A Lament for the Tir Nan Og

‘What is the Tir nan Og?’ ‘The only bearable part of my country: it vanished long ago.’ ‘Let us wait until the darkness falls, may we? Then…we will lament to your heart’s content.'

Month: April, 2012

…and it’s place knows it not.

I am fond of saying, whenever my wife and I are out driving and we pass some sort of building project that is invariably a hideous imposition on the land, “and it’s place knows it not.” My wife finally asked me yesterday what I meant by that, since that line comes from the 103rd Psalm, the whole verse being: “As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it not.” Of course the usual meaning of this verse is to highlight the mortality and fleeting nature of human life, so I don’t blame my wife for wondering how I can apply it to the building of an ugly, shoddy house or strip-mall.

One of the many diseases of the modern age is our refusal to acknowledge our mortality and our avoidance of dealing with our inevitable death. The interesting paradox here is that though eternal youthfulness and avoidance of the discomfort of aging makes up a lion’s share of the modern economy, we do not treat the world around us with the consideration of someone fated to live forever. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that modern man doesn’t wish to live for many long years, he simply wishes NOW to last forever without consideration for the passage of time. This surrounds us with a child-like imbecility, unwilling to acknowledge the limitations of the passing years of our life, but at the same time treating the world around us with no regards for the future.

The Psalm verse tells us in clear terms that once we are gone, there will be no remembrance of us in the places we inhabit. Mat Feltner in Wendell Berry’s “A Place on Earth” meditates on this in the crisis of his grief over the death of his son, lost in action in WWII. He looks down into a patch of woods and sees the remnants of an old homestead, the ruined chimney and foundation being all that is left to mark where a family lived and worked. Mat’s realization that all that will ultimately remain of us in this life will be the bonds of love and fellowship we hand down to those around us is one of the culminating statements of the novel. That the works of our hands will not long outlive us ought to be a sobering reflection. Indeed author Alan Weisman, in his book “The World Without Us”, engages in an interesting thought experiment outlining just how long our built environments would last if every human was to suddenly to disappear from the face of the earth. It is in a way comforting to imagine suburban sprawl being erased by wind, water, and vegetative growth within a few centuries. I find myself in a way troubled by his conclusions though, because aside from some of our more gross industrial constructions like nuclear power plants and oil refineries, taking comfort in the power of nature to erase what man has built, seems to me an easy way for us to abdicate our responsibility towards our posterity.

While much of what we do will not long outlive is, there is much that we do that will. In my declaration that “It’s place knows it not”, I am less concerned with absence than I am with presence. Too much of what we do creates an imposition on the land and the environment around us that will outlast us, without creating anything but the most fleeting benefit. Down to road from where we live there is a crossroads with some businesses clustered around it. A few years a ago a new strip-mall was built on a vacant lot at the crossroads (and the whole light commercial/retail area sits in a long abandoned sand and gravel quarry). All the materials and energy and effort went into building this strip mall, and it has sat utterly empty for three or four years now. The vacant lot did not have much to recommend it to begin with, but it grew grass and the occasional wildflowers and dandelions. Now there is an empty building there and a paved parking lot, serving neither the environment nor any human use. Even were it to be filled with businesses, how many of the uses of that building would truly be worth the mining of the steel, the quarrying and kilning of cement, and the cutting of forests that went into its construction?

One of the great strengths of a local economy is that the consequences of our actions are always clearly before us (and if they are not clearly before us, they are certainly clearly seen by our friends and neighbors, who we hope will hold us accountable). This requires an affection and discipline that sets a heavy obligation on us, which is why we are such easy prey for the modern, globalized economy which seeks to present us with all the benefits, while externalizing the damages to far-off places or the invisible future. It would therefore be good for those of us who wish to know our place, to remember and honor the fact that one day our place will know us not.

Control Response

As humans we all are able to a greater or lesser degree to exert some control over our environment.  Something as simple as putting on clothing insulates us from the effects of the weather and with even the simplest tools we are capable of shaping the physical environment around us to better suit our needs.  For most of human history the level of control we have been able to exert over our environment has been modest, or at least taken place at a slower pace.  One of the hallmarks of the modern industrial age has been the way our use of the stored energy in fossil fuels has allowed us to exert, until recently, massive control over our environment often at such a rapid pace, that our means of even understanding how we are effecting the environment have not kept pace.

