Dig where you stand: a message of hope
Soil and Soul
People versus Corporate Power
Aurum Press, London, 2001
ISBN 1 85410 802 6 (hb) £17.99
ISBN 1 85410 864 6 (pb) £12.99
review by Nadia Johanisova
Traditional cultures were ways which communities had developed for living sustainably in their own place. They still have great relevance today, as a Scottish philosopher and campaigner found.
Alastair McIntosh (b. 1955) is difficult to pigeonhole. Is he primarily an activist, championing the cause of Hebridean islanders against absentee landlords and battling superquarries? An academic lecturing about human ecology? Or is he really deep down a mystic who gets his strength from old Celtic whorls, sacred wells and the roaring of the sea?
In fact, as you will find when you read his book, he is all these things and more, which is what makes the book so interesting. He starts off with a vivid account of his own childhood on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. The local doctor's son, he grew up with a leg in two worlds - the world of his parents, who groomed him to blend with the "higher classes", and the world of the local fishermen and crofters, whose vernacular economy was just beginning to fade. He describes in what to me is the most moving part of his book, the traditional culture of the islands with its complex ecological and social links. Nutrients were recycled through composting human and livestock waste and, in the oldest houses which had no chimneys, even the soot caught in the thatch went back to the fields each spring. He does not idealise the old days. They were hard. But at the same time, a complex "alternative economy" system of mutuality, reciprocity and barter ensured social security, and work was interwoven with song and even dance in a way difficult to imagine today.
With the advent of modernity, this system began to unravel. In one of the most poignant passages of the book, McIntosh describes a recent conversation with an old islander who still weaves fabrics on his old hand loom. He had asked him why he does not sing as he weaves:
"Ah well...there was a time when I was younger and you'd hear somebody walking through the village singing to the rhythm of your loom as they went past. And then when they'd get a bit further on and pick up a different loom's rhythm, they'd change the song to suit that one."
"So why not now, John? Why do you never hear people singing when they're weaving?"
"Oh well...we'd be embarrassed! People expect it to sound like it does on the radio or television now, and if I started singing they'd laugh."
Music is a recurring theme throughout the book. So is Scottish history. McIntosh describes his own gradual awakening to the reverberating impact of the defeat of Gaelic culture at Culloden and especially of the Highland clearances, whose importance was played down in his school days not only by his teachers, but by the islanders themselves.
"What are these ruins really, Tommy?" he asked one day in the mid-seventies as he walked around a group of deserted houses in Lewis with his friend, who served as head stalker for the rich hunters who came to the island to shoot. ' "Just something from the old days." And he went very quiet. It felt inopportune to enquire again.'
One of the most important insights of this book is the tracing of intergenerational and international impact of traumas such as the Highland clearances, which involved the eviction of half a million people from their homes in the nineteenth century to make way for sheep. Those who lost their roots in this way had several choices. Either they could emigrate to America and in their turn help to evict the native people from their lands. Or they could retain a vestige of their warrior culture by becoming soldiers. The irony of the Highlander regiments quelling "mutinies" in India becomes painfully obvious in this light.
As a third choice, these people could migrate to the big cities and become a kind of "cannon-fodder" for the Industrial Revolution, and McIntosh speaks of the descendants of evicted Highlanders still living in squalor in Glasgow tenements today. The burden of cultural trauma often leads to internalisation of the blame for what happened and may erupt into lateral violence - violence against friends, family, or oneself. As the author emphasises, this is not a phenomenon confined to Scotland. In fact, his own understanding of the dynamics of power and powerlessness in Scotland was sharpened through his conversations with local people in Papua New Guinea, where he worked on issues of land ownership in the rainforest.
This dynamic of power and powerlessness is another important strand in the varied tapestry of Alastair McIntosh's book. In a chapter entitled "By the Cold and Religious", he discusses the role of Calvinism in shaping the values and exploits of the emerging British Empire. As in other parts of the book, he complements this with his own experience as a young boy:
...At other times kids were thrashed for not knowing their religion. This punishment was undertaken with the tawse - a thick leather strap with two fingers of fizzing fire. The more sadistic teachers carried theirs around like a holstered gun under the jacket...
Between the two world wars, children in Lewis were punished for speaking their own language, Gaelic, in the school playground. In this, as in many other places throughout the book, an analogy with the plight of Native Americans is apparent.
The Circle is broken and I cannot raise a tune
The faeries have left and they will not return
When the faeries danced on the land the Circle was whole
And then you could raise a tune
These words were composed and sung in Gaelic by an islander after he had seen American Indians on television speaking of their culture as dying because the Sacred Circle had been broken.
