Archive for the ‘Trips’ Category

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)

Coming down from the mountain #2

September 6, 2013

The long awaited

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

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

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

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

So what things did I go to?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coming down from the mountain #1

August 28, 2011

So, nearly two months out of the country, forty days of which spent in the Julian Alps of NE Italy, for once surrounded by the beauty of living beings and not having to blinker my sight or otherwise dull my senses to a large portion of the landscape, and coming back to England has felt so strange.

Well, the weird feeling began down in the valley, waiting for the train. So hot, sweaty, stifling in the late afternoon; such a bleak flatness to the land, largely devoid of trees; dust in the air, the noise and hurtling carelessness of roads, the jarring sight of squatting box supermarkets and the glaring bare tarmac of their welcome-mat carparks. And then the sights from the train window: more flatness, rusty-grey blurs of industry, sweltering cornfields, uneasy whitewashed residential areas marked by a shrieking crescendo of train noise as concrete barriers bounce the sound back towards its source, sparing the residents the worst of it (one assumes). Like the whole land is being weighed down by a sickness; a blanketed malarial fever… A young black woman relentlessly talking down the friend or relative of her elderly Italian companion in French as he sits in glum silence, occasionally offering mild resistance but neither agreeing nor disagreeing (perhaps grateful for the company). A nice moment of recognition, pulling out of a station when the thick-necked thirty-somethings in the aisle opposite notice the pigeon I’ve been watching – sat on a platform sign while his buddy pecks at the parasites on the back of his neck and around his blissfully closed eye – and share with the laughing and pointing.

Then Venice itself: the air humid, muggy as always. Perspiring backpackers swirling in stressed-out eddies; smokers, lovers, snackers lining the steps outside the station facing hotels, a bridge, more crowds, architecture, a huge cigarette billboard across the first canal. I don’t have time to wander, so I sit up against the glass wall of the station and make greasy, satisfying sandwiches of mouldy cheese, smelly salami, sliced tomato and oregano, using the side of my shoe as chopping board and table. Then, averting my eyes and satisfied with the filthy, eccentric reality of the portrait I’m presenting, I pluck melodies from the air and from the movement of greedy pigeons; fingers greasing up the fretboard and strings of my mandolin.

Then the sleeper train with the pleasant French/Canadian family (wife/husband and two young girls) and drummer psychologist. Red sun over the Venice lagoon, drying my face in the warm rush of air coming through the one broken window. Chiming in to R.D. Laing’s suggestion that ‘a toxic environment may render us insensible to its toxicity’ and vowing to resist and not succumb to the ‘anaesthetizing noxious sublethal environment’* by keeping my senses alive, no matter how painful it may be to receive their input. Then – immediately provided with the opportunity to do just this – looking the other way with the other men in the couchette as the mother smacks the younger child for her excited fidgeting which repeatedly crumples up her bedding. I wince almost as much at the statement she reiterates: “Tu es vraiment insupportable”, but do nothing to intervene except to smile at the child in such a way as, hopefully, to show at least one person willing to tolerate, even ‘support’ (if not defend) the expression of her fragile personhood. Weird how difficult I find it to screw my attention to the meaning of the words:

Insupportable – the mother finds her child literally ‘unbearable’, like a load that’s so heavy she has to drop it to the ground; coupled with the violence of the ‘you are’ – unrelated to specific behaviour in a specific circumstance, but rather a state of ‘being’ built into her bones – semper et ubique – which she can do nothing about and never escape.

and then feel my own reaction to them. The despair and disgust; the fear and anger still buried in similar memories of violence on my own person which the dominant part of me would rather forget. As with the Lester Luborsky experiment†, I know exactly when to stop listening.

