“It’s really important to give thanks,” exclaimed my colleague Annie, as we drove away from the retreat centre in Penwith at the tip of Cornwall. We were tired, keen to get home after leading a difficult but successful personal development workshop. But, before we started on the long drive east, we took a short detour to the nearby Merry Maidens stone circle. We walked in silence up the low hill to the stones, circled around them, gently brushing each in turn with our fingertips, then left tobacco and sage as gifts to the spirit of the place. This little ceremony allowed me calm my mind, to drop the unfinished business of the week. But more important, it was an acknowledgement that it was not our work alone that had made the workshop a success, that we were nested within a natural, human and spiritual ecology far larger than ourselves.

I have often remembered Annie’s exclamation, and I have made a practice of giving thanks to places that have given me something. I have said thank you to Winchester Cathedral after listening to a powerful ecological concert composed by a friend; I have said thank you to Derrynane harbour after anchoring safely there; I say thank you to the house I live in, to the hot water than comes out of the showerhead, to food lovingly prepared; and I always say thank you to my little yacht Coral when I have left her on the mooring at the end of a voyage. Giving thanks like this is not a big performance. It doesn’t have to involved gifts of sage or tobacco or complicated words; it is just a momentary pause, a reflection on what has been received, and a silent gratitude.

But surprised myself the other day when I found myself saying thank you to the scaffolding. We had arranged for builders to make repairs to the porch of our house, and I had taken the opportunity to mend and paint the third-floor conservatory high above it. Both jobs turned out to be a much bigger and more complex that we had originally expected. I was at the limit of my endurance: I had climbed up and down the ladder for over a week, measuring lengths and angles, cutting and planning wood to size in my workshop, taking it back up to fit and glue it in place; then washing down, filling holes and brushing on four coats of paint. Finally, I had cleaned the windows and cleared the platforms of tools and equipment ready for the scaffolders to take it down that afternoon.

After a final check that everything was clear, I moved toward the ladder to climb down for the last time. And I found myself, without really thinking about it, making an inner bow and giving thanks: thank for holding me safely, thank you for making the job possible. And maybe more deeply, thank you for the material solidity of the scaffolding tubes and planks, for the tightness of the couplers that hold everything in place. Then I ducked under the guard rail, made that rather scary transition across thin air from the solidity of the platform to the rungs of the ladder, and climbed down to ground level.

Later that day the scaffolders arrived, the boss a big affable man, his sun-tanned skin covered in tattoos. They took it down in now time at all, and of course we said thank you to them too. I imagine they would think it strange that I had said thank you to the rows of tubes, couplers and boards now lying in the back of their lorry. But somehow it wasn’t strange to me; it just seemed the right thing to have done.