Suburban foraging in social context – original contribution to ‘Playing For Time’

May 3, 2015

Here’s a photo I took two years ago:

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Have a close look for a moment, click on it to get a bigger version if you like. Do you see something strange?

No? How about in this one, zooming a little closer in on what originally caught my eye:

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Give up? Well, here it is center-stage in all its majesty:

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A three-leaved nettle! Usually the leaves go up in alternate pairs on opposite sides of the square stalk, and looking at them from above gives the impression of four-sidedness, as you can see from the other specimens pictured above. However, this one particular nettle (and another sibling I later found not too far away) had leaves going up in groups of three, but also alternating so that leaves from the higher stage fit ‘in between’ those beneath, thus maximising the sunlight exposure for the whole plant.

Pretty cool, no? And I never would have noticed if I hadn’t been foraging from the patch to use the nettles in teas and cooked up in various stews and dishes. It really illustrates what Becky Lerner has called the ‘super power’ of the forager’s eye, when you begin to look really closely at your surroundings and start noticing all manner of things that remain invisible to most people. Little clues that lead to long stories – histories really – of what has happened in that particular place and how it connects to hundreds, maybe thousands of factors which make it totally unique and inform its interconnected relationship to all adjoining spaces, as well as the beings that pass through them (including you!) This particular history could almost have been evolutionary. Was I witnessing the chance mutation that could lead to a whole new subspecies of nettle, or even fundamentally alter the basic structure of the existing species, if it proved more adaptable in the long term? Call me a plant geek, but I think that’s pretty amazing.

So, with that preamble out the way, here’s something I wrote the following year for inclusion in a book that’s just been published called Playing For Time. I wanted to put the original piece up here because there’s a lot that got trimmed off for the final edit (although more went in than I expected, after the editor Charlotte Du Cann told me she and author Lucy Neal just wanted to use my burdock photo and some text as an ‘extended caption’ – so I’m not complaining!) and the overall tone came across as breathless and ‘inspirational’ rather than my usual measured, realism-infused style. Reading back over it, I see there were quite a few important points there which I want to start making more often about the social context in which activities like foraging and herbalism take place, and how these might eventually coalesce into a political movement of some kind to challenge the absurd and highly damaging ways of accessing food and medicine which have been forced upon us by the status quo and the state-corporate and proprietary powers that benefit from its ruinous continuation. Anyway, here it is (with permission):

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It’s been around eight years now since I started to take an active interest in wild plants and foraging. Nearly two years out of uni, living back in the old home with my parents, having quit my job in retail just after Christmas, I needed something to get me outside – out of the house and out of my overactive head. Foraging was an obvious choice because a) it wouldn’t cost any money, b) it fit with my greeny/lefty politics of sustainability and DIY self-sufficiency (which I had spent about as much time and effort developing over the course of three years as I had done studying for my degree), c) after too much time in cities it sent me back into comparatively wild places – an appreciation of which my parents had successfully nurtured during my childhood, and d) – something they definitely never encouraged – it allowed me to at least pretend that I could say ‘fuck you’ to the working world, be economically invisible, have no need to rely on capitalist modes of production, basically do a Tolstoy and choose simple menial work instead of having my intellect harnessed to the project of destroying the world. I never pushed towards these goals with 100 per cent dedication but early successes, especially with potential staples like Burdock root, acorns and hazelnuts, gave me a feeling of security with the knowledge that I could go a long way in that direction if I, personally, chose to.

Other experiences with the medicinal side of things gave me a further sense of power and control over my own life: if something went wrong I didn’t necessarily have to go straight to a medical professional to be supplied with synthetic drugs or put through complex, machine-based treatments. Instead, I could look up my symptoms, read or ask trusted people which herbs were considered suitable in treating them (or in holistic terms, suitable for supporting the body’s own attempt to heal itself), go out to harvest them and see if I could successfully treat myself. My surefire remedies so far include Bramble root tincture for diarrhea, Elderflower and Yarrow tea for colds and ‘flu, and St. John’s Wort oil for all kinds of muscular aches and pains. Again, I’m not saying that I would never go to my GP, even for something very serious, just that it was a nice feeling knowing that I had a different option available to me, and that it would grow in strength and capability if I continued to use it and learn from the experiences over time.

