  Because of course plants are life and recent research indicates that trees communicate with each other in ways we hadn’t previously understood. And we fell trees routinely for wood. Human life could not exist without taking life from some things – plants, bacteria even.  I ponder a definition of life as something that is not rooted in earth, that can live freely and move about without having to be hard-wired to a food source.  And this includes grubs and insects.  Breeding insects as food stuff is surely the same as the wholesale breeding of prawns and shrimps, or even catching prawns and shrimps to eat.  Catching fish.  All these living creatures, however humanely reared, and many of them are not, certainly do not want to die.  

Once you start to think about it, there is so much of heartbreak in this world. I look at the countryside around me in its late summer heaviness and my heart breaks to think that all of this will eventually be lost.  And soon, in the evolutionary scale of things.  And I ponder the question of attachment.  I am so passionately attached to this English countryside with all its flora and fauna, its scenery, its lushness.  Where is the letting go, the cutting of ties?  I am part of this.  Inseparable.  I am a terrestrial, connected in every way possible to the raindrops on the sugar beet, the earth beneath my feet, the trees that provide such welcome shade in this hot weather.  We are all of a piece, this world and I.  I cannot but be attached.

9 Replies to “I am a terrestrial”

  1. Hi Chris, Beautifully written post. What you say touches for me on the difference between being attached and being connected. Nothing has a separate existence, we are intimately connected with everything else, the reality of interconnectedness is undeniable as you say and there is beauty, peace and freedom in that reality. Attachment occurs when we identify with a temporary form, a temporary manifestation of reality and believe it has a separate existence. Then we come to fear the end of that temporary form and ultimately the end of our self since we have identified with that form and have come to believe that we have a separate existence, and so can disappear, can cease to be. This believe gives rise to fear which then obscures the inherent peace and freedom. The fear is dispelled when the mind becomes still and the idea of self and other fall away, that which then remains is not subject to impermanence. In the Tao Te Ching it is said that the Tao that is unnameable is the mother of the ten thousand things. (1) The world that we experience as the ten thousand things is a manifestation of that which cannot be put into words or concepts, but can be experience directly. Seeing beauty is such a direct experience, when the distance between the viewer and the viewed collapses and there is simply the recognition of shared being as the ever present reality. (1) The Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu, An English Translation, 1998 by Eiichi Shimomissé
  2. I’m interested in the different meanings we give to the word ‘attachment’. An infant must attach to its primary carer. Whether secure or insecure, this attachment is necessary for its survival. If you have ever seen calves wrenched too soon from their mothers, you will know the heart rending cries that are the price of cheap milk. I love to buy raw milk from the farms where cows and calves are together for longer, but many cannot afford the extra cost, or have no access to ethical dairy farms. In this sense of the word we should be respecting and promoting strong attachment. It isn’t only in humankind that it is necessary for the social development that eventually allows healthy separation and independence. As I understand it – do correct me here – the Buddhist virtue of non-attachment promises release from mental fixations, which perhaps means clinging to desire in one form or another. Is the analogy too simple, with the little child shouting her ownership of a favoured toy that cannot be shared or given up? The grown-up version of this work seems to me the toil of several lifetimes! To let go of the heart’s desire, a cherished idea, or an object of substance, is real work and terribly difficult. I am in awe of those who manage these feats with more grace than I have ever achieved. Like Chris, I am a terrestrial. My affinity with our countryside, with the springy woodland floor, the uncurling of bracken in spring and its crispy brown collapse in autumn, doesn’t feel like either an infantile or a fixated attachment. Certainly I feel a oneness with my places of peace and restoration. And yet these are partly romantic feelings. I am no Bear Grylls and those same places would have me scared in the dark of night, and send me running to my bed. In the end I am most attached to the familiar, to what is known and identifiable. We care more for the dogs and horses than the bugs, because they are more like us. But still there is nothing like the natural world for revealing our miniature existence within the mystery and majesty of the earth. While it survives I can connect my tiny speck of selfhood with its vastness, and know that I am only passing through. This may be as close as I can get to non-attachment, or letting go.
