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!

Tim Bonner: Ignorant, unjust – and bad for the environment

December 8, 2016

***addendum December 13th***

[I’m indebted to Tim Bonner himself for the title of this post, though I will try to avoid using as many logical fallacies as he does…

I mean, just look at the man:

Case closed!]

*****

Ahem… Rewilding has been earning itself some flack lately in the UK, mainly from people representing the interests of farmers and landowners. The latest email bulletin from Rewilding Britain provided a great example, alongside remarkable news that beavers are back in Scotland with the security of legal protection, and that the UK government says it will put £15m towards ‘natural flood management’ which may or may not include support for re-introduced beaver populations in England & Wales too (hint: it should). At the end of the mail they provided a few links to mentions of rewilding in the press, including this article by Tim Bonner, CEO of the Countryside Alliance:

http://www.conservativehome.com/platform/2016/11/tim-bonner-ignorant-unjust-and-bad-for-the-environment-its-time-to-call-a-halt-to-rewilding.html

I couldn’t find any links to a critique of his positions online, and most of the comments under the piece were supportive (probably because you have to register with Conservative Home in order to leave a comment – too much for most people to stomach I’m sure!) or from the same general political outlook. RB have so far limited their response to an ‘of course, we disagree!’ in the original mail, so I thought I’d help out by shooting some of the fish in Bonner’s Barrel…

He begins:

Land ownership, land rights and land use have always been central to progressive politics. From the Russian revolution through to Scottish land reform legislation, the ability of the majority to impose its will on the landowning minority has been irresistible to purveyors of social change.

Progressives are cast as the enemy of an embattled minority group of landowners & farmers. The examples jump immediately to those crazy bolsheviks in Russia and dastardly scots attempting to have a say over who controls their land. Guilt by association – anyone questioning land ownership or attempting reform is dangerous and will probably pave the way for mass confiscations, socialist tyranny and eventual famine and societal collapse. Also ‘landowning minority’ plays the victim and attempts to obscure the truth that this ‘minority’ in fact wields enormous power, well beyond the limited influence exerted by progressives or any other typical member of society. The stats for Britain again: ‘70% of land is still owned by less than 1% of the population’, and ‘nearly half the country is owned by 40,000 land millionaires, or 0.06 per cent of the population’. Things are even worse in Scotland, which

[…] has the most concentrated pattern of private land ownership in the developed world. The degree of concentration is evident from the fact that a mere 432 landowners account for half of all Scotland’s privately owned land– such land (since not much more than 10 per cent of Scotland is in public ownership) accounting, in turn, for the bulk of the country (‘Towards a comprehensive land reform agenda for Scotland‘ (pdf) – via this excellent 2014 article by George Monbiot which also touches on the situation in England)

– a legacy of their centuries-long colonisation by the major power centers in England.

Bonner continues:

The problem, however, is that with, very few exceptions, land use policies enacted to punish land owners and dismantle traditional land use systems have proved disastrous both for the countryside and the populations it feeds.

It’s all about ‘punishment’, you see. Nothing to do with fairness or redistribution to those who have been disenfranchised. ‘Traditional land use systems’ conceals more than it reveals. If something’s ‘traditional’ does that mean it’s beyond reproach and the best possible way of doing things? A wide diversity of well-established systems of peasant farming were eradicated by formal and informal acts of enclosure in England, Scotland and elsewhere, to be replaced first by sheep (‘eaters of men‘ as Thomas More described them) and eventually by the current ‘traditional’ approach to farming, involving heavy use of toxic chemicals, huge petrol-hungry machines and plant and animal domesticates that are so sickly they can only survive by being constantly doused with industrial medicines. All of this saved labour resulted in people being booted off the land and swelling the urban population which Bonner and his ilk then abuse for trying to have a say in the management of land which was basically stolen from them and their forbears. And if he wants to talk about dismantling traditional land use systems it might be worth mentioning at least in passing that agriculture itself was born out of exactly this process – invading the lands of hunter-gatherer peoples, cutting down their forests, draining their wetlands, depleting the wildlife that sustained them to the point where it was no longer viable to live according to their age-old traditions until finally they were forced to adopt the same methods of neolithic subsistence as the encroaching farmers.
Mark Fisher provides a brief snippet from Nicholas Crane’s recent book, The Making of the British Landscape which describes one way this probably happened:

