farm willow sculptureEngaging with the city –  one blade of grass at a time…
Pippa Woodhams launches the second (warmer) half of the year for Wild City Retreats.
I was talking with an asylum seeker recently, who was under imminent threat of deportation.  The difference with this case was that the deportation had less to do with the justice of her case, than with an agenda to improve statistics leading up to our general election.  This cut me to the heart.  What does one do in the face of such feelings of fury and helplessness?
I increasingly turn, like poet and environmentalist Wendell Berry, to the natural world, to find a grounded sense of reality:
When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things. I rest in the grace of the world, and am free. (1)
Poetry doesn’t solve everything, and neither does time outdoors.  But perhaps they can gradually change our hearts, and re-orientate our priorities. Love for the earth and its people can truly motivate change.
Matt Freer suggests that as human beings, we are motivated to change more by good emotions, than we are motivated by guilt and talk of impending disaster. (1)  In order to inspire a change of heart and lifestyle that will affect how we relate to the earth, and its people, just being, in our own locality, can sometimes be more effective than cramming facts about deforestation, pollution and climate change far away.    Piling up these dreadful and all-too-real statistics may lead us to switch off, lead activists to burn out, and children to learn that the problem is Out There, a long way away, insoluble.  Can we break this negative spiral?     If we can also look close by for experiences which stimulate a feeling of awe, wonderment and, yes, love for our earth, we can perhaps increase motivation to change attitudes and actions, from the heart outwards.
We have been starting this process in small ways during Wild City Retreats, monthly events in an urban farm in the centre of our city of Leeds.  Each month we observe inter-related strands of experience:  seasonal events in city life, changes in the natural world, and a look at the myths, saints and festivals offered by our faith stories. I also remind people to think about personal resonances to the particular time of year, perhaps making us feel out of step with the mood of the season: both happy and traumatic echoes which can affect us, sometimes unconsciously, but once acknowledged, enable us to move on.
Where have Wild City Retreats taken us, over five months, and how has it affected our awareness of God?  Could it have any long term effect on how we relate to our planet?
We discovered Bridget, a woman ordained bishop by mistake, not in 2015 but in the fifth century. We learnt the phrase “biomimicry”, discovering the similarities between organic tree patterns and drawings of how people relate today on social media.  We wondered what the “trees of the field” were saying when they clap their hands: they do not always clap gently.   Close examination of particular trees linked by ancient Celts to different months of the year, revealed metaphors relating to our lives:  from the peeling skin of silver birch, to the characteristics of willow (2.)  We spend some time in discussion and learning;  some time in silence or poetic prayer, as well as time outdoors and writing, collecting or art making.
I have started taking lessons in birdwatching, (3) and am amazed at the complexities one learns. It’s a lesson in the inter-relatedness of aspects such as observation, politics and  chemistry, as well as ornithology.  We went to Kirkstall to look for Dippers: small birds with strong legs and adapted waterproofing in their feathers.  They walk underwater along fast moving rivers eating particular invertebrates which happen to be accurate indicators of water purity.  Only in the past year have Dippers returned to the River Aire in Leeds city centre, as water quality improved following changing government and EU policies, and practical actions of urban wildlife groups.  But they are struggling to establish because the eggs are eaten by mink.  Why?  Because mink were set loose by animal rights activists in the 1970s and have been breeding and causing havoc ever since.  Learning all this, and then, patience rewarded, standing observing this beautiful creature in action for fifteen minutes, behind the Vue Cinema, was truly a wonder-filled time.
We do not have to go far for this kind of acute observation, or to discover awe and love for the “First book of God” within our city. As the naturalist and nineteenth century philosopher, Henry David Thoreau once said, “I spent the summer travelling.  I got half way across my back garden.”   
I believe that working with acute observation of the natural world, as well as with traditional stories and liturgies, can truly change our hearts and our perspectives. We are nearly half way through a year of Wild City Retreats.  Passing the Spring Equinox, days are longer than nights, and having worked through the cold winter months it will be exciting to see where we will go through spring and summer.  Will it change priorities approaching a general election?  Who knows.
Wild City Retreats, once a month at Meanwood Valley Urban Farm, working from a cosy eco-classroom, outdoors as each person decides and as weather allows.  A number of people stay in touch and enter our discussion by internet only:  for this and for further details contact [email protected]
April 18th;  May 16th;  June 20th;  July 18th Saturday mornings 9.45 to 12.45.    BOOKING REQUIRED.

  1. Quoted in Matt Freer, ‘the power of nature connection to change the world’ in “Earthed: Christian perspectives on nature connection” ed. Bruce Stanley and Steve Hollinghurst. 2014.
  2. see Ash Wednesday reflection.
  3. Start Birding, with Linda Jenkinson. See