Becoming ‘Rooted’ in the city

 

The idea of becoming ‘rooted’ is not a plea for any sort of return to a primitive existence, or a denial of science and technology, or even a denial of city living, which may be the most sustainable way of life for the large numbers of human beings currently on earth, but it is a recognition that we need to find ways of feeling and expressing this sense of being ‘rooted’ within the life of the modern city. So, we need to discover the natural world, even in this world of cars and tarmac and learn to cherish it with a sacred duty. We need to search for a deeper sense of human community and mutual responsibility for the natural world even within the diverse and creative dynamics of city life.

In my home city of Bristol we have a burgeoning underclass of people who are self-consciously looking for a new way of life, who prize ‘community’ in a broad and inclusive sense and actively seek harmony with the natural world. These are the ‘rooted’ people. Their spirituality is shaped by their search for a different way of life. They ‘believe’ another way is possible and are committed to try to live this out.

Cities have very similar dynamics all across the world. If we can crack what it means to live as a sustainable city region, we may have the answer to the global problem. And its heart may be in changing our attitude to the world around us. If we were to place a rediscovery of rootedness at the heart of our modern agenda, we would discover a multitude of new ways of relating to nature and to each other that were deeply enriching to our humanity, while encouraging a way of life in harmony with the earth.

I shall shortly be posting some examples of ‘rooted’ city people on this blog.

Rooted People 1 – Charles McIntosh

bracket fungus

 

Many rooted people are unknown, so it feels appropriate to begin this list with someone you probably won’t have heard of.

Charles McIntosh was the son of a handloom weaver, who was born in 1839 and grew up near a town called Dunkeld in Scotland. As a young man he was sent to work in the local sawmill, where he lost all the fingers and thumb of his left hand in an accident with the circular saw. Of no more use to the sawmill, he became a rural postman, walking sixteen miles each day through all weathers to deliver the post to residents on the East side of the River Tay.

Charles had always been interested in nature and his long walks meant that he came to know his local area in great detail. He would collect historical artefacts and send them to Perth Museum and he gradually learnt to identify everything that lived and grew there, taking a special interest in fungi. He met others in the field, ‘fellows’ of this and that ‘society’, and they wondered at how much this tall and shy man knew. Charles was quietly becoming an authority on the natural history of this place.

There was one time when he befriended a young girl who was holidaying in Dunkeld and who shared his interest in fungi. This young girl loved to draw and paint, had a fine attention to detail and could even make fungi look interesting! She asked to meet with Charles and recalled in her diary how his head was so tall it mingled with the chandelier. Charles was extraordinarily interested in her drawings and the visit became the prelude for an ongoing exchange of mushrooms, drawings and paintings. The young lady in question was Helen Beatrix Potter, of whom more shortly in this blog, but she will be known particularly for her illustrated stories for children, the first and most famous of which was ‘The Tale of Peter Rabbit’. Those who know the story will remember Mr McGregor, who nearly catches Peter when Peter was tucking into the plants in Mr McGregor’s vegetable garden. The drawing of Mr McGregor is uncannily like photos of Charles McIntosh and many have wondered if he was in young Beatrix’s mind as she drew.

Charles lived to the ripe old age of 82, though he had to give up being a postman when he was 51 after contracting pleurisy. Despite losing his fingers in the sawmill, Charles also managed to play the cello in his brother’s string band, conduct a local musical society, and did some composing on the side.

Charles was one of those people who became famous in his local area simply by service. There are  hundreds of local artefacts and specimens in Perth museum today that he donated and Perthshire has the Charles McIntosh Memorial prize given annually to local children for an essay on natural history. He identified four species of fungi previously unknown to science and thirteen more that had not been seen before on these shores.

There are a million and one different ways that people can express a rooted spirituality, but the connection with all three elements, nature, place and people are clearly illustrated in the life of this extraordinary man.

(this story is told in ‘A Fascinating Acquaintance’ published by the Beatrix Potter Society 1989)

“Rooted”– A spirituality for our age

 

treekendal

 

I want to try to identify and name something that is already happening. It has to do with the rediscovery of an inner disposition, or spirituality, that is vital to our future well-being. This spirituality is an antidote to the more poisonous elements of today’s world, like our consumerism, individualism, boredom, destruction of nature and loss of community life. It forges a set of values that allow us to stand against the tide of free market and create better marks of progress.

I recognise a search for this spirituality in myself over several decades and sense that hundreds of those I know are seeking a similar path.

I call this inner disposition by the word “Rooted” and it is based on a longing for connection in three dimensions.

Firstly, we long to connect again with the natural world. We are searching for ways of life that are in a better harmony with the earth. We believe a new harmony can be found and shape our lives around this search. Some people make substantial sacrifices in this pursuit, doing with little money, exploring radical forms of community living and new enterprise that may shift the dominant patterns of human society.

Secondly, the pursuit of rootedness has to do with the love of a place or places. Reconnecting with the natural world must be expressed in dedicated practice of some kind and this necessarily creates an attachment to particular places. We care about those places where we have lived and laboured. We also care about the great diversity of life in these places and will work to safeguard it.

Thirdly, we value human community life as something precious, which needs to be actively nurtured. We long to go about the world knowing that we belong, as members of a vibrant and inclusive community, recognising and welcoming the great diversity of humanity as part of the great diversity of the natural world.

So there it is, summarised in a longing to connect with nature, place and people. It is a spirituality for our age, when so many of us in the West have so much, but are not content. We know so much, but still treat ourselves badly. We work so hard, but to such little purpose.

For rooted people, this longing within shapes their life path, forming their identity and creating their friendships. It is thereby a spirituality, given form by the values it embraces. It is not a religion, because it has no rules, no membership and no prescribed set of beliefs in the divine, but it could still be expressed by religions that were so disposed to embrace it. It could also become a movement, if people chose to make it so. ‘Rooted’ is primarily about being rather than doing.

The clearest way to expound this spirituality may be to point to some people from the past who have embraced it. In
following posts I will attempt to describe some ‘rooted’ people, so readers can see more clearly what this means.

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