Archive for the ‘Disturbed Philosophy’ Category

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.

Rewilding the British Isles

June 10, 2013

The Soča river valley in Western Slovenia. Photo by Padraic Giardina/Getty‘The Soča river valley in Western Slovenia. Photo by Padraic Giardina/Getty‘ – source

George Monbiot can be an ass but there’s loads of useful stuff in his latest subject material concerning the rewilding of landscapes and (to a lesser extent) people. The book is called Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding and it looks like it’ll be worth a read. There’s an interesting review and discussion here, with Monbiot pitching in quite constructively in the comments. Otherwise there’s a short video on youtube, a Radio 4 walking interview with a well-known sports commentator (who seems quite blindsided by the whole affair), and an excerpt from the book, ‘Accidental Rewilding‘ published by Aeon magazine and putting forward the observation that disasters for human civilisations often leave room for the rest of the ecosystem to flourish on its own self-willed terms (compare Derrick Jensen’s comment that the recovery of wildlife in Chernobyl proves that the ‘The day-to-day workings of civilization are worse than a nuclear catastrophe‘). But this RSA talk: ‘A New Future For Nature‘ and Q&A seems like the best place to get a feel of where he’s coming from and take a hit of his infectious enthusiasm and obvious passion for the topic (apparently the video will only be available for two weeks):

As usual I don’t buy the line about human hunters alone causing the extinction of all the European megafauna, although I’d like to see his evidence. Obviously I see limitations in his conception of what it might mean for humans to rewild, which looks more along the lines of hands-off ecotourism for ‘ecologically bored’ city-dwellers rather than any real embedding of feral human cultures in these ecosystems as a species in their own right. This comment in the Grauniad thread says it all, really:

I’m not advocating rewilding as an alternative to civilisation. Here’s what I say in the book:

“While some primitivists see a conflict between the civilised and the wild, the rewilding I envisage has nothing to do with shedding civilisation. We can, I believe, enjoy the benefits of advanced technology while also enjoying, if we choose, a life richer in adventure and surprise. Rewilding is not about abandoning civilisation but about enhancing it. It is to “love not man the less, but Nature more”.”

…so he doesn’t know what he’s talking about on that front… [/charitable]

Also naturally I’m not happy with this only happening in the highlands with the agricultural monopoly continuing on the best lowland soils, but I guess you can’t have everything right away… Don’t know what to make of his elephant theory either, but I suppose it’s just crazy enough to be true. Fantastic stuff about the turtles, sea grass, wales and phytoplankton relationships and the ‘trophic cascades‘ by which which the removal (or reintroduction) of even just one particular keystone species can cause huge transformations throughout the ecology. But again, he could have mentioned the importance of having human beings in a beneficial keystone role. Possibly he mentions it in the book, but I’ve heard dark murmurings that the next step after reintroducing wild wolves to Yellowstone Park might be to reintroduce wild people, ie: the indigenous Indians who were excluded when the national park was created. Now where are we going to find some of those over here, I wonder?

Some positive steps over all though, in my humble opinion. Good if this stirs a wider debate.

More striking visuals

January 16, 2013

via Shaun – Speaking of grass as an invasive species (see previous post), check out this video animation of changes in ‘global land cover’ over the last 8,000 years, detailing the loss of ‘natural vegetation’ during that period:

The problem remains of how to define ‘natural’. If it simply means the presence of human beings  then practically nowhere on the map should be coloured dark green even at the start because a) all the continents except Antarctica were populated by humans by at least 14,000 years ago, b) there’s no way to inhabit a landscape and not affect it and c) hunter-gatherer peoples are known to have shaped plant and animal communities, sometimes drastically, even before the onset of full-scale cultivation. If ‘non-natural’ vegetation means that native species have been gradually replaced by non-natives then this gets us a little closer to the above depiction but you then have to define what you mean by native, a task that runs into difficulties as soon as you observe that 1) no species has been around since the dawn of time and, 2) they have all come to the space they currently occupy through, if not physical migration, then a journey into existence through evolutionary design space. Also, wouldn’t you have to admit that the various crops and weeds responsible for changing these ecologies had their own native ranges? Therefore, strictly speaking, China should stay green because of its subsistence on native rice, as should the Middle East (the home of wheat and barley) and the various regions in Africa and South & Central America who developed their own crops. Maybe the best description for what is being measured here is the spread of plant & animal domestication. Again, this runs into problems of definition, given that i) low-key forms of cultivation have been around in one form or another since the dawn of humanity ii) (again) there’s no way to inhabit a landscape and not affect it and iii) where exactly are you supposed to draw the line anyway? I suppose it would correlate pretty well with deforestation too. But, dammit, where do you draw the line between ‘pristine’ forest and planted fruit & nut orchards? It would help to know what data this was based on…

Anyway, what I meant to say originally was that it was interesting to watch this while reading Marvin Harris’ classic, Cannibals and Kings, which talks about the origins of ‘hydraulic societies’ (a term coined by the historian Karl Wittfogel) in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, India and China, each of which developed

[…] amid arid or semi-arid plains and valley fed by great rivers. Through dams, canal, flood control and drainage projects, officials diverted water from these rivers and delivered it to the peasants’ fields. Water constituted the most important factor in production. When it was applied in regular and copious amounts, high yields per acre and per calorie of effort resulted. (p.174)

These massive public works, which were necessary if the settled populations were to be fed (an important factor was the lack of opportunities for subsistence in the wilderness surrounding the floodplains – beyond a certain level of population density the people were trapped), led to the emergence of totalitarian hierarchies, enforced by bureaucracies acting out of self-interest for their share of the spoils of the wealth which was produced by the masses, most often living in a state of abject poverty a few steps removed from starvation.

Interestingly, Harris thinks that these states were initially quite self-contained and that the sickness took quite a while to reach the same ferocity in the Northern regions of Europe and Russia – a contention which the above animation seems to confirm. While he describes iron age societies in Britain, France and Germany as ‘secondary states called into existence to cope with the military threat of the Mediterranean empires and to exploit the possibilities of trade and plunder provided by the great wealth of Greece and Rome’ (p.183), the fact that meltwater and rain provided all a peasant farmer needed meant there was no need for a huge state superstructure:

Despite the rigidities introduced by serfdom into the feudal system, the post-Roman political organisation of Europe continued to contrast with that of the hydraulic empires. Central bureaux of internal and external plunder and of public works were conspicuously absent. There was no national system for collecting taxes, fighting wars, building roads and canals or administering justice. The basic unit of production were the independent, self-contained rainfall-farming manorial estates. There was no way for the more powerful princes and kings to interrupt or facilitate the production activities that took place in each separate little manorial world.

Unlike the hydraulic despots, Europe’s medieval kings could not furnish or withhold water from the fields. The rains fell regardless of what the king in his castle decreed, and there was nothing in the productive process to necessitate the organization of vast armies of workers. (pp.185-6)

Indeed, he even goes as far to say that ‘Long after the great river valleys were packed from horizon to horizon with human settlements, northern Europe stood to the Mediterranean and the Orient as America was later to stand to Europe: a frontier still covered by virgin forests’ (p.183) – forests into which they could escape if the going got too rough. At least until iron axes, saws and ploughs became cheaply & widely available enough to allow mass felling and the instatement of the open field system….

Okay, next: a cool little animation by Steve Cutts, simply titled ‘MAN’*:

And, one I’ve been saving – You know you’re making progress when a video about the chemical extermination of unwanted plants and the whole culture built around this act upsets you more than a documentary about the Nazi holocaust. Witness Dow Chemical’s 1947 advertisement / propaganda piece for 2,4-D herbicide (later used in Agent Orange as previously discussed), ‘Death to Weeds':

OMFG I nearly crapped my pants when I saw this footage in a BBC/Discovery documentary series, ‘Human Planet‘. If you think I’m exaggerating when I describe agriculture as an all-out war against the rest of the living world, just … wait for it:

(There’s some context missing from this clip. You can watch the whole Grasslands episode here, with the relevant passage starting from 24:30. Count how many military metaphors the narrator uses.) This is what I mean by my talk about ‘wealth redistribution’. Brief wikipedia research tells me that the Red-billed Quelea ‘is the world’s most abundant wild bird species’ with a total population of up to 10 billion individuals all living in sub-Saharan Africa. They feed mainly on ‘annual grasses, seeds and grain’, although they apparently feed their chicks with caterpillars & insects for a few days before switching to the seed diet. Here’s the telling passage:

Being such a considerable part of the savanna biomass, Red-billed Quelea flocks and colonies attract huge numbers and diverse types of predators and scavengers. Birds known to live extensively off queleas include herons, storks, raptors, owls, hornbills, rollers, kingfishers, shrikes and corvids. Additionally, snakes, lizards and several types of mammals, especially rodents and small carnivores, are regular predators.

And why do they form ‘such a considerable part’ of the biomass? Because human farmers have made available highly concentrated stores of food that support their population at numbers massively higher than they would otherwise be! I think there’s a message to be read in the huge swarms of these ‘locust birds': If you grain farmers keep on hoarding all of the land’s productivity for yourselves, we will be forced to descend upon you in great numbers, ruining your efforts and returning the biological wealth to those you stole it from; those who will now feed on us.

I could be wrong…

Finally, a hero:

pole-sitter(source – please ask me to take it down if it’s not okay for me to republish)

Later in the day a quick-thinking defender scaled this time not a tree but a telegraph pole on the other side of the road to where the chainsaws were felling. Work had to stop because of the potential danger and this time security climbers found it impossible to evict the defender, unable as they were to find a higher point to secure on to. Instead, a bunch of coppers closed off the road (which was unecessary, and no doubt intended to hack off the locals) and stood about ready to nick the pole-sitter when he came down. Holding out until the contractors had beaten a retreat a valiant attempt was made by supporters to “de-arrest” the defender upon his descent, but were met with the full force of sussex police, who piled out of a nearby riot van screaming “pepper spray them, pepper spray them all”, and duly dispensed their canisters. In the ruckus the pole-sitter cut open his leg and, after being nicked, was taken to hospital for 8 stiches. He was released in the early hours and, just as in the previous arrests, bailed off site. He was charged with obstruction of the public highway (that is, the same public highway that the police themselves closed…?!). (link)

Protestors are resisting the construction of a new road between Hastings and Bexhill (near the south coast of England) which will carve through a valley containing a peaceful water meadow and pockets of ancient woodland. Go to: Combe Haven Defenders for more information and to see how you can help.

