Harvest - Step out onto the planet

This week is both our Harvest festival and today's address takes another look at a poem I considered a couple of years ago in relation to the idea of in what consists the real fruits of Harvest.

To begin, here is the poem, written by the beat poet Lew Welch called "Step out on to the planet" from his 1964 collection "Hermit Poems" (here is a link to an mp3 of Welch reading it):

Step out onto the planet.
Draw a circle a hundred feet round.
Inside the circle are
300 things nobody understands, and, maybe
nobody's ever really seen
How many can you find?

An obvious way of drawing a harvest theme from this would be to explore something about harvest being things freely given by simple existence alone; the harvest being those three hundred things.

But our culture's continued consumerist obsessions - credit crunch notwithstanding - it is perhaps inevitable our eyes are often taken off the ball and it becomes all too easy to equate harvest with product - the 300 things. But is the 300 things (no matter how wonderful they are) the real point of this poem - is it really the harvest to which Lew Welch points?

The philosopher Roger Scruton (NB being on the left politically it should come as no surprise that Scruton is not one of my favourite philosophers but - hey, one should take a look out of one's usual milieu now and then) in a recent book called 'Culture Counts - Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged' to my mind rightly reminds us of Aristotle's exploration of work and leisure in the 'Nicomachean Ethics' (1177b). The question Aristotle asked was: what purpose is served by all the work we do in our lives - in other words what is our work's real harvest? Aristotle does not, of course, challenge the idea that we must work for the obvious fruits of the harvest - namely our food and other basic creature comforts - but for him that is not the end of it.

The important point in all this is that for Aristotle contemplation - true leisure - is its own reward. I think you will agree that our story for the children about the fisherman and the businessman illustrated this beautifully and humorously. Anyway, as Scruton observes, because all our plans and projects come to rest in this state of contemplation, this is why we are at rest in leisure: 'This, we are apt to say, is the point of it all, what we worked for, the goal to which our labour was a means' (ibid. p.17).

Consequently, to return to Lew Welch's poem I think it is fair to suggest that for Welch the true harvest is not precisely the 300 things at all, but rather the time and opportunity to draw opportunity the circle one hundred feet around and the leisure to look for and contemplate the '300' things. When you read Lew Welch's letters written at the same time this becomes apparent - for he wrote his Hermit Poems (the collection in which this one appears) in a Cabin in the Trinity Alps in California  (search for Forks of Salmon, CA 96031, in Google Earth).

Alas, today, we inhabit a culture which thinks the true harvest - and therefore our true rest - is to be found in the three hundred 'must have' things - whether that be fishing fleets and money for the businessman in our story or, to quote one of my favourite songwriters Donald Fagan of Steely Dan fame: 'the Audi TT, the house on the Vineyard, the house on the Gulf Coast, the comfey Eames chair and the '54 Strat'

Before I continue I need to point out an easy and common mistake to make which is to confuse contemplation with distraction. As Scruton points out it is perfectly possible to switch off from work without switching on to any higher purpose but, since contemplation is an active state in which we reconnect with all that makes life meaningful, switching off or being merely distracted is not contemplation and so not true leisure. In Scruton's opinion - and indeed mine - distraction is 'more and more the normal position of people when their work is set aside' (ibid. p. 19) and he points, convincingly to much popular culture in particular much of the output from television and the pop music industry.

So, lets bring all this round to us as 21st century people living in an industrialised western culture that is in the midst of a serious economic crisis and ask ourselves why are we working - many of us for ludicrously long hours - and for what end? Are we not living in an age that is rapidly loosing its collective sight sight of the real purpose of life, life's true harvest? I think the answer is yes and so that leaves us with the very practical question about how we should respond and we might renew our culture?

We'll, as is almost always the case, we must start with ourselves. We each need, in our own ways to go out and draw that circle and contemplate on what one sees and finds and through them understand and experience an active and contemplative reconnection with God or Nature - the goal of life itself. In this state of contemplation we begin to practice mindful, purposeful purposelessness. And this mindful purposeful purposelessness brings me to my next practical point and to one of the major points of Scruton's book. Because this goal of life is effectively hidden behind the allure of the 300 things we only begin to learn about the deep purposes of life when we have the means to communicate it to ourselves and to others around us. This is primarily done through what Scruton calls 'high culture' which he describes as: 'the accumulation of art, literature, and humane reflection that has stood the "test of time" and established a continuing tradition of reference and allusion among educated people' (ibid. p.2).

