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 The Rotting Treefaerie Story


Rainforests and High Finance


A faerie Tale and Open Letter to Alice Walker


by Alastair McIntosh



First published in World Rainforest Report, No. 26, Rainforest Information Centre, Australia, October 1993, pp. 18-20.



We had been nine days together. It had been a busy time, difficult at times,  but a good time. John Seed had asked me to spend ten days with the Rainforest Information Centre (RIC) in New South Wales, Australia, helping some twelve of his fellow directors; environmental activists; green extremists as ex‑President Bush would have it ‑ to learn to run their organisation more effectively. 


We'd hatched the idea in Edinburgh after making music.  John's an international eco‑rock star. I play celtic heart music on the penny whistle.  We'd been talking deep and visioning. He about RIC.  Me about the MSc course in human ecology which I direct at Edinburgh University.


John loved what I told him about our "Ecological Ethics and Education" module in the course. It includes a feminist reappraisal of the rationalism which Plato set going, liberation theology, eco‑psychology, creativity and consciousness raising. But these weren't primarily what RIC was needing. John was delighted to learn about them happening, at last, in universities, but his own organisation was already well advanced with such thinking.


RIC had played a lead role in helping prevent the logging of Terrania Creek and forming the Nightcap National Park in Australia ten years previously. "The Ballard of Mt Nardi" from a RIC musicassette tells of the nonviolent battle they and many others had with 150 police: "The odds were all against them/ As they stood before the bulldozers/ Strong in their belief/ In the power of the trees..../ The policemen blocked the roadway/ To stop the crowd from growing/ And to cut the food supply line/ Just like it was a war./ They called the people criminal/ And dragged them off to court/ And a waiting public conscience/ Saw it all, and asked what for."


Words like these from RIC productions had been playing through my mind when drafting parts of the curriculum for what was to be the first MSc in human ecology at a British university; an ancient, conservative university at that.  Consistent with the vision of our inspirational director, Ulrich Loening, the course had to live up to Cardinal Newman's famous assertion that Edinburgh University was nothing if it did not demonstrate and serve community. It also had to be sufficiently "sound" for those academics of the dominant paradigm to recognise that it had a legitimate place in the portfolio of postgraduate courses. But as if to pre‑empt any sellout, the RIC music kept signalling me the bottom line: "no compromise in defence of mother Earth".


A tall order maybe, but I was kept grounded by John's powerful song, "Extinction".  Our Centre operates within the Division of Biological Sciences. John's lyrics set the challenge: if we were serious about what we were doing, affirmation of biology should mean nothing less than insistence upon recognition of deep reality.  "Oh yes, there's just one thing more/ Extinction howls outside the door/ And no matter what you say/ It's a hell of a price to pay/ For security/ And when you see species tumbling down/ Ask yourself what's real/ Estate agent or gene pool?.../ To be or not to be/ The final choice/ Ecology or extinction/ Raise your voice!"


And that sums up RIC: applied ethics in the form of direct actions and campaigns, the production of educational materials like the World Rainforest Report, and communicating songs and other merchandised messages which transferred consciousness of deep ecology. These were what had built the international reputation of RIC. However, aspects of their organisational and financial management were proving too weak for new demands being made. These ranged from trying to punch a hole in the corporate balance sheet of Mitsubishi on account of their logging of primary forests, to initiating projects which offered attractive alternatives to logging royalties for indigenous peoples in Ecuador and Papua New Guinea. Such work, utilising private and governmental aid funds combined with huge amounts of voluntarily given time, required a different set of skills to what it had taken to sit thirty days before bulldozers up a front‑line gum tree, or to be buried neck deep for 24 hours blocking a logging track.


So it was that John zeroed in, not on ethics and education, but on my "Organisational Finance and Management" module. This was intended to make future environmental workers into more than just rebels without a clue. And I told him that it had a hidden half to its title. An extension, which I hadn't bothered worrying my academic colleagues with: "Organisational Finance and Management ‑ as a Far Out Spiritual Experience"! 