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* – Obligatory nit-pick: these actions do not represent all of humanity. As Daniel Quinn wrote:

Man was born MILLIONS of years ago, and he was no more a scourge than hawks or lions or squids. He lived AT PEACE with the world … for MILLIONS of years.

This doesn’t mean he was a saint. This doesn’t mean he walked the earth like a Buddha. It means he lived as harmlessly as a hyena or a shark or a rattlesnake.

It’s not MAN who is the scourge of the world, it’s a single culture. One culture out of hundreds of thousands of cultures. OUR culture.

Giving Back #2 – Lessons from Burdock

March 5, 2012

(#1)

It’s been over two years since I last dug up Burdock for the roots and something like five since I first started searching for this plant after seeing Ray Mears unearth some huge specimens and talk about their potential, not only as an important starch-filled survival food, but as a likely caloric staple for the hunter-gatherer cultures who lived here before farming took hold some six thousand years ago. In my eagerness and enthusiasm to partake in this (pre-)history and get my teeth into a hefty wild food that could even compete with cultivated rootcrops like carrots, parsnips & potatoes for size and bulk, I jumped in head first and ended up making my first serious foraging error – mistaking the first spring growths of Lords and Ladies (aka Cuckoo Pint) for Burdock, based on the aforementioned TV footage and a handful of pictures and descriptions I’d seen on the internet. I’d dug up a few plants that had hallelujah’d at me during a walk along the Thames near Oxford and brought them back home in my pocket. They didn’t have the same huge, deep roots, and came with a funny little tuber which I’d not heard mentioned. Nevertheless, ignoring the lingering sores on my hands (which I had attributed to unseen nettles during the digging), I proceeded to steam the stems and do a taste test on them. This was unremarkable by itself, but when I took a tiny nibble from the freshly cut, white inner flesh of the raw tuber, it was a different story. Apparently Lords and Ladies defends itself using microscopic dagger-shaped crystals of calcium oxalate interspersed between the cell walls, and these shoot out when the plant’s body is broken or disturbed, embedding themselves fairly reliably in the flesh of the hapless creature responsible for the disturbance. Youch! So after a promising initial rush of sugary starchiness while I mixed the tiny morsel with saliva in the front of my mouth and gave it a cautious nibble, my mouth started to tingle, then ache and then burn all the way to the back of my throat, even though I’d spat and rinsed with cold water almost immediately. I finally ID’d the plant correctly (thanks mainly to my symptoms) and learned that, while they do have a recorded edible use as a ‘poor man’s potato’ and of being rendered into ‘portland sago’ (a thickener akin to arrowroot) or laundry starch, this requires careful baking and/or pulping in water to destroy or denature the crystals, and when eaten raw it has even been known to cause death through inflammation of the throat tissues and subsequent asphyxiation! Oh shit… Happily the burning died down within a couple of hours so I didn’t have to get too worried in the end, but it was still noticeably sore for the following two days.

Lesson #1 - Respect the plants! Spend enough time to be able to ID them confidently and be careful what you put in your mouth!

It turns out Burdock comes up significantly later than Lords and Ladies, and I did manage to find and dig up some plants later in that same year, learning to look for the dried-out 2nd year stalks and remaining sticky burrs to indicate where I was most likely to find a community of younger plants poking through. (The plant is biennial – forming a rosette and taproot in the first year, hibernating through the winter, then lunging back upwards in its second summer with huge leaves and flowerstalk before going to seed and dying back in the autumn – and the best time to harvest the root is during the first autumn or second spring when most of the energy is still underground.) It was during this time that I found some properly massive specimens, growing in gravelly clay soils by an artificial irrigation ditch.

These gave me my first indication that it might be possible to subsist entirely off foraged foods in this country (hence the triumphal, ‘take that, surburbia!’ pose struck in that second image, my sometime banner photo for this site), especially after I got my eye in over several long-distance walks and started noticing the plants growing in large patches in many different places, especially along roads for some reason (probably having to do with water run-off and heat absorption by the dark tarmac). My eyes swelled with fatness* from seeing a new abundance of food in the landscape in this way, but I also felt a new sensitivity towards the plants themselves and a growing reluctance to swoop in and put an end to all their hard work before they even got the chance to reproduce. I couldn’t just take from these beings. Even if some degree of respect lay in the simple, very personal act of expending work calories in exchange for the carb storehouses they had established (which would then fuel more work calories…) – couldn’t a bankrobber make the same claim in defense of his actions? Just because you could do something, it didn’t necessarily follow that you should. So for a long time I avoided digging plants up or, more generally, any kind of harvesting that would prove fatal to them. A small portion of the leaves, fruits, seeds – okay; whole roots – no no, unless they had to come up for other reasons, eg: gardening operations.

Lesson #2 – Don’t kill unnecessarily. Consider the plant’s needs and, where possible, try to fit yourself around them so that both parties can get what they want.

A couple of things clicked in me over the following years. First I heard about Australian aboriginal practices of digging up edible roots and replanting the crown and the rosette so the plant would grow back again, allowing for a sustainable harvest, albeit over a long timespan. Then I saw Derrick Jensen talk about the fundamental law of the predator/pray relationship – ‘If you consume the flesh of an Other, you now take responsibility for the continuation of the Other’s community’ – and how life was only possible through this respectful bargain of looking after the land and all the species sharing the same space with you. Most importantly ensuring that the sum total of your actions contributed to the health and resilience of the community, because in the end every species gets weighed in the balance† and those that are found wanting lose their right to life and become extinct. Finally I got to grips with the notion that humans weren’t exempt from this law, and the rather counter-intuitive idea that our direct involvement, even through heavy-handed, apparently destructive techniques such as fire setting, coppicing, hunting etc, could actually have a beneficial impact on ecosystems, as well as for the individual plant and animal species concerned. As Kat Anderson put it in Tending The Wild, an exploration of land management in preconquest native Californian cultures:

Several important insights were revealed to me as I talked with elders and accompanied them on plant gathering walks. The first of these was that one gains respect for nature by using it judiciously. By using a plant or an animal, interacting with it where it lives, and tying your well being to its existence, you can be intimate with it and understand it. The elders challenged the notion I had grown up with – that one should respect nature by leaving it alone – by showing me that we learn respect through the demands put on us by the great responsibility of using a plant or an animal.

Many elders I interviewed said that plants do better when they gather them. At first this was a jarring idea – I had been taught that native plants were here long before humans and did best on their own without human interference – but it soon became clear to me that my native teachers were giving me another crucial gift of insight. California Indians had established a middle ground between the extremes of overexploiting nature and leaving it alone, seeing themselves as having the complementary roles of user, protector, and steward of the natural world. I had been reading about how various animals’ interactions with plant populations actually benefited those plants – how grizzly bears scattered the bulblets of Erythronium lilies in the process of rooting up and eating the mature bulbs, how California scrub jays helped oaks reproduce by losing track of some of the acorns they buried – and it seemed plausible that the many generations of humans in California’s past had played a similar role. If it was true that native plants did better with our help, it meant that there was a place for us in nature. (Tending The Wild, p.xvi)

I remembered that in the footage I’d seen (has anybody else come across this? I did find it on youtube a while ago, but haven’t been able to track it down for the life of me) Ray Mears had in fact made a point of planting the seeds from nearby mature plants when harvesting his Burdock root to help the plant propagate itself and hopefully replace what he had taken.

Lesson #3 - Ultimately Others have to die so that you can live. In return you have an obligation to look after their brothers and sisters and help their kind to thrive. Someday you too will die and the loan these others have given to you will be repaid in full.

This year, as part of my herbal apprenticeship, Sarah has suggested making a tincture or vinegar from Burdock and Mullein roots. Unfortunately I’ve not yet seen the latter growing anywhere near to me, but about a week ago it felt like a good time to go out hunting for Burdock again, so I grabbed my digging stick (made from a stout piece of Hawthorn), a small hand-trowel & fork and headed down to the river, where I’d gathered from successfully in previous years. Unfortunately there were no signs of growth yet in any of the usual spots, so I made do with some early Ramsons and baby Nettles, and started making tracks back home via a different route. All of a sudden, in a sunny patch by the side of the path, I spied some old flower stems, and – hooray! – some of the flannely, white-bottomed leaves just starting to emerge from the sandy soil in several places nearby.

(Note the shiny, darker green leaves of Lords and Ladies in the top right of the picture.) I judged that there were enough new plants to spare three for my purposes, so I selected a small group suitably close together and set about digging my trench.

The digging stick did most of the work in loosening the soil for me to scoop out with my hands, but there were several tree roots that impeded my progress and the hole started to get too deep for convenience. I think a long-handled fork would have sped things up considerably. In the end I think it took me 1/2 to 3/4 of an hour to get more-or-less to the bottom of the three roots and pull up the best part of them.

It was hard, sweaty work! A few horseriders and dogwalkers came past during this time, which made me slightly nervous because technically I think you need permission from the landowner before uprooting any plant in the UK. Because this was beside a public footpath I didn’t know who to ask, so I went ahead and assumed it was okay as long as I tidied up after. Who within a ten-mile radius, apart from me, considers Burdock anything other than a noxious weed, if they even can even recognise it in the first place? Hopefully the above writing should make it clear why I disagree with Richard Mabey when he instructs his readers:

Never pull up whole plants along any path or road verge where the public has access. It is not only anti-social and contrary to all the principles of conservation, but also, in most places, illegal. (Food For Free, p.23)

(Honestly, I don’t care what the current lot of bandits and gangsters ‘in charge’ of this country have defined as ‘illegal’, and generally view these as suggestions that I’m free to ignore as long as someone isn’t actually there & prepared to back up the law with violence or the other usual forms of coercion.‡) Anyway, luckily they didn’t seem to mind, and appeared interested when I explained what I was doing. When I was done I scooped all the soil back into the hole, tamped it down a little, seeded it with a few handful of burrs and covered it with a loose mulch of leaves and twigs, making sure to thank Burdock for its generosity, explain my intentions and promise that I would be back in the future:

Can you tell anyone’s been there? It occurred to me that loosening the soil in this way would ease the growth of any new plants germinating either from the seeds or the remaining chunks of root. In time, if I continued to frequent the patch, digging up a few plants here & there maybe every other year, my activities would change the growing conditions for that whole plant community, perhaps leading to larger, fatter roots or more vigorous above-ground growth. A low-key form of cultivation that would truly tie my well being to the plant’s existence (as Kat Anderson would have it), taking the form of a mutually beneficial longterm relationship. Anti-social, my arse!

