Wabi sabi: learning to love the ‘imperfect’

28/01/2014 at 7:40 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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Damsons

Thirteen years ago…

I am living in Richmond, Surrey, in a small terraced house with my partner Steven, and our young, disabled son. At night I am dreaming of floods. I see Britain covered in sheets of silvery water. The border between meadow land and rivers becomes indeterminate. In my dreams I see people leaving the flood plains, moving higher up. Some want to go shopping, to buy up supplies. But in the background there is a quiet, wise voice, pointing out that this is not a time for shopping. 

Twelve years ago…

We have decided to move to rural Wiltshire. I notice that I absolutely do not want to live near any flood plains. I want to be on a hill. We buy a place on a hill.  We arrive on the eve of the Winter Solstice. During the following seasons, I study the countryside around us with a burgeoning sense of love. I have the dim understanding that out there, beyond our home, is the equivalent of a supermarket, if only I knew what I was looking at. There is food here, wild, unrecognised, unpackaged, unremarkable to look at… but food, nevertheless.

Damsons on tree

The present day…

Britain has been having a wet winter. It’s fair to say that the weather world-wide has become more extreme in recent years. At the foot of our hill, fields have been submerged in water for weeks now. Pilots flying over our neighbouring county have started referring to ‘Lake Somerset’.

I know a little, just a little, about the plants that grow around me. Depending on the time of year, I gather leaves, roots and berries. Elderflowers, mint and nettles become refreshing herbal teas. Marshmallow and elecampane roots are harvested for nourishing decoctions. Elderberries and damsons (pictured above) are transformed into ruby-coloured jams and cordials. Wild garlic and tender young ground elder add nutrients to casseroles, soups and salads. Small, juicy apples and plums (below) feed us for weeks from a few small trees.

The fruit my daughter and I collect bears no resemblance to the plump, perfect specimens in the nearby supermarkets. It’s as if the fruits in the shops have been photo-shopped. I wonder how many individual plums and apples are rejected by the store buyers. Ours, in comparison, are half-wild fruit: small and mottled. But they are still food, and vibrant food at that.

Plums

Recently I learnt that the Japanese have a name for what I have been learning in the English countryside: wabi sabi. This is the understanding and acceptance of the transience of things. Fruit and people age. None of us is perfectly shaped. The imperfections are to be appreciated. They add to the beauty of the whole.

Back in the nights when I dreamt of floods, my wise dream narrator told me that the floods were the sadness of people made manifest. That included myself, of course. At that time my disabled son was five years old. He had just started at mainstream school with one-to-one support. There were challenges, and we were still adjusting.

But I always felt the dreams were a comment on the wider community too. In the language of dreams, floods may signify suppressed emotions, which will find an outlet despite ourselves.

To put it another way, when a people cannot cry, the planet will cry for them. We have a legacy of not accepting ourselves – of believing that we, like the food we eat, need to be standardised to what we think is a perfect state. We cannot attain that state. I cannot. My disabled son cannot. No one can. No one should really want to. But many of us try to, or else we give up and feel disappointed at ourselves.

We don’t tend to talk about this, though people have recently begun the conversation. We get on with life, finding the funny side, suppressing the sadness. But the land becomes unbalanced, and the tears will out.  Only then does the healing begin.

Damsons

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