THIRTEEN PACES BY FOUR: Backyard Biophilia and the Emerging Earth Ethic
Dixi Books, 2021, 192 pages
Paperback £17.99 ISBN: 978-1913680060
Review by Simon Leadbeater
I read a fair number of books; my constraint is generally time, and weariness at the end of an evening, when I generally read. Increasingly, as I read, I ask myself: what is the point of this book? For most perhaps (not those I read much) the only point is to sell; for many to express the author’s thoughts and sometimes passions (which I would hope for all); but the books which really appeal to me have purpose stratified like the crystal veins of a cliff face, strong, even luminescent, but never over-stated. This is such a book.
It is coincidental, but I came to Joe Gray’s book having just finished Thomas Berry’s The Great Work (1999), crammed with purpose, if ever a book was: to encourage “the transition from a period of human devastation of the Earth to a period when humans would be present to the planet in a mutually beneficial manner.” If this sounds a little passive, the Great Work is certainly not, and what I love above all about Gray’s book, is that he explains how we might achieve Berry’s Great Work, every one of us, lightly and engagingly sketching some of the greatest ecological writing, and then contextualising all of this learning in to the practice of how he cares for his modestly sized garden. And even for those of us without gardens, Gray encourages an irresistible ‘reverence’ in every aspect of his daily life.
The book starts perfectly, dedicated to the plants and insects, about whom, and their home Gray writes so well, and to the late ‘truly remarkable’ Trevor James BEM. Then there is a brief defence concerning why it is wholly appropriate to be anthropomorphic in our consideration of plant and animal interests; indeed, I would argue, not being so is one of the weapons by which we segregate ourselves from them and impute insentience – both of which cannot be sustained. And then Gray explains:
I am undergoing a metamorphosis,… as I walk in the mountains,… and as I sit in my back garden… I am becoming a little less only-human and a little more Earthling.
In my judgement, almost all the ills of the world can be attributed to what Karen Armstrong describes as “our solipsistic selfishness,” but “grasping the significance of non-human life through a bond of solidarity and care… is something that comes with a price… an increased magnitude of mental pain wherever there is harm… revering and loving… amplifies both the sorry and the joy.”
Knowing too much and caring without bounds – these two things, for the human Earthling, are intertwined and inseparable.
This beautiful writing epitomises the depth of reflection and compassion interlaced within Gray’s narrative, and, as with many a good book, articulates so well what I feel but have never been able to express myself.
Gray’s infectious curiosity
It is impossible not to be captivated by Gray’s endless curiosity and pleasure when immersing himself in the natural world. He conveys his learning unassumingly, and is funny, not what I had expected but very much enjoyed; ‘capitulating,’ for example, is his chosen word for gazing for hours at a time on the life coming and going on Ox-eye daisy capitulas. Gray is also very moving:
… as I get low to the ground to observe insects feeding on their herbs of choice; as my joy ratchets up towards ecstasy… As all of these things happen, I find my feet, knees and hands sinking into the soil and my soul being consumed by the habitat. And I find time passing only to keep flying creatures from falling out of the sky.
But his curiosity extends beyond natural wonders, and I found his account of St. Albans, and of the ‘deep’ history of the area, simply fascinating. This book should be indispensable to everyone living in St. Albans and environs who wishes to learn a little more about their fair city, the printing origins of Fleetville, and how the Jolly Sailor is the site for the main pumping station whence all citizens’ water is sourced from the aquifer far below. Gray’s chapter on water wisdom, incidentally, is especially compelling; “the first step in reverence… is learning about one’s local hydro-ecology. To put it another way… many of nature’s water woes spring from human ignorance.”
Depth in breadth
This book is a book which opens other books, and Gray’s homage to Ed Abbey in particular, but also John Muir, has made me search for old copies in Abebooks.co.uk.
I will also treasure this work as a wonderful introduction (almost mini-encyclopaedia) to the works of Henry Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, Glenn Albrecht, Stan Rowe, and more contemporary writers, Eileen Crist and Patrick Curry, and his pithy exposition of important ecological theories, such as the difference between deep and shallow ecology, arguments for and against the wildwood (on balance for), all in an entertaining canter through St. Albans’s history of the last 95 million years.
A life being lived well
The book’s locus is Gray’s thirteen paces by four garden, but encompasses so much more. I also feel this is a celebration, of Joe’s life, in no small measure shared with his wife Romita. They live differently, no, not just differently, better than most of us. And we should emulate them. Ultimately:
I am proud of my role in the life of the backyard as much as one can be proud of anything where the vast part of the creativity lies in the work of beings other than oneself,… to leave other agencies to flourish… respecting, and revelling in, the agency of others is the essence of my belonging in the deep green neighbourhood.
I cannot do justice to the scope of what Gray is offering us, but will offer two thoughts. The first, is that Gray is no technophobe but simply and rightly argues that human developments need to fully and fairly account for “externalities within the true economy of life… the Earth’s currency is the flourishing of life for life’s sake.” Second, if ever we wonder what our life has amounted to, express disappointment in our career’s progression, social advancement, material gain, all the usual venal ways most of us evaluate how we spend our time, listen to Joe Gray. If we have cared for our gardens in such a way as to allow life’s flourishment, then we have lived that part of our lives well. And if we all managed to achieve that for the 4,300 ha which make up the UK’s garden spaces, and extrapolated that ‘reverence for life’ in to how we conduct our quotidian lives, that would be world changing. A glorious revolution sparked by a love for our back gardens.
A literal antidote to pandemics
Gray wrote his book during the first lockdown early in 2020, and like many appreciated the roads and skies falling silent, and was particularly thankful, as I am sure many St. Albans residents were, to Verulam Golf Club, for opening their course so that he and others could enjoy uncrowded green spaces, and witness some of the Club’s marvels, including ancient oaks. Gray expresses much gratitude in his book, to all expressions of life, but also for the abiotic tapestry of rivers and mountains which hold life in their embrace. But I also feel thankful to Joe Gray, for so succinctly and joyously bringing together some of the great thinkers of the conservation movement, the city and district of St. Albans I think of as home, and his garden, in to one very readable, lightly erudite book, from which we can all learn how to live life well. And living life well, with the reverence Earthlings hold for non-human life, is not so much desirable as essential if ever we wish to escape a future of lockdowns and pandemics. It was, after all, ingratitude and our irreverence toward non-human life that brought us coronavirus.
 Berry, T., (1999), The Great Work; our way into the future, Bell Tower, New York, p. 3.
 Armstrong, K., (2005), A short history of myth, Canongate Books Ltd., Edinburgh, p. 137.