Landscape and history

I recently had an opportunity to do some walking around what Quakers call the ‘1652 Country’. To those, like me, who are not very familiar with English geography, let me explain that this is north of Lancaster, on the western side of the narrow bit of England between the bulges of Wales and the western part of Scotland. Does that help? Well, it is gorgeous country, between the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales. Much of the terrain is over limestone geology, with limestone pavements and escarpments, a rich variety of spring flowers, and pleasant landscape for walking.

The rock from which George Fox may have preached for three hours to a thousand Seekers in 1652.

The rock from which George Fox may have preached for three hours to a thousand Seekers in 1652.

It is called ‘1652 Country’ because George Fox, who was inspired to preach about that of God in everyone, walked and rode around this area in 1652 and recorded some of his experiences. He preached for three hours to a thousand Seekers on Firbank Fell – today, you can wander up the road and sit on a stone marked with a plaque, looking over a dale and trying to imagine the place thronged with a thousand people.

George Fox wrote of this occasion in his journal:
“..I went to a brook, got a little water, and then came and sat down on the top of a rock hard by the chapel. In the afternoon the people gathered about me, with several of their preachers. It was judged there were above a thousand people; to whom I declared God’s everlasting truth and Word of life freely and largely for about the space of three hours. I directed all to the Spirit of God in themselves; that they might be turned from darkness to Light, and believe in it; that they might become the children of it, ….and by the Spirit of truth might be led into all truth, and sensibly understand the words of the prophets, of Christ, and of the apostles; and might all come to know Christ to be their teacher to instruct them, their counsellor to direct them, their shepherd to feed them, their bishop to oversee them, and their prophet to open divine mysteries to them; and might know their bodies to be prepared, sanctified, and made fit temples for God and Christ to dwell in….Now there were many old people who went into the chapel and looked out at the windows, thinking it a strange thing to see a man preach on a hill, and not in their church, as they called it; whereupon I was moved to open to the people that the steeple-house, and the ground whereon it stood were no more holy than that mountain…”

Nowadays, we are often reticent about our beliefs. But in mid-17th century Europe, many people expressed radical ideas openly. People discussed religion and God quite a bit, and inspired preachers were not uncommon. From George Fox’s journal: “Afterwards I passed up the Dales, warning people to fear God, and preaching the everlasting gospel to them. In my way I came to a great house, … I asked them questions about their religion and worship; and afterwards I declared the truth to them. They had me into a parlour, and locked me in, pretending that I was a young man that was mad, and had run away from my relations; and that they would keep me till they could send to them.”

On the plateau atop Pendle Hill

On the plateau atop Pendle Hill

Rambling through the 1652 Country, I was able to gain a sense of our Quaker heritage, and I thought a lot about the passionate and courageous people who changed their lives for what was then a new living faith. In addition to this one of the best aspects of my visit to this part of England was being out in the countryside. Brussels is a busy city full of buses, narrow roads, early morning traffic, and potholes. In the 1652 Country, rights of way across fields and farmyards let walkers listen to the birds (and run from the calling sheep galloping toward the walker, hoping for supplementary feeding!). I am reminded that we get our food and wool from the land, that water can be contaminated by poor land management, that hedges and woodlands and stone walls provide corridors for small mammals and invertebrates, and that the earth is the foundation of our life. My enjoyment of the landscape fits in well with the Quaker idea that there are not certain spaces that are more sacred than others: waiting in stillness for God can be done anywhere. For me, resting on a mossy rock in a woodland carpeted with white ‘wind flowers’ (wood anemones) is a wonderful place to feel the Spirit.

But, what are we doing with this landscape? Some of the area of England I visited is nationally or internationally protected – but what about the other areas? Should we permit habitat banking, advocated by the European Parliament, in which developers can destroy habitats with impunity if they contribute to protecting something elsewhere? Will this facilitate the much-needed change in the world?

Brigflatts Meeting House, 1675.

Brigflatts Meeting House, 1675.

At the base of the slopes leading southeast from Firbank Fell, one finds a path leading to Brigflatts Meeting House, built in 1675 and originally just a shelter from the elements – a roof, earthen floor, and walls built by local Quakers’ hands. Because people carved their own railings and paneling, because large stems of oak were still available to hew into floors and planks, the interior is gorgeous in its simplicity. That timber is no longer available from much of Europe any more. Large temperate-grown timbers is one resource which has been overused; we know this as we reach further afield for timber, to the tropics and even into the northern reaches of Russia and Canada, where trees grow much more slowly. We overused our local European resources in the 19th century industrial expansion. We can’t change the past. The tragedy is that we have not learned from our mistakes. We are still overusing the natural resources which are the foundation of our economy. This applies not only to metals such as those used in technological tools, but to water, land, soil: the most fundamental building blocks supporting human society

The Great Hall at Swarthmoor Hall, where Meeting for Worship is still held today.

The Great Hall at Swarthmoor Hall, where Meeting for Worship is still held today.

The news reports of the 22-24 April informal meeting of environment ministers from EU Member States indicates that we are refusing to learn, refusing to adapt our management of the world’s resources to accommodate the new and compelling information that ‘business as usual’ will lead us down the wrong path. There is wistful speech about shale gas being a ‘game changer’, and discussion of new energy efficiency targets, although the 2020 targets will not be met. Our inspirational landscape – and our physical production of food and materials – will not be preserved without deliberate, planned action to protect them. Let us act to ensure national and EU policies bring us to this outcome.

***

During part of this visit, I stayed in Swarthmoor Hall, the home of Thomas and Margaret Fell, where George Fox was given hospitality while he wandered the countryside preaching to Seekers and in churches. One can stay there overnight on a B&B basis, either in the Hall itself or in a neighbouring modern building. Britain Yearly Meeting is currently collecting comment on a proposal to partner with the National Trust on this building. See article in Quaker News (of Britain Yearly Meeting): http://www.quaker.org.uk/sites/default/files/Quaker-News-86.pdfComment is welcomed by e-mail swarthmoorproject@quaker.org.uk

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