So far so good on the personal level, but lately I’ve had the persistent feeling that more is needed to release the true potential or promise of foraging as a social, even cultural activity. So far the mainstream awakening towards wild foods and medicines rather fits Dmitry Orlov’s assertion that ‘resilience and sustainability are often little more than middle-class hobbies’ – people with the privilege of time and independent means (eg: a family who are willing to support you and provide a roof over your head while you ‘find yourself’) to dabble with these things and maybe come up with a few successful dishes using wild ingredients which will get made more than once. This is a world away from what foraging meant, and continues to mean, to the world’s indigenous people and even our own recent peasant-farmer ancestors (wild herbs such as Nettle, Sorrel and Alexanders often went into the daily stew or ‘potage’ sustaining medieval agricultural labourers). They have a history of close association with these plants and a knowledge of how to use them passed down through the generations. Even their spiritual traditions pay homage to them, with songs being sung to encourage fruitfulness and to give thanks to the spirits for their generosity. An example of this surviving in Britain is the ‘wassail‘ tradition in which apple trees are implored to bear a good harvest:

Here’s to thee, old apple tree,
That blooms well, bears well.
Hats full, caps full,
Three bushel bags full,
An’ all under one tree.
Hurrah! Hurrah!

Organised wild food walks share knowledge and create bonds between people in such a way as to foster the growth of this kind of culture, but somehow paying for access to this knowledge has always felt wrong to me (which is why I’ve only led a few myself on a free/donation basis), and there’s the danger of playing to the crowd willing to pay the most, ie: wealthy hobbyists from the city looking for a stimulating day out. A less leader-oriented ‘skillshare’ type event would seem more promising for nurturing the revolutionaries we so desperately need to reshape our whole attitude and relationship to the other-than-human world. This would not exclude the people who could benefit most from supplementing their diets with nutritious wild edibles and health-giving medicinal plants, all available for the simple energy costs of gathering and processing and often not so very far from their own front doors.

These days foraging is less something I actively set out to do so much as something that happens almost incidentally as I go about my day-to-day business. It helps that I work outdoors as a gardener, where I often experience the pleasure of being paid to harvest my own food (aka ‘weeding’ or ‘raking up debris’). But I have a little section of bridleway which go through twice a day on my commute. Usually I manage to allow five minutes or so to get off my bike and bag up a few things or even graze on them directly – Cleavers, Nettles (you can eat them raw with the right technique!), Cuckooflower, young Bramble shoots, Hawthorn and Rose leaves early in the season; haws, rosehips, blackberries, elderberries, acorns in the Autumn months… It’s amazing how much you can get from so little time, and it makes for a nice settling ritual to start and finish the day. I see all the seasonal changes, watch all kinds of wildlife, and observe the plants through their yearly cycles of birth, death and rebirth. Last Spring I noticed a nettle with leaves going up the stalk in groups of three rather than the standard alternating pair. It totally made my day, and I made sure to seek it out regularly and check on its mutant progress for the rest of the year, speaking reassuring words to hopefully aid its brave experiment.

*****

I do recommend the book, which I’ve been working through in brief sittings after receiving my copy at the launch up in London (thanks Lucy, a really pleasant evening). There’s loads of beautiful things in there, both described and photographed with essays from activists and writers, explanations from artists and reports from community organisers, mostly under the Transition Town umbrella. Charlotte Du Cann wrote a nice piece about it here, and her blog is well worth checking out too, if you click around from that link.

And the nettle? Well, it didn’t make an appearance last year, but just look who I found poking her head out the other day in near exactly the same spot:

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You little beauty!

Springtime Stingers

April 11, 2015

Sorry, been getting away from immediate realities here lately (haha, says he typing letters into a lit up plastic box). To get us back on solid ground I’ll tell you that I’ve been watching the nettles come back up along my favourite bridleway as I walk past with my bike on the morning commute, and again later in the day going in the opposite direction. A few weeks back I remembered to bring my camera – here are some pics of the little blighters, now much bigger, emerging from under last year’s brittle, dead stems:

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My favourite verse from the Tao Te Ching:

Men are born soft and supple;
dead, they are stiff and hard.
Plants are born tender and pliant;
dead, they are brittle and dry.

Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible
is a disciple of death.
Whoever is soft and yielding
is a disciple of life.

The hard and stiff will be broken.
The soft and supple will prevail.

(verse 76, trans. Stephen Mitchell)

How long have you been living in last year’s hollow, dried out stems? Isn’t it time you took your energy out of them and put it into the new growth instead? I’ve made two harvests already so far, taking a glove from my bag for the left hand and a penknife for the right, then holding a nettle top and snicking it off before dropping it into a plastic bag. Mostly I’ve been drinking them in morning infusions – four or five tops get taken out of the fridge, put in the teapot and covered with about 0.5l of just-boiled water, then being left to steep for 5mins or so before drinking. Here’s a bigger pot I made for H and me:

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You have not drunk nettle tea until you have drunk fresh nettle tea. It’s a completely different beast from the dried form, which I find always has something of the damp sock about it. You get delicious aromas coming off it, a much brighter colour and an incredibly lively *zing* as it touches the tongue and goes down the back of the throat. I probably needn’t say anything about the astonishing array of beneficial macro- and micro-nutrients which I’m guessing are likewise more potent in the fresh herb. When you’ve drained the pot reach in with your fingers and eat the gloopy mass of nettle that remains. They’re damn tasty and won’t sting you after being submerged in hot water for any length of time.

I also made a harvest of nettle roots from a big weeding job last month which I scrubbed and chopped up to make a tincture with 40% vodka (the strongest I could find in the supermarket):

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The original idea was to use it to help lessen some swelling I’ve been getting ‘down there’, most likely from all the cycling I’ve been doing to and from work (around 50 miles per week), as I’d heard that nettle root has proven virtues in the treatment of benign prostate hyperplasia and other prostate issues*. However, after further research and consultation with my GP it now seems more likely that the issue is with the perineum on the exterior, the swelling due to constant contact and pummeling by the bike saddle (ouch!). Changing to a harder saddle with a deep groove down the middle seems to have just about solved the problem by shifting the pressure away from the central areas and out to the sitting bones, although I still get the occasional uncomfortable day. I don’t know if using this tincture as a general ‘tonic’ for that area will help get things back to normal or not, but it can’t hurt to try… At least I’ve not heard of any negative side effects and there appear to be other benefits as well. Otherwise, I know some older gents who suffer from BPH, so I’ll be offering them some when it’s ready in another month or so.

Anyway, I heartily recommend you get acquainted with nettle, the more intimately the better – and what could be more intimate than daily use as food and/or medicine? Here’s another Frank Cook video I’ve linked to before in which he suggests that English people should consider adopting nettle as a ‘national food’:

[0:27] [T]he rest of the world of people who know nettles consider it an amazing healing herb, and it’s only here and other places in Europe that it’s considered a noxious weed. And it’s really important: any noxious weed you have around you is rare somewhere, and that’s really important to remember – and that, instead of thinking of it as a noxious weed, think of it as an incredibly abundant friend who’s trying to remind you of something.

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* – here’s a summary of scientific evaluations

Wild Boar ‘tragedy’

March 18, 2015

[While I’m at it I may as well put up this rewild forum post, responding to an article about Wild Boar in Wiltshire. It elaborates on some of the themes we covered in the Badger article a little while ago, and which I’m continuously touching on in one way or another…]

http://www.westerndailypress.co.uk/Government-action-Wiltshire-wild-boar-M4-tragedy/story-25960617-detail/story.html

Tragedy for who?

The Government is to investigate how many wild boar are living in north Wiltshire after a motorist died after hitting one on the M4 through the county.

The chairman of Natural England, Andrew Sells, confirmed his department would be sending an expert to join a local deer initiative, with the specific remit of finding out just how bad the wild boar problem is in the farming country north of Chippenham and in the Bradon Forest, near Malmesbury.

