The Chestnut Soup Revolution

November 16, 2014

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If we want to free ourselves from this omnicidal nightmare, and create an alternative way of life that is sustainable and free of class divisions and all forms of domination, then we must dispossess the dispossessors, and take back our means of subsistence. – Stephanie McMillan

(I’m planning to write about this topic in greater depth for potential publication, so for now I’ll just put up a few photos, minimal commentary and quotes.)

How did the unofficial nut harvest go this year?

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Not bad. No acorns and just a few green hazelnuts but a good haul of walnuts (mum helped out with the harvest so she took about 1/2 a plastic bag’s worth on top of the above), quite a few beechnuts and a decent load of sweet chestnut from the local park and complemented by some big beauties from my parents’ holiday in Brittany. The above picture, taken on a rare sunny day on the living room carpet where they’ve been slowly drying out near the radiator for the last month or so (thanks to H for her tolerance and understanding!), was after I had already processed about 1kg of the chestnuts which I used to make a big batch of soup.

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I adapted the recipe from one in Pamela Michael’s Edible Wild Plants and Herbs, doubling her quantities to:

1kg chestnuts
2 onions
2 carrots
50g butter
2l chicken stock

I also added one potato, diced into small pieces, and some sage and rosemary.

The chestnuts and veg got ‘sweated’ in the melted butter on a low heat for around 10mins before I added the 2l water with a chicken stock cube crumbled and stirred in straight after. This was brought to the boil and left on a steady simmer for about 45mins (longer than the half hour Michael advises to allow for the extra bulk). Then I added salt and pepper and blitzed it roughly with the soup wand, leaving a few chunky bits of chestnut for variety of texture:

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Ta-da!

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The rest was allowed to cool, poured into an old ice cream tub and put in the fridge. Over the following week I heated up batches on the stove in the morning and took it to work in my trusty food thermos for some outstandingly satisfying hot lunches just as the Autumn cold was finally starting to kick in (it took its time this year). Sweet, starchy and filling, with a slight astringency probably due to the inner skins which I couldn’t be bothered to peel off properly.

Here’s a great article originally from The Cambridge History of Food (they had it up on their site in full but have since taken it down) on the history of chestnut consumption in Europe, where until quite recently it served as a staple food for much of the peasantry:

[In] the sixteenth century, we discover that “an infinity of people live on nothing else but this fruit [the chestnut]” (Estienne and Liébault 1583), and in the nineteenth century an Italian agronomist, describing Tuscany, wrote that “the fruit of the chestnut tree is practically the sole subsistence of our highlanders” (Targioni-Tozzetti 1802, Vol. 3: 154). A bit later on, Frédéric Le Play (1879, Vol. 1: 310) noted that “chestnuts almost exclusively nourish entire populations for half a year; in the European system they alone are a temporary but complete substitution for cereals.” And in the twentieth century, the Italian author of a well-known book of plant-alimentation history mentioned that chestnuts not only were collected to be eaten as nuts but could also be ground into flour for bread making (Maurizio 1932). He was referring to the “wooden bread” that was consumed daily in Corsica until well into the twentieth century (Bruneton-Governatori 1984). Clearly, then, chestnuts have played an important role in sustaining large numbers of people over the millennia of recorded history (Bourdeau 1894).

[...]

When we pause to consider that our sources place the daily consumption of chestnuts by an individual at between 1 and 2 kilograms, we can quickly understand why the chestnut qualifies as a staple food. And like such staples as wheat or potatoes, chestnuts can be prepared in countless ways. Corsican tradition, for example, calls for 22 different types of dishes made from chestnut flour to be served on a wedding day (Robiquet 1835). When fresh, chestnuts can be eaten raw, boiled, baked, and roasted (roasted chestnuts were sold on the streets of Rome in the sixteenth century and are still sold on the streets of European towns in the wintertime).

Despite the fact that planting and maintaining chestnut ‘orchards’ took a minimal amount of energy, especially when you compare it to the massive effort required to grow annual grain crops, what takes up the time (as I’ve found) is processing:

Fresh chestnuts constituted the bulk of the diet for those who harvested them until about mid-January — about as long as they could safely be kept. But before they could be eaten, the nuts had to be extracted from their rigid shell and stripped of their bitter and astringent skin. This is a relatively easy procedure when chestnuts are roasted, but generally they were boiled. Peeling chestnuts was usually done by men in front of the fire during the long evenings of autumn and winter. To peel 2 kg of raw chestnuts (the average daily consumption per adult in the first part of the nineteenth century) required about 40 minutes. Therefore, some three hours, or more, of chestnut peeling was required for the average rural family of five. The next morning around 6 A.M. the chestnuts, along with some vegetables, were put into a pot to begin boiling for the day’s main meal.

For my soup I spent about two hours over consecutive evenings peeling the nuts in front of the computer screen – although progress would have been faster if I hadn’t needed to throw away so many mouldy or worm-eaten ones (I got to the local ones too late). It’s not an unpleasant activity in and of itself, but I can easily imagine getting sick of it if it was something I had to do every evening for months on end. I’m guessing what made it more bearable was the social aspect where all the peeling would be accompanied by jokes, stories, games, gossip, banter, maybe even singing. Sadly until I get my tribe together I have to rely on videos from the internet* to fill in some of those empty spaces…

Here’s my setup FYI, working from left to right:

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I picked up the knife for €5 from a specialist shop in the Auvergne, where we went on holiday over the summer. It’s supposedly purposely designed for peeling chestnuts and garlic, and I’m just about getting the hang of it so’s I don’t spike or carve my thumb on every other nut. It’s a sharp little bugger!

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For the rest of them I’ll probably make another batch of soup, maybe roast some in the oven, add to last year’s small bag of flour or peel some properly and put them in the freezer for Christmas.

It’s a good thing to do every Autumn – plugging yourself directly into personal subsistence activities so for at least some of your meals you can say that you were part of the process of cultivation, harvesting and consumption at every stage, thus taking back control over a small part of this fundamentally important aspect of your life. To expand it’s full revolutionary potential (as McMillan suggests) would entail things like protection of existing productive environments, fighting for access and/or control of land where more trees could be planted, and working to make this foraging subsistence (alongside other more intensive forms like allotments, smallholdings etc.) a greater part of community life. When you regain that kind of autonomy over your own lives, then the power structure loses an important tool of manipulative control – do what we say or starve – so it’s one step closer to the kinds of revolutionary social upheavals that are necessary to halt the destruction of the living planet.

Anyway, that’s what I find myself thinking in the evenings lately.

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* – Check out the ‘Earth at Risk’ lectures currently up on youtube, especially the breathtaking radicalism of Stephanie McMillan, from where this post’s opening quote comes from. I think I’ll end up buying the DVD too.

A few words about Gaza

August 11, 2014

It’s about Land. Israel is a colonialist settler state supported by the US and the other usual western powers. It has been expanding its borders since its violent inception:

As such the plight of the Palestinians bears many resemblances to the plight of indigenous cultures across the globe, and what they’re resisting, at the end of the day, is the attempted annihilation of their culture and the termination of their way of life (if not their lives). In other words: genocide. Fittingly Israel’s most unwavering support comes from nations likewise built on the theft of land from – and the wholesale slaughter of – indigenous populations: the US, Australia, Canada, followed closely by the expansionist post-imperial states, most notably the UK (which waged its own genocidal campaigns on ‘its’ home soil against the Scots, the Welsh, the Irish as well as the English peasantry):

Bar chart showing the UK arms industry's largest export markets in 2013

Why such eagerness to supply these killers with their weaponry? UK backing of Israel goes way back, and the reasons haven’t changed. Writes historian Mark Curtis:

[I]t was argued in files from 1969 that, even given Britain’s massive stake in oil in the Middle East and the subsequent need to keep friendly relations with Arab despots, Britain’s economic interests in Israel were also a factor. The Joint Intelligence Committee reported in 1969 that:

rapid industrialisation [in Israel] is taking place in fields where British industry can readily supply the necessary capital goods … Israel is already a valuable trading partner with a considerable future potential in the industrial areas where we want to develop Britain as a major world-wide manufacturer and supplier.

Britain’s ambassador to Israel added that:

Israel is already a valuable trading partner for Britain, and … there is a high future potential for our economic relations with her … On the other hand, it seems hard to avoid the conclusion … that our prospects for profitable economic dealing with the Arab states are at best static, and may indeed over the long term inevitably decline.

If this was the case then, it is even more so now, as Britain steps up its trade with Israel, especially in new technologies. It is this priority, together with maintaining special relations with Washington, that defines Whitehall’s stance on the plight of the Palestinians. (Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses, p.157)

Basically they’re white folks like us, and we can do business with them, especially if they stop those uppity Arab nationalists from trying to hold on to their own resources. In related news ‘the [most recent] Israeli offensive on the blockaded Gaza Strip has left 134 factories completely destroyed, causing more than $47 million in direct losses and rendering 30,000 workers jobless‘. In other words, they are destroying what’s left of their subsistence base, their only means of independent survival (the illegal settlements have gobbled up most of the land best suited to cultivation, and the destruction of olive groves by specially designed bulldozers has been part of the sadistic collective punishment).

You could do worse than watch this Democracy Now interview with Noam Chomsky for a little more background and honest description of what’s going on in Palestine. Here’s the key passage:

Israeli experts have calculated in detail exactly how many calories, literally, Gazans need to survive. And if you look at the sanctions that they impose, they’re grotesque. I mean, even John Kerry condemned them bitterly. They’re sadistic. Just enough calories to survive. And, of course, it is partly metaphoric, because it means just enough material coming in through the tunnels so that they don’t totally die. Israel restricts medicines, but you have to allow a little trickle in. When I was there right before the November 2012 assault, [I] visited the Khan Younis hospital, and the director showed us that there’s—they don’t even have simple medicines, but they have something. And the same is true with all aspects of it. Keep them on a diet, literally. And the reason is—very simple, and they pretty much said it: “If they die, it’s not going to look good for Israel. We may claim that we’re not the occupying power, but the rest of the world doesn’t agree. Even the United States doesn’t agree. We are the occupying power. And if we kill off the population under occupation, [it's] not going to look good.” It’s not the 19th century, when, as the U.S. expanded over what’s its national territory, it pretty much exterminated the indigenous population. Well, by 19th century’s imperial standards, that was unproblematic. This is a little different today. You can’t exterminate the population in the territories that you occupy. That’s the dovish position, Weissglas. The hawkish position is Eiland, which you quoted: Let’s just kill them off. ["You cannot win against an effective guerrilla organization when on the one hand, you are fighting them, and on the other hand, you continue to supply them with water and food and gas and electricity. Israel should have declared a war against the de facto state of Gaza, and if there is misery and starvation in Gaza, it might lead the other side to make such hard decisions."]

The indigenous struggle, I’m thinking, should not be seen as referring only to tribes on the frontiers of civilisation, but as something ongoing in the living situations of the poor and disenfranchised who make up the lower ranks of the civilised. At base is some element of control over your own life, which grants a certain sense of security. This might come from growing or gathering your own food or it might come from a reasonably steady job in a factory (it might have to come that way if you’ve been shunted off the land through enclosure or other means). But the powers-that-be hate this kind of independence: they want you insecure, they want you dependent – on them and the ‘services’ they provide (at such a reasonable cost) – that way they’ve got you where they want you: working your fingers to the bone to satisfy their insane fantasies of wealth, notoriety and domination*.

That’s why the phrase ‘we’re all Palestinians now’ makes sense to me.

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A few more words about resistance.

Tim Holmes has an excellent article on the backlash against Lib Dem MP David Ward who made the mildest possible attempt to empathise with the Palestinian people and try to understand the motivation of those who choose violent means of resistance. He tweeted: ‘The big question is – if I lived in #Gaza would I fire a rocket? – probably yes’ and all hell broke loose in the dominant political culture with near unanimous calls for his expulsion from the party and one report to the police from Tory MP Nadim Zahawi for supposed ‘encouragement of terrorism’.

As Holmes points out this provides a textbook example of a phenomenon memorably identified in the ‘premises’ of Derrick Jensen’s 2006 book, Endgame:

Premise Four: Civilization is based on a clearly defined and widely accepted yet often unarticulated hierarchy. Violence done by those higher on the hierarchy to those lower is nearly always invisible, that is, unnoticed. When it is noticed, it is fully rationalized. Violence done by those lower on the hierarchy to those higher is unthinkable, and when it does occur is regarded with shock, horror, and the fetishization of the victims. (link)

Do I need to explain how this applies to the Israel-Palestine conflict? If you’ve paid any attention to corporate media coverage over the last few weeks you can’t fail to have noticed the prominence given to Israeli deaths, funerals, grieving relatives etc. – even when these were soldiers killed whilst invading and brutalising Gaza – and only token gestures offered to Palestinian victims with Israeli justifications and denials given full prominence (C4 news presenter Jon Snow followed an analysis-free expression of compassion for Palestinian civilians with an interview a few days later of a Hamas official which attempted to make the issue entirely about their response: ‘Why are you encouraging [Israel] by continuing to fire your ineffective rockets?’) Feelings of empathy have been shepherded towards the Israeli population suffering the indignity of air raid sirens and bomb shelters, cowering in fear from the threat of rocket attacks. “Would you put up with this happening to you in your own home?” Except it isn’t their fucking home! They live in occupied territory which was stolen from the original inhabitants. Obviously they should have known to expect some form of reprisal. Meanwhile the colossal violence meted out on their behalf apparently merits little or no empathic outreach. No shrieks of ‘Responsibility to Protect’ here. No comparison to the Blitz or the Nazi occupation of Europe. And yet we should all be worried because another reason we’re all Palestinians is that Gaza and the occupied territories are where the elites road test all their military hardware as well as their techniques for crowd control and suppression of dissent (sorry I don’t have a source for this – I’ve heard it argued in various places, with specific examples of tactics and hardware used against UK demonstrators as well as the lucrative ‘battle tested’ stamp of approval for military technology). They have it over there and soon we’ll have it over here…

So yes, resistance. Chomsky argues that the primary goal should be to minimise, or at least not worsen the suffering of the victims, but makes the crucial point that it’s not for outsiders to dictate how Palestinians will or will not respond:

it’s very easy to recommend to victims, “You be nice guys.” That’s cheap. Even if it’s correct, it’s cheap. What matters is what we say about ourselves. Are we going to be nice guys? That’s the important thing, particularly when it’s the United States, the country which, quite rightly, is regarded by the—internationally as the leading threat to world peace, and the decisive threat in the Israeli case.

But he appears to believe that strict nonviolence is the best strategy in this instance (albeit a focus on Israeli nonviolence). At least his reasons for discouraging a violent response are apparently tactical rather than ideological. Other commentators have noted the reluctance of the Israeli public to tolerate military casualties. It seems that militants have gotten better at exacting a toll on ground troop invasions – around 65 this time and not all through friendly fire for a change. Now it might jeapardise my future career prospects in politics to say this but… Good. They got what was coming to them. A soldier invading another sovereign territory on a brutal mission of collective punishment, involving shelling of schools, hospitals, mosques, UN shelters and the levelling of whole neighbourhoods, is fair game if anyone is. If higher casualty rates lead to a greater reluctance to pursue similar tactics in the future, so much the better.

