The pearl of great price
12th June, 2008
It's been a strange week. Within an eight-day period I found beauty, pain and death.
Or should I say weak? This strange week has a recipe, the ingredients are purely verbal and can be found in condensed form amongst the following quotes - beware though, it's a very potent and potentially dangerous recipe:
"Our day-to-day life is bombarded with fortuities or, to be more precise, with the accidental meetings of people and events we call coincidences. 'Co-incidence' means that two events unexpectedly happen at the same time..." Milan Kundera
"In the magical universe there are no coincidences and there are no accidents." William Burroughs
"People who ingest the wild, whether plants or landscapes, do something civilized people never do, they take inside themselves the wildness of the world; they eat the Wild Redeemer. In that moment something unique happens, some invisible thing enters inside them. And when that happens everything changes. They become aware that there are intelligences in this world far older than the human and that the human and the older intelligences of the world are intended to make contact" Stephen Harrod Buhner
It started with a beautiful pearl,
(encased within the hidden confines of a Herne Bay oyster)
a visit to the Dalai Lama in Nottingham, whilst often immobilized and utterly crippled by pain,
and pulling a dead man from the river Stour - an event that has left me feeling unexpectedly traumatized.
Given that all these events occurred within an eight-day period it offers, I suppose, a fairly condensed narrative history, a merely curious story perhaps, but certainly a history bound by fortuities and magic that unnerves me, even scares me or - to reflect that sense of uneasiness in another way, in my most neurotic of perennial questions - a question become mantra: does it mean anything at all; does it mean nothing; is the spontaneity of complete chaos and randomness the architect of such happenings or magic the true creator? Where does truth and meaning lie - in the realms of objectivity or in the dynamics of mutual co-creation beyond the bounds or divisions of subjective/objective?
Buhner speaks of the Wild Redeemer - capitalizing Nature as the supreme spirit in contrast yet not necessarily opposed to Christ - Christ the pearl, Christ as the traditional Redeemer - as the one to save us all from the state of hopeless sin and its consequences:
"....the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it."
The implied analogy was that the Kingdom of Heaven was of such worth that his disciples should gladly be willing to give up their wealth and comfort to obtain it. Christians typically take the parable to mean that heavenly riches are far greater than the full sum of all worldly riches. Though the idea is not present in the text, some also teach that Jesus is the pearl that some men found, and sold all for, and became his disciples, hoping for an eternal kingdom." Wikipedia
Today I know two things: my health is so bad and I'm in such diabolical pain that, although not being gladly willing to give up wealth and comfort, it has been forced upon me. In the last few days I've lost several thousand pounds (and am set to loose more) due to my physical inability to run foraging courses and events that I have been forced to cancel. Things are so bad that I can no longer afford to pay rent on the house where I was supposed to be living (but never actually had time to move into) and have, today, been forced to move out off. The vicious cycle or, perhaps more aptly, the downward spiral, has meant that being physically unable to gather wild food I am becoming weaker, becoming weaker I am less and less able to feed myself. Weakness compounds weakness, pain compounds pain and restful healing has become a mere cherished dream. All the Wild Redeemer can do for me now is, not save me from a state of sinfulness and its consequences but, rather, save me from a state of stubborn stupidity and its particular dire straits. First let me explain more prosaically about pain, pearls and death.
About seven weeks ago a friend (plus something more) asked me to help her move from Canterbury to Bristol. She hired a van that I was to drive; we loaded it up with the accumulated stuff of life and set off, driving for 4 1/2 hours without a significant break. That night my back muscles - I expect the Longissimus muscles running down either side of the spine, went into painful spasms that kept me awake all night. Over subsequent weeks up until today the pain has ebbed and flowed - although the last few weeks have punished with nothing but a continuous high tide of ferocious pounding wave upon stormy wave of agonizing pain. I've spent over £400 on chiropractic, acupuncture, shiatsu massage and various other therapies - some providing short-lived temporary relief, others merely aggravating the problem.
Initially, after a month, the main problem was sleep loss due to the continuous wakeful inducing and cattle prodding nature of the pain's sheer relentlessness. Not wishing to take any conventional medication I turned to wild lettuce for its sedative properties - this amounted to about 300g of fresh whole plant or the extracted juice from the same quantity.
(It is the bitter white liquid that has the sedative properties.)
It worked a treat and I could finally slumber in peace. The temporary respite that I mistook for healing led me to do something very stupid: I ran two back-to-back 12 1/2 hour foraging courses over one weekend - finding six hours between the first and second to prepare for that second one when I ought to have been sleeping. Being so busy attending to the class I skipped dinner after not having allowed for time to prepare a completely wild alternative. That was a terrible mistake. The day after both (very successful) courses I really felt so exhausted I thought I might die (terribly ironic given comments in an email I received from one of my weekend foragers: "We wish you all the best with your 'wild food year'; may the energy levels continue. On the amount you ate on Sunday that must surely be an advert for foraging.") From that day on (5th May) pain became my increasingly vocal and irritating companion.
