Gratitude

1 August 2014

Written for the campfire at the Brighton Buddhist Centre's 2014 Family Retreat.

Deep in the gentle green countryside of dear old England, there is an Old Rectory house that the local priest of those parts used to call his home. The house stands amidst beautiful grounds that are so magic, if you listen very carefully indeed, you can just about hear the whisper of the fairies and elves that live in the woods there. Those woods are ancient; some oaks have seen Guy Fawkes burnt at the stake, and some of the magnificent beech, birch, and ash watched Christopher Columbus sail the ocean’s blue. Their leaves shimmer on the summer breeze and, if you aren’t paying proper attention, the sound they make can easily be mistaken for the chatter of the small folk that live in those parts. There is also a pond with huge lilies which are as high as the old house itself. In fact, on hot summer days, the fairies often spend a good deal of time cooling themselves there, by the water, because the resplendent leaves provide a good amount of shade. Even the fennel in the grounds is magic; it grows taller than you and me, and when it is picked fresh, it never fails to serve as a gentle reminder of the aniseed you first tried when you were tiny. The scent of lavender is everywhere.

Here also have lived many generations of a family of moles that are rather fond of digging tunnels. Unfortunately, the earth they remove from their labyrinth of underground roadways has often made a bit of a mess of the garden. But the gardener doesn't mind too much, as long as the moles don't dig too many holes at once. Then he still has time to take wood from the trees, still manages to find a few minutes to pick the fennel to garnish his salads, and still finds the odd occasion to gather some lavender to give a fresh scent to the rectory lobby and leave an excellent first impression for any visitors. The lavender also makes a beautiful oil that can be used to heal burns on the rare occasion that a small child scolds her hand on boiling water. And the mole’s earth mounds themselves make excellent topsoil for maintaining the gorgeous shrubs that grace every border on the grounds.

So more often than not, a mutual respect arises between the family of moles, who are grateful that their beautiful garden is cared for so lovingly, and the gardener, who is pleased with how brilliantly the moles aerate the lawns. He is also appreciative of how wonderfully well the moles manage to keep the vast worm population properly in balance with the needs of the grounds (you see, moles love worms); a few mounds of topsoil making a small mess of the lawns is worth that.

But the house had seen times when there was not such a grateful balance between mole and gardener. Soon after the first mole family moved to the old rectory house, many generations ago, the gardener at the time got completely fed up with, what he perceived to be, the destruction of his wonderfully lush green lawns. Fortunately, this was long before the time that gunpowder became readily available. So the gardener could not take out his frustration using modern high-velocity weaponry but instead had to satisfy his lust for revenge through a rather large catapult and a pick axe. Picture the scene; the gardener would lie in wait for a mound of earth to appear. As soon as one did, he would frantically rush over with the pick axe, and let fly with a volley of large rocks, hoping to reap devastation on what had become, to him at least, little incarnations of the devil himself.

The scene provided quite the spectacle for the beings in those parts and, amongst the bushes, many animals would sneakily gather to witness the spectacle and laugh out loud at the silly man and his pick axe. Indeed, such was the hilarity of the sight, rumour has it that one or two mischievous elves were complicit in digging some of the holes. In fact, if you listen carefully, you can still hear the Magpies cackle.

Unfortunately for the gardener, the moles were always way too fast for him, so not only did he utterly fail at hitting a single mole with his catapult, the effort drove him totally insane. So much so, he required a lengthy rehabilitation in a local mental institution. However, fortunately enough it worked out well for him, because after he got out of the hospital, and after endless experimentation, he discovered concrete, which even moles cannot dig through. As you know, concrete is everywhere these days, and thus, he lived out his final days in fabulous wealth, if not a little nervous of lawns.

Another gardener that suffered a similar fate worked at the old rectory house around the time of the Second Great War. She too could not stand the state of the lawns, but her approach to eradicating the tunnelling moles was rather different to the Concrete Oligarch. She waged chemical warfare, in the form of herbicides and pesticides that were incredibly poisonous, hoping to keep the lawns not just clear of moles, but any other kind of living beast that she perceived to be a danger to her lush green grass. Indeed, she was the forerunner of the approach taken on many of the ‘perfect’ lawns you see in England nowadays, and of course, this was an anathema to many of the animals that lived on the grounds, not least the fairies. After all, they are the guardians of mother nature itself, so they could not bare to see the flora and fauna wilt away under a sea of nasty sprays. Indeed, the recent overuse of such dangerous chemicals is the reason that you are unlikely to see fairies in many English gardens nowadays. But back then, poisonous chemicals were still a new found fad, so the fairies formed a plan to be rid of them. Now this was wartime England, and the government had issued every household with regulation gas masks. Fortunately, the fairies managed to smuggle one away, along with protective gloves, which they promptly gave to the moles with an accompanying demonstration of how to use them as protection against the polluted lawns. The moles were delighted and restarted their tunnelling efforts with renewed vigour. For a while, the tunnelling had the opposite effect to that desired, since the gardener applied more and more chemicals. But of course, this had no effect on the now masked and gloved moles.