But maybe that’s just me, and I leave Palestinian activists and civilians to make their own decisions and trust them to know how best to react in their situation, of which, I admit, I have only the dimmest comprehension.

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* – Although, as Chomsky cautions, there are times when the occupying power might not even want you for slave labour. They might want you out of the picture permanently:

In the Occupied Territories, what Israel is doing is much worse than apartheid. To call it apartheid is a gift to Israel, at least if by “apartheid” you mean South African-style apartheid. What’s happening in the Occupied Territories is much worse. There’s a crucial difference. The South African Nationalists needed the black population. That was their workforce. It was 85 percent of the workforce of the population, and that was basically their workforce. They needed them. They had to sustain them. The bantustans were horrifying, but South Africa did try to sustain them. They didn’t put them on a diet. They tried to keep them strong enough to do the work that they needed for the country. They tried to get international support for the bantustans.

The Israeli relationship to the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories is totally different. They just don’t want them. They want them out, or at least in prison. And they’re acting that way. That’s a very striking difference, which means that the apartheid analogy, South African apartheid, to the Occupied Territories is just a gift to Israeli violence. (ibid.)

Megafauna and Misanthropy

May 21, 2014

So I should probably say something about this article which George Monbiot wrote back in March: ‘Destroyer of Worlds‘. Quite a few writers I respect have been passing it on with apparent approval and no qualifying remarks about its … er, shall we say one-sidedness, bias towards premature conclusions, crass provocative rhetoric, deep misanthropy and/or implicit racism towards indigenous people?? I mean, I know he must be under pressure to keep up his pageviews with suitably controversial opinions but this was a real hatchet job IMHO. Just look at the strap line:

New research suggests there was no state of grace: for two million years humankind has been the natural world’s nemesis.

I found it a chore to go ahead and read the rest of the article after such a ridiculous opening line. New research = all well and good. Author’s interpretation rammed down my throat = no thanks, go away. Who has spoken about a ‘state of grace’? What is ‘the natural world’ and how can it have a ‘nemesis’ from within its own member species? If you take the article as a whole as a confession of how Monbiot feels – a sorrow for the loss of extinct megafauna coupled with a kind of hatred towards those he considers responsible for their demise – then, well that’s fair enough. But he insists on positioning it as an aggressive demand that the reader simply must share his reaction:

This article, if you have any love for the world, will inject you with a venom – a soul-scraping sadness – without an obvious antidote.

I must hate the world then, because, while I was interested to learn about the new findings and the ongoing debate about the Pleistocene megafauna, the only ‘scraping’ I felt after reading this article was a kind of deep irritation. Not so much an injection of venom, rather a kind of allergen resulting in a short-lived rash or hives or something. Didn’t see it on my soul though – maybe hidden on the back of my neck somewhere… I guess I was annoyed because I was just shaping up to take a look at this topic myself (what with my interest in aboriginal Britons and hunter-gatherer people more generally) but, just as the sediment was starting to settle enough for me to begin my careful examinations, along comes old George to jump feet first into the exact spot I was going to look at, muddying it beyond repair. FFS, now what am I supposed to do?

I tried going through a few of the scientific articles cited, went to the Oxford Megafauna Conference website and read the linked press articles and blog pieces and even tried listening to one of the talks (most of them are available on this page) before giving up after five minutes because the sound level was too low and I wasn’t really understanding what was being said anyway (I am still intending to go back and try to make sense of it at some point). There is plenty to give pause for thought admittedly, for example the far-reaching ecological effects of animal species like elephants and rhinos and how their disappearance would have drastically altered the environment of prehistoric Britain. But again the attribution of blame all seemed quite one-sided, and while there were many aknowledgements that some view climate change as the main contributing factor to these extinctions, these arguments were not presented in any depth or refuted on their own terms (although I may well have missed something). A BBC news report on the conference gave a more balanced appraisal, with conference organiser professor Yadvinder Malhi offering a few concessions:

One area that has proved to be somewhat divisive within the scientific community is whether the demise of many large species was the result of changes to the global climate system or human activity.

Two presentations at the Megafauna and Ecosystem Function from the Pleistocene to the Anthropocene conference presented data from around the globe that looked at when species extinctions were recorded, and whether this coincided with the arrival of humans or a significant event in the climate record.

Both presentations – one by Lewis Bartlett from the University of Exeter (audio link), the other by Chris Sandom from the universities of Oxford and Aarhus (audio link) – concluded that, on a global scale, human arrival was a “decisive factor”. In other words, the creatures were hunted and displaced until they became extinct.

“When you look at the global picture with a consistent set of data, it is very hard to argue against a strong human role,” said Prof Malhi.

But he added: “It has been an area that has been hugely contentious for a long time, so I am sure there will be people who will say that the issue is still unsettled.”

I found a blog entry on Malhi’s website where he makes some further measured remarks, while making clear that he broadly agrees with Monbiot’s stance:

I find the evidence that humans had the primary role in causing the Pleistocene extinctions pretty convincing (with the possible exception of Eurasia, where climate change drove down populations in refugia and humans played a role in preventing these species from bouncing back as they had done in previous periods of climate change).

As for what it means for our sense of our place in nature, I think Monbiot is right in identifying that there never was a golden age in our relationship with the rest of nature. Probably for millions of years and certainly for tens of thousands of years we have been a new kind of superpredator, and thereby been disrupting ecosystems around us and driving species to extinction, either directly through hunting or indirectly through habitat change and trophic cascades. This does not negate our need to reverse the tide of destruction, but it is perhaps better to do so with the wide-eyed clarity of understanding the deep history of our impact on the environment than has accompanied our rise as a species, rather than harking back to a prehistoric golden age that never was.

Again with this ‘golden age’, ‘state of grace’ stuff. Who are he & Monbiot arguing with, Rousseau? Wordsworth? Their own former selves? Or maybe it’s just a strawman. I haven’t heard even the most wild-eyed of modern primitivists speak in that kind of unreserved way about past cultures. Also I’m seeing a strong emotional charge as they deliver their verdict about the human species. It sounds like condemnation or moral reproach, with an urging towards better behaviour in the future. Monbiot, an advocate for nuclear power*, pins his hopes on human ‘ingenuity’, laying it on thick in his closing paragraph:

Is this all we are? A diminutive monster that can leave no door closed, no hiding place intact, that is now doing to the great beasts of the sea what we did so long ago to the great beasts of the land? Or can we stop? Can we use our ingenuity, which for two million years has turned so inventively to destruction, to defy our evolutionary history?

I can’t help wondering if they would describe other species in similar terms. Daniel Quinn once pointed to the evolution of big cats as an analagous process of cascading extinctions stemming from the introduction of a new species:

Whenever a new species makes its appearance in the world, adjustments occur throughout the community of life­­­ and some of these adjustments are fatal for some species. For example, when the swift, powerful hunters of the cat family appeared late in the Eocene, the repercussions of this event were experienced throughout the community ­­­ sometimes as extinction. Species of “easy prey” became extinct because they couldn’t reproduce fast enough to replace the individuals the cats were taking. Some of the cats’ competitors also became extinct, for the simple reason that they COULDN’T compete ­ they just weren’t big enough or fast enough. This appearance and disappearance of species is precisely what evolution is all about, after all.

See? There never was a golden age in the relationship of big cats to the rest of nature! How laughable it would seem to describe prehistoric cats as ‘destroyers’, ‘the natural world’s nemesis’, responsible for a ‘killing spree’ or ‘blitzkrieg’ (in the absurd terminology of Paul S. Martin, the originator of the Overkill hypothesis). Perhaps they too had a ‘need to reverse the tide of destruction’ caused by their activities? Well, I wouldn’t know about that, but clearly their behaviour caused disturbance and disruption; they had ‘an impact on the environment’ but somehow this doesn’t seem like such a reprehensible thing when put into their context. But apparently we’re supposed to be better than that. When we do exactly the same things it’s proof that there’s something fundamentally different, even alien about us.

That said, I do think there exists a fundamental difference between extinctions caused by introduced or newly evolved species and the driving force behind the current extinction crisis. Monbiot tries to elide the two by comparing the alleged human responsibility for Pleistocene extinctions to modern poachers in Africa:

And still we have not stopped. Poaching has reduced the population of African forest elephants by 65% since 2002(17).

But prehistoric hunters would have killed megafauna for basic subsistence purposes – mainly food, clothing and tools, while those hunting them today do so to satisfy a demand in global capitalist markets for ivory – a nonessential luxury good (likewise with the overfishing of the ‘great beasts of the sea’: those giant trawlers aren’t out there to feed people, they’re out there to feed the insatiable markets – a crucial difference). Alienated from the land, their subsistence comes primarily from money and whatever means are necessary to get it. Hunter-gatherers have strong incentives to conserve and form longterm relationships with their prey species if possible, while I’ve heard it said that poachers and the industry that they supply actually have a motive to completely wipe the species out, as this would cause scarcity and a subsequent leap in the monetary value of their products. But, as Quinn puts it:

If ancient foragers hunted any species to extinction, it certainly wasn’t because they wanted to exterminate their own food supply! (ibid.)

So yes, while mindful of the backfire effect†, I’m not seeing much here to challenge my basic understanding of humanity as a species much like any other species – causing disturbance, disruption, having an impact, perhaps even reshuffling the ecological deck in drastic ways, as we’ve come to expect from creatures at the top of the food chain – but implacable, irredeemable enemies of the living world? No. In order to draw those kinds of conclusions you have to willfully ignore all the examples where human cultures have managed to live in highly diverse environments for long periods of time without causing any damage – indeed, where their presence has been shown to actually enrich the other-than-human life around them. See for example this piece on Survival International, which contains the information that, according to the WWF, ’80% of the world’s richest ‘ecoregions’ are inhabited by indigenous communities.’

Long before the word ‘conservation’ was coined, tribal peoples had developed highly effective measures for maintaining the richness of their land.

Their guardianship of the land includes practices such as taboos, crop-rotation systems, seasonal hunting bans and sacred groves. If they pillage their land, over-fish their rivers or over-harvest their timber they, and the spirits they revere, will suffer.

Taboos are deeply ingrained in many tribal cultures, serving both to maintain the social order and to protect the resources on which the community depends.

The result of these taboos and practices is an effective rationing of the resources in the tribe’s territory, giving a rich diversity of plants and animals the time and space to flourish.

This is how native cultures behave – they have a strong, ancestral connection to a specific place or multiple places between which they make seasonal migrations; they’re not going anywhere in a hurry so they have to learn to get along with the neighbours and the wider community. The land gives them life, so they can’t wreck it without impoverishing themselves or turning into wandering, placeless orphans. But then, human populations – like any other plant or animal populations – also migrate to entirely new environments, in which case the old laws don’t always apply and a whole new set of behaviours might have to be learned. That’s when the most damage can happen. Jason Godesky described the scenario in a way that has stuck with me over the years‡:

Feral animals often cause terrible disturbances in their ecologies, because they are basically invasive species. Invasive species always cause disturbances, precisely because they have no web of relationship: they have no predators, so their numbers proliferate; they have not co-evolved with their food sources and neighboring flora and fauna, so they may over-eat, trample, or diminish the ecology. But this situation does not last forever. Over time, other predators may learn that a feral species is good to eat, and begin predating them. The hardier plants that can survive being trampled and [eaten] by these species proliferate. In general, feral animals are eventually woven into the ecology; they cease to be invasive, and become native.

Becoming biologically native is a process that often takes thousands of years. Culture is a means by which we can speed that process considerably. When the Indians’ ancestors entered the Americas, they did so as an invasive species. While the “overkill” hypothesis has been vastly overstated, it’s also undeniably true that the introduction of a new invasive species of alpha predator tipped many species over the edge. The process was difficult and many species that were already ailing were tipped into extinction, but ultimately, this invasive species became native. Culture allowed humans to enter into relationships with other species far more quickly than genetic evolution alone would have allowed. American Indians are in every meaningful sense “native”—they have a relationship with the ecology, or to put it more strongly, they are part of that ecology.

Indeed, this explains the colossal destructive capacity of the dominant civilised culture because we steadfastly refuse to blend in, become indigenous or rewild, and until we do there will be the same fundamental difference between us and most of the other cultures that have ever existed; between us and all creatures that have survived and continued to exist in the long term. Godesky again:

While the Inuit and related peoples came as wild humans seeking a new home, and making themselves native to it by using their culture to create new relationships there, the domesticated system did not come to migrate, but to conquer. Domesticated humans use their culture to precisely the opposite end: to actively resist becoming native, and to remain as invasive as possible, as long as possible. We do not seek to weave ourselves into a new ecology, but rather, to uproot that ecology and replace it with our own, to plow it under and plant rows of our own crops there, instead. Naturally, such goals can never be perfectly realized, but we have succeeded far more than we have failed, and it explains why, given the same amount of time, there is no doubt that the Inuit and their neighbors are native, while there is equally no doubt that Europeans remain invasive. (ibid.)

I recently came across a book with lots of useful material in it pertaining to this subject. It seems there is now a whole academic discipline dedicated to exploring the relation of human cultures to ecosystems – called ‘Historical Ecology‘. The editor of the book (a collection of pieces by writers and researchers from many different fields called Advances in Historical Ecology), William Balée has a very interesting opening chapter detailing the ‘premises and postulates’ of the discipline. Here are the latter, briefly stated:

(1) Much, if not all, of the nonhuman biosphere has been affected by human activity. (2) Human activity does not necessarily lead to degradation of the nonhuman biosphere and the extinction of species, nor does it necessarily create a more habitable biosphere for humans and other life forms by increasing the abundance and speciosity of these. (3) Different kinds of sociopolitical and economic systems (or political economies) in particular regional contexts tend to result in qualitatively unlike effects on the biosphere, on the abundance and speciosity of nonhuman lifeforms, and on the historical trajectory of subsequent human sociopolitical and economic systems (or political economies) in the same regions. (4) Human communities and cultures together with the landscapes and regions with which they interact over time can be understood as total phenomena.

I recommend reading the whole article if you’d like to see these points fleshed out in a more readable fashion – it’s online here (pdf). The juicy part for me was where he compares two rival views of humanity: ‘Ecologically Noble Savage’ vs. ‘Homo Devastans‘:

The Ecologically Noble Savage doctrine holds that it is human nature to be custodial of the environment, the relationship becoming corrupted only after the rise or intrusion of civilization. The doctrine of Homo devastans, in contrast, holds humankind itself accountable for the destruction of natural habitats and of other species. These opposed dogmas have been applied to non-state-level societies from which some researchers have sought to promote or deconstruct specific viewpoints on human nature. Both views require the demonstration of sociocultural universals; either would become a mere shibboleth with proof of a single counterexample. It is clear that both views have converts in the scientific community today. Yet research in historical ecology seems to support neither view, just as sociocultural universals based on the juxtaposition of biology, language, and culture have been continuously proven to be erroneous since the time of Franz Boas.