Amid what he describes as a burgeoning biomass around 9,200BC, while the tundra retreated, horses and reindeer disappeared from southern Britain and were replaced by elk, roe deer, red deer, boar and aurochs. He describes the aurochs as quick, agile and a match for hesitant wolves, their favoured habitat being level, low-lying, fertile and open – “woodland would not have supported the rich grassland they depended upon. Congregating in herds on floodplains and valley floors, they were the biggest beasts in Britain”. It was, however, their “preference for valleys and floodplains that put the herds in conflict with humans who used these landscapes for routeways, foraging and hunting missions”. They killed aurochs, which were a source of red meat and raw materials like bone and hide, the bone being used to make scrapers for cleaning hides. Crane sees the eventual demise of the aurochs in Britain as being the most conspicuous casualty of the farming onslaught competing for the low-lying, level, fertile land – “Aurochs took to grazing in surviving tracts of marginal wetland, but eventually they lost this last-chance reserve, too. By around 1350BC, Britain’s largest mammal had been driven to extinction”. (link)

Back to Bonner:

From the millions of Russians who starved in famines caused by Stalin’s collectivisation to the hungry population of Zimbabwe today, ideologically-driven rural policy has failed almost without exception. On a smaller scale, some ‘community buy outs’ funded by the Scottish Government after the first round of its land reform legislation have struggled to become financially sustainable without the external cash injections traditionally provided by ‘lairds’.

More stalinists and another Official Enemy in the form of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, whose ‘fast track’  reform of repossessing land from white farmers (hint: if you live in Africa and you haven’t got black skin you probably got where you are now thanks to a series of atrocities perpetrated on the indigenous population) predictably turned him into persona non grata among western hypocrites who otherwise have no problem dealing with murderous despots around the globe. Mark Curtis writes:

There is little doubt of the urgent need for radical land reform in [Zimbabwe]. By the beginning of the ‘fast track’ programme, around 4,500 mainly white large-scale commercial farmers still held 28 per cent of the total land; at the same time, more than one million black families, or around 6 million people, eked out an existence in overcrowded, arid, ‘communal’ areas, representing around 41 per cent of the land – essentially the land allocated to Africans by the British colonial government. This situation created ‘a significant land hunger in Zimbabwe’, in the words of Human Rights Watch. (Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses, pp.118-9)

But I suppose I should concede that a need for reform doesn’t guarantee success when government officials actually attempt to put this into practice. Usually they have their own interests in mind at the same time. As far as I understand the mid-20th century collectivisation of farms under Stalin, it wasn’t a response to land inequality so much as an attempt to boost productivity and skim off the surpluses so that city-dwellers could devote themselves wholly to the nascent heavy industries. Mugabe apparently handed out many of the confiscated farms to members of his parliamentary cabinet who had little or no experience with farming. As for the situation in Scotland it remains to be seen how things pan out but Bonner’s comparison is clearly absurd and intended to shut down a fair consideration of the attempts they’re making. Besides, is it any wonder that small-time farmers with limited funds and none of the benefits of inherited land and/or property would have difficulty competing from the outset in a cut-throat system that rewards the kind of economies of scale only possible in huge mega-farms? Clearly Bonner doesn’t consider market fundamentalism or doctrines of efficiency, progress, productivity etc as dangerous ideologies which have driven the rural policies of enclosure, mechanisation, depopulation and gigantism leading to the current sorry state of Britain’s landscape in an impressively short space of time.

Shortly after the Hunting Act was passed Peter Bradley, then a Labour MP, wrote one of the most honest explanations of the perverse approach of some on the left to rural policy. Having stated that the ban was “class war” he went on to explain why Labour MPs had pursued it so obsessively: “Labour governments have come and gone and left little impression on the gentry. But a ban on hunting touches them. It threatens their inalienable right to do as they please on their land.”

Only leftists engage in ‘class war’. If they didn’t feel the need to stir up trouble everything would be just fine. Excluding people from the land they once lived on and denying them a right to have a say in how it’s managed does not constitute ‘class war’. I don’t know why he feels the need to include this paragraph. Presumably it’s meant to hurt the Evil Progressive Reformers in some way by exposing some secret dark machinations driving their behaviour? To me Bradley’s comments just seem factually correct. Anyway, why doesn’t it surprise me he’s in favour of sport hunting… An online search for ‘tim bonner rewilding’ brings up this tweet from October 14th:

The more contradictory nonsense I read about ‘rewilding’ the more it’s clear that we hunters have been doing it for years

which surprisingly links to the Rewilding (anarchism) page on Wikipedia. I can’t tell if he’s mentioning this form of rewilding (the one that most speaks to me) merely as an attempt to discredit the landscape rewilding that predominates in the UK or if he actually appreciates an aspect of it. ‘Contradictory nonsense’ and reference to anarchists would indicate more guilt by association (I somehow doubt he views anarchism in a positive light!), but then his attempt at creating a new hashtag (on which, sadly, this appears to be the sole tweet thus far) seems to lay claim to some of the ideas espoused by the ‘anarchist’ or human rewilders. In a response below the tweet he writes that ‘my wildfowling club involved in managed retreat on estuary 20 years ago…no grandstanding just good management’ which leads me to believe it’s the ‘[rewilding] emphasizes regenerative land management techniques employed by hunter-gatherers and horticulturalists, as well as development of the senses and fostering deepening personal relationships with members of other species and the natural world’ part of the wiki page which he relates to. I’d be interested to hear more about the kind of ‘management’ his wildfowling club was involved in, but somehow I doubt rewilders would welcome it unreservedly, mainly because of the sporting aspect. I suspect their view would more closely align with this quote from Roy Haiyupis, a Nuu-Chah-Nulth elder and ‘cultural specialist’ from the northwest coast area of the US (my emph.):

Respect is the very core of our traditions, culture and existence. It is very basic to all we encounter in life. … Respect for nature requires a healthy state of stewardship with a healthy attitude. It is wise to respect nature. Respect the spiritual. … It is not human to waste food. It is inhuman to overexploit. “Protect and Conserve” are key values in respect of nature and natural food sources. Never harm or kill for sport. It is degrading for your honour. … It challenges your integrity and accountability. Nature has that shield or protective barrier [that], once broken, will hit back at you. (quoted in The Earth’s Blanket by Nancy Turner, p.130)

Finally, Bonner gets round to the main thrust of his article:

Which brings me on to the latest attempt at radical land use change: the strange and almost indefinable cult of ‘rewilding’. This ideology seems to have grown out of a number of strands including those who seek to reintroduce flora and fauna, in particular ‘charismatic’ mammals (charismatic megafauna) such as wolves and lynxes to their historic range; those with a John Muir-ian belief that man’s intervention in the environment is always a ‘bad thing’; and those who see a debate about land use as central to counter-acting global warming. To a greater or lesser extent, they all share the belief that their proposals should over-ride the rights of existing landowners and users, and the cultural landscapes they have historically created. To a greater or lesser extent, such proposals also seem to be motivated by political, as well as practical, aims.

‘Cult’ – nice value-neutral terminology there! Without quotes this whole paragraph is just a series of strawmen – what, to Bonner (after his exhaustive research conducted, we must assume, entirely in good faith), the ideology ‘seems’ to be. ‘To a greater or lesser extent’ is a particularly slimy way of making sweeping accusations without taking the responsibility to point out actual examples which might prove his point … to a greater or lesser extent. He may have a point with the ‘John Muir-ian belief that man’s intervention in the environment is always a ‘bad thing’’ – a philosophical aspect to some landscape rewilding which I’ve critiqued on these pages, and which others have started speaking about in wider-reaching publications. But he’s at least aware that some human management practices are celebrated by rewilders, whether we’re talking about indigenous lifeways or the active role for humans in restoration projects like Trees For Life. The whole feeling of optimism infusing the various forms of the movement stems precisely from this belief that it’s actually possible for us humans to ‘intervene’ in a positive way!

As for over-riding the ‘rights of existing landowners and users, and the cultural landscapes they have historically created’, a) you have to ask if they deserve to have these ‘rights’ honoured if it can be shown that their behaviour actually degrades the land for no real benefit and b) it’s flatly wrong to say that rewilders don’t consider this (a little too much in my opinion, but then I’m in a particularly radical wing of the ‘cult’). George Monbiot, one of the leading voices behind landscape rewilding in Britain, wrestles with the problem of how to avoid ‘ethnic cleansing’ of traditional sheep farmers in Wales for a whole chapter of his book Feral before coming to the conclusion that altering the conditions attached to their subsidies would leave them unscathed:

[S]heep farmers in the Welsh hills receive an average of £53,000 a year in subsidies while their average net farm income is £33,000. Keeping livestock, in other words, costs them £20,000 a year, though this gap may diminish if the price of lamb continues to rise. But, under the Common Agricultural Policy, if you want your subsidy payment, one of the few things you are forbidden to do is nothing. The Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition rules specify that if you do not keep the land clear, you forfeit everything. There is no requirement to produce anything; you must merely stop the land from reverting to nature, by either ploughing it, grazing it or simply cutting the resurgent vegetation. The purpose is to prevent the restoration of the ecosystem.

