Why is the earth moving so fast?

I couldn’t resist this photo opportunity on the canal this morning – these two cats, cute though they were, also looked rather anxious to me. There were quite a number of dogs being taken for walks on the towpath so as well as the puzzle about the earth moving, they had to cope with the constant anxiety of predators nearby.

I can completely empathise with their state of generalized anxiety. What with Covid 19 mach II rampaging around and a government that functions each day by believing six impossible things before breakfast, and then the gathering climate catastrophe I sometimes wonder if I’m one book away from a breakdown.

A novel, a book of literary criticism, a poem, an environmental warning and a lost and found manuscript.

I also wonder how it is that we, as a species, can live in so many ways against our best interests. I’ve been reading Tom Philpotts’s book “Perilous Bounty” about the crisis in both agriculture and horticulture in California and the Midwest. Is it just America? I’m not so sure that Americans have some especial mindset that leads their country into bad ways. Some of the best writing about nature has come out of America, and my bookshelves are probably full of books about the American crisis because so many writers, thinkers, and enough ordinary folk to buy their books, are way ahead of us here in the UK in recognising the danger. That’s one reason; and another reason for being very leery about blaming America for it all is that – whatever culture found its way across the Atlantic began life here in Europe, and unless we’ve embarked on a separate burst of cultural evolution then we are still walking in step with our cousins.


These thoughts about America came this morning with a quotation from a book that popped into my mind. The book is Charles Olson’s “Call me Ishmael”, published in 1947 – the year after I was born. I have a long association with this book. I first read it in annotated photocopied typescript form in about 1971. It took a long route. Olson taught at Black Mountain College (with a galaxy of other writers, poets and painters who became household names. One of his fellow lecturers was Ed Dorn (Of “Gunslinger” fame – the poem not the film!) who subsequently moved to the UK to teach American Literature in Essex and brought with him a typescript copy of the book. His course was attended by a friend of ours who borrowed the manuscript and photocopied it himself, then lent it to me at Art School. The book is a short piece of the most marvellous literary criticism which shows Olson trying to get to grips with Herman Melville the writer, and “Moby Dick” his strange masterpiece. I never forgot the first few paragraphs, and after a long search I recently managed to buy a facsimile copy that looked as if it came from the same hand as the one I’d seen – very exciting.

The opening paragraphs, as they fell into my mind, seemed to say something terribly important about the culture that has penetrated western thought like an evil miasma. Here it is:

I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large and without mercy.

It is geography at bottom, a hell of a wide land from the beginning. That made the first American story, (Parkman’s) exploration.

Something else than a stretch of earth, – seas on both sides, no barriers to contain as restless a thing as Western man was becoming in Columbus’ day. That made Melville’s story (part of it).

PLUS a harshness we still perpetuate, a sun like a tomahawk, small earthquakes but big tornadoes and hurrikans [sic], a river north and south in the middle of the land running out the blood.

The fulcrum of America is the Plains, half sea half land, a high sun as metal and obdurate as the iron horizon, and a man’s job to square the circle.

Some men ride on such space, others have to fasten themselves like a tent stake to survive. I see Poe dug in and Melville mounted. They are the alternatives.

Americans still fancy themselves such democrats. But their triumphs are of the machine. It is the only master of space the average person ever knows, oxwheel to piston, muscle to jet. It gives trajectory.

To Melville it was not the will to be free but the will to overwhelm nature that lies at the bottom of us as individuals and as a people. Ahab is no democrat. Moby Dick, antagonist, is only king of natural force, resource.

Charles Olson “Call me Ishmael (1947) this edition by Forgotten Books Grove Press New York and Evergreen Books Ltd. London.

Moby Dick in Ahab’s mind is nothing more than resource – a truly terrifying thought. And the restlessness of post Columban humanity that wants to subdue all that obdurate wildness first, and then – when the journey west meets the Pacific Ocean, to subdue the sea and its inhabitants too. Not the curse of the American mind, then, but the curse of western culture – our father, our mother and our language. I think Olson expresses something that comes close to our contemporary original sin, the will to subdue nature and treat it as nothing more than resource. Find the book and read it.

