Two tribes

I’m going to take some breaks from my neo-peasant analysis and start weaving in a few other stories. I think they’ll help to build the bigger picture. And I feel like some time off from Excel spreadsheets. So to start with, in this post I’m going to describe my recent weekend among two strange tribes.

The first tribe I visited was holed up for three days at Bristol University, where it was holding a pow-wow called ‘Radical Technology Revisited’. The backstory here involves an influential and eponymous book, published exactly forty years ago in 1976, by a group of countercultural techies gathered around the Centre for Alternative Technology in North Wales. A fine opportunity, then, for a retrospective on the concerns set out in the book, and the way the world looks now.

Perhaps you can already imagine the demographic of the conference, but let me underline it by noting that Rob Hopkins (b.1968) was invited as a discussant to represent ‘the voice of youth’. I thought he did a good job, and he celebrated the assembled authors for influencing (slightly) younger activists of his and my generation and for not, as he put it, going down the ‘Stewart Brand route’ of ecomodernism as they grew older. It was nicely judged praise, and I’d echo the respect he offered to CAT authors like Peter Harper, whose lively iconoclasm is a refreshing voice in the green movement. But in relation to the Stewart Brand route, after listening to a few of the presentations I’ve got to say that, by God, it’s a close-run thing.

In the transport session, for example, those of us who live in the countryside were invited to raise our hands, and were then ritually humiliated for our carbon-intensive sins. In other sessions, the impetus towards rural self-reliance in the original book was recanted as an ‘Arcadian vision’, while Tara Garnett of the Food Climate Research Network, though setting out clearly some of the tensions around the idea of local food, also opted for the pejorative language of idylls, romance and nostalgia in her characterization of the green and local food movements. In the food session, Martin Ince confidently proclaimed the certainty that nobody actually wants to engage in labour-intensive small-scale farming.

I’ve written before about these ubiquitous, ahistorical and apolitical stereotypes, but permit me to twist the stick once again. If, over several centuries, you remove ordinary people from access to productive land; if you arrange agriculture to produce a small number of commodity crops for distant markets using exotic inputs rather than serving its locality; if you allow food prices and land prices to get so out of kilter that almost nobody can afford to farm, that only rich people can afford to live in the countryside, and that poor farmers globally need to search for paid work wherever the pull of the global economy takes them; and if you impose a car-based infrastructure on the countryside while systematically stripping it of services and public transport, then, yes, it’s probably fair to say that it’s greener to live in the city and that few want to be small-scale farmers. But there’s no reason to accept all that as given. After two centuries of relentless urbanist propaganda, we’ve almost lost even the very language with which we might plausibly set out radical ruralist alternatives. And so people reach for the easy pejoratives of ‘Arcadia’, ‘rural idylls’, ‘romanticism’, ‘nostalgia’ and so on. Meanwhile, the ecological footprint of cities like London exerts an ever-increasing chokehold across the globe, while urbanites congratulate themselves on their ethical ways, and urban dysfunctions proliferate. When can we start talking of urban idylls?

After the conference, I read historian Peter Linebaugh’s pamphlet Ned Ludd & Queen Mab: Machine-Breaking, Romanticism, and the Several Commons of 1811-12, which was kindly given to me as a gift by Aaron Vansintjan of Uneven Earth. And then I started reading Eric Wolf’s classic Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century. Despite the undeniable pull of capitalism’s ‘if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em’ logic, I think critics, journalists and intellectuals have a responsibility to remember the working people – including small-scale farmers – who have also flatly contested it, sometimes at the cost of their lives. Historically, there have been very many of them.

Still, there were a few complicating voices at the conference. Herbert Girardet was one of them, undermining the whole urban idyll argument with the simple, subversive observation that the newly urbanizing masses of India and China increase their carbon footprints by a factor of 4 or 5 over their rural counterparts when they move to the city. He also noted the pull of urbanization in the route out of poverty it offered. To my mind, these comments were about as clear an incitement to think about low-impact rural development as a global strategy as it’s possible to have. But that would involve a truly radical politics and, sad to say, that wasn’t the flavour of this conference. For the most part, it was about as radical as an editorial in The Times. My sense was of a bunch of guys (and indeed they were mostly male) who emerged from their flirtation with 1960s counterculture and the back-to-the-landism of the time into vaguely progressive mainstream careers which have instilled in them the sense of authority to dismiss radical politics as naïve or parochial – words that recurred throughout the conference. Ah well, they’ve probably done more good with the urban car clubs and housing estates they’ve designed than I have by growing a few tons of silly vegetables.