Then the white, middle-class fear of banlieue-black Otherness, ricocheting to an inauthentic desire to ’empathise’ and ‘understand’ in the middle of the night, naked but for underpants, listening to the same wife/mother confront a French youth who was speaking a loud (drunken?) patois in the corridor, the train having halted at a grim, grey inner-city station. He maintained that he couldn’t understand her – was she speaking Italian? She refused to be spoken to in ‘tutois’‡ and stood her ground when dealt further insults. I didn’t feel at all prepared to wade in in defense of the family if things got uglier. Even the scenes I was rehearsing in my head all ended in disaster and/or humiliation. I thought of my uncle who deliberately raised my cousins in both city and country surroundings so that they could navigate both environments without getting screwed over, victimised or killed. It occurred to me, a lifelong suburbanite, that the gift of my upbringing was to get forever caught in the middle, never feeling a sense of true belonging in either of the contrasting situations (though for sure I felt more at home in one of them!)

Then Paris, evercrowded on the metro, eyeing my scruffy reflection and bent backpack posture in passing windows, spending ten minutes staring at a fruit stall before deciding to buy a Spanish melon, lunching with my Grandmother, talking about relatives I’ve never seen, walking a local walk, her remarking on the changes in her lifetime – they never used to let the mauvaises herbes grow on the pavement like they do now – sampling the fruit trees in the park, seeing what grew on the ‘waste’ ground, again saying how remarkable it was for them to leave it like this. (Then, of course, on the return journey seeing a giant lawnmower vehicle noisily sucking up all the plants we’d been admiring. Exasperated laughter.) Later, on the bus to Paris Nord, rushing around myself to follow the suggestion of the woman to my right that I take my bag off my seat and put it in front on the floor where another lady was standing. She moved, interrupting her conversation, but didn’t sit down as I thought the plan was, instead getting off rather huffily at the next stop. Trapped in my own earnest foolishness; my eagerness to ‘be a good boy’; my fear of engendering the slightest disapproval – a pointless pained expression on my face.

And then England. What to say? The first English voices with no balancing lilt of Spanish, French, Italian, Czech, German, Polish (always a multicultural crowd that comes to stay in the mountains) pretty stark and brutal. The depressing notices about taking violence seriously, warnings about flu and terrorism, the pinched faces and brisk manner of the two male customs officials. And then coming through the tunnel, emerging into a sea of grey… I walked through some of this area of Kent and the South-East just over four years ago – sleeping in the hills as the motorways (M’s 25,26,20 and 2) and Eurostar trains rumbled below – and the new grey constructions of motorway, bridge, rail, industrial estate, retail park etc. have always (especially since) left an unsettled, slightly nauseous feeling in the pit of my stomach. Here the land lies bleeding, deeply wounded by these sterile, gleaming operating theatre instruments. But the sickness feels more cancerous; the chemical and deep surgical treatment itself nearly as destructive and life-threatening as the underlying disease; a permanent post-op dullness to the experience.

Then the cold prison atmosphere of St. Pancras station. I start talking back at the tannoy anouncers, collect over £10 in change from the ticket machine because the queue was too long and I only had a £20 note, barrel down the escalator – “S’cuse me: Wide Load coming through!” – and hop on the train, grinning incongruously just before the doors close. The Anaesthetic starts to kick in, localised at first to my eyes which practically glaze over and stop looking outwardly with any kind of curiosity… An odd conversation with a blonde lady in a business suit who wanted to know where I’d been traveling. She expresses her jealousy after my story, then we get on to careers, rent, the importance of doing what you want and of living on your own terms, the dangers of burnout when required to do the thing you’re ‘passionate’ about all the time etc… Her parting shot (which everyone seems to be trying to hammer into me lately): “You need money!” I remain unconvinced, but don’t think to start on explanations of where to find burdock root, how to squat on abandoned property, what to make soap from, how to build shelter from recycled or harvested materials etc &c. Why do I never have the courage of my convictions? I have direct, lived experience of many of these things already! Why do I always defer to the stunted imagination of my peers?

As I get into familiar surroundings I let my legs and feet go into autopilot and eyes descend to the pavement below, the upper bands of vision obscured by the rim of my habitual baseball cap… So yes, this ‘culture shock’, this ‘state of bewilderment and distress experienced by an individual who is suddenly exposed to a new, strange, or foreign social and cultural environment’: the word that comes to mind is Oppressive. I never quite noticed before how oppressively the social and built environment strikes me in England. I re-read Paul Kingsnorth’s excellent ‘Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist’ the other day in the first Dark Mountain book (having read it online here about a year previously) in which he describes a similar experience coming back to the country after a two-month spell in Indonesia:

Now, back home, the world seems changed. A two-month break from my country, my upbringing, my cultural assumptions, a two-month immersion in something far more raw and unmediated, has left me open to seeing this place as it really is. I see the atomisation and the inward focus and the faces of the people in a hurry on the other side of windscreens. I see the streetlights and the asphalt as I had not quite seen them before. What I see most of all are the adverts.

For the first time, I realise the extent and the scope and the impacts of the billboards, the posters, the TV and radio ads. Everywhere an image, a phrase, a demand or a recommendation is screaming for my attention, trying to sell me something, tell me who to be, what to desire and to need. And this is before the internet; before apples and blackberries became indispensable to people who wouldn’t know where to pick the real thing; before the deep, accelerating immersion of people in their technologies, even outdoors, even in the sunshine. Compared to where I have been, this world is so tamed, so mediated and commoditised, that something within it seems to have broken off and been lost beneath the slabs. No one has noticed this, or says so if they have. Something is missing: I can almost see the gap where it used to be. But it is not remarked upon. Nobody says a thing.

The adverts especially got me too, this time round. I felt them as a withering, almost physical assault from which there was no escape except through willed unawareness; through succumbing to the Anaesthetic. Walking down a typical street was like getting slapped in the face a hundred times. I’m finding the sounds from the TV (I’ve mostly managed to avoid the screen since coming back – a state of affairs I’m looking to prolong) exceptionally ugly and distasteful. The news is the worst – I have to shut the door from the next room when it’s on to keep the shrill lies and distortions of fear at bay as much as possible. Maybe things have gotten worse since the riots and the response which the sane people say they’re even more disturbed by. I heard various things about it while away, but felt no compulsion to find out more other than to quietly note what the internet lefties & greenies were saying. There was an Evening Standard by the loo with eyecatching pictures and a provocative headline and I read about a paragraph before putting the paper back, face down, saying: “I don’t want to hear about this from you”. So easy to get sucked into the Unreal. You can get lost for hours before coming back to emerge, blinking into the sunshine.

It was nice to see the changes in my wildly overgrown garden; the apples slowly russeting and weighing down the branches of our baby apple tree. Nice to settle into pruning the big old pear tree – over a hundred years old according to one elderly neighbour; to step out gathering nettle seed, hawthorn berries, yarrow blossom; to look at the hazels, beechnuts, limefruits, acorns swelling and maturing on the trees… You might call it a selective, blinkered vision but witnessing, feeling these things makes me feel good; provides me with the experience of an environment that I want to expand.

Oh, and advice-to-self (thanks H): Remember where you’ve been.

#2 will follow…

——————————–

* – full quote:

We only know whether or not the environment influences us by noticing we are influenced. If we do not notice we are being influenced, we cannot know we are.

We may still infer it. Some E [environment of genetic system] may be of the order that its influence is to render us unaware of its influence, in inverse proportion to its influence, e.g. a toxic environment may render us insensible to its toxicity.

Are we re-creating around us an artificial environment which has a tendency to induce in us an unawareness of its noxious characteristics: an anaesthetizing noxious sublethal environment? (The Facts of Life, p.31)

† – see Derrick Jensen’s interview of David Edwards, ‘Nothing To Lose But Our Illusions‘, from which:

A man by the name of Lester Luborsky used a special camera to track the eye movements of people who were asked to look at a set of pictures, three of which involved sexual images. One, for example, showed a woman’s breast, beyond which could be seen a man reading a newspaper. The results were amazing. Many viewers were able to avoid letting their gaze stray even once to the sexually suggestive parts of the pictures, and later, when asked to describe the content of the pictures, they remembered little or nothing suggestive about them. Some people couldn’t even recall having seen those three pictures at all.