Six months earlier I'd bought tickets to go and hear the Dalai Lama speak at the Nottingham Arena so like the stupid Transcaucasian Kurd in one of Gurdjieff's stories, having paid my money and in spite of my wise friend Lucy's sound advice not to bother going but to stay and rest instead, off I went to be enlightened. Here's the Kurd's tale:
This Transcaucasiun Kurd once set out from his village on some business or other to town, and there in the market he saw in a fruiterer's shop a handsomely arranged display of all kinds of fruit. In the display, he notice one fruit, very beautiful in both colour and form, and its appearance so took his fancy and he so longed to try it, that in spite of his having scarcely any money, he decided to buy without fail at least one of these gifts of Great Nature, and taste it. Then, with intense eagerness, and with a courage not customary to him, he entered the shop and pointing with his horny finger to the fruit which had taken his fancy he asked the shopkeeper its price. The shopkeeper replied that a pound of the 'fruit' would cost two cents. Finding that the price was not at all high for what in his opinion was such a beautiful fruit, our Kurd decided to buy a whole pound.
Having finished his business in town, he set off again on foot for home the same day. Walking at sunset over the hills and dales, and willy-nilly perceiving the exterior visibility of those enchanting parts of the bosom of Great Nature, the Common Mother, and involuntarily inhaling a pure air uncontaminated by the usual exhalations of industrial towns, our Kurd quite naturally and suddenly felt a wish to gratify himself with some ordinary food also; sitting down by the side of the road, he took from his provisions bag some bread and the fruit he had bought which had looked so good to him, and leisurely began to eat. But...horror of horrors!...very soon everything inside him began to burn. But in spite of this he kept on eating.
And this hapless biped creature of our planet kept on eating, thanks only to that particular human inherency which I mentioned at first...
And so, just at the moment when our Kurd was overwhelmed by all the unusual sensations proceeding from this strange repast on the bosom of Nature, there came along the same road a fellow villager of his, one reputed by those who knew him to be very clever and experienced; and, seeing that the whole face of the Kurd was aflame, that his eyes were streaming with tears, and that in spite of this, as if intent upon the fulfilling of his most important duty, he was eating real red hot pepper pods, he said to him: "What are you doing, you Jericho jackass? You'll be burnt alive! Stop eating that extraordinary product, so unaccustomed for your nature."
But the Kurd replied: "No, for nothing on Earth will I stop. Didn't I pay my last two cents for them? Even if my soul departs from my body I shall go on eating."
Whereupon our resolute Kurd - it must of course be assumed that he was such - did not stop, but continued eating the red hot chili pods." (p19-21 All and Everything, G.Gurdjieff, Routledge and Kegan Paul. London 1973)
On the third day of my visit to hear the Dalai Lama speak I had to miss the whole proceedings and remain, instead, lying on my back all day - well, except for a farcical attempt to gather reedmace stems and a few nettles. This involved taking over an hour to walk the 100 metre distance from where I was camping to the bullrush (reedmace) stream. The journey was punctuated by repeated contortions as I fell to my knees doubled up in excruciating pain. I must have looked like a modern dancer rhythmically contorting to the chimes and clashes of an imaginary so-called cutting-edge musically cacophonous beat! Also, being unable to bend down I had to pull the stems from the top thus leaving behind the lovely and firm water-chestnut-like base. No doubt I expended more energy collecting the food than I gained from eating it.
Unfortunately, in spite of the obvious sincerity and wonderfully down-to-earth rapport of the Dalai Lama, contemplating his words just seemed to aggravate my pain - although, admittedly, not contemplating them would probably have produced precisely the same result. Speaking on the somewhat misleadingly described or translated term 'emptiness' - a term much better expressed by the delightfully lucid and straight talking Thich Nhat Hanh by his concept of interbeing, just led to waking daylight nightmares concerning Zeno's paradox. On the previous day His Holiness the Dalai Lama started down the dead end road of beginning to explain the concept of emptiness in respect to the relative illusion of being as it relates to the concepts of coming and going. Who is it that comes and who that goes? The argument was pure Zeno's paradox. Goodbye Tibetan Buddhism Hello Chan! But don't get me wrong, this is not a criticism, merely a grumpy pain-fuelled observation - and besides, perhaps I'm just not ready for such a strong burning chilli!
At the end of the five days I was well and truly stuffed - in so much pain I could not go home! Fortunately synchronicity threw me an ace card just as I was leaving Nottingham arena in despair: Carmel. She very kindly gave me a buqi treatment, enabling me to find sufficient pain-free resources to make the 200 mile journey back to Canterbury - but only sufficient for that.
Hence this was my breakfast two days later:
Chestnut porridge made with spring water and Mahonia berries
codeine phosphate hemihydrate, paracetamol,
sodium metabisulphite (E223),
pregelatinised starch, calcium stearate, aerosol OT-B (dioctyl sodiumsulfosuccinate and sodium benzoate (E211)), gelatin,
titanium dioxide(E171), erythrosine (E127)
and indigo carmine(E132), shellac,
soya lecithin, 2-ethoxyethanol, dimethylpolysiloxane and iron oxide (E172)and diazepam, anhydrous lactose, magnesium stearate and microcrystalline cellulose.
Snail, Oyster and limpet Soup
And for dessert
..... yes you guessed it....
codeine phosphate hemihydrate, paracetamol, sodium metabisulphite (E223),
pregelatinised starch, calcium stearate,
aerosol OT-B (dioctyl sodiumsulfosuccinate and sodium benzoate (E211)), gelatin, titanium dioxide(E171), erythrosine (E127) and indigo carmine(E132), shellac, soya lecithin, 2-ethoxyethanol, dimethylpolysiloxane and iron oxide (E172)
diazepam, anhydrous lactose, magnesium stearate and microcrystalline cellulose.
One of the mottoes that guides much of what I do - although if you knew me you'd be surprised (but it does apply equally to making a mess and being generally disorganized as well) is, "Do things properly or don't bother doing them at all." In other words, in many situations it's all or nothing with me. Consequently the all of my wild food diet has been so irretrievably compromised by the inclusion of unpronounceable chemical tongue-twisters that nothing now looms large. True, medication isn't food by conventional standards but to my mind that distinction doesn't really exist. In the untamed world food is medicine and medicine food. So the consequences for my project should be self-evident - but I'll say a little more about that at the end.
The reason I managed to hold out for the whole five days in Nottingham - in spite of the foraging obliterating pain was due to oysters and mussels. Knowing how problematic foraging had become due to my back problems, I took up a large bucket of live oysters and mussels. These stayed fresh and alive in a bucket of seawater for three days. So, in spite of the pain and police (I was stopped and questioned on the banks of the Trent river for photographing oysters due to the inherent security issues involved! - well, last year I was stopped and questioned by police for picking daisies so it really came as no surprise) these served me very well.
But all this is besides the point - I want to tell you my pearl story.
A few weeks after crossing the boundary from eating a purely vegetarian diet by collecting snails (except, of course the roadkill element - but the vegetarian reasoning is sound in my opinion), I thought I may as well turn to the abundance of nourishing shellfish that are readily available. For the first time I gathered oysters - twenty in total, and went to my parents' house to cook them. As they boiled in the pan we discussed the possibility of finding pearls. My oysters came from Herne Bay - only seven miles from Whistable which is famous for its oysters. We considered that perhaps pearls were only found in large non-native varieties of oyster living in warmer climes. My argument for this was that because oysters are harvested commercially in Whitstable, if pearls had been found we would all know about it. Those involved in the harvesting and selling would engage in a fenzy of publicity and we'd hear all about the world famous pearly oysters of Whitstable. Given that that has never happened and that thousands of oysters are harvested there every year, I concluded that the probability of finding a peal in a Herne Bay oyster was virtually zero. Of the 20 oysters I was cooking, nineteen of these I removed from the pan and liquidized. The cooking water tasted absolutely sublime so, not ever having eaten a cooked oyster I decided to keep one back. I bit halfway into it when my teeth encountered something hard: a pearl!
Death is something that as a culture we shy away from - especially in terms of any truly deep reflection. Of course we see it in films and on television news bulletins daily, and such classic works such as Sogyal Rinpoche's The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying are readily available for anyone in search of a little positive insight regarding the matter. Nevertheless, when encountered raw and in the flesh death's visceral and decomposing immediacy is deeply shocking and disturbing (I think a link to this story would be insensitive just on the off chance that a relative of the man may read it because, of course, for them it's not just another story).
Last week I was carrying out an early evening reccy of a riverside walk prior to a foraging event to make a detailed list of all the wild plants there (of course, due to ill-health I had to cancel anyway). Shortly after arriving a man approached me from the direction I was heading and asked if I had a phone. To cut a long story short, he called the police as we walked down to the suspected dead man he'd seen whilst attempting to retrieve a punctured and deflated dingy from the river. The police arrived and attempted to pull him out - the poor man was face down in the water, his dead weight hindering efforts to negotiate his movement around a large half submerged tree branch. It was difficult to help because of my back pain but as the police officer tried to pull the man clear his colleague who was physically supporting him slipped and fell. On the next attempt she held her hand out to me for additional support and naturally I helped. Up on dry land and still facing downwards, the situation did not touch me at all. True, his puffed up white swollen hands captivated ones attention - yet more in fascination than in disgust or horror.