But (I hear the exceptionalists argue) – that’s America, not here. As I was reading Tom Philpott’s book the same thought hovered around at the back of my mind too. What has the Central Valley in California to do with Britain? Water and its management is a part of the answer. Our farmers may not wear dungarees and baseball caps, and Barbours may be more representative wear here, but arable crops still demand water, lots of it and in the arable lands of south east Britain, nearly all of it (when it’s not actually raining) comes from underground aquifers. California may be a nose ahead of us, but we’re just as guilty of reaping where we have not sown when it comes to water. Here in the South West we have plenty of water most of the time, but the constant erosion cause by bare farmland over winter causes the same level of soil loss. The rivers of Devon run red as they pass through bare fodder maize fields. So here in the west our problem is rapid runoff and flooding in the winter and spring, and in the east it will be drought in the increasingly hot summers. The conflict between agriculture, industry and homes over water, and the rising problem of pollution from nitrate runoff as it percolates (it takes decades) through the rock along with pesticides will be a profit consuming test for the privatised water companies. The landscape may be different in the US and across Britain, but the extractive, mechanised and intensive rationale is exactly the same. There’s an excellent explainer on groundwater extraction here.

So in answer to my own question, no I don’t think America is in any sense an environmental outlier. We have seen the enemy – it is us!

Culture vultures escape Brexit dread.


I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy.

Charles Olson “Call me Ishmael”

Perhaps our most serious cultural loss in recent centuries is that some things, though limited, can be inexhaustible.  For example, and ecosystem, even that of a working forest or farm, so long as it remains ecologically intact, is inexhaustible.  A small place, as I know from my own experience, can provide opportunities of work and learning, and a fund of beauty, solace, and pleasure – in addition to its difficulties – that cannot be exhausted in a lifetime or in generations.

Wendell Berry, “Faustian economics”

Yesterday the rain continued and looks set to keep us off the allotment for some time, so we were pleased to be off to Shaftesbury to spend the night with friends.  My phone tells me that I spend at least an hour a day gazing at it, and yesterday I probably spent more because we were away from the laptop where I can easily spend hours at a stretch.  Is that shocking? Well, the phone is my newspaper, my letter box and my principle research tool when I’m away from the books, and yesterday I took a series of peeps at the World Organic News website that collates all sorts of useful material from around the world.

But I found myself getting restless about the blogs where people have an abundance of land.  Just imagine the privilege (and responsibility) of working several acres organically and never having to make either/or choices about what can be grown. If the work of tilling that we do is significant for turning the world away from its wasteful and destuctive habits, does that mean that having more land is more powerful than having almost none? My head says “of course not” but the heart says “hell yes! – if I owned all the land in the country/world, I could turn things around in a decade”.

So I want to wave the flag for small plots. Our 250 square metres gives us a lot of healthy pleasure and good food. If we had some factor – say ten – times as much, it might be more fun for us and it would certainly give us a surplus to sell.  But what if we argued for, say a hundred times the acreage of allotment land to be made available but kept the standard size at the traditional 250 square metres – enough to feed, (it was said), a family of four. That could mean a hundred families (however you want to construe the word) engaged with the earth and benefiting from from the exercise and the food.

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As we drove back from Shaftesbury today we passed an organic farm – my guess is that it extended along about 2 miles of the road. Terrific stuff!  I was thinking, but then I saw two enormous tractors parked in one of the access roads, and I wondered what was happening to the fragile soil habitat in this beautiful Wiltshire downland. No doubt there are huge benefits to be gained from the efficient organic farming of large amounts of land but that’s only when you count financial benefits above societal and cultural benefits.

In this time of crisis (the word derives from the Greek crino – to choose), simple questions about “what factors should we add to the financial in order to come to a concept that genuinely constitutes “profit” need to be thought about and answered.

Anyway, apart from that we managed to fit in three galleries with one opening night and a convivial meal with friends. I love it when an exhibition forces me to think seriously, and the two artists exhibiting at Hauser and Wirth in Bruton have sent me home full of questions. If you look carefully enough you’ll see three musicians playing in the background of the Berlinde De Bruyckere works.  They were improvising using the works as inspiration. It was beatiful.  The other exhibition was by Takesada Matsutani and again forced me to think hard about the way we make aesthetic decisions. While we were there we spotted Charles Hazlewood, the conductor, it’s a good place for people spotting!

Then later we went to Messums Wiltshire where we were welcomed to have a look around even as they were setting up two new exhibitions – how unusual is that?  next we went to the opening night of a show at the Shaftesbury Arts Centre and met two of the founders of “Common Ground”, Sue Clifford and Angela King who set the charity up with the late Roger Deakin (read his books, they’re tremendous).  They were celebrating the decision of Shaftesbury Council to put in a bid to buy back the piece of land called “The Wilderness” in the town.

So by the time we’d done all that we didn’t eat until late but we ate too much and drank too much and went to bed exhausted and stirred up.  It’s the only way to be!