A lament of privilege

The world is out of kilter.

Where now the compliant maids who,
gently and with grace,
tended our many needs,
wisely, and knowing what they owed
their fathers and their lords,
in gratitude for that paternal protection
from greedy hands and mouths that would
their virtue or their happiness remove?
Where now the dutiful wives
and daughters,
obedient, demure and kind?

They are gone.

And in their place are witches, harridans,
who refuse and demand,
and speak a constant tale of ‘no’, or
‘we will stand alone’, ‘we need you not’,
‘we are your equals, not your servants.’
Ingrates all!

The world is out of kilter.

Where now the honest labourers,
who worked our fields and nurtured our rich estates,
who knew their place
and gladly served our wiser will,
who ploughed and sowed and reaped the lands
our fathers gained,
discovered and enclosed by them,
and duly passed from son to son,
improved and cleared, to yield
such bounty?

They are gone.

And in their place, sullen and slavish,
loiter the scroungers
and delinquent youths,
who think themselves owed
some treasure of past generations.
They do not see the justice of our righteous claim
to grow our hard-held wealth
untaxed, unconstrained,
a fair inheritance of our fathers’ gracious state.
Villains all!

The world is out of kilter.

Where now the vast and brimming garden of the Earth,
endlessly opening its virgin vistas to our industry?
Where now the wide dominions
laid out for our conquering,
the wild beasts apt for our domestication,
the oceans, forests, steppes,
pristine and ever generous?
Where the boundless empires we claimed and plundered?

They are gone.

And the infinite world is turned tight upon itself,
a small, hard kernel, an involuted globe,
where evermore we walk old paths again
and trace our own innumerable footprints on the sullied ground –
the bleaching seas and treeless wastes
a common tragedy.

The world is out of kilter.




They are cutting down trees again, not here, but in another village on the way home from town. I saw the tractor with its trailer-load of amputated trunks; it was waiting to join the traffic on the main road at that junction where you always have to wait a very long time.

Someone must have thought that scruffy scrap of woodland would be better bare and treeless; that tangle of trees, mirrored in an obscure pool, would be better ‘developed’ into housing to meet the need for more rungs on the property ladder.

Will the houses they build stand around that pool too, looking into its dark stillness? Or will it be filled up with who knows what? It’s deep, they say. How much debris will it hold? And where will all that black water go instead? Not to mention all the previous residents of wood and pool. (That’s apophasis, by the way – a rhetorical term I learnt today, for talking about something by saying you won’t talk about it, or a theological one for speaking of what can’t be spoken of.)

But the market gets what the market wants, and never mind those costs that can’t be written in a ledger or summed up in a spreadsheet.

The ineffable can eff off, as long as there’s profit to be made.


Object lessons

The BBC is celebrating David Attenborough’s 90th birthday and last night he/they presented two films from Attenborough’s oeuvre. The first was from 1971 and called ‘Blank on the Map‘, about an expedition into ‘unexplored’ parts of Papua New Guinea (where hundreds of languages are or were spoken) hoping to find the unknown people whose settlements had been spotted from the air. While DA gave off the enthusiasm and thirst for knowledge we know him for, the context was full of colonialism and Western arrogance. They tramped through the jungle with 160 porters (the white men in their khaki didn’t do carrying, it seems), and when they found a house, empty but with warm ashes in the fire, they thought nothing of going in through a sturdily closed door and having a nose about – even in his commentary today DA did not comment on this except to say they were taking a risk of being shot at.

In 1971 he spoke of the expedition hoping to introduce these people gently to the outside world, so that if/when the outside world came in to exploit any mineral resources that might be discovered, these indigenous people would fare less badly than others in similar circumstances. The outsiders offered them glass beads, salt and newspaper (for rolling tobacco) in exchange for food (which the visitors didn’t really need), so that they would establish a more equal trading relationship, he said. Of course there was no question of equality and the idea that there might be something the outside world could learn from them, other than ethnography, didn’t occur to anyone, it seems…

This was followed by a more recent film, about a carving Attenborough had bought at auction. It turned out to be, as he hoped, an authentic Easter Island piece, with a provenance deriving from Captain Cook’s visit in 1774. In the course of the film, he told the story of the Easter Island people, who had come from Polynesia, thrived, multiplied, created the famous stone statues, but then evidently gone into decline, having cut down all the trees on the island, leaving themselves stranded and impoverished by the time Cook’s ships arrived.

Some people think the Easter Island statues were made by aliens visiting us long ago. But the unstated moral of these two films might be expressed in a variation on that image: one day little green explorers will arrive on earth to wander through the relics of its ancient inhabitants, wondering what became of them and how they could have been so short-sighted as to destroy the foundations of their ecosystem, when they had the skills to build such monuments.



This morning’s reading, delivered to me via various facets of the internet, included among other things a report on the heatwave in India that is killing people,

this commemoration of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring: https://secretgardening.wordpress.com/2015/05/27/silent-spring/

and this article about a project involving authors writing books not to be read by anyone until 100 years have passed, to be printed on paper made from trees planted last summer: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/may/27/margaret-atwood-scribbler-moon-future-library-norway-katie-paterson?CMP=EMCNEWEML6619I2

I wondered what one might find to write for those possible future people.

All I could think of was: ‘Sorry’.


The unbearable persistence of plastic

crisp packet Photo1756

My neighbours have recently been archaeologising on their smallholding, finding ancient worked flints, iron age pottery, old horse shoes, a beautiful embossed lead spindle whorl and now this crisp packet, buried in a field.

The packet can be dated to around 1971 (when the UK introduced decimal currency) because the price is given in both old pence (7d) and new pence (3p). It is in remarkably good condition, showing little sign of its 43 years of existence, just one example of the uncountable similar items we have been filling the world up with for the last few decades.

It also exemplifies the perfidiousness of the marketing industry – ‘now with added protein!’ If you look closely at the back of the packet, it claims that the ‘goodness of protein’ has been added to the flavouring: ‘the flavouring in this packet contains 15% protein’. This smacks of homeopathy. (Though you will be glad to know that they used ‘edible’ vegetable oil as the second ingredient after potatoes.)

No doubt future archaeologists will have tons of these supposed ephemera to sort through when they are studying the great anthropocene extinction event.