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The Sacred Well Temples of Sardinia

Sacred Well Temple (author’s photo)

Of all the sacred sites of Sardinia, the sacred water temples are the most beautiful, and the most unique. They were built by the Bronze Age Nuraghic culture (approx. 1800 – 238 B.C.E.) famed for the numerous Cyclopean towers and huge fortified villages that pepper the island to this day. The primary purpose of these structures was to protect against invasion, but these master builders wove aspects of the existing goddess culture into their fabric, aswell as developing new ones such as the sacred well temples.

It is generally recognised that the Nuraghic culture evolved from the pre-existing Chalcolithic people of the island, but as they were great sea farers and traders, they were certainly influenced by the other Mediterranean cultures of that time. Known as the Tower People, they had something in common with the Mycenaeans of Ancient Greece, who were also building beehive structures containing circular tholos. On Sardinia, the nuraghe, or defensive towers, contain a central tholos, often with side chambers, and circular openings at the top to the heavens. Long passageways within the tholos are often trianglular and feel like a primal birthing canal, designed to take the dead chieftains back to the primal womb of birth/death.

Sacred Well, Perfugus (author’s image)

Though the Nuraghe are numerous, there are only a handful of surviving sacred water temples and they all contain unique and interesting features. In Purfugas there is a small but exquisite sacred well made from marble. Located in the centre of town and surrounded by a fence, entrance is only possible with a guide from the archaeological museum who provides a key to gain access.

The well is circular and open to the sky now, but reconstructed images show it situated within a stone tholos during Nuraghic times. At the entrance to the structure there is a small rectangular vestibule with seats and a small votive table, both made from marble, where offerings to the water goddess would have been left. A beautiful bronze bull and ox were found at the site, both symbols of fertility and abundance.

Well floor, Perfugus (author’s photo)

Entrance to the well itself, which is a perfect circle, is via eight skillfully constructed marble steps. Descending into the hypogeum, where once the sacred water rites would have occurred, is like descending into the sacred abyss or underworld from which all life emerges, and the love and devotion once present in this sacred well is still palpable.

There are other sacred water temples in the south of the island, but it is the well at Santa Cristina near Paulilatino that is the best preserved and most spectacular of them all. Situated right next to a junction on the Sassari to Cagliari motorway, the well is not remote but still capable of transporting you to another realm. It was built in around 1200 B.C.E. and is made from basalt, giving it a more earthy and firey energy than the well at Perfugas. It is surrounded by an elliptical low wall and when seen from above, the structure resembles a vulva with the trapezoid shaped entrance to the well itself resembling the vaginal opening.

Well floor, Santa Cristina (author’s phot)

As with the well at Perfugus, the precision and craftsmenship of the structure is exquisite.  Access is via a dromos, or vestibule, which leads to a trapezoid opening and twenty five smooth basalt steps lead down to the hypogeum floor. The sacred spring at the heart of the sacred water cult is still active today and laps the bottom few steps, and a large tholos is situated over the well with a carefully positioned hole. Most remarkably of all, some researchers (see http://www.ancient-wisdom.com) have suggested that the hole in the top of the dome is aligned to reflect the light of the setting Moon at its maximum declination every 18.6 years when it appears to reach lunar standstill. This detailed understanding of one of the Moon’s lesser known cycles shows how intimately the sacred water rites were linked to Moon worship, which is, as far as I know, unique amongst the many sacred sites of the Mediterranean.

Trapezoid opening, Santa Cristina (author’s photo)

The sacred water temple iself is part of a larger complex and is surrounded by circular gathering huts which could have been used for ritual purposes, or purely civic activities. Archaeological excavations have shown that the site was used by the Phoenicians in around 1000 B.C.E., as four bronze statues of Phoenician healing gods and goddesses were found during excavations. It is therefore possible that the Phoenician had some sort of influence in the building of this site, especially as the Phoenicians had a strongly defined Moon and sacred water culture that did not appear to be in existence on Sardinia before this time (though this is purely speculation).

This incredible site has been held sacred for over three thousand years, and still is today. As a pure lunar, womb and sacred water site it has the remarkable potential for healing on an energetic level some of the wounding inflicted by the solar warlike Bronze Age energy, as those who descend into its depths with an open heart can testify.