John rolled about laughing. He booked me on the spot. He'd find the fare, I'd give the time.


I explained that usually when I teach, the students are relatively straight.  I do my best to come into close orbit, having long since gone so far over the top that it's now just one big spiral.  By the second or third day, we usually have some sort of a docking procedure.  After that, it's outer inner space.


I mean, what else do you expect when you really teach about money?  Like, you start off with book‑keeping, bank reconciliation, final accounts, budgeting ...  all that jazz ... and it's just great watching their confidence bloom as they learn a new practical skill. All very precise, accurate, by the book ‑ until the move is made to the political uses and abuses of cost accounting.


A role play exercise I developed for Voluntary Service Overseas and the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine lights the blue touchpaper. Called, "How Sir Osis Got on F. Nightingale's Wick," it comprises a health board tribunal over the costs of preventative versus curative medicine. As participants experience all the creative ways by which a product or service can be costed, the perception creeps in that money is more than tangible cash. Understanding what money and accounting are (the very basis of economics!), leads directly into politics, power. 


As the government's costing of nuclear and wave energy in Britain has shown, if you're financially naive or deceived, you may end up with power of the wrong sort.


From here, it's only a short orbital jump to get at the illusory nature of finance: how money is based on confidence ‑ faith, as we might say in other types of belief system. How the god so created can be upholding of human fulfilment, like when money represents honest reciprocity between people and even the flow of love. Or, in the absence of justice, how it becomes a demonic and oppressive perversion of the lifeforce.


Alan Ginsberg's "Howl" and certain radical feminist poetry are great teaching aids here. They show that the Golden Calf and such Old Testament gods as Moloch are still alive and well. "Moloch," says Ginsberg, the "jailhouse and Congress of sorrows ... whose soul is electricity and banks". Moloch, in whose fires children were sacrificed for future material prosperity.  "Moloch, whose factories dream and croak in the fog", the smog of corporate limited liability allowing ownership detached from moral responsibility; "Moloch, the vast stone of war ... whose love is endless oil ... whose fate is a cloud of sexless hydrogen". 


"And it's hard to see Moloch," writes Scots poet Mary McCann in her indictment of university military research, "because he is both far away and everywhere/ and they work on, priding themselves in their work/ and no one asks to whom they are all obedient/ and they say, "Who's Moloch? Never heard of him"/ as out in the dark Moloch belches/ and grows redder and redder/ and fatter and fatter/ as he eats the children".


Money; corporate unaccountability; notions of land ownership: such things are masks placed over psychodynamic forces within and between us. These may be benign, or they may frighten the weak and the gentle and rob them of their share of life's sustenance.


Steering a passage through such veils of illusion is a process known in theology as naming the principalities and the powers. We have forgotten how to do this.  Psychologist Charles Tart, one of the world's leading experts on consciousness, argues in his book, "Waking Up", that world peace and ecological healing depend upon snapping out of what amounts to an hypnotic "consensual trance". Induced by child‑rearing, schooling, advertising, codes of conformity, etc., the trance comprises a societal norm, reinforced by consensus, of what aspects of reality are noticed or valued, and what is rendered invisible.  The induction process involves methods, like punishment and restriction of economic options, which no professional hypnotist would ever be allowed. Crazy people ‑ shamans, artists, poets ‑ may break through into a more true but often isolated world. Most people just live without asking why, fearful to push at the received framework of meaning. John Lennon was an exception, one of the crazies who saw through the system: "Keep you doped with religion and sex and TV/ And you think you're so clever and classless and free/ But you're still fuckin' peasants as far as I can see/ A working class hero is something to be".


Clarity of vision, enlightenment, lies in mindfulness in all we do; ultimately, in being attuned to the "sacrament of the present moment". It means opening our hearts and minds to the deeper consequences and interconnections of what would otherwise be accepted unquestioningly, especially the detail of the ordinary. Thus consciousness expands.


