I remember once upon a time, in Nowhere, walking the headland of a barley field at dusk. Two Owls conversed from adjoining woods accompanied by the day’s last blackbird song. Ahead, was the evening star and below, the first lights of a village. Such a scene is perennial as agricultural settlements are. I remember thinking how all agricultures are more or less the same – dependent on the same laws of use and return and orchestrated by the same diurnal and seasonal rhythms. The perennial is dependent on a perennially-integrated behaviour – which may go onward the same though dynasties pass. I knew the phase of the moon and just where she’d rise – Hesperus entreats thy light, Goddess, excellently bright.
Sometimes we fall into moments when moral understanding chimes perfectly with what appears to be a macrocosmic replica of inner peace. The sky gathers up the day at dusk and re-shapes its unpredictable mass into a perfect hemisphere round Everyman’s eyes.
Everyman is a role anyone can fulfil. The ordinary may seem extra-ordinary to those who’ve pursued a pre-conceived advancement. The pre-conceived can hold no surprises, but those of failure and disappointment. Meanwhile, ordinary soil – ordinary things that are though dynasties pass, often lie unconsidered by a merely social imagination. Yet ordinary things and ordinary human nature are the foundations of all societies.
The vanity of the world – a phrase, whispered in every culture, since agricultures began. When the scales fell from our eyes – so the great religions and philosophies arose. Well, power of the ordinary rose as a common vision before the eyes of the Great Resettlement and a sigh of ordinary relief deflated the fantastic aspirations of consumer culture.
The ordinary source-books of physics and of nature gave humanity back her nature. Religions and philosophies remained unshaken. The structures of political power and of the law remained largely unchanged. The change was from dependency on the provided oil-tools of power to a delighted and sudden understanding of self-reliance. As I’ve said, the accumulation of skill is by precisely the methods of children at play.
So nation states remained and occasionally squabbled a bit, as you’d expect and what’s more – the shallow-minded still rose to positions of power – but they had power over states and little over methods. However, the powers which had held oil tools (and pocket politicians) diminished to nothing. Cargill, Monsanto, the chemical and pharmaceutical giants, the super market chains and so on faded with a few whimpers – Of course corporations were only ever abstractions made palpable by stocks and shares.
So in spite of inherited, religious and cultural differences the newly-discovered and universal world of methods stimulated an international conversation.
Something like a barley field at dusk could be seen by everyman anywhere – different climates and terrains – different crops – but the same integration of economy into ecology. What’s more, though problems were specific with specific solutions, the human nature of settlement was universal: – of harvest, distribution, storage, the trading of scarcity and surplus, energy needs and the passing on of commons of biomass, fertility, water and so on to the staple fields of the future.
Staple fields are the fulcrum on which cultures rock back and forth – they bear the cradle which holds the child, who’ll plant the acorn to grow the tree, to be felled for coffin timbers to lay the future we speculate, peacefully – on husbandries of common dreams.
Staple fields, well-managed, release labour for trade and dynasties of trades. They grow villages, towns and occasionally, great cities. Commons of soil are the mothers of all commons, because all commons: roads, market squares, – even justice herself (who maintains the common realm) are dependent on the laws of soil.
I have written an unread little book called The Commons of Soil, which emerged from Ivan Illich and his friends’ still more succinct, Declaration on Soil.
I cannot do better than recite the Declaration here in full.
DECLARATION ON SOIL
The ecological discourse about planet earth, global hunger, threats to life, urges us to look down at the soil, humbly, as philosophers. We stand on soil, not on earth. From soil we come, and to the soil we bequeath our excrements and remains. And soil – its cultivation and our bondage to it – is remarkably absent from those things clarified by philosophy in our western tradition.
As philosophers, we search below our feet because our generation has lost its grounding in both soil and virtue. By virtue, we mean that shape, order and direction of action informed by tradition,
bounded by place, and qualified by choices made within the habitual reach of the actor; we mean practice mutually recognized as being good within a shared local culture that enhances the memories of a place.
We note that such virtue is traditionally found in labor, craft, dwelling and suffering supported, not by an abstract earth, environment or energy system, but by the particular soil these very actions have enriched with their traces.
Yet, in spite of this ultimate bond between soil and being, soil and the good, philosophy has not brought forth the concepts that would allow us to relate virtue to common soil, something vastly different from managing behavior on a shared planet.
We were torn from the bonds to soil – the connections that limited action, making practical virtue possible – when modernization insulated us from plain dirt, from toil, flesh, soil and grave. The
economy into which we have been absorbed – some, willy-nilly, some at great cost – transforms people into interchangeable morsels of population, ruled by the laws of scarcity.
Commons and homes are barely imaginable to persons hooked on public utilities and garaged in furnished cubicles. Bread is a mere foodstuff, if not calories or roughage. To speak of friendship,
religion and joint suffering as a style of conviviality – after the soil has been poisoned and cemented over – appears like academic dreaming to people randomly scattered in vehicles, offices, prisons and hotels.
As philosophers, we emphasize the duty to speak about soil. For Plato, Aristotle and Galen it could be taken for granted; not so today. Soil on which culture can grow and corn be cultivated is lost
from view when it is defined as a complex subsystem, sector, resource, problem or “farm” – as agricultural science tends to do.
As philosophers, we offer resistance to those ecological experts who preach respect for science, but foster neglect for historical tradition, local flair and the earthy virtue, self-limitation.
Sadly, but without nostalgia, we acknowledge the pastness of the past. With diffidence, then, we attempt to share what we see: some results of the earth’s having lost its soil. And we are irked by the
neglect for soil in the discourse carried on among boardroom ecologists. But we are also critical of many among well-meaning romantics, Luddites and mystics who exalt soil, making it the matrix, not of virtue, but of life. Therefore, we issue a call for a philosophy of soil: a clear, disciplined analysis of that
experience and memory of soil without which neither virtue nor some new kind of subsistence can be.
(A joint statement, drafted in Hebenshausen, Germany, December 6th, 1990, in collaboration with
Sigmar Groeneveld, Lee Hoinacki and other friends. (of Ivan Illich))
As Ivan Illich points out, soil is the well spring of cultures (alongside the sea). It is the primary respondent to cultural behaviours. It can be enriched or impoverished by our traces. It swells or diminishes the common good in response to our husbandries. It is the fulcrum of virtue. The rule of return which maintains both soil and the common good is replicated in both social behaviours and the mathematical balances we imagine in music, the composition of images and the rhythm of sentences. So we find the balance of virtue intrinsically by an inherited grammar of understanding and extrinsically by the errors and successes of our trials. When our ancestors abandoned migration with the seasons, the first settlements sought out their soils. Slash and burn would have provided for an ephemeral settlement – good enough for some. But virtuous action, which passed on an enduring common good, found its endorsement in the provisions of ancestral and anciently-maintained soil.
Similarly, when the great resettlement fell from the super market garden in which all was provided, it fell onto soil – onto better and worse behaviours and the consequently fluctuating provision of the common good. Labour for the common good is the source book for law – for definition of commonly-understood virtue – all provision is from sea and soil. Gardening and farming are the genesis of all settled cultures – releasing labour for trade and the trades.
In the resettlement, the role of soil husbandry was regarded as far more than labour. It self-evidently replaced long-fossilised life with contemporary life. Yet, it was simultaneously conceived as a measure of the virtue of the ordinary. Anyone could settle with a sigh of relief into the ordinary labours of ordinary soil. Virgil put his thoughts in the mouths of shepherds and goatherds. The poets of resettlement put them in the groves, orchards, fields and gardens of ordinary culture. The greatest cities on Earth survive only by fields and gardens.
The greatest works of poets, painters and musicians have never expressed the extra-ordinary; the brilliant. That has been the art of the ephemeral social climber. Great works abandon the ego to discover what is common to us all. The deeper we go, the more we are the same. Well, the ordinary soils of settlement proved fertile ground for the arts. In extra-ordinary times the ordinary is a comfort. When we know little, it can be a large revelation. Consumer culture knew so little of the world beyond its doors that ordinary discovery became a catalytic delight. Delight could illuminate both work and leisure.
The green revolutionary farmer has made no decisions of her own, but has been pushed and pulled on corporate/government strings. “Fertiliser” has come from chemical companies with instructions for use. Machinery has been provided likewise. Knowledge of soils and species has been negated by corporate instruction on the sides of pesticide, fungicide and herbicide drums. “Innovation” has been by reading the latest brochures from machinery manufacturers, seed companies, pharmaceutical and chemical companies – and then by buying their products. Post modern farming has been the most extreme example of an utterly-dependent consumerism. “Progress” has meant acceptance of the provisions of the cargo cult. The future will wash still more “advancement” on its tide – without a contributory thought from the consumer/farmer. Occasionally, government subsidies have pushed a token field towards a prescription for “protecting the environment”. Usually such prescriptions have been designed to placate “environmental lobbies” – without knowledge or care for soil, water, or a diversity and mass of species. They replicate picture-postcard “scenery” – theatrical backdrops to the residences of the “country supper” classes.
To return to my narrative – Green revolutionary farmers were suddenly marooned in their fields without fuel, fertilisers or the accustomed napalm to zap encroaching nature – sometimes “smartly” between its many eyes.
But cultural memory is deep and practical people will turn to make the best of things. In doing so, many became deeply-engaged with the problems of growing food without artificial inputs. Disengagement from the cargo cult proved a surprising pleasure. Farmers have farming neighbours and mutual trials and errors gave a further social engagement. Curiosity and ingenuity are more pleasurable than dependency. People in the same boat often pull together.
How did landscapes change? Were farmyards grave-yards for machinery? Well, many farmyards became so, but others were turned to manufacturing new and smaller machines. There was no shortage of steel for re-use, or of large, redundant farm buildings for workshops. The landscape changed incrementally. Hedges were uncut – neglected it seemed – but the benefits were soon apparent – at first as shelter to manual labour – then as today’s organic farmers will know, as habitat for the diversity and sheer mass of species which create the balanced whole. Agriculture always disrupts that whole, but farmers soon witnessed that, (for instance) cereal crops could be aphid-free (or free enough) because of something approaching that balance.
The landscape of Northern Europe is man-made – or perhaps man-distorted. The new settlement was no exception. But the new settlement had a new purpose – not unique to history, but certainly, to recent history – It had decided to settle amongst the qualities of the terrain, rather than to tame them. Nemesis had left a bruised and diffident sensibility after the hubris of oil. As I’ve said, people were bruised, self-doubting, but also relieved by a sense of the ordinary – ordinary laws of physics and of life, in which each ordinary part became essential to the whole. Banks had collapsed, shares in the “great corporations” were valueless, accustomed technologies lay useless, but the ordinary remained.
How can a folk movement “decide”? Well, fashion is a powerful thing. I speculate that many social species possess it. How else could a flock or herd move in unison at a threat only a few of their number could have perceived?
Anyway, people moved, one by one, in an increasingly-contagious unison towards what had remained – which was EVERYTHING. Only the fantasies of consumerism had gone – debt-created money; travelling without travel; sky-high wages; economic growth from finite supplies; the measurement of well-being by adding the spending of diminishing assets….. All those fantasies reinforced the self-worth gained from ordinary skills. Of course the power behind the fantasy had gone, because coal, gas and oil were left sequestered in their strata. The technology which had turned the last decadent wheels of post-modernity was not new. It was for the most part thousands of years old. Rams, pumps and screws had been adapted to create internal combustion and steam engines – The massive powers of recent cultures have not been by modern technology but by what powered the technology – the powers of coal and oil. A single year of that modernity may have used several million years of fossilised photo synthesis. It was by a miracle of chance that ordinary humanity came to see that the ordinary held her only chances of survival – to live season by season as it passed in sequence – carrying ripples of consequence.
So modernity remained. Technologies remained. But coal, oil, gas and worse – post-modern attempts to replace them with living biomass entered the documents of uncomfortable history.
Information technology was the marvellous new tool, for which post-modernity can be justly proud. Libraries have not powered civilisations and so neither can the internet. But libraries are convivial parts of the social and ancestral bonding of civilisations. Information technology and information technologists became conduits for the conviviality of the Great Resettlement.
With regards to the loss of yearly supplies of millions of year’s worth of photo synthesis – what “technologies” were also lost? – Principally overland transport. How did people adapt? – Principally by changing ways of life so that transport was unnecessary. If one’s house is a short walk from one’s workplace and likewise from shops, pubs, concert halls… ‘nuf said. Secondly, by (once again) following ordinary laws of physics – sea-going sailing vessels for instance.