Five lessons Extinction Rebellion should (but probably won’t) learn from WikiLeaks

March 3, 2021

I see that Extinction Rebellion have launched a new project and website called truthteller.life, tag line: ‘whistle-blow for the planet’. Here’s their pitch:

Do you have new, insider information about the Climate and Ecological Crisis?

Do you know anything about: efforts to cover-up environmental destruction, attempts to prevent positive action on climate change and biodiversity loss, the true scale of the threat of ecological breakdown or the fragility of our global systems to climate shock?

However large or small your revelation, TruthTeller is here to help you anonymously disclose what you know.

I like the idea, but something about it sounds familiar… Oh, that’s right, this is exactly what a lesser-known organisation called WikiLeaks has been doing for the past 15 years! Well, I don’t suppose they copyrighted the practice of publishing classified information, and maybe it would be good to have a platform solely dedicated to leaks on environmental issues. However, it would seem worthwhile, or even just polite, to acknowledge the organisations that have blazed a trail before you. Perhaps there are a few things you could learn from them; some lessons from their successes and failures that could be relevant both for your platform and for those passing sensitive information to it? For some reason this does not so far seem to be the case with TruthTeller.

A search of the website turns up zero results for ‘wikileaks’ and I haven’t seen it mentioned anywhere in the various promotional materials XR have put out about it (correct me if I’m wrong!) Maybe somebody told them that they have to present it with a USP in order to improve its chances of success? I suppose it’s possible the people behind it have never heard of WikiLeaks, though this would indicate supreme negligence on their part. Remarkably, searches of the main XR website, facebook page and twitter account also turn up zero results for ‘wikileaks’.

A self-styled ‘legal eagle’ edition of the global newsletter published on January 12th managed to avoid any mention of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, whose extradition to the US had been refused on January 4th. The judge had validated all the antiquated espionage charges against him, effectively outlawing investigative journalism, but refused to extradite on the grounds of Assange being a suicide risk in an US supermax prison. She then proceeded to deny him bail and send him back to rot in a UK maximum security prison while the Americans figure out how to appeal the decision… For some reason it appears this isn’t considered a relevant subject or even a topic worthy of occasional conversation among ‘rebels’. This mirrors a general lack of interest from the corporate media, even at the most left/liberal end of the spectrum since the initial flurry of interest around the Iraq & Afghanistan ‘war logs’ in 2010 and following the 2016 leaks which revealed corruption in the US Democratic Party surrounding Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid of that year.

It could be replied that WikiLeaks’ main revelations have to do with geopolitics and thus lie outside of XR’s main remit of the climate and extinction crises. However, plenty of WikiLeaks’ documents are concerned with climate change policy, and generally speaking there is no way to extricate these issues from the wider political landscape. The 2003 invasion/occupation of Iraq, for example, was primarily motivated by a desire to control that country’s oil reserves. The ensuing mass death, displacement and torture, much of which exposed by WikiLeaks, was the price ordinary Iraqis were forced to pay for the onward march of the global oil economy. A direct consequence of burning this oil will be the catastrophic heating of the global atmosphere – the price we’re all eventually going to be forced to pay for the insatiable demands of the fossil fuel economy.

More to the point, if your concern really is with ‘telling the truth’ (one of XR’s core demands, lest we forget) then you have to stand with those who do reveal those truths, however uncomfortable they might be, and fight alongside them when the inevitable repression comes down on their heads. And particularly if you’re going to encourage others to risk coming forward with politically important material it’s beholden on you to be honest about the possible consequences of these acts based on the experience of other people in similar circumstances in the recent past. To their credit TruthTeller do note the following:

We will do our utmost to guard your identity but leaking information will always involve risk of detection and no technology is failsafe.

Before sharing information with us, please consider the possibility that you will be caught, what the consequences would be for you and whether you are prepared for them.

If you decide to proceed, follow our guide for how to contact us and take all other necessary precautions to protect yourself.

If your identity does become known, we will help to find you the support you need.

Ultimately we hope that if enough people have the courage to break ranks and reveal what they know, however large or small the revelation, we will reach a tipping point where leakers feel safe to share information that the public have a right to know.

But where is the acknowledgement and warning of potentially life-destroying consequences for leaking or publishing this kind of information, as seen in the cases of Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden among others? I understand that they wouldn’t want to discourage potential whistle-blowers, but it seems basic responsibility would demand an up-front discussion of the lessons to be learned from these examples. Since XR aren’t apparently willing to do this I will give it my best shot, based on my familiarity with both movements and general reading around the subject matter. No doubt I will miss some important things, but it’s a start at least, and better than nothing…

Lesson #1 – Don’t trust The Guardian

Really this applies to all of the corporate media which is structurally biased against honest reporting on the consequences of unfettered corporate capitalism, but because of initially favourable reporting and support from high profile journalists such as George Monbiot, The Guardian still mostly gets a free pass in XR circles. The TruthTeller site says that leaks they receive ‘will either be published directly on Extinction Rebellion’s online and social media platforms following a process of analysis and verification, or in partnership with a trusted media outlet with additional resources and expertise’ (my emphasis). WikiLeaks originally trusted corporate outlets like The Guardian, Der Spiegel and The New York Times enough to work with them to release their original leaks. These newspapers profited handsomely from this collaboration but it didn’t take them long to turn on WikiLeaks, perhaps none more viciously than The Guardian. This page pulls together a list of 44 headlines smearing WikiLeaks and Julian Assange in the strongest terms from 2010-2019. All the US government talking points about supposed dangers posed by WikiLeaks were routinely relayed as fact, allegations of sexual misconduct in Sweden taken at face value without right of reply or due process of law, fears of extradition and imprisonment downplayed or dismissed, character assassinations of Assange from every possible angle, a front page fake news story alleging secret meetings with Paul Manafort, a diplomat associated with Donald Trump, and then near total silence after Assange was finally dragged out of the Ecuadorian embassy and held in Belmarsh prison, now for nearly two full years.

It emerged during Assange’s trial that, contrary to the claim that he had cavalierly revealed identifying information about people in dangerous circumstances it was in fact the corporate ‘media partners’ he was working with who wanted to push ahead with publication before proper redaction of names, complaining about how ‘irritated’ they were by Assange’s fastidiousness in ‘[getting] rid of the “bad stuff”‘. Two of these ‘partners’ employed by The Guardian, Luke Harding (author of the fake Manafort story) and David Leigh later wrote a book about WikiLeaks in which they divulged a crucial password which defeated the encryption on masses of information held in files which then became accessible to anybody. It was this act which caused the real danger to informants.

It’s barely worth noting that The Guardian eventually mumbled a quiet objection to Assange’s possible extradition (I won’t even bother linking to it), naturally without apologising for the part they played in justifying his persecution and totally blackening his name in the public eye. The message should be clear: the corporate press, including supposedly left/liberal outlets, will exploit you for a while if you prove to be good for ratings, but challenge the power structures (of which they are an integral part) too strongly or consistently and they will smear you and hang you out to dry. Whistle-blowers should instead seek out non-corporate independent media outlets, which in any case will be more prepared to host information that challenges power, and incidentally help them to grow in stature and importance as a result.

Lesson #2 – Your values will be used against you

In the case of WikiLeaks, those most likely to be supportive of their work are on the left side of the political spectrum, especially in the strong anti-war constituency that has emerged since the War on Terror after 2001. Most often this is a moral objection rooted in strong conceptions of social and political justice, involving anti-racist, anti-imperialist, feminist and, yes, environmentalist struggles. One result of this strong public anti-war sentiment is that governments have resorted to more subtle propaganda techniques to persuade people to support their rapacious wars, culminating in the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ or R2P doctrine whereby ostensible ‘concerns’ about human rights violations, poor treatment of minority groups or women and allegations of atrocities, whether real, fabricated, or even future predictions, are used to justify massive military intervention.

Thus one stated reason for invading Afghanistan was to help women, Libya had to be bombed back to the stone age because pro-Gaddafi forces were planning viagra-fueled mass rapes, Syria had to be attacked because Assad gassed his own people etc etc. Lies to cover up the real motives for military assaults which are always based in machiavellian geopolitics and the control or outright theft of resources, and disingenuous to boot when compared to the cosy relationships with murderous, quasi-medieval dictatorships like Saudi Arabia.

The flipside to these cynical manipulations is that dissidents who oppose these wars and other predatory state behaviour are often targeted using the same tactic. The substance of their opposition is ignored and instead they are personally attacked for crimes, again, real or fabricated, which are most likely to alienate potential allies and supporters of their cause. The tool used to greatest effect against WikiLeaks were the allegations of sexual harrassment (not ‘rape charges’ as was consistently misreported) against Julian Assange made by two women in Sweden. Especially when coupled with the rise of the #MeToo movement, this could be relied upon to damage WikiLeaks’ support in a key demographic, those identifying as feminists, most especially those who had been persuaded that the most important thing was to ‘believe women’ before due process in a court of law. It could also be used to pin Assange down indefinitely for fear of extradition to the US. The account of Nils Melzer, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture makes it totally clear that the allegations were used to fit Assange up from the start, with the story illegally leaked to the press, a statement re-written by police and the first woman refusing to continue with questioning when it was suggested that Assange would be arrested on suspicion of rape, texting a friend that it seemed the police were just interested in ‘getting their hands on him’.

Again, the media played its role, with hardly a single person standing up in defense of Assange or WikiLeaks, facing ridicule or attacks when they did. Media Lens captured the universal, borderline fascist outpouring of toxic hatred & scorn from all corners of the UK press at the time of Assange’s arrest which still makes for stunning reading. Tellingly it wasn’t the work that was attacked, but Assange’s character was smeared from every possible angle, from accusations of arrogance, mental instability, sexual aggression, even down to claims about his personal hygiene – all bogus or exaggerated beyond any basis in reality. Arguably the most damaging attacks came again from the liberal/left extreme of the spectrum, as from the public perception if even these people weren’t defending Assange then he must truly be beyond the pale. As one who used to believe that comedy was one arena where truth could sometimes come out I was struck by the lock-step denunciations, as with Frankie Boyle’s despicable comments:

Julian Assange was dragged out of the Ecuadorian embassy, shouting ‘resist, resist!’ which is quite an ironic thing to shout when you’ve been accused of rape. There are women watching that in Sweden going ‘you’ve changed your fucking tune’. […] Some people say: why didn’t he try to escape? He was in the embassy for seven years, apparently because every time his tunnel got to a certain depth he tried to fuck it. There are other people who say: what Julian Assange is accused of isn’t actually rape, as he’s about to discover in prison. Actually he looked so pale, I think his best chance of survival is if an armed robber’s semen contains vitamin D.’

Or when Miles Jupp concluded on The News Quiz that ‘Julian Assange has backed Trump up, and in these times of mistrust it’s good to know there’s such a thing as brotherly solidarity amongst paranoid sex pests’ – a stunningly dense barrage of lies, libelous defamation, guilt by association and snide violence to the word ‘solidarity’ – which is what he should have been expressing, as the group ‘Women Against Rape’ had the courage to do at the time. For their part the token ‘radicals’ at The Guardian either stayed silent in the case of George Monbiot or delegitimised the fears of extradition (while saying that it would be wrong) and urged Assange to go back to Sweden in the case of Owen Jones (who was also happy to throw accusations of ‘misogyny’ at Assange’s defenders).

The Jupp comments from 2017 are an example of a later smear tactic, associating WikiLeaks and Assange with Donald Trump and alleged hacking of Democratic Party emails with the suggestion of ‘collusion’ with Russia which frustrated Hillary Clinton’s attempt at the US presidency in 2016. Naturally there was no evidence to support the claims of deliberate conspiracy to install Trump at Vladimir Putin’s behest, but associating WikiLeaks with these figures – already bêtes noires for most of the press – was another effective way to steer people away from supporting their work.

XR has so far escaped the worst of these cynical attempts to undermine it, though there have been shots across the bow as when The Guardian asked whether it has a ‘race problem’ or the attempts to show the events of Canning Town tube station as indicative that XR are ‘out of touch’ or hostile to working class interests. Founder Roger Hallam has been falsely accused of antisemitism and ‘relativising‘ the nazi holocaust but nowhere near to the extent that Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party was attacked on this basis. (You could write a book on the lessons to be learned from that sorry saga, indeed there was one published in 2019 which itself was promptly denounced as antisemitic!) Time will tell if XR are capable of defending themselves against bad faith attacks of this kind. Responses to state cries of ‘extremism’ have been reasonably strong IMO, but answers to these more insidious claims so far seem tepid and too apologetic or defensive. The way Hallam has been dragged over the coals and effectively hounded out of the movement over a few misunderstood comments is in my view disgraceful and indicative of a prioritisation of enforcing woke pieties over actual effectiveness. See him discuss his own case and the broader issue of countering elite propaganda narratives here:

The point isn’t that XR and other movements have nothing to learn and no internal problems that need addressing, but to recognise that when corporate-owned media and political figures start making these claims it’s not in a spirit of friendly constructive criticism, but rather a diversionary attempt to encourage navel-gazing and make the story about the movement and its failings, real or fabricated, instead of the problems the movement is attempting to draw attention to. The attempt is to divide activists along pre-existing fault lines, driving a wedge on tangential issues to encourage in-fighting and suck energy away from the main unified effort. The phenomenon was called ‘horizontal hostility’ by the feminist and civil rights activist Florynce Kennedy, neatly illustrated in this cartoon:

I first heard about this from the Deep Green Resistance book, written by a radical environmentalist group born in the US which calls for the total, active dismantling of industrial civilisation. Ironically they were soon fighting furiously & losing supporters over the issue of gender politics after being accused of ‘transphobia’, another excellent wedge device we can expect to see more of in the UK.