This is what I mean by the "far out spiritual experience" part of life, or whatever ‑ let's stick with finance. I try to teach not just book‑keeping accountablity, but full financial competence.


Sometimes I'm just so glad that my first meeting with Edinburgh University was to take a financial MBA!  Seriously! If you really want to get into high finance, having an MBA is excellent cover. You can hold your own with all the fancy stuff ‑ valuation of a company, valuation of crops not yet sown, valuation of a brand name that hooks the human heart. But for anyone not convinced of the merits of such a path, I'll tell you something. And I'll tell you authoritatively.


You can forget the Modigliani‑Miller on capital gearing; Kotler on marketing; Drucker on corporate policy ... all that. You can forget what they really teach or never taught at Harvard Business School....  If you want to know the bottom line of what high finance is really about, try the Dark Side of the Moon with Pink Floyd.


"Money," they yelled to the multitracked ring of cash registers in that epic B side opening track of the top charting LP of all time, "Money, it's a gas ...  Money, it's a hit. Don't give me that do‑goody good bullshit. I'm in the hi‑fidelity first class travelling set and I think I need a Lear jet.... With, without, and who'll deny it's what the fighting's all about.  Out of the way, it's a busy day.  I've got things on my mind. For want of the price of tea and a slice the old man died."


Right relationship with nature cannot be separated from the position of the poor. Principles of socio‑ecological justice show that our high finances, organisational efficiency and far out spiritual experiences are as nothing inasmuch as they fall short of restoring the fullness of life where there is brokenness. God, the Goddess, works from bottom up. Always on the side of the suffering. Exercising what the Latin American bishops at Puebla, 1979, called "the preferential option for the poor". God, down there on the forest floor, working at the grass roots with the great dances of nutrient recycling, composting, round and round, the "urge and urge and urge, always the procreant urge of the world" of Walt Whitman; bursting out in due season to proclaim, with Alice Walker, that "The Nature of This Flower is to Bloom ... Rebellious. Living. Against the Elemental Crush. A song of Color, Blooming, For Deserving Eyes. Blooming Gloriously, For its Self."


And Alice Walker, dear black American woman prophet of what it means to come alive to life.... Let me close this account of my training course in Australia by telling you a story from the tenth day.  You see, Alice, nine years ago I gave some organisational finance and management advice to your friend, Efua Dorkenoo.  It was when she was setting up Forward, the movement against female circumcision.  Later I lost touch.  But then I saw her on TV featuring with you on the South Bank Show. You said those words (which made me whoop aloud) about resistance being the secret of possessing joy.  Efua symbolised resistance; you, joy.  I knew then I must look her up again.


So I was in London early this year ‑ yeah, you guessed ‑ running an Organisational Finance and Management course for outgoing VSO volunteers. I went round to the Africa Centre and we had a wonderful reunion. She gave me a photograph of you and made me promise to write to you. To stop me forgetting she even transcribed your private address into my copy of Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful.  And she added ...  this is the embarassing bit ... "when you write, tell her I said you're a long lost brother of hers". 


What she wanted was for me to describe how I use your poems in my teaching.


I said you must get letters like that all the time. But she insisted I tell you anyway ...  like how I'll draw Horses or Revolutionary Petunias out of the large pockets in my Harris tweed smock, and YELL out a poem in the middle of a lecture. And then, maybe read another, this time, ever so tenderly. And perhaps further articulate the point by pulling out my whistle.

Plaintive grace notes leading to elation. Resistance to joy.


All this, Alice ...  and this will make you smile ... to students of forestry or resource management or MBAs ... engineering ... veterinary science ... divinity ... even, animal production!  And there'll be tears, and rage, and melting of hearts (maybe some hardening too, but it's all about whole living and sometimes the crust has to harden before it flakes). Half of them doubtless think I'm crazy, but the Africans and Indians usually love it. And I do get invited back, well, quite often.


But back to Australia, Alice, and your poem, "Rage". It just captured the dynamic with those amazing folks at RIC. 'Twas like I was trying to press them to order, and they were serving anarchy, but more interwoven than that.


