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  • Writer's pictureAlex Toogood

Encountering the Real

"…whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting,

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things." Mary Oliver - Wild Geese

Most of us will be familiar with the idea that we live at a time of staggering biodiversity loss and mass extinctions, as ecosystems rupture at the hand of human dominion and ignorance. And yet, whilst this remains a familiar concept, it often does not break into out lived realities in a way that changes us as deeply as it must. There are many ways we can turn away from the edge of this storying – many ways that we find an approximation of belonging to compensate for our alienation from the living, breathing worlds that teem around us.

One way that we could hide from this magnitude of loss is to consider Tinkers Bubble to be a place of arrival, in which we live out ethical lives in contrast to the systemic violence which surrounds us. It is a neat conclusion, to assume that living within a woodland, in self-built homes, eating home-grown food, constitutes a return to nature. It does look like this is true. It feels like it too, as we arrive here from our exile within cities and social media.

And yet, sometimes the world insists itself upon us more forcefully, in ways that crack open our boundedness, and require a different understanding. Meg wrote recently of our encounter with a cow, wandering in the woodland. We could say that this cow was lost: she was not where humans had decided that she should be. And yet she was more profoundly here than I was. Her elegantly lumbering blend of curiosity and fear and hunger and contentedness demanded something more of Meg and me – she required us to meet her on the terms of the world, as an animal within her context. She, and us, and the quiet trees, and the shoulder-high nettles, impressed themselves upon each other in that mutual encounter in a way that is with me still. There was some kind of completeness there, in that re-situating of ourselves as participants. So it was with reluctance that we, in our human way, returned the cow to her humanly-designated field. There was joy in that too, as she bounded (have you ever seen an adult cow or sheep bound? It gladdens the heart) back to her cow friends.

To be touched like this, fleetingly and deeply, reminds me that Tinkers Bubble is at the near edge of an unknown and mystifying territory – to arrive here is to (perhaps unwillingly) situate ourselves at a place of departure. The world may, at any time, break through my hubris and remind me that I too am alive, and included. Which, by itself, is beautiful. But what does it mean to return to the sentence I started with, that;

we live at a time of staggering biodiversity loss and mass extinctions, as ecosystems rupture at the hand of human dominion and ignorance

and allow this understanding and an experience of the Bovine to permeate each other? What does this do to the choice that I make? To the life I live?

Phil and I were talking this morning about what to do with our fencing, which is suffering from the combined effects of rot, itchy horses, and rascally goats. Do we process timber from the land here, or buy in more durable alternatives? Recycled plastic and locally coppiced Sweet Chestnut are both more interesting to us that the MoleValley corporate option. But what if we widen the question out? What does the cow know, wandering in the woodland? Is it appropriate for us to de-fence ourselves, Knepp-style? What choices best support the health of our contexts, environmental and social?

Somehow, in finding our way to an answer, we must disinvest from our habitual assumptions and identities. In doing so, we start to include the voices and perspectivres that our culture has taught us to ignore. Or, even more insidiously, we’re taught ourselves that these voices don’t even exist. Which is why, as many of these voices are silenced in our human consume-and-colonise approach to the world, we don’t really notice what is being lost. Perhaps it is not even possible to notice, until we live lives that are crafted upon the possibility of encounter. There moments place us, not as observers of life, or in the centre of life, but as participants. They return us. But the encounter is not for us: it does not exist for our benefit. Viscerally, it asks us: Who are you? What are you doing?

Tinkers Bubble has established structures of community and land management that allow us to function reasonably well, and our unusual existence provides visitors with their own version of encounter. It is easy therefore to become complacent – to think that we are already doing what we should; that this trajectory is adequate. And yet, occasionally, a cow comes along to remind us that there is always more, and that we are only just beginning to see.

Eagle Poem by Joy Harjo To pray you open your whole self To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon To one whole voice that is you. And know there is more That you can’t see, can’t hear; Can’t know except in moments Steadily growing, and in languages That aren’t always sound but other Circles of motion. Like eagle that Sunday morning Over Salt River. Circled in blue sky In wind, swept our hearts clean With sacred wings. We see you, see ourselves and know That we must take the utmost care And kindness in all things. Breathe in, knowing we are made of All this, and breathe, knowing We are truly blessed because we Were born, and die soon within a True circle of motion, Like eagle rounding out the morning Inside us. We pray that it will be done In beauty. In beauty.


Bayo Akomolafe (article)

Cows (the real thing)

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Frank McKenzie
Frank McKenzie
Sep 02, 2021

Hello Alex,

First of all, I have been greatly enjoying how you write. Your mind operates on a level of insight and consideration deeper than most people are willing to understand.

I haven't managed to gather whether you are a permanent resident or a temporary one nor how long you have been staying but it seems to me that you are searching along the path of how to live as close to nature as possible. It's a debate I have with myself, the question of 'Is it colonialism of nature to herd cattle, or even to control her in any way. Is it colonialism of nature just to grow crops and kill weeds?' It seems that the only true way…

Tinkers Bubble
Tinkers Bubble
Sep 24, 2021
Replying to

For now, Tinkers Bubble is the context in which I express this connection, however falteringly. Sometimes that feels like it works beautifully; often it is frustrating, and I feel the limitations of our human-ness. I have no doubt that at some point I will look for a different context, when my or the Bubble's needs change. And I hope that as my skill and experience deepens I will find ways of tending more carefully than we currently manage here. But it seems to me that at some point we must stop searching, and turn instead to creation and care; to serving what there is to serve. I no longer believe that there is a place 'out there' that will hold…

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