Many modern environmentalists seem most likely to assume the existence of Homo devastans. When referring to some “panhistorical, cross-cultural, and ultimately destructive human ‘nature,’ ” according to Alice Ingerson, her environmentalist students really meant the world capitalist system. Many environmentalists, evidently, do not consider the peoples of nonstate, egalitarian societies to make up part of that abstraction formerly called “Man.” (pp.16-17)

I guess that puts me firmly in the ENS camp then… The examples of beneficial human activities include fire setting (when this results in niche ecosystems and/or minimisation of catastrophic wildfires), the creation of rich shell midden mounds by coastal foragers, species-rich ‘anthropogenic’ forests in Africa and the Amazon (see also: terra preta) and increased diversity in cultivated crops (eg: potatoes). The ‘devastans’ crowd have the overkill theory (such as it stands), and extinction of island species in Polynesia, Melanesia and Australasia. However:

[...] this increased poverty of the flora and fauna did not result solely from human nature, for it can be demonstrated that humans have not everywhere been associated with diminished diversity of other life forms [...] Rather, Polynesia suffered lowered biodiversity partly because of the peculiarities of island environments [...] Individual islands, unlike regions and continents, tend to be high in endemic species over small expanses of land. In Polynesia, may of these species evolved over millions of years before human arrival within the last 2,500 years; therefore, many species were unusually susceptible to extirpation by perturbations of the environment caused by humans and perhaps other animals (especially introduced animals). (p.22)

Otherwise the people arguing this way will find most of the evidence to support their viewpoint by looking first and foremost to their own societies:

With the exception of certain island societies, therefore, the only solid evidence for a human association in certain regions with reduced biodiversity and decreased habitability for other life forms comes from state societies, old and new. (p.23)

(Though this was published in 1998, so there may well be more examples to draw upon by now – something tells me leavergirl will drop by to remind me about the depredations of settled forager cultures in the Middle East 10-12,000 years ago – set us straight V!) Personally speaking that’s the only thing I feel injecting me with venom and scraping at my soul on a daily basis: being born into this culture with so few redeeming features and on such a clear warpath against the rest of the living world; with no choice but to accept its dictates if I want food and a roof over my head, and with my every activity within its confines connected in some way to a cluster of appalling, routine atrocities.

I’d better finish with the ‘implicit racism’ charge. Hopefully those of you reading this will know by now that modern indigenous people are not ‘living fossils’ subsisting in exactly the same ways as prehistoric hunter-gatherers**. I really doubt, however, that the majority of the public understands this point, so when articles get published depicting early man as a ruthless, unthinking killer, this characterisation spills over effortlessly in most peoples’ minds onto those tribal people that are still managing to cling onto survival today. Pretending that all humans and human cultures behave in the same way (destructive, ecocidal), obscuring essential differences between types of social organisation, and ignoring evidence of beneficial relationships between humans and the rest of the biosphere provides an important propaganda function because it gives the current perpetrators of environmental dismemberment carte blanche to continue as they have been doing – because “it’s just human nature, whaddaya gonna do?” Similarly, while not always in a position to refute their arguments, or even when persuaded by their logic and the evidence they present, I still feel very uneasy when I read popular science writers like Jared Diamond, Charles Mann, Tim Flannery etc. on subjects like smallpox epidemics and the false illusion of fecundity in post-conquest N.America, or alleged ecological damage by early aboriginal Australians, because I can see how these discussions are a gift to those who want to minimise or deny genocide, justify ongoing abuses against tribal people, or again excuse the behaviour of the dominant society because of that kind of destructiveness being supposedly built into our DNA. How irresponsible to refer to aborigines as ‘future eaters‘ at a time when their fragile communities are under renewed assault from the Australian state††! We don’t have a surviving indigenous population in the British Isles, so George Monbiot can get away with saying what he says without a direct response from them; without studied examples of positive aspects of their way of life springing instantly to the minds of his readers. What a curious silence when those who would disagree cannot because they are extinct. And how strange that some should feel the need to kick them so many millenia after they passed. There must be something really subversive about this ‘state of grace’ idea… Anyway, for now I’m happy to take offence on their behalf (!), and will continue to look into how they lived in this place and see what lessons they still have to teach.

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* – I don’t mean this as an ad hom, just as a worrying example of the kind of ‘ingenuity’ GM considers acceptable. Check out his reasoning in these articles if you like, or if you have the time (he first ‘comes out’ as pro-nuclear in March 2011, in the wake of the Fukushima disaster).

† – ‘The Misconception: When your beliefs are challenged with facts, you alter your opinions and incorporate the new information into your thinking.

The Truth: When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger.’ (link)

‡ – And which I refuse to abandon!

** -If this is news to you I recommend reading about the response of various indigenous people to Jared Diamond’s recent book, The World Until Yesterday in this article.

†† – Read John Pilger: ‘ Once again, Australia is stealing its Indigenous children‘ or track down his recent documentary film, Utopia.

‘Ineffective and inhumane’ – or in denial?

March 3, 2014

***Updated, March 16th (see below)***

badger

Back in media-land the insanity on the badger cull continues (see previous post). I was unfortunate enough last Friday to witness this Channel 4 news report on a ‘scientific assessment’ which called the recent pilot culls in Gloucestershire and Somerset ‘ineffective’ and ‘inhumane’. It struck me as a classic example of media framing – laying down (and subsequently policing) the boundaries of public discussion to extremely narrow parameters in a way that benefits the powerful. So, for example, you hear respectable commentators talk about the 2003 Iraq war and polarise the debate between those who view it as ‘justified’ and those who think it was a ‘miscalculation’. You hardly ever hear the conclusion that the evidence supports – namely that it was a deliberate act of criminal aggression. Likewise, with the negative effects of ‘austerity’ in the UK (dismantling of the NHS,  removal of benefits, pay freezes, public sector job losses), at the liberal extreme these are most often presented as a failure or a mistake on the part of politicians, but practically never as intentional, cynical policies to further reconstruct the economy as a channel of wealth from the poor (and middle-classes) to the super-rich.

So how does this apply to the badger cull, as discussed in this particular Channel 4 bulletin? Well first off presenter Cathy Newman passes on the government’s stated justification for the cull without criticism – we are to believe from the start that the cull was ‘aimed at tackling the spread of TB in cattle’ and everything that follows rests on this premise. Other possible motivations such as irrational hatred of wildlife, scapegoating and displacement of responsibility on the part of the farming lobby and a willingness of the political establishment to ‘offer [them] a carrot’* don’t merit consideration.

Science Editor Tom Clarke then comes on to make his presentation. He fleshes out the Official Explanation for our benefit:

The purpose of these [pilot culls] was to show that you could effectively and humanely kill badgers to control TB and kill enough of them quickly enough to prevent spreading the disease

and presents the ‘very strict rules’ by which success or failure are apparently to be judged – namely a minimum 70% kill rate, a six week culling period and to shoot them in a ‘humane’ way using trained marksmen. The news, then, was that

What we now know is that they managed to fail on several of these counts.

It turns out that they were able to kill less than 50% of the target populations. However, this is not a source of concern or grief to Clarke – a very real failure to stop badgers getting killed for highly dubious reasons – rather:

50% [is] an important number because that’s actually getting down to the point at which this policy could in fact cause more TB to spread around than not.

(To his credit he does refer to the ‘humane’ goal of less than 5% of badgers taking longer than five minutes to die as an ‘arbitrary and not particularly laudable target’)

We then hear from Dominic Dyer of ‘Badger Trust & Care For The Wild’ with a priceless soundbite:

This cull has been an absolute disaster. They’ve only killed a fraction of the badgers they thought they would be able to kill.

What? Does that mean he would be happy if they had killed 70% of the populations?? This pathetic opposition which implicitly accepts – indeed, which appears to cheerlead the government’s insane policies (so long as they are carried out ‘efficiently’ and ‘scientifically’) was repeated by the scientist chosen by the BBC’s newsteam, Prof. Rosie Woodroffe  of the Zoological Society of London [0:45]:

These culls have not killed enough badgers, haven’t done it fast enough. The benefits will not be, therefore, as great, we expect [as in a former trial]

Benefits??? Whose benefits would that refer to, I wonder? Not much benefit in a fucking bullet, is there! At least, not if you’re on the receiving end…

The discussion back in the Channel 4 studio takes a surreal twist after Newman poses this corker: ‘It sounds like an odd question but how hard is it to kill a badger humanely?’ – as if she was thinking about getting involved herself and wondering how to go about it. Clarke responds with a sympathetic portrayal of the marksman’s plight:

[T]he one thing that struck me is how impossible it must be – it’s dark, it’s raining most of the time, it’s thick forest. I’m actually surprised these marksmen managed to kill any badgers at all, let alone cleanly. So I don’t think we should be too surprised that there were some problems. [...] This is a complicated, difficult, rather messy business, killing animals. But we’re a society that prides ourselves on our humaneness, especially our farming industry [ha!], so it makes it hard to justify from a humane point of view.

This reminded me of the way the media guides us to empathise with the ‘difficult task’ of the soldiers in the UK’s overseas wars, presenting it as a dry, technical challenge and not speaking of moral culpability when they go about their business of killing defenceless creatures  – of their own species (and again for highly dubious reasons which we’re not supposed to scrutinise too closely). Yes, it’s a complicated, difficult, rather messy business, killing Afghans and Iraqis. But we’re a society that prides ourselves on our deep commitment to democracy and human rights, especially our military, so it makes it hard to justify – a tough decision, a difficult job but someone’s got to do it etc etc ad nauseam.

I think lots of people think the cull has been highly successful, even if it doesn’t get rolled out across the country for the next three years as originally planned. For them the point was never to do something about Bovine TB – if they were serious about that then they would look to the farming practices that create the perfect breeding ground for this disease among cattle in the first place. As with the focus on dredging as a supposed cure to lowland flooding (it isn’t), I think the intention was to be seen to be doing something about the problem, regardless of how effective this might prove to be. There’s also the possibility that the issue has served as a distraction while bigger things were going on behind the scenes, as raised in this Think Left article:

However, there is another rather concerning thought. The public outrage and likely direct action against the cull, may distract the media away from something that the government wants to slip through unnoticed. There is little doubt, that it was just this sort of distraction tactic, that lay behind the proposal to sell off the forest which was announced just as the Health and Social Care bill took its first steps through the Commons.

I suppose if that’s true I’ve fallen for it, hook line & sinker (although at least I’ve taken it in a direction of my own choosing).

But really, I think the major success of this policy has been an emotional one – to lash out in frustration at something that can’t fight back, and to act out destructive urges on something which has no real or immediate value, according to the metrics of the current dominant culture.

***Update, March 16th***

Other opposition figures captured by government/media rhetoric about ‘effectiveness’ include Caroline Lucas:

Now that its own research has demonstrated that badger culling is cruel as well as pointless, it’s time for the Government to heed the evidence and end this failed policy once and for all. (link)

and Chris Packham:

Let me be clear from the outset, if the scientific evidence pointed to culling badgers being an effective, humane, sustainable and economically viable solution to the increasing occurrence of TB in cattle then I’d be agreeing to it. (link)

Now I’m struggling to find a parallel that doesn’t violate Godwin’s Law, but… imagine that you live as a minority group in a racist totalitarian society. There’s an outbreak of epidemic disease which affects a large portion of the population, due mainly to overcrowded living conditions, poor sanitation, malnutrition etc. – basically the incompatibility of the human organism to prolonged city life. Your group is relatively lucky in that marginalisation and prejudice means you live on the outskirts in a somewhat more resilient, rural form of subsistence economy, although you also suffer losses from the city-born epidemic. But when disaster strikes the city founders and leaders (including those who most benefit from its continued operations) quite understandably don’t want to undermine their Great Accomplishments or any future ambitions by drawing attention to the real causes of the epidemic. Instead they divert attention away from themselves by casting an eye for the briefest of moments outside of their sphere of influence until they find someone else they can blame who won’t cause them too many problems. So your group becomes the scapegoat and wild accusations about your inherent uncleanliness or genetic impurity start flying around. You are judged guilty of causing a ‘health risk’ to the broader population either passively (through your supposedly lax standards) or even through active conspiracies (eg: poisoned wells, subversion of the social fabric etc.) So they send the shock troops in to carry out a ‘controlled cull’ of your population. Terror ensues, your way of life is shattered, you can no longer trust anybody any more, you suffer all the symptoms of post traumatic stress as a community. Then one day you hear that some intellectual luminaries in the city opposed this atrocity on the grounds that it was a ‘failed policy’, ‘ineffective’, ‘inhumane’, ‘unsustainable’, ‘economically unviable’. They say that the cull and any future culls ought to be discontinued because it is difficult, if not impossible to ensure that targets of killing 50% or more of the selected populations – your friends and relations – are met. How would you react?

To be fair to Lucas, Packham and others, these are the comments of theirs that have been deemed acceptable for inclusion and propagation by the media system. It’s highly likely they have a whole host of unacceptable opinions on this issue which they pretty much have to keep to themselves. Packham is a case in point. I much prefer his earlier tweeted comments about the pilot culls:

It is both sad and shameful that when night falls and the setts of southern England stir their gentle folk will be needlessly slaughtered. That in spite of science and public will the wrath of ignorance will further bloody and bleed our countryside of its riches of life. That brutalist thugs, liars and frauds will destroy our wildlife and dishonour our nations reputation as conservationists and animal lovers. So I fear that tonight could be the darkest for British wildlife that we have witnessed in our lives. I feel sick, sad, disempowered, betrayed, angry and crushed by the corruption of all that I know as right. I feel rage. (link)

But a Tory MP complained that this breached BBC impartiality (even though it was from a personal twitter account) and as a result Packham, we can assume, got a slap on the wrist from his managers and was forced to promise not to speak about the issue any more, at least not on the BBC’s time:

On his website, Mr Packham said: “My views on the badger cull are well known and have been widely voiced and published.

“They are opinions based on a pragmatic and objective consideration of the current science concerning its efficacy as well as concerns about animal welfare. Because of the prominence of my comments it is obviously impossible for me to be considered impartial as a BBC presenter on this topic.

“Impartiality is a cornerstone of the BBC’s practice as a public service broadcaster and I am determined to protect this important aspect of its integrity. Thus I will not be taking part in any discussions about the cull during the forthcoming series of Autumnwatch and Winterwatch.

“Nor will I be presenting any items in the series about the badger cull because, as natural history programmes, they are not the right place for discussions about matters of national public policy. I will however continue to make my views known when I feel it is appropriate to do so. (link)

Another example of how thought is controlled in nominally democratic societies†.

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* – Professor John Bourne, chair of the Independent Scientific Group on Bovine TB: “I think the most interesting observation was made to me by a senior politician who said, ‘Fine John, we accept your science, but we have to offer the farmers a carrot. And the only carrot we can possibly give them is culling badgers’.” (link)

† – I’m indebted to David Edwards, especially his book Burning All Illusions (aka Free To Be Human) and his work with David Cromwell on the UK website Media Lens for this insight and others.

‘The Environment of Early Man in the British Isles’

February 12, 2014

http://www.pendleburys.com/shop_image/product/166557.jpg

I recently learned a lot from reading this book, which was recommended by a commenter under one of George Monbiot’s rewilding articles. It was published back in 1975 so I’m not sure how much of it still holds true or whether there has been much development or debunking of the theories he presents from various scientific disciplines in the time that has elapsed since. But I can say that it made a lot of sense to this reader, who found it eye-opening, provocative and highly informative (if a little heavy-going at points) nearly forty years after it was written.