Sardinia: the Ziggurat and the Omphalos

With the discovery of copper, life for the Mediterranean Neolithic farming communities changed profoundly. The sacred art of metallurgy was seen as the ultimate gift of the Goddess and the blacksmith as the alchemist who could transform the precious stuff that came from deep within the Earth into something useful. In Sardinia, this cross over time from Neolithic farming to metallurgy brought with it a remarkable and unique development not seen anywhere else in the Mediterranean. The enigmatic sanctuary at Monte d’Accordi.

Menhir at Li Lolghi, Sardinia

Near modern day Porto Torres, close to a spring and surrounded by distant mountain peaks on the south side, an ancient terraced site resembling a ziggurat rises out of the Nurra plain. This area had long since been regarded as sacred, most likely due to its setting and vantage point, and menhirs and stellae decorated with symbols were previously laid out here. The use of menhirs, or baetyl, proliferated during the Ozieri period, reflecting a wider tradition that had started in the Levant (or possibly Egypt) thousands of year earlier and migrated all the way across to the British Isles.

Baetyls were considered to be the house of god/goddess. They at once embodied the sacred and marked a sacred site, so they were the earliest form of altars. Their erection and libation could have been part of an ancient ritual whereby new territory was made sacred, and that which was previously foreign and ‘outside of’ became part of the acceptable realm of operation.

Ziggurat at Monte d’Accoddi

Then in around 3000 BCE, at around the same time that ziggurats began to occur in Mesopotamia, a terraced altar was built with walls made from stones and filled in with earth. On top, which could only be accessed via a ramp, a rectangular temple made from limestone slabs was erected, and the floors of the temple were painted red with ochre so as to resemble menstrual blood. For this reason the structure has been named the Red Temple.

Later, a second layer was added and again truncated like a ziggurat, enlarging the structure and bringing the Red Temple closer to the sky and presumably making it even more sacred. On one side of the ramp is an altar made from a large sheet of granite with circular holes cut into the sides, and on the other a large free standing menhir that could predate the site. To the north of the ziggurat are a farther three small chapels used for votive offerings and another menhir with strange carvings possibly depicting the goddess.

Goddess stellae at Monte d’Accoddi

It has been suggested that the four corners of the ziggurat are aligned to the four carnival points. That and the fact that the views of the horizon are conveniently punctuated by distant mountains suggests that at least one of the functions of this extraordinary place was an astronomical observatory. A small incised stone found at the site is suggestive of tally marks and could record planetary or stellar movements.

The ziggurat is part of a larger cult centre surrounded by partially unexcavated smaller huts. One could have belonged to the shaman or high priestess of the sanctuary as a vase full of shells was found here. It is speculated that these were used as amulets with magical significance.

‘Omphalos’

Most intriguing of all is a large carved stone omphalos, a navel stone depicting a special type of sacred place considered to be at the very bond between heaven and earth. The stone is egg shaped and has been cut through deliberately with a curved line so that it resembles a crack. This strongly suggests that this omphalos could also be a primordial egg, a place of origin from which all things emerge, the equivalent to the Place of the First Time in Egyptian mythology.

‘Bond between Heaven and Earth’

All these elements suggest that Monte d’Accoddi was a place of supreme importance to the earliest Chalcolithic cultures of northern Sardinia, indeed that t his cult site could have once been considered to be the dwelling place of the Goddess herself. Statuettes with perforated arms and breasts have been found at the site, attributing to prevalence of a female deity. The power of the place stayed with me for days afterwards, and my dreams connected me with an ancient time now long since forgotten. I can only speculate as to the immense power of the site when used and activated in the way for which it was intended.

Sardinia and the ancient Cult of the Bull

Sardinia with its dramatic coastline of rose-pink granite and white limestone, azure and emerald coloured waters and sun kissed climate is one of the greatest jewels of the Mediterranean. It teems with wildlife that seek out its lagoons and saline marshlands, the dense green shrub that fringe the coastline, or the forests of the mountainous interior. Prickly pear figs grow by the roadside along with fragrant frangipani, and cork forests abound in the north. The Romans mined its salt and the Phoenicians exploited its minerals, but before they arrived the island already had a fully fledged and highly developed culture that had itself evolved from the Neolithic farming communities which arrived from the Levant during the sixth millennium B.C.E.

Volumetric goddess figurine

These people brought with them sheep, goats, pigs and most importantly, cattle, and they knew how to farm the land and harvest its natural abundance. Later known as the Bonuighinu culture, they made pottery decorated with plant and geometric motifs, and tools and ornaments from bones. They worshipped the Mother Goddess in her guise as bountiful giver of life and abundance, as the presence of volumetric statuettes attests. They also built small megalithic circles and used red ochre in burials to symbolise menstrual blood.

Hypogeum temple at Anghelu Ruhu

This culture developed into the Ozieri culture, famous for the building of large necropolis, known as domus de janas, or fairy houses, where elaborate underground tombs were hewn into the limestone and used to bury the dead. These hypogeum were carefully constructed and sometimes sculpted in relief, even painted, and many sacred objects have been found within including thinner and more planar goddess figurines. At Anghelu Ruhu, occupied between 3500 to 1800 B.C.E. there are numerous well preserved ‘fairy houses’ and an underground temple, or hypogeum, with two pillars one of which is carved with the image of bull horns. These bucranium, or bovine protomes as the archaeologists call them, is one of the most prolific, and enduring, symbol to be found on the island, continuing throughout the Chalcolithic, until well into the Bronze Age when bull’s horns are depicted in relief on Nuragic tombs.

Hall of Bulls, Lascaux

The depiction of bulls as sacred animals is extremely ancient and deeply ingrained in the collective unconscious. In around 15,000 B.C.E., aurochs (the ancestor of our contemporary bulls) were painted in exquisite relief in the caves at Lascaux, featured in the famous Hall of the Bulls. Though wild and fierce, the auroch migrated at certain times of the year when they could be hunted for meat more easily, and also provided prized horn and hide. 

Bucranium at Catal Huyuk

Later, in around 7,000 B.C.E. bull paintings were used to decorate the northern wall of houses in the Anatolian village of Catal Huyuk. Sometimes they are shown being born of the Goddess, emphasising that is She who is the matrix from which all things emerge, the primal creatrix who needs no consort. There were also numerous intact bucranium hanging from the walls, which could symbolise (because of their shape) the primal uterus that gives birth to everything, and to which all life will one day return. Later when cattle became fully domesticated during the Neolithic, and when humans developed the gene that could enable them to digest raw cow’s milk, they became the nourisher par excellence, with milk being one of the elixirs of life.

Bull leaping, Knossos

The bull cult spread throughout the Mediterranean during the late Chalcolithic age, presumably transmitted via seafarers on trade routes. Most notably, the sumptuous palace of Knossos in Crete was adorned with frescoes of bulls and depicted in detail the sacred rite of bull jumping. In Egypt during the Pyramid Age, the Apis bull was considered to be the embodiment of the god Ptah and so sacred it was allowed to roam freely in the palace. After its (sacrificial) death, it was embalmed and kept in the huge Serapeum in Saqqara, which can still be seen to this day.

Nuraghe Giant’s tomb, Coddu Vecchiu

With the dawn of the Bronze Age, the Nuragic civilisation of Sardinia inherited an aspect of the bull cult. They built the famous cyclopean towers dotted over the island, but they also buried their (important) dead in long gallery graves, adorned with a row of huge stellae at the front (giant’s tombs). These standing stones form a semi-circular shape, and it has been suggested that they are deliberately curved to resemble bull’s horns. Also, when viewed from above, the complex bears a distinct resemblance to a bucranium, which again could be symbolic of a primal uterus of birth and death. Furthermore, it is also possible that these giant’s tombs (e.g. Coddu Vecchio near Arzachena) were aligned to the Aldebaran, the brightest star in the constellation of Taurus. This would then add a whole new dimension to the meaning associated with the bovine protomes.

Orion the Hunter and Taurus

During the period 4000 to 2000 B.C.E, the sun rose on the Spring Equinox against the stellar background of Taurus, ‘blinding’ the constellation. We call this the astrological age of Taurus, and there is evidence that the Bronze Age cultures of the Mediterranean also shared this understanding. In the night sky, Taurus is adjacent to that of Orion the Hunter, and consists of a  U-shaped muzzle (the stars of the Hyades) and two ‘horns.’ The brightest star, Aldebaran, looks like an eye, and has been described in cosmic myths as the angry red eye of the bull looking at Orion. It is entirely feasible that the protomes, which just consist of a shout and horns, are also symbolic of the constellation of Taurus and therefore reflect an understanding of the precession of the ages.

Bull’s horns carving, Elephant Rock

None of these interpretations are exclusive; symbols are powerful precisely because they have dual, or multi layered meanings, and often function on many levels. And they change over time, as the religious beliefs of people evolve or adapt. The wild auroch was important to our ancestors as though it was fierce and wild, it could be hunted for precious meat, hide and horn. With domestication, the bull became a symbol of fertility and virility, but could also be easily tamed and was associated with farming and agriculture. On Sardinia, as in the wider Mediterranean milieu, the bucranium could have been a symbol of the Great Goddess, the matrix from which all things arose, including the fecundity and fertility of the Earth, which gifted them cattle and the nourishment in the form of meat and milk, the giver of life and primal uterus to which all things eventually returned. Then during the Bronze Age, when the sun rose in the constellation of Taurus at the Spring Equinox, the heavens mirrored what was happening below and the cult of the bull took on a broader stellar dimension now linked more to sacrifice and bloodshed, and reflecting the turmoil and trauma of that Age.

Ancient Lithuania: fire and amber

Lithuania was the last country in Europe to convert to Christianity and has retained a connection with the Old Gods in a way that has not been preserved elsewhere. Therefore, through exploring the mythologies of the Old Balts, it is possible to gather threads and weave a colourful picture of the traditions and way of life that stretched back to our Indo-European ancestors, and possibly even beyond to the Corded Ware culture of the Neolithic. The Old Ways are still very important in Lithuania and attempts have been made to recreate them all over the country, notably at the Naisiai Museum of Baltic Deities near Siauliai and the Hill of Witches on the Curonian Spit.

Fire altar, Vilnius (author’s photo)

Of central important is the fire ritual, still held sacred in Lithuania to this day. Fire is regarded as the vital life force, the link between the ancestors and the fecundity of nature and the Earth.  In ancient Vilnius, in the Sventaragis Valley at the conference of the Vilna and Neris rivers, the Eternal Flame burned and was tended by priestesses called the ‘Vaidilutes’ in the temple of Perkunas, the thunder god closely linked to the sacred fire. [1] Today the cathedral stands over the site, and in the crypt you can see the archaeological remains of the twelve steps, and twelve altars, on which the sacred fire was burned.  And in nearby Kalny park in a grove on the side of the Hill of Crosses there is a well-tended fire altar, set up to honour the ancestors in a way that would have been done from old.

Fire was also central to ever Lithuanian household, where the mother would have had the sacred role of tending the hearth and carrying out the sacred rituals. The fire itself was the sacred Ugnis, and the goddess of the hearth Gabija, the fiery one who had healing, protective and purifying powers. Pure water, bread and salt were commonly used in rituals as sacrifices, or sacred gifts, to the fire.  ‘When Ugnis is fed salt, sacred Gabija is satiated.’ Each night, the mother of the house would cover the coals and bank the ashes for the night so the the fire would not wander and cause damage in the home. Indeed her name is derived from the verb meaning to ‘cover up.’ [2]

‘Birute’ in Palanga

On Birute Hill, in the centre of Palanga there was once a very important fire altar situated right next to the Baltic Sea. Still regarded as a sacred site at the time of the Grand Duchy, the fire was tended by Vaidilutes, the fire priestesses, until legend has it, one of them named Birute was kidnapped and married to Grand Duke Kestutis. A small chapel on top of the hill tells in stained glass the story including a beautifully depicted fire priestess, and retaining the memory of how the Christianisation of the Grand Duchy resulting in a ‘kidnapping’ of the Old Ways.

Fire is also intrinsic to that other prize of the Baltic nations, amber. Though amber is found world- wide it is Baltic Amber that it is the most valued and is enshrined at the heart of the mythology of the Old Balts as follows:

Baltic Sea, Palanga (author’s photo)

‘Once there was a goddess called Jurate who lived in an amber palace under the Baltic Sea. She tried to stop a fisherman from catching her fish but ended up falling in love with him instead. She invited him to live with her in the palace, but the god Perkunas disapproved of the liaison. He sent a storm to the Baltic, destroying the palace and killing the fisherman. Now the moans of Jurate are said to be what cause the sea storms, and the Baltic amber is what remains of her palace.’