Finally, after a long drawn out battle of wits, the gardener admitted defeat, packed her bags, and got a job testing toilet detergents. She would have left a bitter and broken woman, with a nasty chest cough and various kidney complaints, had the children, who often visited the Old Rectory, not lifted her spirits by asking her to lead the way on a very special midnight walk through the woods that the children always went on. The walk was ever-so-very-exciting, but all but the bravest kids found it just-a-little-bit-scary because the woods were oh-so-very-dark and no torchlights were allowed. The gardener believed she had been asked to lead the way because she was oh-so-very-much-respected. However, the truth of it was that she had used so many chemicals over the years, she now gave off a faint luminous glow, ideal for midnight walks in the woods. So on the tearful day the gardener left the Old Rectory, the children presented her with a beautiful card, adorned with a drawing of a strange luminescent green creature. Inside that card, one child had scrawled, in best 7-year old felt tip, “how are we going to see in the woods now?”

That gas mask remains at the Old Rectory to this day. It has had many uses since the time of chemical warfare, the last of which was as a Robins nest in the potting shed of the present day gardener. You may have heard him proudly tell the story of how he was unable to use his shed for a good 6-weeks while Mother Robin raised her brood.

But it wasn’t just the occasional gardener who forgot to honour the symbiosis that existed between man and beast. The moles themselves would often forget too. You have already heard that many children often visited the Old Rectory. One particular child, who shall remain nameless, had been blamed by a young mole for treading on his tail during a particularly epic game of Manhunt. Amidst its anger, the mole forgot that it was silly to blame anyone for such things because it was one of the laws of the universe that such accidents just happen, no matter what steps you and I take to avoid them. So he had waged war on the boy ever since. To this day, this particular child still thinks he clumsily fell in the garden and broke his arm, but actually, the naughty mole had found a shiny knife in the woods and had used it to dig an ever-so-small trench that was just deep enough to upend the boy. And even now this same child thinks he forgetfully tripped and gashed open his knee. But actually, it was the young mole again, who had found yet another shiny red knife and dug another trench that the boy had fallen over. Such unfortunate episodes might have continued indefinitely, were it not for an angel who, witnessing the latest incident, had frog-marched the guilty young mole to stand trial in front of his father. “Without the visiting children, there would be no need for a gardener,” the father told his son, severely reprimanding him. “And without the gardener, the woods, pond, and delightful lawns we love tunnelling under, would fall into disrepair,” he continued. “So even though clumsy young human children might cause a little bit of mischief now and then, you should appreciate their making use of the gardens, young man.” And with that, the accidents stopped; not least because the father sentenced the naughty young mole to 6-months of washing up, so he didn’t have time for setting traps. Meanwhile, the angel took charge of the stolen items intending to return them. However, it is not an angel’s way to just return things without first ensuring that those who are to have things returned prove worthy of such grand gestures. So should the children show their love of the woods, and pay attention to even the smallest of small seedlings, then one day, they might just be reunited with their favourite knives.

However, these incidents caused a crisis amongst the smallfolk and animals that called the grounds of the Old Rectory their home. So messengers were sent out to call a meeting of all the animals in the area; indeed, recently you may have heard in the skies an urgent trill of a Kestrel’s call, similar to the sound of a Police Officer’s whistle. So late one night, long after all the human folk had gone to bed, a meeting, chaired by the Elven King, was held at a gathering in front of an old cave in the woods.

The king convened the meeting with three thumps on the ground with his ancient Yew Tree staff. That brought an immediate silence on the gathering. The King began: “It has come to my attention that some of the animals and small folk in these parts have been less than appreciative of the human folk with whom we share our home.“ The king looked around the gathering, solemnly: ”In particularly, I am referring to the gardener, who cares for these grounds.“ The animals looked at each other, wondering who had offended the gardener. ”This meeting has been called to discuss the matter," the King told the gathering.

"May I ask those with any grievances, to come forward?” the King asked. The first to step into the clearing was an old rat with a rather ruddy nose. “He stole my wine jugs!” the rat declared indignantly. The rat had a headache so often the animals were unused to him speaking so loudly. So such a loud accusation shocked the gathering and the meeting descended into the chaos of chittering and chattering gossip about the theft. Mother Wren, knocking two stones together in an attempt to make herself heard (indeed, whenever you are out in your garden you may often hear her trying to get another’s attention in this manner), brought the meeting to silence: “He stole my favourite nest!” she cried, woefully. An audible gasp came from many of the animals, but a hush slowly descended on the meeting when a horse limped, slowly, into the clearing. “He stole one of my shoes!” she neighed, sadly, before sitting down to pick a painful bramble out of her hoof. Encouraged by the general ill feeling, the young mole from earlier suddenly piped up too: “Yeah, and one of the children stood on my tail!” But a sharp look from his father and the threat of more washing up stopped the mole from telling more.

The gathering was becoming enraged and unruly, so the Elven King once more thumped on the ground with his staff. “Is there anyone here who wishes to speak for the human folk, and the gardener in particular?” asked the King. A Badger was the first to step forward, “The gardener cares so beautifully for these woods. I am grateful to him, and I gladly call him my friend,” she said. Many of the animals agreed and the meeting buzzed with an appreciative hum. Then a fly piped up, amplifying his voice through a large mallow flower, “Some of the finest poo ends up in that pond!” he said. The gardener was the man who had insisted that the Old Rectory install a sewage system that disposed of much of its waste in the pond, which acted as a filtration system. And then one of the fairies quickly chimed in: “Well yes, and the lilies there are magnificent.“ she said, with a cough. ”When the sun is at its fullest, I don’t know how we’d cope without them,” she continued. Then a Blackbird got everyone’s attention with a sharp: “tet tet tet tet.“ The crowd fell silent. ”Some of the finest trees and bushes for many a mile are in these here gardens,“ she declared. ”They provide many an excellent perch from which I can sing my morning songs,” she said, finally. Many of the crowd agreed, as they loved those songs. And then a mole come forward: “And the gardens are truly a delight to tunnel under,” she said. Then a hush descended on the woods when the Fairy Queen flowed into the clearing wearing a beautiful white flower with crystal sequins. It was rare for the Queen to make an appearance outside of fairy circles. “I often sit in the room at the top of the gardens,“ she said. ”It is a unique, mystical place. A peaceful oasis that has been created by the humans,“ she told the gathering. ”It sprinkles a little bit of magic into the world,” she said, offering her hand to the Elven King who beckoned her to sit next to him. The animals fell completely silent in deep contemplation, for in their hearts, they knew that the queen spoke a great truth. “Three mornings ago I was in that room when I heard the gardener talk to the children“ the queen continued from her throne. ”I heard him tell the children that the grounds around the Old Rectory were magic,“ she told the gathering. ”He used that nest, that shoe and those jugs to engage the children with their surroundings and help them identify with the magic in these parts,“ she said. ”So far from banishing this man for supposed injustices, we should be encouraging him, for he is trying to raise a generation of beings that care for their natural world,” she said finally. The woods fell deadly still.

The Elven King brought silence to the meeting with another three thumps on the ground with his staff: “From this day forth, any small being or animal who calls these lands their home, shall do nothing to undermine the gardener,“ the King announced. ”In fact, every animal should do everything in their power to help him, for the human folk who share our home naturally wish these grounds to flourish, just as we do,“ he said. ”Hence, from this day forth, we must show our appreciation and gratitude that we share our home with human folk that care.” And with that, he let off a magic arrow with a ceremonial scroll of Elven legal parchment which embedded itself into the proclamation oak, with a satisfying, “thwump!”. And so the King’s announcement came to pass.

The very next morning the gardener was sat at the foot of an old oak tree on his break, enjoying a biscuit and cup of tea. He felt a pang of happiness, for he sensed a magical calm in the woods. A wave of inner peace broke over him as he looked around, watching the sunlight streaming in through the trees, and a tear of gratitude escaped down his cheek at the sheer beauty of the scene. He closed his eyes and in his mind, he thanked all the creatures there for letting him share their home. Sat high above on a branch of the ancient oak, was the Fairy Queen. She smiled at the wisdom of the Elven King, for she knew that the animals and small folk that called the Old Rectory their home were safe under the care of this man. Many generations of moles were going to be free to tunnel under the lawns. Symbiosis had returned.