The main thing it got me thinking about was this polarisation of whether human cultures are ‘meant’ to exist in a largely open or closed environment – basically the choice between grasses and trees which we talked about before. Evans makes clear that this isn’t a simple delineation between forest-dwelling hunter-gatherers and field-based farmers. In fact there have been very large differences in the patterns of subsistence adopted by hunter-gatherers in this land even before the arrival of agriculture, around 6,000 years ago, heralded the more active management of the land with which we’re familiar today at its totalitarian extreme. The main cause for these differences was the background climate, to which prehistoric man adapted along with all the other creatures in the surrounding ecology. Evans separates them into two main types – the Upper Paleolithic (old stone-age) cultures, who hunted herds of large game feeding on the grasslands that prevailed during the glacial Devensian period between 70,000 and 10,000 years ago:

In the Mendips, pollen analysis of cave deposits indicates values of between 25 and 40 per cent trees and shrubs, mainly birch and willow. An environment of park tundra—scattered birches in a generally open landscape, but with denser woodland in the sheltered valleys and ravines—can be envisaged for much of Britain at low altitudes. A fauna similar to that prior to the Full Glacial was present with large herbivores predominant. Horse and reindeer appeared early in zone I [beginning 14,000 years ago]; elk was present by zone II [10,000 years ago], and in Ireland [...] the Allerød period [ie:  zone II] is characterized by the giant Irish deer. But the mammoth, wooly rhinocerous, hyena and lion were all absent, for some reason not having been able to return to Britain after the glacial maximum [...]

In Britain, faunal evidence suggests horse often as important or even more important than reindeer for food and raw materials [haha!]. Abundant herds of horse were probably available along the upland/lowland contact zone as indeed they would be today in the High Altai of Mongolia were it not for modern man [...] The tundra vegetation, on which low temperatures and a short growing season were limiting factors, was not directly exploitable for food on a large scale by man, although seeds and berries were doubtless eaten. But the reindeer and the horse were ideally suited to it and it was through these animals that man’s livelihood was largely gained. (pp.51-3)

and the Mesolithic (middle stone-age) cultures who lived in the forested environment favoured by the more temperate climate of the ‘post-glacial’ which began around 10,000 years ago and continues to the present day:

Man responded to these changes variously. He adopted his methods of hunting to the pursuit of individual animals rather than herds and began to make greater use of the bow and arrow. He widened his range in the quest for food and became less specialized, pursuing a grater variety of animals than in the Ice Age. It is inevitable too, although we have little evidence for this, that a more varied plant diet was exploited than was possible in the sub-arctic tundra.

The earliest forest-dwelling Mesolithic culture in Britain is the Maglemosian, named after the type sit of Maglemose (literally ‘big bog’) in Denmark. It is classically associated with forest, marsh and reed-swamp habitats, and, as far as we can tell, adapted readily to the changed environment of early Post-glacial times [...] The best-known Maglemosian site is Starr Carr where the main animals exploited were red deer (80 examples), roe deer (33), elk (11), ox (9) and pig (5), a fauna reflecting the prevailing forest vegetation. Other animals present were the pine marten, hedgehog, hare, badger, fox, beaver, and domestic dog. (pp.87-8)

Of course, these differences depicted among modern humans (Homo Sapiens has been in Britain for around 40,000 years) probably apply to the different cultures among earlier subspecies, Neanderthalensis, Heidelbergensis and Antecessor, (among others?)  who would have lived through similar swings in climate and either changed their subsistence accordingly, migrated to more favourable climates or become locally extinct. For example the recent news of human footprints and artifacts discovered in Happisburgh on the Norfolk coast, and dated to between 800,000 and a million years ago, mentions a background climate where:

[...] the local vegetation consisted of a mosaic of open coniferous forest of pine (Pinus), spruce (Picea), with some birch (Betula). Alder (Alnus) was growing in wetter areas and there were patches of heath and grassland. This vegetation is characteristic of the cooler climate typically found at the beginning or end of an interglacial or during an interstadial period. (from the original paper)

In other words much closer to the kind of environment where we can expect subsistence on herds of large herbivores rather than smaller forest-dwelling individuals.

Evans wears his prejudices on his sleeve when it comes to describing what the resulting human cultures were like, and appears to see a narrative of progress linking the open-environment people of the Upper Paleolithic to the Neolithic farmers, with the woodland Mesolithic people presented as an unfortunate intermediate stage where nothing much happened, possibly because their environment wasn’t ‘challenging’ enough. Compare the concluding paragraphs to his chapters on the two periods:

The Later Upper Paleolithic peoples endured in western Europe for over 4000 years. With their cave art, their carvings, their tools and weapons of extreme beauty, their sophisticated annual migratory movements and their possible near domestication of the reindeer and the horse they drew from Western Europe and gave to it a fitness and a legacy which was not to be surpassed until the introduction of agriculture—and some would say never. The possible future of these communities had the Late-glacial environment been maintained is totally speculative. But there is little doubt that the Post-glacial amelioration of climate and the eventual spread of mixed deciduous forest drove the reindeer herds northwards and broke up one of the finest and most successful life styles ever known. (p.54)

[...]

This then is the environmental background to the early Post-glacial hunting communities of Britain—a warming climate, a rising sea with yet marshy extensions to the east and links with Europe, an increasing variety of game and plant food, and the spread of all pervasive forest—conditions quite different from those experienced by Upper Paleolithic man. These changes may have had a very great psychological impact on man, the equable conditions and diversity of habitats and food supply both obviating the need for specialization and also retarding development [...] it is a fact that not only in Britain but in Europe as a whole Mesolithic man has left little of artistic wealth. We have few clues to his beliefs, and burials, apart from a few examples such as the horrible nests of human skulls at Ofnet in Bavaria, are rare. There is nothing of the brilliance of the Upper Paleolithic hunters living as they were in the stimulating landscape of the Ice Age, nor anything of the vital urgency with which later farming communities were to settle and cultivate the lands of western Europe and the British Isles. (pp.89-90)

This may relate to his personal politics which he lays bare at the end of the final chapter, which left a bad taste in my mouth for several days. After describing the horrors of soil erosion, whereby, because of agriculture and the removal of field boundaries, hedges etc. ‘[w]e are, in effect, returning to an almost ‘Late-glacial’ landscape of steppe, pasture and bare ground, with processes of physical erosion—dust storms and ‘solifluxion’—rife’, the topsoil ‘lost, literally in a day’ through wind erosion, he then questions the value of environmental organisations and conservation efforts, asking:

Do we have the right to lay down the requirements and attempt to mould the environment of the future? And in doing so, are we not betraying earlier, and more important, future generations of man? [...]

By attempting to maintain the environmental status quo are we not denying ourselves and our progeny the opportunity and the ability to exploit challenging new environments both created by our own industrial and agricultural needs and by natural climatic shifts? Evolution depends on environmental stimulus, and the most successful groups of man have arisen in response to specialized simplified environments. If man had declaimed in the past at the felling of the forest he might still be at the Mesolithic stage of development. If there had been one of the specialized periglacial habitats, the brilliant Upper Paleolithic may never have emerged. And had there been none of the rigours of a cooling Pleistocene climate, there may well have been no man. (pp.186-7)

I don’t think this can be forgiven just because it was written the 70s. There’s some seriously insane thinking going on here, alongside the falsity of viewing evolution in terms of linear progress. Maybe he’d appreciate the ‘challenging new environment’ of the oil-soaked Gulf of Mexico, or defoliated, dioxin-laced Vietnam, or a tar sands trailing pond, or an ocean stripped of phytoplankton because of the greater acidity caused by excess CO2 in the atmosphere?

Canadian oil sands sitefancy a ‘challenge’? – source

He doesn’t appear to understand that civilised man has already done more than anyone to ‘mould the environment of the future’ – a largely desertified, if not entirely dead planet, but, unbelievably, his ire is directed at environmentalists who are trying to check this destructive ‘simplifying’ process. What gives them the right to try and preserve the rich, generous biodiversity that the natural world has tried so hard to bestow us with?

Anyhow, back on the subject of open vs. closed environments, there may yet be some truth to Simon Fairlie’s comment about ‘the health of the human psyche’ depending on ‘keeping land open to wind and sunlight’ which I criticised at the above link. Remembering the story the photographer Guy Hand tells in ‘The Forest of Forgetting‘ (pdf) about trying to introduce his Scottish wife to the pine forests of his native Idaho, I assumed that this was an attitude born from an abused landscape:

The instant we climbed out of Idaho sagebrush and into a dense stand of pine, in the Sawtooth Wilderness Area, I knew something was wrong. Mairi fell silent. Her pace slowed. I glanced over my shoulder to find the distance between us filled with shadow and half-light. She had hunched her shoulders and dropped her head. She moved with the wary posture of stalked prey. As she passed through a saber of light I could clearly see the fear in her eyes. I waited for her, but she walked past, pointed to a clearing, and by way of explanation, whispered, “too many trees.” Neither of us had known, until that moment, that Mairi held a secret dread of wooded land.

I felt as if I’d failed her, unable to convey the closed-in sense of sanctuary I’d always felt in that forest, the way, even as a child, the thick mat of pine needles and jigsaw bits of bark felt luxurious under my feet; the way the trees provided shelter against wind and mid-day glare; the way sounds were both softened and clarified; the way air held the sweet scent of pitch and the flutter of wings.

On the scree and boulder slopes above tree line, the tension drained from her face. She looked off into a landscape she could again understand: open country, treeless country, country filled with nothing more than grass, rock, and sky. It was only later, after peering more deeply into her Highland past, that we learned forests were part of her history, too, a forest lost to centuries of forgetting.

But the evidence shows that even woodland people also value open landscapes, whether we’re talking about the Native American practice of using fire to maintain the so-called ‘Oak Savannah’ habitats*, rainforest people clearing temporary patches to grow manioc and other vegetables, or the density of prehistoric artifacts found around ancient floodplains or other areas such as lakes or coastlines kept open through ‘natural’ causes:

spey

Over the past 200 years, rivers like the Thames have been embanked to prevent flooding, and the flow of water controlled by locks and weirs. Formerly their course were braided, i.e. split up into several channels which meandered over a broad flood plain [...] For agricultural peoples such a system of braided channels is wasteful of land, and artificial control has been imposed at various times in the past on river systems in the most heavily farmed areas of the country. But from the point of view of Lower Paleolithic man such conditions were ideal. They provided tracts of open ground in an otherwise forested country with the obvious advantages of defence against predators such as the lion, and of concentrating herds of game such as deer, oxen, horse and elephant attracted to the river valley for water. The variety of habitats—open water, reed swamp, woodland, and, as we shall see, at one stage, grassland—together with the variety of game animals both large and small obviated the need for specialization in hunting and food-gathering techniques, and presented man with what was probably a relatively congenial existence. (pp.3-4)

Perhaps climate change-induced flooding of the kind which low-lying areas in Britain have been recently experiencing will force a return to this kind of habitat?

Somerset flooding

There is also some evidence for the use of fire in the opening up or maintenance of favourable hunting grounds. Apparently the man to check out is Ian Simmons, who wrote a 1996 book called The environmental impact of later Mesolithic cultures. Earlier writings of his having to do with the relationship between fire and the ‘vegetation changes associated with Mesolithic man in Britain’ and ‘Environment and early man on Dartmoor’ (both published in 1969) are summarised by Evans thusly:

simmons

Forest glades around springs and streambanks are seen as initial nuclei of open ground, created by animals coming to drink. The dual attraction to Mesolithic man of both water and game in these areas was probably exploited, and their enlargement by burning a logical follow up which in turn would have attracted more game animals. Game avoidance of the area or overkill by man may then have led to desertion of the clearing and subsequent regeneration of woodland. (p.97)

Where this happened on poorer soils it is seen as evidence that Mesolithic people were capable of permanently degrading the land in certain areas to the point where the trees wouldn’t regenerate and only heath- or moor-type plant communities could survive.

Fire is also mentioned whenever the discussion turns towards Hazel – higher representations of which in the pollen records are said to represent either spontaneous or human-encouraged conflagrations because ‘Hazel is a fire-resistant tree, springing up readily from burnt stumps’ (p.81).

[A.G. Smith, 1970] argues that the prevalence of hazel during the Boreal period [increasing warmth 9500-7500 years ago]  may too have been engendered by the continued use of fire. It is perhaps significant that the hazel maximum in the Post-glacial falls at a much earlier stage in relation to the climatic succession as a whole than in previous interglacials.

The purely climatic origin of the vegetational changes in the Boreal/Atlantic transition ['climatic optimum' starting around 7500 years ago] has also been questioned, largely on the grounds that they are so often exactly synchronous with layers of wood charcoal and Mesolithic flint artefacts [...] A secondary hazel maximum occurring around the Boreal/Atlantic transition, and occasionally coinciding with an increase of herbaceous pollen, is perhaps further evidence for widespread human interference with the vegetation at this time. (pp.100-1)

Herbaceous pollen, eh? This has echoes of the Indian practices we mentioned before*, in which fire is used to favour the growth of ‘bulbs and greens’ under a relatively open tree canopy – Hazel coppice, both in their neglected and actively managed states, around where I live have a lot of ground flora, probably due to the greater amount of light filtering through (although I understand he may not be saying the tree & herb pollen came from the same sites). Unfortunately Evans doesn’t consider that Mesolithic people might have been deliberately managing stands of Hazel for a nut crop, as more recent research has begun to explore†.

I felt a weird, nagging sensation while studying the many charts comparing the pollen representation of various plant species in the archaeological record. Here’s a simple one detailing the transition to Neolithic cereal farming at Barfield Tarn, ‘a kettle hole on the south-western edge of the Lake District’ (p.111):

pollen

Evans talks about the decline of Elm, which most researchers accept as diagnostic of the rise of farming, whether through introduced diseases, use as fodder for livestock until exhausted or deliberate clearance (as it often occupied the soils most suitable for cultivation). In this diagram the trees, with the exceptions of Oak and Elm, don’t appear to suffer that much from the ‘two episodes of land use’ although we are assured that ‘[r]egeneration of woodland did not occur’ (perhaps after the depicted period?) Anyway, what struck me as a forager looking at these diagrams is that, while I make extensive harvests from trees themselves, most of the plants that I would consider useful in a culinary sense – Plantain, Dandelion, Sorrel, Fat Hen, Nettle and mustard species – only become prevalent along with the grasses and cereal crops favoured by the Neolithic farmer/herders. I too have adapted to an open landscape! In reality, unless we accept the active fire management scenario described above (or the more passive attraction to ‘naturally’ open spaces), it seems likely that these ‘weed’ species were, if not entirely absent from Mesolithic diets, then much less abundant in their environment than they are today. Chris Thomas of York University’s biology department has made similar points (pdf) drawing on his knowledge of butterflies, summarised here by Mark Fisher:

[Thomas] sought to ask why so many animal and plant species in Britain, and in some other parts of northern Europe, are restricted to open habitats when the majority of the landscape would naturally be forested? He observed that most open-country species would have survived the mostly wooded state of the mid Holocene in the open areas of inland and sea cliffs, dunes, coast and lake shores, and possibly river-valley grasslands, fen, bog and mire, as well as above the tree-line, without the need to invoke major modification of the vegetation by large herbivores. They would have colonised twice: in the early Holocene after the ice receded but failing to persist once tree cover asserted, and then again after the trees were cleared for agriculture. Thus what ever the date of arrival, current distributions largely reflect recent conditions. In addition, the rates at which we see modern distributions adjust to new environmental conditions are sufficient to allow most animal species to assume new distributions within Britain in a few hundred years if conditions change. Current distributions thus reflect recent anthropogenic habitats far more strongly than they reflect the longer-term history of natural populations. (‘What is rewilding?‘)

Evans has plenty to say about the effects of agriculture once it arrived in Britain, and he charts the various technological developments that ensued as well as the negative environmental impacts it had, especially on the soil. He follows these effects right through to the historical period and the modern day, often showing how patterns of land use laid down in earlier times often strongly influenced the organisation of human settlements which we recognise today. Perhaps I’ll come back to explore this properly another time, but for now suffice it to say that nothing in this book has fundamentally altered my understanding of agriculture as ‘a regressive rather than a progressive evolutionary event’ (to use the words of Oak enthusiast David Bainbridge).

