Posts Tagged ‘disease’

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)

‘Ineffective and inhumane’ – or in denial?

March 3, 2014

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

badger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***Update, March 16th***

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

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

and Chris Packham:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

War on badgers; war on wildness

October 15, 2012

Badger and cow
(source)

For the record: I oppose DEFRA’s proposed badger cull, which I recently read ‘could wipe out 100,000 badgers, a third of the national population’. I’ve signed the petition calling for it to be stopped, and apparently this now has enough signatures (over 100,000) to force a parliamentary debate on the subject. However, I don’t accept the unspoken premise underlying even much of the criticism that has been voiced: namely that if it can be proved that the continued, relatively undisturbed existence of wild badger populations poses any kind of threat to the vast population of domesticated cattle in this country then a cull is justified. This agrarian fundamentalist* logic is the main driver behind the current Holocene Extinction in which between 150-200 species are now being driven extinct every day through the actions of farming cultures destroying diverse wild communities in order to impose a chosen few domesticated plant and animal species upon the land – with the purpose of channeling as much of the planet’s biological wealth into the growth of the human population as possible and/or enslaving it to the economic machinations of the vampiric global mega-civilisation. Farmers and capitalists see economic value in cows. They see none in badgers, just like they saw none in wolves, bears, wild boar or aurochs (each driven extinct in Britain over recent centuries and millennia as a consequence of active policies of extermination and secondary effects of other activities such as destruction of habitat, most often related to agriculture) – therefore, on the slightest pretext and with the flimsiest of justifications, they have to go. Witness the insanity with which this topic is debated on national TV, hosted by a household-name naturalist:

Can you hear the sublimated hatred of all things wild – all things living according to an independent will; all things damaging to our religion of total control; all things reminding us of that which we fought (and continue to fight) so hard to put down in ourselves – the coldhearted militaristic language (‘take them out’), the tight grip of irrational fear (those ‘reservoirs’ of disease), the refusal to countenance reality and plough on regardless (‘No, I’m afraid culling will have to take place.’)? Do you see these things as clearly as I do? Do you find them as disturbing?

A while ago I read this article on the badgerland website, talking about the supposed threat posed by badgers to domesticated cattle. This passage in particular made sense to me, supporting Brian May’s contention in the above footage:

Some respectable scientists [citation needed], believe that cattle must meet several conditions before they can catch TB. The argument goes that rather than getting TB immediately they are first exposed to the TB bacteria, the cattle must have most of the following conditions: climate history, certain vitamin deficiencies, compromised immune system, intensive living conditions, high-stress lifestyle, lack of natural immunity to infection and disease, and multiple-exposure to the TB bacteria in a short space of time. In other words, cattle which are raised in natural field-based conditions, with minimum use of anti-biotics and other drugs, low-stress organics lifestyle are much less likely to succumb to TB infection. In organic terms, the higher incidence TB in cattle in the south-west of England is more likely to be due to more intensive cattle-rearing and animal husbandry, than the presence or otherwise of TB-infected badgers.

Another aspect is that TB can be passed from one individual to another by contact with infected breaths, coughs or sneezes, or infected urine or faeces. A very good place for badgers to catch earthworms and dung beetles, is in cow-pats. Perhaps, the argument goes, it is the cows who have TB, who pass it to badgers when the badgers snuffle through cow-pats looking for worms and beetles.

I bet this is the way it works in most, if not all, instances where wild creatures get the blame for the problems plaguing domesticates. I think that, despite what we hear all the time about ‘weeds’, ‘vermin’ and other undesirable interlopers in the grand schemes of human cultivation†, diseases, parasites and other pathological conditions are actually far less prevalent among robust & resilient wild individuals than among the sheltered, dependent, inbred and highly concentrated populations of domesticated plants and animals. As appears to be the case with endemic Bovine TB, the trouble only comes when the conditions have been created for it through the aforementioned hoarding of biological wealth. The disease manifests as ever more forceful attempts at wealth redistribution.

I’ve only seen badgers on a couple of occasions, but that was enough to utterly endear me to their character. I think going after them in this crass, viciously stupid manner (or allowing others to do so when we might have prevented them) can only serve to alienate ourselves further from the wild world at a time when we desperately need to start learning the lessons it has to offer. If we wish to someday beg a home in the spontaneous ecology of this country – ie: woodland – then we will need to apprentice ourselves to those who know how, having done so for many thousands, if not millions of years through an unbroken ancestral lineage. How likely are we to find willing teachers among those whose last contact with somebody who looked like us was through the sight of a gun?

Oh, I forgot to say: I support those engaging in direct action against any attempted badger culls.

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* – hat-tip: Urban Scout

† – you could even apply this to the cultivation of human cultures: as we touched on before, think of all the diseases attributed to ‘inferior’, ‘mongrel’ groups of people such as Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and any strange immigrant culture. How often has this prejudice been used as a justification for campaigns of persecution, even genocide?