The action comes after the tragic death of Raymond Green, a 47-year-old from Royal Wootton Bassett, whose car hit a huge wild boar on the M4 near junction 17 and was then hit by a lorry in the first week of January. […]

My analysis of the news & framing terms of the article:

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Mr Gray said he was pleased the problem was at last being recognised. […] once the monitoring work is completed, DEFRA will consider further steps to deal with the growing problem of wild boar

What are We going to do about the wild boar Problem?

Where have we heard this kind of language before? It often comes out as a justification just before further atrocities are committed towards an already long-persecuted population. What are We going to do about the Jewish Problem, the Gypsy Problem, the Badger Problem, the Rabbit Problem… etc. Who does the ‘we’ refer to and who gave ‘us’ the authority to arbitrarily deal out death in this matter?

Their population growth has been such in the Forest of Dean that there is now an annual cull, as gardens, parks and football pitches are dug up by the boar.

Our chosen haunts – those We create and maintain through great and continuous labour – take precedence over Theirs (wild boar are a woodland animal and their disturbance of the soil actively favours the growth of saplings in areas where grass otherwise dominates). When They invade and upset Our carefully laid schemes they forfeit their right not just to passage in those areas but to their lives even in those scraps of woodland which We (in our temporary beneficence) have allowed to persist.

The action comes after the tragic death of Raymond Green, a 47-year-old from Royal Wootton Bassett, whose car hit a huge wild boar on the M4 near junction 17 and was then hit by a lorry in the first week of January.

When one motorist loses their life because of a collision with a wild boar (whose own loss of life is pointedly not considered ‘tragic’ or cause for concern in any way) it is taken as an call to arms to defend all motorists from the threat posed to them by the bodies of living animals. What of the threat posed to animals by the M4 and all the other rivers of flying steel which cut through their migratory routes and fence their tiny living spaces with the constant threat of death? Once again it recalls Derrick Jensen’s premise:

Violence done by those higher on the hierarchy to those lower is nearly always invisible, that is, unnoticed. When it is noticed, it is fully rationalized. Violence done by those lower on the hierarchy to those higher is unthinkable, and when it does occur is regarded with shock, horror, and the fetishization of the victims. (http://www.derrickjensen.org/work/endgame/endgame-premises-english/)

Natural England does not carry out any formal monitoring of feral wild boar populations

There is a snarl behind the word ‘feral’ and further coded meanings behind the word ‘wild’, despite the attempts of some to rehabilitate them in a more positive light. At the heart of it lies disavowal: We are not ‘wild’ or ‘feral’ animals, and this is where our judge, jury & executioner authority comes from. We have cultivated ourselves just as we have cultivated the land and are now domesticated and civilised – or more correctly domesticating and civilising because the process is never complete and never unresisted. And yet the word ‘feral’ describes Us down to a ‘t’ if you take it to mean an animal that has not discovered its place in the ecosystem, and which (until it manages to do this) causes great damage to the native flora and fauna leading to simplification and ecological impoverishment, with only the strongest and most flexibly adapted capable of resisting its onslaught.

But the disavowal allows Us to ignore all that we have in common with these wild boar, which we in turn perceive entirely in terms of Them, which permits us to go on destroying them or keeping them down (it’s always a pushing down, coming from a fear of what may rise up after such long repression) as we see fit. That’s the point of this article.

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Wild boar have recently re-established a presence in the UK after being driven to extinction probably during the 1200s. George Monbiot had a good article about them a few years back:

http://www.monbiot.com/2011/09/16/arrested-development/

What parallels can we draw between their rewilding experience and our own? How can we make alliances and start to protect them (and maybe have them protect us)?

‘Protecting the UK against terrorism’

March 18, 2015

[Unreasonably pleased with this one, originally posted on MLMB. Trigger warning: mainstream party-political content, including images]

http://www.gov.uk/government/policies/protecting-the-uk-against-terrorism/supporting-pages/prevent

Prevent

Prevent is 1 of the 4 elements of the government’s counter-terrorism strategy. It aims to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism.