[Above images print-screened from the google preview of the book]

———————-

* – ‘There was considerably less chaparral and underbrush [in aboriginal times], due to the Maidu practice of burning off the areas near where they lived each fall and winter. They preferred an open, grassy, oak savannah habitat for several reasons. Open country is much easier to travel in than country with thick underbrush; it is easier to find game and harder for enemies to sneak up on the camp. More bulbs and greens grow in such an environment, and it is easier to gather acorns on bare ground.’ – anthropologist John Duncan, quoted in Kat Anderson’s Tending The Wild, p.288

† – for example: ‘The Late Mesolithic phase is defined by the repetitive application of fire to the woodland to encourage a mosaic of productive vegetation regeneration patches, consistent with the promotion of Corylus [Hazel] and to aid hunting. In this phase, weed species including Plantago lanceolata [Ribwort Plantain], Rumex [Dock/Sorrel] and Chenopodiaceae [Fat Hen/Good King Henry] are frequent, taxa which are normally associated with the first farmers.’ (from the abstract to ‘Late Mesolithic and early Neolithic forest disturbance‘ – anyone with access to the full paper please get in touch!)

Pine Pollen

January 8, 2014

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I finally got round to processing the pine ‘catkins’ – or ‘pollen-bearing male cones’ to be more precise – which I harvested back in the latter stages of November or the beginning of December from a client’s garden (shh, don’t tell anyone!) and which have been sitting patiently in a cardboard crate in various warm, dry places waiting for me to do something with them. So, with apologies to them and to H who has to put up with the clutter of my various projects (which, to my shame, I occasionally fail to ever follow through) here’s how I went about it:

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Step #1 – Harvest. Following Feral Kevin’s advice I picked mainly immature cones which hadn’t yet shed all their pollen in the wind and put them in my plastic lunch box to avoid spillage. These were then left to ‘ripen’ in the aforementioned cardboard crate, laid out in a thin layer on newspaper to maximise contact with the air and provide a surface to gather the pollen grains.

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Step #2 – Sieving. It turned out there was a great deal more pollen still attached to the cones so I ended up by crushing them individually by hand which, with the help of a basting brush, got pretty much all of it. Only a few bits of chaff managed to get past the sieve, with the pollen getting variously shaken, tapped or brushed into the bowl beneath. This took me the best part of an hour, but I figure it’s possible to do it much faster with practice or if you don’t mind making a mess (eg: by rubbing all the cones at once with both hands).

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Step #3 – Re-sieving and final storage. I decided to keep my pollen in a jam jar to avoid the possibility of paper bags breaking open. Hopefully it was dry enough by this stage that it won’t spoil, although I may store it in the fridge for good measure. That’s a funnel you can see in the above photo. The pollen flour was incredibly fine and dusty at this stage, swishing around almost like a liquid in a way which I found strangely satisfying. I ended up sifting it gently in a side-to-side motion through the sieve while holding the funnel directly under with the same hand because other methods were causing it to puff out little clouds up & out of the sieve and onto the surrounding surfaces.

Step #4 – Eat! It’s supposed to be edible raw, but otherwise I guess I’ll mix it in with other flours to make bread, scones, cookies… although I won’t want to use it all in one go.

Unfortunately I’ve been unable so far to identify the specific species of pine tree these ‘catkins’ came from, so I’m breaking an important foraging rule in eating the pollen regardless and don’t recommend you follow my example. However I feel quite secure personally, having established beyond reasonable doubt that the tree was from the Pinacea family and come across several sources saying that all species of pine produce edible pollen, with no warnings of toxicity from the family other than the pollen allergies people sometimes suffer, which I’ve never had a problem with. Anyway, I’ve managed to narrow it down to a non-native ornamental which self-pollinates towards the end of the year, as opposed to springtime which is most usual. My best guess would be a Cedar of some kind, though I don’t think it was a Cedar of Lebanon as I didn’t see any of the distinctive cones (ie: the female ones which grow big and woody and eventually bear the seeds/nuts) and the bark didn’t have the same strong smell or stickiness that I’ve experienced on park specimens. The branches did the same helpful downward-hanging thing as F.Kevin’s ‘Cedrus Deodara’ or Himalayan Cedar, and the male cones pictured on the wikipedia page look pretty similar to mine, but the overall shape of the tree doesn’t seem to match my memory. Although ‘[t]he male cones are 4–6 cm (1.6–2.4 in) long, and shed their pollen in autumn and apparently it ‘is widely grown as an ornamental tree’… Answers on a postcard!

Finally a bit more reading which may be of interest, Green Deane ‘Pining For You‘:

[Pine pollen] has over 200 identified elements from vitamins to proto male hormones… yeah, it’s a guy food.  It’s been called the natural testosterone, androstenedione, but that is a marketing exaggeration.  It has about 27 nanograms per 0.1 grams of dry weight, not suitable for the bulking up weightlifters want, but available none the less. Putting the pollen under the tongue keeps it from being destroyed by the digestive system.

Androstenedione is an adrenal hormone produced in humans.  Reduce androstenedione by one molecule and you have  testosterone, which both men and women have in different amounts. Androstenedione can raise testosterone levels. The effect lasts about a day.  And this is how the Native Americans used it, for extra energy when they needed it. So when on the run, grab a little pine pollen. Pine pollen also seems to have a beneficial effect on the cardiovascular system as well.

And one to maybe take with a few pinches of salt (too many extravagant ‘super-food’ claims for my liking): ‘What is pine pollen and why should I consume it?

Oh, and here’s the late great Frank Cook talking about pine pollen as a potential ‘man medicine’ for helping to balance out all the oestrogen-mimicking compounds in the modern environment:

I’ll let you know if I sprout any new chest hairs :)

RIP Ambrósio Vilhalva

December 12, 2013

Via Vanessa and the excellent Survival International some shocking news and a reminder that, for some, counterrevolutionary activity is serious business – not a luxury or middle-class hobby* but a way of life and, ultimately, a necessity for survival. When your culture hasn’t been fully metabolised into the global monoculture this also makes it very dangerous (though arguably not as dangerous as the loss that would come from lying down and giving up your whole identity):

Guarani Indian leader and film-star Ambrósio Vilhalva was murdered on Sunday night, after decades of campaigning for his tribe’s right to live on their ancestral land.

Ambrósio was reportedly stabbed at the entrance to his community, known as Guyra Roká, in Brazil’s Mato Grosso do Sul state. He was found dead in his hut, with multiple knife wounds. He had been repeatedly threatened in recent months. (link)

I remember being impressed by his performance in the film ‘Birdwatchers‘ which poignantly depicts the struggle of one band of Guarani people to reclaim their ancestral land from a sugarcane rancher. For some reason this made his killing more incomprehensible, more appalling to me. Surely having gained some success and international recognition as an actor would offer some protection against this kind of fate? Apparently not enough to put off those who wanted to crush his personal resistance, as well as the wider refusal of his culture to give in to the encroachments of civilisation:

In the last 500 years virtually all the Guarani’s land in Mato Grosso do Sul state has been taken from them.

Waves of deforestation have converted the once-fertile Guarani homeland into a vast network of cattle ranches, and sugar cane plantations for Brazil’s biofuels market.

Many of the Guarani were herded into small reservations, which are now chronically overcrowded. In the Dourados reserve, for example, 12,000 Indians are living on little more than 3,000 hectares.

The destruction of the forest has meant that hunting and fishing are no longer possible, and there is barely enough land even to plant crops. (link)

(Yes, they derive some of their subsistence from agriculture – at the time of first contact with Europeans ‘they were sedentary and agricultural, subsisting largely on manioc, maize, wild game, and honey’ according to Wikipedia. So this isn’t a ‘pure’ agricultural counterrevolution – actually I doubt there ever was one as I think practically all human peoples ever encountered have practiced some form of cultivation – but I’m guessing vast field monocrops and total deforestation would be entirely alien to them all the same.)

Vilhava is not the first Guarani Indian to be murdered in these circumstances. From SI’s page again we hear of a story strikingly similar to the plotline of ‘Birdwatchers’:

The killing of Guarani leader Marcos Veron in 2003 was a tragic but all too typical example of the violence that his people are subject to.

Mr Veron, aged around 70, was the leader of the Guarani-Kaiowá community 
of Takuára. For fifty years his people had been trying to recover a small piece of their ancestral land, after it was seized by a wealthy Brazilian and turned into a vast cattle ranch. Most of the forest that once covered the area had since been cleared.

In April 1997, desperate after years of lobbying the government in vain, Marcos led his community back onto the ranch. They began to rebuild their houses, and could plant their own crops again.

But the rancher who had occupied the area went to court, and a judge ordered the Indians out.

In October 2001, more than one hundred heavily armed police and soldiers forced the Indians to leave their land once more. They eventually ended up living under plastic sheets by the side of a highway.

While still in Takuára, Marcos said, ‘This here is my life, my soul. If 
you take me away from this land, you take my life.’

His words came 
prophetically and tragically true early in 2003, when, during another attempt to return peacefully to his land, he was viciously beaten by employees of the rancher. He died a few hours later.

What do these happenings tell us about the stirrings of counterrevolutionary thought and action in the modern centers of Empire, where traditional peoples were overrun centuries, millennia ago? Should I be worried about the local rapeseed farmer killing me in my sleep because I harvest acorns, nettles and hawthorn berries from around ‘his’ land? Probably not, so long as my foraging remains mostly a solitary endeavour merely supplementing my main subsistence which comes via the wage economy and the global food supply systems. Also I should be ‘safe’ while I don’t challenge the unjust pattern of land ownership in this country† – ie: stick to quietly paying rent for my small flat and be thankful I get a tiny garden, a half-size allotment to play with, and a few parcels of common land to forage in (with whatever’s left of my spare time after I’m done earning enough money to pay all the bills) while those who have claimed ownership of the vast tracts of land continue to wreck them with impunity and thereby cement their fortunes and positions in the hierarchy. If I were to set up camp with a tribe of like-minded types keen to attempt to recreate a full-time foraging subsistence culture I would soon run into a whole series of challenges and obstacles thrown up by the land-owners with the full weight of the law behind them. It would be a struggle similar to that facing the Diggers 2012, who, against the odds, appear to still be holding on to their spot near Runnymede.

Hounded by police and bailiffs, evicted wherever they stopped, they did not mean to settle here. They had walked out of London to occupy disused farmland on the Queen’s estates surrounding Windsor Castle. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that didn’t work out very well. But after several days of pursuit, they landed two fields away from the place where modern democracy is commonly supposed to have been born.

At first this group of mostly young, dispossessed people, who (after the 17th century revolutionaries) call themselves Diggers 2012(1), camped on the old rugby pitch of Brunel University’s Runnymede campus. It’s a weed-choked complex of grand old buildings and modern halls of residence, whose mildewed curtains flap in the wind behind open windows, all mysteriously abandoned as if struck by a plague or a neutron bomb. The diggers were evicted again, and moved down the hill into the woods behind the campus: pressed, as if by the ineluctable force of history, ever closer to the symbolic spot. From the meeting house they have built and their cluster of tents, you can see across the meadows to where the Magna Carta was sealed almost 800 years ago.

Their aim is simple: to remove themselves from the corporate economy, to house themselves, grow food and build a community on abandoned land. (George Monbiot, ‘The Promised Land‘)

It has been said that those who resist effectively will face the full repressive power of the state. Can I call my small scale foraging subversive if the worst I’ve suffered as a result was a few cases of people telling me I was ‘trespassing’ and implying they would call the police if I didn’t go away? Perhaps the powers-that-be just don’t recognise it for the existential threat it truly poses?? Or maybe it’s a sign that I’m not doin’ it right… I’m certainly not in the position right now where I could say and truly mean the words of Marcos Veron: ‘This here is my life, my soul. If 
you take me away from this land, you take my life.’ I would be sad if forced to leave this place where I grew up and learned so many things about the nonhuman world, but I know it wouldn’t kill me. I’m in the same position as the farmer in Birdwatchers who has the nerve to lay claim to the Indian’s ancestral land on the basis of a three generation occupation, a statement which Vilhava’s character and his supporting cast treat with appropriate contempt and a powerful gesture indicating their indivisibility from the land (see video below).

The Indians portrayed in the film appear to have a longstanding connection to the specific area of land they are attempting to reclaim but it seems that there is a tradition among the Guarani people as a whole of searching far and wide for what they call ‘a land without evil’:

For as long as they can remember, the Guarani have been searching – searching for a place revealed to them by their ancestors where people live free from pain and suffering, which they call ‘the land without evil’.

Over hundreds of years, the Guarani have travelled vast distances in search of this land.

One 16th century chronicler noted their ‘constant desire to seek new lands, in which they imagine they will find immortality and perpetual ease’.

This permanent quest is indicative of the unique character of the Guarani, a ‘difference’ about them which has often been noted by outsiders. (SI ibid.)

How much this stems from the brutality, enslavement and genocide meted out to them by European colonialists since first contact in 1537 isn’t clear but it brings their struggle a little closer to the experience of colonised people in the West, particularly those among us who are attempting to decolonise our minds, souls, our whole existence. Orphaned and homeless, we don’t have strong ties to anywhere. Rootless, but only until we find a new place to settle down, as the Runnymede Diggers appear to have done. For now. I wouldn’t call it a privilege – in fact I understand many indigenous, place-based people have found the thought of living like that unbearably sad, if not inconceivable – but it does offer some flexibility and the possibility of preserving life, albeit in an impoverished, insecure way, until conditions become more favourable. Like the ‘resurrection plant‘ of the Sahara desert which blows about in the winds apparently dead for decades, even centuries until it finds water and finally drops its seeds.

So rest in peace Ambrósio Vilhalva. Meanwhile the struggle continues for the Guarani. Follow the links on the SI pages to see how you can offer your support, but as the Zapatistas said perhaps the best support would be to follow their example in your own country.

***UPDATE 13/12/13***

I missed this obituary which shows that Vilhava was basically acting out scenes from his own life:

Ambrósio’s life typified that of so many Guarani. His community, Guyra Roka or ‘Place of the Bird’, was expelled from their tekoha (ancestral land) in the 1940s and 50s by ranchers and farmers, and dumped in a tiny reserve already overcrowded with hundreds of other Guarani refugees. Violence, suicide and malnutrition were soon rife.

