Life with a capital L

Well, here’s a thing. The cocky Eleanor, always bouncing off the walls and doing anything she wants to, has been felled by an autoimmune disease. You know when you bang your knee or sprain your wrist, and it goes red, hot and painfully swollen, and you lie awake at night groaning and demanding ibuprofen? My body has decided that any of my joints should inflame like that whenever I indulge in too much exertion – and the rest of the time should creak uncomfortably like a granny’s. Over the past two months, the definition of “too much exertion” has descended from three-mile runs and all-day typing, to sending a tweet and going to the shop. It’s also spread from my hands and feet to my knees, elbows, shoulders and jaw – and tongue, which seems an unfair classification of “joint”. I’m off to see a specialist next week with blithe promises of diagnosis and treatment, hopefully before my immune system classifies my vital organs as joints. But right now, I feel as if I’m dying, and from my knowledge of autoimmune conditions, there’s some chance that I am.

I’ve never been ill before, and it has afforded various interesting reflections.

One is, that for the first time in my life I’m quite impressed with myself. The autoimmune thing appears to have developed on top of a badly underactive thyroid. I’ve felt dead tired for years, but whenever I put it to anyone they said, look at all the things you do! You’ve done a PhD, bought Blair House, you sing three choral services on Sunday and go running and walking, and do all this environmental stuff. Last September I walked 20 miles over Lochnagar, and jogged the last four miles. There’s clearly nothing is the matter with me: I’m just lazy. Well, it seems I wasn’t lazy, I was achieving a considerable feat of mind over matter. I might have killed myself, but I’m quite impressed.

Secondly, I’m pleased at how quickly I’ve chilled out into the being ill thing. At first when I realised that this wasn’t going away, I was hugely grumpy, frustrated, feeling that my only method of keeping demons at bay was a frenzied activity and exercise. I couldn’t bear to let people know I was ill, and go through all the dreadful charade of people asking me how I am and screwing up their faces in socially-acceptable sorrow when I say I’m getting worse. As an alternative, I laid in angrily to my friends’ political pronouncements on Facebook, but this was tiresome work. After about a month of this, I got bored of myself. The doctor had officially sanctioned laziness, and actually I quite enjoy staring out of windows, so I began to enjoy the luxury. I bought an iPad, which lets me write by dictation so I’m not silenced by my arthritic hands. It’s only a small switch in attitude for the stupid things people say – whether politics on Facebook, or sympathy for illness – to seem comic rather than irritating. The weather is warm. My parents and friends are looking after me. The world has become a very chilled-out and funny place.

But the best thing – the best thing of all – is that after a week believing I’m dying, my attitudes to death are just the same. My integrity has passed the test. I still think it is a ridiculous waste of time to fundraise for cures for rare diseases when we are facing a once-for-all mass extinction of life on our planet. I am still far more frightened of ecocide than of my own death, which is why I can talk with what some people seem to find shocking glibness about the possibility of the latter. The ultimate horror all my life has been the growing expectation that I would die in an environmental catastrophe, aware that spring never would come again, future generations never would grow up, birds never would sing over my ashes, and worst of all, that I had been amongst the last generation which failed in its responsibility to restore life. The possibility that I might actually just quit the scene now, irresponsibly, while there is still ample opportunity for humanity to rescue nature, would be the ultimate skive.

When people get debilitating or life-threatening illnesses, people rally round. The religious people pray for their recovery, while the secular people, or the more practical religious, go for sponsored runs in aid of medical charities, and everyone proclaims how unfair it is that a talented young life should be cut off in its prime. From my perspective, any god who attempted to glorify himself by miraculously healing me would be a blinkered, pampered, western, middle-class idol. Anyone who throws themself into fundraising for autoimmune research need to sort their priorities out. And as for unfairness, I have lived one of the most privileged lives in the history of life on this planet. Any unfairness runs the other way.

This is why I have decided to take advantage of the interest and sympathy that attaches itself to illness, to ask you a favour: take a lead in making the restoration of nature society’s first priority. At present, humanity is not life, but a rogue species. Focus all your prayers, practical effort, righteous indignation, ingenuity and energy on saving Life with a capital L. The destruction of nature and biodiversity is not an aspect of the environmental crisis (as, for example, climate change or overfishing is an aspect). The destruction of nature IS the environmental crisis, in all its aspects, and we are part of nature. It is time for us to stop being a rogue species, and become a restorative one. Raise money with sponsored events. Lobby Parliament: change the political agenda. Examine your lifestyle. Form societies. Plant trees, as if your life depended on it. Your life does depend on it. Don’t weep and pray for me, I’m all right. Weep and pray for all endangered nature, and for yourselves, who are part of its endangering. There’s still time for salvation. If you don’t want to do it because you are convinced by my arguments, do it because I’m ill and I’m asking it as a favour in return for entertaining you on Twitter over the years.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how the environmental movement could be more effective, and I had hoped to try out these ideas into practice before putting them in print. But I’m no more afraid of looking stupid in a good cause than I am of dying, so I hope to write some more on this subject soon and get the ideas out there. When I unexpectedly recover, try them out, and they all fail miserably, nothing will have been lost except my dignity. And that is a chance worth taking, on the offchance of saving Life. If you take them and improve them and make them work, I’ll have done something worthwhile.

As my favourite philosopher John Ruskin said, “There is no wealth but life”.

PS. Don’t worry about Blair House. There may be some delay but it will be refurbished and reopened. I am simply the front of a large team who are all hoping to remain where they are in the background!