Back home, after a couple of days I got round to scrubbing one of the roots, slicing it up, leaves’n’all in the food processor and dunking it in vinegar for a liver-supporting tonic that should be ready in a month or so:

(Note the dark ‘ring’ in the cross-section, which I’m guessing marks the end of the first year’s growth as it does in trees.) The following morning I sliced up another half-root’s worth to go into a breakfast fry-up:

(Ingredients: eggs, bacon, onion, red pepper, beechnuts, nettles, linseed, butter all fried together, plus tea, toast, tomatoes, salt, pepper, herbs, ramsons butter, nettle infusion. Mmmm…) The root has a very distinctive smell when freshly cut. A sharp, slightly abrasive smell at the same time earthy and musty that seems to reach deep into your throat and lungs. Like it’s angry about being exposed to the air. The taste is more pleasant – vaguely nutty and radishy raw, more bland when cooked. I slice it at an angle to get bigger chunks and make chewing easier, as the fibres get tough and stringy length-wise, given half a chance (although I’ve seen a recipe that called for ‘julienne’-style matchsticks).

There’s a fourth lesson Burdock has played a part in teaching me, having to do with those greed-swollen eyes I was talking about, but I’ll tell you about that some other time. It has to do with Civilisation’s love affair with carbs and the kind of work they, uniquely, can provide the fuel for. Suffice it to say I’ve grown disenchanted with simply attempting to find alternative kinds of food to feed the slave classes…

If you want to read more about the medicinal side of things, I recommend you read about Home-Sweetening Christine’s experiences with Burdock and check out this comprehensive page of info. I’ll report back in a month or so about how I get on with the vinegar infusion. PFAF go into some of the other edible uses for the aboveground parts.

I wish you luck and excitement as you get to know this remarkable plant.

———————————

* – Psalm 73

† – Daniel 5 (dunno why all these biblical references are springing to mind – maybe because it’s Lent?)

‡ – As I’ve written elsewhere, ‘People (or a class of people) who have degraded and brutalised the landscape so comprehensively over the last few centuries/millennia have no business telling the rest of us how, when (or if!) we will relate to the land.’ See also Banksy’s comments on advertising, where he writes:

You owe the companies nothing. Less than nothing, you especially don’t owe them any courtesy. They owe you. They have re-arranged the world to put themselves in front of you. They never asked for your permission, don’t even start asking for theirs.

(which strikes me as an appropriate attitude towards most landowners) … and finally Umair Haque’s handy little saying: ‘If you want to live an empty life, follow the rules.’ (thanks Vanessa)

Fascism in the garden

May 23, 2011

[***May 31st updates in bold***]


(The Forest Swastika)

I’ve touched before on the ‘curious parallels’ between the language people use when speaking about so-called invasive species and the ‘language of racism and genocide’, especially when you compare it to tabloid-style attitudes toward immigrants ‘stealing all the jobs of our native-borns’. It has also become increasingly apparent to me – as I work in the gardens of acquaintances and friends of the family doing all the ‘necessary’ but physically taxing tasks of mowing, weeding, pruning, trimming, and as I continue to work with a volunteer conservation group manipulating local habitats in an effort to replace ‘unwanted’ with ‘wanted’ plant & animal species – that the prevalent cultural attitudes and subsequent actions toward those we term ‘weeds’ closely resemble the irrationality, fear, prejudice and blind hatred so often evident in acts of genocide. Even dictionary definitions, faithfully reflecting cultural values, practically froth at the mouth at these plant ‘mongrel races’. For example:

weed

–noun
1. a valueless plant growing wild, especially one that grows on cultivated ground to the exclusion or injury of the desired crop.
2. any undesirable or troublesome plant, especially one that grows profusely where it is not wanted: The vacant lot was covered with weeds. (source)

Ouch! ‘Valueless’, ‘undesirable’, ‘troublesome’, ‘not wanted’ according to who? Ah, I see: according to the one who invested his energy in cultivating the ground; who expects to maximise the return from his ‘desired crop’. The definition is written from the point of view of the farmer/gardener. Of course: he has chosen to fight a war (of extermination, no less) and, as we all know, the victor gets to write the histories – and definitions, it would seem – as best suits his self-image and ongoing propaganda purposes. I imagine the plants in question would describe themselves rather differently…

Anyway, what I didn’t realise was that at least one person had already arrived at this analogy between weed-killing and genocide, only they had come to it from rather the opposite direction. Here’s the quote that was waiting for me near the end of Derrick Jensen’s book, The Culture of Make Believe, which I finally got round to finishing the other day:

The fundamental metaphor of National Socialism as it related to the world around it was the garden, not the wild forest. One of the most important Nazi ideologists, R.W. Darré, made clear the relationship between gardening and genocide: “He who leaves the plants in a garden to themselves will soon find to his surprise that the garden is overgrown by weeds and that even the basic character of the plants has changed. If therefore the garden is to remain the breeding ground for the plants, if, in other words, it is to lift itself above the harsh rule of natural forces, then the forming will of a gardener is necessary, a gardener who, by providing suitable conditions for growing, or by keeping harmful influences away, or by both together, carefully tends what needs tending and ruthlessly eliminates the weeds which would deprive the better plants of nutrition, air, light, and sun. . . . Thus we are facing the realization that questions of breeding are not trivial for political thought, but that they have to be at the center of all considerations, and that their answers must follow from the spiritual, from the ideological attitude of a people. We must even assert that a people can only reach spiritual and moral equilibrium if a well-conceived breeding plan stands at the very center of its culture.” (pp.589-90)

Jensen comments that ‘We still believe in the metaphor of the garden’. In fact it’s a reality – I was in a garden center just last week and an advertisement for the latest brand of herbicide came over the tannoy, bristling with Darré’s justifications for ‘ruthlessly [eliminating]’ weeds/lesser races which still have the audacity to ‘deprive the better plants of nutrition, air, light, and sun’, basically ‘stealing’ – using for their own independent purposes – the resources which we ourselves wanted to appropriate for our favoured crops.

The best-selling herbicide worldwide ‘since at least 1980′ is agro-bio-tech giant Monsanto’s Roundup, based on the patented active ingredient Glyphosate. It seems between 1996 and 2009 the company was accused and finally convicted of false advertising, having claimed, among other things, that:

  • Glyphosate is less toxic to rats than table salt
  •  “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.
  • 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. (source)

In fact Roundup comes with a whole host of toxic effects for animals, including humans, and entire ecosystems (see Wikipedia page linked above for details), but what interests me more is that nobody’s complaining about the avowed intent of the product, explicitly stated in the same adverts, namely: to kill plants. It’s not the same one I heard in the garden center, but if you can stomach it have a look at this Roundup infomercial, which I’m guessing has been specifically targeted for a UK audience. I predict future generations will find this shocking and disgusting:

With Roundup rest easy knowing that your problem weeds will soon have died, right down to their roots, so they can never come back.

Right down to the roots!! (Can you hear the repressed hatred behind the announcer’s calm delivery?) Then, necessary cleansing rituals performed, the Brave New Briton can return to his civilised activity of ‘[relaxing] with a tea and the Sunday papers’, secure in the knowledge that his ‘enjoyment’ won’t be ‘spoilt’ by ‘unwanted weeds […] which look unsightly and compete with our treasured plants.’

It’s Genesis all over: We, the farming cultures, have eaten at the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and consequently feel able to take over the gods’ (or, if you prefer, evolution’s) work of deciding who shall live and who shall die.* We take it for granted that we have the right – indeed, the obligation – to take these matters into our own hands, and we feel compelled to continue even when the results prove manifestly catastrophic for the biosphere and for ourselves.

And it’s a war we’ve chosen to fight. Biocidal poisons used to further the Green Revolution in the mid 20th century came directly from the re-tooled factories of World War Two. I always remember the sequence of visuals in this episode of Bill Mollison’s ‘Global Gardener’ series (watch from 15:35):

[16:48] I came from traditional farming families and we’d cared for soils for over 200 years, but in the period from 1950 to 1990 most of those soils were destroyed. In 1951 I saw the first chainsaw, in 1953 we saw the modern tractor arrive, by 1954 many farms were pouring phosphate all over their fields. We didn’t have to worry about the soil any more. We were in charge of fertility. In the 50’s, therefore, we declared war on the soil. We were using just that equipment we would have used had we gone to war: heavy machinery, crawler [?] tractors, biocides, poison gas, the lot.

Daniel Quinn made the point this way, referring to Isaiah 2:4:

[…] what you see in this business of beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks is not people turning from war to peace but rather people turning from one war to another war–from an inTRAspecies war to an inTERspecies war. From the conquest of nations to the conquest of nature–the mythological war that the people of our particular culture have been waging here for the past ten thousand years.

The plowshare has always been understood by the people of our culture as the sword they follow across the face of the earth. They followed it out of the Fertile Crescent eastward to India and China, they followed it northward into Europe, and finally they followed it westward into the New World. (link)

For me, the distinctions between tractors and tanks, cropdusters and fighter-bombers, or DDT/Agent Orange/Roundup and Zyklon B have been blurred ever since.