[...]

Like many, Ambrósio and his community dreamed of returning to their tekoha. In 2000, led by Ambrósio and his father Papito (the rezador or religious leader) the community moved out of the reserve to camp on a roadside near their land, now cleared, fenced off and filled with endless fields of sugar cane. Life here was grim too – their rickety tarpaulin shelters were permanently enveloped in clouds of dust from the trucks thundering past day and night. Children were malnourished, and adults were forced to seek work on the ranches occupying their land.

Tired of waiting for the government to take action, Ambrósio and Papito led three attempts to reoccupy their land, finally succeeding in 2004. Avoiding the ranchers’ pistoleiros, the community settled on a tiny piece of land where they planted crops amidst the sugar cane. Largely thanks to Ambrósio’s tireless and passionate advocacy, the Minster of Justice finally recognized Guyra Roka as Guarani land in 2009. But it was a victory in name only – the landowners vowed not to move, and occupy the area to this day. The largest and most powerful is Zé Teixeira, a state congressman.

Ambrósio was catapulted into international stardom in 2008 when he played the lead role in Birdwatchers, an award-winning feature film that highlighted the bitter conflict between the ranchers and the Guarani. With his love of language and powerful, brooding presence, Ambrósio was a natural. The film’s director later said he tore up the script and let the Guarani speak their parts as they saw fit.

Read more about the Diggers 2012 and their 1649 forebears in this superb article by historian Dr. John Gurney. Sample paragraph:

It was in April 1649 that the Diggers, inspired by the writings of Gerrard Winstanley, occupied waste land on St George’s Hill in Surrey, and sowed the ground with parsnips, carrots and beans. For Winstanley, the earth had been corrupted by covetousness and the rise of private property, and the time was ripe for it to become once more a ‘common treasury for all’. Change was to be brought about by the poor working the land in common and refusing to work for hire. The common people had ‘by their labours … lifted up their landlords and others to rule in tyranny and oppression over them’, and, Winstanley insisted, ‘so long as such are rulers as calls the land theirs … the common people shall never have their liberty; nor the land ever freed from troubles, oppressions and complainings’. The earth was made ‘to preserve all her children’, and not to ‘preserve a few covetous, proud men to live at ease, and for them to bag and barn up the treasures of the earth from others, that they might beg or starve in a fruitful land’ – everyone should be able to ‘live upon the increase of the earth comfortably’. Soon all people – rich as well as poor – would, Winstanley hoped, be persuaded to throw in their lot with the Diggers and work to create a new, and better society. To Winstanley, agency was key, for ‘action is the life of all and if thou dost not act, thou dost nothing’.

—————————–

* – h/t Dmitry Orlov: ‘resilience and sustainability are often little more than middle-class hobbies, while the overwhelming trend throughout the world is toward a different kind of steady state, one characterized by something called durable disorder

† – those figures again: ‘70% of land is still owned by less than 1% of the population’, and ‘nearly half the country is owned by 40,000 land millionaires, or 0.06 per cent of the population’

Coming down from the mountain #2

September 6, 2013

The long awaited

Before it slips too far out the back door of my memory I’d better do a brief report back from the ‘final’ Uncivilisation Festival as organised by members of the Dark Mountain Project (the founders say it’s just the end of the ‘official’ festival as an annual event because they want to focus more on publishing the writing and other works, but others are free to organise their own events under the same banner). I missed the first one in Wales, but have attended the subsequent three at the Sustainability Centre in East Meon, Hampshire. All three have been slightly strange experiences in different ways, but over all very satisfying and good for my general mental wellbeing. The effect of it wears off in time after returning to the lowlands, but while it lasts there’s a feeling of serenity, magnanimity and generosity towards others, and a sense of having finally been listened to with the certain darker portions of the psyche brought to light and acknowledged instead of forever being suppressed and attacked – both by others and by the dominant Self. All this seemed to happen regardless of how much speaking I actually did…

One of the big selling points of the festival has been this thing of creating the space & time, as well as a particular kind of psychological opening for a certain kind of conversation to take place – a kind of talking it’s more or less impossible to find anywhere else. So the important stuff doesn’t really happen in all the scheduled events so much as in the incidental conversations that happen over lunch or by the fire or inside a hexayurt at two in the morning. While this always sounded good to me in theory, in reality it led to a ridiculously high expectation which was bound to end in frustration. Dammit, I’m a shy guy who has been routinely damaged by attempting to engage others in Deep&Meaningful conversations in the past only to be misinterpreted or rebuffed by denial, existential freakouts or personal attacks. I have responded by keeping most of that shit underground until the foundations of a solid relationship have been built, interpersonal ties have settled in and there’s enough trust to feel secure enough to embark on that Difficult Journey. Since there’s never enough time to do that in modern living I have mostly responded by keeping that shit underground. And then I expect to have the ability to blast all those barriers wide open, with no preparation or any kind of ‘halfway house’, for just one weekend among near total strangers? WTF, of course that’s not going to work!

What has happened has come in fits and starts, and the beginnings of relationships that get built on slightly via email and very occasional meetups thenafter. It’s good stuff though. Not exactly life-changing (or world-changing) in a big way, but important baby-steps nonetheless. So without further ado…

This year’s lesson was Humility. The weather kicked my ass in a big way. I was trying to be all primitive with my tarp and groundsheet (I tried making pegs out of broken twigs but they wouldn’t go in the ground until a neighbouring woman lent me her tent-peg mallet) and it was more or less okay for the Friday night, but the rain through Saturday crept in and puddled in a few places making it impossible to sleep, even fully clothed. I tried my damndest of course, even with a sore throat and a cough coming on, but gave up at about 1am with water starting to squelch around my knees. Such an idiot… I eventually got my damp stuff together and wandered to the main building of the centre, intending to sleep on a bench or something, but a guy there told me there was a fire at the woodland stage cob-walled building and I was less likely to get disturbed there in the morning. So that’s what I did, finding Chris T-T and a few others wrapping up a fireside jam. I played some L.Cohen and other songs on the travel guitar while attempting to dry my sleeping bag out on the back of a couple of chairs (moderately successful) and eventually got an okay night’s sleep  on a rather hard bench next to the fireplace. Later I heard Martin Shaw talk about his arrival that same night and his awe at the deep mists that were supposed to represent female sexual arousal or something in Chinese mythology and how there was always something to learn from the weather; something to appreciate. What a bastard…

So what things did I go to?

Friday night I watched a bit of the music in the woodland stage. The Songlines Choir made some pretty awesome sounds and had a good attitude and rapport. Marmaduke Dando’s set was relentlessly depressing but in quite a beautiful way and he holds himself and grabs your attention quite well. The folks playing homemade instruments did some interesting things and some rather limp neo-folk. Then Tom Hirons fireside tale went on for ages but was awesomely well-told and well-accompanied by Rima Staines as usual. Unfortunately my body wouldn’t allow me to stay right through to the end. Probably something to do with being up since 5.40am and working all day despite my boss originally telling me I could have the day off. Grrr…

Saturday I woke up with enough time for porridge and tea, then went to the intro talk and the next one in the main marquee ‘The Death of Nature Writing’, which was okay as far as I remember. The main point: there should be no ‘nature writing’, just ‘writing’ because everything is ‘nature’ so don’t try to parcel it off as marginal interest. I made some point in the Q&A about making editorial space for lengthy pieces because soundbites and twitter posts aren’t adequate for effectively challenging the manufactured ‘common sense’ of the status quo, which requires detailed, in-depth debunking and then regular recapitulation in order to neutralise its toxic effects. Felt a bit weird mentioning Noam Chomsky to that crowd, but I used his ‘brevity favours propaganda’ spiel as an example [quote now in comment thread].

Wanting to do something physical, I decided not to go to Gathering Night (‘A vivid imagining of how it might have been to live during the Mesolithic period’) author, Margaret Elphinstone’s talk and do wiry Brazilian, Jorge Goia’s capoeira-based ‘Games you can’t play alone’. Good fun and nice building trust with others in fall&catch style games. A couple of women fell through at or just after my point in the circle (one stands in the middle while the others support and spin them round the perimeter) because I was trying to avoid touching their breasts and couldn’t get decent purchase anywhere else. Managed to drop in on Elphinstone by the end of her talk, where my friend Nick was giving her the third degree over something-or-other. Bought her book and got her to sign it as well as getting a few leads off her for info on the Mesolithic and Hunter-Gatherer life in Britain. Seemed like a nice lady, eager to talk and enthuse even when hungry for lunch.

I stuck around for a few minutes of the ‘Taking it Home’ discussion on where now for DM, but soon decided to go to the construction of the Life Cairn in the woods. ‘What does it mean to be alive in the midst of the sixth mass extinction?’ Obviously I had to be there. It was raining and there were only a small handful of us, but we went ahead with the ritual of naming extinct species from Andreas Kornevall’s little scraps of paper. I didn’t know most of them, so it felt slightly alienated until we started talking a little about the lives of these creatures, where they were from, how they were killed off, how they affected the ecology around them while they were alive and what effects their disappearance caused. It was quite poignant and solemn in the end, with the bell ringing after each naming and several glugs of mead in a wooden Saami spoon that got passed around. Mead was supposed to represent the tears of the Earth Goddess (Freya?) or something in various Norse cultures. Definitely a valuable thing to do. I didn’t realise the Galapagos giant tortoise was totally extinct. I asked what it meant to mourn the passing of species with whom us civilised humans have no ecologic relationship with, but I wasn’t really expecting an answer and didn’t really get one other than an acknowledgement that it was a good question. It was more a statement of exasperation anyway. By the twisted values of civilisation the extinction rate is actually a measure of success as more land comes under sole cultivation for the human demand and the biologic wealth swells in the storehouses, stolen from the others who must now starve to death.

I went on Fergus Drennan’s wild food walk, which was good although he recapped a lot of what I saw him talk about two years previously in exactly the same spot. I told him I’d send some money to support his proposed ‘Wild Food Year‘, which looks like it could turn up some really interesting things.

Next, more humility as Naeem Akram put us through our paces and basically told us that everything about how we stand, move, walk and run is wrong and has been fucked up by shoes and other aspects of civilised living. We went for a barefoot run in the rain and I learned that landing on the balls of the feet, as I’ve been teaching myself to do for the last couple of years in an attempt to do away with the damaging heel-strike, might not be appropriate for walking and jogging (although perhaps for sprinting) as it can seize up the calf muscle and disallow the full rocking flex of the ankle joint. Seems like flat-foot landing is the order of the day, with a reduced stride length trying to keep the legs under the torso and keeping the big toe pointing forwards to keep the knee in line. Big project… Also we were all humiliated by his core strength / connective tissue exercise of lifting the whole body while face down with only the hands and toes touching the ground. He was able to lift himself bodily a good distance off the ground, while the rest of us strained and folded up at our weak points. So that’s something to work on… Damn you Naeem – I though I was good at this stuff!

The Arcadia talk was all right. Marmaduke introduced it with a reading from Kevin Tucker’s preface to the Against Civilization book edited by John Zerzan. A few people in the audience objected to the generalised ‘romanticisation’ of the primitive lifestyle which they clearly felt was more ‘nasty, brutish and short’, although they didn’t supply any contradictory evidence. My contribution was to point out the high rates of defection from early European settlements in the Americas to their native tribal neighbours – it got to the stage where they had to outlaw & punish it harshly, but whites continued to leave and never come back, even leaving wives, husbands and children behind. Clearly they knew what was good for them. I felt the urge to butt in on a few more exchanges, but held my tongue for fear of monopolising the discussion. I wish in hindsight that I’d shared more of my understanding of the spread of agriculture through Europe and its arrival in Britain, though. The discussion would have benefited from being pinned down to the specifics of this island rather than dealing in nebulous terms of civilised vs. primitive. Who were the uncivilised native people in this country? Are they still here in any form? What can we learn from them? How can we ‘go native’ ourselves without their living example to consult and emulate?

It was very surreal going from this kind of questioning to a talk by a heritage wheat farmer whose name I forget [update: his name is John Letts]. He spent the first quarter of an hour or so talking about the origins of agriculture and the domestication of wheat, airing out a lot of the usual theories and some new ones I’d not heard. He was aware of the health defects recorded in the archeology and of the ‘Diseases of Civilisation’ which were unheard of before the advent of large-scale grain consumption, and even spoke about Weston A. Price and the paleo diet, which I think he said he had tried himself (!) When pressed he admitted that he thought wheat should form only a small portion of the over all diet and not the major staple, both for health reasons and for the sake of the environment. I tried to ask about the long term sustainability of wheat farming – whether growing the plant year after year in a monocrop depletes the nutrients in the soil beyond possible replenishment – but I think my question got a bit garbled by the sound of rain hitting the parachute above our heads (plus I was getting very croaky with my sore throat) and he didn’t come up with a direct answer. Loads of interesting info though, like the prevalence of sourdough bread in medieval times; that peasants ate mostly rye with the wheat being reserved for the lords and monks or for festive occasions; that ergotism was rife but the souring process killed it off, although the ‘St. Anthony’s fire’ of the LSD-like ergot poisoning came when the peasants were given wheat bread, risen with yeast; that wheat actually doesn’t like too much nitrogen, which causes it to grow too tall and fall over (though this is good for growing thatch – a more lucrative crop for farmers to cultivate than the grain these days) – modern wheats have been bred for shortness so they don’t suffer in the same way from being drenched with petrol-based nitrates. He was also very knowledgeable about the seed-saving regulations and the predatory behaviour of Monsanto and others in trying to hook farmers and gardeners on their ‘terminator seed’ GM crops. Some really ugly stuff happening there. Also, he described industrial breadmaking as basically a recipe for widescale gluten intolerance and increased virulence in the other wheat allergies. They actually produce gluten separately and add it to the flour to make it rise quickly and conform to the fluffy texture the supermarkets have come to require. It’s all deeply fucked – see this article for example. Anyway, I had more respect for the man than I thought I would. Also I’m coming to realise that I eat a whole lot of bread and don’t seem to be able to replace it with anything else, so maybe I ought to find the best way to rewild my relationship with wheat and show some respect to the plant which, for better or worse, has gone some considerable way to making me what I am. The medieval practices certainly have a lot to recommend them in contrast to the modern techniques in fields, factories and kitchens.

I can’t remember what happened after that. There was more rain, I think, and I made dinner in a dark tent on my stove. My lighter was wet so I took the gas stove to the firepit and was about to try and light it directly from the flames when the intelligent part of me issued a cautionary alarm and I lit it with a smoldering twig instead. Got chatting to a nice young couple (I think) from near Sheffield (I think) and got them to try one of the whole acorns I had in my lentil stew after they expressed an interest. So I got to impart some of my Useful Knowledge to at least two people, and it sounded like they were keen to try out the leaching process this Autumn.

Saw some of the Uncivilised Stand-up, which was pretty rubbish although the room was in a good mood so it didn’t matter that much. I mean, not planning your act is fine, but if you’re going to bill yourself as a comedian you should at least be able to come up with a few jokes rather than sitting there like a plum and trying to get the audience to do your work for you. Anyway…

I missed the midnight ritual, which I’m told was ecstatic for some. I bet I would have hated it, just playing along with the usual phoney self-persuasion. At least the people howling in the woods for hours on end provided a welcome distraction while I was trying to fall asleep in my soggy sleeping bag (!)