By the end of the first day I was thoroughly riled by what I was hearing, betraying my anger in a comment from the floor that probably made me sound like an idiot. I’m not quite sure why the proceedings got so under my skin. I guess I’m just another imperfect human being, one who’s heard the urban idyll trotted out a few too many times, and one with an aversion to the overconfident authoritativeness affected by people (men, usually) at professional conferences. I guess I’d hoped for something a bit more…radical. Still, I do agree with Peter Harper’s comment that radical green thinkers need to do some maths to flesh out their visions. So we’ll be heading back to neo-peasant Wessex soon…

But meanwhile there was a whole different shout going on down in Devon – Dark Mountain’s annual get together, where I’d been asked to speak to the theme of ‘Land literacy and farming on the edge of extinction’. It was quite a change of scene – more women, more young people, more radicalism. I don’t know how fully signed up I am to Dark Mountain’s manifesto, but I like the fact that the Dark Mountain project at least questions conventional narratives of progress and civilisation in a world of consumption, and confronts the possibility that mere optimism may not be enough to sort our problems. I like the fact too that Dark Mountain is looking for some different stories to tell.

I shared the platform with Cate Chapman (Ecological Land Co-op) and Molly Campbell (a US-based indigenous food activist). Our story in a nutshell was this: me – there’s no single, correct narrative of ‘land literacy’ or farming, there are no silver bullets, and we can neither overcome nature nor merely mimic it in our farming practice, but we need more people in agriculture, more work, and to do that we need to challenge large-scale landownership; Cate – the Ecological Land Co-op is one practical model for how we can go about getting more people into agriculture; Molly – there are traditional food knowledges that are in danger of being commodified just as their bearers are in danger of being obliterated. I thought the session went OK, and covered about as much as was possible in an hour or so, but afterwards someone told me she’d disliked our presentations, and so had everyone else in the audience she’d talked to. “There are lots of people singing in the green valley”, she told me, adding that we’d failed to address the role of art in achieving agrarian change. I didn’t have too much of a response at the time. I’d pretty much had my fill of conferences for the weekend. I had some business to attend to in Wales, and a side-trip planned to Snowdonia, where I often go to give my soul respite. And my soul certainly needed some respite. I made my excuses and left.

The next day I hiked alone into Cwm Llafar – one of the less frequented valleys in one of the less frequented parts of the national park. No one else was there, and no one knew that I was there either, which suited me just fine. The last time I’d been here was thirty years ago, in winter, when I climbed an ice route that weaved up the formidable cliff of Ysgolion Duon at the valley’s head. I must have been a different person then. The route looked terrifying. I’d climbed it with my Chacal ice axes, state-of-the-art technology in the 1980s but, now on permanent loan to my impecunious son, objects of ridicule in his university climbing club for their laughable antiquity. Modern axes are superior, lighter, with clever convexities in shaft and pick. That, I think, is radical technology. That, I think, is progress.

From the head of Cwm Llafar, a steep path breaks right past rocks smoothed by a curtain of gently slipping water to flank the cliff of Llech Ddu up into the subsidiary valley of Cwmglas Bach. Approaching the path, I startled a group of wild Carneddau horses. They cantered away from me, but as they climbed the hillside, a foal detached itself from the group and came galloping back, straight at me. It broke to my right just before it reached me, and then circled curiously. Probably born this year in this same remote valley, it occurred to me that it may never have seen a human being before. I slowly reached out a hand towards it, but it snorted and then wheeled away. Somehow, that encounter quenched my desire to climb my chosen route. I followed the pull of the path for a while, lost it several times and slowed to take in my surroundings, then found the path again and pressed on. Eventually, I located my ridge and started up it.

The climbing was easy, but the rock was greasy, and the route steepened into a forbidding veil of mist. I became uncomfortably aware of the yawning cliff beneath my feet, and the fact that no one knew I was there started to seem less comforting. A dark mountain indeed, with two stories of the future playing in my head. One placed me contentedly in the pub that evening, quietly satisfied with another route well climbed. The other placed my lifeless body at the foot of Llech Ddu with only the horses for company until someone eventually found it. In an anti-Cortesian move, I left my rucksack at the base of a tower on the misty ridge, ensuring that I’d have to turn back at some point. And soon enough I did, leaving the summit for another day and spending a reflective hour exploring these two green valleys where I was all alone.

No, there aren’t nearly enough people singing in the green valley. And if all they’re doing is singing in it, then I’m not for them but for the people who are growing their food. Stories count for little in themselves. What matters is their material consequences. To me, the role of art in peopling the green valley lies somewhere between the minimal and the non-existent. And the same probably goes for radical technology.

A weekend among two foreign tribes, then, followed by a little time to myself. And then I was happy to get back to the farm. On the track our cat had cornered a mouse, and was toying with it, rather unenthusiastically. Knowing I was watching, perhaps she thought I might give her some food and save her the trouble. But every time the mouse tried to scamper away it triggered her predatory instinct, and she went after it. Then the mouse would turn, drawing itself up to its full height (which wasn’t much), and fronting up to its tormentor. For her part, the cat seemed unnerved by its bravery, batting at it only half-heartedly. Eventually the mouse managed to sidle away. The cat trotted off, cultivating an air of dignity. And I went in to the warmth of my hearthside, my family, my tribe.

21 thoughts on “Two tribes

  1. Hello Chris – Many thanks for your post and for the mention of Base Camp. As one of the curators of this session I was rather dismayed to hear you were criticised and that folk disliked the presentions. That was not my impression and I thought your, Cate’s and Molly’s real-life work stories (as well as Anne-Marie Culhane’s report from her collaborative art project ‘Field of Wheat’) were fascinating and very inspiring.

    The event wasn’t set up as a discussion about art and agrarian reform but to ask the question: ‘In our mostly-urbanised world, how can we forge intimacy with the land? Which stories of land connection hold us in good stead in a time of crisis? And which paths are trodden by those at the edge; the edge of urbanity, of civilisation, and of capitalism?’

    This seeds-and-stories-to-share session formed part of the gathering’s wider look at our relationship with land (ranging from a performance of the history behind land rights, ‘Three Acres and a Cow’ to encountering the non-human world with David Abram to raising in toast with a celebratory mead made from 20 hedgerow flowers and fruits). The key metaphor for Base Camp, was the restorative quality (for people and soil) of the fava or field bean, now being grown again as a food crop in East Anglia.

    Molly Campbell tallked about her work with the preservation of wild rice lakes and reintroduction of buffalo in Minnesota and South Dakota. When the buffalo returned so did the prairie and flowers and species that were presumed extinct. Given the right conditions the seeds that are dormant in ourselves will return. Hearing these kinds of stories can help people thrive because they are not the disempowering stories we hear every day from our monocultural media.

    Often people want big political head-bashing about social justice and the behemoth that is the global industrial food system. There are reasons and places to have those discussions but at Base Camp we were focusing on the small diverse stories that give a culture its meaning and its strength in times of crisis: one bean at a time!

    Thanks again for coming Chris and talking about those challenges. as well as your farm. It was great to meet you.

    With very best wishes,

    Charlotte

    • Hi Charlotte, it was good to meet you too. Probably the critique I heard wasn’t very representative of audience reaction in general – certainly the sense I got was that the session interested a lot of the people who were there. But it doesn’t take much to make me grumpy – that’s why they gave me this blog to keep me out of harm’s way… Hence my irascible reflections on green valleys from the isolated Snowdonia uplands. Thanks for filling in the context of the session, and indeed for inviting me to speak at it…

  2. Ah, liberal urban idylls.
    We have to remember that we have a perspective, they don’t.
    Those books about the city as a non-place really do have substance. So to speak.

  3. A very interesting article.
    I once, well more than once, read that people, finding it hard to deal with nature’s erraticness, create cities according to their own limited, linear thinking and after a while this visual representation of their linear thinking becomes the reality in which they live and to which they relate. Thus they become completely detached from the chaotic, rounded shapes and forms of nature, experiencing it eventually as alien or even dangerous. Your story/experience seems to reflect that theory.
    This dark mountain-thing looks interesting.

  4. Personally, I have never understood the art crowd, and I say that as someone with a Bachelor of Fine Arts, and a B.Design.

    What I mean is that art follows agrarianism. First we feed ourselves, then we create songs we sing while labouring. Then we carve, in the long winter nights, decorations on our handles.

    Amusingly, I see this in urban design discussions all the time; you can’t go to a meeting without someone ringing on about how a mosaic pathway is surely the answer. And you walk around the city and see all the forgotten mosaic pathways leading to a bench nobody sits in…

  5. A comment below from John Boxall, who couldn’t get past the site’s captcha. If anyone else is having trouble with this please do contact me via the contact form to let me know, Chris.

    ~~~

    Rather like Chaucer, I will start my comment with an apology. I am a second generation ‘past it parent’ so I have some knowledge of how my parents got around prior to the 2nd World War. In addition to this I am – amongst other things interested in Railways & Paddle Steamers.

    I hope what follows is understandable both to the non railway enthusiast and to the non UK reader………….

    One of the biggest differences in environmental impact between the rural and urban dweller is over transport. Rural dwellers have less access to public transport and have to travel further, making walking or cycling less likely

    Rather in the same way neo liberalism has shaped the political debate without us being aware of it, transport technology has shaped our expectations of mobility. In neo peasant Wessex our expectations will be radically different and hence our environmental impact.

    The other subject that as far as I am aware has never been studied is the history and economics of rural and agricultural transport. It clearly does not help that three methods of transport are involved, Railways which are fairly well documented, buses which are much more ephemeral and waterways. One of the few writers who has alluded to the subject is Guardian Country Diary writer Virginia Spiers who writes about the Tamar Valley and how the market gardeners relied on the river boats.

  6. Thanks for the various comments. Good to know I’m not the only one who struggles with the urban idyll. And good point John about agrarian transport and its history – each development in transport systems has further opened up food markets to delocalisation (well documented by Cronon in the USA). Definitely something I’d like to look at in more detail.

    Thanks for the praise, Brian, which is gratefully accepted. I’m only grumpy when people presume to criticise me…

  7. Chris , you are a hands on type , you live with the foibles of small farm living understand and respect the natural world .
    City slickers talk about it expound their theories but never do anything but hold discusions to tell us how to do it , most of their ideas have been tried and failed over the last couple of centuries , they don’t have to make their ideas work , we homesteaders have to make it work , we don’t have a cozy office or a steady income to fall back on , I no longer go to the seminars or listen to the hippyfied bull shit expounded there , I listen to others living my lifestyle and learn from them .

  8. Thanks for sharing Chris. I’m in favour of the rural idyll. I’ve tried curing my romanticism several times – a stint working in forestry almost did it – bloody hard work that and all piece work – not really neo anything just somewhat exploited, if we did really well on a job we’d take a day off so that the managers didn’t know their pricing was ‘out’ and reset it. While I was in the woods i met lots of people who planned a career in forestry – driving around the woods in a landrover telling others what work they should be doing. I suspect those at the first conference fell into that sort of category – and having risen to such importance any system that suggested we didn’t need them must surely be unrealistic.

    I’ve also, on occasion tried to fall for the “if you can’t beat them join them” logic of capitalism – I’m not much of a joiner really – an empty valley sounds good to me.

    Less sure about the links between art and agrarianism (or any other ism) – Ruben says art follows work but we live stories – they shape what seems possible – what else is the overton window but the bounds of plausibility.

  9. Hello from Vermont, Chris! This artistic piece of writing combines subtle meaning and big messages. Interestingly done. (:

    Some days it seems like all the radicals masturbate to centralized smart technology and all the simple ecological small farmers are racist gun-toting conservatives. Those are good days to go hiking by yourself.

    Sam

  10. Really great piece, always enjoy the stories and perspectives you share. It’s better than watching a TV show—I’m curious which thought-and practice-turns your life will take.
    Thanks for the little mention! A piece about accelerationism and degrowth coming your way soon.

  11. Thanks for the further comments. Being called a “hands on type” is fine praise indeed, since I sometimes feel more like a college professor who got lost on the way to the auditorium and ended up running a farm. And “Better than watching a TV show” is one of the best endorsements Small Farm Future has ever had. Keep the compliments flowing, folks, or else Mr Grumpy WILL return…

    And talking of running a farm, La Brassicata has left me in sole charge of both farm and household while she heads off for a well-deserved break, so apologies for not engaging more with comments or writing anything new. I’ve previously critiqued on here the notion that small-scale farming is backbreaking work…maybe I was wrong…

  12. Chris, I have tried submitted blog posts on the problems that urban concentration causes for agriculture, but had them rejected because they would offend to many city-dwellers.

    No matter, alone in the wilderness is always a good thing these days. I am planning my annual trip for a few weeks from now.

    • Good to read, Andrew, that you share that problem. Working with a much more “public” profile, you are much more constrained than my blog. Still, I complete a lot of posts that on second thought get tossed aside. Increasingly I find that there is such a growing divide between the rural and the urban in the US that a shared starting place for discussion is difficult.

  13. Regarding the urban vs rural argument: isn’t it the case that the most sustainable… err regenerative…. err….resilient (what are we calling it again these days?) cultures in all of history were far less urbanized than the modern world? Further, it’s my understanding that as they grew more urban, they generally grew less sustainable, i.e. increasing urbanism often occurring in the period immediately prior to decline or collapse (e.g. the Mayan civilization).

    One of the primary tip-offs to me of dogmatism (and attendant fallacious reasoning) in today’s sustainability wars is the refusal of proponents of a theory to submit it to the test of history – if it’s workable, then often, you will find historical precedent. (This approach isn’t foolproof, of course, but functions a bit like Occam’s Razor) Another area where our impoverished sense of history as a culture (aka cultural narcissism) blinds us.

    BTW, I absolutely *love* the stuff coming out of the DMP, and, like you, I think their quest to find new stories is a vital one. I think it’s correct to say that stories, narratives, myths will determine the path forward – whether these are new stories of connection and community (and Carnival! as David Fleming might add), or old ones of alienation and antipathy, will make a huge difference.

    As such, I’m very sorry to hear that one arrogant art student nearly spoiled that gathering for you. Sounds like the type who might have instructed the mouse in the use of art as defense-against-cat…

  14. Whatever one’s opinions of the urban/rural divide, if we take the millions in urban concentrations like Londinium and somehow get 20 per cent of them producing food on small ecological farms, how will that not create new sprawl that effectively urbanises the rural, requiring new buildings, roads, associated infrastructure, associated emissions, etc? Don’t get me wrong, I am taken with a future of little earth-bunded, off-grid, off-pipe dwellings tucked away on Arcadian farms as far as the eye can see, I just struggle to see how it’ll work out on the ground bearing in mind the weight of numbers. (Loved the post btw).

  15. Thanks for the further comments. Simon, you’re jumping the gun – I haven’t started writing about Londinium yet! But to give you a sneak preview, I’m not especially in favour of the kind of radical de-urbanisation that would turn Londoners into peasants. Nor, however, am I in favour of the kind of of breathless cheerleading for the city that is all too common nowadays. I think cities are basically quite problematic – and I agree with Oz on the historical record in this respect. Regarding what you call the new sprawl, I’d be interested in other people’s views on this. Mine, in brief, would be that, yes, if it was just about decanting city dwellers to the countryside, it would be disastrous. But it’s not. A good deal of the sprawl, the roads and the infrastructure we now suffer is all about getting people from distant city to distant city as quickly as possible, or else about getting goods to them as quickly as possible, or else about building the intermediate infrastructure that’s necessary for getting the goods to them in the contemporary fast economy. In a neo-peasant situation, a lot of that goes out the window – the whole point of it is that you’re substantially furnishing your own needs locally. So no new roads etc. and a much reduced intermediate economy. I don’t dispute that the human ecology (let alone the politics and economics) of implementing such a transformation would be hugely challenging – but then again every possible response to contemporary problems is hugely challenging.

    Interesting mention of David Fleming, Oz – I’m writing a review of his book currently. There’s so much that needs saying about carnival…

    Oh, and hi Sam & Aaron – nice to hear from you both!

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