A fishy story – thinking about the commons

People often look at the allotment and say – “surely you must be self-sufficient, now?” Well no we’re not, and I’m not a bit sure I even agree with the concept which always strikes me as being isolating and rather egocentric. We learn to become more human by living in interdependent communities. Although the allotment site often feels like and even functions as a sort of village, aside from our 200 square meter plot there’s nowhere we can graze an animal or run a few chickens; nowhere close we can easily forage for the things we can’t grow, and nowhere to gather most of the medicinal herbs that take up more space than we can afford. Of course there are plenty of opportunities to forage far and wide for them – way beyond where we live but the whole point of the Commons is to bring to hand all of the above, plus firewood to a small community. Without commons the community has less reason to live, work, celebrate and lament together; as many people who move into the countryside discover when they soon start to feel lonely. The 21st century default position is to live like strangers, and whilst we worship the wild, we have very little idea of how to learn from it and celebrate with it.

Back in 2020 I was searching the local bookshops to find a copy of Gary Snyder’s “The Practice of the Wild”. I’ll say a little more about the book later, but I’ll begin with one of the most depressing conversations I’ve had in years.  So I walked into Waterstones and searched the most likely places for anything written by him. Poetry? zilch! ….  ecology? zilch! ….. spirituality? ditto!  Eventually I resorted to the cash desk and asked a bright young bookseller – “have you got anything by Gary Snyder?” ….. “Who’s Gary Snyder?” he replied.

That I was quite so shocked caused me to wonder not so much about the illiteracy of the bookseller, suckled on the mayfly life expectancy of our current literary scene; but about the diminishing of that whole culture which existed for perhaps five millennia in which the urgent existential questions we face today were first identified and often answered. For me, Gary Snyder is one of those thinkers who raised the waters from that well and brought them into the 20th century for us. He is – at 91 years old – so much more than a short-lived Beat Poet. Our culture is locked into a groundhog day in which the hard gained wisdom of the past is clearcut and replanted with fashions that rarely survive twenty years. In the absence of a literary canon, we fret our lives away, endlessly seeking solutions to long solved problems. We live in windowless bunkers of our own making. 

So one of the chief sadnesses of growing old in our Western modern and postmodern  wordview; is that the canon – musical, literary, poetic, spiritual and liturgical which has been both lighthouse and lifeboat to us, is breaking up and sinking, and these sharp and careless reminders leave me feeling adrift. “Never mind” I say to myself “where you are is the only place to begin”  – or put it in (I think) RS Thomas’s words, echoing Odysseus in the dim past before the troubles began; ‘home is the harbour you set out from’. And I’m immediately unsure of the quotation because we’re camped on a clifftop field in Pembrokeshire overlooking Ramsey Island and away from any confirmation by books, internet and even my mobile which drifts in and out of consciousness like a dying man. Ithaca feels a long way away. 

Sadly the book was easily available on Amazon and arrived from an American publisher a few days later, priced in dollars; but at least I tried; but I flunked the opportunity of sharing its significance with the young bookseller who might – had I convinced him to read it – have sold it to many other seekers.  Gary Snyder has a lot to say about commons.

When we arrived here we found the campsite engulfed in a thick sea-mist that looks set to stay for a couple of days, so the presence of the sea and Ramsey island are extremely notional at the moment. However I struck up a conversation with a neighbouring campervanner and in the course of one of those long meandering chats, full of oxbows, he told me a story. He used to be, he told me, a professional lobster fisherman but he lost his best friend and deckhand to a rival fisherman after jointly surviving being swamped by a massive wave with the help of  a powerful engine and a lot of luck. Most people have a story to tell, but his wife – having heard it many times in the past – left us and wandered off to a more congenial conversation nearby that involved a comparison of the number of medications the participants were taking.  Non fatal illness is such fun – it seems. Anyway the coda to the fisherman’s yarn was by far the most interesting bit and here’s where Gary Snyder’s discussion of the so-called tragedy of the commons comes in:

“So what about the so-called tragedy of the commons? This theory, as now popularly understood, seems to state that when there are open access rights to a resource, say pasturage, everyone will seek to maximise his take and overgrazing will inevitably ensue. [ …….. ]  When [Hardin et al]  try to apply their model to the historic commons it doesn’t work, because they fail to note that the commons was a social institution which, historically, was never without rules and did not allow unlimited access.”

