A postcard from the edge (of mount Etna)

Life on the slopes of Etna led me to muse on my place and my role on my own little patch of the planet.


Do you recognise the flower above? It’s chamomile, and this photo was taken in the most unlikely of locations: high above the clouds on the uppermost slopes of Mount Etna. The black background is volcanic ash, thrown up by one of this very active volcano’s more recent eruptions. Last month I joined  a guided trek up the mountain, off the beaten track. We hiked through pine forests and then up into the caldera – a huge ash fall – which took us beyond the tree line, with snow underfoot. The evening before I had swum far below us – in the Mediterranean – and basked in the sun on a jetblack beach. The beach was formed by the same rocks I was now scrambling up – dressed very much for winter – at 3000 metres above sea level. Etna is one of the most extraordinary places I have ever been. My guide was Marco, a vulcanologist and nature lover, who can tell you anything about the place: and there’s so much to take in. Plants can tell you a lot about volcanoes. Chamomile, despite its pretty outward appearance,  is an extremely hardy plant. It is one of the first to colonise ash falls and lava flows…and its arrival heralds the growth of more flora and forna. This will eventually include all the fruit and vegetables grown on the slopes of Mount Etna. For after enough time has passed (and when its mineral content has settled) volcanic soil is extremely fertile.

It struck me as funny to think of chamomile being first to the party. Known for its calming, soothing properties, you wouldn’t associate it with volcanoes. Perhaps it has the same affect on mountains as people.

Joking aside, because we don’t live with active volcanoes in the UK, we tend to think of them as dark, forbidding places. Nowhere you’d want to be during an eruption. But Marco shared some insights on what it’s like to grow up with Etna in your back yard. You learn to love it, he said. If you respect it, you can live there. Pointing downwards, in the direction of Catania and Taormina, two famous settlements in the shadow of Etna, he reminded me that thousands of people do just that. Etna is a great place to be, said Marco. It reminds us who the planet really belongs to.

These words stayed with me. Not least because Etna began to erupt just hours after our descent. I couldn’t take my eyes off the plume of steam and ash rising into the air, which was visible even as I sat on the runway of Catania airport, a day after my trek. Two days later the runway was closed while Etna blew its top and pelted the city with ash from its biggest eruption in 22 years. Amazingly, nobody was hurt. I guess Marco was telling the truth when he said the locals know who is boss.

Understanding the truth of our situation is a big part of our yoga practice. Patanjali describes the biggest obstacle to yoga as Avidya (often translated as ignorance but perhaps better described as lack of knowledge). What is it that we don’t know ? An obvious answer might be “the truth” but different people have different truths. As a species we are very adept at dissent. We can’t even agree on the same version of God (assuming we believe in the idea of God in the first place). is there a universal truth we can all agree on? Circling back to Avidya, perhaps one universal truth is that we don’t…can’t…know everything. Certainly not as much as we think we do!

According to Patanjali, we can address our lack of knowledge by practicing the eight limbs from which Astanga Yoga takes its name. When we attend a “yoga class”  or when we sit and observe our breath, we are really doing Asana and Pranayama: the two most overtly outward expressions of practice. It’s crucial to remember that these two limbs are practiced to nourish and support the other two types of outward practice: the observances. The Yamas are about regulating our interactions with others and the Niyamas are about cultivating helpful aspects of ourselves. All the limbs described in Patanjali’s Yoga sutras feed and support one another, like the branches of a tree. So practicing the Yamas in our relationships with what is around us helps us cultivate a better relationship with ourselves.

When we talk about ‘others’ it’s easy to think this must mean other people. But the more I try to consider my role as an inhabitant of Planet Earth the more I think we have to look at the Yamas in a much broader sense. Because if there is one truth that’s getting harder and harder for anyone to disagree with, it’s that our relationship with this planet needs work.

There are five Yamas: Ahimsa (non violence) Satya (honesty) Asteya (not stealing) Bramacaria (control of desire) and Aparigraha (non attachment).

A quick technical note…the use of ‘non’ or ‘not’  in some of the descriptions above has to to do with the Sanskrit. The literal translation of Yama is “death” (don’t panic, it’s used figuratively here)! In this context it refers to the cessation or restraint of certain behaviours…I find it helpful to call these ‘drives’: things we do on instinct. Practicing the Yamas is like hitting the pause button before you literally act without thought. Three of the Yamas come with the prefix ‘a’ which refers to the absence of something. So ahimsa is a – himsa (the absence of violence) and asteya is a – steya (the absence of theft) etc…

It helps to remember a couple of other things when considering the Yamas in the context of our relationship with the environment.

Firstly,  the sutras were almost certainly first shared within a Sangha or monastic community. Bramacharya is therefore often described as the regulation of sexual desire or even the practice of celibacy. In our relationship with the environment perhaps we could ask ourselves if we always have the planet’s consent to take what we want or what we think we need. Do we always respect the planet in return?

Aparigraha is usually regarded as non attachment to material concepts such as wealth or possessions. This is also common in monastic communities. It’s sometimes even translated as the absence of greed. In Sanskrit Parigrah is grasping or holding There is an asana in the second series where you grasp your feet (Parighasana). So “not grasping” or grabbing is a good translation, too. As children we are taught not to grab everything we want, and this helps us learn how to share. Do we always remember to do this with our environment?