Lesson #3 – Your movement will be weaponised against others

I can’t actually think of an instance where this has happened with WikiLeaks. You could argue that the 2016 DNC leaks were used by the Trump campaign to ensure victory against Hillary Clinton, but if the Democrats didn’t want to be exposed for corruption then it was their responsibility to not be corrupt. Also, rather than negatively damaging Trump’s rival candidate the leaks could be seen as supportive of Bernie Sanders and the movement behind him, revealing how he had been cheated of the primary nomination by dirty tricks from the dominant corporatist wing of the party.

What I have in mind with this segment is a small but crucial insight into how environmentalism can be co-opted and used to advance the aims of capitalism and imperialism. Fittingly it also comes from diplomatic cables disclosed by WikiLeaks, this time on the subject of the Chagos islands. These are a small group of tropical islands in the Indian ocean formerly ‘owned’ by the British before they were sold to the US and had their population of some 1,500 people forcibly removed during the 1960s to make way for a military base on the main island of Diego Garcia. Tying our geopolitical and environmental threads together, the site was considered too valuable as a staging post for US air assaults in the middle east and a black ops site for CIA rendition, detention and torture, that the Chagossians’ persistent pleas to the UK government for a right to return had to be refused, time and time again on the flimsiest of pretexts. Perhaps the most cynical, underhanded effort was to designate the island group a marine nature reserve in 2010. In the leaked cables this was explicitly discussed as ‘the most effective long-term way to prevent any of the Chagos Islands’ former inhabitants or their descendants from resettling’. Furthermore (my emphasis):

[Colin] Roberts [then Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s (FCO) Director, Overseas Territories] acknowledged that “we need to find a way to get through the various Chagossian lobbies.” He admitted that HMG is “under pressure” from the Chagossians and their advocates to permit resettlement of the “outer islands” of the BIOT. He noted, without providing details, that “there are proposals (for a marine park) that could provide the Chagossians warden jobs” within the BIOT. However, Roberts stated that, according to the HGM,s current thinking on a reserve, there would be “no human footprints” or “Man Fridays” on the BIOT’s uninhabited islands. He asserted that establishing a marine park would, in effect, put paid to resettlement claims of the archipelago’s former residents. Responding to Polcouns’ observation that the advocates of Chagossian resettlement continue to vigorously press their case, Roberts opined that the UK’s “environmental lobby is far more powerful than the Chagossians’ advocates.”

For me this provides a perfect example of how peoples’ best intentions can be exploited to perpetuate horrors on others, and it shows the importance of having a deep understanding of all the factors in play before rushing to intervene in situations you don’t fully understand. The conservation movement has a long history of unwittingly or deliberately playing a supportive role in colonial land grabs and dispossession of indigenous people, which continues to the present day. XR needs to get real about these dangers, with presumably naive ‘rebels’ already sucked in to lending their support to US-backed regime change efforts in Bolivia and Ecuador. Not to mention the dangers of uncritical support for ‘green new deal’ initiatives that include biomass, nuclear, fracking, carbon off-sets based on phoney ‘net zero’ targets and massive expansions of mining for so-called ‘renewable’ technologies. Bolivia has the world’s largest supply of lithium, increasingly important for batteries used in ‘electric cars, computers, and industrial equipment’, a factor widely believed to be a key motive behind the 2019 coup against president Morales which put the country in the hands of anti-indigenous right-wing Christian fascists until the socialist MAS party was re-re-elected last October. Otherwise even benign-sounding ‘solutions’ like reforestation could result in mass ethnic cleansing and dispossession if the land usually suggested for such schemes – pasture rangeland for grazing livestock – is taken by force.

Lesson #4 – Attack the leaders, neutralise the movement

I’ve made a conscious effort in this article to refer to WikiLeaks as a discrete organisation and point to the work they’ve actually done rather than the cooked-up scandals that have engulfed their leadership, but it’s remarkable how hard this has been. This shows how effective the elite strategy is of making it about the people, not about the issues. Past a certain point you just have to engage with the smears to try and repair the damage they are doing to your organisation. Thus energy that was formerly dedicated to exposing the crimes of the powerful is now channeled into campaigns against the persecution of one individual. Even when this is used to remind the public of work that the organisation did in the past, this comes to feel distant and somehow irrelevant in the present moment. Even though I have actively sought out information about WikiLeaks and paid attention to the alternative news sites which covered its findings in the depth they deserved, it can be hard even for me to recall work they have done beyond the ‘greatest hits’ of the DNC leaks, torture revelations and of course the ‘collateral murder’ video which even sometimes gets shown on corporate TV outlets. Somehow it’s much easier to feel the emotional pull and empathy towards one individual facing oppression, and learn all the minutiae of the legal case against them. Not to say that there is no value in doing this of course, that we don’t owe Julian Assange anything for the service he’s provided, or that the legal abuses he has endured aren’t an urgent cause for outrage and resistance in themselves, but if this all gets reduced down to the drama of one person then the state has already won because it holds all the power in the courts and we can (for the most part) only passively observe its crooked deliberations. We more effectively assert our own power by supporting work like this:

Again, key documents exposing these elite tactics have come into the public domain because of WikiLeaks. The Stratfor emails briefly mentioned in the above video (around 8:45) are worth looking into for anyone who wishes to understand the deliberately formulated – not accidental or coincidental – strategies to discredit and neutralise movements that threaten power. Here’s a two-part article drawing conclusions from the leaks with this key passage:

‘Radicals, Idealists, Realists, Opportunists’

While its client work was noteworthy, the formula Duchin created to divide and conquer activist movements — a regurgitation of what he learned while working under the mentorship of Rafael Pagan — has stood the test of time. It is still employed to this day by Stratfor.

Duchin […] created a three-step formula to divide and conquer activists by breaking them up into four subtypes, as described in a 1991 speech delivered to the National Cattleman’s Association titled, “Take an Activist Apart and What Do You Have? And How Do You Deal with Him/Her?”

The subtypes: “radicals, idealists, realists and opportunists.”

Radical activists “want to change the system; have underlying socio/political motives’ and see multinational corporations as ‘inherently evil,’” explained Duchin. “These organizations do not trust the … federal, state and local governments to protect them and to safeguard the environment. They believe, rather, that individuals and local groups should have direct power over industry … I would categorize their principal aims … as social justice and political empowerment.”

The “idealist” is easier to deal with, according to Duchin’s analysis.

“Idealists…want a perfect world…Because of their intrinsic altruism, however, … [they] have a vulnerable point,” he told the audience. “If they can be shown that their position is in opposition to an industry … and cannot be ethically justified, they [will] change their position.”

The two easiest subtypes to join the corporate side of the fight are the “realists” and the “opportunists.”

By definition, an “opportunist” takes the opportunity to side with the powerful for career gain, Duchin explained, and has skin in the game for “visibility, power [and] followers.”

The realist, by contrast, is more complex but the most important piece of the puzzle, says Duchin.

“[Realists are able to] live with trade-offs; willing to work within the system; not interested in radical change; pragmatic. The realists should always receive the highest priority in any strategy dealing with a public policy issue.”

Duchin outlined a corresponding three-step strategy to “deal with” these four activist subtypes. First, isolate the radicals. Second, “cultivate” the idealists and “educate” them into becoming realists. And finally, co-opt the realists into agreeing with industry.

“If your industry can successfully bring about these relationships, the credibility of the radicals will be lost and opportunists can be counted on to share in the final policy solution,” Duchin outlined in closing his speech.’

This formula was used by Stratfor in its attempts to destroy the protest movement against the Alberta tar sands, to smooth the way for oil company financial support of the Sierra Club and to oppose the passage of climate change legislation, among other actions. As for Julian Assange and (then) Bradley Manning?

[Stratfor employee] Bart Mongoven has a simple solution to “isolate” them, as suggested by Duchin’s formula.

“I’m in favor of using whatever trumped up charge is available to get [Assange] and his servers off the streets. And I’d feed that shit head soldier [Bradley Manning] to the first pack of wild dogs I could find,” Mongoven wrote in one email exchange revealed by the “Global Intelligence Files.” “Or perhaps just do to him whatever the Iranians are doing to our sources there.”

Discrediting radicals in leadership roles also has a long and sordid history, as well as the subsequent emphasis and elite support given to those willing to compromise and dilute their principles away to nothing. In recent times the almost ritual political annihilation of Jeremy Corbyn and his replacement by moral eunuchs like Keir Starmer stands out as a key example of this. But questions also have to be asked about the treatment of Roger Hallam, and whether the concerted effort to smear him and kick him out of the movement he founded also follows this pattern of elite co-option and neutralisation (I have no evidence to confirm this has been an undercover psy-op, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if that turned out to be what has happened).

The 2019 Policy Exchange report, ‘Extremism Rebellion‘ (pdf) can be seen as a Stratfor-esque attempt to damage the standing of key leadership figures within XR, as well as sowing division in the movement among the four ‘sub-types’ of radicals, idealists, realists and opportunists and seeking to portray entirely rational critiques of the global economic system as ‘extreme’ and thus unacceptable for mainstream discourse – possibly even a matter for police investigation. It’s actually quite a useful compendium of statements (some no longer available on the internet) made by the XR founders and other key figures as well as from previous organisations such as Rising Up! and Compassionate Revolution which show how sharp their analysis used to be, and how unafraid they were of naming the problems of capitalism and economic growth and proposing some pretty radical solutions. One article apparently posted to the Rising Up! facebook page even offers a pretty good critique of civilisation, suggesting that we ’embrace [its] collapse, and use the opportunity to create something better’. Tellingly, nowhere in the 76 page report do the two ‘counter-terrorism specialist’ authors offer a reason why these analyses are wrong. Instead they assert that :

the leaders of Extinction Rebellion seek a more subversive agenda, one that that is rooted in the political extremism of anarchism, eco-socialism and radical anti-capitalist environmentalism. (p.5)

with smears of ‘antisemitism’ (p.14) and potential ‘terrorist activity’ (p.55) thrown in for good measure to indicate that these people are not to be trusted. Founders Roger Hallam and Gail Bradbrook and influential figure Jem Bendell each have extensive sections detailing the supposedly outrageous things they’ve said (again not factually disputed), and there are explicit appeals for XR to ‘[change] its current strategy towards engaging in lawful protest whilst acknowledging the liberal democratic order’ (p.6) and speculation on how the movement could be ‘moderated’:

It is conceivable that these figureheads could eventually be side lined by more moderate figures who will seek to move into the mainstream. Under such a scenario, a more radical fringe might breakaway so as to have a free hand to undertake actions, such as those involving drones or hunger strikes. For the moment, the momentum of significant numbers of people joining the campaign’s demonstrations and the vocal support from politicians and celebrities may be incentive enough for the activists to rein in any more extreme elements. (p.70)

Is it a coincidence that a few months after this paper was published and splashed across the media XR were ‘unreservedly denounc[ing]’ Roger Hallam’s comments about the Nazi Holocaust in Die Zeit, before demanding he attend a ‘restorative process‘ that lasted nearly a whole year with Hallam not permitted to publicly associate with XR for all that time? It’s revealing that in their effort (pdf) to oust him from their platform XR Global Support called Hallam a ‘highly divisive figure’ with the ‘controversy’ around his statements and activism allegedly causing ‘damage’ to ‘our work’. He has indeed been forced to ‘breakaway’ [sic] from XR by forming the organisation ‘Burning Pink‘ which is taking a more hardline approach in messaging and actions. Score 1 for the moderates…

The obvious counter-strategy to this trend is to work to educate and push as many members of the movement to the radical end of the spectrum as possible and not tolerate those willing to sell out or capitulate on key issues (or at least not allow them near influential decision-making positions). Stephanie McMillan talked about how best to do this in the following talk for the DGR ‘Earth at Risk’ series (watch from 34:45):

Lesson #5 – Those in power will never tell the truth

One of the things that first excited me about Extinction Rebellion were these paragraphs near the end of the original ‘Declaration of Rebellion‘ in April 2019 which spoke bluntly in terms of the ‘social contract’ between government and citizens:

We, in alignment with our consciences and our reasoning, declare ourselves in rebellion against our Government and the corrupted, inept institutions that threaten our future.

The wilful complicity displayed by our government has shattered meaningful democracy and cast aside the common interest in favour of short-term gain and private profits.

When Government and the law fail to provide any assurance of adequate protection, as well as security for its people’s well-being and the nation’s future, it becomes the right of its citizens to seek redress in order to restore dutiful democracy and to secure the solutions needed to avert catastrophe and protect the future. It becomes not only our right, it becomes our sacred duty to rebel.

We hereby declare the bonds of the social contract to be null and void, which the government has rendered invalid by its continuing failure to act appropriately. We call upon every principled and peaceful citizen to rise with us.

I’ve heard it said that a key moment in the collapse of empires comes when a critical mass of ordinary citizens feel that they’re no longer getting anything in return for their participation in the project, with provision of a basic level of safety and security as the crucial part of the state’s responsibility in the bargain. Why continue to pay taxes to Rome when they can’t even keep the barbarians from the gates? For me this showed that XR were willing to entertain the possibility that the number one priority of the state was never really our safety, but rather the ongoing concentration of wealth and power from the systematic destruction of the living planet – and our lives along with it. (Same as it ever was, as John Dewey put it back in 1931: ‘as long as politics is the shadow cast on society by big business, the attenuation of the shadow will not change the substance’.) It suggested that XR were willing to move beyond the liberal framing of how it’s all one society, and we’re ‘all in it together’, and start building an actual oppositional force, pointing out enemies and declaring war on the whole system rather than accepting the toxic lie that we’re all responsible and complicit and have to ‘be the change we want to see’ etc etc. The removal of this sense of identification – a toxic mimic of location of a sense of identity in the wider group which was adaptive in a context of small-scale tribal societies but totally synthetic in the modern landscape of mega-cities and globalisation – is crucial for the formation of serious resistance movements capable of challenging the death march of the dominant culture.