So here, perhaps, is the resolution of the conundrum that caused me such trouble: this rule should be dropped. Those farmers who are in it only for the money would quickly discover that they would earn more by lying on a beach than by chasing sheep over rain-sodden hills. Those who, like Dafydd and Delyth, believe in what they are doing, and have wider aims than just the maximization of profit, would keep farming. Where the life and community associated with raising sheep are highly valued, farming will continue. Where they are not, it will stop. Large areas of land would be rewilded, and the farmers who owned it could receive, as well as their main payments, genuinely green subsidies for the planting, reintroductions and other tasks required to permit a functioning ecosystem to recover. The alternative is the system we have at present: compulsory farming, enforced by the subsidy regime. (pp.180-1)

A lot of effort has also gone into researching the attitudes of farmers and the general public in areas of Europe that have seen reintroductions of some the larger mammals like boar, lynx, wolf and bear, on balance with positive views of the situation even from the farmers. As for political as opposed to practical motivations presumably this is some kind of right wing code meant to denigrate political aspirations and suggest that they’re completely divorced from practical realities. What’s wrong with being motivated by political aims? Isn’t maintaining the status quo, with all its inequity and environmental damage, a deeply political aim as well?

Next Bonner asserts that ‘All that those who recycle the mantra of ‘rewilding’ [including renegade conservatives ‘Bright Blue’ who have raised Bonner’s ire by hosting an article by Rewilding Britain’s Helen Meech] are actually doing is advertising ignorance of the reality of the British countryside’. What is this ‘reality’?

First, it is best to start with some facts. Most important of these is that almost the entirety of the British landscape has been created and maintained in its current form by man. With the tiny exception of a few very high mountain tops, the countryside we love (and the polling is very clear that we really do love it) is man-made and unnatural. Perhaps the best example of an adored created landscape is the Lake District. Man and sheep created that extraordinarily beautiful countryside: they maintain it and, crucially, are also part of it. Millions come to walk on the fells that Wainwright wrote about – or even just to gaze at them – but it is no more a ‘natural’ landscape than a ploughed East Anglian field. Even Wordsworth’s daffodils are an introduced species.

I don’t know why some people take such delight in pointing these things out. Are they trying to depress their listeners, educate them, dispel their childish wonder, or stake a claim to virtue in the beauty still visible in the bones of a ‘working [read: enslaved and dying] landscape’? I feel like responding: “Yes, I know that nearly all of the woodland left in this country has been heavily managed by people for hundreds, even thousands of years. I happen to think that has degraded the ecosystems they supported. But there’s still plenty to value there, irrespective of the demands still being made on it (less since the fossil fuels took off). Furthermore there’s still lies a potential for a return to what once was, no matter how many times this gets frustrated.” Bonner finds the Lake District ‘extraordinarily beautiful’. I found it kindof sad, boggy, quiet (apart from when the wind gets up), rugged. Undeniably beautiful but in a bleak, harsh sort of way. Somewhere to visit, not to stay. The polls say ‘we’ love ‘the countryside’. Fair enough, I can’t argue with that. I know it’s possible to love somebody, however, knowing that not everything is right with them, and feeling the desire to help them heal the damages that have impacted them and to realise their inner potential; to get back to who they really are, or as near to this as is still possible. Aldo Leopold wrote that:

One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise. (link)

That’s my burden, living with eyes just starting to widen to the astonishing litany of abuse – both historical and ongoing – written in the landscape everywhere I turn. That’s also my constant marvel, at how living beings resolutely struggle to re-emerge, live, eat, reproduce and die as well as they can in the few ways that are still possible alongside this culture which seems to be purposefully destroying everything it possibly can.

Second, ‘rewilding’, in the context of the UK, is increasingly used to describe any environmental pipe dream which challenges current land ownership and use. Perhaps because the purity of simply withdrawing all management or human impact on large areas of our crowded island is so obviously impossible, we have now entered a surreal phase of redefinition. A recent select committee inquiry used the phrase ‘managed rewilding’ in its call for evidence, a charity included a session on ‘rewilding a golf course’ in its annual conference and even the primary cheerleader, ‘Rewilding Britain’, describes the restoration of a chalk stream, the ultimate in intensively managed watercourses, as ‘rewilding’.

Again, the primary motive is really to challenge farmers and landowners, presumably just for the sake of it. ‘So obviously impossible’ eh? We’ll have to see about that. He gives no further reasoning, and just goes into a few cherry-picked examples of supposed surreality which will probably evaporate on closer inspection (maybe I’ll look into them later) so this whole paragraph is basically an incoherent splutter. Oh, and the old favourite: reductio ad absurdum.

