A horticultural society by way of the Ferny Brae

A more horticultural society that learns to garden its land – that retreats into its terrain, while the wilds expand, may still have domestic animals for meat, milk and eggs.

We cannot grow annual crops, without fallow, regenerative phases in rotation. My rule of thumb is two years of green manure, or pasture to one year of cropping. Pasturing removes the considerable manual labour of cutting and mulching – I assume a world without both oil and electricity for agricultural machinery. I suspect Earth-limited electricity will stretch only as far as domestic heat, light and some refrigeration. Naturally, we’ve legs and bicycles for transport and we’ve direct traction of wind and water for mills, pumps and manufactories. I doubt we can retain the internet.

There is a very old vein of green socialist thinking, which runs deep into medieval times – almost certainly as deep as the Bronze Age and probably the Neolithic… When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman? Here is GK Chesterton describing his hopes for a Distributist movement, which is rooted in that same vein. “Capitalism is the state run by big business, while communism is big business run by the state. I dream of very many, very small businesses.” (from my memory) That yearning may lie dormant in most of us.

And that yearning must flower and fruit if we are to accomplish this massive transformation – re-centring suburbia into towns and villages, so that work and pleasure are walking distance from everyone’s door.

Only the intelligent senses of “very many small businesses” could possible achieve that complexity. We must be parochial, to understand both the specific complexities of terrain and the desires of the parish’s people. Good soils, good water and connections of tracks, canals, navigable rivers are all best understood by those who live by them. Those new and old towns and villages, can be ringed with market gardens, cereal fields and orchards and the growing must weave its way through the town too, by the specific means of singular ingenious finger-tips. Strange, isn’t it? If we come to love our personal terrain – our garden, we more easily love another’s.

You say, such a transformation is impossible. Well, yes. It is. But our current ways of life in Europe and America are also impossible. A greening of how we live, or a middle way is just as impossible. So, every road we take is impossible. The future is impossible. So, why not choose the very best – the loveliest impossible route? Why not choose happiness and grit our teeth through what is to come to achieve it?

Actually, a more horticultural society is the most likely road to succeed – the obstacles are political and violent – that is, human obstacles – other people. All other roads are certain to fail, because the obstacles they face are physical – flood, wind, heat and a cascading evaporation of species on which all cultures depend. Try arguing with the tide.

We may think we are doing our bit by paying a little more for an electric car, by recycling, avoiding plastic packaging and by lobbying for a greening of our power supplies – all that, with the social advantage that it is not extreme, or extremist. No-one wants to be “an extremist”. However, it’s very plain that such a middle way will end in utterly catastrophic heating of our only Earth and utter misery for our own children. It fails right from the start.

However, what if we let an ancient yearning rise in all its romance. It’s neither radical, nor extreme as an idea. It’s only radical in its effect on the extra-ordinary way we live today. European and American ways of life are so extra-ordinary – so radical that they will draw the final curtain over all human cultures and are set to arrive, by their own boast, at the end of history. My vision, (and that of ancestors from every period) is, on the contrary, ordinary, very old and very easily understood. We don’t want a radical culture. We want a timeless, conservative one.

To return to our horticultural culture, we’ve many perennials, such as fruit and nut trees and bushes, but the Land Institute’s perennial cereals may offer a less destructive route into a durable terrain. But still, they mean harvesting the whole plant, both grain and straw, as with annual cereals and so may similarly need a regenerative phase – perhaps a season or two of grazing?

Fallow, regenerative phases mean that animals can add to the complexity of a cycle, but are also limited by its plant biomass. We can add pleasurably, to the whole, while having no malignant ecological effect. The same desire for bread and beer also creates the special, but rationed pleasures of milk, butter, cheese, eggs and meat. I think it unlikely that we can maintain additional pastures purely for meat and milk.

Anyway, very many, small prairie fields could remain within our horticultural mindset. The scythe is a pleasant tool and scything cereals is not hard work – unlike mixed meadow grasses. Grains are also precious, because they can be stored from good years into bad and they are very light – only 15% water, so that they can be easily transported between surplus and scarcity of regions. Thus, they are useful in both time and space. Anyway, as of old, communities can come together for the harvest. Many hands…

Here in temperate UK, many of those rolling acres of grassland, were first enclosed to remove people from the land and replace them with sheep. Sheep made wool-money for the few –they bled dry the true economy of people and land and became a blue-print for all monopolies and most dispossessions. Those grasslands can be returned to their natural state as woodland – woodland for photosynthesis, the return of the wilds and for timber.

