THE GOOD ORDINARY WINE for Joshua Msika

I see one of the greatest follies of these times in the power of architects and the disempowerment of builders – what I call status enclosure. That enclosure acts like land enclosure by the extraction of rent without returning an economic/social contribution. It also severs the connection between tools and their effects. For instance, a farmer buys (with her own money) pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, fertilisers and seeds as an integrated architectural package. She reads instruction (from the corporate architect) on the sides of the drums and sacks. She makes no attempt to understand what’s in the drums and sacks. She is told by the architect that in applying that system she’s become the “cutting edge of the industry”, I’m cutting edge, says the proud farmer – who has ceased to be a farmer and has become both the funder of and also the tool of a distant and careless architect.
Meanwhile, the truth of an agriculture’s dependent integration with ecological cycles, becomes lost. The connection is direct – between the application of a tool and natural reactions to it. Larger society is dependent on the sensual hand, heart, perception, ingenuity and loyalty of the farmer – but fields have been abandoned by the senses of people and occupied by the senseless (actually without senses) architectural tools of corporate monopoly.
There is a danger here of a battle between good and bad architects, in which we must naturally support the good. Naturally we cheer the good, but a good ecological design remains a senseless design. The presence of the (middle class) architect and a lack of the (working, peasant, yeoman – your choosing class) farmer remains the central problem.
Now, if we remove the architect from her enclosure and from her class system and replace her in a just and properly functioning society, she may have an equally (egalitarian) proper function. That function may be within either the scepticism of science, or the morals of philosophy – she can move between both at differing times. Also, our farmer may be a curious reader of the latest contributions to both science and philosophy and those contributions may broaden her facility to understand nature’s reaction to her own tools. If, because of that insight she adjusts her techniques, it remains a farmer’s, not an architect’s adjustment. All the contributions to a culture – musical, poetic, literary, philosophical, scientific – enrich it and also enrich it beyond the coercions of power. They add to commons of bequeathed humanity – also beyond the manipulation of power. That addition is the finest addition and it is to those commons that I appeal, to throw off the architects of power and to re-instate the arts of builders. In short, I appeal to the memory of ancestors and to those who’d have descendants. Today’s architecture is the briefest of perversities – riding the back of invading and fossil-fuelled monopoly.
Tomorrow, shrugging off enclosure, the architect and the farmer may converse happily on the common, but each with a clearly separated role – the farmer in the field – the architect on the page. On Winter nights, the farmer will love to turn those pages. On Summer days, the architect may wander, entranced – breast-high, among scents and sounds of (as days pass) green to golden fields of corn.
***
What is ordinary is marvellous – ordinary sights, scents, tastes, sounds, breezes, days, seasons – complex beyond unravelling, but knit into culture like good ordinary wine…
Ordinary skill is the same – too complex to unravel but similarly knit into marvels of sea and soil.
Ordinary ways of life are now overlain and (for Europeans) nearly totaly abandoned by invading and extraordinary architectures impossible without fossil fuels – ring roads, retail/industrial parks, massive machinery, aviation, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, matricides…
I propose that most would lean back into those abandoned lives with a sigh – like a nice cup of tea and one’s favourite chair. We left it, as Marie Celeste for a new era – an architect’s vision, to which we contributed no part. To be sure, we’d left an ordinary mass of ordinary human folly, injustice… – find a wrong and it would be there. But since we had our trades – within those trades and with new knowledge contemporary to changed times, we could… dream on you say.
Nor will I engage in discussing merits of historical periods – follies of kings, bishops and factory gates – merits of trades, guilds and common fields… – as you’d expect.
Mine is a good ordinary vision of good ordinary wine. It is palpable in the elegance of those parish churches – the joy of mosques, temples, cathedrals – too complex an elegance for the pen of architect. The power behind the cathedral is a flaw – but consider this – that flaw is an enclosure – rather like the architect’s enclosure. It is not a flaw in the jewel. That musical eruption – Bach, Haydn, Mozart, even Beethoven was patronised by corrupt, self-serving powers, but that is no flaw in the jewel. Shakespeare politically prudent – surviving two bloody courts – bequeathed us jewels. Chaucer, the customs official… The border ballads – Thomas the Rhymer sung from folk memory amongst violent (or fearful) border reevers… sung like good ordinary wine.
Today, enclosure is pretty much complete. In truth, it completes the end of civilisation. The evidence is absolute – climate change, fast-depleting soil and utterly-mined resources. There is no one in charge to notice. Of course, there remain a few self-determined proper shops and trade’s people – just as there are a few independent minded farmers, but they are tiny islands in a vast sea. Enclosure (the tide of that sea) is the means to private property and rent – which lie outside social commons and apart from laws of physics, economics and nature. The last public services (they are commons) will soon be enclosed. Most already are so. Within their property, owners behave as they choose, without commons of restraint. They have no eyes, or ears. Consumer signals? No. Demanded and accepted consumer right within monopoly supply, gives a monopoly credence, but does not change it.
We can’t tell how the powers will behave as we reclaim commons, pick up our tools and attempt to live properly and ordinarily with each other. We do know that we follow an ordinary, and very well-trodden, course of history. Governments, kings and squires have forever manipulated, but skilled and ingenious house-holders and trades people have similarly forever (until very, very recently) managed the economy.
Where that pattern was interrupted, or weakened has been by land and resource enclosures. For instance, catastrophic land enclosure and the sack of monastic social systems at the Reformation dispossessed the skills of whole communities, which sought refuge where they could – in swelling cities, prostitution and other degradations. Nevertheless, the ordinary trades continued to manage the larger economy. Coal enclosure and its companion, the factory gate, later opened to receive still more of the dispossessed. So blind enclosure gained more effects just as European history “progressed”– that is – as further commons were swallowed into the enclosures of the architects. Even so, many continued self-determined trades and did so into living memory.
I think and hope that many from both left and right of politics would consider it a relief to sink into the comfort of a gently applauding ancestry. Of course, the applause is in our imagination, but that imagination narrates the unwinding tale of Everyman’s place – her identity; her terrain; her culture. Hey! Storytellers narrate, farmers farm, fiddlers tap my feet and shoemakers make shoes – and good, ordinary, proper architects design possibly-good permacultures – on the page – not on the land. The page is a wonderful thing and all may do better by opening the book.
***

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4 Responses to THE GOOD ORDINARY WINE for Joshua Msika

  1. Why the dedication? I smiled as I read, but no more or less than usual.
    (Note also the typo in my name…)

    I’m in strong agreement with the following: “We can’t tell how the powers will behave as we reclaim commons, pick up our tools and attempt to live properly and ordinarily with each other. We do know that we follow an ordinary, and very well-trodden, course of history. Governments, kings and squires have forever manipulated, but skilled and ingenious house-holders and trades people have similarly forever (until very, very recently) managed the economy.”

    I would say that house-holders and tradespeople still manage the part of the economy (oikos) that matters most. And governments, kings and executives still only pull on various levers, manipulating. I take your point, however that the fossil-fuelled age is maybe different, in that elites have taken control of the tools.

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  2. bryncocyn says:

    Thanks Joshua – sorry for the typo – too hurried. The dedication is so, because I value what you say and I was thinking of your defence of permaculture writers as I wrote!

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    • Thank you. That provided the key to the piece, which has unlocked quite a train of thought:

      If I read you rightly, you see permaculture as a movement of architects, not a movement of farmers. Could be. There are certainly many architects in the movement, and much status enclosure – the paid Permaculture Design Course is one example. There is also much (virtual) ink spilled by permaculturists, possibly disproportionately to the number of mouths fed and gardens tended. This seems particularly true in Britain.

      I won’t defend that.

      It’s the Holmgren-Mollison relationship that gave birth to permaculture. Mollison, the aging university professor, having already lived many lives, jaded by unsuccessful oppositional environmental activism. Holmgren, the young student, intellectually curious, growing up with Limits to Growth, highly sceptical of Society. Mollison enthusiastically set about building a movement, teaching people and encouraging them to teach others – their lack of practical experience notwithstanding. Holmgren watched sceptically from the sidelines as the untested concepts they had co-developed were being unleashed, preached as gospel, preferring to develop the application of the principles to his soil-climate context. I don’t hide whose approach I prefer. But had Mollison not been so active in teaching and spreading the concept, there might not have been a movement, and their book might not have landed in my thirteen year-old hands about forty years after it was written (an architect friend of the family lent it to me).

      You write “The page is a wonderful thing and all may do better by opening the book”. Indeed, the book changed my life. But I think I was lucky that I was so young when I discovered permaculture. It allowed me to spend a long time reading more books, observing plants truly growing and comparing this to the more outlandish claims made by permaculturists. It slowly dawned on me that not everything I read was true. I am glad I had the time to learn that.

      Eventually, I learned that I would have to read other books if I wanted to garden well. Books written for my climate, my soils, my vegetables. Dowding’s no-dig worked for me. I followed his recipes and started to see results. I call what I do permaculture. Then my partner calls it gardening. She might be right.

      So what is permaculture? It doesn’t seem to be a set of techniques. It is not food-forests, it is not mob grazing, it is not perennial vegetables, it is not sheet-mulching, it is not swales, it is not no-dig, it is not companion planting, it’s not “chop and drop” comfrey. At least, I don’t want it to be. There are many who think it is.

      What do I want it to be? A permanent culture. A way of inhabiting a specific climate, landform that endures because it builds soil, it looks after people and it produces a surplus. Different in every place and yet similar everywhere because it is eco-logical. I want to use it as a noun: “that is a perma(nent)culture”. How will I know? Two possible ways: Firstly, wait 500 years and see if it has endured. A good way to be right, but time-consuming… Also, the Roman Empire lasted about 500 years and then collapsed, so not necessarily a fool-proof method. Secondly, I can ask myself: does it make ecological sense? Now, you argue in your essays that we can know this intuitively, it will feel “right” and we will hear our ancestors applaud in our bones. There is a lot to be said for that. I nevertheless find it useful to draw on Holmgren’s 12 principles as “ear trumpets” to better hear the applause. Maybe they are simply transcriptions of what our ancestors would say, if they were around. Indeed, he draws on proverbs to illustrate the principles: “Make hay while the sun shines” (2), “You can’t work on an empty stomach” (3), “The sins of the fathers are visited on the children unto the seventh generation” (4), “A stitch in time, saves nine” “Waste not want not” (6), etc. And thus, I inelegantly reconcile the two strands of thought: Holmgren’s permaculture principles are nothing more than what your “ancestors” would be saying to us if we were listening. He sometimes calls it “(un)common sense”. What do you think?

      The challenge then, is for each of us to evolve (not necessarily by design!) such permanent, eco-logical, ancestor-worthy cultures in our specific places. With our skills, with our tools, on our soils and with our friends, we must re-discover what that looks like. The permaculture movement often (loudly) professes that it already has the right answer, for everyone, everywhere. I disagree, although there are good examples that could be copied. I think permaculture’s real value is that it asks the right question. The practical answers are still to be found by each and every one of us, in our own contexts.

      I am conflicted. Sometimes I don’t know where permaculture ends, and my own private way of seeing and being in the world begins. My encounters with permaculturists of the non-book, non-video variety, by which I mean real living breathing people, have often disappointed me. There seems to be a big gap between what I think PC is and what they think it is. And yet, I can’t abandon the term because I haven’t yet found a better one. Nor can I stop following the movement’s evolution, because there is much to learn from others trying to do similar things in different contexts.

      Enough ink spilled. I have leaves to gather, cardboard to lay and growing beds to build tomorrow!

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  3. bryncocyn says:

    Your understanding of permaculture is as deep – in love, gratitude and loyalty, as mine has been of organic systems – both formed in receptive, searching youth. Perhaps we both did find moral, ancestral codes to which we remain obliged – even though those ancestral voices were themselves very young! Of course, in maturity we can trace permaculture and organic tendencies in almost every period of history. When you were drinking at the good well of permaculture, “organic” voices had already become corrupted, opportunistic, consumeristic, branded, disconnected and shallow. I still drank (I thought) at the original spring. That accounts for my reactionary tendency. The leaders of the Soil Association have trampled carelessly over my holy ground – over my soul.
    I reckon, permaculture can easily embrace without change the organic architecture – that is, an economic system which integrates with its ecological effects, by imitating the behaviours of organisms. That includes, not only rules of return – biomass for biomass, but an attempted (that is active) understanding, moral, spiritual, practical and scientific, of a natural world integrated with an economic world. The primal organic spring, like the permaculture spring, irrigated thoughts on trade and the trades and on households, as much as on farming systems. Such a spring is a perennial source of delights.
    That such a source of delights was spurned, by the organic movement itself is a wound, which has never healed in me. To integrate an economy into an ecology is a difficult thing – with much leakage and cumbersome mismatching. We are fortunate that natural systems are so forgiving and that we are given such a wide leeway for mistakes. As a farmer/grower, I think the best I can aim for is a near enough balance – and so a permaculture. I’m reliant on a little leeway (principally sunshine). Recently there have been outrageous claims of farming systems, which accumulate carbon – and keep on accumulating it – the worst example being the grassland alchemists. Both permaculture and organic movements are polluted with them.
    I think the best we can do is to attempt a balance (Schumacher’s permanence) – our (organic) crop yields are pretty much the same as they were fourty years ago – with no imported fertility. This year’s harvests have been by the skin of our teeth, because of what seems to be increasingly intemperate weather. This reply is late, because of two days of late night potato harvesting (followed by two days of farmers’ markets), in what seemed the last, brief opportunity for just dry enough weather. We’ve damaged the soil. Nemesis, though escaped this year, is palpably growing very close to home. The hubris of the wild claims of most (not all) architects (permacultural and organic) is outrageous. It’s true, that since we need whole systems to change, we need to be thinking of the architecture of whole systems – of permacultures. The pragmatic trial and error of husbandry is a fragment of the whole. I’ve damaged the soil to bring in an economic harvest – that’s a complex, moral and wider tale to tell.
    Who will conjure that enticing, delightful, pragmatic, poetic masterpiece of a Promised Land – one to avoid the worst of pillaged resources and climate change? – Common humanity and common goals are simple, essential and may be easily and popularly embraced. I wish we had it – the inspiring moral guide to our personal and pragmatic trials and errors.

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