I would argue that anyone really interested in conserving the countryside and improving our environment should be rejecting this sort of nonsense, and instead engaging with the huge opportunities that post-Brexit rural policy presents. After all, most of the really damaging impacts on our countryside and in particular the uplands in the post-war period – from tax breaks for planting commercial conifer plantations, to subsidy for draining upland bogs, to the idiocy of headage payments which pushed sheep numbers to completely unsustainable levels – have been the direct result of government and EU policy.

Huge opportunities such as those infamously listed to the tune of Jerusalem by the Telegraph in the wake of Brexit? Among the many deranged and dishonest examples of supposed benefits, alongside ‘crooked cucumbers,’ ‘cheap tennis balls,’ ‘no EU human rights laws,’ ‘stop EU child benefits,’ ‘fewer chemicals restriction,’ ‘drop green targets,’ and of course ‘straight bananas’ was this one:

Searches of the Countryside Alliance website yielded no results for these terms:

glyphosate
roundup
monsanto
bayer
neonicotinoids
dessication
soil erosion
herbicide
pesticide
fungicide
enclosure
flooding
climate change
permaculture

(‘Peak oil’ returned 30 results, but these all pointed to pages dealing with how best to cook pheasant and other game meats!) Admittedly this isn’t very ‘exhaustive research’ either, and maybe someone who is a CA member can confirm whether these remarkable blind spots are in fact representative of their broader output and campaigning priorities. I trawled through the ‘related articles’ in their ‘food and farming’ section and found this article on the recent ‘State of Nature‘ report, which, while it accepted the findings that:

Between 1970 and 2013, 56% of species declined, with 40% showing strong or moderate declines […] Of the nearly 8,000 species assessed using modern Red List criteria, 15% are extinct or threatened with extinction from Great Britain’

and admitted that ‘it would appear to be grim reading […] incredibly alarming’, still proceeded to line up with the NFU in denying that farming practices bore significant responsibility for the decline of wildlife, had a go at the RSPB for having the temerity to do so, and asserted that farmers have already ‘begun to [deliver] biodiversity benefits’ and that management for sport hunting also made for good conservation. Perhaps it does, and State of Nature does acknowledge that ‘wildlife-friendly [sic] farming schemes’ have ‘bucked national trends’. Either way there seems to be little understanding or acceptance, much less any call to action, over many key issues related to farming and its ecological and social impacts. Presumably issues such as the damage caused by herbicides, pesticides and other agricultural chemicals, problems related to soil erosion and flooding (according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation ‘if current rates of degradation continue all of the world’s top soil could be gone within 60 years’ – for the UK I heard there were 100 harvests left), weather instability due to climate change, and the impacts of peak oil on the ability to maintain current rates of production as well as on how this is done – none of these appear to register, I would guess because following the implications through would jolt – even invalidate – their own political ideologies. Naomi Klein observed this phenomenon among conservative climate change deniers in the US:

Climate change detonates the ideological scaffolding on which contemporary conservatism rests. There is simply no way to square a belief system that vilifies collective action and venerates total market freedom with a problem that demands collective action on an unprecedented scale and a dramatic reining in of the market forces that created and are deepening the crisis.

At the Heartland conference—where everyone from the Ayn Rand Institute to the Heritage Foundation has a table hawking books and pamphlets—these anxieties are close to the surface. [Joseph Bast, president of the Heartland Institute] is forthcoming about the fact that Heartland’s campaign against climate science grew out of fear about the policies that the science would require. “When we look at this issue, we say, This is a recipe for massive increase in government…. Before we take this step, let’s take another look at the science. So conservative and libertarian groups, I think, stopped and said, Let’s not simply accept this as an article of faith; let’s actually do our own research.” This is a crucial point to understand: it is not opposition to the scientific facts of climate change that drives denialists but rather opposition to the real-world implications of those facts.

What Bast is describing—albeit inadvertently—is a phenomenon receiving a great deal of attention these days from a growing subset of social scientists trying to explain the dramatic shifts in belief about climate change. Researchers with Yale’s Cultural Cognition Project have found that political/cultural worldview explains “individuals’ beliefs about global warming more powerfully than any other individual characteristic.”

