There is a story that I love to tell, and it’s a story that I used to open the ‘Singing Over the Bones: Women Writing the Wild’ retreat a couple of weeks ago. (If you’re interested in where it comes from, please have a look at the footnote at the bottom of this post.) It’s a story about what happens when things begin to fall apart, and it goes something like this:
Somewhere, among the cliffs on a rocky coast close to the end of the world, is a deep dark cave. The cave is inhabited by an old woman. No-one knows how long she’s been there, and she’s not even sure herself. She only knows that she doesn’t remember ever having been anywhere else. For all the days of the world she’s been living in that cave, and her major occupation is weaving. You can see her, if you’re lucky enough to happen across that cave – right at the back there, weaving an enormous tapestry which she plans will be the most beautiful weaving in the world. See the complexity of it – the rainbow colours of the threads, some thick and some thin; some soft and some shiny. Right now she’s getting ready to make a fringe for the weaving, and she wants the fringe to be as intricate and unique as the body of the tapestry. And so she’s making the fringe from porcupine quills. That’s right: she loves the idea that such a beautiful piece of craftsmanship will be finished off with quills which are so thorny that they are usually avoided at all costs. She has to flatten the quills to work with them, and so she gnaws on them. Because she has flattened so many quills during the long history of the world, her teeth are little more than stubs.
Over on the other side of the cave is a big fire. They say that fire has been burning in the cave forever; certainly the old woman can’t remember a time when it wasn’t burning, when she hasn’t tended it. And if you look at the shadow of the old woman cast by the fire on the wall of cave, sometimes they say it looks like a giant spider … Spider Woman, some call her; others just call her the Old Woman of the World. But back to the fire: over that fire hangs an emormous black cauldron. And in that cauldron is a soup which contains all of the seeds and all of the herbs and the essence of all the growing and living things in the world. As well as weaving, it’s the old woman’s job to tend to that soup. But sometimes she gets so caught up in her weaving that she forgets about the soup, and it starts to stick to the bottom of the cauldron and it splutters and splashes – and then she jumps up from her weaving and crosses to the other side of the cave to stir the soup so that all the precious seeds and essences of life won’t die.
But there’s another inhabitant of that cave, and he’s biding his time, waiting for the old woman to leave her weaving for a moment. He’s been watching her, you see – watching all the beautiful shiny threads going back and forth, watching and waiting. He’s a big black crow, and his name is Trickster. I wouldn’t say that he was a companion to the old woman, but wherever she goes he seems to be there too, as if they’re bound together somehow, like the weaving and the soup. So when the old woman leaves the weaving to tend to the soup, Trickster Crow flies down from his rocky perch at the back of the cave, and stands in front of the weaving. And then he begins to peck at it. Thread by thread, he begins to unravel it. Faster and faster, picking and pecking, until by the time the old woman turns away from the soup and makes her was back to the tapestry, all that is left is a tangled mess of threads on the floor. And Trickster, of course, pleased with his day’s work, has disappeared back to his hidden perch at the back of the cave.
What does the old woman do now? Does she weep and wail, and sit down by the tangled chaos of her work and think that she’ll never create anything so beautiful again?
She doesn’t. Because as she stands there, staring at the mess in front of her, a particular thread catches her eye. Who knows why it’s that particular thread – but she happens to glance at it, and before she can even begin to think about it, her hands are reaching out and she’s picking up that thread and she’s weaving it back in – and before she even understands what’s happening, a new pattern is beginning to emerge and a new tapestry is taking form. The old woman isn’t thinking about the beautiful work that was lost, or wasting her time getting angry at Trickster Crow. Because the old woman is a weaver, and weaving is what she does. Weaving is what she is for. So on she goes, warp and weft, thread after beautiful thread, weaving a new pattern, until the next time that the soup needs stirring, and Trickster Crow flies down again from his perch. Because Trickster Crow understands this: that if the weaving is ever finished, in all its beautiful perfection, the world will come to an end. And so Trickster keeps on disrupting, and the old woman keeps on weaving, through all the ages of the world, so that even when it seems that everything is falling apart, new patterns are always in the process of becoming, and the world doesn’t come to an end.
There are reasons why I chose to share that story today, and I’ll share those too, with apologies for the length of this post. Because we all have our times when it seems that things are beginning to fall apart. We see it in the wider world around us, as environmental crises continue to proliferate, and retrenchment and despair seems like the only possible way to go. We see it all too often in the intricacies of our own individual lives too, and there has been a good deal of falling apart in our specific lives on this outer Hebridean croft over the past few weeks. And as we work our way through it all I find myself believing what probably is an obvious thing to others: that those of us who live and work closely on the land see its pain before others do, and feel that pain more deeply. We are feeling that pain for sure, because it’s been a hard spring here, as in so many other places in the country and across the world. Icy temperatures, drought followed by serious rain – the grass hasn’t grown, and the wildflowers which should have bloomed by now are non-existent, and so there are no insects, and the birds are suffering, and it seems likely (in fact, we’re now pretty sure of it) that even though they survived the winter and have been seen out and about on the few good days that we’ve had until recently, we’ve lost our hive of honeybees.
Which would be painful enough in itself, though arguably not surprising – we are very much on the edge of the world, and right on the edge of anything that could be considered to be a viable habitat for bees. But in talking to a neighbour who has kept bees in this region for thirty years or more, we discovered that when he first came here all those years ago, feral honeybees were very common. But there haven’t been any of those for a very, very long time, and now it seems that even the most loved and best cared-for hives can’t survive the sweeping changes in climate over the past few decades which the old-timers are beginning to talk about more and more.
Which would be painful enough in itself, but it’s springtime on the croft, and though every spring brings new life, it also brings sickness and death. And this year has brought more of that than we were ready for. We lost a lamb, from a beautiful Jacob ewe we call Just Jacob – because that’s what she is: nothing more and nothing less, with no particular defining characteristics. Just a good old plain Jacob ewe. We almost lost a wether – one of last year’s castrated males who we are growing on for meat – who fell into a deep ditch and was swept away in the torrential rain two nights ago, but thankfully a watchful neighbour was keeping an eye out and so he survived. But we lost a goose – a delicate white Roman goose, the daughter of the old goose who I hatched from an incubator and hand-reared along with her sibling (who died last year) in the spring of 2006. The dead goose’s name was Blue, because of the colour of her leg ring. She is buried on the croft, in the field where the remaining geese live.
Which would be painful enough in itself – bees, lamb, goose – except that my old golden retriever Frodo, who’s getting on for ten years old now, has been ill for the past week and neither we nor the vet are entirely sure what’s going on. Something abdominal: an ulcer, a tumour … either way, he still refuses to eat and the prognosis isn’t looking good.
Which would be painful enough … except that ten days or so ago we borrowed a lovely and experienced Shetland bull to mate with our two-year-old Kerry heifer, Brighid. Brighid is called Brighid because she arrived on the old Celtic festival of Imbolc – dedicated to the old goddess of the land Brighid, or Bride – over a year ago. She was a tiny wild thing when we brought her here, and we spent many hours getting to know her, spending time with her, calming her, reassuring her, until a year later we found that she was quite happy to have us handle and stroke her, put a halter on her, and lead her through the cattle crush if we needed to confine her for any reason. All of which was necessary because Brighid was to be our milk cow, and in order to milk a cow you really need to be able to get up close and personal without her being fearful or wild – for your own safety as well as hers. So far so good: except that the bull, while mating, went right through the wall of Brighid’s vagina and into her abdomen. A totally freak thing, according to the vet: she was abnormally small. But she now has a large tear in her which can’t be mended and which means that even if she survives (and in spite of looking very ill indeed two days ago, she is now up and around, so she just possibly might) she’ll never be able to mate again or carry a calf, and she’ll always be prone to infection.
A croft with limited grazing has no room for a pet cow. Which means that Brighid will probably, some time in the future, if she does survive, need to be killed and eaten.
