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" The songs of our ancestors

are also the songs of our children "

The Druid Way

Tagore and the Life Cairn

May 23rd, 2011
Here is Peter Owen Jones’s talk, given at Dartington Hall for the Tagore Festival. Peter speaks about his wonderful ‘Life Cairn’ project that began yesterday…



May, what a month: everything being born; emerging from the darkness of the bud casings; the darkness of the soil; the warmth of the womb; everything arriving and thirsting for the light. I have been working as a shepherd on a farm just up the road from where I live. It is a month I really look forward to getting out of the vicarage and out into the fields, walking mainly between the sheep, watching and listening, waiting for the miracle of birth. It is always so hard to imagine individually that all of us went through that process; that once we were just a collection of cells, then sapling arms and then we arrived small and squealing on this planet more helpless than a lamb. What is it like to arrive on this planet?What is it like for a song thrush, a mountain leopard, an orchid, a Red Admiral butterfly?What type of world are they all being born into?Sometimes I imagine a glass room in the stars that human souls gather in before they are born. There is just a small group of us and we are there for a briefing on what we can expect to find on planet earth; what we are going into. ‘Once you take on a physical form you are subject to physical needs’ says our guide. She goes on, ‘ the human form is at the time of its greatest potential but also it’s greatest peril; human beings are facing the biggest choice they have ever had to make’. She does not explain what the choice is and then this little group of us enter the stream of forgetting and we do not wake until we remember the scent of our mother’s breasts and the vague shapes of rooms and the sounds of planes.

So what is it like to arrive here as a song thrush?What sort of environment is the fledgling song thrush being born into here in a hedge, in a thicket?What sort of world is the mountain leopard being born into?What are the realities of life that all species are facing?Currently there are 41.415 species on the United Nations red list. 16,306 of those face the immanent danger of extinction. Dr Mark Wright the chief scientist at WWFUKsays, ‘We are at code red; the plight of the world’s species is a mirror of the state of the planet. Species are under enormous pressure as we systematically destroy their habitat and over exploit them for our increasingly demanding life styles.’

So how did we arrive at these dreadful statistics and why are we not all in tears when we here them?Firstly, we can’t cry because the reality is almost too awful to face and  if we were to face it we would have to change. The fact that we can stand by and watch it happen – we have all stood by and watched it happen – says that really our consciousness has been located in our stomachs. In his book Collapse Jared Diamond describes the dreadful events that happened when human beings made it toEaster Island. Within what was a very short period of time they decimated the bird population and felled every single large palm tree until not one remained. Secondly, these immanent extinctions – not to mention the hundreds that have happened already – tell us a great deal about what it is to be human; about our capacity for psychotic self-centeredness. Really the hard reality of what is continually described as progress is that it is our understanding of progress which is at stake, as much as our very souls. As the history ofEaster Island bears out, we seem programmed to destroy. Apart from a very few exceptions, this has been our history; we have destroyed so much of what we have come into contact with. Progress, as it has happened, has brought nothing but violence and decimation to our brothers and sisters within the natural world. I am afraid that at the heart of this way of being have been the Monotheistic religions. Monotheism has barely raised a whisper against the ecocide that is taking place under its watch. Christianity I am afraid has not proved to be a good guardian of the natural world. Too often I have heard the argument that, and I quote, ‘we are stewards of creation’, and inherent within that notion, is the fact that God given dominion has been exercised as Domination. Looked at from the perspective of a  Song Thrush, a Tasmanian devil or an Essex Skipper Butterfly, what type of stewards have we been? The Monotheistic religions are by and large ruthlessly human-centred; they are about our propensity for sin. My life, my salvation – there is nothing about the salvation of the natural world within them; it is as if it has been written out, written off. The other dreadful measure is one of apparent success: the lines ‘ oh he’s done very well for himself’ really refer to acquired wealth as the yardstick; success is now almost exclusively economic. We have the ludicrous notion of developed and developing countries never really facing the facts that the developed countries have wiped out most of the indigenous wildlife over the centuries and that in developed countries it is considered acceptable to spray poisons over the land to kill what we are all told are pests. We are exporting this ethos; it is a dreadful state of affairs and the fact that it has been normalised is why we cannot cry. Here are some words from Tagore ‘ His aim was not to acquire but to realise, to enlarge his consciousness by growing out, growing into his surroundings.’ Imagine this as our future; a future based on an expanding of consciousness rather than acquiring material wealth. Tagore saw this race to acquire wealth as a by product of urbanisation and the consequent separation of humanity from nature

I had heard about Tagore but did not know his writing Then Satish Kumar called me on Sunday and said in his beautiful way, ‘Peter, will you come and talk on Wednesday in Dartington and will you speak a little about Tagore?’ So I started reading.  What words, food and fuel pouring off the pages and here he his at the point of the fulcrum, speaking about the difference between an economic system and a system which regards the sacredness of life. That without the sacred we are hostages to economics, which – I am afraid – is what we have become here in the west. I love the way democratic capitalism shouts freedom whilst enslaving us all to its operating system in the process. In that sense, the jailer is no more free than the prisoners. 

