Photo on Unsplash
By Madeleine Forbes
Anyone familiar with growing things—plants, children, ideas—will understand the Greek concept of kairos time: the flow of things happening at their exact right moment. Naturally.
The perfect ripeness of a tomato, telling us it’s time to be picked. The sudden emergence of an opening sentence for a piece of writing, or an idea just waiting to be breathed life into, that appears in your path like a feather. All miraculous, whole.
We emerge into the world utterly unselfconscious about our desires, our sudden urges for immediate relief. Ask any baby, and it will tell you soon enough. I am HUNGRY. I need a CUDDLE. I have GAS.
But as elders, mentors, stewards of the society we’ve learned to function in, we quickly become keepers of a different way of being. We do what we are supposed to do. Eat on our lunch breaks. Work at our assigned hours, and rest on our time off.
The tick, tock of the schedule starts to feel reassuring. It’s a web that holds us, safeguards us from what we start to assume must be an innate tendency towards chaos.
As a new freelancer, I decided part of my personal declaration of independence would include the decadent luxury of rising without an alarm clock. It seemed a simple shift, but the anxiety it caused me! Beneath my conscientious exterior, I felt sure I was a wanton lay-about who’d surely lie in bed until noon and never be motivated to get her business underway.
Many of us feel that same quiet panic when it comes to eating. We stick to the rules we’ve learned: when to eat, what to avoid, what constitutes a “treat.” Isn’t there an animal part of us that’d otherwise gorge, unchecked? Haven’t we seen her, been her, wolfing packets and inhaling handfuls of oil-laced crumbs, standing guiltily in the kitchen? Is she our truly uninhibited, “natural” self?
As it turned out, after jettisoning my alarm clock, the animal instinct to wake up and start moving in the morning is one that applies as steadfastly to me as it does to you. (It makes sense to me that, as tribal apes, we’d spread our most alert times throughout the day, to ensure there was always someone ready to sound the alarm when a saber-tooth tiger made an appearance.)
You might be someone who’s up at 5am, naturally, or perhaps you swing more towards a leisurely mid-morning breakfast, and a second burst at 8pm. But the motivation to get up and get going is there. I really do believe, with basic needs met, all of us gravitate naturally towards some kind of contribution. It might be creative, imaginative, practical, helpful. The idea that without a structure to our time, without rewards and punishments for complying with a schedule, that we’d be lost or lazy? That I contest.
Ditto when it comes to our instatiable appetites for, well, anything really–ice cream, alcohol, sex. Sure, we might swing too hard against the pendulum for a while, but our inner longing is always towards balance.
That’s not to deny the existence of addiction, by the way. If anything, the fact that our natural state is to be fundamentally healthy, vital, and motivated underlines how important it is that we give every ounce of support we can to those of us for whom that’s not the case. And resist, with all our courage, those who seek to exploit it, whether through sugar-laden breakfast cereal or falsely-marketed painkillers. But I digress…
I’m starting to wonder if our obsession with restraining and controlling our “natural” impulses doesn’t cause more harm than it prevents. Doesn’t that sense that we’re constantly failing, inadequate, and incomplete characterize the relentless underlying anxiety of our times? It’s the impulse that has us frantically checking social media, leaping at the ping of a message, keeping one eye our inboxes at all times.
What if I’m not aware of something urgent? What if I miss a message? What if I don’t know what’s going on?
There’s no circadian rhythm to a Facebook feed or an Instagram story or 24-hour rolling news—it’s there, there, there, all the time. And that’s what starting to feel least natural of all.
Part of my own process of unlearning and extricating myself from this trap, as I have come to see it, has been to immerse myself more fully in the hills. To see how the trees, plants, rocks unfurl in conversation with the happenings around them. In a dry year, there’s less water to fuel growth. Perhaps a hurricane wind tears off a branch or two; perhaps the wild boar root up the ribwort plantains before they’ve seeded.
This way of living means being in constant reaction to closely observed, external circumstances, coupled with a steady, trusting inner growth. Mindfulness of being in each moment. Steadfastness of keeping to the path that we alone can tread. It’s one I think a lot about emulating.
Ironically, it turns out to entail a different kind of work. There’s a conscious, deliberate attention required to begin unravelling the strands of messaging I’ve been raised with, whether they concern my innate inadequacy or superiority. Slowly, it begins to feel unnatural to spend my days clocking on and off, to ignore what my body’s telling me about when it needs to rest or move.
As I learn, and read, and question, I start to wonder why I believe I am entitled to so many things—clothes made in far-off factories by underpaid workers; summer peaches flown in to me in the depths of winter; constant ego-stroking in the form of “likes” and “shares.”
This is complicated territory. The idea of what’s “natural” has been co-opted so many times, in so many different ways, we’re all forgiven for having lost sight a little of what it really means.
Personally, I choose to align what feels good with what’s right. I’m endeavouring to trace a line from the cycles and patterns I observe in the land I live on, through my own expression and evolution, to what might be the right way to live when it comes to healing the planet.
Needless to say, I’m a blundering, stumbling work in progress. We all are. And I don’t think that exempts any of us from trying.
Taking care of the world that sustains us—looking out for our communities, extending a hand to those in need. Aren’t those the most natural things of all?
Madeleine Forbes is a writer, walker and unapologetic neglecter of her inbox. Born in London, she left city life in 2014 to start an off-grid life in the hills of central Portugal. She’s founder of The Seasoned Year, an online project to help us deepen our connection to seasonal cycles. Most recently she’s exploring a new response to the climate crisis, rooted in the cycle of the year and our craving for deeper connection. You can sign up for free Letters from the Land and follow Madeleine’s blog via her website; or follow her on Instagram or Facebook.