Those with strong “egalitarian” and “communitarian” worldviews (marked by an inclination toward collective action and social justice, concern about inequality and suspicion of corporate power) overwhelmingly accept the scientific consensus on climate change. On the other hand, those with strong “hierarchical” and “individualistic” worldviews (marked by opposition to government assistance for the poor and minorities, strong support for industry and a belief that we all get what we deserve) overwhelmingly reject the scientific consensus.

For example, among the segment of the US population that displays the strongest “hierarchical” views, only 11 percent rate climate change as a “high risk,” compared with 69 percent of the segment displaying the strongest “egalitarian” views. Yale law professor Dan Kahan, the lead author on this study, attributes this tight correlation between “worldview” and acceptance of climate science to “cultural cognition.” This refers to the process by which all of us—regardless of political leanings—filter new information in ways designed to protect our “preferred vision of the good society.” As Kahan explained in Nature, “People find it disconcerting to believe that behaviour that they find noble is nevertheless detrimental to society, and behaviour that they find base is beneficial to it. Because accepting such a claim could drive a wedge between them and their peers, they have a strong emotional predisposition to reject it.” In other words, it is always easier to deny reality than to watch your worldview get shattered, a fact that was as true of die-hard Stalinists at the height of the purges as it is of libertarian climate deniers today. (‘Capitalism vs. the Climate‘)

So perhaps Bonner is projecting when he views leftists and progressives as taking any opportunity to stick it to the landed gentry rather than having a genuine interest in protecting, preserving and repairing the damage done to the environment and only coming into conflict with farmers and landowners when they undermine or stand in the way of these efforts. He can’t view their concerns as legitimate without calling into question his own belief system, so he must therefore view them as sworn enemies in a culture war, who he must stand up to in defense of his identity – tightly bound up with his conception of the Countryside; what it Is and how it should be kept that way. (By the way I don’t claim to be immune to this ‘cultural cognition’. For example, raised as a dedicated suburbanite, I’ve never made a living from farming, so there aren’t so many obstacles in the way of my accepting strong critiques of agriculture, and I don’t feel the same visceral aversion to nondomesticated life, especially the predators “out there in the Natural World” just waiting to attack my livelihood at the first available opportunity. I can understand why farmers get worked up over city-dwellers lecturing them on how they should operate, when their own lifestyles have been made possible in the first place by the same industrial-scale methods they now deplore.)

Bonner concludes:

Now is the time to agree what outcomes we want from the countryside, which will include everything from food, to water, to carbon capture, and create a new system of payments which will allow farmers and the rural community to deliver them. Real conservatives should forget the dubious rhetoric of ‘rewilding’, and focus on the delivery of public goods and sustaining the cultural landscape of the British countryside.

Drawing up the battle lines: ‘agree’ what ‘we’ want as ‘real conservatives’ and prepare to fight those who have different ideas. Nice to see carbon capture on the list, I suppose.

I conclude:

Some people are impervious to reason or persuasion either on political or practical levels. It’s probably a waste of time attempting to engage with them, so direct your attention to those who will listen and perhaps lend you their support if you deliver on your promises and prove your worth. Fortunately the young rewilding movement seems to have significant public support on its side, which might help it to deliver some genuinely positive changes for the much-abused communities of wild plants and animals on this island. If these changes also benefit humans so much the better, but we should remember that what’s good for humanity is not necessarily what’s good for agriculture. In fact the correlation most often goes the other way.

There’s another Countryside out there waiting for us to make our alliances with it.

***Epilogue, December 13th***

Derek Yalden’s list of mammals gone extinct in the British Isles over the last 15,000 years:

Common name

Species

Date

Cause

Mammoth Mammuthus primigenius 12500 b.p. Climate
Saiga antelope Saiga tatarica 12400 b.p. Climate
Arctic fox Alopex lagopus 12400 b.p. Climate
Lemming Lemmus lemmus 10500 b.p. Climate
Arctic lemming Dicrostonyx torquatus 10500 b.p. Climate
Narrow-headed vole Microtus gregalis 10500 b.p. Climate
Pika Ochotona pusilla
10000 b.p. Climate
Wild horse Equus ferus 9330 b.p. Climate
Giant elk Megaloceros giganteus 9225 b.p. Climate
Reindeer Rangifer tarandus 8300 b.p. Climate
Wolverine Gulo gulo 8000 b.p. Hunting
Northern vole Microtus oeconomus 3500 b.p. Climate
Elk Alces alces 3400 b.p. Hunting
Aurochs Bos primigenius 3250 b.p. Hunting
Lynx Lynx lynx 200 A.D. Hunting
Brown bear Ursus arctos 500 A.D. Hunting
Beaver Castor fiber 1300 A.D. Hunting
Wild boar Sus scrofa 1500 A.D. Hunting
Wolf Canis lupus 1700 A.D. Hunting
Muskrat Ondatra zibethicus 1935 A.D. Hunting
Coypu Myocastor coypus 1987 A.D. Hunting