The Prevent strategy:

  • responds to the ideological challenge we face from terrorism and aspects of extremism, and the threat we face from those who promote these views
  • provides practical help to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism and ensure they are given appropriate advice and support
  • works with a wide range of sectors (including education, criminal justice, faith, charities, online and health) where there are risks of radicalisation that we need to deal with

The strategy covers all forms of terrorism, including far right extremism and some aspects of non-violent extremism. However, we prioritise our work according to the risks we face […]

I think this has some real potential to change this country for the better. Practically every day now I hear about terrorist plots, am exposed to extremist propaganda and receive invitations to participate in, or lend my support to organisations that are guilty of the worst sorts of atrocities.

It’s no exaggeration to say we face an existential threat from these radicals and we need to learn how to resist their charms, deconstruct their ideology and oppose their barbaric practices in the most forthright manner.

I would gladly participate in schemes to rehabilitate those showing signs that they may have succumbed to this kind of radicalisation, and heartily welcome the opportunity to report those I suspect of brainwashing them with extremist propaganda.

I think I’ll start with this guy:

Where’s Winter?

January 17, 2015

***Updated Feb.5***

“Oh Good” says he, looking at the forecast for the upcoming week, “it looks like we are going to get a bit of cold this year after all”. So far there have only been a handful of frosts and a few nights when the temperature dropped below freezing. It has stayed mild and wet and grey and dull, just a never-ending Autumn except all the plants have died back or gone to sleep. Well, not quite all. The grass has continued to grow, which (combined with the lack of frost, which impedes most of the different jobs we do) gave the gardening company I work for its busiest December ever. And then there’s this:

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A dwarf daffodil flowering in a client’s garden on the 2nd of January. Snowdrops have been out too, and I’ve seen more daffs on their way. My boss said he had never seen them out so early. Then he came out with a classic line while discussing the unseasonable warmth: “I don’t know what’s causing it, but whatever it is it’s good for business”. Truly remarkable for someone who watches forecasts all the time and keeps track of weather trends year after year as one of the major parameters of his business to be unable or unwilling to connect this in his mind to the warnings of catastrophic global warming that scientists and environmentalists have been talking about for 40 years or more. I’ve heard him parrot denier talking points before so it’s not a lack of awareness, just a stupendous level of denial keeping his own personal observations in a compartment of his mind separate from what those crazy lefties and hippies are saying. I’ve not made any serious efforts to challenge him, only a few offhand comments here and there disguised with humour, and I didn’t respond to the above comment at the time because, honestly, I’ve grown tired of banging my head against that particular brick wall (always make it polite, just ask gentle steering questions, ask for clarification, don’t dismiss the argument or do anything to cause offense or manifest intractable disagreement and totally incompatible worldviews – remember he has power over you, blablabla). So the answer came while biking in to work one morning and unhealthily stewing over it in my mind: “Let’s see how good it is for business when we have to try and garden underwater.” Yes! Slam-dunk! I could tell the cows in the field next to the road were impressed…

Anyway, maybe there has been a change because he volunteered the information about 2014 being the hottest year ever recorded in the UK, sending a link to this article on the BBC by Roger Harrabin which surprised me by mentioning climate change four times, even providing a quote which connected it to ‘human influence’. The context, appropriately enough, was the discovery of a record amount of plants in flower on new year’s day in the British Isles:

Botanists have been stunned by the results of their annual hunt for plants in flower on New Year’s Day.

They say according to textbooks there should be between 20 and 30 species in flower. This year there were 368 in bloom.

It raises further questions about the effects of climate change during the UK’s warmest year on record.

“This is extraordinary,” said Tim Rich, who started the New Year’s plant hunt for the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland.

“Fifty years ago people looking for plants in flower at the start of the year found 20 species. This year the total has amazed us – we are stunned.

“During the holiday I drove along the A34 south of Newbury and saw half a mile of gorse in flower when gorse is supposed to flower in April and May. It’s bizarre.”

“We are now in our fourth mild winter. Normally flowers get frosted off by Christmas but this year it hasn’t happened.”

He said 368 species in flower is an unprecedented 15% of the flowering plants in Britain and Ireland – an “amazing” total. The high count was partly due to the growth in the number of volunteers – but mostly due to climate change, he said.

Dr Rich said it was possible that plants in unseasonal flower might be badly hit if February brought very cold weather.