Secondly, it’s important not to confuse the Yamas or Niyamas with commandments akin to those in a monotheistic text like the Bible. The yoga sutras are not telling you how to be, they suggest a number of practices. Patanjali says that practice should be steady and continuous (1:13). Understanding the difference between practice and performance is crucial to a journey along this path. We should no more try to master the Yamas or Niyamas  than try to perfect an asana. Practice is a path of constant evolution.

How do we ensure that we continue to evolve? For me, the answer to that question is never to think that I have “arrived” at a place where I can rest on my laurels.

Because I work a lot with food (both cooking and, increasingly, growing it), I spend quite a lot of time looking at how I can practice the yamas in my relationship with the environment. The first (and some might say the most important) is Ahimsa. All the other Yamas can flow from it and support it…If you try hard to be honest, don’t take what isn’t yours and try to control your desires (for things as well as outcomes), it’s quite difficult to use violence as a means to an end!

On a very simple level a non – violent approach to food might mean not killing and eating animals. Some people might go further down this route and decide it’s wrong to exploit animals for food either. This is why it’s important not to think that your own version of Ahimsa will work for everybody. Are you further down the path of Ahimsa than a vegetarian if you choose to be a vegan, or do you both have a different concept of harm? Are any of us truly practicing Ahimsa if we say we are vegetarians but eat lots of tropical fruit and vegetables that have to be flown thousands of miles just so we can have a delicious smoothie every day of the year? What about buying luxury items like tea, coffee or cocoa from countries where the workforce is exploited or human rights are abused?

As a restaurant chef I spent many years working with meat and fish despite not wanting to eat it myself. I didn’t always feel ok about this level of compromise. So my restaurant years were an interesting time in terms of my practice, on a physical and philosophical level. These years led me to constantly question my interaction with the environment. Today, I continue to ask questions about that relationship.

At the moment a lot of those questions relate to the way I treat my allotment, where I grow a lot of my food. It’s all fruit and vegetables. Gimme a gold star for ahimsa…But did you notice something straight away? I called it “my” allotment…and to a certain extent I guess that’s a statement of fact. I pay rent to use it and I’m responsible for sticking to certain rules within the community of fellow allotment holders. But it’s not something I built. It’s a patch of earth and plants and myriad life forms, with whom I share it. If I’m really honest, I’m keener on some of these life forms than others…and happier to share “my” fruit and vegetables with some than others! Like most gardeners I have called plants that grow where I don’t want them ‘weeds’ and animals that eat my crops ‘pests’. And like most gardeners today I’m trying to deepen my understanding of these plants and animals because not to do so is to cause harm to the environment.

When I first started growing food  weed control was considered essential for a healthy plot. Now we know that rewilding at least a part of your garden is hugely beneficial for everyone and everything.

Since this discovery I’ve tried to change the way I view pests as well. It’s not easy…if only because pests are rarely as pretty to look at as weeds!

If you grow flowers or shrubs etc…you may be familiar with how annoying slugs and snails can be. If you grow fruit and vegetables you’ll know there are a whole host of other beasties who think your crops are just as tasty as slugs and snails do. I’ll give you an example that I’ve learned from most recently. There’s a teeny, tiny bug that loves young kale, rocket, radish leaves and oriental greens. It makes equally tiny but unattractive holes in the leaves of all its favourite things. This can make them look like doilies. It’s known as the flea beetle. This is a bit unfair because it’s not a flea (and doesn’t bite anyone). It just happens to jump, quite often, especially when alarmed. This is its Achilles heel because canny gardeners can make it jump by waving oily pieces of cardboard over their crops. The beetle jumps and gets stuck in the oil before getting unceremoniously dumped, probably onto the compost heap (or worse). I used to do  this myself but this year I decided to try and tolerate sharing my Pak Choi. After all, the so called damage caused by flea beetle is utterly harmless. The beetle eats a lot less leaf than I do and doesn’t kill the crop ( it’s me that does that by harvesting).

I’m glad I changed my approach because,  having given my jumpy companion a free rein, I’ve recently read that when  plants suffer from the mild stress of being bitten by something small they produce extra polyphenols as a defence, which makes them more nutritious. You see? It’s easier to be angry with an animal you think is a pest than to let them ‘do their thing’. And to be honest I’d still rather the flea beetle preferred dandelions to rocket, but perhaps it’s enjoying my pak choi because it has impeccable taste.

Letting the light in.A Pak Choi Doily (thanks, flea beetle)

Lest I come across as Pious from Peckham, in the past week I’ve  grumpily evicted leaf – miner eggs from my beetroot patch, raged at the sky for not raining, clapped at a blackbird who looked like they were eyeing up the gooseberry bush and cursed at whatever crapped on an artichoke seedling (probably a fox , but let’s not dwell on it). None of these incidents will appear on my Instagram feed, which tends to present the allotment as an oasis of kale, calm and contentment. Of course, most of the time it is exactly that. A haven in the chaos of this city. To truly express my gratitude for this gift, which came from the earth, I guess I have to keep practicing. Can I ensure that it’s a haven for the foxes and the blackbirds, the creepies and the crawlies? The honest answer is probably not. Unlike me they have to live on their wits. There’s no predator lurking in the bushes whilst I go about my business. There’s no threat of starvation for me.  if something else eats all the gooseberries. What I can do is try not to add to the wildlife’s list of enemies. I’m working on it.

From the mountain to the sea: jet black lido, Catania, Sicily

Yours truly, on Etna, May 2023