Amber from the Amber museum, Palanga (author’s photo)

Science informs us that Baltic amber originated around 40 to 45 million years ago during the Eocence period. Since the greenhouse conditions of the Cretaceous, there has been a general cooling trend in climate but during the Eocene there were some periods of extended warming, not dissimilar to today. In response to the heat, the Baltic pine tree started to release copious amounts of resin from within, an act that ultimately led to the drying up and therefore death of the tree. In the process, creatures that lived in the ecology of the pine forest became engulfed in the sticky resin, entombing and therefore preserving them for prosperity. The amber museum in Palanga has a stunning collection of some of the 3000 species of Eocene fauna that became fossilised in amber, including spiders, ants, centipedes, early bees and flies. The many specimens show amber in all its different colours and forms, including rich cognac, crimson red, black and coral green, even white, and the largest piece of amber known today, called the sunstone.

Amber figurine (author’s photo)

For millions of years Amber lay at the bottom of the ocean, until about ten thousand years ago, when the melting ice and crustal adjustments created the Baltic Sea (again) and brought the long since buried fragments of amber up to the surface. In this warming world, the amber was ‘reactivated’ and human beings were on hand to search it out. Artefacts in the museum go back to around 4000 BC, and amber disks have been found in Nida with delineation marks dividing them into quarters, like the seasonal solar year. For thousands of years amber has been highly prized and used for ritual purposes, trade and a commodity on a par with salt and much later, silk, and it is accredited with many properties from healing, cleansing and protecting.

Above all though it is its fiery, piezoelectric qualities that make it unique, first named, though not necessarily first recognised, by the Greeks.  They named amber Elektra or ‘shining light’ on the account that it can cause an attraction when rubbed with a cloth –a phenomena later called static electricity. Gilbert, Franklin and Volta all conducted experiments with this magic force that they called ‘electricity’ and in 1897 when JJ Thompson discovered the negatively charged electron’ he named it after the goddess Elektra, thereby cementing the link.

Perkunas, God of Thunder

 Amber was probably used to create fire by rubbing or striking, and as Franklin also discovered with his famous kite flying experiment, lightning and electrical sparks are the same thing – another reason that Perkunas (the god of thunder and lightning) was also closely associated with fire. Amber then held not only the secrets of the past within its fabric, but also the key to one of the most transformational commodities of the future – electricity. This is just one of the many secrets associated with the Sacred Fire so revered by the Ancients.


[1] https://www.infinityfoundation.com

[2] https://www.infinityfoundation.com

[3] Lithuania.net

The Wellsprings of Sark

Water is the life blood of the planet and its presence will determine whether civilisations survive or perish. It is therefore not surprising that the streams and wells that provide fresh water have long been honoured as sacred, as a source of life itself. On small islands like Sark (Channel Islands) where there is no mains water, residents are dependent on wells and boreholes to fulfil their needs. One lovely spring day, I set off to explore the streams of the island and find the wellsprings that feed them.

The Monk’s Well, Seigneurie pond (author’s photo)

It seemed fitting to start at Sark’s most famous well at the Seigneurie pond. Known as the Monk’s Well and located between La Moinerie and L’Ecluse, both potential sites for the original monastery, I was delighted to find that the pond had been recently cleared and looked beautiful in the morning sun.  The Monks Well was full of water, and the wellspring just behind it bubbling freely through a crack in the rocks, a visible expression of the underground water coming to the surface. The wellspring feeds the pond, and in turn a stream that flows through the valley by L’Ecluse. The water was flowing fresh and fast, and I followed it down through the valley as it splashed and gurgled its way across the stones, winding down through the bluebells and wild garlic then emptying into the sea at Port du Moulin. Further down the path I found the location of the dipping well, so named because passers-by would dip a cup in the waters to refresh themselves on their journey.

Wellspring in the field under the Manoir (author’s photo)

Though the current Seigneur lives at the Seigneurie, the early Seigneurs lived at the Manoir in the centre of the island. This is also where evidence has been found for both Neolithic occupation (around 4200 BC) and a Bronze Age settlement (1400 BC), both of which indicates that water must have been readily available here. Though today the area round the Mill is the highest part of the island, it could have been much lower in the past. According to local geologist, Ray Smith, the water table could have been so near the surface in this location that freshwater was readily available, maybe even forming a pond or lake of some sort. Indeed, he speculates that all the streams of the island could have originated from this point. It is certainly the case that a large stream flows down below the Manoir and through the Dixcart Valley, where the wells at Stocks Hotel and Petite Dixcart make use of this supply. Today the wellspring at the top of the valley sits in the field below the Manoir, where a stone well marks the spot.