But this messaging hasn’t been repeated or built upon since the early days of the movement, and the emphasis has moved to one of weak bargaining for governments to ‘tell the truth‘:

Governments worldwide are failing to act, consistently refusing to acknowledge the serious and imminent threat posed by this twin crisis.

Without leadership, citizens, corporations and institutions lack direction and purpose in the fight against this climatic and ecological nightmare that worsens with every passing day. This leaves all of us – and the planet we call home – in a desperate and dangerous position.

That is why “Tell the Truth” is the first of Extinction Rebellion’s three core demands.

We demand that governments everywhere tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency, working with the public, businesses and other institutions to communicate this urgent need for change. […] Governments have delayed long enough. The advanced state of the twin crises unfolding today is proof that such empty rhetoric is simply not enough to even begin to address the situation we find ourselves in.

The only ‘failure’ here is the inability of bright green environmentalists to break through their denial about the true nature of these institutions. ‘Delay’ and ’empty rhetoric’ is all we will ever get from them because what these crises really call for – complete dismantling of the industrial infrastructure and a return to sane & sustainable ways of living within the global solar budget – is complete anathema to the corporate interests they represent. They don’t ‘lack direction and purpose in the fight’ – they are actively fighting against any restriction on their relentless planet-killing sociopathy. They are our enemies, and we should start treating them accordingly.

WikiLeaks never had this problem, a radicalism which is probably the real reason they were hated not just by the establishment but by reformist liberals still desperately clinging on to their illusions that maybe change was still possible within the system. Implicit in the very structure of the organisation was an understanding that power maintains itself through systematic dishonesty, cover-ups and false PR about its true nature & priorities. Asked by Der Spiegel back in 2010 why he founded WikiLeaks when he could have ‘started a company in Silicon Valley and lived in a home in Palo Alto with a swimming pool’ Assange replied that:

We all only live once. So we are obligated to make good use of the time that we have and to do something that is meaningful and satisfying. This is something that I find meaningful and satisfying. That is my temperament. I enjoy creating systems on a grand scale, and I enjoy helping people who are vulnerable. And I enjoy crushing bastards. So it is enjoyable work.

A world away from the collaborationist mentality on display in the above statement from XR, and a combative attitude which would probably lead to expulsion from the organisation as it stands today. Truth here is being used as a weapon to expose state/corporate criminality, to aid the pursuit of justice for the victims and to deter future abuses for fear that they too will be revealed. It is not imagined as some kind of magic wand, that if those in power start using the Correct Words everybody will change their minds and start living a different way. Plenty of local and even national government bodies have happily declared climate emergencies as XR suggested they do. What has actually changed as a result? HS2, more road building, new coal mines, airport expansions, fossil fuel investments, onshore oil production etc. are all still getting green lights in the UK (all protested by members of XR to their credit, alongside locals), showing yet again that government bodies are more than happy to employ ’empty rhetoric’ if it will take some heat off them and allow them to kick the can down the road for a bit longer.

I originally titled this section ‘speaking truth to power is a waste of time’, but I know that with its efforts at grassroots movement-building with the ‘heading for extinction‘ talk and the still somewhat promising emphasis on citizens assemblies, this isn’t a totally fair summation of XR’s approach. Nonetheless, the Gandhian belief in the power of truth-telling seems oversold and based on a very liberal understanding of social change happening through education and changing ideas. The DGR book is well worth reading on this subject too, summing up the fundamental distinction between liberal and radical approaches thus:

Liberalism also diverges from a radical analysis on the question of the nature of social reality. Liberalism is idealist. This is the belief that reality is a mental activity. Oppression, therefore, consists of attitudes and ideas, and social change happens through rational argument and education. Materialism, in contrast, is the understanding that society is organized by concrete systems of power, not by thoughts and ideas, and that the solution to oppression is to take those systems apart brick by brick.

It might not even just be the powerful who have an aversion to hearing the truth on these matters, but the cognitive dissonance inherent in being forced to live within a system of turbo-charged capitalism means that most people are literally unable to keep these truths in their minds, let alone rearrange their lives according to them (if that were even possible). In the words of Upton Sinclair ‘it is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it’ and many are still in that position, at least while the economy remains stable enough to keep the salaries coming… In any case this is where the discussion and organising needs to happen, face to face among peers who can then formulate suitable plan of action to build resistance to this omnicidal culture, and XR do still seem to have this part right. Governments and corporations might never tell the truth, in fact are probably incapable of telling the truth, but that doesn’t mean truths about the climate & ecological crises can’t be used to generate movements to challenge and eventually overthrow a system that ultimately must lie about itself and everything else or fall apart. Noam Chomsky put it this way:

[M]y Quaker friends and colleagues in disrupting illegitimate authority adopt the slogan: “Speak truth to power.” I strongly disagree. The audience is entirely wrong, and the effort hardly more than a form of self-indulgence. It is a waste of time and a pointless pursuit to speak truth to Henry Kissinger, or the CEO of General Motors, or others who exercise power in coercive institutions — truths that they already know well enough, for the most part.

Again, a qualification is in order. Insofar as such people dissociate themselves from their institutional setting and become human beings, moral agents, then they join everyone else. But in their institutional roles, as people who wield power, they are hardly worth addressing, any more than the worst tyrants and criminals, who are also human beings, however terrible their actions.

To speak truth to power is not a particularly honorable vocation. One should seek out an audience that matters — and furthermore (another important qualification), it should not be seen as an audience, but as a community of common concern in which one hopes to participate constructively. We should not be speaking to, but with. That is second nature to any good teacher, and should be to any writer and intellectual as well.

Concluding remarks

I hope these comments will be received in a spirit of constructive criticism, but honestly I doubt if the liberalising momentum or ongoing NGO-isation of XR is amenable to course-correction at this point. I can see the reasoning behind ducking out of taking a stance on controversial issues like WikiLeaks/Assange, the antisemitism witch-hunt, Israel/Palestine, the militarisation of society and other topics – it would be easy to get bogged down in conflicts about subjects that aren’t the main focus of your campaigning, sapping away precious energy from where you could perhaps be most effective. However, in my view this effectively legitimises those controversies, the lack of solidarity making it that much harder for others to speak up without immediately getting their heads bitten off. Of course, that’s exactly the reason the controversies were stirred up in the first place, to make the subjects taboo and those involved not acceptable within polite discourse. On the flip side there’s no reluctance, or penalty for taking political stances that are in line with state/corporate priorities, as with XR’s de-facto support for US-backed regime change ops in South America, or for taking swipes at socialists in the UK, or saying Joe Biden’s election brings ‘hope‘. No controversy there!

I guess my main point is about the futility of siloing yourself off into a single-issue movement. If you don’t stand with others, build connections and common cause, learn from each others’ successes and failures and stick up for one another when the hammer comes down, then not only will your movement be the poorer for it, but it will be that much easier for the powers that be to swat you away when they decide your time has come.

More lockdown tunes

February 1, 2021

***updated Feb 17th***

Sat down to record a few new additions to the repertoire…

#1 – Songs Of Love by The Divine Comedy

I’ve been introducing the new gf to classic nineties sitcoms, and I started humming the theme to Father Ted all the time so figured I’d better learn how to play it. Turns out The Divine Comedy, who wrote it & lots of other little bits & bobs for the series, also recorded it as a song for the album ‘Casanova’. Here’s a live version from the tribute show to Dermot Morgan, the actor who played Father Ted and sadly died a day after completing the third series. It has been nice to finally start going through DC’s back catalogue after all this time of being only dimly aware of them. Lots of gems in there and Neil Hannon, another former choirboy, has a great voice and wicked sense of humour in his songwriting.

#2 Memory Lane by Elliott Smith

A good one for the feelings of trapped paranoia & cabin fever that seem to be dogging this lockdown more than the last. Maybe it’s just me, being in a caravan on a muddy farm near the motorway, but it feels a lot more grim this time, especially without the spring morning chorus from the birds, fresh greenery and clear blue skies to take the edge off… So many delicious little things crammed into this short autobiographical number from Smith. Sweet but devastating once you start going down through the layers, something of a hallmark. ‘If you want to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh or disguise it as a cheery Beatles song or they’ll kill you’ – GB Shaw (adapted) A live recording from 2003.

#3 – You’re So Vain by Carly Simon

Had this in the back of my mind to learn for a while and the excuse came while putting together a few campfire songs to sing with R. Quite an unusual subject for a pop song, I always thought. Quite a few men had the vanity to insist it was written about them, but Simon never confirmed, except possibly to one competition winner who was sworn to secrecy.

#4 – My Love Is Like A Red, Red Rose by Robert Burns

I’ve been singing this one in close harmony groups I think since secondary school, usually just the first part before the arrangement wisely lets a tenor take over for the high G section. In recent years I’ve been encouraged to play it at Burns Night get-togethers with old uni friends, one of the few occasions I manage to see them during the year. It happened over the interwebs this year, but criminally I neglected to bring the guitar out so here’s a slightly more polished version than usual in recompense (ie: minus the beer & whiskey!)* Here’s a nice article speculating what kind of rose Burns may be referring to and suggesting the the references to seas ganging dry and rocks melting with the sun might point to an influence from the contemporary geologist James Hutton and the concept of ‘deep time’ he helped to popularise:

[Hutton and friend James Hall] discovered the famous unconformity at Siccar Point, near where I live, where an ocean going dry formed a sandstone which was eroded and folded upright, then overlain after an unimaginable interval by another ocean, which also ran dry. Hutton and Hall were among the distinguished men and women of Edinburgh society we know Burns met during his time in the city.

Gotta love a bit of geopoetry…Maybe I should do Bad Religion’s ‘No Control’ next, as they lifted Hutton’s line, ‘no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end’ directly for the lyrics to that frenetic, bouncy punk song. Would be a bit of a contrast!

#5 – Jock Stewart, traditional Scottish or Irish

Another nice campfire singalong, this was another song I learned for the Irish folk night I went to in Suffolk last year. Heard it through The Pogues and also Ewan McLennan whose performance on Transatlantic Sessions I much prefer to the recorded version on ‘Rags and Robes’ on account of the stumbling artsy ‘placement’ of the chords which for me ruins the rhythmic flow of the song. Nice travelling from place to place these last few years and feeling like it’s speaking a literal truth to my audience. Damn, I miss pubs…

*****

More to follow in about a week (I’ve made a new free vimeo account but they still have the weekly upload limit of 500MB).

*****

* – Yes, I know it’s horrible Cultural Appropriation and we should all be celebrating Barnes Night and coming to terms with our Englishness instead… (I did finally keep my promise of recording a version of Linden Lea, which will make it to these pages in due course.) At least we can still eat haggis, as that comes from Lancashire!

Lockdown hoedown

May 8, 2020

***updated May 31st***

Spent a couple of afternoons recording some more tunes. A bit rough & ready recorded straight to my laptop without a proper mic, but you get the feel of it… Enjoy!

#1 – Sisters of Mercy by Leonard Cohen

Felt like learning this Cohen song for reasons unbeknownst.

#2 – The Letter by the Box Tops

A song I picked up from working in a record store. It was on a compilation CD that got repeated and repeated and repeated through the day, but I was the only one who was bothered or wanted to change it. I ended up hating most of the other songs on the record but quite liked this one. A young Alex Chilton, later of Big Star fame, does his gritty soul singer impressions on the original. I suppose in this day and age it’s important to factor in the climate impact of getting to your sweetheart as fast as humanly possible.

#3 – Independence Day by Elliott Smith

Very slowly coming round to some of Smith’s old stuff and finding that I’m just about good enough now to do a passable interpretation of some of them. He did this in an open D tuning but that puts the vocal too high, so a capo & re-jig into regular tuning sat it in the right place. One of these days I’ll get the tremolo picking down for Tomorrow, Tomorrow.

#4 – I wish I knew how it would feel to be free by Billy Taylor and Dick Dallas

Originally a jazz instrumental made famous by Nina Simone and adopted as a civil rights anthem in the US. Hopefully my version isn’t as cringeworthy as some of the other earnest, white folky renditions. ‘Back goes pale face to basics’ in Gil Scott Heron’s chastening words. Hopefully the lack of freedom we’re all experiencing at the moment will give us pause to think about other prisoners around the world, such as Julian Assange or the people of Gaza (lately being spat at by Israeli settlers & soldiers), as well as those imprisoned in life circumstances less privileged than our own. But really, nobody knows what true freedom feels like within this globe-spanning prison called civilisation.

#5 – Les copains d’abord by Georges Brassens

Managed to finally piece all the verses of this together last Autumn. Georges is talking about the boat he took out onto the Mediterranean with his mates and all the good times they had. The title means ‘friends first’ but also sounds like ‘the friends on board’. I spent an enjoyable time with a couple of french women running through all the obscure slang and literary/cultural references he uses, some of which are noted on this translation page (Note to English readers and historians: Trafalgar is referenced to suggest a nautical disaster, not a famous victory!) This was take 1, which is why it’s so nice & loose – I was only intending to do the first verse and check back on it, but carried on to the end, thinking it was feeling too good to stop. A triumphant Brassens performance here.

#6 – Leatherman by Pearl Jam

A lesser-known B side with a nice energetic strumming pattern. I like how Vedder elides ‘way’ and ‘with’ into one word in the last verse.

#7 – Corrinna, Corrinna

An old blues tune first recorded in 1928. I heard it via Bob Dylan, who apparently attached the lyrics to a different melody. Toyed with the idea of changing it to ‘Corona, Corona’ and getting all clever with lyric alterations but heard someone doing that with Bohemian Rhapsody and thought that was enough of that sort of gimmickry.