(Excursus: what I mean by 'high culture' is going to much more inclusive than that envisioned by Scruton - after all remember that by profession I'm a rock and jazz musician! Anyway, in the conversation in the church immediately after the address what the words 'high culture' might mean and how it is created was a very hot topic. One of those present pointed out that much of what we call high culture today was 'low culture' at one time, i.e. Shakespeare's plays, and that it was a high culture heavily weighted towards the likes of a mostly male intellectual and financially well-off elite. Yes, indeed - a vital point I did not come close to making. But out of this we did broadly seem to agree on the value of us supporting the constant re-creation of a shared canon of literature/art/music/science that helped us all critically and imaginatively engage with the world and each other so that mere passing opinion - personal or popular - couldn't trump every argument concerning how our community might try to encourage in ourselves helpful ideas of in what consists the good, the true, and the beautiful. One doesn't, of course, need to believe, as did Plato, that the good, true and the beautiful were fixed and eternally immutable for these ideas still to be able to shape our life together in very practical and down to earth ways by using these words in more relative and contingent ways. Any further thoughts?)

So to return to the address as I gave it . . .

It is this precisely such a culture which enables us to explore and experience in community profound depths of meaning in our lives (and I like to think that this church is trying to be one forum in which this occurs). Culture - high culture that is not the merely distracting as so much of popular culture is is absolutely necessary to developing the ability to contemplate and so engage in true leisure which is, as Aristotle said, the true fruit or collective harvest of all our hard work as human beings. This is precisely what Lew Welch's poem pointed me to as I hope it did for you. The problem is that because high culture doesn't offer any immediately obvious practical measurable outcomes (at least in old-style capitalist economic terms) our present day prosaic and deeply philistine educational experts have successively got rid of subjects that have been proven to help us to achieve true contemplation and leisure. They have stolen the harvest and I'm increasingly angry about it. So we loose philosophy and literature departments as philosophy and poetry is deemed pointless, no one learns ancient Greek and Latin anymore because no government department uses them and it doesn't help you order car parts, music departments are constantly under threat unless they provide eduction for so-called 'actual' jobs in the popular music industry - industry being the key word for them. In all this talk of high culture the sciences can sometime be missed out but it seems to me that they too must be included especially when they are in their creative 'blue-sky' modes.

But, as many of us know these activities are often now deemed unnecessary, mere ornaments on the fringes of the so-called 'real' world. Education must be overtly practical they say. But to what end? To more money making, more business deals? Viewed in this context we suddenly realise that many modern day educationalists are simply behaving like the businessman in our children's story who has utterly lost sight of the real purpose of life.

So today I call you to some acts of rebellion - some kicking over of tables in the temple so to speak - and ask you to consider teaching our children (and ourselves I should add) to be latter day Socratees, we must encourage them to read and write poetry, to explore Shakespeare, to learn Greek and Latin, to paint a landscape or simply watch the clouds whilst chewing grass, we must teach them to play music for the simple joy of playing music, to learn a love of numbers that is more than merely a route to balancing one's books at the end of the month. We might even teach them to fish. Why mention fishing you may ask. Well it is because Isaac Walton, the author of that sublime book The Complete Angler (1653), took some words from I Thess. 4:11 as the final words of the book and as his personal motto: 'study to be quiet' (see the photo on at the top of this blog from Winchester Cathedral).

All in all I think we should be encouraging us to plant and then collect a harvest that does not physically exploit our planet but, rather, helps the planet and ourselves (her children) to take a quiet rest and heal ourselves.

Go on - I dare you - step out onto the planet and draw a circle a hundred feet round . . .


Yewtree said…
I really like this post. I was disgusted a few years ago when the government tried to assign monetary value to beautiful landscapes, because I have always thought that beauty is its own justification. WB Yeats thought so too, it seems.

Yeats also said: "Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire."