Chapter Ten from Notes From Nowhere

FIT THE TENTH

I think I digress, because there is too much to say – Let me push off from this hill in my home-built hang glider and look down like Piers Plowman from his Malvern Hills – a fair field full of folk…

Hills were clothed on their heights and slopes with new timber plantations and new dwellings had sprung everywhere – Where there was work there were houses.  Lower slopes and valleys had evolved small fields with high hedges – arable fields, grassland, orchards and many smaller strips reminiscent of today’s allotments.  It was striking, how so many people were evident – stooped in fields or simply walking or cycling for both work and pleasure – or so I surmised.  Small working yards sat here and there in woodland clearings, by the riverside and in clusters close to villages.  Every stretch of open ground close to human activity boasted a wind turbine and I guessed that many riverside structures must have housed mills or turbines of sorts….

Quite often, old farmhouses were surrounded by acolytes of new houses – many timber-framed – others in stone – depending on the terrain.  I wondered if they’d prove the genesis of later villages – or even market towns.

The countryside was not quiet.  In some ways, it seemed noisier than the final, defiant roar of post modernity – with voices, hammering, birdsong, though the background drone of car engines and the distant thunder of holiday flights had gone.  The sky was a revelation – I saw that the familiar cirrus clouds of post modernity had, all along, been the teased-out fleeces of vapour trails.  Here, high pressure days were unbroken blue.  But the loudest change was the return of children’s voices.  After fifty or more years of incarceration, the young had emerged to shout and play.   What better represents the shout of Liberty!  The killing machinery of today had gone.  Large roads were perfect for football games and re-emerging forests provided trees to be climbed and mysteries for adventuring.

What’s more, as my glider drifted from field to wood and onward, I could see the smaller forms of children beside adults at work in fields and industrial yards.  Evidently schooling had become a more catholic concept and true learning, by trial, error and example had become commonplace.  I thought that those children had the means to grow more wise and curious than their parents had been.  Listeners!  We have been schooled to perversity.  Learning and education are very far from the same things.

It was evident that people were learning from their terrains.  Small terraces were re-shaping the contours of hillsides – by the sweat of the brow – so shall we reap.  A landscape once-carved by large machinery in very few hands was being out-grown by nature.  A new landscape shaped by very many hands, holding smaller tools was emerging in its place.  It is no artful metaphor to say that humanity was replacing the corporate machine.  From my hang glider it was plain to see that a single corporate idea was being replaced by the ingenuity and dexterity of many people in many different styles.  Particular experience of particular landscapes produces solutions unique to the particularity!  And the moulding and adaption were everywhere – I can tell you this – they happened at speed.  If you need a job done, then do it thysen’.  One sight that was new to me, and which became familiar, was of someone standing back from a job in hand with evident, but still critical pleasure – the embodiment of trial, error, self-criticism, pride and evolving ingenuity – a very human and paradoxical mixture.

Plainly visible, were the means to a living held by a house; a village; a town.  Fields grew food – not mono-cultured commodities for a stranger’s market.  Different crops were integrated into rotations, which in turn, produced a varied diet.  Pastures were patch-worked amongst arable fields.  Hillsides were ideal for orchards, soft fruit and vineyards.  Dairy cows were evident in today’s arable regions and wheat, barley, oats, beans and peas – staples for drying – had spread across today’s dairy pastures.  As I glided from community to community, it was graphically-illustrated, that all communities, from villages; to cities; to nation states are founded on agriculture.  We settle to grow food, (or fish for it) then the complexity of all the rest can follow – workshops, adapted to resources of their terrains – the trades of joiner, blacksmith, miller, dairyman, baker, tailor, merchant, sailor….

Don’t forget that though we adapt to our terrains and resources, we adapt in time as well as space – seasons naturally – but also (perhaps) to energy generated artificially.  When wind turbines are still the strategically-placed factory must also fall still.  This is no disadvantage if we synchronise to the natural world – in truth to the truth of things!  Much can be done in that factory, if work is saved for windless days – manual assembly, painting, design – or judicious use of battery-stored electricity.  Otherwise, we can holiday – dig the garden – practice the fiddle – go fishing.  Time is not money.

I’m told, the most remarkable thing in the changes brought by the Great Resettlement, was the dramatic increase in leisure time.  It became obvious that much of poor post-modernity’s time had been wasted to earn money to pay for a car to get to work to earn that money.  The post-modern food bill was small but other bills were vast – by far the largest two being the abstract site value of a house (reflected in both rent and purchase price), coupled with the cost of transport.

If we pay for food and also the materials and labour necessary to build and heat a house, then we have pretty much all we need.  Spending can be a fraction of today’s – perhaps a tenth? – Site value has no purpose but the creation of yet another casino to keep punters occupied.  It prevents an honest builder building a house for an honest price.  Working to pay for a car to get to work is a plainly futile waste of life.  Means to a living can be a step from the door.  However, food supply, which is the foundation of all economies, gained worth – It was valued in all senses of the word and people paid its price.

This is not to say that the pattern was universal.  Coming upon a widening river, I turned to see a large city where its estuary contributed to the sea.

Thinking, as I glided above, of a metaphorical economy integrating with its ecology, so I could see river and economy flowing together and out to sea.  Likewise I saw trade returned on the tides.  Shipping was designed for wind and built by human labour from the growth of trees.    Enduring settlements evolve amongst their consequences.  Human biomass (the city) takes from all the flows of biomass and sends tributaries in return.  An ecology without tribute will exchange nothing in return.  Both economy and ecology diminish by a failed transaction.  The city – a congregated mass of humanity must exchange biomass with a corresponding mass of ecology.  The city is a pool in the flow of life.  Tribute runs in from fields and woods – but each species – each individual within a species is another pool accepting and distributing biomass in return.  Send not to know for whom the bell tolls…. It tolls for the flows of biomass to me, through me and away to the regeneration of the whole.  Diminish that whole and the bell tolls for me.

The large biomass of a city must be situated where it can trade within a wide ecology – which is why ancient cities sit on good farming land and by navigable rivers or the sea.  Manufacturing cities have sat inland, besides iron ore and coal seams – their economies widened by radiating canals and railways.  Ecologies contemporary with their construction were ignored by the power of millions of years of fossilised ecology.  Their contemporary economies are now coming to an end by the power of those same, ignored contemporary ecologies.

Once upon a time, great inland towns drew in people cleared from enclosed commons – from starvation into poverty and dependency.  The Great Resettlement called them back – back to search, once more, for the common good.  All was not rosy – the times brought waste-lands – places with no means to a living.  It brought confused migration, but it also brought a common sense of purpose.

Cities which were anciently composed within topographical advantages of soil for crops and water for transport could treat the oil age as the brief invasion of an alien culture.  The processes of evolving history could resume.  Economy and ecology having been torn apart could simply rejoin.  I’m not suggesting that ancient cities are models for ideal management – the opposite – since most have collapsed at some point or other because of their mismanagement.  However, it remains true that city sites were usually well-chosen and also that most cultures, at some stage, will pillage their ecologies and destroy their economies.  Such is human nature.  Such is the historical lesson which we will, one day, forget.  The great re-settlement was at the romantic stage of remembering having abandoned the decadence of post-modern forgetting.

Manufacturing cities which had evolved anachronistically for coal and iron ore, without good soils, or water for transport remained anachronisms.  In shrinking to just the economic size of a balanced ecologic involvement, England’s inland cities fragmented to villages where the suburbs had lain and far from urbane central wastelands – the stuff of post modernity’s dystopian fantasies.  Fortunately Scotland, Wales and Ireland, possessed no such cities.

Of course people migrated towards means to a living.  Were there lines of country-folk violently blocking their way?  To be sure, that was the attitude of the country supper set; those who’d always been NIMBYs; those who’d earlier escaped from work in the cities to the reward of a “nice” village retirement.  But farmers faced fossil-powered fields as derelict as fossil-powered factories in the cities – unfarmed fields drained both purses and souls.  Settlers who could purchase plots of land were eventually welcomed – those who’d pay rental likewise.  Those who’d provide manual labour in exchange for small wages, housing of some kind and an allotment sized garden were doubly-welcomed.

You see, everyone was buying time, while studying how the land lay.

The land lay like this: Nothing had changed to the physical world. But the withdrawal of oil, gas and coal called for a massive cultural change.  Practical people came to understand that it was futile to search for “renewable” replacements for fossil fuels.  Ways of life had to be found which settled within the natural physics of the terrain.  Fossil fuels had been sourced from outside the terrain.

Derelict fields were rapidly colonised by allotment-seekers – providing rental to farmers.   Pretty soon, it was apparent to the most urbanised settler that crops would yield in proportion to what was returned to the soil.  Those allotments and small market gardens faced fewer problems than agriculture as a whole.  Of course, there were plenty of errors in the trials, but many city-dwellers had gardened for pleasure in their previous lives.

Farms had produced food by soluble fertilisers and by removing insects, invertebrates, fungi and bacteria of the soil and non-crop vegetation with pesticides, fungicides and herbicides.  Agriculture was suddenly dependent on the life it had previously destroyed.  As organic farmers know today, fields produce little in the first year of organic conversion and yield increasingly, year on year as soil life returns.  Pests and diseases also reduce as the biomass of a biodiversity returns.  Weeds? – That’s life.  We have to shrug at something and with that charitable shrug we may come to see the once-hidden benefits of those “plants in the wrong place”.  The hoe is, in any case, a pleasurable tool.

Those smaller plots were quickly revived by plentiful supplies of unused manures and foraged compost materials, which the surrounding dereliction supplied.   Such a system could not be sustained into the future, but it provided for transitional times.  Sufficient vegetables could easily be grown in this way, but such a large input of fertility meant the removal of that fertility from neighbouring fields.  It was that sense of common needs from a finite supply, which underlay the necessary ingenuities of distribution, social justice and of law itself, which were to follow.  Grain was in very short supply, but over half of that supply had been fed to pigs and poultry and also to cattle and sheep in post modernity.  As in medieval times, the great resettlement faced a period of mass slaughter, before the winter of its new beginnings.  So meat was both plentiful and cheap and salt meat was ubiquitous.  Salt meat also proved very useful for trade.  Bread was not so plentiful.

That over-supply of meat, which had been grown by fossil-powered, deserted, mono-cultured arable fields, ironically fed the subsequent human re-colonisation of those fields.  So an anachronism – an oil-powered consumerism – enabled the transition towards a better life, which fitted the times.  People escaped from over-production by eating their way out from it as crop yields fell.  Bacon butties were short of bread, but potatoes were relatively plentiful.  Once communities had eaten their own fat they faced a simple truth: from now on they’d receive just what they’d put back in.  Those many millions of years of sequestered photosynthesis had passed into memory.  Now seasons would come and go in inevitable sequence bearing both consequence and unpredictability.

The common good is founded on the provisions of agricultural soil.  So common law is founded on agricultural distribution.  Virtue is in that careful provision.  Vice is by personal removal from the common good.  That very simple understanding binds communities.  Both value and worth are words which transfer easily between ethics and weights and measures.  At the deepest heart of community both are spoken with the same breath.

In the last days of post modernity, the unnatural rending apart of ethics from physics had simultaneously removed the self-worth of those who merely measured and weighed.  That they measured by a wild cult-doctrine of something from nothing; of ideas replacing resources; of economies growing from diminishing supplies, further reduced any sense of a worthwhile moral identity.  So the first days of the great resettlement (as I say repeatedly) provided a great social sigh of relief.  Ordinary laws of physics, combined with an ordinary sense of right and wrong, were the threshold through which people stooped and then emerged upright in their own homes.

There are this many people and this quantity of supply.  The problems of the just distribution of a finite quantity are surely the first principles of both law and economics.  After all, civilisations are emergent properties of an exact acreage of fields.

***

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