And if we’re starting to think of plants as people in this way, maybe we can also begin to look at ourselves as plants; ourselves in the employ of the Master Gardener. How did your school or higher education experiences, for instance, compare to life in a plant nursery, with every effort on the part of your keepers geared towards maximising your value at the point of sale? An extract from a poem I wrote a year ago:

…They had me trained, they had me staked, they had me pruned and brutalised ever-constant to wring the greatest possible harvest from my twisted form. So for them I would provide no fruit; I would send forth no shoot – I reserved all my growing for where they could not see. They could not touch me, reaching through the starving soils, growing strong, growing hard and deep and long at the root…

Back in Culture of Make Believe we read more about the garden metaphor:

There are useful species, off of which we can turn a buck, and, there are species in the way. Likewise, there are useful people—those who are instrumental, productive—and, there are those who clutter up land we could otherwise use. (p.590)

and previously:

Within our culture there are tremendous pressures on people to be “high-functioning,” to be “productive,” to “realize their potential.” When I finished my degree in physics, which I did not enjoy, then bailed partway through a graduate degree in economics, which I enjoyed just as little, and took up beekeeping, the father of one of my friends decried the waste of my potential. Never mind that I was happy. When he later learned that I was a writer, he was mollified. At least I was, in his worldview, producing. (p.513)

This is so true it hurts. Even beekeeping is an ‘instrumental, productive’ way for a human plant to occupy itself, looked at from the economic perspective (the arbiter of all value in our culture) whereby bees provide a service by pollinating our crops. So the lifestyle / business model is tolerated, as are the bees. For now.

This shit makes me so sick I can hardly speak. It’s why last year I wrote (personal correspondence) that ‘all ways of making a living that don’t kill the planet have been (are still being) systematically uprooted to ensnare people in centralised modes of production.’ It’s why the year before I drew this cartoon of Nazi parents persuading their child to enter the deathcamp economy. What other option does the boy – silent, head bowed under the weight of lies – have?

I don’t want to grow for Them or their life-ending agenda.
If I grow I want to do it for Me & Mine.

Fortunately there exist ways of relating to other plants & animals in mutually beneficial ways that don’t involve a constant war-footing. As Ken Fern wrote in the Plants For A Future book:

For so many people, growing plants is a constant battle against all the setbacks nature throws at us. It really need not be like this. Instead of fighting against her and always complaining about our lot we would do better by trying to work with her. Nature is self-regulating and, when left to her own devices, finds a balance between the various species of plants and animals. A natural woodland receives no artificial fertilisers, fungicides or herbicides yet its lush growth feeds a wide range of mammals, birds and insects. There are fluctuations in the populations of different species but the overall picture is one of balance. (pp.5-6, online preview)

I’ve noticed this in myself as well. Like Jean Liedloff pointing out that children are naturally sociable (duh); like Ran Prieur writing that ‘after many years of activities that were forced’ it can take ‘years before you can build up the life inside you to an intensity where it can drive projects that you actually enjoy and finish’ – it’s so obvious: The plants want to grow. All the shouting, all the worrying, all the external input over the years intended (perhaps sometimes with the best of intentions) to encourage, to foster, to guide, ultimately to control my development, and eventually I just wilted under the constant pressure, stress and strain. Now, fiercely guarding the growths that, miraculously and to my surprise and wonder, still manage to arise from me, I feel like telling it this way: The plants grow best when you leave them the fuck alone. Maybe there will be opportunities for mutually supporting relationships in the future, but for now hands off!

Let’s finish with more from Derrick Jensen, here describing how things used to be and (by extension) how they might start to look once again if things take a turn for the better:

It is significant that oftentimes when Europeans searched for Indian gardens to destroy, they could not readily tell what was garden and what was forest (not that, ultimately, this stopped the Europeans, as, in time, they destroyed them both). To not see the world in strictly utilitarian terms is not to cease having preferences. It is merely to see that—and sometimes how—things (or, rather, beings) fit together, how they move in short and long patterns of rhythm and consequence. And it is to attempt to fit oneself into those patterns, taking care to not upset the sometimes delicate balance that must remain between those one considers friends and those one considers honored enemies. Hitler did not understand this, and, for the most part, neither do we. (Make Believe pp.590-1)

I think that’s where the plants will take us, if we can allow ourselves to follow.

***

Epilogue

***

An experiment: Watch what happens inside you when you read these words: Kike, Wog, Nigger, Paki, Pikey, Gyppo, Chink, Gook, Queer, Faggot, Spastic, Retard, Chav, Slut, Whore. Have you ever used any of these or been on the receiving end of one of them? How did it feel? Funny? Neutral/descriptive? Spiteful? Normal? Scathing? Belittling? Physically traumatic? Now ask yourself about the historical relationships implied by these words. Now think about where you fit into these relationships, both during your formative experiences in the past and in your current state in the present. How does where you’re coming from affect your reaction? Some of these words have acquired new significances or gone out of common parlance due to association with historical events (eg: the Jewish holocaust) assertive cultural movements (eg: civil rights) or otherwise changed social circumstances. Others, not.

Now try this one: Weed.

My understanding of prejudice is that it arises to fulfill a specific purpose: to block the senses and otherwise erect barriers which impede the spontaneous emergence of relationships when this proves expedient in the pursuit of other social goals. Thus the dehumanisation of the enemy during wartime (the depersonification of others in inTERspecies wars). Thus the biting epithets used to put down the natives and lower classes and the deference and glorification accorded to the upper/aspirational classes – all to make sure people ‘know their place’ and stick to their given roles. Thus the cold language of bureaucracy and ‘regrettable necessity’ when a culture feels the urge to exterminate those it can find no ‘use’ for; to destroy that in which it sees no value. These situations require the death of empathy: you have to kill the Other inside yourself before you can do the same in the outside world. If we started to view ‘weeds’ as individuals in their own right, with their own unique lifestories and personalities, could we continue to kill them in droves so callously, so thoughtlessly, so absent-mindedly in the blind pursuit of our insane Master-Race-1,000-Year-Reich goals? Of course not.

All the more reason to do it, says I!

—————

* – see chapter 9 of Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael (online)

Winter / No Nut Blues

January 18, 2011

Well, lots of people have been talking about a New Year, making all kinds of New Plans, dreaming all kinds of New Dreams, and for the most part my (unspoken) reaction has been one of: “WTF, you guys: it’s January, it’s cold, it’s winter – shouldn’t you still be asleep along with everything else, waiting for the sun to come back and warm your marrow before you even begin to think about stirring and emerging from your dens?”… I first noticed it last year, but it really hit home this winter just how strange it is to have the snows come down and blanket everything with silence and frozen stillness – to walk about and everywhere notice animal and plant beings so quiet and withdrawn into themselves with only the barest glimmer of life-light visible to the observer – and then come back to a civilised humanity breaking its back to keep everything running in exactly the same way it was during the height of summer. People leaving their homes before dawn and getting back after dusk, others in the employ of transport and civil infrastructure working around the clock to keep roads, railways, airports, schools, hospitals, offices open and functioning as ‘normal’. And when these efforts failed, many took their frenzied activity into the outdoors. Here’s a photo from last January in the local park, presenting the typical scene after a medium-heavy snowfall:

Where have all these people come from? Where did they find so much energy at this time of year? Where were they during all the other seasons (the park is almost never this full)? I see in these gatherings a kind of revolutionary fervour: “We have decided that the Laws of Nature don’t apply to us. Now we’re going to flaunt it and dare the world to break us if it can. Together we are strong!” Any wild creatures still out and about must think we’re nuts. As Dougald Hind observed on the Dark Mountain blog (speaking about the materialist emphasis of Christmas celebrations, but the point generalises), ‘the activities prescribed are utter foolishness: biologically they make no sense and only a culture as out of sorts as ours could fail to notice this.’ He continues:

The effect of the northern winter on the mood was remarked on by the 6th century historian Jordanes, writing his history of the Goths from the kinder climate of Constantinople. Modern medicine labels the phenomenon Seasonal Affective Disorder, but is there anything out of order about a lowering of the spirits, as the life ebbs from the landscape around us?

The midwinter customs of northern cultures recognise and work with this. The weeks before the solstice are handled with care, with an awareness that the forces of life, light and warmth are at their weakest. In Shetland, the week before Yule was a time when trolls were at large and to be kept off with rituals at gates and doorways. In Latvia, the fortnight before the winter festival is called “the season of ghosts.” The Christian season of Advent, a time of quietness and waiting, itself reflects the wisdom of going gently through these ugliest weeks of the year.

I have been feeling the sap rise up in me again lately, being out & about spotting the new buds, shoots and even a few flowers opening up on my herbal task-of-the-month (more on this shortly). But the last 3 or 4 months have been particularly hard and depressing for me, so I anticipate it might take a little more than usual for me to pull out of the seasonal funk; a little longer to awake from hibernation.

Basically I got thrown out of whack when the trees apparently decided that none of them were going to produce any nuts that Autumn, and I never recovered. The previous year I had enjoyed bumper crops from beech, hazel, oak and chestnut (three of these for the first time) which gave me a feeling of confidence that I could nourish myself well on these neglected foods and that, at a push, they could serve as my caloric staples for a sizeable chunk of the year. When October and November came and went this year with only a few immature sweet chestnuts and a failed experiment trying to make an edible flour out of conkers* I felt a kind of terror with the knowledge that if I were relying heavily on these harvests I would probably die, coupled with a lingering sense of betrayal – the land had chosen not to provide for me. I learned from Feral Kevin that Valley Oaks in California only produce large quantities of nuts every 2-3 years and furthermore ‘[…] are pretty much on the same cycle. They’ll either all fruit heavily, or none of them fruit at all’ and H speculated about unusually dry summers followed by heavy rains discouraging trees across the board, all of which helped my brain not to take it too personally. But beyond the intellect the bitterness and feelings-of-rejection persisted, leading to a withdrawal from wild foods and interest in The Outdoors generally. I know it must look immature and petulant in a throw-your-toys-out-of-the-pram kind of way, and that I should have simply and without fuss moved my attention to other foodplants like nuts and berries – diversity being the great strength of foraging as a subsistence strategy†. In fact I recognised this at the time, as you can see from my comment on Kevin’s post, and I did try to re-direct my frustrated enthusiasm with:

#1 – Double-infused Elderflower oil (later mixed with grated beeswax to make a moisturising salve):

#2 – Apples (coring, grating and hand-pressing for juice to ferment into cider; drying leftover pulp for fruit leather – thanks for the windfalls Elsie!):

#3 – A leaf container (oak leaves left to rot down in wire frame bracketed onto hazel poles foraged from local coppice):

#’s 4 & 5 – Apples (chutney, more or less following this recipe) and More Apples (filtering and siphoning the now super-strong dry cider into screwtop bottles):

… plus a few other first-time experiments and many of the usual jams, jellies and syrups. Nevertheless the blues settled in to stay by November/December, bringing apathy, introspection and a grey lack-lustre to my internal landscape, closely fitting the one I saw outside. I don’t think I was much fun to be around, no matter what brave face I happened to be trying at any given time… H thought I had chosen to ‘feed the darkness'; that the landscapes only seemed bleak because I was focusing on their negative aspects and turning a blind eye to the positives. I didn’t (and don’t) feel confident enough to deny the suggestion. As ever, I just hope that I learned something from the experience; that the crap was worth wading through and taking seriously (or primarily – as ‘evidence’ valid and undeniable in its own right), and that better things lie ahead.