What interests me is that, in order to avoid looking at the objectionable parts of the pictures, those people had to know in some part of their minds what the picture contained so that they could know to avoid it. In other words, when the mind detects something offensive or threatening to our worldview, it somehow deflects our awareness. This avoidance system is incredibly efficient. We know exactly where not to look.

‡ – ‘Tutoiement et vouvoiement‘ (fr) – basically ‘tu’ is the familiar form of ‘you’, whereas ‘vous’ is considered more formal, respectful. Friends and equals ‘tutoi’ eachother, but you would ‘vouvoi’ a superior, a stranger, someone older than you. This came from Roman emperors who introduced the ‘royal we’ of nos, impressing upon others to use the plural vos in reply. English uses just the familiar ‘you’, although oddly enough this used to be the deferential term! Apparently we have the Quakers to thank for this – as a mark of egalitarianism they would refer to everyone in the then-familiar ‘thee’/’thou’ form, but for some reason this lost its subversive sting and became quaint & old-fashioned, even swinging over to the more respectful, polite side when used among the respectable, affluent Quakers. More info at the bottom of this page.

February: Stepping Out

February 22, 2011

Photos from a sunny day walk:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I’ll let you know what I did with the Cuckoo Pint later…

Here’s a picture of me getting my walking legs in last week on a three-day trek along the Greensand Way:

Wish it had lasted longer; felt like I was just about to blossom when it was time to re-enter the grey town and get my spirit crushed once more. Was great to be out & about full-time though, sampling all the new-sprung greens lining the paths and sharing it all with a beautiful woman (who I’ve now been with for a whole year – happy anniversary H!)

Life can be good.

Devon Trip & Beechleaf Gin

May 21, 2010

Last Leg

Back from a short trip to/around Devon. Highlights included:

1) – Hitching down. A few long waits near the start and more dickheads & misanthropes than on previous occasions (one guy pulled over, asked if I was homeless, asked if I needed work, offered to pay me £10/day to ‘push around a wheelbarrow’, and drove off when I declined). Otherwise some really nice, friendly people: old and young; ex-hitchers and first-timers; male and female; hatchbacks, 4x4s, rundown trucks and even a beamer (! – almost never happens); retired ex-military, off-duty policeman, builder, electrical engineer, council worker, hippie type, housewife; Surrey to Devon in around nine hours

2) – Meeting Robin Harford and going on one of his ‘Wild Food Foraging Courses‘ – super-informative, mixing history, politics, recipes, personal stories, nutritional info and the all-important hands-on taste tests. I met hemlock for the first time (taller than I’d imagined, not as bad-smelling as the books had me believing, kindof a thrill knowing here was a plant that could kill me – R had a charming story about an American family who got paralysed for several days in the woods from eating a not-quite-lethal dose: the conscious waiting to see if you’ll die or pull out of it and whether some animal is going to come and “eat my face” in the meantime…), picked & ate my first raw stinging nettle (super-tasty & nutritious: treat it gently but firmly, pick a young, light-green top off at the stem, roll it all up into a ball inside one of the leaves and squash all the sting out of it between thumbs and forefingers, pop in mouth – prepare to get stung while practicing!) and saw the famed coast-hugging colonies of Alexanders, left by the Romans back in the day. Felt rather overstuffed at the end of two hours, but plenty of (wild) food for (wild) thought to take away with me and work on back home.

It was nice to meet somebody who has read a lot of the same books as me & synchs up to my way of seeing. Good talks about Alice Miller, Derrick Jensen and others… R and his partner had even tried to raise their daughter on continuum concept principles (failing largely because of a lack of community support), and there was a nice moment when he asked if I’d read Lierre Keith’s The Vegetarian Myth, and I replied that yes, I had a copy in my bag right there & then! So thanks to Robin and also to Chris who very kindly let me camp out on his land for a couple of nights.

Sleeping arrangements

Morning view

3) – Driving around, and later wildcamping with H on Dartmoor.

4) – Coastwalking from Beer to Lyme Regis, with an especially nice stretch along the ‘Undercliff‘ which has reverted to woodland over a couple of centuries after a big landslip in 1839 eventually rendered the land unsuitable for other, more ‘productive’ uses:

One of the most spectacular landslips occurred on 24 December 1839, 3 miles (4.8 km) west along the coast in Devon belonging to Bindon Manor and known as “The Dowlands Landslip”. About 45 acres (18 ha) of fields growing wheat and turnips were dislodged when a great chasm was formed more than 300 feet (91 m) across, 160 feet (49 m) deep and 0.75 miles (1.21 km) long. The crops remained intact on the top of what became known as “Goat Island” among the newly formed gullies. On 3 February 1840, five weeks later, there was a second landslip nearby but much smaller than the former. This strange phenomenon attracted many visitors, and the canny farmers charged sixpence for entrance and held a grand reaping party when the wheat ripened. (link)

The whole area was positively buzzing with life, providing a tantalising glimpse of what this country could look like in the (hopefully) none-too distant future.

Ruin

(The way I saw it there, and the way I’m seeing it more often everywhere I go: we humans are going to have to prove that we’re worth more than our weight in manure in helping the land get where it wants to go – if we want any chance of playing a part in that future, that is.)

5) – Meeting up and staying with C & M, old neighbours of ours who moved to a rural village near Honiton about ten years ago. Great to catch up and exchange shower & bed for tarp & sleeping bag for a couple of nights. More thanks!

6) – A day and a night in the New Forest, ‘wild’ ponies galloping through the campsite. Perhaps it was the wrong area, but the whole place felt ‘wild’ in a pretty sterile, managed, aesthetic-appeal-y kind of way. Great meals though, mixing in wild greens into ‘omni-mush’ mixes of, variously:  rice, pasta, quinoa, couscous, dried veg, chicken curry, chili con carne … etc. Plus hearty helpings of hot porridge in the mornings, all over my little gas stove.

Anyway, I came back more-or-less in time to take the young beech leaves out of the gin they’d been soaking in for a little over a fortnight:

Soaking

(Actually I left them in a cupboard, but outside looks more impressive. This (above) was the before shot; after the leaves had blanched a little and were going brown near the surface.) I got the idea from Food For Free where Richard Mabey has a recipe for ‘Beech Leaf Noyau’. After the soak, squeeze the lime-green gin infusion out of the leaves and simply mix with a cooled syrup (I followed Pamela Michael’s instructions in Edible Wild Plants And Herbs, where she halves Mabey’s amount of sugar to 225g, boiled for a few minutes in 125ml water – this for 75cl of gin) and add a few healthy glugs of white rum (Mabey suggests brandy but Michael opts for rum because she’s ‘afraid to alter the ethereal colour’). Bottle & serve. It goes down a treat – a smooth spring flavour and deceptively strong.

Squeeze

Finished

Possibly I’ve waited too long to post this and you won’t be able to try it until next year (I don’t know how it might turn out now that the leaves have toughened and darkened) – sorry! I’ll make up for it by telling you in advance that you can eat the nuts too, when they start to drop in the Autumn. I had good times in September/October laying my jacket under low-hanging branches, shaking out the pointy brown kernels and continuing my walk with a pocketful of them, which often wouldn’t last the journey home. You just need good thumbnails to open them and snack away! Handy tip: the ones that flatten when you pinch them are empty. Look, they’re starting to form already:

Baby beechnuts

So yes, the Beech tree. I think it’s my current favourite. Check out this beauty soaking up all the sunshine at the top of my road:

Beech beauty