Source – Cox, Susan and Jane Buck – “No tragedy in the commons” – Environmental Ethics, Spring 1985.

Rough justice

I asked the retired fisherman – now a builder – why did his deckhand and friend leave the boat? Was it the day they were nearly engulfed by a wave?  “No”, he said, “he moved to a better paid deckhand’s job on another boat”; and went on to explain that the other boat was owned by a man who had previously fished in Cornwall, and had developed a reputation for stealing other fishermen’s gear.  In the end, tempers boiled over and he was confronted and told that unless he took his boat out of the county  it would be taken and sunk.  “Fishermen can be very rough” he explained, as if I didn’t know. 

So the ‘marked’ fisherman moved up to Pembrokeshire and was barely surviving, scratching a living from those bits of the shoreline not already fished by the locals.  Then one day someone suggested he ran out a line of pots along “the 27” (no idea what this means – possibly a latitude line on the charts).  So he took himself off into these waters which were left alone by the local fishermen because they were known to be dangerous. He immediately struck gold, making – it was said – £10,000 a week. The deckhand left his sustainably fishing friend and went for the money. 

So there you have it – the tragedy of the commons and its historical solution encapsulated in a chance conversation in the mist.  And which of the characters in the story best represents the future? Sadly, I know for sure that thievery and overfishing have played a large part in the present state of our fisheries and that the smaller fishermen have taken the hit. But whatever happens, unless the commons – in this case our inshore waters – evolve some kind of agreed local governance with achievable sanctions apart from sinking offending boats, it will be too late. The story demonstrates that the draconian local sanctions applied worked very well at first, but when the man moved to another community where he was not known and into a winner takes all culture there were no inhibitory moves that could be made, so in his new home the so-called tragedy of the commons became a reality because it wasn’t a social institution any more, it didn’t have any rules and it couldn’t limit access. This sad tale isn’t a critique of the commons but a critique of our extractive economy.

Several years ago we were with the Bath Nats on a fungus identification field trip, when one of the participants hung back and cut every single ragged parasol mushroom in a clump that I mentioned a few days ago. She rejoined us later with her cute handmade basket groaning with spoils – more than she could ever possibly eat. We stood back astonished, but said nothing. That’s the true tragedy of the commons; that we’ve become so isolated and detached from one another that we no longer even have the means to challenge the abusers of the vestigial remains.

Author: Dave Pole

I've spent my life doing a lot of things, all of them interesting and many of them great fun. When most people see my CV they probably think I'm making things up because it includes being a rather bad welder and engineering dogsbody, a potter, a groundsman and bus driver. I taught in a prison and in one of those ghastly old mental institutions as an art therapist and I spent ten years as a community artist. I was one of the founding members of Spike Island, which began life as Artspace Bristol. ! wrote a column for Bristol Evening Post (I got sacked three times, in which I take some pride) and I worked in local and network radio and then finally became an Anglican parish priest for 25 years, retiring at 68 when I realised that the institutional church and me were on different paths. What interests me? It would be easier to list what doesn't, but I love cooking and baking with our home grown ingredients. I'm fascinated by botany and wildlife in general, and botanical illustration. We have a camper van that takes us to the wild places, we love walking, especially in the hills, and we take too many photographs. But what really animates me is the question "what does it mean to be human?". I've spent my life exploring it in every possible way and the answer is ..... well, today it's sitting in the van in the rain and looking across Ramsey Sound towards Ramsey Island. But it might as easily be digging potatoes or making pickle, singing or finding an orchid or just sitting. But it sure as hell doesn't mean getting a promotion, beasting your co-workers or being obsequious to power, which ensured that my rise to greatness in the Church of England flatlined 30 years ago after about 2 days. But I'm still here and still searching for that elusive sweet spot, and I don't have to please anyone any more. Over the last 50 or so years we've had a succession of gardens, some more like wildernesses when we were both working full-time, but now we're back in the game with our two allotments in Bath.

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