Please feel free (and welcome) to share your winter horror-stories in the comments section below!

———————-

* – the PFAF entry suggested a combination of roasting and leaching, as with acorns, but my results tasted worse than the raw nut.

† – Richard Borshay Lee writing in the early 1960s about the Ju/Hoansi-!Kung Bushmen in the Kalahari Desert:

Apart from the mongongo [nut – caloric staple, providing ’50 percent of the vegetable diet by weight’], the Bushmen have available eighty-four other species of edible food plants, including twenty-nine species of fruits, berries and melons and thirty species of roots and bulbs. The existence of this variety allows for a wide range of alternatives in susistence strategy. During the summer months the Bushmen have no problem other than to choose anmong the tastiest and most easily collected foods. Many species, which are quite edible but less attractive, are bypassed, so that gathering never exhausts all the available plant foods of an area. During the dry season the diet becomes much more eclectic and the many species of roots, bulbs, and edible resins make an important contribution. It is this broad base that provides an essential margin of safety during the end of the dry season, when the mongongo nut forests are difficult to reach. In addition, it is likely that these rarely utilized species provide important nutritional and mineral trace elements that may be lacking in the more popular foods. (‘The Hunters: Scarce Resources in the Kalahari’ – p.110 in Conformity and Conflict: Readings in Cultural Anthropology)

…but then, they’ve got whole tribes and thousand-year cultural traditions backing them up in their subsistence efforts. I’ve got maybe 2-3 years paying attention to this stuff with the dubious assistance of authors writing in books about different times & places, AND practically all of the people in my culture are pulling in entirely the opposite direction to the one I want to take. Go figure if enthusiasm is hard to come by…

Mark Well – The State, The Forests, & The State Of The Forests

December 4, 2010

So, the Con-Dems have announced that they are going to sell the forests they ‘own’* (through the Forestry Commission) to private, I assume mostly profit-making, companies. To get you up to speed:

Info that stood out to me from the above:

1) – 72% of UK woodland is already in private ownership – the FC only ‘own’ 18%.

2) – Total UK woodland cover has gotten more extensive over the last century – from 4% in 1919 to 12% currently. This compares to 33% (EcoEarth ibid.) – 44% (Woodland Trust) for the European average†. However, we still have to ask what kind of woodland…

[…] only a small proportion of [the UK landscape’s 12% woodland cover], around 40 per cent, is native woodland.

Ancient woodland, land which has been continuously wooded since at least 1600AD and is our closest link with the original wildwood, now covers only 2 per cent* of the UK’s land area.

(*This varies from 4.2 per cent in Scotland to 3.2 per cent in Wales, 2.45 per cent in England and less than 0.1 per cent in Northern Ireland.)

Sadly, nearly 50 per cent of the ancient woodland that survived until the 1930s has since been lost or damaged by agriculture, development or planting by non-native conifers for commercial forestry. (Woodland Trust, ‘Why has woodland in the UK declined?’ – ibid.)

Further, the 2% of ancient woodland land area splits into the categories of ‘Ancient Semi-Natural Woodland’ (ASNW) which ‘is composed of native tree species that have not obviously been planted’ and ‘Planted Ancient Woodland Sites’ (PAWS) – ‘ancient woods in which the former tree cover has been replaced, often with non-native trees’ (Wikipedia). So it isn’t clear how much – if any – woodland has survived the onslaught of the agricultural/industrial culture in this country over the last 6,000 years; how much of it in any way resembles its previous form.

3) – 75% of wood used (‘consumed’) in the UK is imported from abroad.

On 1) I suppose the issue is that, in theory, the public can exercise rights of access on government-owned land, whereas doing so on private land would involve jumping a few fences and operating outside the law (policemen backing up property ‘rights’ with force). I’m waiting to hear back from the FC about what percentage of their land is actually open to the public. This snippet suggests not all of it, but that there might at least be the possibility of some legal redress:

The commission, says Lees [‘recreation and public affairs manager’ for the FC in SW England], now aims to make as much of its woodland accessible to the public as possible. In fact, it is obliged to; the Countryside and Rights of Way (CRoW) Act 2000 ensures the public can walk freely on mapped areas. (link)

(Of course, if you consider the law unjust or that those dictating its terms have no legitimacy, then you can declare it irrelevant and go about your business as you please. However, I would advise you to do so either invisibly or in numbers substantial enough to ward off attacks from dedicated enforcers…‡)

2) feels like waters receding before a tidal wave, explained by 3) – as I guessed before timber companies currently find it more economical to operate abroad for the usual reasons of lax regulations, greater abundance of exploitable ‘resources’, and the cheap energy (oil) which allows them to ship their products (the carcasses of trees) to any receptive market, no matter how far away. Another Guardian article informs us that ‘[b]oth the Thatcher and Major governments tried to privatise the Forestry Commission in the 1980s and 1990s but failed following intense pressure from conservation groups and lack of interest by industry’ – funny how the successes of environmentalists always seem to coincide with industry disinterest in this way… How long are things going to stay that way though? The article mentions that:

[…]land has become more valuable, not just for timber but for providing “environmental services” such as flood control, climate change measures and amenity.

In England the commission is subsidised by £30m a year, but generates an additional £63m a year in income. A government economic study released earlier this year calculated that it provides £2,100 in value per hectare per year if benefits such as erosion protection, pollution absorption, carbon sequestration, health provision are included. (ibid.)

… and we have similar barf-inducement from the RSPB spokesman talking about ‘our natural capital’ – all of which views the environment as a subsidiary of the capitalist economy (it’s the other way round), and assumes that the best way to preserve something is to put a price tag on it. For the moment the industrialists aren’t acting too impressed:

Prices today reflect a very different market, says Clegg [‘senior partner at John Clegg that handles the sale of about two-thirds of the woods sold in the UK each year’]: “High-quality broadleaf woodland is the most valuable. A small, southern England wood costs about £10,000 an acre. Whereas, in Northumberland, a large commercial forest larger than 100 acres might expect to fetch £1,750-£3,000 an acre. Consider that farmland is currently worth £4,000-£6,000 an acre and many might see planting trees as a way to devalue your land, even with the subsidies available. It’s very hard work to make a forest commercially viable. And, perversely, it’s a real struggle to get planning permission to plant a new forest.

“Back in the 1980s when the tax relief was available, we had about 23,000 acres being planted a year. So the idea – as has been suggested this week – that someone will want to buy, say, the New Forest for commercial reasons just isn’t viable. It’s just not a commercial proposition. And even the major overseas buyers are not going to be interested, because our forests are just too small for them to consider. The biggest forests that typically come on the market today are worth no more than £500,000. Even talk of their future value as ‘carbon sinks’ [forests commercially maintained due to their tradable worth as absorbers of carbon dioxide] is hugely overrated. There is lots of talk at the moment about the ‘carbon rights’ of forests, but it is still a really undefined market in this country. I can’t think of a sale yet where we’ve put a value on the carbon rights.” (ibid.)

… but give it a few years and they might be talking differently, especially if, by then, the land is already out of notional public ownership, and higher import prices start to make ‘indigenous resources’ look more attractive…

Meanwhile, I read in last week’s SchNEWS an example of what happens to Our Precious Ancient Woodland even before the proposed sell-off:

In 2009, West Sussex County Council granted permission to Northern Petroleum to test drill for oil in the ancient woodland at Markwells Wood, near Chichester (see SchNEWS 631).

The firm reckons it has uncovered a stash of between 35 and 61 million barrels of joy beneath the wood and has now decided to start bringing in heavy equipment and begin drilling.

The firm’s boss announced: “The commercial case for drilling Markwells Wood is compelling when the price level of oil is above $80 per barrel.” i.e. At $80 a pop that’s some haul with a street value in the billions. Yee-haw!

My rule: Ignore what they say; look at what they do and the priorities become clear. Some more media reports:

And more take-away info:

1) Northern Petroleum plan to fell 1 hectare (approx. 2.5 acres) of PAWS woodland in an ‘Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’ and ‘England’s newest National Park’ – the South Downs.

2) Onshore drilling in the UK is becoming more ‘commercially viable’ (ie: attractively profitable) since North Sea oil passed its peak in 2009 and imports are getting more expensive. Only 1.5% of the 1.6 million barrels of oil extracted every day from UK territory comes from onshore wells, but 97 new licences for oil/gas exploration were granted in 2008, compared to just 8 five years previously.

3) The council doesn’t even own the land, and, unless there are undisclosed kickbacks (Daily Mail commenter ‘Pete, UK’ has a ‘good friend who works for a council planning department’ who says that ‘back handers are rife in the planning process’ – good enough for me ;) ), the profits get split 50:50 between the oil company and the central government treasury, leaving locals with the questionable benefits of  temporary, transient ‘jobs in the haulage and service maintenance sector’ (the best NP could come up with).

