Panta ‘rei

Storm Ali has been pounding its way through Cumbria where I am on holiday, leaving in its wake everywhere a scattering of leaves and small branches.  Since it was not raining steadily, and there were occasional glmpses of sunshine, I decided on a morning walk beside the River Lowther, near Askham.

A good track took me through mature woods, beside the river. The wind was rarely less than 50mph, with occasional gusts up to 70mph which produced in the wood an extraordinary  noise, an amalgam of the thousand different movements of trees, bushes, water, grasses, birds and animals. If it were a quiet noise you could call it a stirring because of the movement it advertises; as it is, you would have to say it is a gigantic stirring, a stirring of every atom of earth, moved by the wind’s force in the same overall direction, but with the very different individual resistances of trunk, branch, leafage, stem, rock, pebble, water and embankment, all adding to the general clamour.

Often when walking I am able to think of myself as an individual in movement through a static landscape. Today the world is in movement around me; nothing is still. The beech tree ahead of me, a massive specimen of at least two hundred years growth, moves continually to the wind’s choreography: the trunk bends just a little, creaking; its lower branches sway horizontally back and forth; higher branches bend downwards and spring back up in a repeated thrash; the leaf-bearing twigs bounce madly along the branches, with an occasional assemblage snapping off and cartwheeling through the air.

Even the tightly packed blackthorn hedge is in motion, its top leaves in a continual shiver and the whole body flexing along is length, snakelike. The low blades of grass are pushed upright but resist being flattened, which may be why the grazing sheep move precisely into the wind, cropping them. The river below me runs its own  route as always, but in passages of white water, its droplets are caught and dispersed by the wind, which uses the watercourse as a tunnel. Every now and then a crow or a thrush explodes into the air near me as if arriving through a warp from another universe.

The world is in visible motion but I reflect that the great wind merely magnifies what is always happening as the earth utilizes the energy of the sun to maintain its biosphere. All this crashing uses the tiniest package of the energy flowing outwards from our star which occasionally glitters through the clouds that march above me,  an energy received and transformed into greenness and oxygen by trees and plants and grasses, and into bodily energy by countless living creatures from the very visible like the brown dairy cow in the next field and the barely visible like the leather-jacket below my feet, to the myriad invisible bacteria which aid the chemical reactions needed for healthy soil. On even the calmest of days these movements happen ceaselessly.

As they also do in me. I also am a creature of the sun, needing its energy to maintain my metabolism, to go walking and to write this blog. I also benefit from the unseen toil of bacteria in my body, as they contribute to its health. Even when I sleep their therapeutic movements continue.

The Greek philospher Heraclitus was right: everything flows ( Greek: panta ‘rei). Modern sciences suchas astrophysics and quantum biology confirm this insight: the regularities we experience are only apparent; the motion is real. Our culture rejects this truth: it likes stable things, persons and institutions. It dislikes change, particularly when it is unpredictable. So when we formulated our image of God, of perfection, we made him unchangeable, immortal, omniscient and immovable, untouched by the changes to which mortal creatures are subject:

“Change and decay in all around I see,

O Thou who changest not, abide with me.”

What might it mean to remake God in the image of the universal movement of which I was reminded today, as I walked happily and wetly in the storm?


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