I have just returned from visiting my daughter at university. It was wonderful to see her and I felt extremely proud at how well she is coping; living independently and managing the demands of her degree course with confidence. She is adapting to city life, although she misses the quiet and fresh air of the countryside.
Cities tire me out nowadays. It is a long time since I lived in one, or even in a town, so I find the change dramatic and difficult. I feel worn down and frayed at the edges after only a couple of days. My nerves jar with the constant noise, the bright lights, the flow of busy, pushing people. The air chokes with traffic fumes and the pavements are squalid with the grime of vehicle exhausts, chewing gum, dog excrement and dirty litter piling in corners. Heaped up, like the rubbish, are the homeless, pitiful in the freezing weather, wrapped in sleeping bags and inadequate blankets. My daughter finds this the hardest thing to face every day – the growing population of dispossessed individuals, so many victims of austerity.
In cities, far away from my peaceful country existence, I begin to feel desperate and hopeless. I am reminded of the vast mechanisms we humans have created – the buzzing shopping centres, the traffic networks, the huge housing estates and business developments; the concrete, tarmac, plastic and metal. I think about our debt creating consumerism, the easy-come, easy-go, throwaway habits, the pervasive, cynical advertising and longing for a celebrity lifestyle. In cities, I become fully aware of the enormous levels of resources used and waste created. Our disconnection from what is important, from our roots in nature, seems vivid.
Back home, sitting in a café overlooking a pretty little harbour on this bright, cold winter’s day, I think I must be one of the luckiest people on Earth. Reflections ripple on the sea, green like a gull’s egg. The vast sky is baby-blue with perfect fluffy mountains of cloud. Pale, winter sunlight casts clear light over hills that stretch for miles around the coastline, folding into mist in the distance. Earlier, I stood on the harbour wall and watched a pod of dolphins feeding in the bay. Darting arcs of darkness in the water, then flashes of white and pointed blades of tails slicing the waves as fins disappeared into the depths. Gulls tumbled and called sharply above betraying the visitors. An awe-inspiring sight, a glimpse into another, unknown world, and rare for me to see them so close in.
As I sit with my pot of earl grey tea, the realization overcomes me that I am privileged to witness these wonders. I am lucky to live where I do, to have the time and enough money to gaze at this picturesque scene. Not everyone has the opportunity and I worry that I have been a snob; smug and patronising in my attitude towards city life. I think I have been too hard on cities and their occupants. It’s easy for me, tucked away on my smallholding, to be negative about cities and to extol the virtues of the countryside with its space, peace and clean air. Yes, cities highlight the problems we humans have created but the countryside is not a total idyll either. Perhaps the truth is that I’ve hidden myself away from the realities of life. The countryside has its issues. Looking around me, I see other customers engrossed in phone screens, unaware of what they have around them. People here have become disconnected too; they have the same obsessions with quick, fake news stories and social media. They are wrapped up in the mundane, every day of their lives. There is litter here, I pick it up with growing irritation as I walk my dogs. Farms cause environmental problems with their abundant use of fertilizers and pesticides. Animals are often treated as commodities in the countryside, not living creatures deserving our respect. There is homelessness and poverty too, though it may be less obvious. Last week, I bought a copy of The Big Issue from a young woman who has recently started selling it in my nearest small town.
When I feel despair overtake me, I try to stop and be positive. Yes, we humans have made a mess of some things but we are capable of great things too. I try to remember these great things. They may be small but they are there, in the cities and in the countryside. People are inherently good. It is up to us, no matter where we live, to put things right. Steps are being taken in our communities by caring individuals. Those small steps make a difference; a slow but continuing change for the better. Visiting my daughter in the city, I saw evidence of these good things: a young man giving money to a homeless man and having a conversation to show someone cared; a food bank project for those in poverty, my daughter collecting unwanted items from her student friends to donate; a nature reserve in the middle of the city mayhem; a vegetarian restaurant with Hindi temple, education centre and hostel; an allotment project for those who have experienced homelessness, drug misuse and mental health problems. Here in the countryside too, people are working to make life better: my nearest town is a fair-trade town; there is a permaculture centre up the hill from me; organic and local food initiatives are growing; the vegetarian café is running a Christmas shoebox scheme for the homeless.
We must be glad of these small steps. We can find hope in them. In our crazy, chaotic world where sometimes our lives can seem pointless or we can feel powerless, we can make a difference. I’ve come to the conclusion that life isn’t really about striving for a purpose or about making or achieving great changes in the grand scheme of things, though of course there are those that will. The point is, we all can make some difference by living our lives in the best way we can. We must be kind, loving and caring. We must treat all living creatures and our environment as we would wish to be treated. We must make the most of every day and look for the good things. We must live simply and not selfishly. Yes, at times it is hard – the bad stuff that goes on will hurt, my experience in the city left me feeling bruised for a while, but I think we must keep spreading, communicating and sharing our feelings, our beliefs and our love. That way we can make a difference in some way to the world, and that is a special thing to achieve.