Usually the BBC turns cartwheels to avoid talking about extreme or unusual weather events in the context of climate change, as in this recent hour long documentary on the flooding of the Somerset levels last winter which didn’t even once bring up the topic (h/t scrabb on MLMB). The purpose of this is to shape public perception along denialist lines so that the important alarms aren’t raised and the fossil-fuel economy – and the social power structure sucking on its black teat – remain unchallenged and can continue to go about their business of turning this planet into Venus. The depressing thing is that it’s probably not even an active conspiracy from the BBC and other media organisations manipulating the debate in this way. They just have a collective understanding of “how we talk about this subject”, which does not include criticising corporations, governments, capitalism, industry or civilisation itself (of course the media fails to criticise itself too, being an integral part of the same systems), and always has to introduce an element of doubt, no matter how lacking in credibility the source. Anybody who fails to act according to these unspoken rules faces discipline, flack and ultimate dismissal if they do not conform.

Meanwhile, 2014 wasn’t just the hottest year on record for the UK, but for the whole world. Here’s another MET office chart with commentary from Joe Romm on the Climate Progress website (my emph):

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It is not remarkable that we keep setting new records for global temperatures — 2005 and then 2010 and likely 2014. Humans are, after all, emitting record amounts of heat-trapping carbon pollution into the air, and carbon dioxide levels in the air are at levels not seen for millions of years, when the planet was far warmer and sea levels tens of feet higher. The figure above from the Met Office makes clear that humans continue to warm the planet.

“The provisional information for 2014 means that fourteen of the fifteen warmest years on record have all occurred in the 21st century,” said WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud. “There is no standstill in global warming.”

As Peter Stott, Head of Climate Attribution at the Met Office, explained: “Our research shows current global average temperatures are highly unlikely in a world without human influence on the climate.” While it has been on the cool side in parts of the United States, the Met Office reported that the United Kingdom is headed toward its hottest year on record. Stott noted that, “human influence has also made breaking the current UK temperature record about ten times more likely.”

This happened in an El Niño-neutral year (apparently it bumps up the average global temperature), and with that cycle due to kick in again next year 2015 seems likely to be even hotter. Romm’s conclusion:

The only way to stop setting new annual temperature records on an increasingly regular basis — until large parts of the planet are uninhabitable — is to sharply change the world’s carbon dioxide emissions path starting ASAP.

And we all know how likely that is in the absence of fundamental upheavals in the way our societies operate.

For my part I’m looking forward to putting on long johns and two pairs of gloves for the 40min commute on Monday morning. It feels wrong to be sweating from the outside heat at this time of year, and I don’t like the work schedule being just as busy as the summer months even if it does fatten my paycheck, which normally dwindles by several hundred pounds over December, January and February. It ain’t right, I tell thee. That energy usually goes towards other projects, including personal recuperation, taking stock, making plans, philosophising (on these pages and elsewhere), doing some reading, maybe playing a little music… Bloody climate change is going to rob me of my peace and quiet! I wonder if the plants and other animals are looking at it in the same way?

***Update***

View from my window the other morning with work snowed off:

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Be careful what you wish for! (I spent most of the day devouring The Fellowship of the Ring for the first time.)

The Chestnut Soup Revolution

November 16, 2014

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

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

How did the unofficial nut harvest go this year?

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

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

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

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

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

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Ta-da!

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Optimized-DSCN2065

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

Optimized-DSCN2068

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

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

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

Optimized-DSCN2072

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

A few words about Gaza

August 11, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Britain’s ambassador to Israel added that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

A few more words about resistance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—————

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

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

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

Megafauna and Misanthropy

May 21, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‡ – And which I refuse to abandon!

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

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

‘Ineffective and inhumane’ – or in denial?

March 3, 2014

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

badger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***Update, March 16th***

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

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

and Chris Packham:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘The Environment of Early Man in the British Isles’

February 12, 2014

https://i0.wp.com/www.pendleburys.com/shop_image/product/166557.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Canadian oil sands sitefancy a ‘challenge’? – source

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

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

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

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

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

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

spey

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

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

Somerset flooding

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

simmons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pollen

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

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

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

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

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

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


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