It is remarkable that there is any water at all on the Isle of Sark. Porous rocks are like sponges, but igneous rocks cannot hold water in the same way, and Sark is comprised solely of igneous rocks. Luckily, though the rocks are hard – hence their preservation at the interface of the Atlantic Ocean and the English Channel – they are also extremely ancient and bear the scars of millions of years of compression, burial, and uplift in the form of folds, faults and cracks. Rainwater finds its way through the cracks, flowing and seeping ever further down, a consequence of both gravity and density. It takes around twenty years for rainwater to seep down to the level to which boreholes are dug, and around one hundred for it to reach its lowest point and assemble in an ‘aquifer.’ On Sark, all the rainwater collects in a giant bowl beneath the island, floating precariously on salty sea water which is denser and therefore sits lower. The balance is maintained only by equilibrium, which can easily be disturbed; the fresh water could simply drain away into the surrounding ocean, emptying the aquifer as easily as pulling a plug in a bath.

Well at Beauregard (author’s photo)

As water is distributed all over the island at depth, it is possible to dig a well anywhere and find water. Consequently, as most people live around the centre of the island, there are many wells and boreholes located on private land here, which are not readily accessible. I did find, however, an old well near the Valette tenement, probably the source for the stream that runs down harbour hill, and a well under the Aval du Creux hotel. There is a famous well at Petite Beauregard, pictured here in 1880 and today, where all the surrounding land has been cleared. The well still has water in it. There is also an old well at the Sablonnerie, just outside the tea gardens, and one at La Donellerie. I am sure that there are many other old and well-tended wells around the island just waiting to be explored.

Wellspring at La Fougeraie

In the North East of the island, another stream flows past the Fort and drains down into the bay at les Fontaines. The Wellspring is located in the bog garden at La Fougeraie, where a lovely well stands today. For many years eels were a feature of Sark’s freshwater and they could be spotted swimming in the streams or occasionally trapped in the sand beds that form part of the water filtering system. At La Fougeraie, two eels were frequent visitors to the well, and in 2011 Roseanne Guille painted a stunning picture of one of them, beautifully capturing the distinctive blue of the creature that Rosanne described as the ‘colour of a cloud heavy with rain.’

‘Eel in the well at La Fourgeraie’ by Rosanne Guille

In Celtic tradition, Wells were thought of as gateways to the Otherworld and the magical fish that lived in them would sometimes appear as harbingers of this world, brining messages to those living in the world above. These two eels seemed to me to be such magical messengers. But legend tells us that the Wells must be tended, honoured as a source of life, for if not the land will be blighted, turned to Wasteland.  The eels were a sign that the waters were healthy and clean, but sadly, when the well was disused in favour of a bore hole, the waters became polluted and the eels died. Now they are very seldom seen in the waters of Sark, neither do they inhabit the wells.

There is a strong sense of hope, nevertheless. The Well at the La Fougeraie is now full of water, crystal clear and the same beautiful blue as the eel in the painting. And the Monk’s Well at the Seigneurie is tended and cared for again. Maybe Sark has been blighted by the Wasteland, but as it Wells continue to be nurtured and honoured as its life blood, so the abundance and riches will keep returning.

August Heaven and Earth calendar

1st New Moon (04.11), Popular time to celebrate Lammas, Mercury direct

7 th Waxing half moon (18.30), Astrological point of Lammas (20.13)

8th Lion’s Gateway opens

9th International Day of World’s Indigenous People

11th Tisha B’Av (Jewish), Jupiter direct

12th International Youth Day, Eid al-Adha (Islam), peak of Perseid meteor shower

15th Full Moon (13.29)

19th World Humanitarian Day

23rd Waning Half Moon (15.55), International Day for Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition

29th International Day against Nuclear Tests

30th International Day of Victims of Forced Disappearance, Black Moon Supermoon (11.37)

NB All times BST

 

 

Polly’s Law: a duty of care for the Earth


‘If you care, you can move mountains.’ These were the words of the extraordinary Polly Higgins, who devoted her life to creating a law to criminalise ecological damage, a law to protect the Earth. Polly died on Easter Sunday, taken suddenly by cancer during an extraordinary week in climate history. Across central London and several cities across the world, tens of thousands were taking part in non-violent acts of civil disobedience under the banner of the Extinction Rebellion; student leader of the School Strike for Climate movement got all the political parties at Westminster to sit down together and discuss the climate crisis; and it was Earth Day, celebrated by a billion people worldwide. It was also the day that the Easter Sunday bells of Notre Dame were silent for the first time in 800 years, the day that about 250 people were killed by suicide bombs up and down Sri Lan

