Saturday, 24 September 2016

Heroes and Villains

In 1966 the Beach Boys released the groundbreaking album “Smile”, including two classic hit songs Good Vibrations and Heroes and Villains. The multi-part harmonies were a technological wonder, being recorded at different times and different studios then cut together afterwards.
As so often happens, the music is so powerful it overwhelms the lyrics, which seem almost redundant. So it was a discovery for me to read them for the first time today. According to Vandyke Parks who co-wrote the song with Brian Wilson, it was about “the Indian thing - we were trying to exculpate our guilt, to atone for what we had done to the aborigines of our own place. There’s a lot of things about belief in Smile, and its very question of belief is what was plaguing Brian at that time”.
Here's a sample of the words:
Fell in love years ago
With an innocent girl
From the Spanish and Indian home
Home of the heroes and villains
Once at night Catillian squared the fight
And she was right in the rain of the bullets that eventually brought her down
But she's still dancing in the night
Unafraid of what a dude'll do in a town full of heroes and villains
But the US makes movies like Dances With Wolves, feels guilty, and carries on regardless. As I write this, the Sioux nation are blockading access to lands guaranteed to them under treaty, in an attempt to stop an oil pipeline from being driven through. As the old hymn goes “And the choice goes by forever, 'twixt that darkness and that light”. Each age throws up a new set of villains and a new breed of heroes to oppose them.
Protesters, including members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, march to a construction site for the Dakota Access Pipeline, near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, on Sept. 3 Robyn Beck/Getty Images

It sometimes seems as if it is coming to a showdown. The world is facing critical challenges, climate change, record numbers of mouths to feed, war and mass displacement of people, an increasing divide between rich and poor, all these need urgent attention. On all these fronts the heroes are in action, developing renewable resources, feeding the hungry, tending the wounded and distributing aid. And yet governments around the world seem gripped by some insanity, determined to do everything in their power to make matters worse.
The recent bombing of Aleppo in which eleven Red Cross workers were killed is a perfect example. Those responsible – the U. S. and Russia – have no regard for death and destruction so long as it is not on their own soil. They have little regard even for their own citizens. In Britain our government has made war against the poor and the sick, withdrawing funds from organisations trying to help. The villains are getting cocky.
In The Lord Of The Rings, the ring of power bore this inscription:
“One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them”.
In our own lives we are seeing Tolkein's words fulfilled.
Faced with the immense power of darkness in the world, the heroes are facing a dilemma: whether to give up the struggle and admit defeat, whether to fight violence with violence, or whether to embody a better way to be, and hold out against all the odds.
This is the same choice that faced Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. The Emperor taunts him:
“Good, I can feel your anger. I am defenceless. Take your weapon. Strike me down with all of your hatred and your journey towards the dark side will be complete! “
What a temptation that is! But giving way to that anger would mean becoming a part of the cycle of violence, joining the villains. We can't let that happen. Luke does not give up. He replies:
“Never. I'll never turn to the Dark Side. You've failed, your highness. I am a Jedi, like my father before me. “
We are the heroes, we are the lightbearers. Though we may be few we are powerful. As the writer of John's gospel says: “The light shines on in the darkness. The darkness has not enveloped it.”
The light will come.

Saturday, 17 September 2016

The Tree Of Adventure

My mother and father under the tree
At the bottom of the back garden of the house where I grew up there stood a tree. Not a very big tree, about 25 feet or so, but I and my brother could climb up and sit on a platform, which was a bit of wood we had found and fixed between two branches. From there we could see up the garden through the apple trees to the kitchen window, or the other way over the fence and into the park as far as the wood. Looking sideways we had a view over the neighbours' fences and into their gardens as they stretched along the road.

There was a knack to getting up there. First we had to get one foot in an easy foothold a few feet off the ground, and then stretch up and grab the one branch that was small enough for our small hands to grasp and pull ourselves up into the air high enough to reach out for the next branch across. Then we could scramble up to the platform, holding tight in case we fell down.

The day came that I had grown that little bit too much. I reached for the branch and pulled but it suddenly snapped, sending me sliding and crashing down the trunk to the ground.

This sounds ridiculous compared with the giant redwood tree that Julia Butterfly Hill climbed in 1997. That tree, which she named Luna, stood not twenty but two hundred feet tall, and Julia stayed high in a shelter in its branches not for half an hour, but for 738 days, through rain and storms, tossed this way and that.

The wood where I played
My tree was an alder, not a redwood. Alders are supposed to grow by streams, and I always wondered how this one came to be in my garden, until one day my father was digging and found the remains of a well next to the tree. That made sense - there was a stream running through the wood where I used to play, and that stream must have run under my garden.

The stream and the wood and the garden are still there to this day, and that makes me happy. I have moved to the West Country, my brother now lives 150 miles away and my mother and father now tend a garden in Paradise. I think we all outgrow our tree in the end, but nonetheless a part of me is still a small boy, perched breathless and excited in a tree 60 feet away from home.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

The Tree Of Life

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth's sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

Joyce Kilmer

This picture is my computer's wallpaper at present. There are many similar photos to be found on the internet and on greetings cards. They are well-liked because they are so beautiful. Commonly they depict a lone tree with the sun's rays shining through its branches. Often the tree is near the brow of a hill, with the sunlight shining in radial shafts from its centre.

The tree stops you in your tracks, it seems to speak to you. Although you don't necessarily understand what it's saying, it speaks of a mystery, as if it were a secret portal to another realm. According to the book of Exodus, Moses had this experience when he encountered the burning bush in the desert. ("Bush" is only a guess; the original Hebrew word is only used in this one place). The story goes that God spoke to Moses from a bush that burned with a fire that did not destroy it - rather like the tree in the picture; the sun also burns with perpetual fire.

Symbolically, a tree stands with its roots buried deep in the nourishment of the Earth, its trunk shoulder to shoulder with the human race, and its branches reaching up to heaven. Thus it acts as a bridge between three worlds. In Shaman practice the tree acts as a pathway for journeys of the soul. The phrase "touch wood" originates in the pagan custom of going to a tree for healing or for guidance.

Often, when a tree stands alone in a field or at the top of a hill, people get to know and love it. They feel that as long as that tree stands, no matter how bad things may get, there is still hope. The felling of landmark trees attracts fierce opposition. In 1997, Julia Butterfly Hill climbed into a 1500 year-old Californian redwood tree threatened with destruction and stayed there through all weathers for 738 days in a successful campaign to save it. Other famous trees include the Glastonbury Thorn and the Honor Oak, as well as many less famous ones like the Brenchley Oak in Kent.

Sometimes a single tree standing alone acts like a lighting conductor. Lightning tears off branches, scorches the bark and leaves the tree twisted and disfigured. But it still stands, like Paul Simon's boxer, the fighter still remains. Then it can seem as if it has acquired magical properties - like Harry Potter it has taken on power from its adversary, the power to endure:

Down in the meadow where the wind blows free,
In the middle of a field stands a lightning tree.
Its limbs all torn from the day it was born
For the tree was born in a thunderstorm.
Grow, grow, the lightning tree, it's never too late for you and me;
Grow, grow, the lightning tree, never give in too easily.
(The Lightning Tree by The Settlers)

Perhaps we really can learn something from the trees. Like them, we too can be a bridge between Earth and heaven, (as St Francis said: "Let me be a channel for your peace"), so that people may come to us for healing and guidance; so that when we suffer tragedy, we can hold fast and endure; so that people may say of us: As long as there are people like them, there is still hope.