Inspired by David Abram’s marvellous book Becoming Animal, I have been thinking a lot about reciprocity today. And about the lack of it. In our culture, insulated as most of us are from the realities of wild Nature, even when we are in the countryside our surroundings and the creatures that inhabit them tend to slide into a two-dimensional backdrop for our thoughts and human-based activities, like a kind of wallpaper. We forget to be fully present, to pay attention, to interact consciously with whoever and whatever is around us. Tuned only to signals from the human world—the voices of companions, the chatter in our heads and perhaps the music from our iPods—we fail to interact with the more-than-human world and fail to comprehend its depth and richness. We swim through an ocean of potential relationships in wetsuits of distraction and withholding, in spacesuits of hollow solitude.
I have heard people who have spent all their lives in one place and know it intimately say that in a way they feel merged with the land. It is so familiar that it has become a part of them—or they a part of it. They rest into it in comfort. And although they may not remain consciously aware of it at all times, since they know it so well they notice even the smallest change—the swelling of a bud, a slight rise in the water table, the first migrating bird.
But those of us, like me, who have travelled a lot and lived on several different continents, face another problem over and above the problem of tuning out and that is the occasional lapse into nostalgic discontent. Walking under a dull, grey sky, I can so easily find myself yearning for remembered sunshine. Moving through the endlessly farmed and gardened landscapes of my native England I suddenly long for wildness and the challenge of mountain slopes, trackless forests and dry arroyos. And yet, when the wildness of a canyon or the strangeness of a strangler fig (or the sight of leeches crawling up my boots) threatens to overwhelm me I start thinking about the benign nature of my familiar woods.
I have reminded myself, sternly, that every place has its own, particular beauty and that places I have known and loved are, like old friends I rarely see, still a part of me. I belong here and I also belong there…and there, and there, and there. It is wonderful to feel that one belongs everywhere. But the dark side of belonging everywhere is to belong nowhere.
There is one simple answer. It is that old sixties slogan that has never gone out of date—be here now. Be where you are. Be fully where you are. When you see a bird, the bird also sees you. When you touch a tree, the tree touches you in response.
Reciprocity. An exchange of gifts. Breathing in and breathing out. To whatever is around us we give the gift of our energy, our attention, our love. And it comes back to us tenfold. Those are the times when the world suddenly seems to swell and deepen around us, everything leaps into three dimensions. Maybe even four dimensions. And there is such richness and beauty all around us that we can only gasp in wonderment. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does…wow!
Tomorrow, when I go for a walk, I think I shall write a reminder on my hand. Delight in where you are. Wherever you are.