At first we'd seemed so far apart. I felt like in a psychological three‑piece suit, telling them what they didn't always want to hear and maybe wasn't right for them. But then we got on to using Quaker business practice. And Alison invoked the Goddess (there being, of course, no male and no female in your "good friend" Jesus Christ. I just love that poem!) And we danced round the fire.  Took turns with childcare. Made music: in short, made love in so many of its colours.


And by the ninth day the anarchy and order came into relationship. Just like you half‑promised it would, Alice, when you wrote for me, for RIC, for everyone that: "In me there is a rage to defy/ the order of the stars/ despite their pretty patterns./ To see if Gods who hold forth now/ on human thrones/ can will away my lust/ to dare/ and press to order the anarchy/ I would serve."


And so on the tenth and last day. We were all swimming skyclad in Protesters Falls. Would you believe, this hundred foot waterfall was officially named that by the Australian government in honour of those who had saved Terrania Creek from being logged!  The falls were the Aboriginal mens' sacred place. Afterwards we walked along an overgrown forest path to the women's sacred place, the Circle Pool.


Single file we stepped, mindfully, taking it in turns to carry the baby. And leeches. Brightly coloured birds calling. The scent of flowers. Trees. Grass. And someone upfront calls out, "WOW!". Each woman and man goes "Wow!" as they reach the same spot. Me too.


And there, like out of a child's picture book, is this hollow rotting tree. It has an arched door‑like opening overhung with dusty old cobwebs.


At the entrance, the en‑trance as Mary Daly might say, was this mushroom. I tell you, Alice, it was quite the most exquisitely beautiful mushroom I have ever seen. 


It had a slightly bulbous, pristine white stem.  And a perfectly circular mottled grey cap, around which was a ring of white spots. It was just so lovely! As crisp and fresh as God in the morning light.  Even these ‑ especially these! ‑ seasoned ecologists gazed in wonder.


And I said, "What kind of a wizard lives in this house?" Then I corrected myself. It was too small for a wizard's house. So I said: "What kind of a faerie lives here?"


Everyone laughed. I mean, here was me, the relative straight in the group, enquiring after faeries!


After a while the others moved on down to Circle Pool. But I stayed, Alice. I stayed for me and you and all the people I love like I love you.


I stayed. And staring deep through the arched door, I spoke so deep within myself that it rang aloud through the whole forest. I asked, again, "What kind of a faerie lives here?"


John Seed's "Extinction" song echoed back to me. (John! You old shaman!) "Sap coursing through a mammal branch/ Touches you, a trembling human being/ Send your roots back through the tree of life/ Shedding false humanistic beliefs/ You fall to your knees/ In some still natural place/ Embrace the trees/ Feel ecology pierce your heart."


"You fall to your knees!" ‑ "go on," I felt, "fall to your knees". I did. On the reddy‑brown earth. A bit self‑consciously, but never mind.


And again the question. Bursting in me now. "What kind of a faerie lives here?"


Repeated. Half thinking that if there were such things as flower faeries, one might dash past just on the edge of my field of vision, through the cobwebs and up into the tree. If faeries were real, now was the time to see one, or never.


In the back of the tree was some termite‑eaten wood. As I dwelt on my question, I was half‑blocking it out from my mind. It was distracting me. I could vaguely see in it a face like a grim old man. He was staring, motionless, down at the earth, rather like one of those New Guinea spirit masks. Not what I was looking for.


Again, my question.  And this time, the old man spoke. Yes, he actually spoke!  As clear and subjectively objective as you could want!


In a big, empowered, booming voice, he spoke, and said: "I am the faerie who lives here".


"No, no," I replied, "You're just a sour old face I'm imagining in rotting wood. I'm looking for a flower faerie. You're not one of them".


"Oh," he responded, quizzically. "But I thought you were the one who's always going on to your students about radical feminist theology?"


"What's that got to do with it?"