I followed the link in the second BBC article to the Chichester District Council Planning Commitee Report of May ’08 (PDF) which declares a ‘clear and overriding need for oil exploration’, backing this up with referrals to the ‘National Minerals Policy’ and their own ‘Development Plan Policies’ (1 – ‘Promote competitive markets in the UK and beyond’, 2 – ‘Maximise the potential of the UK’s conventional oil and gas reserves in an environmentally acceptable manner’ and 3 – ‘Maintain the reliability of energy supplies’) before quoting this piss-weak justification repeatedly in the subsequent text, as if they’ve made an adequate case.

See if you can make sense of this paragraph:

The loss of ancient woodland should not be permitted unless the need for, and benefits of the development in that location outweigh the loss of the woodland habitat also taking into account the habitat/amenity value of that woodland. The need for the development is clear. [Because we say so.] The benefits of the development in this location are two fold; achieving acceptable noise levels at sensitive receptors and excellent natural screening. Although there is a clear desire to retain ancient woodland it is considered that, given the visual/amenity benefits of siting the development therein, measures proposed to retain ancient features where possible, restoration to structured woodland, substantial compensatory woodland/hedgerow planting, and the relatively limited quality of the woodland, its loss is acceptable. (p.3)

Have they really decided to cut down an ancient woodland because it is surrounded by trees?? Also, ‘its loss is acceptable’ – disturbing, huh? Acceptable to you, maybe…

Point 8.3 really scrapes the barrel:

Exploration wells are an invaluable source of data on the sub-surface geological structure of Britain and greatly extend our knowledge of the nation’s resources.

A knowledge which will be used … to extract more resources!

Neither Natural England or the Environment Agency raised any objections to these plans, only ‘conditions’ about groundwater pollution (4.8), ‘mitigation measures’ for ‘badger protection, reptile relocation and bat boxes’ (11.6) and soil and subsoil being ‘permanently retained on site and used in restoration’ (Appendix 1.18).  Objections to the loss of ancient woodland were raised by the Woodland Trust (4.20), the South Downs Joint Committee (4.22) and the West Sussex County Council ‘Landscape’ (who also raised concerns about ‘setting a precedent’ – 4.12) and ‘Ecology’ (4.14) consultees, but it’s not clear if they plan to do anything about it after having their views noted and ignored. Like Jeff Buckley sang: ‘We know you’re useless like cops at the scene of the crime’. Practically the first thing you learn about ancient woodland is that it takes centuries to mature, and you can’t kill the trees, scoop out the soil and expect it to grow back the way it was before.

I find it all very depressing. The word ‘need’ or ‘needs’ comes up 46 times in the 32-page document, most of which instances refer at base to the ‘need’ of the agrarian/industrial/capitalist/civilised economy to bleed the Earth dry of all materials useful for its project of neverending expansion. You could more honestly substitute the word with ‘want(s)’, ‘desire(s)’ or ‘demand(s)’. I’m reminded of the husband’s traditional ‘need’ (in patriarchal societies) for sexual gratification, with or without his wife’s consent. Lianne at ‘We Left Marks’ points out that the estimated 35 million barrels of oil under Markwells Wood ‘would only last the country just over three weeks at our current rate of consumption’, and puts the news in the context of Peak Oil (crucial background which mainstream media still don’t provide), asking the multi-billion-dollar question:

Is it worth destroying a hectare of ancient woodland to get at? Well Northern Petroleum says it is. But I would question the long-term usefulness of energy companies (though admittedly their long-term logic tends to defer to short-term profitability) and government continuing to focus upon energy-intensive and harder-to-acquire sources, like tar sands or Iraq’s oil fields, when we could be getting ahead of the game.

‘Northern Petroleum says it is’ – quite. Do we** agree with them? Do we agree with the law which ‘allows exploration for valuable minerals such as oil even in national parks if the potential benefits outweigh the destruction caused’ (Daily Mail, ibid.) – a totally subjective judgement? I for one don’t buy the argument that ‘they’re just giving us what we want'; I think the Resource Extractors in effect force us into dependency on their products through the large scale of their operations, which rapidly inundate any alternatives. Refusal to buy the product (eg: trains, roads/cars, computers, mobile phones, and the raw materials from which these are built) becomes a tactic relegated to ‘eccentrics’ and ‘misanthropes’ on the margins of society, once the product is common enough to form a social ‘expectation’. And if it’s there, you may as well use it, right? Or, as George Monbiot put it: ‘if fossil fuels are extracted, they will be used’ – supply generates demand. His solution? ‘Leave [them] in the ground’.

The SchNEWS crew hope for ‘a Sussex rabble yet to make the whole project go a little less smoothly’ (ibid.), and that’s something I’d like to see too. However, to really ignite opposition I think we need better reasons than the ones given by conservationists. It comes back to the fundamental problem: we don’t depend on the forests for our survival. Therefore you can talk all you want about recreation, environmental ‘services’, mental health benefits, etc. – ultimately we’re farming people: our (not-so-)livelihoods come from cutting the trees down and planting rows of grain where they once stood. The ‘natural capitalists’ have a point in a way – our culture perceives value in terms of £££s, so if we see no value in the woods; if we prize the minerals underneath them more than the living communities on the surface, then they are doomed. It’s an old, sad story which Guy Hand tells in ‘The Forest of Forgetting‘ (PDF):

Like most indigenous cultures, theirs [the ‘Gaelic speaking Celts”] developed through a long and close connection to land. The early Scots saw the lives of trees interlocked with their own. Whether innate or hard-won, they perfected a balanced, reciprocal relationship with forest, and took from it knowing their own health depended on its preservation. Highland historian James Hunter believes their environmental awareness was unique, predating any other in Europe by hundreds of years.

With the coming of the English and the Industrial Revolution everything changed. Sixteenth century England was hungry for wood. Empire building had depleted their forests, and as English woodsmen worked their way north, into the Highlands, they brought with them not only axes, but a profoundly different philosophy of nature—a view aggressively and breathtakingly anthropomorphic, a view that pictured everything on earth as intended for “the benefit and pleasure of man,” and untamed woodland as something to be feared, exploited, and, if necessary, erased. Literature of the time bristled with references to “degenerated nature,” the “deformed chaos” of woodland, and odes to trees far different from those of the Celts:

…haughty trees, that sour
The shaded grass, that weaken thorn-set mounds
And harbour villain crows…

The English saw, in the Highlands, not only land darkened with trees, but incivility. They called the native Highlanders “savages” (from the Latin root silva, meaning forest), and their trees “an excrescence of the earth, provided by God for the payment of debts.” Through the axe, the Highlands and its people were to be cleansed of chaos and shown the path to culture. (via)

We know the corporate/government priorities – what will we allow to shape ours? I’m going to direct my energies toward developing a co-dependent relationship (based variously on food, medicine, fuel & building materials, as well as space to walk, recuperate and ‘commune’) with the woods that remain. For your own good I suggest you do the same.

My comment on the ‘save our forests’ petition (which I signed, with a few misgivings):

Nobody can ‘own’ land, but some peoples’ delusions that they do can bring about more destruction than others’. Especially the psycopaths (whose ‘personhood’ the law recognises) we know as corporations.

The land gives us life. Kill it and we kill ourselves.

————————-

* – of course nobody can ‘own’ land. I remember this quote from Crocodile Dundee:

Well, you see, Aborigines don’t own the land.They belong to it. It’s like their mother. See those rocks? Been standing there for 600 million years. Still be there when you and I are gone. So arguing over who owns them is like two fleas arguing over who owns the dog they live on. (link)

Also, another Jensenism: land ownership exists only as a collective delusion, backed up by force and/or the threat of force. Nobody really owns any land, just pieces of paper which we all agree means they do.

† – the FC’s ‘Forestry Facts & Figures 2010‘ (PDF) give 37% for the EU, which goes up to 45% if Russia’s 49% forest coverage is included (Table 14). They agree on the UK’s 12% overall coverage.

**Update** – the FC’s David Edwards pointed me to these pages which refer to total accessible woodland in the UK, regardless of ownership (figures gathered by ‘Woods For People‘, a Woodland Trust project). The 73% ‘accessibility for recreation’ in the UK’s ‘total forest area’ (2005) from the first page appears to have been revised downwards to 49% (2004, 2009) because the results ‘were based in part on total land areas, rather than woodland areas’ (link – table, note 2). So about half, then. The second page provides an interesting footnote to the CRoW issue:

Under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, most state woodland in England and Wales has been dedicated, but access to private woodland is permissive, not a legal right. In Scotland, the Land Reform Act 2003 gives a statutory right of responsible access, which in principle applies to almost all woodland […] even if there are considerable access difficulties in practice.

For FC-owned woodland, I eventually tracked down these informative paragraphs from the results (PDF) to  the Woodland Trust’s 2004 ‘Space For People‘ report:

Role of the public forest estate

The public forest estate, owned and/or managed by the Forestry Commission in Great Britain and Forest Service in Northern Ireland, is crucially important for access across the UK. The Forestry Commission’s estate (by area) as a proportion of all accessible woodland is: England 66 per cent, Scotland 86 per cent and Wales 91 per cent. In Northern Ireland over 90 per cent of accessible woodland (by area) is Forest Service estate. Any proposed rationalisation of, or changes to, the status of the public forest estate could be potentially disastrous unless it is recognised that existing access should be protected, through binding agreements.

Role of the private woodland owner

Space for People demonstrates the deficit in accessible woods near to where people live and the extent to which this deficit can be offset by opening existing woods to the public. There is clearly a need to look more widely than publicly owned woods. Much of the available woodland is privately owned and is not currently permissively open to the public. If it were, the situation would be transformed. For example, if all privately owned woodland in England were accessible, the percentage of the population with access to a 20-hectare wood within 4 kilometres would increase from 55 per cent to 82 per cent. The corresponding figures for the other countries are: Wales 72 per cent to 98 per cent, Scotland 54 per cent to 95 per cent and Northern Ireland 50 per cent to 66 per cent. (p.22)

Phew! So I think I’m right in saying that if the FC sell off half of their land as proposed, and assuming all the private buyers put up fences and signs saying ‘trespassers will be prosecuted’, We The Public could lose legal access to between 33 (England) and 45.5 per cent (Wales) of the already minimal woodland coverage which landowners have granted us permission to visit.