#8 – The Mountains of Pomeroy by George Sigerson

I heard a nice heartfelt version of this old Irish song by Niall Hanna and thought I’d try my hand at it. I also found a nice way to play it in regular tuning (the above is in DADGAD) with a capo, so I might record that and see if I can do it without having my eyes glued to the fretboard the whole way through! The original version has Reynardine offering to guard his golden-haired maid ‘with my gun’ not ‘with my life’ as Hanna puts it, though I can understand it might be a more politically sensitive subject for an Irish performer. There are lots of similarities in the song to an old English ballad, ‘The Mountains High‘ and the figure of Reynard as a were-fox and seducer of unwary young women (among other things)  goes back a long way into medieval European history, at least as far back as the 12th century. The archetypal/mythic feeling of an unknown creature coming down from the hills and interfering in the lives of townfolk to me suggests a far older tradition, possibly harking back to pre-Christian shamanic mediations between the wild and civilised worlds, but that could just be me… Sigerson was clearly happy to use it as an allegory for guerrilla warfare against the English and all the risks that involved, not just for romantic relationships. Another kind of wildness that must be tracked down and destroyed, mountains or no mountains…

Less seriously, I had some amusement with my farm hosts while I was learning this last year trying to come up with different rhymes for ‘Pomeroy’ than the 3 ‘destroy’s that Sigerson uses. My favourites were ‘where we’ll grow some pak choi’ and ‘they say he’s a naughty boy’ 😛

*****

A few more to come next week once the upload limit gets refreshed! I’ll maybe record some others too in due course…

The warfare analogy

April 20, 2020

(cross-post from The Lifeboat News where I’ve been putting most of my political commentary lately)

It’s revealing how quickly and automatically leaders and some people who should know better have been talking about the response to Covid-19 in terms of warfare. ‘Fight’ the virus, ‘win the war’, health workers ‘on the front line’, global ‘struggle’ not seen since WW2 etc etc. Even the focus on how health services are lacking in equipment in some ways mirrors the outrage over under-equipped militaries fighting foreign wars: no questioning of the root causes of why the ‘battle’ is necessary in the first place, or whether a military response is preferable or even effective in the long term. Symptoms are furiously addressed; underlying factors driving the emergence of those symptoms are ignored, so the next time round they get worse. And worse. And worse.

For anyone who has read their Quinn it’s clear that this war footing is a default of the dominant culture. Being based on the domestication of a few key plant and animal species for 10-12,000 years has set us up to react aggressively to the point of total ecocide against any creature, ‘weed’, ‘pest’ or pathogen that shows itself to undermine or get in the way of the supremacy and expansion of the human & domesticate populations. This is a violation of what Quinn described as the ‘law of limited competition’:

You may compete to the full extent of your capabilities, but you may not hunt down your competitors or destroy their food or deny them access to food. In other words, you may compete but you may not wage war.

[…]

“Funny. . . . This is considered almost holy work by farmers and ranchers. Kill off everything you can’t eat. Kill off anything that eats what you eat. Kill off anything that doesn’t feed what you eat.”

“It is holy work, in Taker culture. The more competitors you destroy, the more humans you can bring into the world, and that makes it just about the holiest work there is. Once you exempt yourself from the law of limited competition, everything in the world except your food and the food of your food becomes an enemy to be exterminated.”

[…]

You end up with a community in which diversity is progressively destroyed in order to support the expansion of a single species.” – http://www.geocities.ws/friendofishmael/ishmael/eight.html

I think the history of medical responses to disease, especially in the case of pandemics but also in the case of other more chronic ‘diseases of civilisation‘, has been a case of wanting to have your cake and eat it. All the factors laying the ground for fast spreading, high lethality pathogens – proximity to livestock, high density populations, globalised trade networks, destruction of ecosystems etc. – remain unaddressed (because ‘the economy, stupid’) and well-meaning researchers put themselves to work to try & deal with the inevitable consequences of the civilised way of life. Of course this then drops the mortality rate and paves the way for yet more population growth, intensity of agriculture & increased capacity for economic growth, and the next generation of researchers are left to fight increasingly potent responses for ever diminishing returns until what they’re doing no longer has a measurable effect (eg: bacterial resistance to antibiotics). It’s all part of the 10,000 year War Effort, but it’s a war we’re guaranteed to lose because we’re really fighting the blowback from our own activities. As Quinn puts it:

If [the Takers] refuse to live under the law, then they simply won’t live. You might say that this is one of the law’s basic operations: Those who threaten the stability of the community by defying the law automatically eliminate themselves.”

“The Takers will never accept that.”

“Acceptance has nothing to do with it. You may as well talk about a man stepping off the edge of a cliff not accepting the effects of gravity. The Takers are in the process of eliminating themselves, and when they’ve done so, the stability of the community will be restored and the damage you’ve done can begin to be repaired.” (ibid.)

It should be clear that we need to end this war, on all levels across the culture, or failing that help to bring about such a total defeat that it becomes impossible for the civilised to pick up their weapons afterwards. Covid-19 has given us a taste of what that might look like.

Related articles:

Covid-19: The Pathologies of Civilization
The Case Against Waging ‘War’ on the Coronavirus
Destruction of habitat and loss of biodiversity are creating the perfect conditions for diseases like Covid-19 to emerge
Footage (if you can bear to watch it) of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and even sober medical officials talking explicitly in warfare terminology, passed on faithfully by the mass media as always.

 

For the Corbynists

February 16, 2020

Hands around my throat
Smothering
Choking
A steady murderous intent
Silencing the words
Before I speak them
Suffocating before my lungs
Can draw breath
And give me back my strength

I knew it was this way
And yet somehow, still,
I didn’t
Until I gave that small part of me
(Inoculation)
To those who spoke my mind
In the halls of power

It’s not a fair fight,
Not a free exchange,
Innocent flow of ideas
Shared in good faith
No, it’s a bitter, centuries-old struggle
And we have arrived, fresh-faced
To the battlefield with the blood
Of the last lot still warm,
Still sticky underfoot

They won’t listen,
They won’t bargain or negotiate
They will SMELL us out
And see their sworn enemy in our eyes
Just another iteration
Of the same beast to slay
And they will come for us
With all their force
And malevolent fury

Look at what they’ve done
The hero cut down
Pleading, wheedling, abject apologies
And the crowd divided, split,
Whittled away, wedged apart,
In disarray

And now we’re at eachothers’ throats
The larynx swells,
The words rise up,
An indignant heat prickles the forehead
But we stay silent,
Standing ashamed before the corpses
Of innocent comrades we failed to defend
While the murderers gloat and goad
And spit in our faces

Was I so naive to think there would be
No consequences for speaking this way,
For giving voice to these thoughts,
So forbidden, so utterly banished?
Now the consequences lie before us
In plain sight, left to rot in the open
To serve as a lesson

Is it my own fear that I feel
Tightening a noose around my neck?
They say that the purpose of a lynching
Was demonstrative, intended to smother
Any thought of rebellion in its infancy
One night of terror, public, brazen
And suddenly there’s a slavering mob
Watching over every utterance
Ready to pounce on our imaginations

Make no mistake: this is a war
They have declared it over and over
To those who were listening,
Who weren’t trying to believe
In comforting illusions,
To stay infantilised, neotenised,
Learned helpless, desperate to the last

When will we stop bringing penknives
To this gun fight?
When will we accept that these enemies will not be placated
And must be defeated?
How many times, how many different ways
Must we learn these lessons
Before they finally stick?

It won’t be pretty
It won’t be perfect
But we really,
REALLY have to start

*****

Written January 7th

Complementary reading:

Antisemitism and the Labour Party‘ ed. Jamie Stern-Weiner
Reopening Auschwitz – The Conspiracy To Stop Corbyn‘ – Media Lens
Jonathan Cook: ‘Corbyn’s defeat has slain the left’s last illusion‘, ‘Antisemitism threats will keep destroying Labour
Asa Winstanley: ‘Why I just quit the Labour Party

Tunes…

December 16, 2018

*** Updated Jan 31st ***

In which the author finally gives way to his inner hippie…

#1 – ‘The Manchester Rambler’ by Ewan MacColl:

A song from the 1930s inspired by his participation in the mass trespass action on Kinder Scout, demanding greater rights of access to wild spaces for the general public, not just the notional landowners and their gamekeepers.

MacColl was a keen rambler, travelling out of Manchester by bus into the Peak District, like thousands of other young unemployed people with time on their hands. For MacColl, rambling was integral to his politics; he did not simply find nature beautiful and the urban world ugly: instead, it was an objective of the hoped-for revolution: ‘to create a world that would harmonize with that other one that you enjoyed so much… If the bourgeoisie had had any sense at all they would never have allowed the working class into that kind of countryside. Because it bred a spirit of revolt.’ – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Manchester_Rambler

Recorded by P in Italy, August 2018.

#2 – ‘Mountainside’ by Yours Truly:

My one complete song. A bit of amateur ethnography coupled with observations of rewilding and thoughts about its possible futures. Fluffed the last verse a bit but like the feel of the performance otherwise. The sausages weren’t my idea!

Recorded by P in Italy, August 2018.

# -‘El Cóndor Pasa (If I Could)’ music by Daniel Alomía Robles, lyrics by Paul Simon:

Footloose travel song which Simon tacked onto a 1913 composition by Robles, ‘based on traditional Andean music, specifically folk music from Peru’ which he heard being played by a band called ‘Los Incas’ in Paris. That’s a charango you can see on the table and I also recorded the song using that, which comes closer to a ‘traditional’ South American sound (the Incas’ arrangement used to back the S&G version also uses charangos) but I prefer this performance over all. A nice tune to play over this last year living out of my rucksack, often with the travel-friendly charango as the only available instrument.

Recorded by P in Italy, August 2018.

#4 – ‘Something’ by George Harrison:

Thought I’d better include a charango video. I think I learned this without ever looking up the lyrics, which would be why they’re a little ‘off base’ at times!

Recorded by A in the Czech Republic, November 2017

#5 – ‘Anděl’ by Karel Kryl:

I managed to learn two songs in Czech, this classic Karel Kryl tune and ‘Darmoděj‘ by Jaromír Nohavica (no recording yet). People seemed to appreciate the effort when I played it in public over there, and it was a moving experience to have them singing along in the way Czech people do (everybody seems to know all the words to all the songs). Spot the deliberate mistake in the melody which the audience gets right! Kryl has a big resonance over there because of his history of protest songs against the communist regime and his subsequent exile until the Velvet Revolution in 1989, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karel_Kryl . This is a more dreamlike song describing an encounter with an angel in an abandoned church, their debates about God, watching the birds and envying their freedom, and the singer’s attempt to replace the angel’s broken wings with new ones made from shell casings (ending their friendship after the angel flies out the window). I’ve struggled to find a good translation online, but a commenter on this thread makes the best effort, interpreting it as a song describing the boredom of military service in which ‘Forging souvenirs of empty cartridges was common amusement of soldiers’.

Recorded by A in the Czech Republic, November 2017

#6 – ‘Where’er You Walk’ by G.F. Handel:

From his oratorio ‘Semele‘, first performed in 1744. Jupiter tells Ino, Semele’s sister about all the wonderful things she can expect after he has brought her to Jove’s palace, where Semele is staying. Have sung this off & on since I was a boy and thought it might be nice to arrange it for guitar.

Recorded by O (video) & A (audio) in SE England, June 2017

#7 – ‘Down By The Salley Gardens’ – much loved folk song recorded and adapted by W.B Yeats and put to the traditional Irish tune of ‘The Maids of Mourne Shore’ by Herbert Hughes in 1909:

Yeats called it ‘an attempt to reconstruct an old song from three lines imperfectly remembered by an old peasant woman in the village of Ballisodare, Sligo, who often sings them to herself’. Some think this would have been ‘The Rambling Boys of Pleasure‘ which has a similar verse.

It has been suggested that the location of the “Salley Gardens” was on the banks of the river at Ballysadare near Sligo where the residents cultivated trees to provide roof thatching materials. “Salley” or “sally” is a form of the Standard English word “sallow”, i.e., a tree of the genus Salix. It is close in sound to the Irish word saileach, meaning willow. – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Down_by_the_Salley_Gardens

Also, ‘As well as providing willow shoots for thatching, [willow gardens] doubled up as a meeting place for young lovers’. I used to sing the Ivor Gurney version which has a beautiful alternate melody and piano arrangement, but haven’t found a satisfactory way to play it on the guitar. The Benjamin Britten arrangement is nice too.

Recorded by O (video) & A (audio) in SE England, June 2017

#8 – ‘Mountainside’ (again):

My first attempt at recording this song (see #2). I’m happy playing it at a slower pace these days….

Recorded by O (video) & A (audio) in SE England, June 2017

#9 – ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’ – by Richard Thompson

My fingerstyle isn’t up to Thompson’s speed or accuracy (watch slack-jawed here, documentary discussion of the song here) so I’ve gone with this halfway house arrangement with a plectrum. When I was working as a gardener we used to stop for lunch at a cafe by the same Box Hill that gets namechecked in this song. So even though I know nothing about motorcycles, singing this reminds me of all the leather-clad bikers we’d see getting their bacon sandwiches and cups of tea with the hillside trees looming large behind us. The story of the song also makes me think of a friend of mine who lost her husband to cancer.

Recorded by A in SE England, July 2017

*****

More to follow… vimeo has an upload limit of 1 video about this length per week so check from Feb 7th.

Bread, not gold: the wealth of chestnut trees

October 25, 2018

‘A dozen chestnut trees and as many goats are enough for a Corsican family not to starve. Secure in this regard, nothing can then persuade the Corsican father to work, except to buy a rifle.’ – Journal d’agriculture pratique, de jardinage et d’économie domestique, Volume 1, p.161 (link)

‘Voulez-vous réduire les Corses? Coupez les châtaigniers!’ – Maréchal Horace Sébastiani, born and raised in Corsica (link)

Gnarled old givers, inhabitants, holders of space, land, stories of people and place, twisted ancient ropes tensioning soil to sky, mooring each to the other’s port, preventing Disembarkation of both until the decay finally frays and rips through you, the release and crumbling to death and dust, to be replaced by… what?

I hear the stories people tell about you, read the histories, anecdotes, adverts, but ultimately feel these as so many self-centered idiocies. The real story can be read here & now, written in bark, sapwood, heartwood, root, branch, twig, leaf and the living (lived in) landscape in which it was established and continues to grow.

I’ve been working your orchards for about a month now, here in the uplands of the Ardèche region in southern France. Cutting the leafy suckers at your base, piling them for hungry sheep, struggling on the drought-browned grasses (‘faire de la feuille’ in the old terminology) or for the tractor to chop through in the yearly effort to clear the ground for the next stage: Putting nets down – bottom of the slope upwards so the overlaps facilitate harvest collections, a rock or large branch in corners holding the tension against the wind, rolled against the steeper slopes to catch runaway burrs, wrapped around trunks like sticky cobwebs patchworking an efficiency on the dusty ground…

I look down towards the task at hand and inwardly to the energy-conserving logics I’m internalising, managing the stresses and strains of my labour as I’ve been taught. How often have I taken the time to look up, to stop and appreciate you? Not often. And of course my over-educated middle class brain then wants to examine the ethics of the activity. This was the recently read passage going around my mind:

So close was the relationship of trees to human society that their treatment, like that of horses or children, fluctuated according to changing educational fashion. In the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries infants were swaddled; and it was widely held that most children would need to be beaten and repressed. Timber trees, correspondingly, were to be pollarded (i.e. beheaded), lopped or shredded (by cutting off the side branches). […] There were utilitarian reasons for many of these practices, but they were also seen as a kind of moral discipline: ‘The luxuriancy and vigour of most healthful trees,’ declared John Laurence in 1726, ‘is like the extravagant sallies of youth, who are apt to live too fast, if not kept within due bounds and restrained by seasonable corrections.’ Regular pruning kept ‘all in order, which would otherwise be perfect anarchy and confusion’.

In the eighteenth century, when educational theories became less repressive, the cultivation of trees moved from regimentation to spontaneity. There was a reaction against ‘mutilating’ trees or carving them into ‘unnatural’ shapes. […] This was the spirit which would, in due course, lead to the abandonment of swaddling clothes for infants, wigs for men and, for a time, corsets for women, on the grounds that they were unnatural and unspontaneous. (Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World p.220-1)

The vexing, faintly ridiculous question that emerged: “So how do I justify this intervention and suppression of the tree’s spontaneous, wild nature, constantly trying to re-assert itself from below the graft point? Isn’t it a bit hypocritical for one who rails against the heavy-handed forms of ‘cultivation’ imposed upon himself to be doing this kind of thing?” I come up with no satisfactory answers…

B said she loved you, thought you beautiful and felt it a tragedy that you were dying off at such a frightening rate (drought, disease, neglect). The emotions came to me as an almost foreign invitation, so long have I been immersed in the Manly headspace of economics and utility (Necessary because otherwise Things won’t get Done) but I know that other part of me is still down there somewhere and I’m grateful for the opportunity to feed and drip water down to it again. Some day another shoot will spring forth and I will have to decide what to do with it: mercilessly cut it back to the ground, leave it to grow as it pleases, or culture it, prune, train, graft, encourage, urge the best form for Production.

*****

That’s how you came to be here, occupying these spaces for centuries, maybe millennia. The pollen record goes way back to ice age refugia and nuts show up in Mesolithic middens stretching back 10,000 years or more, but your species is much older (I heard fossilised leaves and fruits of a close ancestor were dated back to 85 million years ago) and ours too – surely the relationship predates the earliest records. In any case researchers have found you and walnut over-represented in pollen cores by a lake in the Euganean Hills of northeast Italy in the early stages of the Neolithic some 6,300 years ago, associated with the arrival of wheat, flax, hemp, plantain, buttercup and others along with levels of charcoal indicating a ‘huge increase in regional fire activity’ suggesting that ‘the two trees were advantaged or perhaps even introduced for agricultural purposes’ (Kaltenrieder, p.690).

More recently Native Americans were known to regularly burn the understory of chestnut groves, even of wild forests between villages or encampments:

[E]vidence suggests that Native Americans purposely promoted mast and fruit trees through planting and cultivation. 21 mast and fruit trees and 16 berry-producing shrub species were potentially cultivated by Native Americans in the eastern USA. Indians actively manipulated oak-hickory-chestnut forests with fire to provide more abundant food resources. This included (1) increased browse quality and quantity for deer and for concentrating the herd in managed areas, (2) increased mast quality and quantity for winter-spring subsistence, and (3) a reduction of forest-floor litter to facilitate mobility and mast collection. Native Americans favoured nut trees and other food plants and were probably responsible for increasing them in the pre-European forest. This included the planting of chestnut, Canada plum (Prunus nigra) and Kentucky coffee tree near Indian villages. Thinning forests, clearing underbrush, removing competing tree species and periodic understory burning by Native Americans resulted in more-open forests, with presumably less competition, trees with larger crowns, more rapid recycling of nutrients and higher soil nutrient levels. This would in turn have favoured light-demanding trees and stimulated mast and fruit production in a wide variety of species. – (Abrams, p.1132)

Just look at the size they got to before the estimated 4 billion trees were nearly completely wiped out by a chestnut blight introduced in 1904, possibly ‘the greatest ecological disaster to strike the world’s forests in all of history’:

‘In January 1910, the American Lumberman published this photo of giant chestnut trees in western North Carolina, to show how their size compares to that of the average man.’ – source

Back in Europe it was the ancient Greeks and Romans who mastered grafting and spread plantations (perhaps just for timber and coppice) although literary sources viewed the nuts with suspicion, Diphilus complaining that while ‘that they are nourishing and well-flavoured’, they are ‘hard to assimilate because they remain for a long time in the stomach’, his recommendation being to boil them so that they ‘inflate less’ and ‘nourish more’ (Conedera, p.167). The culprits are the complex di- and tri-saccharide sugars which, as with many vegetables, break down in the intestines producing gas with only one escape route. I can testify that the effects can be lasting and potent (!) though my digestive system did seem to adapt after a while of regularly including chestnuts in my diet.

In any case the trees provided a reliable enough source of carbohydrates to encourage the emergence of the ‘Chestnut Civilisations’ from around the 11th and 12th centuries in upland regions of southern Europe that were unsuitable for grains or other field crops – the Cévennes, Ardèche, Limousin (Massif Central), Northern Appenines in Italy, Corsica – people taking the nut for their staple, building hundreds of miles of terrace walls to hold the soil on the slopes and manage water flow, entire buildings (‘clède‘ or ‘sécadou’) dedicated to drying the nuts over a slow-burning fire on the ground floor, women and children joining the men out harvesting by hand, gathering round the hearths in the long winter evenings to peel the nuts ready to go into next morning’s potage or to be stored in underground pits (a solution no longer possible because of the appearance of new moulds decaying the nuts earlier than previously). And to the animals went the leaves, burrs (‘they had a daily course of acupuncture!’ according to G) and leftover nuts, especially good for fattening pigs. The culture, ‘civilised’ or not, supported large populations, probably because, apart from the largest ‘marrons’ – a luxury food, with the regular ‘châtaignes’ being considered a lower class of food, perhaps only suitable for animals, despite being exactly the same substance – the foodstuff failed to be appropriated as a mass market commodity, mainly due to a short shelf-life and unsuitability for long distance transport (there was a close call when Napoleon had to decide where France was going to get its sugar from during the continental blockade of the early 19th century, but he chose beets instead). Most of the written records from the time bitterly denounce this lack of ‘innovation’, ‘development’, the ‘poverty’ and ‘repli sur soi’ (approximately: ‘folding in on oneself’), and extreme prejudices arise about ‘laziness’, ‘backwardness’, even ‘rebelliousness’ among dull-minded peasants apparently too stupid or stubbornly conservative to see the benefits of agricultural ‘improvements’ or full engagement in the market economy.

Of course the prejudice is there to serve a purpose, prescribing a move towards wheat, potatoes, mulberries (for silk) – anything to increase tax revenues and dependence on monetary income:

‘But if the chestnut tree is of great importance to the inhabitants of the mountains, where cereals & most other crops cannot grow, if it ensures their subsistence for at least six to eight months of the year, & by its sale gives them just enough money to buy the other items they need, it has a harmful influence on their morale, by not stimulating the development of their industry since it requires no other care of cultivation, after planting & pruning, than harvesting its fruits, & even making their bodies heavy, as any man who eats only chestnuts for one day can believe. In addition, cooking, peeling & eating them uses a lot of time every day that is lost for productive work. To my knowledge, inhabitants of chestnut countries are nowhere friendly with work. At least all those of the countries where I have stayed have shown me only laziness, ignorance & poverty. Friends of public prosperity must therefore desire that these inhabitants mix the cultivation of potatoes with that of chestnut trees, & that they engage in some kind of industry to provide them with the means to buy wheat, wine & other products, instead of emigrating, as they usually do, or going to earn something elsewhere.‘ – Bosc & Baudrillart, (p.272)

Even as late as 1966 the French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, having a dig at the communism he had renounced ten years earlier, referred to ‘une terre sans pain, carencée, membre de cette Internationale de la misère et du châtaigner’ (‘land without bread, deficient, a member of this Internationale of poverty and chestnut trees’ – Ladurie p.213) which prevailed in the Cévennes between the renaissance and the reformation. Martin Nadaud, peasant boy from the Creuse region of the Massif Central and later member of parliament in the Second Republic after the 1848 revolution, remembered how the stonemasons spoke to him when he arrived with his father to work with them in Paris, aged 14: ‘Eh petit Mufle, tu avais donc plus de châtaignes te mettre sous la dent que tu viens manger notre pain?’ (‘Hey little oaf, you had no more chestnuts to eat so you come and eat our bread?’ – Bruneton-Governatori, p.1176)

And the prejudice succeeded, up to a point, combining with other material factors. The decline was well in motion as early as the mid-late 18th century. Depopulation, development, incorporation of men into transient labour economies (although, as the above quotes suggest this had also gone hand in hand with the former subsistence practices – the long off-seasons leaving time for travel and wage labour in the lowlands). ‘L’arbre à pain’ gave way to ‘l’arbre d’or’ – the name given to the mulberry tree for the money that could be made from the silk worms that fed on its leaves (Parado, p.1) – and then the incredible wrecking ball of the leather-tanning industry which encouraged the cutting down of centuries-old orchards after it was discovered that the tannins in the bark and wood of the tree could provide a black dye for silk. Five factories for tannin extraction were opened in the Ardèche region from 1890 and it became seven times more profitable to fell the trees than to take the nuts to market. Around a million trees were cut down over the course of fifty years, with 20,000 hectares or about 1/3 of total area lost from the high of 60,000 hectares under cultivation in 1870.

Imagine the mind-set required to go along with that, cutting down trees that had fed your family for generations, even keeping you alive while others starved to death in the famines after the wheat harvests failed. Do we put it down to greed, opportunism, short-sightedness or just to a lack of sentimentality and simple cost/benefit analysis during a tough time when it looked like the best option? One way or another, it seems, commerce penetrates, transport facilitates, nationalism and duty to ‘la patrie’ dull and harden outlooks, turn inhabitants into coldhearted quislings, enabling the exploitation of the land that was their home on behalf of the abstract, alienated interests of city, industry, capital…

Ink disease, blight (not as damaging as in the US due to ‘hypovirulent’ resistance) and war provided the last heavy blows in the 20th century. There wasn’t the energy or manpower anymore for replanting or even maintenance: I’ve seen the memorial stones, so many men and boys taken and killed, especially in the first world war, and the low employment rates meant that soldiers were drawn in higher proportions from the highland regions. After that the inevitable drift towards the towns and cities. Final, complete dependence on jobs, money, and the commodification which we all know well. Or destitution, homelessness, addictions… The familiar pattern repeated around the world when village economies are destroyed and the people forced to move away from their homelands.

*****

But the trees are still here. Even ‘exploitations’ continue to succeed, albeit using modern methods – machines and petrol instead of unpaid human labour to supply a product for modern marketplaces. An ‘AOP’ designation, premium status sought for organic produce, some protection for producers and recognition of the historic landscape. The culture isn’t the same – isolated farmers and their small family groups (my time with G and B was quite lonely, the bus service being inadequate and the work schedule of feeding and watering the animals demanding a 7 day / week presence), the occasional festival, markets, people brought together in the roles of traders and consumers. But the trees are still here. The varieties too, 65 of them named in the Ardèche region alone: Aguyane, Précoce des Vans, Pourette, Sardonne, Bouche Rouge, Comballe, Garinche, Bouche de Clos, Merle, with many more names known only to local people or forgotten entirely. Newer disease-resistant hybrids in the South-West, requiring irrigation and pest control; older varieties to the East favoured for their resilience and superior flavour even if they don’t produce every year. The die-off, neglect, rural flight and other factors continue to result in an overall decline, and few new trees are planted because of the long time it takes for any return on the investment and the uncertainty that any trees will survive that long. But … the trees are still here.

And so are the possibilities if we look for them. Romanticising the ‘castanéiculture’ and other old peasant ways of life is a pitfall and visions of an easy life fade when you think about picking, sorting and peeling nuts by the thousand (their skins could be thrashed off in bulk with sticks after drying at least), or sawing off dead branches with hand tools swaying in the wind 4m off the ground to provide your firewood. But if you’re looking for future-proof food production with no need for artificial fertilisers, pesticides, GMOs or all the energy that has to go into ploughing, sowing, weeding, harvesting & processing field monocrops, then arboriculture of this kind has a lot to recommend it. It also generates many opportunities for ‘closing the loop’ in permaculture parlance, as in the above example where sheep are drawn to the base of the trees for shade and to eat the suckers, preparing the ground for harvesting while fertilising the soil with their manure. The wood of course has multiple uses too, from use of the suckers in basketry to larger pieces of timber in furniture building, tool handles, construction, charcoal manufacture etc. Even the leaves found a use as a stuffing for pillows and blankets. Further in the future, dare I suggest, the trees might provide the support for a truly indigenous way of life beyond the coming failures of the oil economy and the growth-addicted globalised capitalism and chemical-dependent agriculture it has made possible. Because there’s nothing wrong with living hand to mouth like every other species on this planet, providing for your own needs mainly from the fruits of the land around you, at whatever level of cultivation is appropriate.