Walking back with the police and the chap who had found the man the surreal situation arose - because the police woman asked what I did for a living - whereby I found myself explaining briefly about the wild food plants we passed. Then my phone rang and a lovely young lady I'd met several weeks previously in the Lake District was on the other end. What struck me at the time was how wonderfully alive she seemed. Slightly shocked now by what had happened it took a while for her to explain to me who she was - in spite of my hope she would call. As soon as I understood who she was that's when the image of white puffed up decomposing hands flashed before my mind's eye for the first time: vibrant life and death competing for my attention, also there was a complex sense of shame or guilt. Having been so unwell and therefore physically unable to gather sufficient wild food supplies over the proceeding weeks, before departing that night I had said to my parents, half joking, half serious, that if I didn't find sufficient quantities of nourishing food that night then I might as well just throw myself in the river and die. One thing for certain is that I have a new respect for the police - they may hassle me when I'm out taking pictures or picking daisies but to encounter such disturbing events at a frequency way beyond that of the average person takes a certain courage and commitment - it can't be easy.
Chinese proverbs save the day
I tend to switch from one perspective to the other with disturbing regularity, nevertheless at the moment I'm in a "in-the-magical-universe-there-are-no-coincidences-and-there-are-no-accidents" state of mind. Pearls, Dalai Lama (and by association a number of Chinese proverbs I've been reflecting on these last few days), pain and death all inform my current decision to temporarily postpone my year-long wild food adventure. As I mentioned in a previous post health is number one; it is the pearl, without which you have nothing, can do nothing. Pain has disrupted my ability to harvest from the wild and my diet has been broken with medication. That is fine, I must just be patient; I wish to pursue my wild food adventure and challenge as thoroughly as is theoretically possible, yet as the Chinese proverb says: If you do not change your direction, you are likely to end up where you're heading, and I have no immediate plans to die. Nevertheless, I must do certain things differently for, as yet another delightful Chinese proverb informs us: Insanity is doing the same thing and in the same way and expecting a different outcome! The Dalai Lama spoke insightfully about compassion and that, of course, such compassion is not just something to be outward directed; one must also have compassion for oneself. So when will I begin the challenge anew? Until a few days ago I considered the 1st of July as being most appropriate. That was before I gathered a 16 1/2 kg chicken of the woods fungus with my friend Kris.....
(Actually, this is Kris with the fungus two years ago which was then 13 kg. Below is this year's fungus that Kris helped me lift from the same tree)
(Next year 20 kg!?)
...He told me that he's currently reading Karl von Clausewitz's On War, and proceeded to tell me that all my current troubles could be summed up in one word: FRICTION - as described by Clausewitz. Cue two final Chinese proverb
When men speak of the future, the Gods laugh!
A gem cannot be polished without friction, nor a man perfected without trials.
In Clausewitz's philosophy friction refers to the numerous chance events that influence everything and the numerous difficulties that inhibit accurate execution of any preconceived and precise plans. Somewhere between the realms where these two proverbs point there lies the prize of year-long wild food-living success. True, to decide to live on nothing but wild food for a year is a very precise aim, and its two-month 'success' has thrown up many questions - perhaps the most important of which is: has my inability to heal been due to poor or inadequate nutrition or, worse, due to some unknown and perhaps cumulative toxicity? Nevertheless, perhaps even more absurd is to engrave in stone July the first as the day I will begin the endeavour again. I will begin again but no date is fixed. I will begin two weeks after I have been completely pain free without medication. I hope this will be 1st July but it could equally be 2 months or 2 years from now. I am more determined than ever so watch this space. So, no problem. In a world where every thing is relative, why worry?
Visiting the nurse the other day, she left the room to consult with a doctor concerning my prescription. On the computer screen was a detailed breakdown of my past medical history. Reading it, I laughed out loud. When the nurse returned, still hunched over with back pain, I said, "Actually I feel fine, at least relatively speaking. Not just fine, but I think I look pretty good as well!" She looked confused so pointing to my medical history I showed her the following gem of accurate reporting: "Patient had problems with sciatica 112 years ago"! For a geriatric I was more than fine!
One final thought, again on the theme of relative notions, on the first day of this project after having eaten my first completely wild meal, I calculated on the basis of 365 x 3 -1 that I now only had another 1694 meals to go. At the time I thought it a fairly small figure and, perhaps, as a result, started to think the project would be slightly easier than I'd originally imagined. Yesterday my perspective shifted. It's a huge number when you consider that we may be only nine meals from anarchy!
This article first appeared in the Ecologist June 2008
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