Most of us know that the human world is suffocating and killing the natural world. We know this from the last fifteen minutes of David Attenborough documentaries and from our own revulsion at the rafts of discarded plastic in the sea. From our despair at woodland being destroyed for shopping centres and roads. From our disgust for politicians that tell us everything is okay when we know, feel, smell and see that it isn’t okay at all. Most of us know this in our heads, but this knowledge doesn’t blossom into grief and action. It remains a nagging voice, insistent yet confusing, telling us to fix something that is billions of times bigger than ourselves.
Because this crime scene is so familiar to us (it is our everyday lives), we need a guide who can point out that which is obscured by familiarity. Someone who has lived alongside us, but who has refused to accept the simulacra of comfortable lies. Jay Griffiths invites us to join her refusal and instead of following the herd, to rebel.
The finest writing achieves an alchemical transformation in the mind of the reader. Words on the page ignite the imagination to form images and feelings that have not been experienced but rather, conveyed. It has been years since I read The Old Man and the Sea, but the intensity of the protagonist’s struggle with the great fish remains with me. Likewise, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the painful beauty of the sea as the ship approaches the edge of the world still shimmers in my mind’s eye.
Griffiths touches the same firmament with her description of insects. She imagines them as angels, keeping the world alive, bringing us our food, flying “effortless and iridescent” and “gently and tactfully … tucking the dead back into a deep bed of earth”. Who could ever spray insecticide again after reading that?
Griffiths knows that we have been deceived into thinking that the world of which we are part, has no value. She understands the lie that the only thing that matters is the world created by human beings. The lie that a forest has no value unless it is cut down for timber. The lie that land has no value unless it is developed. That animals have no value unless they can be eaten. She knows that this view of the world is corrupt and deadly. And that it is killing us.
Her thinking and writing are archaeological, digging down through the familiar layers, to the origins of our way of life, uncovering where we went wrong and where we can find inspiration to make amends. So she exposes the history of contemporary fascism, the selfish, hate-filled ideology that inspires populist leaders to lead with dishonesty, cruelty and indifference; the exact opposite of the qualities of love, care and empathy that are needed to heal a broken and suffering world. She laments the loss of ancient, shamanic wisdom and insight, practices based on continuous knowledge of the relationship between human beings and the land they live on. She explores our relationship with the non-human world, which western societies have relentlessly abused for profit, at a terrible cost to both the animal world and our own psyches.
In the chapter This England, she examines the absolute rupture of ordinary English people from their land and their rights over the centuries. The rich and the powerful annexed the land, creating a situation where they owned land they had no connection to, and ordinary people had no connection to the land they were left with. This rootlessness was then exported across the world as empire, creating a global disconnection from land, history, knowledge and meaning.
In this book, Griffiths addresses a large number of wrongs. She is unflinching in her analysis and never tries to leave the reader with a happy ending. But her path is not the way of depression and submission, it is the way of rebellion. Why rebel? Because this stuff is wrong, we shouldn’t put up with it any longer and we should be willing to change and to heal. We should stop doing things that make the world worse and we should hold to account those in power who refuse to use their influence responsibly. We should be bloody angry, livid.
I strongly believe that history will regard the first half of the twenty-first century as a time of extraordinary change. The explosion in the availability of knowledge and the directness of communication has revolutionised how people respond to the world around them. Part of that response is a global rejection of injustice; legal, environmental and social. Griffiths is in tune with the ideas behind this global uprising better than anyone else I have read. This book captures the zeitgeist like no other.
Buy this book, read it and treasure it. Read it again in ten years time and I’m sure the passion, earthiness and erudition will burn as brightly then as it does now.