It is with recapturing the sense of the sacred, the "real religion" which survives in the taproots of Gaelic culture and in our hearts as well that a large part of this book is concerned. In a crucial chapter entitled "The Womanhood of God", McIntosh attempts to disentangle this authentic spirituality from the "cold" aspect of religion in collusion with worldly power. This authentic religion has more in common with "mythos", the world of feeling, metaphor, poetry and story, than with "logos", which embraces logic, reason, causality and explicit order. We can find it in the teachings of Jesus as well as in parts of the Old Testament which, however, are seldom chosen as sermon subjects. While both mythos and logos are necessary if we wish to understand the world and change it for the better, our culture with its emphasis on the latter has damaged logos itself from lack of a nourishing context, and it has become a desiccating parody of what passionately fired-up reason could actually be.
McIntosh was working at the Centre for Human Ecology at Edinburgh University when he became involved with two important Scottish campaigns in the nineties: The Isle of Eigg Trust campaign, which eventually succeeded in wresting this small Hebridean island from feudal into communal ownership, and the struggle to protect a mountain on the Isle of Harris from being turned into a gigantic superquarry. This latter campaign has been successful so far, although as the book went to print, success was not yet certain, and there is now talk of pressure to open a similar superquarry elsewhere in the Scottish Highlands.
Activism propelled McIntosh to deepen his own spirituality. It led him to see activism as a kind of latter-day shamanism, involving an ability to 'step outside of existing social programming to glimpse a wider panorama and new options...[see] where consensual reality has become dysfunctional...[and step] into the "world" again, to sound the alarm, to nourish growth and to point towards cultural healing.' He studied liberation theology and Celtic Christianity and he returned to the islands of his childhood as a pilgrim, fishing 'near-forgotten fragments of history from long-overgrown pools of local knowledge' to understand the stories behind the mountain he had set out to save.
In the process, he found new leverage and strength for his struggle and developed a strategic framework for activists who might otherwise either 'sell out or burn out'. Seeing the wider context of your struggle is essential, he says: 'Never be so vain as to expect to reach the stars, but do set your course by them.' An important guiding star for him is the re-construction of a co-operative society with people linked to the land and to each other through responsibility and respect, such as the one he had been privileged to witness in his childhood.
Spirituality proved a potent ally in the struggle to put a stop to the superquarry plans at Harris. Stone Eagle, a leader of the Mi'Kmaq' Indian Nation who was himself involved in campaigns against superquarries in Nova Scotia, was persuaded by McIntosh to fly to Harris to testify at a public enquiry about the feasibility of the project. A description of the interaction of the media and the people of Harris with Stone Eagle makes gripping and sometimes humorous reading. Another dimension was added by the Calvinist theologian Donald Macleod, who spoke at the inquiry of the need to honour God's creation. 'Do we have God's mandate to inflict on Creation a scar of this magnitude that might detract from Creation's ability to reflect the glory of God?' he asked. The speeches did not impress the inspector in charge of the enquiry, but they had an impact on public opinion, especially in Harris: many islanders stopped supporting the project after hearing them.
According to the book, it was McIntosh's activism which led to the "eviction" of the Centre for Human Ecology from Edinburgh University in 1996. The description of this bitter fruit of his struggles and of the recent progress and aftermath of his campaigns in the last few chapters is perhaps too tedious and detailed, thus diluting what would have otherwise been a well-blended cocktail of past and present, mythos and logos. At its worst, the book tends to slip into a hard-to-believe visionary optimism ('Even when you're losing the battles...you'll invariably end up winning the war').
However, it remains a powerful, well-written and well-researched book. McIntosh is a courageous and independent thinker who has taken his own advice to 'dig where you stand' and dredged up treasures as well as monsters from the mud of Scottish and Gaelic history. He forges new links between activism, spirituality and traditional culture and adds seasoning in the form of his own experience, sharing his mistakes and doubts along the way. At its deepest level, this is the book of a rebel. Let us understand our own true history, our own true religion and our dreams, he seems to be saying, in order to have strength to change things for the better. Only then will the salmon return. Significantly, the salmon, which no longer returns to dammed streams in Lewis, is, of course, a symbol of spiritual knowledge in Celtic mythology.
|This book review is from
Growth:The Celtic Cancer,
the second Feasta Review. Copies of the Review can be ordered online from Green Books, priced at £9.95 plus postage and packaging.