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I Would Plant My Apple Tree
On horror, helplessness and longing
Welcome to Writing Home, a series of letters and essays from me, Dougald Hine, author of At Work in the Ruins, co-founder of the Dark Mountain Project and a school called HOME. A special welcome to those of you who found their way here in recent days thanks to Warren Ellis’s newsletter or the roundtable I took part in with Nate Hagens.
Today’s instalment brings news of this autumn’s online series with our school, Regrowing a Living Culture. Yet you will understand when I say that it is hard to write of such things, against the background of the news from the wider world, these past eleven days.
Thank you for reading.
Yesterday, I started the morning by looking over a text written by a friend whose career has meant that he has a lot of contacts in the worlds of diplomacy, policy and defence. The text was his attempt to contribute to de-escalating the conflict in Israel and Gaza, to interrupt the cycle of vengeance and prevent it spilling over into a regional war. I doubt my input made much difference to his draft, but it sharpened my sense of helplessness. Because, unlike my friend, I don’t have the contacts or the skills to try to do anything that might make a difference.
Last week, I wrote about guarding our capacity for joy and for care. After talking about this further in Sunday’s conversation with David Cayley – which is now available on YouTube or as a podcast – it seems to me that there is a third term worth emphasising: let us guard our capacity for horror.
It’s there in the words from Ivan Illich that I shared last week, but it bears underlining: ‘I want to experience horror,’ Illich tells Cayley. ‘I do not want to escape my sense of helplessness.’
Today, I started the morning with a group of friends who gather once a fortnight to read old stories and see what they do to us. We started by sharing where we were arriving from, and several of the others spoke of people in their lives who have been directly caught up in the horrors of the past eleven days.
Probably all of you reading this have felt helpless, during that time – and for some of you, the fear will be direct and personal, for yourselves or for people you love, in ways the rest of us can barely imagine.
A few of you will have things that you can do, like the friend whose draft I was reviewing. For most of us, the truth may be that there is little we can do, but we can still choose how to be. We can stay with the horror, let the tide of our helplessness wash over us for a time, refuse to harden ourselves against this awareness.
There’s a poster that travelled with me for years, tacked up on the walls of bedrooms or workplaces. It came from the World Court of Women Against War, For Peace in Cape Town, where I volunteered when I was half the age I am now. Printed on that poster are the closing lines of Adrienne Rich’s poem ‘From the Prison House’:
is not for weeping
must be unblurred
though tears are on my face
its intent is clarity
it must forget
That could be an image for what it means to stay with the horror.
For most of us, the truth may be that there is little we can do about the horrors that fill the news feeds and command our attention. Our helplessness is real – but it is not the whole of the story.
Away from the news, in the mostly un-newsworthy places where we find ourselves, there are things to be done, places where our skills and callings meet the needs of the world. They may feel humble, unheroic, unlikely to make a difference in the long run, especially when set against the larger events of our time. But we don’t get to see the long run.
In a recent conversation with Nate Hagens, Chris Smaje and Pella Thiel, I quoted a line that gets attributed to Martin Luther: ‘Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.’ The earliest source for this line dates from 1944, so my guess is it was made up to offer hope in dark times. Yet it carries an echo of a saying of Yohanan ben Zakkai, a Jewish religious leader who survived the sack of Jerusalem in 70AD: ‘If you are standing with a sapling in your hand when they tell you that the Messiah has come, first plant the sapling and then go out and greet the Messiah.’ A similar saying is recorded of the Prophet Mohammed.
All autumn, I’ve been sitting with this image and the way that it echoes, across the centuries, between the three religions of the book. Like any image worth its place in a human culture, you can turn it at different angles and it will catch the light in different ways.
One thing I catch sight of in that image is an attitude to the work that is ours to do. It’s an attitude that is not enslaved to instrumentality, not attached to outcomes. Of course, we can have an outcome in mind, we can think of the apples that this tree may one day bear. But we don’t need to convince ourselves or pretend to others that there is any guarantee – because we go about the work in a way that brings life, here and now. Approached in this way, such work is worth doing, whatever happens tomorrow.
The work that is yours to do – the place where your skills or callings meet the needs of the world – may have no connection to the larger horrors that command our attention in days like these.
And still, as we sit with the horror and the helplessness, perhaps we notice something else. A longing for what is absent from the acts of terror and retribution. A quiet determination to contribute to the possibility that humans can be more than this, that we can and often do show up with grace and kindness and care.
This is the place, I want to say, where work which has no obvious or direct connection to the suffering, cruelty and injustice in our news feeds may nonetheless be part of what is called for in response.
For five years now, Anna and I have been on the slow journey of creating a school called HOME. It’s a school that starts from the conversations that we bring together around our kitchen table. It’s the fruit of the work that each of us was part of in earlier chapters of our lives, from Anna’s experiences setting up children’s libraries around the Arab world and supporting grassroots women’s organisations in Israel and Palestine, to my role in founding Dark Mountain and Spacemakers.
When people ask about the school, there’s a description we keep coming back to: it is, we say, ‘a gathering place and a learning community for those who are drawn to the work of regrowing a living culture’. Part of that is the work we do within our local community in this small Swedish town. But a couple of times a year, we make an open invitation to a series of gatherings over Zoom, to share what we are learning and what we are working on, and to bring together people who are drawn to this work.
In this autumn’s series, the invitation is to join us on a deeper exploration of this language of ‘regrowing a living culture’. What comes into view when we talk about the work that is called for in these terms? What are the small steps of regrowing, the simple practices that we could weave into our lives, starting from where we find ourselves? And what are the daring moves that are called for now, the places where it might be possible to intervene within existing systems and contribute to the conditions of possibility for the ‘presently unimaginable futures’ which Vanessa Machado de Oliveira encourages us to work for?
People arrive at these series from different directions, from different corners of the world, but mostly because they have found a connection to something in my work. Each session starts with a short talk, followed by an open time for questions and reflections, and an afterparty for those who want to stick around and get to know each other better. The whole thing is designed so that you can choose to sit back quietly and listen, or lean in and get involved. There are recordings of each session, so if you can’t join us live in a particular week, you are able to catch up. Over the weeks, the attention begins to shift, as connections spark within the group, conversations come alive and, in some cases, deepen over time into friendships and collaborations that none of us could have foreseen.
So if this sounds like what you need, in the darkening weeks of the northern year, then let me extend a warm invitation to join us for Regrowing a Living Culture, starting on the 7 & 8 November 2023.
And wherever you are, I wish you peace and all good things.