Sunday was better, mostly because of the weather. I went to Steve’s ‘Full Circle’ session which relaxed a lot of mental tensions for me in a nice meditative way. My shoulders also felt better for the full-circle group massage! It followed the same pattern as the capoeira-style session in that you do the exercise and then sit down and talk about your experiences. Lots of interesting stuff came out which probably won’t sound as interesting here.

Martin Shaw’s talk was as brilliant as last year’s, what with terrific praise poems about women and breasts and a wonderful recounting of an East-European folk tale which seemed to have to do with female initiation into adulthood. Many moments of hilarity, especially when he breaks style and uses modern idioms. I failed to do as instructed and retell the story to somebody, human or otherwise, within seven days. I hope the punishment isn’t too severe…

After that I um’ed and ah’ed for a bit over whether to stick around for Shaw’s discussion or to go to the Deep Green Resistance discussion in the tee-pee. I listened to him start, but it wasn’t ringing my bells so I eventually plucked up the courage to walk into the tee-pee in my perfect attire of green raincoat, green&white checked shirt, jeans and big brown walking boots and black&green bandanna holding the hair out of my face. There were only three young guys (including the one leading the talk) in there to start with but we were eventually joined by a pair of older folk and a couple of young women. The atmosphere was surprisingly pleasant, with much of the usual DGR spiel (have a look on youtube for some talks by Aric McBay, Lierre Keith or Derrick Jensen to get the general picture) being met with understanding nods and positive discussion. The guy kept using the phrase ‘destruction of property’ which made me tense until I prompted him to explain that this wasn’t the goal in itself and it wasn’t intended to be indisciminate. I guess my reaction was on the behalf of your average Briton who actually has a little bit of property which they’ve managed to wrestle off the powers-that-be and into which a lot of their life work has been invested (I know, weird, because I don’t have anything like that myself). There was a fear-response from the older guy who insisted on telling us about this supposed new government weapon of radio towers triangulating to blow up certain areas, but couldn’t tell us why he thought this was relevant. A bit of acrimony surfaced over a misunderstanding about the relative values of taking down civilisation vs. building something that will survive its collapse and provide a home for people afterward. Withdrawal vs. combative engagement, that kind of polarity. The younger women tried to laugh it off by talking about planting radical cabbages. I spoke to the representative afterwards about the fear response, which he told me was very common. We agreed that this was probably what lay behind Alistair McIntosh’s outbursts against DGR and possibly Paul Kingsnorth’s comparing them to Anders Breivik a short while after (although he has come around a little since then). This will probably change as people find they have less & less to lose. I for one don’t give a shit about drones, internet surveillance (howya doing, all you NSA operatives?) or newfangled crowd-control weapons. The state will do what it always does – what’s new there? We, however, are responsible for our own actions, be they creative or destructive. Past a certain point I think you have to operate from the understanding that this agency is primary and everything else is reactive and secondary. You do what you have to do and others either support you in that work or they don’t, that’s all. Still, getting down to talking about how this works in practice scares the pants off me, and talking to the older lady afterwards made me realise just how far off this kind of action is for me personally. I could tell that so many things were in place and ready to go for her through a long career in activism that weren’t at all sussed out in me. An emotional readiness is necessary which, I think, has to come through a great deal of pain and grief. I bought the DGR book, which is turning into a great, albeit stark and horrifying read. Also there’s now a UK-based group who have a website here [see cautionary note in comments before you do anything hasty].

Mark Boyle’s talk was pretty cool. A very down to earth guy who also name-checked Jensen and Endgame, along with a good many others. His discussion about a wild economy was priceless: (paraphrasing) A bird doesn’t think it’s doing an environmentally responsible action by shitting on the ground. It just shits on the ground. We need to get (back) to the place where we can act like any other species and do helpful, ecologically beneficial things just because it feels like the obvious thing to do.

The final farewell with the rain tipping down on our gathering will be an enduring and fond memory, although for me the winning reaction was still one of ‘I need to get somewhere dry, fast’ rather than anything more spiritually transcendent. I caught up afterwards with most of the people I’d met and come to know a bit over the years, said some goodbyes, drank and shared some nettle beer, felt all fuzzy and empathic and soon enough it was time to pack my still rather damp things in time for the last shuttle bus back to the train station. I’m glad I managed to catch Paul Kingsnorth and say thanks for organising the festivals and starting the whole project, and that personally it had been ‘something of a lifeline’ for me in the dreary commuter-belt landscape of Tory-blue Surrey. I think that’s pretty true. It’s all well and good reading these books from far-out types in the US, but there’s a real need to connect this to something real in your own country, wherever you are. I can’t afford to move to Portland, Oregon, so I’m beyond grateful that we’re finally whipping up something similar in our own neighbourhoods. Long may it continue, in whatever new forms it may take.

More Rewilding

August 10, 2013

I’ve been following the continuing debate on rewilding with interest. Some links:

An acrimonious exchange in the Guardian between Steven Poole and George Monbiot. Poole basically trolls Monbiot and other nature writers for their supposed ‘bourgeois escapism’ but accidentally points to an interesting line of discussion which I’ve touched on before – the strange emotional charge underlying designations of ‘native’ vs. ‘invasive’ species and what happens when we turn this logic back on ourselves. Monbiot unfortunately, but perhaps understandably, closed off any fruitful engagement by invoking Godwin’s law and beating Poole over the head with his superior scientific knowledge.

Mark Fisher, a longterm writer and advocate for rewilding in the UK has written a few responses to Feral in this piece, which details some specific examples of rewilding landscapes which he has visited in the US and Ireland. This part made me think of the similar way in which the wildwood must have been cleared over here in order to impose the same conditions of open land for livestock pasture and field agriculture:

There should not be some mystique about mountain folk, that they sought refuge to live in sympathy with the land. Many settlers were tenants of a few large landowners, but they and homesteaders all embarked on a common pursuit of exploiting the land, by ringing trees with their axes – a process called “deadening” – to clear fields for pastures and orchards; killing all the large carnivores so they weren’t a threat to their cows; and hunting out the white-tail deer, so that they had to be restored to the park when it was set up.

A long-delayed subscription to The Land Magazine earlier in the year rewarded me with a whole issue devoted to rewilding, with articles on  wolves, ponies, sheep, fescue, Chillingham cattle and a generous review of Monbiot’s book by Bill Grayson. I have mixed feelings about Simon Fairlie’s response, ‘Rewilding and Food Security‘, which is unusual as I mostly find his writing to be spot on, revealing and highly informative. On the one hand comments about the unfair competition between the unsustainable industrial food system and upland sheep farmers are unarguable and the concluding point is a strong and important one:

The more we rewild in Britain, the more food we will need to import and the more we are likely to dewild land in countries that provide us with substitute food. Conserving our natural environment at the expense of other people’s is a neo-colonialist agenda. There is an environmental price to pay for having so foolishly allowed England to become one of the most overpopulated countries in the world, but that price should not be paid by people and environments in other countries.

(Although this is again blinkered by not considering rewilded landscapes as habitat for feral humans on the way to a wild nativeness of their own.)

However the contention in the editorial piece, ‘Zone Five’, that ‘What this particular island produces most abundantly is, of course, grass’ seems flatly wrong, or at least resting on a dubious conception of the meaning of abundance. Surely the most abundant spontaneous expression of this land comes in the form of trees and dense, extensive woodlands. Anything else requires a massive, devastating initial effort and continuing vigorous management every year from then on to prevent reversion to what the land actually wants to do (as we saw before). And this comment is a strong contender for the Agrarian-Fundamentalist-Asshole-Remark-Of-The-Year award:

Sheep also play a role in bringing us the sunlight which would otherwise be hogged by a blanket of forest. If you have no grazing animals to keep trees down, then to admit sunlight on any scale you have to use either fossil fuels or fire, both of which are less sustainable than the “woolly mowers”. Wind turbines and solar farms are dependent upon keeping land open to wind and sunlight and so probably is the health of the human psyche. Of course trees are a “good thing”, but you can have too much of a good thing, whether that be trees or sheep.

You heard it right – our mental health depends upon mass deforestation and the maintenance of an ‘open’ landscape where we can do as we please. Well, I guess it’s still revealing… Likewise the discussion of the former practice of folding sheep sheds light on the totalitarian control that civilised man insists upon  everywhere in his domain:

But the most crucial role for sheep in many traditional agricultural economies has been to harness surplus nutrients from the saltus — the outlying wasteland too poor or distant to cultivate — and transfer them to the ager, the arable fields.1 This is still the case in parts of France and other European countries where flocks are shepherded by day and brought back to the bergerie at night to deposit their manure. It used to be the case through much of Southern England where sheep were grazed on downland by day and folded at night on fallow arable land. In South Wiltshire in 1794 “the first and principal purpose for which sheep are kept … is undoubtedly the dung of the sheep fold.” In Dorset in 1812 “the Sheep-Fold is held in as high estimation in this country as in any part of the world. It is considered by most of the farmers … as an indispensable requisite in the cultivation of the arable land.” In Bedfordshire “the manure of sheep is worth a farthing each per sheep per night”.2

Hear that? It’s all for us. As much as we can take. As far as we can reach. We are justified in taking it all, and any other creatures who might depend upon those nutrients for survival can go fuck themselves. Duh, it’s the food chain:

The Food Chain

Oh dear, I seem to have contracted some of the Guardianista penchant for sneering reductio ad absurdum… I recognise that the above talk carries less weight than it would if I had many years’ firsthand experience of working the land and had the meaning of all those relationships built into my being, rather than speaking from the alienated position of dilettante prehistorian who gets most of his food from the supermarket*. Still… it’s true, isn’t it?

Anyway, still missing from the debate is any discussion of domestication and the role of civilised man in ‘de-wilding’ the world (and himself) in the first place. To reiterate: What about rewilding humans? I am therefore delighted to see my friend Steve announce the formation of a ‘Rewilding Academy’ at this year’s (possibly final) Dark Mountain ‘Uncivilisation‘ festival in the woods in Hampshire from August 15-19, to which I’ve just bought tickets (still available via that link). He writes:

For the last two Uncivilisation festivals, I have run sessions that sought to provide a different kind of rewilding: one that acknowledges that is not enough to turn domesticated humans out into the wild and expect them to immediately recover their buried instincts and feelings; one that recognises that we have all been conditioned by civilisation into certain persistent patterns of thought, behaviour and physical restraint; one that makes use of our remaining capacity for play, curiosity and learning to open a small crack in the armour, to give a brief glimpse of the path that can slowly lead us back to experiencing the fullness of our human nature.

I’m also excited to attend the ‘Arcadia: a flawed objective?’ discussion:

[...]can Arcadia can ever be the bastion of peace and tranquillity that it is projected to be when it depends upon agriculture: arguably the foundation of all gigantist and destructive civilisations? In this open discussion, Marmaduke Dando places our traditional pastoral utopias under the magnifying glass in an attempt to find out whether simply getting ‘back to the land’ goes back far enough; and what the implications of these questions might be for all of us.

I’ve never really written about it explicitly but my personal perspective on this has been shaped by reading the writings and exploits of the ‘primitivists’ and ‘green anarchists’ in America and elsewhere that some are all-too keen to dismiss. I’ve taken up some of the projects they’ve enthused about such as fox-walking, nonviolent communication, wide-angle vision, E-Prime / E-Primitive etc. with varying degrees of success, and my focus on learning everything I could about the edible & medicinal plants that grow all around me over the past however-many-years-it’s-been was largely sparked by their efforts.

Broadly I subscribe to the philosophy many of them have articulated, namely that the domestication of plants and animals is a relationship of domination and subjugation that has wrecked the planet since it was born in the Agricultural Revolution some 10,000 years ago, and that rewilding is a process that every creature undertakes spontaneously, if given half a chance (kids are born as basically wild humans and must be subjected to a massive, traumatic programme of indoctrination at the hands of their parents and the schooling system in order to be made to fit to the dominant culture). The civilised culture has acted as a bulwark against this process, compelling its members to resist their own innermost tendencies and remain essentially an invasive species rather than ‘going native’ or becoming indigenous to their locality. It has been like a military occupation since the beginning, with the farmers staying safe within an expanding ‘green zone’ of acceptable domestic species and raining destruction on anything outside that circle of influence until it comes to conform to the grand design of domestication – that of total human control.

Thus it is the human civilised culture that most desperately needs rewilding. Some have called for a mass resistance movement against it, but really it is Civilisation that is the only resistance movement, and the major task is to break up and dissolve that resistance and allow the masses of people to return to a sane and healthy relating to the rest of the beings on this planet, as well as to their own selves. The dandelion does not consciously attack or attempt to destroy the concrete. Rather, it is the concrete that resists the growth of the dandelion, and its eventual yielding and crumbling away is practically inconsequential to the desire of the plant. It just wants to grow, live and give birth to more of its kind. The conditions are either right for that or they aren’t. Yet.

Further reading:

Anthropik Jason’s ‘Rewilding Humans
Peter Bauer’s ‘Rewild or Die
Willem Larson’s ‘College of Mythic Cartography
Miles Olson’s ‘Unlearn, Rewild
The (now largely inactive) rewild forums

Finally, I’ll republish an excerpt from the now defunct rewild.info wiki because I think it’s a good piece of (E-Prime) writing and it looks like it’s in danger of dropping off the edge of the internet:

What does rewild mean?

As a verb

The term “rewild” acts as a verb which implies an action, a motion. It does not symbolize point A (Civilized) or point B (Wild) but the space between. As a verb, it symbolizes a process of undoing domestication, not the endpoint. It may look like a woman breast-feeding her child. It may look like a group of people collecting wild edibles. It may look like someone turning off their TV for an hour a day. It may look like hanging out with your friends. It may look like refusing to pay rent or buy food. It may look like killing a deer for the first time, using a rifle. And it may look like using a bow & arrow. It may look like reading a book and changing the way you see Civilization. It may look like refusing to send your children to school. It may look like stealing from the cash register at your wage slave job. It may look like tearing up the streets with a sledge-hammer to plant crops. It may look like investing in “green” technology. It may look like taking down civilization. It may look like frustration at the current state of the world. Everyone has various comfort zones, social networks or friends who can show them things. Rewilding does not exist just for the small elite class of purists who band together and head for the woods to live a 100% primitive life. It serves as an umbrella term for all those who strive to undomesticate themselves, even if only in the smallest way they can.

