Be Near the Earth

Be Near the Earth is a phrase that caught my eye some months ago on a Zaytuna College web page. Sh. Hamza was quoting the advice of a Mauritanian shaykh he knew and its many meanings I thought worth expanding upon.

I imagine that many muslims who might be reading this are urban dwellers and more than likely born and raised in an urban or sub-urban environment. I suspect many such folk are more comfortable in such environments and find the country slightly threatening. The words “I’m a townie” have been spoken to me many times. And as far as being close to, and part of the society, Muslims seem to have flourished in the urban context. Indeed in Andalusia it is well known how civilised the medieval Muslim cities of Cordoba and Granada were, with street lighting, drinking water flowing to private houses, hundreds of bath houses and many of the creature comforts we associate with the post Victorian industrial age.

But compared to the modern tarmac roads, motorised transport, electric power, town gas and high rise apartments (very far from the earth), the medievals lived much nearer the earth. For a start their cities were limited in size so that people had access to the countryside and the dependence on horses and animals, meant closer daily contact with the natural world and a big involvement with e.g. olives which gave them oil for lighting, food and its wood fuel. And pickles. The dwellings were in general one or two stories. The technological world, necessary though it is in this time, has made most people sacrifice their daily proximity to nature. And as someone who at one point in time suffered from a surfeit of computer use and car driving (trapped nerves, posture problems, eye strain) I’ve had to find a more acceptable balance between the demands such things as the computer and cars were making on me and the obligation I have to my own physical and spiritual health. A better balance is always the more productive solution. One German architectural firm I know of, found that if its workers lived next to a garden into which they could constantly walk, they worked better and were happier and healthier. This is a lifestyle I have adopted now for many years now. Mixing my office work with gardening, wood chopping and other kinds of recreation. Enjoyable. Who needs to retire?

Be near the earth for many is literally touching plants, digging in their gardens, handling soil, planting seedlings, manure, composting etc., and you can do that not only in the country and the suburbs but increasingly in cities, on roof tops, waste land and on balconies. It’s an activity that keeps you in tune with the cycles of the day, the seasons and the miracle of seeing seeds sprouting through the earth. The reality before you of the many Quranic ayats about God bringing forth life from dead earth. Good exercise, better and cheaper food and the grateful use of wasted ground space.

But even for those who are born and brought up or who can afford to live right out in the country, there is often utter disregard for any kind of harmony between man and nature. In fact my last memories of walking in the Essex countryside, before high tailing it to Spain, was of constantly avoiding enormous farm machinery spraying poison or chemical fertilisers on the exhausted earth. These spraying tractors had enormous extensions which would unfold at the commencement of their work like a giant mechanical spraying mantis.  The word Koyaanisqatsi meant in Hopi language “unbalanced life” or man out of tune with nature. In this case fat cat corporate farming.

But even up here in the secret valleys of Andalusia some folk seem far to eager to abuse the countryside and by extension themselves. I am told that 25 years ago the valley of the Alpujarras was almost wiped out by the use of DDT. It killed wildlife in a big way purely so the greedy little farmers could see weed-free olive groves etc. After it was banned, wildlife returned, but still you see little men walking around spraying their trees from a tank on their back– it just looks so odd. Trees are vulnerable to some insects and disease but there are effective ecological ways of dealing with these problems.

Probably the farmer activity I find most offensive and one I consider very far from the earth is what is called strimming, or what Americans call weed-whacking. Many times I have thought the strimmer was something straight out of hell sent to test my patience. For hours on end I would have to endure the perpetual stop-start whine of the strimmer as a neighbour went up and down his land hacking down the weeds – oblivious of his violent intrusion of the peace. The operator is covered with protective head gear and gloves like something out of a bad horror movie, and is amazingly disconnected from what he is doing. A quite dangerous activity too. One local man lost an eye doing it and I have been showered by stones when driving my car as council workers strimmed the roadside. A strimmer doesn’t cut, it smashes indiscriminately.

What the strimmer replaced was the scythe, the ancient, dignified and very effective way of cutting, grass, weeds and of course wheat. All that is needed is the scythe (much cheaper than a strimmer/weedwhacker) and knowledge of how to sharpen it and some muscle. Who knows how to sharpen anything anymore? Many believe an experienced scyther can easily keep pace with a strimmer any day. But the hard pressed farmer is sold these ‘labour saving’ devices and has to keep up with his neighbour. You can’t even buy a scythe round here now.

This is the model to me of man far from the earth. I’m not a romantic and would accept that in certain situations the technological solution is appropriate. I drive in cars and fly in planes though rarely these days, and only when absolutely necessary. But because I really loathe the mechnical solution doesn’t mean I don’t make concessions – but I make the concession fully understanding that the other way is preferable. Sometimes I think I am fighting a lonely campaign against people willingly drowning in technology, lemming-like. I often reminded calligraphy students of mine what would happen if tomorrow they couldn’t go and buy paper, pens and ink in Rymans’ or Kinco’s or wherever you get your writing supplies. Could they make it themselves? If you had no electricity could you survive or would you just curl up and die. My thesis has always been that the ‘near to the earth’ solution is not only sustainable but actually better than the hi-tec solutions. A matter of quality over perceived technological advantage. In previous posts I have harped on about PA systems, disappearing calligraphic styles, musical modes and so on. It’s all connected.

About Ian Whiteman

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4 Responses to Be Near the Earth

  1. Being near the earth is being near your heart. And maybe hearth… as it takes earth (wood) and fire (inner energy) to make the hearth a home… But, as you might say, “who has fireplaces anymore?” Which is certainly true, and most of them have gas logs blurting on a bit then blinking out. I take walks as much as possible in a woods at the end of our urban block, and one minute in and it’s as if the city has disappeared. I don’t swing a scythe, but I’ve seen deer, of course, a wonderful turtle looking for a mate, very slowly (18 years old by its ridges, and a male by its bump), a great blue heron taking off from the flowing stream at the bottom of the woods, and the always enchanting and heart-rending songs of birds, including the Conference of the Crows as they work out the world’s kinks and then disperse to harass our foibles.

    What a lovely entry! Gracias, dear Ian… Keep warm.

  2. ian whiteman says:

    Who has fireplaces anymore? I do for a start. It’s that or electric heaters. In fact electric heaters are a useful back-up when you run out of wood. But one thing I have learnt is that there are different qualities of heat, as there for any element, like water or air which is why the heat from burning wood, particularly olive wood, is unique If you want to ease aching bones or muscles. The heat from olive wood penetrates aching flesh whereas the heat from an electric heater, well…just heats.

  3. cavemum says:

    And makes your eyes turns to fuzzy dry knots…I agree about the quality of heat, although I don’t think I inherited your ability to discern what kind of fuel water was heated by! You have, however, rather miraculously passed on a sense that being plugged into electrical appliances for a period of time needs to be balanced out by more tangible, ‘real’ activities…I never thought I would be much of a gardener but now I get a palpable sense that touching the earth literally earths the electrical energy of the human brain, run as it is by lots of little hamsters.

    Also nice to recall is that apparently the Prophet David (a.s.) never ate anything that he didn’t grow himself. There’s nothing like a good bit of food insecurity to make you really appreciate where things come from. We do live in the sort of lost paradise that makes visitors gape with a realisation that kind of goes ‘Oh my God, a real orange on a tree! I can just pick it and eat it!! And I don’t have to pay anyone anything!!!” How strange that that should be so strange.

  4. Ahmed says:

    ‘Oh my God, a real orange on a tree!’ – I remember yelling precisely that in the Alhambra gardens last summer. Though, coming from the big breeze block that is London, a tree was overwhelming enough.

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