Note that all the extinctions caused by ‘hunting’ (except the wolverine, for reasons I’ve not been able to establish) happened after the arrival of neolithic farmers, now thought to have first occurred around 8,000 years ago. Proponents of the Overkill theory will dispute some of the earlier ‘climate’ verdicts, insisting that human hunter-gatherers played a part, but otherwise:

About 300 years ago, the Wolf died out [sic], and in the previous century the Gray Whale. Brown Bear, Elk, Beaver, Aurochs, Wild Boar and Lynx also occurred naturally in Britain until, variously, Bronze Age, Roman or later times (Table 1), but were exterminated by some combination of habitat change (caused by farming) and hunting (either to eliminate pests or to exploit fur, meat and other attributes).

In other words, direct responsibility for the extinction of these mammal species, along with many others in different families and likely many more to come, lies with farmers, whether through deliberate policies of extermination (mainly with the predators), overexploitation for meat or other market commodities, or the indirect (but entirely predictable) effects of clearing forest and wetland habitat in the unchecked spread of arable farmland across the country. And now they insist these creatures have no right to reintroduction because ‘there isn’t enough space’ or ‘we need the land for crops & livestock to feed our growing population’. Well, what gives agriculturalists the right to occupy all that land in the first place, to the detriment of all but a handful of domesticated species (and a few more wild plants and animals adapted to field conditions)? And why is the domesticated human population growing if not because of that very same theft of biomass from the rest of the living community? The changes farmers have made to the British landscape are staggering, here illustrated by Yalden:

If there are about 285 million wild mammals in Britain, there are also about 21 million breeding sheep, 4 million cattle, 0.8 million pigs, 0.75 million horses and of course 38 million adult humans (other pets, such as dogs cats, rats, rabbits and guinea pigs, not out in the countryside, are additional to these). All these are very large mammals by the standards of the British fauna, and their biomasses are considerable. To put them in context, the biomass of all the wild mammals amounts to about 2% of the total, while the domestic ungulates contribute 56% and humans 44% [something doesn’t add up here…]. Put another way, there is now only about 64% of the biomass of wild mammals in the countryside that there used to be when the countryside was covered in woodland 6,000 years ago when Elk, Wild Boar and Aurochs accompanied the Roe and Red Deer […] However, the biomass of all mammals, domestic plus wild plus human, is about 33 times greater than it was then. This is a measure of how enormously we have changed the ecology of the countryside. Grasslands, with or without fertilizer, produce much more growth each year than woodlands, so can support more grazing animals, and in turn they and our other crops support us. (ibid.)

To paraphrase Derrick Jensen, it’s about experience: if your experience is that all your food comes from agriculture then that is the land management practice you will defend because your life depends on it. This explains why hunter-gatherer cultures lived alongside the above species for many thousands of years whereas farmers, when they arrived, killed them off in a relatively short period of time: the former depended on them for food and other essential aspects of existence such as clothing, tools and shelter whereas the latter derived their primary subsistence from other means and therefore did not need to pay close attention to how they treated them, nor keep the same traditions of respect or strong conservation ethic observed in all intact hunter-gatherer cultures, past & present. In fact, as we see throughout history up to the present day, cultural traditions among farmers more often encourage antagonistic, even sociopathic behaviour towards nondomesticated species, as success in farming would most often depend on how well they were able to subdue wild plant and animal populations, aka ‘weeds’ and ‘pests’, which competed with or predated their crops and livestock. (When was the last time you heard a fairy tale depicting wolves in a positive light?) … Hence rewilding efforts will always play second fiddle to the ‘food security’ provided by agriculture – unless we are able to shift our dependencies in some way back onto the same ecosystems and species, via the same process of reintroduction and restoration.

A final thought: don’t farmers have a moral responsibility to repair the damage they and their forebears have done? At least they could stop sabotaging the efforts of those who are trying to do this work – even if they do obtain the majority of their food from agriculture in the meantime.