I walked through a few orchards which hadn’t been touched for maybe 40 years, judging by the size of the suckers and self-sown pine, ash, sycamore, hazel and others beginning to overstand the chestnuts (which can’t reach up as well as the others and suffer from reduced light). It was quite eerie seeing the thickness of the old trunks emerging behind the bristly riot of new growth; the occasional terrace wall showing through mosses and lichens. B assured me it would still be possible to bring them back into cultivation, as she and G have devoted huge amounts of time and effort to doing over the decades they’ve been here, but it’s a daunting task, getting harder with every year that passes. ‘Olive tree of your forefather, chestnut tree of your father, only the mulberry tree is yours’ as the saying goes (or went) in the Cévennes, with slight variations in the other chestnut regions. Any calculations of return on investment have to look way into the future and there’s no guarantee you’ll ever see a reward. Trees stand up to drought better than annual grains, but two or three hot, dry summers in a row and even 150 years of root growth isn’t enough to keep them alive, so climate change will add to the uncertainty just as with everything else.

Wildfires too will grow in frequency and intensity in untended orchards and forests, just as they have done in the drier regions of the US in large part due to the discontinuation of regular burning and other cultivation practices by the native peoples there (although see this brilliant article that shows burning regimes being reinstated). I saw the ‘Canadairs’ go overhead a number of times during the drought in the summer, a situation which might be avoided by greater cultivation of orchards and possibly small scale burns of leaf litter as the peasants used to do. I think these land use traditions point to a potential middle way through the polarised debate between ecological rewilding (with humans excluded) at one extreme and the ‘working landscape’ which farmers have traditionally demanded (with wildlife excluded) at the other. Trees can be grown in an irrigated, chemically treated monocrop but there’s nothing to say there has to be the same outright hostility to wildlife expressed in their cultivation as in, say, livestock rearing. Wolves don’t eat chestnuts! And if you’re getting annoyed at the wild boar munching all the best nuts maybe it’s time to have a word with the local hunters and see if they want to take advantage of the lure your orchards provide – again reinventing the wheel of indigenous land management, as shown in the Abrams quote above.

North American forests were noted for their exceptional abundance and diversity of plant and animal species upon first contact by Europeans, and while their populations may have been in a boom phase after waves of diseases had wiped out their human predators it seems clear that native management practices actively fostered this diversity over the course of tens of thousands of years, whereas the introduced European farming practices decimated them in a handful of generations. Probably something similar was true of pre-agricultural forests in Europe and the hunter-gatherer or horticulturalist peoples who inhabited them. Do we see an echo of their subsistence methods in the chestnut-based cultures? Either way the act of working with the process of ecological succession towards the closed-canopy forest cover that these temperate lands spontaneously generate is bound to provide better habitat for a multitude of wild species than pastured or arable land could ever do. Incidentally I think this is the basis for accusations of ‘laziness’ and the sneer behind the word ‘cueillette’ (gathering) – the hard work necessary to fight succession in farming (especially for the annual grain species) has been elevated into a virtue and people born into this way of thinking would rather extirpate less toilsome lifeways than consider their own practices as a giant waste of energy. How about instead of a ‘working landscape’ (that appears to be working itself to death for no good reason) we try to move towards a ‘living landscape’, with human beings as just another species in the web of self-perpetuating diversity?

Old gnarly ones, I came to you mind full of sour thoughts about modern living. I too was cultivated in my early days with a purpose (to be a good citizen, employee, consumer etc), then abandoned to fend for myself, it no longer being considered worth the effort. It was a relief at first to grow as I pleased but then there was the absence, uncertainty and lack of purpose that has lingered for years. What was I planted for? To feed only a few wild creatures (as honourable as that might be) until I wither away and die, to be replaced by rougher, less demanding types (as honourable as they might be) or overtaken by my own wilder growths? Now I’m thinking that the answer to Bad cultivation isn’t No cultivation; the answer to a crappy, exploitive relationship isn’t No relationship – it’s Better cultivation and a Better relationship with different, mutual purposes and goals. I looked to you and heard my own preoccupation: “How am I going to justify my continued existence?” But the question generates different answers depending on who you’re asking. If you ask the disembodied collective urge of the civilised economy (as people did on your behalf, with never a secure assurance no matter how much you gave) then you’ll get the familiar list of Hardnesses – “Find a way to make it Pay”, with no criticism or challenge to the one handing out the currency and the cannibalistic values it embodies. But if you ask the living world, and that is surely the essential underlying question we all need to be asking, then you’ll get very different answers, perhaps summed up by the exhortation: “Stay alive, and keep those around you living too, until this madness ends.”

A new question: How can I be of Service?

Translations tweaked from www.DeepL.com/Translator

The author invited various trees to comment on the subject matter for this post but did not receive any clear reply as of the time of writing, although this may be due to lack of receptivity on his part.

*****

Bibliography (papers behind paywalls can be accessed by typing the DOI number into http://sci-hub.tw/ )

Abrams et al: ‘Native Americans as active and passive promoters of mast and fruit trees in the eastern USA’ (link)
Bosc & Baudrillard: ‘Dictionnaire de la culture des arbres et de l’amenagements des forets’ (link)
Ariane Bruneton-Governatori: ‘Alimentation et idéologie: le cas de la châtaigne’ (link)
Conedera et al: ‘The cultivation of Castanea sativa (Mill.) in Europe, from its origin to its diffusion on a continental scale’ (link)
Antoinette Fauve-Chamoux: ‘Chestnuts’ in the ‘Cambridge World History of Food, Vol.1’ (link)
Kaltenrider et al: ‘Vegetation and fire history of the Euganean Hills (Colli Euganei) as recorded by Lateglacial and Holocene sedimentary series from Lago della Costa (northeastern Italy)’ (link)
Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie: ‘Les paysans de Languedoc, Volume 1’ (link)
Claude Parado: ‘Le châtaignier: l’arbre à pain, providence de nos ancêtres’ (link)

The place that waits for me

July 4, 2018

Sorry for the lack of posting, various projects on the go, not yet borne fruit… The big news is that I’m out of the garden maintenance job, out of rented accommodation and back on the wwoofing trail, the idea being to pick up more organic farming experience and eventually try to find work in that sector. I’m currently on a farm in Wales acting as ‘veg intern’ and have been here since mid-March, then I’ll be heading out to Italy to work on a hazelnut farm and I expect to finish the year in the south of France if I find a place to host me there (any recommendations please let me know!) I’m keeping a diary so various bits might get posted up here in the future if I find the time to write it all up. For a teaser here are some pics taken back in the spring of one of the few patches of broadleaf (ancient?) woodland I’ve been able to find, in a little valley which the stream has rendered too-steep-for-sheep. Then, just so I don’t give you the wrong impression and for the contrast, a typical area of conifer forestry (click to embiggen):

In the meantime I recently discovered that there’s a whole ‘Tending The Wild’ TV series on a Californian TV station, where they’ve taken the trouble to speak to native people about their food and land-use traditions, past and present. It can be viewed on their website here: and there’s a lot a really good articles if you click around, for instance this one about the consequences of the loss (more often active destruction) of traditional foods and related cultural practices. Key paragraphs (my emph):

The native people I have worked with in southern California for the past 16 years have a profound spiritual connection to the land through their ancestors and their long history of living on the land. They pay homage to plants and consider them as their teachers. They’re dedicated to passing on what they know to others. All stress our interdependence with other species. All have a fierce devotion to revitalizing their culture as part of the larger cultural revitalization sweeping California.

Cahuilla/Apache elder Lorene Sisquoc describes a reciprocal relationship with the plants and the land. “The plants are waiting for us to come take care of them so they can take care of us. In Temalpakh, Katherine Saubel writes that the Cahuilla word for an oak grove, meki’i’wah, means ‘the place that waits for me.’ It’s our responsibility to take care of the land, to get out there and gather, to sing songs, tell stories, do ceremony, share our laughter and our language. To preserve our oral traditions by passing our knowledge to our kids and grandkids. It’s important that they start learning very young. Taking care of the plants helps make our families healthy. We’re working hard to heal our communities by deepening our connection to the land.”

[…]

Sisquoc teaches at the Sherman Indian High School in Riverside, a former boarding school created to assimilate Indian children into the dominant culture. Sisquoc relates that students were instructed: “‘Forget about your traditional plants. Forget about the acorns and pine nuts and mesquite waiting to be gathered. You’ve got to get over here and make a garden and milk that cow. That’s what the boarding schools were about. It was lactose-intolerant kids being fed dairy products and introduced foods, and taught cooking and home economics that were different from theirs. They were taught that their ways were wrong. Many of our gathering practices and our culinary secrets and specialties were not passed down because the boarding school students weren’t home to learn them.”

Shimwich Chumash educator and CCC member Tima Lotah Link echoes Sisquoc: “If you want to wreck a culture, hit it in the kitchen. Boarding schools did that in one generation. Take away the kids, take away their plants, take away their knowledge of the kitchen. Parents and children no longer gathered their plants together. They no longer spoke their language or shared information.”

There’s a really important segment in the ‘Decolonizing the Diet‘ episode where Lois Conner Bohna, Cultural Educator & Basketweaver from the North Folk Mono talks about the importance of acorns to her people. The closing comments from around 4:42 are vital:

There’s maybe five of us in the North Fork area that gather acorns and we can’t even find enough for ourselves at this point. It is difficult to find acorn because the trees are unhealthy because of the mistletoe, because of the competition from other trees taking their water. A long time ago there were more oak trees. A lot have died, a lot. My grandmas would not allow their environment to look this way. They’re gonna either cut trees, prune ’em, when they would go through they’re gonna burn, their number one thing was their oak trees, and that sustained not only them but the squirrels, and the squirrels provide for the other animals, so we’re back to balance. Now it is totally out of balance. If you don’t use something, you neglect it, it goes away. So the oak trees are gonna go away.

I thought that this provides an excellent answer for those who dismiss the plausibility of a hunter-gatherer / horticulturalist subsistence base on the grounds that it couldn’t support the current human population level. Well first off, nothing can support the current population in anything like a sustainable manner. Around half the nitrates in global circulation now have been generated in factories from fossil fuel derivatives. It would be simplistic to say that when the oil goes half of the population will starve to death, but that’s probably not far off in the final analysis (some would say more because much of the topsoil which underpinned global agriculture while it was still totally organic has since disappeared). Also, 7.5 billion people are obviously impacting the nonhuman, especially nondomesticated species in a catastrophic way, indicating the fundamental unsustainability and undesirability of maintaining that high level of population in the first place.

I would also question estimates about the size of hunter-gatherer populations, as the civilised culture has a history of purposely underestimating or downplaying the significance of indigenous habitation of the land, as this justifies racist concepts of ‘manifest destiny’ and the willful blindness of ‘terra nullius’ – the empty lands ripe for conquest. Estimates for pre-Columbian population levels in the Americas have been revised upwards by the tens of millions, although admittedly these numbers were for the most part supported by various forms of intensive agriculture, mostly based around corn. It wouldn’t surprise me if researchers discovered evidence for much higher concentrations of pre-Neolithic populations in prehistoric Europe, indicating much more in-depth & comprehensive land-use systems than commonly assumed, but it still serves the narcissism and hubris of the dominant culture to believe that it knows the best way to occupy the land, with all the military parallels that word implies, and that the only true measure of success is the sheer quantity of biomass that you can wring out the ecology and funnel into your own species, consequences be damned.

So yes, back to the main point: of course the living planet in its current state couldn’t support a population of more than a handful of hunter-gatherers per square mile – that’s been the whole point over these last 10,000 years! The majority of land has been appropriated for field agriculture and livestock pastures and the diverse wild plant & animal populations that made a successful hunter-gatherer subsistence possible have been systematically eradicated. Bohna suggests that even benign neglect can cause this kind of decline, so just think how much faster it can slide when you’re purposefully draining wetlands, damming rivers, felling forests, exterminating wolves, spraying poisons everywhere to kill ‘pests’ and ‘weeds’… It shows the importance of habitat restoration – the responsibility to repair the damage done, apart from anything else – over and above simple lifestyle change. Further, it points to a deeper understanding about the possibilities for human existence which the civilised refuse to countenance: that we might be capable of actually improving this place by being here, rather than being doomed by nature to mine it to exhaustion and death. Like Bohna’s grandmothers we must not allow our environment to look this way. We have to make it our business to develop that reciprocal relationship with the land where it can take care of us – once we have taken care of it. Then maybe we’ll finally have our own ‘places that wait for us’; places that will be happy to see our return.

PS: RIP Daniel Quinn, my most important teacher, sorely missed. These are all footnotes to your work, as all philosophy was once held to be ‘footnotes to Plato’.

Learning from the Black Goat

December 8, 2017

Here’s an interesting article by Jonathan Cook, a British journalist living and working in Nazareth, the capital of the Palestinian minority in Israel: ‘In age of forest fires, Israel’s law against Palestinian goats proves self-inflicted wound for Zionism‘. He writes:

A ban by Israel on herding black goats – on the pretext they cause environmental damage – is to be repealed after nearly seven decades of enforcement that has decimated the pastoral traditions of Palestinian communities.

The Israeli government appears to have finally conceded that, in an age of climate change, the threat of forest fires to Israeli communities is rapidly growing in the goats’ absence.

The goats traditionally cleared undergrowth, which has become a tinderbox as Israel experiences ever longer and hotter summer droughts. Exactly a year ago, Israel was hit by more than 1,500 fires that caused widespread damage.

The story of the lowly black goat, which has been almost eliminated from Israel, is not simply one of unintended consequences. It serves as a parable for the delusions and self-destructiveness of a Zionism bent on erasing Palestinians and creating a slice of Europe in the Middle East.

The whole story struck me as a rich commentary on the conflicts between landscape rewilding and the ‘human ecology’ of traditional land-use and the cultures built on multi-generation subsistence practices. It serves as an extreme example of where conservation ideology can lead, as well as the dark urges it can serve, if no attention is paid to the human role in ecological systems, and if projects are forced through against the will of the people who actually inhabit those landscapes. Consequently it raises questions about the relationship between rewilding and ethnic cleansing and whether it’s even possible to have one without elements of the other.

It appears that, following the war in 1948 which created the state of Israel, the settlers were keen to plant a number of new pine forests. The stated aim was advertised as a noble environmental mission, to ‘redeem the land,’ create ‘a greener world,’ and to ‘make the desert bloom’ but there were several ulterior motives served by the policy:

The trees were fulfilling an important Zionist mission, in the eyes of Israel’s founding fathers. They were there to conceal the rubble of more than 530 Palestinian villages the new state had set about destroying […] making it impossible for the refugees to return and rebuild their homes.

Additionally, the pine was useful because it was fast-growing and evergreen, shrouding in darkness all year evidence of the ethnic cleansing committed during Israel’s creation. And the forests played a psychological role, transforming the landscape in ways designed to make it look familiar to recent European immigrants and ease their homesickness.

Finally, the falling pine needles acidified the soil, leaving it all but impossible for indigenous trees to compete. These native species – including the olive, citrus, almond, walnut, pomegranate, cherry, carob and mulberry – were a vital component of the diet of Palestinian rural communities. Their replacement by the pine was intended to make it even harder for Palestinian refugees to re-establish their communities.

However, these plans were frustrated — so it was claimed — by Bedouin herders, grazing sheep and black goats (aka Syrian goats) in marginal areas around the Negev desert and the hills of Galilee, and the ‘environmental damage’ caused when they allegedly ate up the young pine saplings. In response a ‘Plant Protection’ law was passed in 1950 which sought to outlaw the goat and paved the way for mass culling of the herds:

[Ariel] Sharon created the “Green Patrol”, a paramilitary unit of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, whose tasks included seizing and slaughtering the Bedouin’s black goats.

Palestinian community activist Maha Qupty notes that in the first three years of the Green Patrol’s operations, the number of black goats was slashed by 60 percent, from 220,000 to 80,000.

But again the motivation had more to do with ethnic cleansing and land theft, made apparent by a 1965 Planning and Building law which, in addition to the assault on their subsistence base, made Bedouin homes illegal and denied them access to public services, with the intention being ‘to pen the Bedouin up in a handful of urbanised “townships”, forcing them to abandon agriculture and become casual labourers in a Jewish economy’. Israeli leaders publicly admitted this at the time without apology, as Moshe Dayan, then chief of staff in the IDF, commented:

We should transform the Bedouin into an urban proletariat – in industry, services, construction, and agriculture. 88% of the Israeli population are not farmers, let the Bedouin be like them. Indeed, this will be a radical move which means that the Bedouin would not live on his land with his herds, but would become an urban person who comes home in the afternoon and puts his slippers on. His children will get used to a father who wears pants, without a dagger, and who does not pick out their nits in public. They will go to school, their hair combed and parted. This will be a revolution, but it can be achieved in two generations. Without coercion but with governmental direction … this phenomenon of the Bedouins will disappear.

The result?

Of the 90,000 people from 95 tribes living in the land of the Naqab on the eve of the Nakba, only 11,000 from 19 tribes remained by 1952. They were concentrated in an area equivalent to 10% of the lands they previously owned. [‘Naqab’ is the original Arabic name for the Negev desert; ‘Nakba’ is what Palestinians call the 1948 war and their ensuing violent colonisation.]

And the ecological consequences? Well, maybe pictures say it best:

 

Cook notes that, whereas there had been several Palestinian villages on Mount Carmel accompanied by a population of around 15,000 goats before the 1950 ‘Plant Protection’ law and the abuses of the Green Patrol, by 2013 goat numbers were down to 2,000 and thick pine forests disguised where the villages had been cleared. But the facade is vulnerable. The Aleppo Pine (called ‘Jerusalem Pine’ in Israel) favoured in the plantation schemes is very fire-prone, and the risk increases with arid conditions which are expected to worsen with global warming. The Mount Carmel fire of 2010 destroyed nearly 10,000 acres of forest, killed 44 people and caused the evacuation of 17,000 more, with the problem only likely to get worse in the future. Even hardline Israeli politicians have now started to reconsider the role of goats in preventing the build-up of flammable scrub, eating seeds and thinning out pine saplings, although it seems likely the remaining Bedouin herders will continue to suffer discrimination in different forms even if their subsistence practice now — finally after nearly 70 years — has the occupier state’s stamp of approval.

*****

So… how do we square all this with rewilding philosophy and practice going forward? My personal bias, born and raised in a North European temperate climate, is towards trees and forest cover, so visually I prefer the image of the forested Mount Carmel to its eroded, scrubby-looking appearance of 123 years ago (although admittedly the fire blazing through it indicates something’s not right!). But investigating the history and prehistory of the Negev region tells me that trees have been a rarity for at least the last 10,000 years, including a couple thousand years of hunter-gatherer occupation before domesticated grazing got underway. Pistacia khinjuk (a small tree in the cashew family) and Tamarix species are recorded, but the predominant species have been herbs and grasses in the Chenopodiaceae, Cruciferae, Gramineae, Liliaceae, Compositae and Artemisia families, with Plantago species apparently coinciding with ‘periods of livestock breeding in the central Negev desert’ at various intervals from around 5,000 years ago. So it appears that the Arabic systems of pastoralism or fruit and nut orchards where appropriate are the best systems for the region in the absence of mass irrigation or petrochemicals — if humans are to maintain a presence there at all, that is.

This brings us to the question of sustainability. Anarcho-primitivist rewilding philosophy rails against the domestication of plants and animals, including the pastoral context which most often goes hand in hand with field agriculture (eg: through trade relations). Apart from the damaging effects it has on the domesticated species and on the humans domesticators themselves, it creates a dividing line between ‘us’ (humans and the small band of species who completely depend on one another) and ‘them’ (all the other species ‘out there’ which compete with, frustrate, even predate on ‘us, in here’), leading to conflict, antagonism and eventual wars of extermination on any species which undermines the domesticating practices, or the expansion of those systems. It may be possible to sustain a certain population of pastoralists and their livestock indefinitely in any given area, but at what cost to the wildlife? Predators shot, trapped or poisoned, other grazers displaced, loss of 3-dimensional tree- and shrub-based habitat, erosion and disturbance of soil, disruptions of fertility cycles, etc etc. Domestication gives humans the option to expand food production — and their subsequent population — at will, and history has shown that, under these subsistence strategies, there is no upper limit which they will not attempt to push through in their never-ending quest for expansion. Witness the recent estimates that ‘83% of the global terrestrial biosphere [is] under direct human influence’ and ‘36% of the Earth’s bioproductive surface is “entirely dominated by man” ‘ and tally that against the extinction crisis currently well underway among all walks of life. Theoretically it might be ‘sustainable’ to reduce planetary biodiversity down to just humans and rice, but that’s not a world I’d want to live in!

What if we look at human practices, domesticated or otherwise, which enhance biodiversity and improve habitat for other species – regenerative, rather than merely sustainable practices as Toby Hemenway and others have described (‘How’s your marriage?’ ‘Oh, it’s sustainable…’)? Many people around the world make this claim already, whether we’re talking about coppicing, hay meadows, hedgerows, hunting, selective harvesting, managed grazing or small scale burning, both in indigenous and market-society contexts. The trouble is that it’s always a subjective judgement: an improvement for one species will inevitably worsen conditions for another. Maintain an open forest canopy and light-loving plants and animals will thrive but those that like it dark and damp will suffer. Keep meadows, heaths and moorlands open through grazing or burning and the wildflowers, grouse and pollinating insects will thank you but the Birch trees and associated secondary woodland species will curse you under their breath. Burn under established oak trees and you’ll get a good crop of acorns but the insect populations, along with the targeted acorn weevils, will plummet. There’s a good article about this by ecologists Hambler & Speight, looking at conservation practices in the UK and Europe. They make the point that local biodiversity might not be the best measure of an ecosystem’s true value:

High diversity of habitat is clearly an undesirable general goal: the costs and benefits depend on the scale of the habitats. A diverse park or garden may have more landscape or educational appeal than a dense, dark oak or spruce monoculture, and more species of vascular plants – but more specialist, vulnerable, and globally rare species could inhabit the woodland. Mud and sea lochs may not be diverse, but are important habitats. […] Common habitats should not be created from rare ones to increase diversity.

A further problem with habitat diversity is that it may be created at the expense of large, homogeneous blocks of habitat, and therefore more edges are created, between small habitat fragments. In some circumstances, edges are beneficial, but a rapidly increasing scientific literature suggests organisms of the edge and matrix around a habitat can be inimical to those of the interior.

The claim for black goats in Israel/Palestine is that they browse away the woody plant materials that would otherwise build up and potentially fuel catastrophic wildfires. I don’t know if this would also be the case without the pine plantations adding to the fuel load. Probably to a lesser extent. Further it is said that their browsing habits are important for:

[…] controlling the growth and spread of trees and shrubs, which thwarts the growth and ultimately the existence of herbs and wildflowers, in turn leading to the disappearance of animals and birds that need open spaces to live in. One ecological study carried out on Crete examining the effects of goat grazing in inhabited areas found that places where goats regularly grazed had 46 types of wild herbal plants, whereas others only had 10. (ibid.)

I couldn’t find that study but this paper (pdf), taking a broader view of the goat’s positive and negative environmental impacts around the world, argues that its reputation as a ‘black sheep’ for causing habitat degradation is not deserved, as goat herds are often brought in only after the land has already been overgrazed by sheep or cattle, and where they have caused damage this is most often due to mismanagement or accidental release of feral populations into sensitive environments. On the plus side it states that:

[…] moderate goat grazing is considered valuable for the conservation of pastures dominated by native or endemic species in Tenerife Island (Fernández-Lugo et al., 2009), and negative effects on plant diversity are expected after goat grazing abandonment in pastures which sustain endemic plant species in La Gomera Island (Arévalo et al., 2011). […] Furthermore, goats having a potential positive impact on vegetation regeneration and biodiversity improvement (ElAich and Waterhouse, 1999), they have returned to several unmanaged grasslands around Europe with aims of conservation of the biodiversity (Ferrer et al., 2001; Muller,2002). They can also contribute to preserve ecosystems like heather, moor, marsh wet meadow and other unique biotops present in protected areas (Martyniuk and Olech,1997).

Other examples include improving mountain plantlife after cereal cultivation and managing chalk grasslands for specific butterfly populations. So far so subjective… It discusses the impacts that goat herds have on other wild mammals sharing the same forage, pointing out that in many cases the wild species are able to live alongside due to slight differences in range or food preferences. A powerful example of the damage-through-mismanagement case can be seen in the Loess Plateau restoration project in China. One of the main causes of environmental damage was unrestricted grazing of goat herds. When they were penned up and more tightly managed the area was able to recover and benefit from all the other restoration efforts. See this documentary from around 17:30:

Interestingly this resulted in drastic changes in the whole climate, with trees, dammed water sources and terracing arresting the moisture that formerly would have just run off, carrying a load of the topsoil with it. It’s an artificial plantation, but judging from pictures it’s difficult to imagine it catching fire (though I’m sure protracted drought would make it more likely). Also, unlike the Israeli plantations the area actually has a history of temperate forest cover, further supporting the appropriateness of the restoration efforts.

Loess Plateau, September 1995

Loess Plateau, September 2009 – source

It would be hard to argue that this doesn’t show an objective improvement of the land and an example of the kind of thing civilised humans should be doing across the planet to repair all the damage they have caused over the centuries and millennia. The only misgivings I had after hearing about it had to do with a) the involvement of the World Bank (what’s in it for them?) and b) the massive amount of government funds needed to get the ball rolling, 250 million dollars, without which the local farmers would never have had the time to spare for such slow-return activities. The above documentary showed one illuminating quote from a farmer during the early stages of the project: ‘They want us to plant trees everywhere, even in the good land. What about the next generation? They can’t eat trees.’ [22:50] You can sort of see his point, even if he’s wrong about being able to get a direct or indirect food crop from trees: is it feasible or sustainable to have an entire farming population employed in non-food-producing activities over a period of years, just doing repair work? Where’s the money come from to support this venture? But yes, it also illustrates how the over-reliance on a few species of plant or animal domesticates can paint your imagination into a corner, explaining the shrieks of outrage that farmers everywhere direct towards ‘unproductive’ rewilding projects. They mean unproductive for (civilised) humans, who have a God-given right to total dominion over every acre of the planet. They fail to account for all the indirect benefits that nondomesticated landscapes can have for their systems if given half a chance, but further they fail to see the possibilities for direct human involvement in rewilded landscapes and don’t remember that formerly this was every human being’s mode of existence.