  3. I love the photograph, Chris! I hadn’t quite realised that it was one that you had taken yourself. Great shot and very appropriate.
  4. I can understand the pain and heartbreak Chris feels when he writes. Although Anne is right in talking of the difference between attachment and connection, I think it is natural to feel some sadness and maybe that is necessary to arouse Bodhicitta and push us to try and live as Kanzeon and not just to meditate for our own enlightenment and benefit. The challenge is to realise that as form is temporary, we cannot allow ourselves to be too deeply enmeshed in it. And yet nor can we live a compassionate human existence without feeling some pain. In my own case for example I have just received news that is a real shock regarding the sudden death at a young age of a family member, leaving a wife and three small children. I was shocked and upset and although the ‘Buddhist part of me’ could cope with it, that would have been a totally inappropriate response. I had to try and turn it round, being sympathetic and allowing my feelings to show as well, yet seeing it in a different way and quietly offering merit. All such experiences (Chris’ and mine) serve as a reminder that everything is impermanent. Perhaps we don’t always remember that when looking at the natural world and wonder why we are wrecking the planet as we are. We forget that the planet and indeed the universe are subject to decay and death. We forget because the time scales are so vast that our minds see them as being almost eternal. Yet I am reminded of a teaching (I forget if I read or heard it) in which it was said that we cannot see the human race, our planet or our universe as things which are outside the realm of impermanence. They will all end even if we are not around to witness it. That is a hard one to deal with.
  5. Here are some reflections I had on the nature of reality and impermanence. Recognizing impermanence is an important first step when investigating the nature of reality. If we stop at that first step however, it will lead to suffering because we believe everything of value to us is going to disappear. We need to continue the investigation by asking: When everything that is impermanent disappears, where does it disappear into? In other words what is the stuff things, what we call “I”, are made of? For instance a golden ring is made out of gold. The ring can disappear when it is melted, but the stuff it is made of, the gold, remains. The ring is the appearance, the temporary form of the gold which is the essence, the reality of the ring. Similarly when that which is impermanent disappears, whatever it is disappearing into, is its ultimate reality. The Buddha refers to this ultimate reality as that which is unborn, uncreated, undying. Out of Ignorance, that is the ignoring of that ultimate reality, we confuse the appearance, the temporary form – which is subject to impermanence – with its reality – which is not subject to impermanence. An awakened Buddha sees both the temporary form and its eternal reality simultaneously when looking at the same transient world an un-awakened Buddha sees. The former sees the complete picture, the latter sees only a partial picture of the temporary manifestation, overlooking the essence. That overlooking, that ignoring of the essence creates attachment to the temporary form and so we are back with impermanence and its un-satisfactoriness and the heartbreaking belief that everything of value to us is going to disappear. Investigating and realizing the unborn, uncreated, undying nature of everything, that is ourselves and the world, is the only solution to this predicament.
    1. I like all these thoughts and reflections. My response I think is that for me the only thing I can see as permanent is impermanence. The rest is way beyond me. And so, I can quite see that, in an evolutionary sense, it is wholly likely that this planet is doomed and that life in any sense that we recognise the term will eventually be extinguished, whether through human or through natural agencies. And in one sense , of course, this doesn’t terribly matter. It’s just impermanence. However, I still get hung up on the suffering that the process will inevitably include for all living things and this is particularly acute for me now that I have grandchildren and contemplate them struggling to live a future that I shall not have to experience. This is yet another level of grasping, but, as Anita points out above, this attachment of mine to my little ones is important for their mental and emotional health and part of being human.
  6. Valid point Chris. Concern and compassion for the suffering of loved ones is not necessarily attachment, that is, an obstacle we need to overcome, not how I understand it at least.

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