I’ll send you on your way with this lovely rewild-y prose-poem by Jensen:

The Commute

September 18, 2016

…it’s not enough that we learn a location, a way of being that’s in balance with nature. We must also learn a direction, a way of moving toward wildness. The mythology of our civilization is onto something when it says “we can’t go back.” We (individually and collectively) find it psychologically much easier to drift deeper into comfort and control and predictability, than to open ourselves to rawness and otherness and flux. How often does a child who wears shoes become an adult who goes barefoot? Have you ever seen a “property” owner remove a lock from a door? How many people, as they get older, have fewer possessions and care less whether those possessions get scratched? We try to go “back to nature” by moving to the woods and installing buildings and utilities, but how many people move to the city and take them out?

We have to learn, if not these changes, then thousands of changes like them, and the relentless focus and expansive awareness to drive them. If we don’t, as long as we favor domesticating motion, we’ll get a ratcheting effect that will seduce us from the healthiest society straight through self-absorption into hell. (Ran Prieur, ‘The Animal in the Dark Tower‘)

In pursuit of knowledge,
every day something is added.
In the practice of the Tao,
every day something is dropped. (Tao Te Ching, v.48)

(Advance warning: there will be a lot of photos in this post.)

Last November I moved to a rented room on the edge of a village much closer to where I work. The bike journey went down from 40-45mins each way to more like 15mins, saving me time and effort, allowing me to set my alarm a little later in the morning and to get back a little earlier in the afternoon, arriving a little less exhausted/cold/wet/sweaty than I did before. Other aspects of life here give me a bit more of a headache, eg: distance from shops, scarcity of public transport, dependence on lifts when carrying stuff that’s too heavy for a bike, eg: guitar amp, but for the most part I’ve improved the quality of my day-to-day life, not least because I’m basically out in the countryside now: minimal traffic noise (some passenger jets), no street light outside my window, the occasional tractor, garden machinery, dogs and all the birds coming and going… It’s pretty nice all things considered.

Anyway, the reason for this post was to share another small way I’ve improved my life over the last couple of months. I was prompted by advice to stay off my bike for an extended period in order to give a chronic inflammation I’ve been getting in the perineum/prostate area a proper chance to heal. So instead of cycling up a busy-ish country road to work I’ve been walking a series of footpaths, tracks and backroads along a different route. My commute now takes around 45mins in the morning and more like an hour in the afternoon, the extra time taken up by bits of foraging, interactions with farm animals & wildlife, general dawdling and the fact that I’m usually barefoot (I figured this was a bad idea in the mornings in case I got stuck by a thorn or splinter which I couldn’t easily get out). But I don’t view it as a loss over all, although it did take a surprising amount of self-persuasion to get started:

“Don’t think about it as dead time, extended from your compulsory working hours, but as an intrinsically pleasant activity to fill your time. Something you’re doing through an active choice, not because you’ve been reluctantly forced into it. You claim to love being out in the wilder places, yet spend nearly all of your time in intensively managed gardens and allotments or sitting indoors in human-only spaces, more often than not on your own. You claim to enjoy walking at your own pace and in directions of your choosing, but most of your walking is done in lockstep behind a mower staring at straight lines on the ground and going back and forth, back and forth… You know hardly anything of the land here – start to make a commitment. See the changes through the seasons. See what the wildlife is up to. Slow things down and take time to look at things a little deeper rather than whizzing past, thinking ‘that looks nice but I’ve got somewhere to get to and don’t want to run late’. Gather food & medicine along your way. Spend less time reading media describing faraway places which you’ll never see and more time reading (and participating in!) the news of your actual locality.” etc etc.

So here’s a photo record from a day back in July with comments (references to Patrick Whitefield go to his excellent book How To Read the Landscape, which I highly recommend, especially to UK-based readers). Click to embiggen and scroll through:

It’s started getting dark in the mornings now, so I don’t know how much longer I’m going to keep doing this. Probably for a while still because I’m getting rewarded by sightings of deer now that I’m travelling through their preferred time of day (it’s surprisingly easy to creep up on them, especially when bare feet are keeping the noise levels down – just freeze when they look up at you and wait until they persuade themselves they’re just being paranoid and go back to their browsing. My best so far was around 15m before they barked at me and bounded off into the trees. Magic…) The inflammation hasn’t gone away yet, sadly, so I’ll have to look to other possible remedies for that, but the whole experience has been so enriching thus far I don’t really mind. Would be nice to do the walk on a few frosty mornings in winter, with the light spearing through leafless trees… if there is any light by that point!

What other opportunities do we have to slow things down, go back in time, slip into deeper, infinitely more satisfying modes of being and how can we rearrange our lives to make the space for these things? Closing words from Martin Shaw, who has made inspiring attempts to sink deep into the land he describes as having ‘claimed’ him in Dartmoor: