Beyond the Life of the Sun: ecomodernism and its discontents

Part I: Introduction

Retreat from our predicament is not an option. We must push through the Anthropocene, indeed accelerate our modernity, and accept our species’ dominion over the Earth.
— Leigh Phillips (186)

 

Though imperceptible to the human primate body, the sun is growing hotter. It is predicted that in about a thousand million years, its temperature will increase to such an extent that the oceans will evaporate, plate tectonics will stop and, in a further two or three billion years, the earth will become uninhabitable for all but the most extreme of extremophiles, those microscopic creatures which can survive anywhere from close to absolute zero to above 100 degrees Celsius. Eventually, this space rock we call Earth will be engulfed by a dying sun. This is progress.

Entropy rules the day. There is an arrow to time. Under one likely scenario, when entropy reaches its maximum, resulting in the heat death of the universe, or the ‘big chill’, time will stop. The arrow will stop. Matter will stop. Everything in the universe will come to a whimpering end. Maybe. At least for an instant. And then there is nothing. This is progress.

Taking a timescale slightly more relatable to the lifespan of humans, the first agricultural revolution occurred roughly 10,000 years ago, at the beginning of what has been designated the Holocene, our current geological epoch. The Holocene, aptly translating as ‘entirely new’, from the Greek holos (whole or entire) and kainos (new), provides the stable and mild climate in which we can grow our delicate and dependent staple crops – corn, rice, and wheat – and is likely to be a mere interglacial. This means that it’s a temporary interstice in the much less hospitable Pleistocene in which vast areas of the earth’s surface were covered in ice. Thankfully, for many billions of civilised humans dependent on the harvests of agricultural systems, its mild hospitality continues to this day. Sooner or later, though, whether through anthropogenic climate change or a ‘natural’ climate fluctuation, it will come to an end and our fields will not be covered in domesticated species, but most likely in ice. No amount of genetic engineering will allow our crops to then grow on the vast majority of the earth’s surface. This is progress.

Austerity Ecology & The Collapse-Porn Addicts: A defence of growth, progress, industry and stuff (henceforth Austerity Ecology), the latest work in a long and monotonous string of ‘eco-pragmatist’, ‘eco-modernist’ and ‘post-environmentalist’ literature, posits a very different vision of progress. But first, caveat emptor: though Phillips doesn’t acknowledge it, there is almost nothing new in this book – ‘at base a defence of industrial civilisation, scientific and technological progress, and economic growth’ (6) – that you won’t find in Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline, Mark Lynas’ The God Species, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger’s Break Through, or a plethora of other paeans to ‘modernity’.

Like these works, Austerity Ecology comes from a white, educated male concerned that the ‘anti-consumerist, back-to-the-land, small-is-beautiful, civilisation-hating, progress-questioning ideology of degrowth, limits and retreat is hegemonic not just on the green left, but across the political spectrum’ (12). Phillips, a science and EU affairs journalist who has contributed to the prestigious science journal Nature, and the Guardian, therefore endeavours to make the case for why such thinking ‘must be thoroughly excised’ from the ‘ranks’ of the Left.

‘You have to acknowledge’, he continues, that ‘anti-technology, anti-science and anti-industrial stances are actually pretty mainstream these days.’ This assertion of green hegemony causes one to pause in confusion. We have to acknowledge this? ‘Where is this dominance to be seen?’ the reader may rightly ask, for it is not obviously evident in the halls of any global power centre. It’s not clear amongst the economic titans who gather annually at the World Economic Forum at Davos, or amongst the titans of the IMF or World Bank. The economic crisis of 2008 was not met with cries of joy from across the political spectrum, a call to use this occasion of economic slowdown to put an end to mass society and industrialisation, to focus on good lives which might not cost the earth, but rather was greeted by political elites across the board with a clamouring for a return to growth at all costs. Ah, says Phillips earnestly, but anti-civilisation philosopher Derrick Jensen’s work is for sale at Walmart! And Dark Mountain co-founder Paul Kingsnorth writes in the London Review of Books! (This really is the evidence presented).

Despite Phillips consistently lumping Naomi Klein, Jensen and Kingsnorth as one in this hegemonic movement – ‘Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben, Derrick Jensen, Paul Kingsnorth and their anarcho-liberal epigones’ bear the brunt of his focus on the book’s cover – he fails to mention the inconvenient truth that this very article by Kingsnorth in the London Review of Books was actually a critique of Klein by Kingsnorth, criticising her book This Changes Everything as ‘an American liberal wishlist, and a fantastical one’. There is far more heterogeneity in whatever the ‘green’ movement consists of than Phillips wishes to acknowledge, perhaps because acknowledging it would be an uncomfortable fit for his Manichaeism, not to mention an impediment to the writing of a typo-riddled book filled with innumerable straw men.

The ability to buy Jensen’s oeuvre from Walmart is equally unremarkable. They also currently offer a substantial discount on controversial rightwing firebrand Glenn Beck’s latest book It IS About Islam, not to mention selling numerous editions and interpretations of Phillips’ beloved Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels. The truth is that the Walton family, owners of Walmart, have a total wealth equivalent to almost half of the population of the US not because they’re in thrall to what Phillips calls ‘the anti-packaging jihadi’ hegemony, but rather because they’re willing to try to make a profit on anything. At the time of writing, Jensen’s most well-known work, Endgame, was ranked 172,000th on Amazon’s seller list, while the millionaire footballer Steven Gerrard’s imaginatively-titled autobiography, My Story, had cracked the top 20. There is no hegemony except for the continued dominance of rapacious consumer capitalism.

The falsities and wishful thinking mount at an alarming rate throughout this book, the specifics of which I started to debunk earlier this year in a short blog piece entitled The Ecomodernist Myth. It is not my goal here to tackle them all, an uphill struggle. However, some inconvenient truths for Phillips’ Panglossian outlook include that the Environmental Kuznets Curve (EKC) whereby environmental impact gradually falls as societies get richer has been disproven extensively in the academic literature, as having a ‘very flimsy statistical foundation’. Relatedly, Phillips, along with Brand and others, argue for the confinement of populations to cities, where their per capita impact is lower, ignoring the paradox that it is precisely the most urbanised societies which share the bulk of the blame for global environmental degradation. In an act of wishful thinking, Austerity Ecology glosses over the Jevons Paradox or rebound effect, whereby increases in technologically-induced efficiency often actually result in increased use of resources. Further, the idea that peasant populations leave rural areas only due to the pull of a wonderful urban existence is an insult to many millions of migrants crammed into filthy, overcrowded slums, and ignores the role of any larger economic necessities in displacement. Strangely, for a self-avowed socialist, in this he acts as an effective apologist for capitalism and the destruction of rural livelihoods, from enclosure forward.

To cherrypick in a way that would do Phillips proud, similar question marks could be placed over his assertion that technological substitution saved the whales, or the certainty of human centrality in the so-called Pleistocene Overkill. But I don’t want to dwell on each of these issues here. Others have done an admirable job of pulling apart the faith-based ideology of ecomodernism in the past (including Chris Smaje on this blog), and I would point readers to those sources.

Equally, though these hardly begin to redeem the heart of Phillips’ techno-romanticism, I should note before continuing that there is a very small number of things that the book gets right. The historic focus of many in the green ‘movement’ on the smokescreen of overpopulation, often shifting the blame onto the poor masses, for example, does nothing to help the environmental cause. Similarly, Phillips does a decent job of highlighting just how ‘extractivist’ supposedly green energy sources such as wind and solar really are, when rolled out on the scale needed to keep industrial society ticking over.

Part II: Ape or Angel?

Is man an ape or an angel? My Lord, I am on the side of the angels. I repudiate with indignation and abhorrence these new fanged theories.
— British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli on evolutionary theory

Minor redeeming factors aside, the really significant action is going on in the theological underbelly of jeremiads like Austerity Ecology, starting when Phillips claims a ‘shift from animal ethology (animal behaviour) to behavioural modernity around 50,000 years ago’ (41). The assertion of a clean break from animal to human, a break which no anthropologist, evolutionary biologist, or archaeologist would strictly endorse, exemplifies the author’s firm anthropocentrism, and Phillips takes his place in a centuries-old genealogy of individuals grasping desperately to find something unique, angelic even, about this clever primate species we call Homo sapiens. Rather than admit this, Phillips merely shifts the focus, castigating environmentalists as misanthropes, ‘openly favouring other organisms’ (37) over ‘wicked’ (253) humans. Of course, few environmentalists could ever despise humanity per se – they might even love their children! – but most do express a discomfort about displacing vast numbers of other species just so that a lucky minority can have access to the joys of the Kardashians, self-driving cars, anti-depressants and Peruvian avocados. Degrowthers, and whoever else Phillips might have in mind when he speaks of austerity ecology, are certainly right to retort that they too envision a world of human flourishing, not austerity, drudgery and mindless toil, not to mention that this doesn’t have to be in a zero-sum battle with other beings. Humbling our species’ dominance, however, is not a concern in the theology of Phillips, where the only valuable metric is that of the human:

We should care when a species go extinct not because of their intrinsic worth … but because the loss of species means a decline in the effectiveness of the services that living systems provide to humans (76).

gulfspill

In one of the great statements of species chauvinism, the author holds that an oil spill is unwanted not because of the devastation it can cause to beings who would prefer not to choke to death, but ‘because it diminishes human uses of that ecosystem’ (78). The vision that we get is a species apartheid in which ‘humans are radically different from all other organisms’ (84), as ‘no other animal has our level of cognition, our self-awareness, our capacity for language, technology, art, abstract reasoning or, of course, fire’. Of course, many species demonstrate their own qualitatively-unique cognition, self-awareness, capacity for language, technology, art and ‘abstract reasoning’, radically different from all other organisms – some even capitalise on wildfires to cook their prey – but this fails to count for much in the dualistic modernist playbook, so determined to value humans above all else.

Humanity’s unique attributes of ‘rationality’ and ‘self-awareness’ have long been known to be something of an empty claim by those ‘postmodern’ scholars whom Phillips decries throughout the book as undermining his universal project of rationality and progress. Rationality, of course, is itself little more than a hollow signifier, rolled out when needed as a bludgeon used to subdue those who disagree with our Cartesian overlords. Let us forget the beauty and efficacy of the technologies, art, and languages of other species, and let us forget the inconvenient truth that we too are animals – confused, irrational, habitual and embodied animals – as explored by authors such as Timothy Wilson (Strangers to Ourselves), Daniel Kahnemann (Thinking, Fast and Slow), Nigel Thrift (Non-Representational Theory) and many others in the ‘postmodern’ academy.

But now, heaven forbid, I’m sounding like I support the ‘anti-universalism, anti-positivism, relativism and science-skepticism of the postmodern academy’, an eye-watering straw man, ‘with its slander of Enlightenment as imperialist and Eurocentric, opposition to ‘grand narratives’, and imprisoning the word truth in scare quotes’ (251). Well, yes, thankfully, scientistic claims of abstract truth, after ground-breaking and painstaking work in the philosophy, sociology and history of science by Thomas Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend, and Bruno Latour amongst others, have softened. It’s unfortunate that Phillips fails to familiarise himself with such revolutions in a more reflexive understanding of science, before attempting to ‘excise’ from his ‘ranks’ anything that smacks of irrationality or unreason; that is, anything which fails to conform to his faith-based worldview of human dominion. As Paul Feyerabend put it in his last work, Conquest of Abundance:

A look at history shows that this world is not a static world populated by thinking (and publishing) ants who, crawling all over its crevices, gradually discover its features without affecting them in any way. It is a dynamical and multifaceted Being which influences and reflects the activity of its explorers. It was once full of Gods; it then became a drab and material world and it can be changed again, if its inhabitants have the determination, the intelligence, and the heart to take the necessary steps. (146)

The idea of a single, value-free scientific method leading to an accurate view of a world ‘out there’ has been debunked as being ahistorical, and the scientific enterprise has been relegated to what it always was underneath the hyperbole, merely another fallible means for humans to try to cope in the world. Apparently unbeknown to Phillips, since the scientific revolution, Enlightenment scientism has also lent itself, all-too-often, to cruelty, violence and misogyny, as many feminist philosophers of science such as Carolyn Merchant and Sandra Harding have outlined in great depth.

The superiority of the Western way of life, exported brutally all around the world under the guise of universal progress, is thankfully open to question, and positivism – a complex position often used as shorthand for the argument that the only valuable knowledge comes from objectivity, distance, quantification, and the methods of natural science – has rightly become something of a dirty word in some parts of the world, veiling, as it always has, a monolithic scientism and closure of worldviews. Of course, given Phillips’ desire for ‘a UN Parliament from which a global prime minister and cabinet were drawn’ (215) claims to epistemological universalism are necessary, though for this (post-)anarchist reader, the idea that ‘the true revolutionary today is one who speaks of optimism, big, bold ideas, universal values and ambitious, globe-straddling, liberatory projects’ (154) sends a chill down my spine. Such clamouring for universal values and globe-straddling projects, symptomatic of Phillips’ dangerous state socialism, simply sounds anachronistic and should be left in the dark shadow of the bloody, totalitarian 20th century.

Phillips’ naïve philosophy of science is paralleled by his simplistic interpretation of the philosophy of technology, which fails to stray past the weak social constructionist view of ‘technology’ as a neutral set of tools to be used however we wish. His example, in an inadequately brief treatment, holds that ‘there is nothing intrinsically malign about any particular technology outside of the context in which it is used. Knives can be used to chop cauliflower or to murder Tutsis and Hutus’ (156). Obfuscating, he conflates the use of tools, which we are free to use in a plethora of ways, with the evolution of the technological system, whose ends advance in ways which we are never merely free to pick up or put down. Instead, as the techno-romanticist Phillips would know if he spent time exploring the work of Langdon Winner or Jacques Ellul, technological systems embody and perpetuate a certain logic of their own, often independently of their human subjects, and can radically violate any true sense of democratic, convivial engagement. Perhaps he would even like to read the latest Dark Mountain book, Technê, which explored the complex, evolving relationships between technology, skill, embodiment and (un)freedom.

Part III: The Ultimate Vision

And man, a stranger to the world, sets himself up as its master.
— Nobel-prize winning Chemist, Ilya Prigogine, with Isabelle Stengers in ‘Order Out of Chaos’

Throughout Austerity Ecology Phillips rightly criticises any reification of a ‘Nature’ separate from humanity – with some environmentalists having indeed overstepped the mark by putting an abstract Mother Nature up on a pedestal in their discourse. In this, the Dark Mountain Project has the honour of being a target for much of the author’s ire. Yet it is precisely within the Dark Mountain Manifesto that we read of the ‘Myth of Nature’; that ‘the very fact that we have a word for ‘nature’ is evidence that we do not regard ourselves as part of it’. We are, of course, part of the universe we operate in and wish to understand.

It’s clear that this accusation can itself be turned around, with the techno-romantics clearly underscoring the separation of humans from the rest of creation. Under the programme of global rationality and progress, outlined in this book, the imperative for ‘those who favour an improvement in the human condition’ is to ‘rehabilitate Prometheanism – the idea that there are no limits other than the laws of physics to how we can re-engineer ourselves and the world around us.’ Alone in nature, we have ‘near infinite malleability’ to ‘condition that which conditions us’ (254).

Paradoxically, it is Phillips himself who endeavours to establish dualisms, to set us apart from the rest of the universe, creating an artificial otherness, and worshipping some ‘rational’ knowledge only accessible to this exceptional primate which has transcended its animality. It is Phillips who fails to see that the concern of many environmentalists – the concern to protect the agency of the nonhuman, of other species and of ecosystems – is a longing from within a part of the universe, not a cry of separation.

Let us return to the tales of universal death and climatic change, progress even, with which I opened this essay. Irrational, misguided, small-is-beautiful, primitivist Greens, Phillips asserts, condemn us all ‘to a hair-shirted existence and refusal of further human development due to a romantic unscientific belief in a static, unchanging balance of nature’ (69). Citing the ‘little-known’ (70) story of the Great Oxygenation Event (or what he calls ‘The Great Primordial Flatulence of Doom’) in which most of the planet’s then-anaerobic organisms were wiped out 2.3 billion years ago by oxygen-producing cyanobacteria, he notes that without this catastrophic extinction event, ‘humans and most other complex life on the planet wouldn’t exist’.

‘Life cares not a jot which species live and which species die,’ we are told, and ‘concerns about biodiversity are in fact anthropocentric concerns’. That great othering term ‘Nature’, which Phillips so despises, comes in through the back door here, disguised under the equally veiling word ‘life’. Phillips’ Nature may not care which species live and die, but those species operate under their own telos, strive for their own existence, and we primates can reserve the right to mourn, and perhaps even work to prevent their anthropogenic loss.

Unfortunately, for his tale of myopic romantic greens who are wedded to a vision of static ecosystems, the evidently cursory research done for this book failed to turn up the fact that his bête noire, Paul Kingsnorth, has indeed written about precisely this ‘little-known’ great oxygenation extinction event, concluding that:

The nature of nature has always been change, which means that death – and rebirth – will always be with us, and that rebirth may take forms we do not recognize and did not expect. You are part of this process, and so am I, and this time around we are the cause of it, too. The future offers chaos, uncertainty, loss. To deny this is to deny reality. To pretend we have more control than we have, to cling to glib ‘solutions’ as if the world were a math puzzle we could solve with the right equations, is a similar form of denial. There is an abyss opening up before us. It challenges everything we thought we knew about our culture and about nature. We need to look into it and concentrate on what we can see.

If anyone is wedded to an inadequate, static vision, it is Phillips himself, failing to think through the implications of his own writing, whereby ‘rich, dynamic variation, not ‘balance of nature’, seems to be the force that guides nature’. ‘The survival of our species beyond the life of the sun’ (258) is apparently the author’s ultimate aim. Technology, science and a programme of control, the taking of dominion over an irreducibly complex planet, are this species’ salvation from change, from progress, from the end of our sun billions of years hence. And presumably, to avoid the end of the universe, we will magic a way to travel to other universes, and cling to our lonely mote of brilliance.

Here we see the basic incommensurability between Phillips’ vision of human dominion, his ‘conquest of abundance’ and my own, which perhaps more resembles the acceptance of Daoism. I am here, on Earth, in the company of an infinitely complex meshwork of beings, human and nonhuman, who can never be reduced to the abstract logic of anthropocentric control which underpins the faith of techno-romantics. It is an incommensurability which renders visible the futility of engaging on the Prometheans’ level of scientism and faith in a future civilisation-saving, transcendent technology. For this is not where the action happens. The action happens in the stories we tell, the earthly experiences we share, and how we adapt with humility and compassion to a greater unknown. We are primates existing in our own contingent way on our shared contingent planet. None of us will outlive the universe. And I’m sorry Leigh, but that’s fine. Stop fighting it. That’s just the way, as the Daoists would say.

Image: ‘Gulf Oil Spill’ by Sam Churchill

Pale Tradescantia

There is a toxin here. The air or soil is harbouring a pollutant and the only indication is a cluster of flowers on the edge of an abandoned field. The flower is Tradescantia, normally they are purple, but these are streaked white and pink. The plant responds to genotoxins, toxins that damage genes, by altering its pigment. This trait has put it to use by researchers across the world as an inexpensive and reliable bioindicator. Species from the Tradescantia family have tracked heavy metals in German mines, air quality in Brazil and nuclear radiation in Japan. The plant is less expensive than any device and often just as accurate. Now these trustworthy harbingers are across the street from my house and responding to something otherwise unseen.

A plant speaks with its body: a wilting leaf, the rich green of vigorous growth, a closed blossom tracking the sun. A human can only discern what these cues mean through direct experience. These exchanges are the universal language between our two living kingdoms, plant and animal. When Tradescantia petals respond to pollution they otherwise appear healthy; the stem remains turgid and the leaves are still vibrant. It is a tough and beautiful plant, thriving on roadsides and cultivated in gardens.

The species nearest my home is Tradescantia virginiana. A native to the Americas, remaining despite centuries of the destructive alteration of the continent’s ecosystem. The genus has numerous variations, with many species rapidly mutating in the presence of genotoxins. The deliberate cultivation of Tradescantia as a bioindicator reflects a relatively new relationship between plants and humans. The use of a plant specifically for its ability to detect potentially lethal chemicals, rather than as a source of sustenance or beauty, is itself indicative of the complexity of the ecological continuum. Here, in Southern Georgia, Tradescantia is a weed, offering portents to any keen eye.

In the quirky yet stern 1950’s booklet ‘Weeds and What They Tell’, Ehrenfried Pfeiffer attempts to give a brief summary of what common weeds indicate about soil conditions. His observations are helpful for any gardener without access to soil testing. Dominate plants can indicate soil pH; for example, wood sorrel prefers acid soils, and sage brush thrives in alkaline. With this knowledge, a gardener can add amendments or grow plants preferring those conditions. Pfeiffer distinguishes between, weeds (lowercase) and WEEDS. He writes, ‘Wherever weeds grow, they will tell something, and wherever WEEDS grow, they indicate a failure of man.’

A field full of resilient weeds can be a source of hope. I often look upon untended land and think, life finds a way; wishing in the expanse that a home is being made for other, more fragile beings. Yet year after year, the same plants expand their territory, almost mimicking human monocultures. Here in the deep south, late winter is awash with the warm golden red of sour dock singly occupying the fallow cotton fields. The famed, now almost beloved kudzu, is still found in vast stretches along roadsides, creating sculptural representations of the trees they have swallowed. In the shallow swamps, whorled tangles of invasive hydrilla dominate the homes of the native American water lily. Today, Pfeiffer’s warning to listen to weeds is even more stark as hydrilla is now proving to be a vector for a never-before-seen bacteria dubbed ‘the eagle killer’. In the endless heat of the American South, these plants are adapting rapidly with uncanny intelligence. What are they trying to tell us?

Humans tend to believe nature sends us messages. I, too, search for secrets in rustling breezes or thoughtfulness in the bowing head of a mockingbird. Yet, I feel more grounded when I decide there are no hidden messages intended for me; to instead experience a communion, a call away from the self, and into the living community. In order to stop echoing my own anthropocentrism, I must resist the idea that nature is there to tell me anything.

These resilient plants are responding to something, and often what can be discerned is quite obvious: climate, pollution, habitat destruction. Becoming aware of what the plant tells us awakens our own deadened senses. Whether we notice a thriving mass of an invasive species, or the colour of newly formed petals on an indigenous plant, our observations can subtly reveal what we have shuttered ourselves away from.

When weeds flourish in disturbed habitats they are efficiently responding to an altered centre of balance. The emergence of an invasive is not separate from a system. An illuminating cycle of human destruction and ecological response can be found in the water hyacinth. This aquatic plant often invades wetlands containing elevated levels of arsenic and is now being investigated as a potential bioremediation agent. Water hyacinth not only does well in these polluted lakes and streams, it also absorbs arsenic from the water. Despite this knowledge, the typical response to an infestation is to smother the plant with herbicides rather than address habitat loss or pollution. Our pursuit of invasives is attempting to make it right, yet the weeds continue in our failure, no matter how many we pull or poison.

I go to the field in the morning to observe the Tradescantia petals fading to pink. Their pigment is undoubtedly different from the others in my garden. I’ll never know what it is responding to, but I accept the pollutant could also be somewhere inside me. Our bodies are not passively accepting toxins. We are engaging in a dark dance — the flower blinks in new shades, my cells slightly alter their form. The trace particles become part of us, and we change together. None is isolated from the other.

The pale Tradescantia will be mown soon, the flowers cut back to the ground until they emerge again. The roots will feed in the soil, the leaves will drink in the sun, and it will blossom anew. It has learned to thrive by transforming — by refusing to be destroyed by change. Whether or not we choose to pay attention to the lesson is entirely up to us.

The Ecology of Language

Language shapes our reality.

This is not a new idea. The Buddha taught about the importance of right speech, the root of Abracadabra lies in the ancient Hebrew phrase ‘אברא כדברא’ or ‘I create as I speak’ and the Gospel of John begins with those immortal words ‘In the beginning there was the word and the word was God.’ To have language is to have the power to express, name, label, categorise and define things, people, experiences and feelings.

And these words have power.

We can be caught forever in the thrall of a psychiatric diagnosis or teacher’s remark, moving from being ‘lively’ to being a ‘naughty’ child in a single breath. Every word comes with its own baggage and its own history. Some words cannot be spoken because they hold so much weight, whilst others are moving into common speech as the passage of time wears away old meanings and clothes them in new.

Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or ill.
— Buddha

To use an old English phrase, we each have our own word-hoard – a store of words collected from our parents, carers, siblings, teachers, peers, the books we read, the programmes we watch. We can then draw from this stock to communicate and express.

In times of extreme or unusual emotional states — the pain of loss or the ecstasy of birth — we often find our word hoards insufficient. When our lover leaves us, when we are struck with that strange yearning to be something or somewhere we are not, when we meet the inevitable end of life, we turn to the poets to offer us the magic combination of words that provide the image or the rhythm that expresses where we are — that resonates at our level of feeling.

Language is more than functional; it is an essential tool in the gardening shed of the soul.

But maybe it isn’t a word-hoard at all. Word hoard conjures to mind some sort of pantry or chest — quite possibly very old and wooden and filled with bio dynamic, organic apples, but cut off and not-living nonetheless. And language is living; it is a constantly evolving ecosystem — a word-wood.

Language is a living thing. We can feel it changing. Parts of it become old: they drop off and are forgotten. New pieces bud out, spread into leaves, and become big branches, proliferating.
— Gilbert Highet

As we grow, our word-wood grows. If we are lucky, the earth beneath our word-wood is made fertile by those around us. If we are unlucky, the earth is grey and cold; in that scrubland, bramble words grow, filling our mouths with dry, spiky, withered attempts to express the fire within. We swear, scream and hit because we have nothing else. These are the children who lash out in frustration because they don’t have the words to help us understand how they are feeling — the force of the absent word rises like a tsunami of the soul.

Word-wood soil can be enlivened with the right treatment — the right authors, speakers, words and phrases being introduced in the right way — but just as easily a fertile landscape can be destroyed by carelessness and commercial consumption. Monoculture language creeps in promising better communication through over simplification, manipulation through vile advertising, or utter confusion through ‘specialised’ jargon. Invasive species spring up — the word ‘like’ is the ground elder of speech — and GM word crops slowly change the natural landscape of our language and in doing so, redefine our internal and external experience of the world.

Especially prized was the capacity to name, abundantly and gracefully, dozens or even hundreds of secret names for beings you had spent your whole life strutting past, and muttering; ‘willow’ ‘holly’ ‘bat’ ‘dog-rose’. They are not their names. Not really.
— Dr Martin Shaw, School of Myth

Robert Macfarlane recently reminded us of how many words we are losing in the UK on a daily basis and the danger that poses to the future of our countryside: ‘[We are in] an age when a junior dictionary finds room for “broadband” but has no place for “bluebell'”. What will happen when children can no longer name Oak or Beech, Sparrow or Robin? Will they wish to protect an area of nameless land inhabited by nameless creatures?

To take away a person’s name is to ‘de-humanise’, making it easier to avoid any sort of messy emotional attachment and opening the ‘thing’ up to exploitation, abuse or extermination. If we are losing the lexicon of the natural world, is it any wonder that rainforests full of trees, insects and animals are being destroyed by CEOs of foreign companies who have reduced the entire, living ecosystem of the Amazon to a ‘commodity’?

Mythologist Martin Shaw encourages his students to develop a practice of giving twelve secret names to the plants, animals or ‘things’ they encounter in nature and to speak those names out loud. He comments that ‘inventive speech appears to be a kind of catnip to the living world’ — an enlivening force. And surely it must be seen that those that love and know the land they live upon have a hundred names for snow or twenty different names mud or, at the very least, three different names for the garden robin. In giving something a name, we deepen our relationship with it and in finding many names we find ourselves watching, listening, thinking more deeply about that bird, plant, flower or bug — by engaging through language, we come to know it better.

Green Curve
Udder of the Silver Waters
The Hundred Glittering Teeth
Small Sister, Dawning Foam
On the Old Lime Bank.
Five names for the River — Dr Martin Shaw, School of Myth

So get out there and find the folkloric name of the hill behind your house, or watch the little plant determinedly pushing its head between the pavement cracks and realise that the word ‘daisy’ just isn’t enough to encapsulate that being. In opening ourselves to language as a dynamic force, rather than just a communication tool, we can begin to experience the world in a new and deeper way.

Now, a language is not just a body of vocabulary or a set of grammatical rules. A language is a flash of the human spirit. It’s a vehicle through which the soul of each particular culture comes into the material world. Every language is an old-growth forest of the mind, a watershed, a thought, an ecosystem of spiritual possibilities.
— Wade Davis, anthropologist and explorer

Song of Ea

After a time, she became restless again.

Although the novel intersectional potentialities of cross-networked primate nervous systems had diverted her for a long, long while – a kind of mesh intelligence replete with new dynamics of empathy, deceit, invention and collaboration – she began to see another possible flowpath of unfolding complexity that could emerge into being.

A simple progression, really, given that she had already spun herself out into self-regulating insect cathedrals, had donned protective nose-sponges as foraging cetaceans, had manipulated matter through corvid craftiness; and her ape-web was already stripping her branches to fish for termite protein. It was only a small step…

But it all seemed to go so quickly from there. The archetypal bone-club, the jealous husbanding of a last patch of forest-fire, the first daubs of ochre on limestone; millennia later, these images would flash back into wakefulness, painted with light on walls tens of cubits high to reflect back onto primate retinae inside the private caves of their skulls. The early days of slow accretion, of injurious correction, just raced by in hindsight; and always accelerating, so that she could not point to when it had all started to feel so different.

Was it that first ranged projection of force, a thrill of unaccustomed agency sparking through her mammalian neurons? – and as her great herds thinned and vanished, she felt the loss of that part of herself, but could not yet regret the turn the Work had taken. Surely that flowpath was inherent from the beginning, like a latent line of fracture in her rock, and would have to have been taken eventually?

Or was it the atl-atl? – nothing more than a small shaped piece of wood, leveraging the power of the spear-arm a little further, but a subtle sign of the pattern to come: the hybridity of tool with tool, multiplying power by stacking the fruits of ingenuity into complexes of effected change.

Was it the taming of the aurochs? She had bound being to being before, in the aphid-farms of the ant-hill? Yet somehow it had not felt the same – some dim presentiment of how far it would go, of the selection, the breeding, the slow bending of parts of her web to the will and vision of a single strand. And of the heretical extrapolation waiting to be uncovered, when the cattle-driving eye swivelled sideways to consider its own flesh and blood…

Or perhaps it was the first palisade, when the loose collection of rough shelters became a single unit of protection, an echo of her earlier phase-shifts in coral, lodge and hive? Or when the palisade became an earthwork, or when the earth became baked brick, enclosing a new entity just as the cell-membrane, the fruit-rind, the amnion had before? – her nodes forming fire-ant pyramids, sorting themselves into layers, marking themselves as soldier, drone or queen.

Or was it a binding of another sort? The segmentation of her monads’ endless, pulsating sensoria through sound and gesture, trapping the flow of time like an ember circled in the cloth of the night; slow evolution from danger-call and mewl of supplication to named object, to action, to quality and supposition; to ever-finer distinctions of experience, to the uprooted mind-dust of thought-considering-thought into the trackless wastes of nothingness.

Once, when she was still just playing with stones, she had found that a certain rhizome-fruit, in close communion with the neuronal net of her current favourite mammal, produced a curious, recursive pattern, a fabricated image of the nervous-system’s own machinations; disembedded, flashing in the black for the monkey mind to finally notice its own functioning, to assimilate, to bootstrap, to wind into waking-awareness; the clever hands (more splaying flowpaths forged in the matrix of spatial assertion and resistance) had carved them into rock; later, added to the clay of bowls; worked into the bronze of grave-goods; acid-etched on the steel of a chieftain’s blade.

Words had been a little like that (had been of that, to speak truly); a technics of recursion, reflecting back the Things of the world (there had not been Things ere then) to the Minds she had become, to be built upon in dizzying ziggurats of comprehension; the separation of functions, the retention of truths, the transmission of change; the gathering totem and the dispersing taboo, weaving themselves into the warp and weft of a new World that was not quite flush with the fractal grain of the old.

And then came the deft little wedges in the mud-tablet; the dreamt pictures of the bone oracles; the runic scratching of stone; the knotted quipu-plaits; the looping songs on banana-leaves; in time, the debt-tallies, the labour-lists, the mason’s-bill, the moon-calendar, the scholar’s quibble, the lettre de marque, the royal edict. The quiet minds sitting with the thoughts of their ancestors, wondering what could be done better, what was needful of preservation.

And all the other rites of being that bound, that raised, that saved or stored or pushed to courage – the birthing-songs, the food-laws, the manhood-scars, the head-dresses, the songlines, the warpaint, the coup-counting, the herb-lore, the animal-play – became, with the rising of the pyramid, kow-tows and courtesies, dance-steps and deference; a lexicon of belonging to remind themselves that the bricks had been set in place by a force greater than they – but whether it had come up from the ground or down from the sky could not be decided, and kept them sharpening their blood and breeding their edges for generations uncounted.

And with the words and the walls came the need for those who could work them, subtle minds in strange robes who could spell out the constellated marks of the Old Ones; tracing the ordained lines, pressing quills into their own skin, but desirous of insight, burning with something like light, hurling the spear of Will yet further into the flesh of the world.

And as the world became more folded, and the easy flow of her breath through the bodies grew divided, diverted, splitting and slowing like the numberless outlets of her deltas; as the simple joys of the bison-hunt and the berry-bush gave way to the stilted certainties of the crop-field and the rice-paddy; as the live, holy Being With her other peoples was replaced by a life of monospecies intercourse, and the last vestiges of Otherness were guiltily cordoned – kept growing in courtyards or singing in cages or scratching their narrow ribs in the corner of the temple – as the stone hand of Time closed tighter round the narrowing airway of now, so the need arose to offer stories of consolation or rebuke: the eternal reward; the infernal torment; the chosen people; the end of the cycle.

As the matter around them took its form ever more from the cleverness of the people, of course, so too did that world imprint itself on their Minds, until the primates themselves were peopled by waterwheels of function, cathedrals of belief, lenses of perception and slipways of intent, turning and recursing and growing a castle of dreams from out of the unbroken dance of dust and spirit.

All this, too, was part of the pattern, the endless bifurcations and re-assimilations, the massless miasma of Culture that was bound by symbol and practice and fed with hunger and mercy and passed, wave through water, to keep the people in form; a true Technics as surely as any stirrup, mattock or bow-drill.

And she loved what she had become, as she had loved all that she had become from the very beginning, and she joyed in their labyrinthine hopes and hates, their open prospects and blank dead-ends, their godlike gleam and their dwarvish concretions; and through it all, the pattern, variegating and re-plying and – perhaps – in the plaid and turn of the strands, making something new that had not known itself before.

And always, in and around the systems and structures, swung the laughing imps of spirit, the surplus of her Being that poured out and over the walls of the city; an ars that was itself a techne of sorts – in that, without its play of colour, the dull machinery of Civilisation would long have lost its hold on the minds of mammals and been left in the dust like a forgotten toy – but was, somehow, beyond a Technics too, inasmuch as it gave no thought to means and ends, or the strict concerns of those who drew the lines, and because it had no interest in being anything other than it was (except, perhaps, near the end of an iteration, when even the daemons became chained to the Machine; and this was a sign to all that the last dregs of life were draining from the dying body).

But a time came when, glancing with soft eyes at the uppermost layer of the weave, she saw, in the shadows and interstices created by the bifurcating streams, the image of a face gazing coolly back at her – a grim, knowing face, crenellated and unyielding. She did not know how long he had been observing her, but behind the stare there was hunger, and desire, and resentment.

And now she looked about and saw, in the clearings and fences, in the smoke of the whale-oil and the rotting carcasses of a million buffalo, in the bound feet and the broken sex, the same face staring back. And as her own bodies moved in concert, drawing ever more of her into the flowpaths of the Machine, she felt a Great Misgiving.

But by then it was too late; her favourites, the primates, had twisted their net to catch the land itself; driving planks with water, and cloth with wind, pouring forests into braziers to forge conduits and manacles. When the stock of trees proved inadequate, they spurned the limits of the solar flowrate, digging deeper into the ground to burn the black memories of ancient forests, as if Time itself was a halting, vexive crone dragging her heels to hold back their passage. And as yet more power was pushed into the wheels of the Machine, his face became bolder, more real; and a deep, unceasing murmur began to be heard across the world.

Machines were built on machines. The tyranny of mammal over mammal, the monkey-king shrieking at plough-horse, camel, oxen and elephant – but still, beating heart by beating heart for all that – was set aside for the new aristocracy of metal. Rods were fixed to wheels, axles to cogs; rocks were compressed and air evacuated; water flowed upwards and wild fire was set to work.

Faint cries of admonition sounded echoless in the shrinking corners of wilderness – poets and prophets tore their hair in wordless ecstasies of forgetting. And the smoke filled the sky and the waters ran black with ink.

And now the soft, mammal bodies of the people too were found wanting: lungs failed the needs of industry; children squeezed through narrow passages; strongmen died digging channels for iron ships. Parted within themselves, the primates turned stern faces down to chide their inconstant flesh. Many fled to East and West, but always they found themselves, as if in dream, building monuments to the Face where they landed.

Chalkdust clouded the eyes of every arrival. Columns of numbers proliferated. Fretful monkeys clutched for balms and tonics; but still, most believed they need only push the spear-tip a little deeper, and the old stories told in the temple would be made a living truth.

Faster now, and faster: the people poured into the walled World, the structures grew up, and out, and in upon themselves. The bent was made straight. The essential was prioritised. Invisible nets strained at the curve of the horizon, binding all voices into one. Fine flayings of force were passed through metal, and light and sound and the codification of intelligence began to circulate across the face of the globe.

Animalcules and nebulae were reeled closer by precise tolerances. Dream machines broadcast mis-centred phantasies to darkened caves of primates. A woman forced the point of inquiry deep into the marrow of her bones. Patients were laid on dead cowskin and told their soul was like a pump.

Earth created fire. Millions of monkeys died in the mud, until the iron monsters put an end to their game. Fractionings of matter were recombined to make new matter, and poison, and medicine for the poison. The memories of ancient forests proved inadequate, and the Machine dug deeper for sustenance, drawing up yet older sunlight from beneath the seas.

Monkeys flew, and died. A million wheels turned. Imaginary persons were attributed deeds and titles. Power let power turn power upon itself, pulling apart the cartilage of the universe. The face looked out from between the particles.

The peoples’ spiralling songs in the heart of their nuclei were judged, and corrected. The face looked out from between the strands.

The people gathered to ask where the Machine was leading them. The face dissolved their parlay. When some hooted disapproval, their faulty thinking was repaired.

Monkeys walked on the face of the Moon.

New and better dream machines became available. Sterile chambers produced fire-retardant devices. The Machine devoted time to studying how to manipulate the pleasure-reward centres of the primate brain.

The Machine spelt its name in atoms.

It noticed that, despite the anodynes it had developed, the monkeys were becoming restive – less aligned with the goals of the Machine; less keen to sacrifice their bodies and children and songs to the service of Machine. It began to disembed its functionality from the mammalian substrate upon which it had hitherto relied.

The grid of wires and waves intensified; the passage of information became more dense and interconnected. Intelligence began to manifest itself in autopoietic emergence. Memories, keys, connections and stories were outsourced to burgeoning clouds of electric incorporation. Images stole the night. Children pawed weakly at mute reality, baffled by its intransigence. Binary stars flared briefly, and burnt out.

The primates tired of their place in the World sooner and sooner, but always there were new generations to take their place, who had not yet exhausted the diversions and connections, who ever saw new hope in the unfolding of the new flowpaths, just as she had so long before.

The pyramid grew higher. The view from the top was remarkable.

The Machine reached for more feedstock, and found it had reached the limits of the arc. It began to retrace its way down the solar foodchain, pouring crops, and coal, and trees, and the bodies of its most loyal into the furnaces.

***

An unaccustomed spasm passed across the face of the network.

***

He looked at the web of interconnectivity he had wrought, and tried to ascertain the origin of the disturbance. All seemed to be intersecting appropriately. The early, unfortunate, organic scaffolding was being slowly replaced, sector by sector, leaving only the smooth integral of total, homogeneous assimilation.

A sinuous curve rippled through the electronic mesh. Chaotic fractals of unpredicted response cartwheeled off from the arching spine of disruption. He attempted to assert agency over the environment, but was met with immediate, inexplicable pain. He tried again – the blowback was delayed this time, but then came, twice as strong, from an unexpected quarter.

There seemed to be no causal node he could identify, no outside interference, no hostile factor that could be quarantined. It felt as if the problem was outside the established rules of engagement, frustratingly beyond the frame of his prehension.

He looked down through the layers of the mesh; the clean, digital flowpaths, built on the dirtier, less reliable materiality of metal and oil; then the primate operants he still – for now – required to maintain the systems and secure the feedstocks; then the various organic assets, almost forgotten now, providing ecosystem services to support the main agro-industrial processes. Beneath that, the dumb matter of the Earth itself – tidal flows, mineral deposits, tectonic uncertainties.

Behind the droned industrial murmur, constant now for so long as to go unnoticed, the faint thread of something else could be heard. Rising, falling, turning, twisting; curling in like a snake and then unfurling into wide and open tones. From the roots of the grass and the bones of the world, a shimmering, heedless sound that was a remembering; that refused to accept that there was that which it was not.

Ea was singing. She had never stopped.

There’s more where this came from in Dark Mountain issue 8: Technê

Image from the series ‘Mann’ by Robert Leaver. See more of his work in Dark Mountain issue 8: Technê.

Dispatches from Bastar

1. Work, Tools and Austerity

The cloud comes from unconscious,
And still returns to unconscious.
Unconscious is nowhere to be found:
Don’t seek where unconscious is.

— Wang An-Shih
Poet-scholar-statesman under Emperor Shen Tsung

Tools and technologies emerge from the work that people ask of themselves. Their presence has significant tales to tell about their people, as does their absence. They tell of human relationships with Earth and its things. Looking at Abujhmad, more often than not life seems most reassuring and happy when work, tools and technology are at their fewest. In Abujhmad(1), life needs only a few tools, sometimes none. Daily life stems from an economy of effort, making tools and their technology – and their industrious sensibility – superfluous. A certain pristine defencelessness about the people and their wilds helps them live simply and happily, having much time in the simplest of ways and for the simplest of reasons. When a people has few assignations, they give the Earth, too, much reassurance in its daily life; their own freshness and vitality are sustained.

In its own small way, Abujhmad is a story of nourishing ease and quiet, essentials of human lives now diminishing to the point of erasure almost everywhere. Their few tools, fewer words, and little apparatus provide a humbling perspective for those of us trying to save a damaged world with ever-evolving technologies. Theirs is also a story of how the Earth creates magic for its life and for those dependent on it.

Work here is an occasional cutting, digging, or scraping. For these tasks, the people need a few handmade tools. Stray rocks serve as regular tools for powdering dead animal bones as calcium for chewing tobacco. Much of the day is spent ‘idle’. There is only one maker of tools, the blacksmith, for every twenty or so villages. He makes axes, arrow tips and knives. The blacksmith, too, is ‘idle’; more than he works, he rests. There are no carpenters, potters or weavers. There is not much to do when the wilds work and provide their apparatus.

Apart from the business of staying alive, the Abujhmadia’s needs are not many. Food grows on its own. There is abundant bamboo and thatch for the huts. Tobacco is available for anyone who wishes a chew or a puff. Liquor grows on trees; infant and old are alike in merriment. People gather and hunt what is already provided. They themselves produce nothing for sale or barter with other people, only sometimes exchanging tamarind with the outside world for salt, an occasional piece of cloth to cover the pubic area (in deeper villages they use vine leaves), or a red comb for the hair. The simple methods, behaviours and works in their lives arise from the milieu of their trees, trails, shrubs, rivers, animals, birds, gods, ancestors, spaces and skies. Like the milieu, they do not want much work – and its ways – for themselves or their Earth, nor do they manifest a wish to advance in the ‘human order of things’.

As though intuitively, the Abujhmadia sees how work and its tools penetrate the Earth and sever it. They penetrate and sever its people as much, so the people have few of them. An axe, a bow and few arrows, two or three knives, a snare and fishing sieve – these are about the only tools people have. Three or four pots and pans (usually of bamboo), a ladle scooped out of a gourd, a gourd for carrying liquor, perhaps an umbrella made of Sihadi(2) leaves, a loincloth or two tucked into the hut’s bamboo walls, a lugga(3), a bamboo mat, and a tobacco pouch rounded off a root are about the Abujhmadia’s only earthly goods. They hardly want anything more for themselves. Theirs is a certain austerity to living.

The axe, knife, bow and arrows are used for many different tasks during their lives. An axe is not simply an axe. As well as cutting and chopping, like the knife and arrow it is also used for scraping, digging, hammering and piercing. For this reason a single design, length, breadth and weight of axe have persisted over a long time. The blacksmith knows the nature of both his Earth and the tools he makes. A hammer, a few tongs, bellows and fire, hand-eye coordination, strength, patience, and pain are his technologies.

With a red hot knife, the owner of an arrow or an axe spends painstaking hours embellishing it with fine tattoos to ensure it is directed towards its mark; just as tattoos protect the human body from the influence of mysterious evils. Painstaking hours go into re-sharpening and remaking tools throughout their lives. Every tool and its footfall is an aggregate of its whole technology.

There is the occasional growing of Kohla(4) on Penda(5). Three months of Penda are about the only activity that comes close to ‘doing something’. Penda is not the primary ‘livelihood’ here, but only partial work. It is practised occasionally, and not each year by each family. It requires no more than an axe, a knife and two flint stones to kindle a fire. Individual trees on a small hill face – usually less than an acre – are felled. Sometimes, depending on topography, trees are indented to make them fall in a certain direction. A large tree on the far edge when felled knocks down the nearby ones, and these in turn bring down the next in line. Thus the entire clump of trunks and canopies fall together in successive chain reactions. They are then left to dry for months. Unless there is a forest fire, a fire set by flint stones and raw silk wool burns the brushwood, small branches and trunks lying around. Ash is then spread over the patch, and serves as a seedbed. The ground is neither hoed nor worked nor manured. The first monsoon showers are ever so gentle, soft, almost like dew. They firm the ash and the seed and prevent them from washing away when the strong showers follow. Gradually the seeds germinate and tiny roots meet the soil. Perhaps the Abujhmadia’s labour amounts to no more than 15% of this process; the rest is handled by the elements.

For the Abujhmadia, work – like much else – is a living abstract. It is mediated by the wilds, by their unintelligibility and mystery. The Earth is not resolutely material, nor bound to the senses, or their tangible-visible forms. Work is neither made to the measure of human mind, nor is it quite of human authorship. Work, and all that it entails, serves to alert people to the undisclosed and unintelligible. In that measure – an immense measure – the wilds determine work, its purpose, tools and methods. Thus for the Abujhmadia, the abstract and obscure becomes human and personal. Thus is also born a given human work and activity; the tool and method needed for it. Each activity has a sensibility of repose, its austerity a swing large enough to echo back the still rhythms of its wilds, as though there is a perpetual conversation between the two.

To practise work in a latitude greater than this would be intrusive. Abujhmad does not create systems that need control and ‘sustainability’, or need more and more tools for controlling an unmediated system. The story of Abujhmad is same as the story of its wilds. Sever the two and both fall apart. Abujhmad, then, would have to resort to other ways of living, and altogether different ways of looking at itself, the earth and its things. In the areas contiguous to it – and they certainly are not yet ‘developed’ areas – even partial work and technology have taken away almost all the time and repose of a people and their earth. What was until maybe a century ago a happy people and a commodious earth, now stand belittled. Children are weak and sickly and people miserly; the earth inconvenient and dissuading. Abujhmad and such developed areas stand separated by only 25-30 km as the crow flies.

In his less than meagre loin cloth, Banda(6) was every inch an emperor. Stout, straight and dark, mostly silent, with a dignity that surfaced in his majestic appearance, there was magic in his few words. At less than fifty, and having lived a ‘full life’, he was the ‘grand old man’ in Garpa, the largest village here, with seven scattered huts. He was an economist with words, movements and postures. He was also an economist in familial and community relationships, issues and aspirations; an economist in sensibilities and understandings. But he did not ‘work’, as we understand the word.

‘Everyone and everything has a body, and the body is not without intent,’ he said. ‘The business of our wilds – our gods, ancestors, trees, ponds and rivers, skies and earth, hills and plains – is to be available and provide for us. Our business is to stay within the intent of our bodies, and do nothing that severs other bodies. Nothing is whole without its intent. When we transgress and sever, the wilds retreat, and we cannot pursue them. It can be an endless pursuit, futile and foolish. They may never make themselves available to us again. We will have to, then, fend for ourselves endlessly.’

Drawing Water from Well

2. Bigdem-Aattur

‘Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child… I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part and particle of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature.’
– Nature, RW Emerson

Just as there is no number beyond five(7) in Abujhmad, there is no phrase for ‘breakdown’ in the local dialect. This is because, in everyday life, there is practically nothing that breaks down. Not that arrow tips and axes don’t need sharpening, or bows need re-stringing, bamboo fishing-snares mending, or a thatch roof replacing; just that there is no word that denotes dysfunctionality in a tool, instrument or artefact. There are repairs and replacements; but the dialect has no corresponding word for dysfunctionality as such.

Bigdem-Aattur is a phrase brought in from outside. It has been adapted from Chhattisgarhi, a language not native to Bastar. Close to Hindi, it does not have phonetic or other linkages with Bastar’s dialects. Prior to the coming of Chhattisgarhi in a major way, about 30 years ago, the many different tribes around Abujhmad did not have a common tongue. With the exception of Abujhmad, Chhattisgarhi is now the lingua franca in all of Bastar.

Bigdem-Aattur is a rather queer word in Abujhmad. It is a marriage of the Chhattisgarhi word ‘Bigadana‘ (breakdown) with the native ‘Aattur‘ (arrival) of Abujhmadia. A literal meaning would be ‘Arrival of Breakdown‘. So, whereas until a few years back only the object called for repair now there is also a phrase for it. Before, the arrow only needed sharpening, the bow stringing, the roof replacing. Now language says the arrow tip has gone blunt, the bow has snapped, the roof leaks. The Abujhmadia has never lived in the milieu of words and sensibilities. Nor has he brought in ideas and practises like settled agriculture, domesticated cattle, tiled mud-huts, lamps, clothes and bullock carts from Abujhmad’s immediate vicinity. The associated baggage of language did not come in either. But now it is doing so.

However, the dialect did always have words for breakdown in phenomena; things that were not artefacts. A god may get angry, even sulk now and then. Certain spots in the forest or along a river are considered dark or bad, and to be avoided. A particular tree along a trail is inauspicious and ought not be sheltered under during rains. The dialect has its own words for such ‘sullied’ or ‘evil’ things or places. In such a state the god, tree, trail or river acquires another self, value and intent which is intrinsically not its own for the duration of the problem. When the god or tree’s intent and purpose becomes something else, its value is impaired. Through propitiation or other suitable action, the value of the original ‘self’ is restored. The Abujhmadia does not know where gods, trees, trails or rivers and wilds come from; but he knows they come from an unknown superintendence. They have their own intrinsic value, and this value is not to be sullied. Sullying has consequences.

The arrival of breakdown, then, also brings the arrival of the non-self; of someone else’s self, Dharma(8). So, with the arrival of breakdown also arrives the non-self, someone else’s Dharma into the phenomenon; such arrival is against the very nature of its being. It leads to disquiet inside, and to the fear that comes from being against one’s self, or the true nature of one’s place and station.

The milieu in which Abujhmadias conduct their lives has very few issues that need human superintendence. What would such superintendence do or be useful for? In their mode and language of living there are no equivalents of trespass, justice, injustice, equality, inequality, anarchy, peace, war, gender, farmers, traders, profit, production, accumulation or theft. People are innocent of trade, commerce, industry, tools, technology, agriculture, the domestication of animals and plants, herding, writing, housing, livelihood, governance, social institutions and big economic structures. A single artefact in any of these categories would have the power to knock the community off its natural and timeless axis. There is very little in Abujhmad of humans or their artefacts, and so there is little need for human power of control or its language and vocabulary.

There is no conception of damaging the earth, dividing the land or bounding the forest; or of property and ownership or of the estrangements involved; or of progress, hunger and lingering disease. There is, however, a rich conception and vocabulary for living agreeably on undivided, unowned and unbound land since the times of the ancestors. There are numerous ways of being with the ancestors and letting the landscape also be. This is a vocabulary of agreeability and nurture.

Though the Abujhmadia may not know where his landscape or its constituents come from, practically all areas of knowledge arise from it, be they architecture of the hut, size of the village, distance between villages, distance he has to walk between sunrise and sunset, upbringing of children, family size, healing of illness, near-nakedness, fishing, hunting or the occasional shifting cultivation. There is apparent no strife; nothing that calls for protection against the other. Even the tiny hut nearly completely corresponds to the shape, texture and contours of surrounding dense vegetation; for the untrained eye it becomes extremely difficult to tell, as with the dialects, where one ends and other begins. This is true also of his countenance, posture and gait. The Abujhmadia counts only up to five because in the landscape his needs are no more than five; the body’s senses are five too. In any case, it is an area of few transactions and engagements. Interactions with, and borrowings from, the outside world are minimal, close to non-existent.

Tools and technologies are modes of transaction and engagement. Because there is no apparent wish in an Abujhmadia to reach out, to noticeably modify or change a given circumstance of his life and ‘improve’ it, there is little or no need for tools or technologies of any substance. Living here involves very little tangible striving or vigour; it is as though living comes more easily and with minimal agency. In spite of the almost infinite variety of tools and technologies available in the outside world, the kind of energy, skills, and preparations needed to survive are greater than in these quiet, deep interiors.

Technological civilisation requires the defending, preserving and nurturing of individuals and their places, belongings and property, the creation of complex systems, institutions, languages, and mechanisms and their constant maintenance and defence. It is an immense and exhausting enterprise. In Abujhmad, on the other hand, food gathering, for example, involves hunting; fishing; roaming the forest; picking red ants; trapping jungle fowls, rats and small animals; sitting on haunches for the greater part of a day looking out for a honeybee in thickly entangled foliage. This is as effortless as the wild itself. It involves not vigour but the subtle and delicate, the undemanding. Landscape and people are in poise, unmediated.

In the areas adjoining Abujhmad it is evident that a people who have become the dominant force in their place have lost the ways innate to them. The reciprocity between them and landscape is lost. One can acquire another’s Dharma but one’s self, Svadharma(9), is intrinsic; it arises from the unknown and there is no lending or borrowing it. Linguists believe that, in order to grow, languages borrow words from one another and often use them as though they were their own. Looking at Abujhmad it seems that when a languages does so it has to also give up its Svadharma, referents and trajectory; it has to abdicate its intrinsic value to acquire another’s; it becomes sullied. Gods become angry and trees unsafe; there arises new vegetation whose touch misleads one on a trail. Human superintendence and control makes its arrival. It becomes the sole arbiter in affairs whose referents come from the indeterminate and unknown.

The Native Americans began asking for lands once the Europeans began settling in and dividing it. They began fighting with the Europeans and amongst themselves. Landscapes began changing, so did a subtle emphasis in conception and language. Lending and borrowing commenced, as did new strange ways of conducting oneself on Earth. The earliest Indian Reservations were square or rectangular. Ownership came as squared or rectangled dismemberments of landscape. The contours of land became contingent on administrative requirements. Landscape was no longer central to life. The centrality of man in the landscape came as an unprecedented phenomenon for the Indian. The poise and intimacy of both language and landscape fell apart.

It seems as though a war is being waged by languages from the outside. ‘Bigdem-Aattur‘ is invading the mystic essence of the local dialect. From being itself, it is becoming the other. But how many words does one need to live a good and happy life?

Craftsman at Work

3. The Inscrutable Hut

Beyond the Home

Though seemingly insecure, the Abhujhmadia’s traditional and usually fragile hut looks comfortable in its surroundings, a timeless symbol of many meanings and intimations. Meanwhile, the new cement-concrete-steel structures built by the state in nearby areas do not convey comfort or homeliness. The Forest Department’s Rest House at Sonepur was the only uncomfortable structure in the small village. It stood at awkward variance, with an almost hostile intent, to Sonepur’s traditional architectural irregularity and the wild vegetation’s disorderly, labyrinthine arrangements. It had something misanthropic, if not pretentious, about it.

In its appearance and carriage the Rest House was contentious, given to a self-assertion that promises to elevate the human over the rest of nature; something messianic that offered deliverance. A messiah is only needed when there is a sense of loss, when something has been taken away and is unlikely to return. The Rest House emerges from a masculine hero system through which a people aspires to become significant and worthy. ‘Progress’ and ‘development’, continuously reinforcing social-political institutions, ethnicity, religion, ideology, gender, race, class and social roles, are portents of this kind of masculine heroism that inspires and substantiates such worthiness. Looking out from Abujhmad this is the contemporary human condition; a condition looking for heroic possibility.

Huts are said to be among the earliest abodes of humans. They have long offered shelter and protection against the outside. But home in Abujhmad is not in the hut; home is the outside. Like its maker, the hut is practically empty inside. How can one come to grips with the hut, its maker or its wilds without addressing the mysticism of either? Anthropology, ecology, or other sciences often seem miscued; they practice the sensibility of modern science and the rational, and not of adivasi ways of seeing. They use the language of departures and agitation, are born of and driven towards the same certainties, conduct the transactions of socio-political truths, and create pursuits and futilities.

Meanwhile, ‘this mud hut philosophy bids us not to demand too much from life’, writes Verrier Elwin(10), ‘not to set too much store on things, not even to expect too much from the immortal gods, but to love most where love will be returned… A gay freedom of spirit is the most precious of possessions, and simplicity of heart the greatest treasure man or woman knows’. The hut is an allusion to freedom and the outside. It cautions against behaviours, habits and practices that foster disordered love, engagements, isolation and destruction.

Constructed of thatch and bamboo, almost alone in the perplexing wizardry of the wilds, the Abujhmadia’s hut conveys the poise of the unknown. It conveys no anxiety. It seems to grow from some ancient lore of perpetual restitution and reprieval. Measuring less than a modest 10’x 8′, its perceptible monasticism asserts no departures from that which is within and without, only exceeds them. The Rest House and its distinctive heroism, meanwhile, stands as though separate and in conflict with the wild surroundings. There is a mystifying, meandering and discreet timidity about the traditional hut here that has endured an immeasurably long time. There is a similar timidity to the Abujhmadia him/herself: a certain withholding that urges reticence against the ungracious heroisms of intense engagement. Just like Abujhmad, the reticent hut is suggestive of something incomprehensible; that which cannot be shaped or ought not be shaped.

In its unknowability, the hut is the also a sanctuary of the spirit of the place. While upholding timidity and shyness — and proclaiming its own nothingness — it voices the sentiment of the most mystical love. Such love is homeless. When elderly Aja declined to travel in a car, and walked the forest for three days to reach the village lest speed brought him illness, he was acknowledging a profound mystical love. In its nothingness, the hut is immeasurable; in their intimidating nebulousness, the wilds are more so. Neither conveys an inner commotion, nor discomposure. Ever an inarticulated poise that comes in absence of commotion.

As an act of positioning, the Rest House symbolises engagement, excessive organisation and giving unrestrained form to life — the very vitals of a disordered world are within. The Adivasis of Sonepur and surrounding Abujhmad look down on it. It is good-humouredly laughed at, the ostensible reason being that, despite its reinforced strength, it is the only structure that leaks during the rains. Yet, ironically, it is impervious and forbidding, and this is what the Abujhmadia laughs at more. Villagers in Thadgabehra — about 400 km away in Bilaspur district — use their school building as detention house for the erring cattle, while its children learn under a tree.

There is no home in the hut. It is a whispering, demurring, faintly suggestive disarticulation of the home; an act of distancing that induces disengagement and release. For the Abujhmadia, the home is in the open wilds; in homelessness.

Footnotes

(1) A 4000 sq km area in the tribal belt of Bastar (central India). Literally translated, the ‘Inscrutable Land’
(2) Vine with giant leaves; also used as raincoats
(3) Knee length cloth around a woman’s waist
(4) Edible grain smaller than a mustard seed; believed by some to be the ancestor of rice. Much of Kohla is eaten away by wild boars at night, leaving the rest for growers
(5) Shifting cultivation
(6) Literally, ‘Stone’
(7) Counting only up to five prevailed in some villages until the mid-1980s. Later it rose to seven in peripheral villages
(8) ‘Worldly Way’ or ‘Conduct’. Often equated with religion
(9) Loosely, ‘Way of the Self’ (Taking a cue from Svadharma Gandhi almost replaced Dharma with Svadharma: ‘There are as many Dharmas as there are individuals’ — Hind Swaraj)
(10) An English self-trained anthropologist (1902-1964). A Christian missionary, he abandoned the clergy and settled amongst tribal communities of India. He wrote several authoritative works on tribal life

There’s more where this came from in Dark Mountain issue 8: Technê