Here are some more words from Tagore, ‘The west seems to take a pride in thinking  that it is subduing nature as if we are living in a hostile world where we have to wrest everything we want from an unwilling and alien arrangement of things’. And he goes on to say, ‘ this creates an artificial disassociation between human beings and universal nature within whose bosoms they lie’

Inherent within Tagore’s teachings is the reality – and it does need underlining – that  the mass extinctions we face are not a problem of progress, it is just the brand of progress we have adopted; it’s a problem actually of an economic imperative; it is again just one model of worth, that’s all. Imagine if worth was measured in birdsong. The mass extinctions we face, they are the result of the chilling, the dulling of the soul; the mass failure of the religions of the masses to embrace the staggering beauty and inherent sacredness of all life. One dreadful example of this is the consecration of churches. Within my tradition, the idea that because a church or a temple is consecrated, that this should make it more holy than a field, a wood, a rainforest, a factory. This notion has created a mentality that believes that fields and woods are less holy than churches and temples. So at its heart, the mass extinctions we face – as Tagore so rightly assumes – are the result of human self-centredness, enshrined in most religions – Jainism being a notable exception.  Tagore writes, ‘we divide nation and nation, knowledge and knowledge, man and nature, it breeds in us a strong suspicion of whatever is beyond the barriers we have built’. To imagine a new paradigm we have to move beyond the barriers we have built; we have to find a brand new way of dreaming about the future of us. We have been at war now with the natural world for millennia; we need to make peace. We need to understand that peace lies not just in a peaceful world for us but for us to engender peace with all creation as a statement of what being human means. This is the great choice we face. This is the time of the greatest potential and conversely the greatest peril – they always go hand in hand.

I have one idea. It is really no more than a seed. Look at all the statues we have of men and women – our great statesmen and warriors – and all those inexplicable lumps of steel jammed at the front of shopping centres and banks. What’s all that about?There is nothing that honours that natural world, nothing that provides any idea of our own context within it. So it is time there was. On May 22 a group of us are going to build a ‘ life cairn’ this is to honour and remember all the species that have become extinct at our hands. It will be a place of tears and – once we have had our tears – a place of healing and from there a place of hope; a hope that imagines the human race at peace with the natural world; a hope that honours all species and all life. To be part of this you simply need to lay one stone on this cairn, to make your peace, our peace; to say we recognise what we have done and we are so, so sorry; that from now I will live a kinder path; I will be human in a way that gives, not takes life; that honours the freedom of all life and understands we have no more right as human beings to life than does the swallow, the deer, the damsel fly. I hope children will come and lay their stones; bring them from their schools.  Science never gave us this.

6 Responses to “Tagore and the Life Cairn”

  1. That is absolutely beautiful and so, so true. Please could you tell me where the Cairn is, so I can place a stone?

  2. A text full of inspiration!

    But I can’t believe it that the Dartington Hall Trust had the guts to launch a Tagore festival, just a year after auctioning off some priceless Tagore paintings, against protests from India and the UK:

    (Not even to mention the disgraceful closure, pardon me, “relocation” of Dartington College of Arts, a unique institution modelled after Tagore’s college in Santiniketan.)

    I am sorry to bring these awkwards topics up here, but I believe they belong into the picture.

  3. The Life Cairn has now started, please go and lay your stone for the extinct species – another Life Cairn also has started to pay tribute for the extinct species in the Cloudforest of Ecuador. Here is a small clip from the event on Mount Caburn:

    All life to carry one life, one life to carry all life

    Andreas Kornevall

  4. Love the speech, right up until the last five words: ‘science never gave us this’. I just don’t see the need to end it on a science-bashing note when science was not the topic of the occasion. Scientists are at the very front-line of attempting to combat climate change, preserve biodiversity and protect species from extinction. Honestly, science is on our side here, why cast it as the enemy, especially in a speech that was dealing with religion and nature up until that point? As always with Peter Owen-Jones’ writing or TV presenting, I almost agree with him but then he gets it so wrong.

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