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.

“Gunslinger”

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!

Winter thoughts at the Potwell Inn

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In the world of virtuality that we bloggers inhabit, it’s tempting to create a parallel unverse in which we are self-perfecting and untouched by the blights that affect lesser mortals. And so, by carefully selecting from the events of the day and choosing our words as poets might, we convey our privileged position on the sunny highlands of human consciousness without for a moment descending into bragging.

It will be a strange sort of book, I fear; blubber is blubber you know; tho you may get oil out of it, the poetry runs as hard as sap from a frozen maple tree ; – & to cook the thing up, one must needs throw in a little fancy, which from the nature of the thing, must be as ungainly as the gambols of the whales themselves.  Yet I do mean to get to the truth of the thing , spite of this.

Herman Melville in a letter to Richard Henry Dana on the first draft of Moby Dick

I read blogs. The best of them fire me up and get me back to work, but the worst of them make me feel inadequate – as if the only place to start a new life is “anywhere but where you are”. I see photographs of perfected lives, perfected allotments and perfected meals and I know that I could never compete. Nobody’s going to stick my face on an advert for the good life, so I created the Potwell Inn as a place where the real, the blight, the shit that happens, has a place as well – a place that I’m allowed to live in because I am fallible, I am human and I have never lost the longing for something better.

The Potwell Inn, in its first iteration by H G Wells, is set in the South Downs and it’s all orchard and grass and gently murmering river. It doesn’t rain – in fact the sun seems never to stop shining – but over everything hangs the shadow of Uncle Jim who may return at any moment in a drunken fury. H G Wells knew better than to write a novel of perfection.

So, mea culpa, in all my postings I’ve never mentioned anything much more frightening than allium leaf miner or a late frost; and you might run away with the idea that the Potwell Inn and its allotment exist in a faery glade at the edge of an exquisite Georgian city. It’s true that the city we live in has a lot of Georgian architecture – we’re lucky enough to live on the edge one of its most beautiful parks.  But Bath itself is a monster with a severe personality disorder that can’t make its mind up whether it’s a University town, a Roman tribute act, a continuously ‘in session’ meeting of the Jane Austin fan club or a vibrant modern shopping/eating/clubbing experience. In fact, “Bath – the experience” occupies a limited area at the centre and it’s surrounded by a hinterland that’s not so lucky.  Our beautiful Georgian terrace comprises mainly houses in multiple occupation filled with a shifting population of students, young families unable even to look in an estate agent’s window, and housing assocociation properties many of which have some deeply troubled residents.

So we live in a lovely flat near the centre of a beautiful city and the corner of our street next to the flat is a favourite spot for drug dealers because there’s no CCTV and there are four or five escape routes inaccessible to a police car if trouble kicks off. Through our windows we can enjoy a view of the river and the trees and also – at times –  violent domestic disputes, machete wielding ‘county lines’ enforcers and crack smoking minor league dealers on bikes. Most of the trouble never comes near us – just once I was the victim of the most pathetic attempted mugging in history. There’s a young man who lives a block away who we call ‘mong’ because he shuffles around as if he is permanently on spice or ketamine. He’s well over six feet tall so potentially could be a bit frightening if the fog ever cleared. I came down the road and despite the fact that he was already holding a mobile, he said “give me your phone” in his best menacing tone. I replied “fuck off!” in my most menacing OAP manner, and he said “there’s no need to be rude”. He probably had a good polite upbringing some time back.

The police and the local council are having a purge on rough sleeping and street begging in the centre because it scares the tourists. Naturally this means that the problem moves outwards towards us and street begging becomes petty crime – burglary, shoplifting, stolen bikes, muggings and such like. Sustaining a £200 a day habit either means a good begging pitch in town or something much more scary around the edges.  Our posturing local councillors – many of whom are part of the problem inasmuch as they own property and let it out at increasingly ridiculous rents – like to grandstand with talk about ‘zero tolerance’ but that does nothing to help the elderly residents who are terrorised by dealers and users.  We have no police station any more, and our air quality is so polluted by heavy traffic that we regularly break EU limits. So that’s where the Potwell Inn can be found – not in an  idyllic imaginary parallel world, but here on a cold December day when it’s too wet to get on to the allotment (again).

But this is where we’ve chosen to live and we love every moment. I’ve always had a conviction that there’s no better place than where you are set down, and the best way to live a flourishing, fully human life is to transform the place you live in rather than spend a fortune in time and energy looking for somewhere better. And so we get involved in the local neighbourhood and in its politics.  We all know that the source of many of these problems is lack of compassion and lack of resources compounded by a malignant ideology.  We love the fact that we can hear a dozen languages and more every day on the streets and we can shop in half a dozen food cultures within a mile.  We love the allotment and its capacity to provide for us, and our neighbours who live such interesting and occasionally complicated and exotic lives.

In one of those long meandering chains of thought that sometimes sieze my attention I began ten days ago with watching the riots in Paris on television and emerged 24 hours later with a changed perspective. That change of perspective took me to a single word; a crystallisation of the chain of thought and it was the word “commonwealth”.  The absence of the capital letter is absolutely deliberate because it is not a proper noun.  It doesn’t refer to any of the manifestations of the original idea that has been misappropriated so often from the days of Cromwell’s parliament to the cultural remains of the British Empire. It’s been so often misappropriated, in fact, that when I googled it, I looked at 27 pages of results without finding a single reference to its original meaning – a political community founded for the common good. This lovely idea seems to me to be slap bang in the middle of the Potwell Inn mission statement, or it would be if we had one!

I wondered for a long while whether to post this, and here it is. A provisional mission statement for the Potwell Inn, driven by the sheer baffling and beautiful complexity of human flourishing.

Commonwealth: A political community founded for the common good.