Gelli Fach

Gelli Fach

I'm a cell, I'm fragmented, I change my form;
I'm a repository of song, I'm a dynamic state.
I love a wooded slope and a snug shelter,
and a creative poet who doesn't buy his advancement.

Wyf kell, wyf dellt, wyf datweirllet;
wyf llogell kerd, wyf lle ynnyet.
Karaf-y gorwyd a goreil clyt,
a bard a bryt ny pryn y ret.

From: Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, edited and translated by Marged Haycock

Thursday, 18 April 2013

The Food-Chain and Saying Grace

I have to confess that I don't watch wildlife programmes very much (apart from Spring Watch etc and Iolo Williams) because I hate to see birds and animals attacking or eating each other, or young creatures being left to die. I also hate to kill anything and have a mainly vegetarian diet although I do very occasionally eat meat. Yet I know this killing is what constitutes the web of life: that everything feeds on everything else, and I know too that I need to encompass this more in my understanding, my spiritual path and my poetry - instead of the rather romantic vision of nature I sometimes have.  

Recently I came across Gary Snyder's poem Song Of The Taste which, he says, "is a grace for graces, a model for anyone's thought, verse, song, on "the meal" that the fortunate ones on earth partake of three times a day".

What he says on the subject, apart from the poem, is interesting and I'll quote some of it:

"The primary ethical teaching of all times and places is "cause no unnecessary harm." The Hindu, Jains, and Buddhist use the Sanskrit term "ahimsa", "non-harming". They commonly interpret this to mean "don't take life" with varying degrees of latitude allowed for special situations. In the Eastern traditions "cause no unnecessary harm" is the precept behind vegetarianism.
People who live entirely by hunting, such as the Eskimo, know that taking life is an act requiring a spirit of gratitude and care and rigorous mindfulness. They say "all our food is souls". Plants are alive too. All of nature is a gift-exchange, a potluck banquet, and there is no death that is not somebody's food, no life that is not somebody's death.

Is this a flaw in the universe? A sign of a sullied condition of being? "Nature red in tooth and claw"? Some people read it this way, leading to a disgust with self, with humanity, and with life itself. They are on the wrong fork of the path...

So again to the beginning. We all take life to live... The shimmering food-chain, food-web, is the scary, beautiful condition of the biosphere. Non-harming must be understood as an approach to all of living and being, not just a one-dimensional moral injunction. Eating is truly a sacrament.

How can we accomplish this? We can start by saying Grace. Grace is the first and last poem, the few words we say to clear our hearts and teach the children and welcome the guest, all at the same time... Looking at this world of one-ness, we see all these beings as of our own flesh, as our children, our lovers. We see ourselves too as an offering to the continuation of life....

Anyone can use a grace from their tradition, if they have one, and infuse it with deeper feeling and understanding, or make up their own, from the heart. But saying Grace is not fashionable in much of America now..." (Quoted in 'Deep Ecology: Living as if nature mattered' by Bill Devall and George Sessions)

I was really struck by this - how the act of saying grace (or a 'meal-time prayer') is truly the first poem, the first prayer; in many ways it's all we need. It is not fashionable in the UK either but I've been thinking what a powerful act it would be - reminding us all, and especially the children, of where food comes from; of how lucky we are to have some; of the responsibility it gives us, as those who are alive by virtue of having food. I wonder too if it would help people with eating disorders to see food as a sacrament instead of as a comfort/enemy. It could even be seen as a subversive act in terms of the consumer culture. (Could we change the world by saying Grace?)

I'd like to start saying it. But it is not without its problems. Fine when I am on my own but how do I apply it in company? This is what I've decided to do for now:

1. I shall say it when I am on my own, before my main meal at least.
2. When I am in my own house with guests, I shall say it.
3. When I am in mixed company (that is, the company of some people who don't have any spiritual belief) in their houses or in a restaurant I shall say it silently to myself.

4. When I am in the company of people in their houses who have some sort of spiritual or ecological understanding, I shall ask if they would like me to say it.

5. My son and his family - that's a tricky one! If they are visiting me, then 2. will apply. In their house I'm not sure. I'd like to expose my grandchildren to such an understanding and practice but my son and daughter-in-law have no spiritual belief and aren't always respectful of mine. I don't want to alienate them or invite their ridicule, which might be counter-productive. I think I need to talk to them about it.

I've decided to make up my own Grace, after looking at other models, this is my first draft:

This food comes from earth and sky,
from plants and animals,
from the work of many hands.
I/We remember those who
do not have enough to eat.
I/We give thanks for the life
that was given so we may grow.
I/We vow to live a life that is worthy of it.

The last line is taken from Buddhist tradition and I like it particularly because it is reminder of the privilege and responsibility of having this gift of being able to eat, which is the gift of life. However, when I say it with others present as well as myself I'm going to change it to: 'May we live a life that is worthy of it' since I don't feel I can make a vow on others' behalf.

I've also thought that when the grandchildren are there, while they are young, I might say a children's version of Grace; a small, rhymed version which is lighter but also memorable because of the rhyme, such as:

Thank you for the world so sweet
Thank you for the food we eat
Thank you for the birds that sing
Thank you Earth for everything

(an adaptation of the one I remember chanting as a child.)

Do you say Grace before meals? If so, when and where? How is it received? Do you have any other versions to share?