It’s good to see a continued human presence as landscapes are repaired, indeed with people leading the way with the restoration efforts. Also I like that food production is still a key part of the end result, and that it hasn’t simply turned into a recreational tourist zone. That’s what troubles me about the trend in landscape rewilding movements in Britain and Europe, which seem to have a ‘pristine wilderness’ ethos that bars direct human involvement, except for in the alienated role of an outsider, visiting, taking a picture, participating in an organised leisure activity, then going back home to the city. See this Rewilding Europe video for example:

The only people featured engaged in any kind of subsistence activity are the old man using a donkey to pull a small plough, presumably to represent the old-time farming which no longer has a place in the modern world, and a beekeeper near the end as one example of the ‘business, jobs and income’ that rewilding can provide. The rest are young professionals with spotless outdoor clothing and expensive-looking cameras, just there to enjoy themselves and look at the scenery. Something important is definitely lost under those bland phrases ‘Large parts of the countryside in Europe are being abandoned … Young people are leaving for the cities … We can turn these problems into a historic opportunity’. I’ve seen nothing to suggest that Rewilding Europe are actively driving this process, merely benefiting from the vacuum left after farmers sell up and leave because of no longer being able to compete on the world market, among other reasons. Nonetheless it seems to fit a sad pattern that space only opens up for rewilding projects where for some reason the countryside has been depopulated. Places that spring to mind are:

  • Scotland (after the Highland Clearances)
  • The Soča river valley in Western Slovenia (after Germans were expelled following WW2)
  • Chernobyl (after the nuclear reactor explosion)
  • The demilitarised zone separating North and South Korea (after the Korean War)
  • The Chagos Islands (after expulsion of native islanders by the British)
  • The expansion of forests following population crashes in the Americas after first contact by Europeans and Eastern Europe after the Mongol raids

You can see how claims of ‘ethnic cleansing’ from farmers might not be total paranoia, whether they’re blaming rewilders, other environmentalists or conservation charities and their influence, such as it is (or rather, such as they perceive it to be), on government policy. Their life is enough of a struggle as it is, without a bunch of know-nothing outsiders telling them what to do, what not to do, or even that they shouldn’t be there at all.

I guess you have to ask what the land itself would want, in each circumstance. Maybe in some places it would be happy for farmers and their domesticates to continue their traditional practices; maybe in others it would like to see humans decamp totally and allow the wild communities to recover on their own and create their own self-willed ecological relationships; maybe in some circumstances it would appreciate the re-introduction of some former lost species or the periodic control of an invasive; or maybe it would welcome the re-introduction of humans, not in an exploitative capacity but playing a keystone role in their own right. People who have lived and worked in that particular place for a long time will have the most relevant knowledge about what can and should be done there to make things better, assuming they’ve kept a basic sensitivity and not become tenant exploiters for outsider interests. However, in the long run it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that this expansion of civilised humanity and their domesticates; this appropriation of every available stretch of land; this great hoovering up of every last photon converted by the plants into the basic building blocks of life has to be stopped and put into reverse. Furthermore this whole mode of production which operates by basically stealing biomass from the rest of the living community to fuel the growth of just a handful of species has to end. Just look where we are now:

 

Folk music, folk language

August 6, 2017

So – again – long time no speak, loyal readers! Plenty of things going on behind the scenes, but it seems to be a period of reflection, re-evaluation, re-alignment etc. with not much emerging resolved enough for me to want to show off in public.

For now I just wanted to share one of the few things I’ve discovered worth watching on TV, the Transatlantic Sessions folk music series, where folk musicians from the British Isles (mainly Scotland, Wales & Ireland) team up with counterparts in the various folk & country music scenes in America. You can’t watch them on the BBC website any more, but I found the full episodes up on youtube – here’s the first episode from back in 1995 and you can click around from there if you like what you see. The songs they choose are a bit hit & miss to my mind, but there’s no denying the amazing musical talent and the friendly warmth and generous, congenial atmosphere in the room when they play together. Here’s a stand-out tune which will appeal to rewilding sensibilities:

Cha b’ e sneachda ‘s an reòthadh bho thuath,
Cha b’ e ‘n crannadh geur fuar bho ‘n ear,
Cha b’ e ‘n t-uisge ‘s an gaillionn bho ‘n iar,
Ach an galair a bhlean bho ‘n deas
Blàth duilleach is stoc agus freumh
Cànan mo threubh ‘s mo shluaidh.

(It was not the snow and frost from the north,
nor the acute cold withering from the east,
it wasn’t the rain or the storms from the west,
but the sickness from the south
that has faded the bloom, foliage, stock and root
of the language of my race and my people.)

Seisd:
Thig thugainn, thig cò-rium gu siar
Gus an cluinn sinn ann cànan nam Féinn,
Thig thugainn, thig cò-rium gu siar
Gus an cluinn sinn ann cànan nan Gàidheal.

(Chorus:
Come, come on, come with me westwards
until we hear the language of the Fein;
Come, come on, come with me westwards
until we hear the language of the Gaels.)

Uair chìte fear-féilidh ‘sa ghleann
Bu chinnteach gur gàidhlig a chainnt
Ach spion iad a fhreumh as an fhonn
‘N àite gàidhlig tha cànan a Ghoill
‘S a Ghàidhealtachd creadhal-nan-sonn
‘S tir-mhajors is cholonels ‘n diugh th’ innt’.

(Once, if a kilted man were seen in the valley
it would be certain that Gaelic was his language;
but they have torn his roots from the ground,
in the place of Gaelic is the foreigner’s language,
and the Gaeltachd, cradle of heroes,
today it is a land of majors and colonels.)

Far a nuas dhuinn na coinnleirean òir
‘S annt’ caraibh coinnlean geal céir
Lasaibh suas iad an seòmair bhròin
Tìgh-‘aire seann chànan a’ Ghàel
‘S sud o chionn fhad’ thuirt a nàmh
Ach fhathast tha beò cànan a’ Ghàel.

(Pass over to us the golden candlesticks
and put in them white waxen candles.
Light them up in a grief-filled room
in the wake-house of the Gael’s old language.
That’s what its enemy has long been saying
but the language of the Gael is alive yet.)

Ged theich i le beath’ as na glinn
Ged ‘s gann an diugh chluinntear i ni’s mó
O Dhùthaich MhicAoidh fada tuath
Gu ruig thu Druim-Uachdar nam bó
Gigheal, dhi ‘na h-Eileanan Siar
Bi na claimheamh ‘s na sgiath’n ud dhòirn.

(Although it has fled, along with life, from the valleys,
although it’s rare today that it’s heard any more
from Strathnaver in the far north
right down to Drumochter where the cattle are,
nevertheless, for it in its Western Isles
the swords and shields there are taken in hand.)

Lyrics and translation borrowed from this page, which provides some explanation and background, along with the rest of the verses in the original poem. It was composed by Murdo MacFarlane (Murchadh MacPharlain) probably ‘some time between 1970 and 1975’. The man had an interesting life, becoming highly influential to musicians in the Gaelic revival who continue to perform his songs in their own various styles. ‘Cànan nan Gàidheal’ is even taught in schools it seems, judging by footage in this BBC Alba documentary, which is well worth watching for its insights into the history and culture of the Scottish islands (MacFarlane came from the isle of Lewis):

Some choice quotes:

I was never ashamed that I couldn’t speak fluent English. I would be if I wasn’t able to speak fluent Gaelic, because English is not my mother tongue, but Gaelic is. So why find fault with me?

[…]

There’s my father and mother. They couldn’t talk English, with the result that their Gaelic was richer, of course. My mother, when she’d see a traveller coming down the brae, she’d close the door for the simple reason that, ‘Well if he comes inside he’ll be talking to me in English, and I can’t talk English, so the best thing I can do is close the door.’

[…]

How I envy you people here, who are not faced with my problem. Just imagine if you were going home tonight, and you were saying to yourself “The language I’m speaking will be dead in another sixty years.” Just imagine yourselves in my position. And, you see, it’s so discouraging. But still we sing and still we make songs, in spite of everything.

If you’re struggling to see the connection with rewilding, perhaps here would be a good place to mention the Terra Lingua / WWF study that found ‘a very significant overlap of the biodiversity-richest areas of the world with high concentrations of distinct cultures’:

Traditional peoples have accumulated vast amounts of ecological knowledge in their long history of managing the environment; and such knowledge is embodied in languages. With language extinctions, associated traditional ecological knowledge is lost as well, especially since in most traditional cultures this knowledge is not recorded and is only passed on to other groups or new generations orally. The loss of local languages means the loss of the main means of knowledge transmission.

No surprise, then, that the loss of languages across the world mirrors the shocking obliteration of species and decimation of wildlife populations we’ve talked about on these pages so many times before. According to a report by UNESCO in 2003 (pdf), an estimated 90% of the 6-7,000 languages then recognised were expected to go extinct by 2050:

About 97% of the world’s people speak about 4% of the world’s languages; and conversely, about 96% of the world’s languages are spoken by about 3% of the world’s people […] Most of the world’s language heterogeneity, then, is under the stewardship of a very small number of people. Even languages with many thousands of speakers are no longer being acquired by children; at least 50% of the world’s more than six thousand languages are losing speakers. We estimate that, in most world regions, about 90% of the languages may be replaced by dominant languages by the end of the 21st century. (p.2)

They too note that ‘The extinction of each language results in the irrecoverable loss of unique cultural, historical, and ecological knowledge’, pointing to the internal and external factors driving this loss. Mostly it appears as direct and indirect forms of genocide perpetrated by surrounding expansionist societies. This is reasonably well understood in the context of, for example, aboriginal Australia where a ‘stolen generation’ of indigenous children were taken away from their families and put in boarding schools with the deliberate intention being to ‘breed out the black’, or the similar ‘residential schools‘ forced upon the native people in Canada. In both cases there was special emphasis on forbidding the use of the native mother tongue or performing any kind of ancestral ritual or tradition. Not so well-known is the fact that the same abuses were visited on the ‘internal colonies’ of the British Isles before the English-dominated empire culture then visited the same techniques on other indigenous peoples across the globe. Alastair McIntosh tells the story in Soil and Soul:

But it was Article VI of the Statutes [of Iona] that probably caused the greatest cultural dismemberment. This decreed that the traditional leadership had to have their eldest sons educated in the English language. This, of course, meant sending those who would inherit away to England or the Lowlands. The effect was to alienate them from their own culture. Following a MadDonald rebellion in 1616, a further education act made the policy of cultural genocide against the Celtic world quite explicit. [King] James decreed that traditional leaders were to send all children, not just the first-born, away to English-language schools at the tender age of nine. Nobody in the Isles unable to speak, read and write in English was to be allowed to inherit property or to tenant Crown Lands. The Act required that

… the true [Protestant] religion be advanced and established in all parts of this kingdom, and that all his Majesty’s subjects, especially the youth, be exercised and trained up in civility, godliness, knowledge and learning, that the vulgar English tongue be universally planted, and the Irish [i.e. Gaelic] language, which is one of the chief and principal causes of the continuance of barbarity and incivility among the inhabitants of the Isles and the Highlands, may be abolished and removed … [thus] in every parish … a school shall be established.

[…]

The process of modernisation of the Scottish Highlands rolled on relentlessly for three hundred years. Finally, in 1872, it reached a symbolic zenith with the passing of the national Education Act. This made a de-Gaelicised education compulsory for all children. The ‘Scots Enlightenment’ ideas of [Adam] Smith and a few other elite thinkers were now canonised and taught as our mainstream Protestant heritage. Religious instruction and collective daily acts of worship were made compulsory in schools. Corporal punishment — which had had little place in traditional ‘ceilidh-house’ education — became routine, continuing in state schools right through into the 1980s, when it was abolished under pressure from European human-rights legislation.

[…]

‘Do you see that school?’ repeats Torcuil MacRath […] Torcuil had been a pupil in that school between the two world wars. He was left-handed. To force him into the uniformity of using his right hand, the teacher would physically tie down the left to the desk with string.

It was commonplace in those days for children to be punished for speaking Gaelic in the playground. In some schools they had to hang a spoon round their neck. This could only be got rid of by informing on some other poor kid, who in turn inherited it. Whoever had the spoon at the end of the day got sent home with a thrashing. […] ‘That school…’ said this man, voice trembling with emotion now; this man who had one faced Hitler’s forces in the Royal Navy and risked his life fighting for freedom. ‘That school … was a concentration camp!’ (pp.56-7)

People in the Gaelic regions of Britain thus have a clear path in their rewilding journey, already being taken up by the language revival which has made significant progress in Scotland, Wales & Ireland where people once again take pride in speaking their ancestral languages. This will maintain a connection for them back to previous ways of living which, while not perfect (references in ‘Cànan nan Gàidheal’ to battlefields, swords and shields, even cattle are all hallmarks of civilisation, thus undermining claims to true indigeneity – the Celts were Iron Age immigrants, if not conquerors, in these lands too after all) still settle them deeply into the body of the land they inhabit, the language providing the means of relating with keen sensitivity to the surrounding animals, plants and elements in a way denied to people speaking an alien language.

What about people in England? Where can they find aspects of their own cultural traditions untainted by the land-hunger and brutality of imperialism? (Not in the national anthem for one thing – ‘rebellious Scots to crush’ and all that!) A further problem, which even MacFarlane might not have envied: what if you’re a second-generation immigrant with parents from two different foreign countries – where then are you supposed to find and maintain your cultural roots? Do you go looking to those different motherlands with the consequent alienation to the place where you were born and raised, or do you abandon all of that and bury the roots of your newly-transplanted self into the soil of the culture you found yourself in? Or do you have to create something new, bastardised from the two approaches to the best of your abilities and then try to hand that down to those who follow you? It’s a tough one… I’ve been mostly playing it by ear when it comes to music, which means I accept songs from all over the world and try to adapt them to my own playing style. Here’s one I might work on, which the Anglarchists should be happy with. It’s written in the Dorset dialect but the melody was written only a few miles away from my current residence:

And some essential reading to finish with from a recent favourite of mine Chris Wood, writing about ‘Music and Loss‘, the ‘English Diaspora’ and what prevents the English from opening the ‘treasure chest’ of their own ancestral traditions. I won’t give a taster quote because it’s all gold – go read it and then listen to everything he’s ever sung!