Which brings me to the darker side of dealing with the fallout of what happens when things begin to fall apart: the anger. Because curiously, what makes me angrier than anything isn’t the loss of Brighid – or any of the other creatures I’ve been writing about. We are very well aware that people go through worse things, and that we are more fortunate than most. What can make me very angry in the darker times, though, when I’m lying awake in the middle of the night trying to make sense of our lives in the smaller as well as the bigger picture, is the reaction of some others to the idea that we might choose to eat a cow who we have named and loved and nurtured. Those who find it in some way morally repugnant. Who believe that raising animals respectfully for meat is bad to begin with, but that eating a cow who you had planned would live with you forever, who has become your friend, who runs up the field to you when you call her name, is some kind of mortal sin.
I shan’t go into detail about all of that here; I’ll only say that those are people who probably haven’t ever looked into the eyes of a ewe like Just jacob when her dead lamb, who has managed to kill herself in a six-inch-deep ditch with no more than an inch of water in it, is lying there beside her and spent the next two hours pacing the kitchen floor and howling because you wonder whether – if you had only gone out to check on them ten minutes earlier – you might have saved her lamb. Those people haven’t cuddled up to the side of a cow, stroking her beautiful soft black neck in the byre on a winter’s morning and smelling the sweetness of her breath while she’s eating her hay, and planning all of the ways in which you will nevertheless find it necessary to eat her offspring in all the years to come, which is the only way that you could ever possibly afford to keep her alive and milk her. Few of the choices that we make around our food are easy, but I can tell you that for sure they aren’t easy for small farmers, crofters and smallholders, who know their individual animals and nurture them and love and respect them too. But the truth is this: we all must kill something in order to eat and to survive ourselves, and the only real question is where we draw the line. I have heard people argue that it’s ok to eat plants and pulses because ‘they don’t have central nervous systems and so don’t feel pain like we do and so it doesn’t matter’. I personally find that so far beyond curious that I can’t even begin to articulate it, but I have no problem with it, as long as it’s presented as an aesthetic choice rather than a moral absolute. But I do have a problem with people who recoil from all of this messy farming stuff and make to adopt the moral high ground. We will eat the cow we love because in some curious way that we cannot explain to people who don’t live in the deeply connected-to-animals way that we do, we feel that it offers her more respect. But whatever we do, you can be sure that when the time comes we will weep, and we will sing over her beautiful elegant bones. She will be buried (whatever is left of her) in a special place that we will visit, just like the place where we buried the dead otter: the place to which sometimes we take a pebble from the beach, or a piece of seaweed as an offering to sweeten his long dark sleep with seadreams.
I can do anger, when things begin to fall apart. But anger isn’t the solution to death, any more than it is the solution to life. It is all too easy, when things begin to fall apart, to rail at the universe or get maudlin about the fragility of life over a couple of glasses of wine. We’ve both been there this week, just as we have at other times in our lives. But ultimately, that’s self-indulgent. It’s all too easy also to give up, retreat, retrench – to go back to buying horsemeat burgers from Tesco’s, or lentils and beans imported to this small salty island from half a planet away. That’s self-indulgent too – and what’s maybe worse, it’s defeatist.
What I think is hardest, but somehow truest, and necessary, and a choice that can only really be made out of love (even if it is also sprinkled with a few grains of sheer stubborn bloody-mindedness) is to stop still for a moment, and stand, and take a good long look at the chaotic mess on the floor. To focus then on just one thread, no matter how tangled or poor. To reach out and pick it up, believe in it, and use it to begin to weave a beautiful new pattern from scratch.
And to do this because whatever else you imagine you might be you are above all a weaver, and so, come what may – even when it seems that things are falling to pieces and Trickster Crow is lurking at the back of your cave just waiting for the next opportunity to pick the threads of your life apart – all you can really ever do is weave.
The bones of the story come from a Lakota (Sioux) tale (see Spider Woman’s Web, by Susan Hazen-Hammond, Penguin 1999; I’ve also seen Michael Meade use it). The main difference between my story and the original is that there is no Trickster crow in the original, but a black dog who lives with the old woman and is a kind of companion to her. However, it seemed to me that in these difficult days Trickster was an important idea to bring into the story. Trickster disrupts, but out of his disruption new forms arise. For more on Trickster, see the brilliant Trickster Makes This World, by Lewis Hyde.