We’ll need timber and we’ll not need that 80% of Welsh lamb for export. Of course, we’ll have no land to spare to feed biomass boilers, broiler houses, batteries and feed lots. What of hill and upland farming communities? Some traditions go back to at least the Bronze Age and some older still – They can adopt the same horticultural mind-set for better soils and of course, forestry and its trades, will provide more employment than sheep ever could. If wool is re-valued as it should be, then sheep may play a part in a new complexity, but it is not only hill communities, whose lives must turn upside down – it is all of us.

Now, let’s consider this – Old Socialism, Old Tory, Old Liberal (Whig) and so on, would have been similarly connected to soil, materials, labour, the trades – diverse ways of both urban and rural living. They’d find a common truth in material things. Their dispute would be a similarly ancient one – in distribution of materials and between classes and power structures; between urban and rural. They’d share the same evidence of their own eyes – climate and ecological catastrophe, empty holes in the ground, which once held resources, increasingly lifeless soils, wealth and poverty both accelerating wildly, and no-one in control of the ship of fools.

They might well share a common acceptance of fair rationing (war-footing) and of an urgent need for utterly-changed behaviour. At any rate, they’d share the same horror as the great ship, the Newly Marketed Centre Corporate Green Ground, embarked without touching the ground, or without noting winds, currents, tides, or ice bergs (unfortunate metaphor).

It is easy to be enlightened to the virtues of the centre and very easy to ridicule the endarkened edges – that is, the old dark ways of rivers, trees, fields, bird songs, crops, workshops, pianos, wild flowers, mountains, frying onions, pub songs, parishes, gravity, tides, passing seasons, harbours and people.

Nigel Farage’s pint glass has been a potent image. It is attractive, human-sized and is not measured in statutory litres. People are not wrong to yearn for a good life in a simple world. That Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson both represent something quite different – and horribly different, while presenting such homely images, does not negate that genuine yearning. Farage/Johnson represent total deregulation of the same corporate levitation which is supported by New Labour, Liberal Democrat and Greens. All support the corporate levitation, but the “centrists” would negotiate consumer and environmental protections within it. Neither extreme right of Johnson/Farage, nor the status quo of the prosperous middle-ground will protect themselves from that same corporate self-destruction.

G K Chesterton also stood, pint in hand like Falstaff in merry England, or Robert Burns with a jug of wine, lying in the heather, or Willian Barnes – I’ve got two fields and I don’t care what squire mid have a better share… Or let’s follow Thomas the rhymer under the hill –

See ye not yon braid, braid road that winds among the lily leven? – That is the path to wickedness, that some ca’ the road to heaven. – And see ye not yon narrow road, s’ thick beset with thorn and briar? – That is the path to righteousness, though after it few enquire. – But see ye not yon bonny road that winds among the ferny brae? That is the path to fair Elfland, where thou and I this night maun gae…

When all roads fail, choose the bonny road. It is right because our souls will choose it and because yet half visible truth has long ago chosen it.

I like to think that the old Socialist, Conservative and Green movements are all closer to a true median ground which stands on (and in) soil, biodiversity and physics, than the currently and powerfully marketed idea of a centre. They are closer in their diverse ways, to the model for all economies. They are closer to the household – to everyday personal behaviour. Meanwhile, the powers behind government, corporation and bank entice left, right and green to their marketed middle ground and to an illusion of franchises in the world of power. The same powers wear enticing left, right and green clothing which is then adopted my many in those groups (such as UK Green Parties), who propose that they are moving towards a reconciliatory centre. They are not. They are endorsing utterly amoral and destructive power. They are abandoning their “family values” and embracing a kind of amorality for all, into which any morality can fit and then argue its corner. That world of power is also an idea. It has no substance. The substance, once again is in the billions of small purchases and in the millions of accepted wages…

Let’s stop spending the idea into reality and then look to each other (really, we all know it’s true) – and one, by one, take the bonny road.

Featured image from Thomas the Rhymer by Katherine Cameron

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