Friday, 30 April 2010

green cure

"Ask the colonial ghosts what they took" (Rae Spoon)                                                                                                                                                                                                          this seems a distant memory now... i had this idea i'd move to the countryside eventually. and as i got more burnt out it seemed more and more appealing. green fields, ragged walls, high places. i'd lived in such a place for a year in my early twenties after my first burnout and it had healed me at the time. i holed myself away, ignored my neighbours, commuted to work and soaked up the greenness until i could cope with returning to the city. recovered, i ran back to the city, to the queer discos, for the rest of my young adulthood. "You're dancing on air". and again, moving out of depression three-to-two years ago, along with worrying about, you know, climate change and that, it seemed very appealing to go back to the green, further up a hill this time, and stay there with a garden and a well and some close friends.                                                                                                                                                                                           
as i rebuilt my sense of being able to live i became more aware aware of my responsibility not to use my wealth and geographical mobility privilege to hole myself up somewhere and i started to face the need to be involved. still, though, 'wild places' were my solace from work and the city. buttercup fields, woods, moorlands, high treeless places. i would go and sit in them and feel saner. i'd go and visit my friend and look out of his window and feel untangled. i'd go for long, slow, talking walks and be able to breathe.                                                                                        then.. then what happened? gradually i was brought to realise that these places are not really so wild. i hate to be called a city kid as i had a semi-rural childhood, yet my parents did not have a connection to the land. they were an englishman and a scotswoman, feeling entitled to buy and set up home in wales. does it make it less colonial that my mother is a (lowland) scot? "Churches built from bones". there are paths through woods in mid-wales where i could show you every tree – in several areas because my dad has moved several times – but this is not a connection to the land, not living in and with the land. i have next to no connection to the place i want to live now; the connections i have are to other incomers. so i am a city kid, and it is not a neutral decision to decide to go and bathe my wounds from My Difficult Job in the landscape that surrounds this city that i work in, nor to decide to move permanently into that landscape.                                                                                                                                                                                                                              as part of my recovery from last winter's exhausted blankness, i was incredibly moved to be pointed towards a book called North Enough: AIDS and Other Clear-Cuts, by Jan Zita Grover (via Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands, via A Country Punk). I like the book, but nothing in it shook me as much as first reading Sandilands' summary of it in the opening of her article Unnatural Passions?: Notes Toward a Queer Ecology
"“I did not move to Minnesota for the north woods,” [Grover] writes. “I had only the vaguest idea of what the term meant when I first saw them in early spring, the birch, aspen, and tamarack skinned of their needles and leaves. I thought they looked diseased.” Given that Grover had been a front-line AIDS worker in the 1980s in a city violently decimated by the disease, it is hardly surprising that she saw sickness everywhere. “I moved there,” she writes, “to try to leave behind – or at least, at a remoter distance – the plague that had consumed my life for the past six years.” [...]
The idea that one might find natural wholeness in this hard, boreal landscape was shattered at the sight of its large, multiple clear-cuts and the thin “idiot strips” of trees along the highways that foolishly attempt to conceal the scars to the landscape caused by the softwood pulp and paper industry. The post-contact history of the north woods reveals a region repeatedly marked by human greed and error: Farming was next to impossible on the thin, acid soil, and attempts to drain the ever-present swampland in the 1920s resulted only in crippling debt. Logging, the only commercial option left for the region, proceeded virtually without restraint: No paradise found, here. As Grover writes, “the Upper Midwest is a mosaic of such local disasters, once-intact, living systems plundered in ignorance, greed, and unbounded hopefulness.”"
I read North Enough in a day, stunned and overwhelmed following a between-winter-and-spring trip to the Lake District.
my friend and i had walked all day in Langstrath, talking about the land, agriculture and the soil. in the morning as we entered the valley i saw timeless beauty, a turquoise river, mountains on a new scale, wilderness. in the evening as we left the valley i saw overgrazing, treelessness, erosion, the soil blowing and washing away. i saw sheep inhabiting a vast emptiness, fed on imported feed made of GM soya and random shit as the thin grass alone can't sustain them, their single farmer collecting european subsidies while hundreds of people could live on this land if they were allowed to cultivate it.
"The story of any civilization is the story of the rise of city-states, which means it is the story of the funneling of resources toward these centers (in order to sustain them and cause them to grow), which means it is the story of an increasing region of unsustainability surrounded by an increasingly exploited countryside."  (Jensen)
how incredible, really, that although this landscape has been degraded and impoverished by the violent process of civilization, those of us who are made rich enough within this system are then encouraged to travel as tourists to this landscape which is sold to us as Natural Beauty. brought up to believe all this, i fell for it (head over heels). i have been a city kid, all my resources trucked in for me, the cost of that invisible to me. "Cover your eyes with both hands." now i’m stunned, wondering what to do.                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Sandilands continues:
"Exactly in their ecological defilement, however, these wounded landscapes ended up teaching her. “Instead of ready-made solutions,” Grover writes that the north woods:
offered me an unanticipated challenge, a spiritual discipline: to appreciate them, I needed to learn how to see their scars, defacement, and artificiality, and then beyond those to their strengths – their historicity, the difficult beauties that underlay their deformity. 
In this landscape, she came to understand that her challenge was not to leave AIDS behind, but to recognize and accept the impact it had had. In fact, the lasting resonances of AIDS allowed her to meet the challenge of coming to love the north woods not in spite, but because, of their wounds [...].
Grover’s metaphoric connection between “AIDS and other clear-cuts” is both painful and beautiful. She describes, for example, changing the dressing on a dying friend’s leg macerated by Kaposi’s Sarcoma: “It did not look like a leg. It looked like freshly-turned soil, dark and ruptured.” But Grover finds in the unlikely and horrific space of her friend’s dying a real appreciation for the plenitude of living. She can see in a festering wound the terrifying beauty of flesh turning to soil, and she can also thus see in a clear-cut both the ravages of capitalist extraction and the vivacity of jack pines, aspens, and poplars."
i identified with Grover's description of her grief and burnout (and her volunteer work was so much harder than my voluntary sector paid job that thankfully rarely involves the physicality of disease and death!), her ability and determination to face the awfulness and do the work, and then her need after six years, to leave. but. seeing the landscapes around me as abused is not a metaphor. i'm just beginning to understand how damaged the land is in many of my most loved places. i can't escape abuse and violence, and especially not by perpetuating the colonisation of the land around me.                                                                                                                                                                   my friend writes:
"Things to do:
  1. Identify the trauma of the land, i.e. listen to it
Walking up the track to Pant Glas Uchaf yesterday with my mother, I was trying, in stilted phrases, to tell her how the land made me feel, or more specifically how that landscape made me feel. I said to her that it had a sadness in it, that it made me feel sad, that it was sad. She asked why, and I said that things were missing from the land, she asked what, and the words that came to me were Soil, Vitality, and later, Complexity. Listening (or Projecting? It’s hard to know, but I want to give myself the benefit of the doubt) to that Gwynedd land, it doesn’t say much, only gives out sighs of tiredness, a thin, watery tiredness like it has been sucked of substance and body and is existing, ticking along, with less life than it is used to. It’s not being destroyed violently (can land ever be destroyed?), it doesn’t scream in agony… its sounds are more of shock. All sheep lands feel that way to me, in fact most British farmland – like the big dramatic insults have been done, and now it is slowly being sucked of life, little by little because there is such a tiny amount left."
so. i've been emailing the National Parks Authority, ha. (i actually did, but -) far more importantly and constructively, i've been talking with my friends. i've been starting to learn about how the land can become enriched. after hard days at work i've been planting things in plastic tubs in my concrete, shaded city yard and dreaming of a real garden. i'm just starting to find out about how people can live on the land in ways that support and don't just take from it. and i wonder how this kind of work can be balanced with and compliment the anti-abuse work that seems to be my vocation. it's dawning on me that living in a rural place and finding solace in the landscape needn't be the opposite of my current work, as i used to think. it could be, if i allowed myself to run off and be a hermit tending my garden and ignoring the rest of the world.                                                                                                                                                                                                      but i don't want to run up a hill and isolate myself in order to 'recover,' 'feel better', even with a handful of likeminded people. in the end, i don't think i would feel better, as i'd know i'd turned my back on the work i'm supposed to do. i want to work in a genuine way for my home and community, to counteract the trauma of the land as part of making my home and my food. the sanity and integrity that could come with that could provide me with a stronger base from which to work against abuse in my communities. all of this work is about healing, regeneration, working to re-establish interdependence between people and the land which is surely the only way to live sanely.
"Land tells you a lot when it is left alone. Here, on this small and immense island, it doesn’t change and spring into Vitality and Complexity overnight: it takes longer, it is slow, way slower than I have seen elsewhere, like it is starting from a lower baseline. All the same it does spring and change. Land cannot be destroyed.
I watch a field who is temporarily free from nibbling teeth and curling tongues, and I see the rank grasses and the brambles, the gorse and tangling tormentil. If I look closely a birch will be nudging up through heather, or ash seedlings will be growing like hair. It is on its way, this field.
I guess the question is how do you live with the spring and change, in a relationship with it. How do you, how do all of us, live with the surging, roiling potential vitalities of the land..." (A Country Punk)
until recently i thought it was acceptable to work in the city and take my pain and tiredness to the country to rest. now this option has been removed. there is no green cure. for my burnout, my future-fear, for my grief at finding myself in this culture, for my grief faced with the trauma of people and of the landscape. instead, thre is my love and commitment to people and the land which brings the need to find ways to keep working, in the healthiest possible way, which is what i'm trying to do.
"That’s what we’re trying to do, isn’t it?, all of us who desire and work toward social and economic justice, all of us who are trying to create or sustain ways of being in the world that are not about dominance and exploitation and violence? [...] Finding, creating, sustaining different versions of love and commitment is part of how we are resisting cultures of violence and domination, part of how we are surviving." (Hoffman)
understanding that control and abuse extends to the land, and that supporting people towards wellness needs to include supporting each other to build communities and relationships with the land - it's just all part of the same thing, isn't it, the same work to do.


  1. amazing,thought provoking stuff.

  2. thanks :)
    are you nigel of talesfromthetrees? if so i hope you'll write more soon..