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On Becoming Rooted in Place

 

Becoming Rooted in Place

 

NVA “Hidden Garden” address by Alastair McIntosh

 

 

This address about multicultural national identity was given at the invitation of Angus Farquhar's arts organisation, NVA, at their “Hidden Garden” event in the Tramway Theatre, Glasgow, 30 November 2002.

 

 

 

Good afternoon Friends, Namaste, Asalaam alaikum…

 

Having just listened to speakers from the Hindu, Islamic and Sikh traditions, one observation strikes me very strongly. It is that spirituality has been central to each presentation, and without any of the embarrassment or need for apology that so often surrounds it in the mainstream “White” community.

 

It is true that each presentation has been wrapped in its own particular religious traditions. But these do not have to be mutually exclusive, as if everyone were out to conquer and colonise the other’s spiritual territory. Indeed, I think that if we listen to what has been said not just with the head, but also with the heart, we can discern an underlying common thread. This is something that revolves around the expression of love. It is spirituality as that which gives life. It is, indeed, a “hidden garden” of beauty.

 

In Christian thinking, human life began in a garden. Whilst we may have messed it up, the objective is to return - a return to Eden – making it back to the garden, but in full and transformed consciousness of what life really means.

 

This idea is not confined to the Christian churches. Indeed, it permeates popular culture if you know where to look. For example, Crosby, Stills and Nash said it like this in their classic late-sixties anti-war rock song, Woodstock:

 

We are stardust, Stardust

We are golden

We are caught in the devil’s bargain

And we got to get ourselves

Back to the garden

 

Here at the Tramway Theatre in Glasgow, Angus Farquhar’s arts organisation, NVA, is creating a new garden on what was previously a contaminated industrial wasteland.

 

That garden will cultivate both native and non-native or “exotic” plants. It will honour what is indigenous to Scotland and, equally, those scions, if I might use the botanical word, that have been grafted on to the stock of Scotland’s flora from around the world.

 

Let me return again to Judeo-Christian metaphor. Here human life not only starts in a garden and was destroyed by corrupt business practice (according to chapter 28 of Ezekiel), but it is also destined to return there.

 

The image of the “return to Eden” is presented first by Ezekiel (chapter 47) and then, again, right in the last chapter of the New Testament. In this restored garden, the refugees or “aliens in your midst” are given equal access to the land, and the leaves of the trees are described as being “for the healing of the nations.” It is a spiritual homecoming for all.

 

I think that whether we are Christian, Moslem, Sikh, Hindu or of no particular religious faith, we can all share in the power of that metaphor. We can see, too, that wherever people participate in the restoration of natural ecology, they are participating in the restoration of  “human ecology” – that is to say, of human community. Such life-giving and beauty-creating work is deeply spiritual.

 

To me, then, we see before us two gardens today. There is the one that is taking shape outside, with soil and stone and seeds. And there is its “hidden” underpinning, which speaks to what it can really mean to be a human being in Scotland at this time in history. It is a garden of both soil and soul.

 

In any garden, care must be taken both to establish new plants, and to respect what is already found there so that the flowers are not trampled. It means that the most important and difficult task of any gardener is recognising and addressing potential conflicts. This is hard work, but as Scots poet Edwin Muir suggests in his epic work, “One Foot in Eden”, it is the means by which suffering can give birth to our deepest humanity.

 

Speaking of a war-torn world, Muir famously says:

 

But famished field and blackened tree

Bear flowers in Eden never known.

Blossoms of grief and charity

Bloom in these darkened fields alone.

 

The world may be a brutal battlefield, the poet concludes, and yet, we always have that “one foot in Eden”. Each of us can contribute towards “the healing of the nations”. In so doing, we both heal nationhood and create a healing nationhood.

 

I think this understanding is important for the whole world today and it ties in closely with an understanding of multiculturalism traditionally called “Scots Internationalism”. As a people, we need to appreciate and cultivate our hidden garden of internationalism much better than has sometimes been the case. It means honouring a cultural value that no matter where we come from, or what our colour or our faith might be, we can all belong to Scotland if we are willing to cherish, and be cherished, by this place and its peoples.

 

What does this mean in practice? Well, in Scottish tradition there are three levels of engagement with the “other”.

 

Where mutual respect is non-existent, there is the level of alienation. At worst this can mean war and it represents all that has caused most suffering in our history.

 

However, we do not have to remain in that chilling place. Where mutual respect can come to life, then the cultural principle of hospitality comes in to play.

 

This is often described in Scottish tradition as “the sacred duty of hospitality”. The idea is that when you share the “cup of kindness” with a stranger, you may be sharing with none other than God. This is, of course, a very Christian idea (Matthew 10, etc.), but I know that similar principles are found at the root of Islamic, Hindu and Sikh hospitality.

 

Hospitality is, of course, for the short-term. That’s why, for the long-haul, many societies that have a strong understanding of creating communities of place also have an ethic of fostership. This is certainly true of Scotland. Indeed, in Scottish culture there is a recognition that fostership, as a process of choosing and being chosen to belong to a place – counts for even more than blood lineage.

 

As a Gaelic proverb puts it, “The bonds of milk [i.e. nurture] are stronger than the bonds of blood [i.e. lineage].” And as another popular saying has it, “We’re all Jock Tamson’s bairns” – meaning that all the world’s people come from one common ancestor (who, of course, has a commonplace Scottish name!).

 

Sadly, some native Scots are racist, but when you really understand Scottish culture and national mythology, it has to be asked whether it is possible to remain racist and be a “real Scot”. For according to Scots mythology, as touched on in the constitutionally decisive Declaration of Arbroath of 1320 and as laid out in medieval history books like the Scotichronicon, the very name, “Scotland”, implies multiculturalism.

 

“Scotland”, it is said, was named after “Scota”, the daughter of Pharaoh. She supposedly married the leader of the Scots when they were migrating via the Holy Land, Egypt, Spain and Ireland from the Black Sea region, bringing with them as proof of their travels the “Stone of Destiny” that now rests in Edinburgh Castle.

 

Scota, of course, would not have been white! Rather, the mythological Mother of the Nation would have been brown or black! What’s more, given that she disobeyed her tyrannical father’s orders by rescuing the infant Moses in the bulrushes, we might infer that she was … a feminist!

 

That seems to me to sum up what it can mean to be a Scot today. It is an identity centred on place that can be constellated around values of racial, gender and other forms of social inclusion.

 

As Robert Burns, our national bard put it, “A man’s a man for a’ that” – meaning that it doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from; it’s what’s in your heart that counts.

 

Similarly, as Hugh MacDiarmid, another great Scottish bard said of the meaning behind humankind’s suffering: “And I am concerned with the blossom.”

 

May we too, as gardeners, honour that concern.

 

 

 

 

As of 30 November 2002

www.AlastairMcIntosh.com

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