** – sorry about all the ‘we’s – my inner propagandist wants to spread his views & attitudes!

Giving Back #1 – Seed Bombs

October 4, 2010

Lately I’ve been all talk about ‘the Care side of gathering’ whereby people ensure that ‘they give back more than they take’ when it comes to interacting with the landbase. One of Derrick Jensen’s favourite trees once articulated the fundamental basis of the predator/prey relationship this way: ‘If you consume the flesh of an Other, you now take responsibility for the continuation of the Other’s community’*. As one committed to wild food foraging for the long term – not merely for short-term survivalism or economic exploitation – I feel inadequate merely harvesting these ‘resources’, this ‘food for free’. I want to give back. I want to repay at least in equal measure the generosity of those who have fed & nourished me so well; to take care of those who have taken care of me. I want to do my bit to make sure that the relationship we develop endures long and bears much fruit.

For these reasons I make seed bombs (thanks Emma, who introduced me to these last Autumn in deepest, darkest Wales). Here’s how I did it about a week ago:

Step 1: Collect seeds from those plants which you would like to see flourish. For my first batch I went with Wild Carrot (bottom right – can you believe I only found one patch of these growing on any of my local walks?!), St. John’s Wort (top right), Whitebeam (top left), Elder (top middle) and Hawthorn (bottom middle):

I kept the flower seeds (collected bottom left) separate from those of the trees/shrubs so I could make more appropriate choices when throwing/planting them. Later I added Poppy and Yarrow to the former mixture and a few Rosehips to the latter.

Step 2: Go out on a mud-hunt with a bucket-like container. I got some fairly sandy soil from the local common which I spiked with ash from a few long-extinct fires (dunno why, seemed like a good idea at the time). Then add some compost:

Step 3: Add water:

Step 4: Mix and check consistency:

If too dry add more water. If too squelchy (as above), er… too bad. :) They’ll just take longer to dry is all.

Step 5: Flatten a mud pancake on one hand, sprinkle a pinch of chosen seeds on the bottom half, then fold over and roll by juggling between both hands and gently squeezing.  (Hands too dirty and otherwise occupied to take a picture of this stage.)

Step 6: Lay out on newspaper to dry:

You may need to change the newspaper if the sun isn’t strong enough to dry them right away. Also, notice I did the messy bits outside!

Step 7: Using your best judgement, throw or place carefully. Last year I opted for abandoned building sites, ground ravaged by machinery, roadsides and, generally, anywhere that looked like it could use an interesting variation in plantlife (avoiding this in places which looked ecologically ‘fragile’, or like any addition would seem superfluous or damaging – an important part of the process involves training your eye-for-ecosystems).

As hinted at previously (under the entry for Fat Hen), I also see more ‘militant’ potential for seedbombs in counterrevolutionary actions against the Agrarian Fundamentalists† – basically contributing to the health of the soil by ‘diversifying the monocrop’, ie: introducing species that vary root depth, nutrient uptake, insect habitat etc, and compete with or impede the growth of the chosen crop, incidentally reducing the farmer’s profit margin while helping the land to recover from the onslaught of agriculture‡. Personally I don’t feel like I know enough of the land’s story in my region to start intervening in such a confrontational manner. Yet. You may feel differently – I give you permission ;)

For GM crops, other more … direct strategies have proven effective:

As the above ground campaign intensified with banner demos and meetings to raise public awareness, more and more test sites were getting trashed. Some opted for the route of accountability, donning white bio-hazard suits and getting nicked. Others crept around the hedgerows in the dead of night pouncing on unsuspecting plants. Some test sites were so small that they were ‘de-contaminated’ by a handful of anonymous people. At the other end of the (farm) scale, the largest was in 1999 at Watlington, Oxfordshire where over 600 people held a rally then marched into a field of Monsanto oil-seed rape. Police were powerless to stop them. (SchNEWS 583, ‘Spud-U-Hate’ April ’07)

So there you go. One way to change the focus from “OMG I’m such a fuck-up, I should cut down on doing so many bad things” to “Hey, here’s a way I can actually make a positive contribution”. Find others!

———————

* – see: ‘The Secret of Sustainability‘ from around 9:00

† – thanks again US

‡ – related reading: ‘The Productive Woodland’ vs. ‘A Field of Wheat’ in the PFAF book

Control & Slavery

July 19, 2010

Get myself a car, I feel power as I fly
Oh now I’m really in control
[…]
Press any button and milk and honey flows
The world begins behind your neighbour’s wall

It all looks fine to the naked eye
But it don’t really happen that way at all
(The Who – ‘Naked Eye‘)

‘Don’t you just love being in control?’, the woman asked, speaking on behalf of British Gas in the early nineties before clicking her fingers to magically (or so it appeared) produce a blue gas flame, shooting from the top of an extended thumbs-up – a signal of reassurance that Everything’s Okay:

The image of this slogan came back to me from childhood memories after musing a while on the notion of ‘energy slavery’. If you never heard of the concept, Richard Heinberg illustrates it with typical, punchy succinctness in The Party’s Over:

Suppose human beings were powering a generator connected to one 150-watt lightbulb. It would take five people’s continuous work to keep the light burning. A 100-horsepower automobile cruising down the highway does the work of 2,000 people. If we were to add together the power of all of the fuel-fed machines that we rely on to light and heat our homes, transport us, and otherwise keep is in the style to which we have become accustomed, and then compare that total with the amount of power that can be generated by the human body, we would find that each American has the equivalent of over 150 “energy slaves” working for us 24 hours each day. In energy terms, each middle-class American is living a lifestyle so lavish as to make nearly any sultan or potentate in history swoon with envy. (pp.30-1, crediting John H. Lienhard)

The woman in the British Gas ad is demonstrating the amount of power she can command merely by clicking her fingers. As power trips go it probably only comes second to having somebody carry out a command which you haven’t even verbalised: “All the work household appliances perform for us at the touch of a button… wouldn’t it be simpler if they learned to anticipate our every whim so we never had to suffer a moment’s dissatisfaction?”

Slavery never went away. Neither did all the attending attitudes and power-relationships. The bulk of the burden simply shifted onto the backs of ‘lower’ lifeforms; upon the exploitable energy which industrial society found in the bodies of plants and animals interred millions of years ago. How do they feel about this? ‘We’ who burn their remains; who drain, extract, deplete, exhaust them as a ‘natural resource’ do not ask. ‘We’ cannot ask: to view them as people ‘just like us’ would fast undermine any continued exploitation to the point of impossibility. Questions of empathy don’t survive in entrenched master/slave relationships. Americans could start to think about what the Africans went through AFTER it became possible to obtain more energy more cheaply and from different sources.

‘Being in control’ – what does this mean? Why did British Gas hold it up to early nineties television viewers as a desirable state for them to ‘be’ in; an unquestionable Good which they must surely crave for, or aspire to? Translating the slogan into E-Prime helps it make some sense and gives it more honesty, as in ‘Don’t you just love having control – over others?’ I suppose that message could appeal to middle/lower-class Britons more used to having the power wielded against them. Perhaps they might enjoy feeling like a sultan or a potentate for a change. (Although, somehow, I think these historical characters would much prefer to be on the top of their small pyramids to being somewhere in the middle of a much larger one.) But what’s so great about that? If slaves get no rest, then neither do the slaveholders: you’ve got to feed them, clothe them, look after them when they get sick*, break their spirits, punish ‘misbehaviour’, fight wars for more of them when your appetites increase, etc, etc. No energy comes without cost, even if you ‘only’ measure this in terms of hardened, calloused personality traits and the inability to relate honestly and openly to others.

Another part of the supposed benefits of the slaveholder lifestyle lies with the idea that “It’s better to get somebody else to do something than it is to do it yourself”. Hard Work may be morally virtuous (according to popular mythology), but the ultimate goal is to manipulate or coerce another person into handing you the world on a platter while you get fatter and lazier and more stupid as each day passes. I find it curious, this idea that we were born with bodies – arms, legs, hands, feet, muscles, bones, nerves, tendons – and we’re meant to strive to use them as little as possible… The more I look at this the more I see a lose/lose scenario. Slaves lose their freedom to live their lives as they please; slaveholders lose the joy of building their lives with their own hands. ‘The best thing since sliced bread’, they say, but really it manifests as a theft & centralisation of personal autonomy – a loss of tactility, coordination and skill in a thousand arms, hands, eyes; another loss in all the energy taken up in building, maintaining and feeding the complexity of one central machine.

I feel more ‘in control’ when I slice my own damn bread! Likewise who has more command over their destiny: one harvesting local fuel for their own use or for the use of their community, with all the knowledge and experience of how to do this in a sustainable manner; or one who makes monthly payments to have North Sea gas pumped into their house by a privatised utility company – into a cooker they didn’t build and can’t repair without expert assistance? To my mind ‘Push-Button-Make-Good-Thing-Happen’ represents practically the highest form of dependency. Where’s your control if you click your fingers and nothing happens?

I get this from people watching me process various wild foods: “Why expend all this energy when you can buy something similar at the supermarket for a fraction of the cost?” To me this would just mean that, economies of scale notwithstanding, someone else had done the work instead of me and they were getting screwed by having to cater exclusively to my ‘needs’ (or rather, those of the supermarket) at the expense of their own. I’m starting to hear an underlying attitude: “This dirty physical work is beneath you. Leave it for the slaves.” Last Autumn it took me several hours of gathering and then several more over several days of processing to produce around 2 kilos of acorn flour (you have to de-husk them, coarse-grind them, leach them in around 5 changes of water to get rid of the tannins, roast them dry and finally fine-grind to finish). While I was sat in the living room, cracking each nut in turn over the head with a small stone to get at the meat inside, my mum informed me that she could get a bag of (wheat) flour for a few pounds down in town. Later we happened to be watching a program about industrial bread manufacturing, and for once I had my wits about me enough to remark that “I didn’t have to build a windmill to grind my flour” before the moment passed. I think I made my point…

I owe Urban Scout and his post, ‘Colonization Vs. Rewilding‘ for seeding a lot of these ideas. Here was a key passage for me:

During the physical enslavement of African Americans, white people who disagreed with slavery, because of their privilege, could help slaves escape slavery. While those white people disagreed with the enslavement of those people, they lived as members of the culture of enslavement. They worked to change the culture they lived as a part of. They could help the slaves escape precisely because they lived as a part of the culture of slavery.