As a life project

For most green/anti-civilization/primitivist anarchists, rewilding and reconnecting with the earth is a life project. It is not limited to intellectual comprehension or the practice of primitive skills, but instead, it is a deep understanding of the pervasive ways in which we are domesticated, fractured, and dislocated from our selves, each other, and the world, and the enormous and daily undertaking to be whole again. Rewilding has a physical component which involves reclaiming skills and developing methods for a sustainable co-existence, including how to feed, shelter, and heal ourselves with the plants, animals, and materials occurring naturally in our bioregion. It also includes the dismantling of the physical manifestations, apparatus, and infrastructure of civilization. Rewilding has an emotional component, which involves healing ourselves and each other from the 10,000 year-old wounds which run deep, learning how to live together in non-hierarchical and non-oppressive communities, and deconstructing the domesticating mindset in our social patterns. Rewilding involves prioritizing direct experience and passion over mediation and alienation, re-thinking every dynamic and aspect of our reality, connecting with our feral fury to defend our lives and to fight for a liberated existence, developing more trust in our intuition and being more connected to our instincts, and regaining the balance that has been virtually destroyed after thousands of years of patriarchal control and domestication. Rewilding is the process of becoming uncivilized.[2] (source, for now)

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* – 2nd thoughts after sleeping on it: Actually I do make my living – and thus am starting to know about this through a deeper lived experience – from the not-entirely-dissimilar practice of creating and maintain open spaces in peoples’ lawns and flower borders. This too requires constant vigilance and regular high-energy intervention to discourage the ‘weeds’ (sometimes including tree seedlings) and basically ensure that the spontaneous process of succession towards forest is continually frustrated and reset to zero. Perhaps this provides a more ‘abundant’ or productive vegetative growth (although I’m noticing that at this time of year the grass is doing better when protected by the shade of trees) as the land struggles to recover from the emergency we’ve brought to it, but I’ve got the strong sense that things can’t continue this way for long. Lawns, beds and borders soon need fertility brought in from external sources to make up for the nutrients taken up by hungry annual plants and/or regular cropping. I for one can tell you that it’s exhausting! I’m sure the soil finds it similarly so.

70%, 60%

June 22, 2013

***Updated July 6th***

A highly distressing new report from Friends of the Earth Europe: ‘Weed killer found in human urine across Europe‘. If you live in the UK there’s a 70% chance that you have Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s herbicide, Roundup, in your body. What’s it doing to you while it’s in there? How long does it stay? How can you get rid of it or at least build up a personal resistance as the superweeds have done? Answers to these questions are not available because of the usual industry-sponsored silence.

I definitely have it in me because we carry it around in the back of our work van all week (garden maintenance). I’ve refused to use it personally but my coworkers aren’t so scrupulous. I’ve worked on a Roundup-sprayed driveway at least once, suffering mild headaches, dulled awareness and difficulty engaging with the outside world for a number of hours afterward. (I figure I’m basically a plant person now so it’s bound to affect me more than the average post-industrial human being…) One of my colleagues has developed the recent worrying tendency of suggesting we reach for the weed-killer when this proves more economical for our time than weeding by hand, although the cost of the chemical – in more ways than one – gets passed on to the client. They responded to news of this recent report with tangential comments about the safety of drinking water, ignoring the threat sitting right there, a few feet away. I really don’t want to be around when they commit these atrocities, if I can’t first persuade them to not do it. My boss, who has previously worked with Monsanto and accepts their safety claims at face value, is broadly sympathetic to my decision (he doesn’t spray it on his own garden, possibly in part because of the concerns I’ve expressed) but insists that the herbicide has a place in the service we provide, again for economic reasons when it’s cheaper to do the requested work that way, eg: clearing weeds [sic] off driveways, patios etc.

Anyway I recommend reading through some of the different pdf sections via the above link to educate yourself a little about this chemical and the corporations pushing it on you. It’s not just direct contact you have to worry about. As they say, ‘All volunteers who gave samples live in cities, and none had handled or used glyphosate products in the run up to the tests’ and:

Once applied, glyphosate and its break down products are transported throughout the plant into the leaves, grains or fruit [5]. They cannot be removed by washing, and they are not broken down by cooking [6]. Glyphosate residues can remain stable in foods for a year or more, even if the foods are frozen, dried or processed [7]. (‘Human contamination by glyphosate‘ – pdf)

Even if you’ve found a way to avoid ingesting GM foods you’re probably not safe thanks to an insane practice used by farmers called ‘dessication’:

glyphosate-containing herbicides may be sprayed just before harvest onto non-GM cereals, pulses, sunflowers and oilseed crops. This is done to remove weeds and dry out the grains (ibid.)

ie: to kill the plant and pump it full of poison just before it gets isolated from the environment and passed on for consumption by humans. Genius.

But it’s not all about us of course. I found the ‘environmental impacts of glyphosate‘ (pdf) to be the most harrowing read. Turns out that, contrary to Monsanto’s lies*, glyphosate does not biodegrade, stay where you put it, cause no harm to mammals, birds, fish, pets, children, gardeners… In fact it fucks up the lives, lifecycles, hormones, body development and ecological feeder relationships of birds, butterflies, frogs, fish, mussels, invertebrate insects, ocean- and river-dwelling microfauna, and, of course, plants – ‘undesirable’ or otherwise. Anything it touches, basically. Read this and weep, made especially compelling after the recent news that 60% of species in the UK are in decline:

Common weeds can be important food sources for insect, bird and animal species in agricultural areas. Weeds provide food and nectar sources for insects, which in turn feed birds. Weed seeds can also be vital winter foods for many declining bird species, such as corn bunting and skylarkxxxi. Farm Scale Evaluations (FSE) of GM crops in the UK between 1999 and 2003, examined the number of weeds and their seed production in non-GM intensively-managed sugar beet fields, compared with those in GM glyphosate resistant sugar beet cropsxxxii. The results showed a significant loss of weeds and weed seeds in the GM glyphosate resistant sugar beet, compared to the conventional crop. The UK government’s scientific advisory committee spelled out the significance of the results, stating that ‘if [GM glyphosate resistant] beet were to be grown and managed as in the FSEs this would result in adverse effects on arable weed populations [which] would be likely to result in adverse effects on organisms at higher trophic levels (e.g. farmland birds), compared with conventionally managed beet.’xxxiii

A follow-up modelling project concluded that the effects of GM glyphosate resistant crops could affect different species, depending on their feeding and life cycle requirements. The authors noted that, in the results of their model, “Skylarks showed very little response to the introduction of GMHT rape. By contrast, the consequences of introducing GMHT sugar beet were extremely severe, with a rapid decline, and extinction of the skylark within 20 years. This contrasts with the cirl [sic] bunting, which showed little response to the introduction of GMHT beet, but severe consequences arose as a result of the use of GMHT rape”xxxiv.

Join the dots, people.

I think I’m going to start wearing a black armband with the extinction symbol on it:

Extinction Symbol

Otherwise, I believe the roots of dock, dandelion and burdock are the place to go to get support for an overloaded liver and kidneys. But I consider it insufficient to merely adapt to the new toxic status quo in this way. What I’d like to see is the toxic behaviour of Monsanto et al cut off at the source so the planet no longer has to deal with the cascading negative effects of their appalling chemical weapons in the first place. Here’s a petition for starters, but I don’t think it’ll be enough on its own.

Oh, and this is what happens after long-term exposure to Roundup and/or Roundup-Ready GM crops (industry regulations only required a 90-day trial):

GM corn fed rats with cancer tumors during study headed by French biologist Gilles-Éric Séralini‘One of the rats fed GM maize NK603 for two years. The animal has developed an abdominal cancer tumour. Photograph: Tous des cobayes/J+B Sequences’ – source

In a peer-reviewed US journal, Food and Chemical Toxicology, [Professor Gilles-Eric Séralini, professor of molecular biology at Caen university in France] reported the results of a €3.2m study. Fed a diet of Monsanto’s Roundup-tolerant GM maize NK603 for two years, or exposed to Roundup over the same period, rats developed higher levels of cancers and died earlier than controls. Séralini suggested that the results could be explained by the endocrine-disrupting effects of Roundup, and overexpression of the transgene in the GMO.

Less toxic than table salt my arse.

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* – A brief reminder of the claims made in adverts which a New York attorney forced Monsanto to pull back in 1996 – exhibits A through J:

a) Remember that environmentally friendly Roundup herbicide is biodegradable. It won’t build up in the soil so you can use Roundup with confidence along customers’ driveways, sidewalks and fences …

b) And remember that Roundup is biodegradable and won’t build up in the soil. That will give you the environmental confidence you need to use Roundup everywhere you’ve got a weed, brush, edging or trimming problem.

c) Roundup — biodegrades into naturally occurring elements.

d) Remember that versatile Roundup herbicide stays where you put it. That means there’s no washing or leaching to harm customers’ shrubs or other desirable vegetation.

e) This non-residual herbicide will not wash or leach in the soil. It … stays where you apply it.

f) You can apply Accord with … confidence because it will stay where you put it … it bonds tightly to soil particles, preventing leaching. Then, soon after application, soil microorganisms biodegrade Accord into natural products.

g) Glyphosate is less toxic to rats than table salt following acute oral ingestion.

h) Glyphosate’s safety margin is much greater than required. It has over a 1,000-fold safety margin in food and over a 700-fold safety margin for workers who manufacture it or use it.

i) You can feel good about using herbicides by Monsanto. They carry a toxicity category rating of ‘practically non-toxic’ as it pertains to mammals, birds and fish.

j) “Roundup can be used where kids and pets’ll play and breaks down into natural material.” This ad depicts a person with his head in the ground and a pet dog standing in an area which has been treated with Roundup. (link)

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UPDATE:

I portrayed my boss too generously. Weedkiller came up in conversation between us during a lunch break and I mentioned this report and its main findings. At first he wanted to know, reasonably enough, what concentration of glyphosate the research found in peoples’ urine. I didn’t know at the time but went away and looked into it (results below) and may pass on my findings at some point. But after a short spell of silence I was treated to a barrage of denial, justification and misdirection. Highlights included ignorant smears against FoE (a leftist conspiracy against Monsanto: “They’re like a dog with a bone”, “They’re anti-business”, “They hate success”), evidence-free assertions that glyphosate isn’t as bad as some of the other chemicals out there (“I’m sure there are much worse things on my driveway”, “What about all the petrol fumes and machine oils?”), strong implications that there’s nothing you can do about it and you just have to accept & cope with it as best you can, blaming consumers for demanding cheap food with disregard for the consequences (an old disagreement – I think the manufacturing processes call the tune and people adjust their habits accordingly, largely because they have no choice. If it’s all demand driven why the need for so much advertising?) and reiterating the supposed economic imperative of the company needing to use Roundup because “If we don’t someone else will – they will get the work and we will lose out”.

I couldn’t think of any way to respond productively to all this, so I did my usual bit of listening while The Man With Experience lays out The Story of  How Things Are, while making a conscious effort to keep it at arms length and not internalise it all automatically, reserving my own conclusions for a later date. For now, apart from having the usual Upton Sinclair quote ringing in my ears (‘It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it’) I’m thinking this ‘If not me someone else – but worse’ is a bullshit excuse that has probably been used by every tyrant and holocaust-facilitator in history. But what’s the truly responsible course of action? Personal boycotts might be morally satisfying but they don’t really have an effect on the system as a whole unless coordinated and specifically targeted (so why not conspire against Monsanto :D ). Otherwise I think it’s broadly true that you just take yourself out of the competition, leaving another to take what would have been your share. You may not consider it to be worth taking in the first place, but that’s irrelevant if your concern lies with how things play out in the bigger picture. My unscrupulous colleague has more earning potential than me by not ‘turning down work’ in this way. One day this may be the crucial difference between us if the boss decides to lay one of us off. Whatever happens those driveways will continue to get sprayed in the meantime…

Maybe the answer lies in talking to the clients and wider public, ensuring this information gets out to them and perhaps persuading them to change their habits. Comparing the garden sheds of older and younger generations offers some hope – you often find a massive cocktail of lethal, long-expired chemicals in older sheds and much less in the younger ones, indicating a growing distrust of these industrial poisons and a greater inclination towards organic principles. But then, if this process of change is in reality driven by manufacturing practices and mass PR indoctrination rather than consumer demand, appeals to reason and emotion might not cut it. Answers on a postcard as usual!

Here’s the stuff on urine concentration:

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Having checked out the original paper, I see that, of the ten samples from the UK, seven had a level of glyphosate higher than 0.15μg per litre of urine (the ‘Limit of Quantitation (LOQ)’ below which the chemical is apparently considered to not be present) – hence the 70% detection rate, which could actually be 100% as far as I can make out. The mean average is 0.47μg/L, second only to Malta at 0.82μg/L, with the lowest averages coming from Switzerland, Macedonia and Hungaria at 0.09μg/L. There were two UK results over 1μg/L with the highest coming in at 1.64μg/L, second only to the unfortunate individual from Latvia with 1.82μg/L (see table 4 on p.12). The paper gives a ‘reference value’ of 0.8μg/L but I don’t understand what this is meant to indicate and can’t make head or tail of their explanation:

The reference values for Glyphosate and AMPA are only tentative. They were derived from an urban collective (n=90) and are defined as the 95. percentile of the measured values. They were established by Medical Laboratory Bremen in 2012 during the process of the method validation. Strictly speaking they are only valid to the region of Bremen.

Any enlightening comments from someone from a more scientific background much appreciated! It doesn’t seem like regulators have decided on a ‘safe’ level of glyphosate in human urine. The main focus (and controversy) revolves around something Orwellian called ‘Acceptable Daily Intake’ relative to the total body weight rather than the fluid content of urine. In the EU this has been set at 0.3 mg  per kg of body weight (mg = 1000x greater than μg) but there is a stink about the way in which they arrived at this figure – from the FoE report, ‘Concerns about glyphosate’s approval‘ (pdf):

One of the core purposes of pesticide safety assessment is to set the ‘acceptable daily intake’ (ADI) for people’s everyday exposure to the chemical, for example through residues in food. In its 1999 evaluation of glyphosate, the German authorities proposed a high ADI for glyphosate of 0.3 mg per kilogram of body weight. They calculated this figure by reviewing the industry feeding trials using glyphosate and choosing the one they felt to be most sensitive to the effects of the chemical. In this case, the German authorities considered the most sensitive test to be a rat feeding trial. From this they calculated the ‘no observed adverse effect level’ (NOAEL). The ADI was then set at 100 times lower than this [10]. This ADI of 0.3 mg/kg was agreed by the European Commission, and is now law. But even four of the companies applying for approval of glyphosate differed in their interpretations of the industry feeding trials – based on the same studies; they suggested the ADI should be lower, ranging from 0.05mg/kg to 0.15 mg/kg [11].

In 2012, the ADI for glyphosate was re-examined by a group of scientists (including four professors) from universities in the UK and Brazil [12]. When they looked at the industry-funded feeding trials assessed by the German authorities, they noted some studies showed adverse effects at lower doses than in the rat feeding trial, but these findings had been ruled out for various reasons. They claim this led to “significant bias” in the data used. They commented that, if all the industry-funded studies had been included, a “more objectively accurate” ADI would be 0.1 mg/kg bodyweight per day. The group then examined the findings of independent trials of glyphosate published in scientific journals since 2002. Based on these, they concluded the ADI should correctly be 0.025mg/kg bodyweight per day, or “12 times lower than the ADI… currently in force in the EU”.

The ADI for glyphosate is not monitored.

I don’t know how the concentration of glyphosate in urine would relate to the concentration coming in the other end. What seems obvious is that the approach of finding an ‘acceptable’ level of any poisonous substance favours the industry manufacturing that substance at the expense of those humans and nonhumans who get lumbered with the job of storing it in their bodies. ADI? Try UDI!


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