"Just that you're always telling them about calling one‑another into being. That a person becomes a person in community inasmuch as they're heard, listened to, allowed to be visible."


Well! I tell you Alice. He had me by my own ideals! To deny his reality would have been to deny part of what I most value. 


So I said to him, "Fair enough, but if I accept that, I'm going to start seeing faeries all over the place."


He laughed and laughed. He said that there are faeries all over the place if we'll only acknowledge them! And I saw that when mythologist Joseph Campbell talks about "Masks of God", there's really no limit on the numbers or forms of these masks. Here I was, face to face with one of them.


"Tell me then," I enquired, "what kind of a faerie are you?"


He swelled with pride. He smiled the smile of one who knew he was about to give another a big laugh. "I," he said, "am the Rotting Tree Faerie!"


As he said it, I could feel from him the great processes of death and decay going on in this old tree. And not just that tree, but all rotting trees. It was the principle of the preferential option for the poor applied in nature; God, the nature spirit at work.  Grafting away at what most people would dismiss as one of the world's less glamourous occupations.


"So tell me," I asked, "I always thought faeries looked joyful. You look like the undertaker I suppose you are.  Tell me then, what kind of things give you joy in life?"


Again, a great expectant smile. This was the question he'd been most looking forward to. His voice boomed out: "Rotting trees give me joy in life!"


And I laughed and laughed with him as he pointed out that even the cobwebs over his door were falling apart. Everything about his house was decaying. He just loved it this way. It was the same pleasure I saw in John Seed when he told me about his house in the forest at Bodhi Farm. He'd made it out of a scrapped double decker bus. He took pride in using only materials so old that nobody else would recycle them. I'd asked if that didn't compromise beauty, but he said it was the beauty. I agreed when he took me there. It was magical. A wizard's house; big enough too.


"One last question," I begged. "If you're the Rotting Tree Faerie, and if you're totally into rot and death and all that side of life, how come that at your door is quite the most sublime mushroom I've ever seen?"


More great laughter. The whole forest joined in. I mean, we human beings are just so funny sometimes. "The mushroom," he said, "is at my door because I AM the Rotting Tree Faerie".


And he let me feel the mushroom's mycelia reach down into the roots. And up through every part of that dying tree. I felt the molecular processes of rot taking place. The procreant urge of the world. The joyfulness of that lovemaking between fungus and tree, together recycling nutrients and biomass for new growth, le petit mort.


I saw the direct connection between the mushroom and the faerie. It was his Janus face. One side was the mask of death in crumbled wood. The other, the mushroom ‑ a veritable flower faerie.


I ran down to Circle Pool. Told everyone what had just happened. Steve, with the long blond hair and the Aboriginal soul, just beamed joy back into my face.


"Now you know what the forest is really about," he said.


And I realised I had just graduated from a training course in organisational finance and management. That, as a far out spiritual experience.







Ginsberg, A., Howl quoted in Hulbert, A. & McIntosh, A., The GulfWatch Papers, Edinburgh Review (87), 1991/92.


Lennon, J., Plastic Ono Band (musicassette).


McCann, M., in Poems by Pomegranate Womens' Writing Group, Stramullion, UK, 1992.


Pink Floyd, The Dark Side of the Moon (musicassette), Harvest, UK, 1973.


Seed, J. and Friends, Earth First! Sketches from the Rainforest, Musicasette, $12 from Rainforest Information Centre, PO Box 368, Lismore, NSW, 2480 Australia. Also, musicassette, At Night They Howl at the Moon.


Seed, J., Macy, J., Flemming, P., Naess, A., Thinking Like a Mountain: Towards a Council of All Beings, New Society, USA, 1988.


Tart, C.T., Waking Up, Shambhala, USA, 1987.


Walker, A., Revolutionary Petunias, Womens Press, UK, 1985 (also, The Colour Purple, Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful and Posessing the Secret of Joy).


Whitman, W., Leaves of Grass (1855 edition), Penguin Classics, UK, 1976.



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