While I don’t identify with Civilization as my culture (i.e. I don’t think of Obama as “my president”, the troops in Iraq as “my troops”, the police force as “my police force”, etc) I make up a part of this culture. I have a job, therefore I pay taxes, which go to support the military that keeps us all occupied. Even if I didn’t pay taxes, I still buy food from the grocery store, pay for movies, coffee, clothes, etc. etc. etc. All of which help the economy stay in place. While I may not feel like part of this culture (I certainly don’t!), I live inextricably as a slave to it, and therefore a member of it. It doesn’t matter what people believe on a personal level, but what we do as a whole culture. The personal level provides a platform for abandoning this culture; it stands as a starting point, but not yet differentiated from it.

I commented, saying that ‘I’ve focused a lot on wringing out my submissive slave blood as part of this process of ‘de-colonising the mind’, but maybe I forget too often to deal likewise with my inherited slaveholder blood, coming as I do from a privileged position (not that it feels that way) near the top of the imperial pyramid.’ I see re-engaging with wild foods and medicines as one way to set off this win/win process of de-colonisation†: on the one hand regaining autonomy in my individual life, on the other lessening my dependency on (and, to an extent, sapping the viability of) the industrial modes of production that enslave us all. I’d love to control that process with a click of my fingers, but somehow I don’t think it’ll be so easy…

—————–

* – Less of this with wage slavery.

† – Other ways might include anything from learning how to cook, cutting your own hair to harvesting rainwater or composting your poo.

Wild Food June/July – pt.2

July 8, 2010

Sorry for the delay – I originally meant to have this post up a couple of days after the first, but hit a wall of lethargy & writer’s block and somehow couldn’t find the energy to finish it until now. My principle (thanks DJ): yelling at the plants won’t make them grow any faster. They will do their thing at their own pace and the best thing you can probably do is leave them to it.* Without further ado:

3) – Yarrow. I really like this plant, first making a spicy, aromatic tea from the flowers & leaves after identifying it last summer in Italy. The book talked about how Achilles purportedly used it to dress the wounds of his soldiers (a leaf wrapped around a deepish cut on my finger later stemmed the bloodflow pretty quickly) and how there was ‘scarcely an ailment for which the various applications of the herb weren’t effective’ [approx.] With the white, sometimes pink flowers out it looks a bit like an umbellifer (member of the carrot/parsnip family) but the feathery leaves distinguish it and make it unmistakeable once you’ve seen them a few times.

I uprooted five of the plants on walkabout last Autumn and replanted them on a very dry, bare patch in our garden, formerly home to an aged conifer. Apparently Yarrow acts as a ‘good ground cover plant, spreading quickly by its roots’. Someone who shall remain nameless unthinkingly dug up all the baby sprouts in April to make way for a red salad, but fortunately I managed to rescue about three of the larger-leaved ones from the compost. Here’s what the patch looked like a few weeks ago, red salad long since disappeared:

Those roots must’ve been busy! Now the whole patch is green with their leaves and we have four stalks straining up into the sun, just about ready to open up their flowers… Anyway, if you want enough leaves to use as a vegetable, I recommend hunting for a patch where they do something like this (picture taken a couple of days ago):

I know two spots in my local area, both near water, both growing among other long-stemmed plants (in this case grasses and nettles, in the other a load of pondside horsetails). It’s easy enough to grab the ends of 3-4 leaves and reach down the stems to snick them all off at the same time with a knife. I’ve been using them to make soup. Here’s a picture of 1 red onion, sliced and simmering in butter & olive oil, with yarrow washed and chopped, ready to go in:

… quickly followed by 1.5l boiling water from the kettle plus salt, pepper and a crumbled veg stock cube. Fifteen minute simmer, then blend (we have one of those electric wand things with a spinning blade) to produce something that looks like this:

Serve with cream, if you so desire. This first attempt tasted a little watery, so I would either put in more yarrow or less water. I put a tbsp flour to thicken the second attempt, but felt the flavour suffered as a consequence. Also lots of stringy bits of stem survived the blending process, so next time I’ll make sure to chop them more finely. PFAF list the herb’s medicinal properties: ‘antiseptic, antispasmodic, mildly aromatic, astringent, carminative, cholagogue, diaphoretic, digestive, emmenagogue, odontalgic, stimulant, bitter tonic, vasodilator and vulnerary’ (ibid. – under ‘medicinal uses’ where you can hover over the words to see them explained). I don’t know how many of these would survive the cooking process, but either way I reckon you’d struggle to find something more healthful to put into your system.

4) – Clover. My first year collecting the flowers for tea. Here they are drying indoors (those in the know tell me sunlight is too harsh for the drying herb), red on the left, white on the right:

I prefer the heavier flavour of the reds. Becky Lerner has a good post on the medicinal uses, noting that ‘Red Clover, Trifolium spp., is highly regarded by herbalists as a blood purifier because it helps support the liver as the body’s detox organ.’ It also has quite a reputation as a ‘woman’s herb’, helping with menstruation, fertility troubles, etc. – see here. I might try grinding the whites up to put their sweet, slightly beany flavour into breads – I hear they’re supposed to be ‘very wholesome and nutritious’ that way.

5) – St. John’s Wort. I found this plant growing wild for the first time just the other day (up on chalky downland and in a cornfield border, where the farmers may have sown it as part of their oxymoronic ‘farming for wildlife’ program). You identify it by the needleprick holes in the leaves when held to the light – hence the latin name, Hypericum perforatum – as in ‘perforated’. Didn’t see so much of it growing, so I only gathered a small bouquet, leaving at least three plants standing in each small patch†:

Another one for infusing as a flower tea. It’s supposed to help relieve depression, though a possible warning: ‘The plant was used to procure an abortion by some native North Americans, so it is best not used by pregnant women[257]’ (PFAF). I tried a pot yesterday with the whole herb, fresh, and it tasted quite nice – heavy, sweetish, almost oily. As with a lot of the yellow flower-teas, it starts off straw/urine-coloured and darkens through orange to red the longer you leave it. Apparently SJW does the same in its other popular usage – dunked in oil and left in the sun for several weeks to make a blood-red salve which ‘is applied externally to wounds, sores, ulcers, swellings, rheumatism etc[240]. It is also valued in the treatment of sunburn and as a cosmetic preparation to the skin[240]’. Perhaps I’ll try that if I find it growing more prolifically somewhere. Otherwise for similar skin troubles (including insect bites) I’ll probably stick to last summer’s discovery of the marvelous, cure-all Plantain Leaf Poultice!‡

6) – Lime. Another splendid tree currently doing amazing things:

This beauty is one of several they’ve allowed to mature in the local park. Close-up:

The flowers make a calming infusion known by the French name Tilleul. Last year I spent quite a while up trees plucking the flowers individually and trying not to get stung by the clouds of bees & other insects feasting on the nectar. Tired of this labour I then tried shaking low-hanging branches over a tarp to collect the snow of petals that came loose. This worked quite well, but I later learned from my (French) grandmother that the light-green bract was supposed to go into the tea as well – in fact I found that it added a cool, mellowness to the flavour, which otherwise could be a little harsh with just the flowers. So this year I grabbed flowers and bracts by the handful (2-3 at a time worked best, with a hand steadying the main branch) and stuffed them straight into the bag, no fuss. Here they are drying:

They smell really great when fresh & concentrated like this. People say the tea has a calming, almost sedative effect. I include myself among those people :) – a mug or two prepares me for a deep, sound sleep. Intriguingly, ‘Lime flowers are said to develop narcotic properties as they age and so they should only be harvested when freshly opened’, though I have nothing to report on this (yet…) I should also mention, perhaps belatedly, that permaculturalists like to rave about lime leaves as a suitably abundant (and much hardier) substitute for lettuce in salads. They taste quite pleasant, albeit slightly bland in this capacity to me. In Food For Free Richard Mabey writes that ‘Some aficionados enjoy them when they are sticky with the honeydew produced by aphid invasions in the summer’. While I would’ve preferred not to know that it came from vast quantities of insect poo, I did rather enjoy the sticky sweetness of the leaves I tasted while gathering the flowers the other day. Something to serve up to unknowing friends and watch their expressions after explaining what they’ve just eaten!

That’ll do for now.

———————

* – See also Ran Prieur, who writes:

The most fundamental freedom is the freedom to do nothing. But when you get this freedom, after many years of activities that were forced, nothing is all you want to do. You might start projects that seem like the kind of thing you’re supposed to love doing, music or writing or art, and not finish because nobody is forcing you to finish and it’s not really what you want to do. It could take months, if you’re lucky, or more likely years, before you can build up the life inside you to an intensity where it can drive projects that you actually enjoy and finish […]

† – A Native American foraging rule I once heard (maybe via Ray Mears??): Don’t harvest either the first or the second specimen of a particular plant in any given area because they may need to cross-pollinate in order to reproduce. Something like that… [citation needed]

‡ – Read ‘Grandfather’s Footsteps‘, an Anthropik classic, telling ‘new stories about our rediscovered friends':

Then, one day, a bee stung one of the Grandfathers. He cried out in pain, and he heard the little plant call out, “Grandfather! Grandfather! Take one of my leaves, and crush it into a poultice with mud!” The Grandfather did so. As the mud dried, it pulled the blood and the stinger’s tiny shot of venom out of his arm. The leaves stopped the sting from infection.

“You have powerful medicine, don’t you, little friend?” the Grandfather asked.

“Indeed I do!” the little plant replied. “Wheresoever the soil is upturned, I grow quickly, and heal the soil, and that is why I grow in your footsteps, for you walk heavily and leave deep footsteps, and much soil for me to heal. But since healing is in my nature, I can also heal your scrapes, cuts, insect bites, stings and rashes. I can soothe your pains and heal your cuts, and a tincture or tea of my healing leaves will help you breathe easier when you grow ill.”

For general use saliva works just fine, either dribbled on the plant as you pulverise it with fingernails, or mixed directly in the mouth, mincing with the front teeth.


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