Polly Higgins, the Earth’s lawyer

Yes, these are crazy times and sometimes it seems as though the whole world has gone mad. But something else is happening too, something remarkable and precious. We are remembering something wonderful that is deep within us, something we had thought we had lost. We glimpsed it as we silently watched the great spire of Notre Dame burn, the shock plunging us into our hearts. The connection was there for a brief and precious moment – before the babble and the voices started all over again, drowning it out. Nevertheless, it is undeniable. We are collectively waking up, starting to step out of our comfort zones and realise that we are here for the biggest show on Earth. The voices are many, the songs varied but slowly they are harmonising into one refrain. Will humanity, or will humanity not turn the evolutionary corner from treating our planet as a commodity to be bought and sold, to collectively stepping into our roles as guardians and protectors of the fragile and delicate ecosystem on which are lives also depend?

The message is clear and simple, scientists, activists and reformers have been saying it for years. Greenpeace, Noam Chomsky, Secretary-Generals of the UN, the IPCC all tell us that we are facing climate breakdown, biodiversity loss and ecological collapse if we do not limit global warming to 1.5 degrees – now. Their voices were like cries in the wilderness, or if we heard them we chose not to listen. It seems that it would take a sixteen year-old student to do that. ‘We are facing an existential crisis,’ says Greta Thunberg. ‘We must act now to create a shared vision of change, to create a world that is fit for future generations.’ After her meeting with politicians in the House of Commons last week, Michael Gove echoed her demands. ‘The time to act is now, he said. Greta, you have been heard.’

Iceberg’s calving in Iceland (author’s photo)

Indeed it is now imperative we not only hear, but act. As our human population has increased, so has our impact on the natural world. The burning of fossil fuels to power, heat and light our world is the main source of CO2 emissions, but our use of plastics, pesticides and technology is causing pollution and plunder on unprecedented levels. Our impact on biodiversity is causing a mass extinction, our use of plastics is giving rise to a whole new layer in the geological record named the Anthropocene. But it is not too late, there are some simple solutions. We clearly need to phase out fossil fuels and replace them with renewables, we must manage and protect our oceans, reduce meat and plastic consumption, plant more trees and stop cutting them down to plant palm oil or make cattle farms. To rewild the wild.

The good news is that we have all the information we need, and there are some frameworks in place. Under the Paris Agreement, we are committed to reducing CO2 emissions by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, to reach net zero by 2050. According to the IPCC, we have all the tools in our tool box to successfully limit climate change to 1.5 degrees.  We don’t need science to invent a magic machine to suck CO2 out of the atmosphere, we can’t buy our way out of it, and we certainly shouldn’t intervene with drastic measures that would upset the delicate homeostasis of the Earth.


But we do need to make different lifestyle choices, and this means changes to our behavioural patterns. This is the rub, what we are resisting. Climate change and consciousness change are linked. We cannot do one without the other, and when we do one the other will happen automatically. And it is already happening, slowly but surely, like a seed planted in the ground, it has taken root and just needs more care and attention to make it grow into the shoot – like the one in the ‘Banksy’ picture. We are waking up to the fact that it is ultimately the future of our own species that is at stake. The Earth will survive, we might not.

We need people who are aligned to a cause, we need Greenpeace activists to highlight our follies, David Attenborough to tell us to halt biodiversity loss and re-wild the wild, Greta to get school children to care about their future, Extinction Rebellion activists demanding that we must act now. And most of all, we need a law to protect the Earth, for we must align our heads with our hearts if we are to change our consciousness.

That is what Polly dedicated her life to. To bring about a law at both national and international level to hold to account perpetrators of long-term severe damage to the environment. In her words, she was ‘realigning human law with natural law to take it back to the sacred trust that we all hold in our hearts.’ It’s not just ‘big corporations’ that need to clean up their act, though it is clear that this needs to happen, it’s down to each one of us too. How we take responsibility for ourselves on a microlevel is important, as this is what ripples out. Each one of us has a duty of care to the planet we call home, to protect the natural world, to protect life. And we need to expand this duty of care to a collective one. Polly has left us a framework to do this, she assures us that it is possible, even straightforward. She has now passed the baton, to Jojo Mehta and the rest of the ‘Ecocide: Change the Laws’ team, and to all of us too. She showed us what is possible when we step out of our comfort zones, she is daring us to be great. And she is assuring us that together, we can make it happen.