My wife has recently been in a near-constant state of indignation over the greater and greater intrusions of corporations and government into our lives.  Whether it be Google prying into our lives and recording all our online activity, or the various ways in which the government has turned the US into a military theater of operations through the NDAA and the FAA drone authorization, almost every day she tells me about some new encroachment.  While I share my wife’s frustration about these things, I can’t say I’m particularly surprised.  The dominant story of the modern age has been progress, whether social, political, or scientific, where we have been told that we are moving towards greater and greater understanding and  control over our lives and the environment.  As the modern world lurches from one crisis to the next, with the spectre of Peak Oil looming over all in the background, this story of control we have told ourselves for the last 200 years is beginning to show itself to be a façade.  From New Orleans, to Fukushima, to the financial markets, when disaster strikes, our response to the wreckage is often more along the lines of studying how to prevent such a thing from happening again rather than questioning whether we ought to be building cities below sea level, splitting the atom, or commodifying abstract financial transactions.  

Since the only limits modern humanity seems to acknowledge are the limits of knowledge itself, we have put all our trust in science to allow us greater understanding of the world around us.  We have convinced ourselves that understanding how something works will allow us to exert control over it.  I think this illusion of control is such a powerful force in modern human society, that when it is exposed as a fraud, people (especially those in power, whose position depends on them being in control) naturally will try to find ways to reassert their power over those things that are still under their control.  Thus it is almost inevitable that the TSA would exist as a response to suddenly finding that we were not in fact in control of air travel.

I am more and more convinced that the biggest step towards creating a sustainable society will begin with surrendering our need for control, or at least scaling them back to the modest demands of pre-industrial societies.  A recent discussion within the Transition movement is illustrative of this, as those who believed in the wisdom of a community developing an Energy Descent Action Plan faced off against those who felt it was a waste of time and effort to attempt to plan for a chaotic and unpredictable future.  The shadow of this need to control was also in the background of the comments and discussion surrounding the article Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist by Paul Kingsnorth, one of the founders of the Dark Mountain Project.  Though mostly unsaid, the debate that followed the article ended up being between those who believed that the forces of modern industrial society that were assailing the natural world and authentic human culture were outside of our control, and the “activists” who still hold out hope for a large scale solution.

I fall into the former camp, and thus to the eternal disappointment of my more politically active friends, I have like Mr. Kingsnorth turned my back on any solutions that they offer.  While I admire their intentions, I can’t help but feel in my heart of hearts that their hopes lie in holding on to a measure of control that will betray them in the end.  The problem with all our movements, initiatives, plans and visions, is always that they are never large enough or radical enough as Wendell Berry so aptly put in his essay “In Mistrust of Movements”.  Too many of our solutions never get to the root causes, and only treat the symptoms (and often times total solutions bear with them a frightening whiff of mass executions and the Gulag).  I would suggest then, that at the outset, the path towards a non-industrial human culture will be defining our relationship to the unknown.

However it is no small thing to give up the illusion of human control, and even harder still when that control is real and concrete.  Without trying to proselytize for my own particular religious faith, I will say that I believe one of the fundamental advantages of all traditional religions is that they allow room for mystery and a reverence for the unknown.  This is in stark contrast to the modern world, where the limits of knowledge must always expand (and shares an eerie resemblance to cults, where a totalitarian worldview can explain everything).  Regardless of whether it is overtly religious or not, like all healthy relationships, our relationship with the unknown will need to be based on love and respect and a renewed sense of the mystery of the sacred. 

The Hierarchy of Patterns

In Jonathan Hale’s excellent book “The Old Way of Seeing”, he describes why pre-modern buildings are so visually interesting.  It is not simply a matter of detail and ornamentation, but the fact that the buildings had diminishing levels of visual detail as one got closer to them.  From far off one would see a certain level of detail, and then as one got closer, and that first level of detail became too large to take in, a newer, smaller level of detail would become visible.  The gradually diminishing scale of detail would keep presenting the viewer with something new to see until one was right next to the building and the smallest, finest ornamentation presented itself.   This stands in stark contrast to most modern architecture, which might be visually interesting when viewed at a large scale (and herein we see the bias of the modern mindset toward things that are large), but quickly loses detail as one approaches, and becomes cold and visually empty at the personal level.  At best most modern architecture retains some visual interest at close examination due to the variations inherent in the building materials used.  Even a concrete slab, a metal plate, or a sheet of glass retain some variability to their surfaces to give the eye something to look at, though I have no doubt that somewhere there is an architect who wishes to create a building with perfectly homogenous surfaces.

This lack of scaling down in the patterns of modern architecture has parallels in the more social aspects of our lives.  While in most cases people can easily identify themselves as part of a global, abstract group (Progressives, Christians, Libertarians, Feminists), and we go to great lengths to identify ourselves as individuals, the sense of being part of a larger hierarchy of communal and social patterns has been either lost or outright rejected.  In the natural world no organism stands apart from it’s ecosystem, and each is linked to other parts of the ecosystem in manifold ways.  In the study of ecology, an organism is in many way primarily defined by it’s relationship to the other parts that make up the whole.  Unfortunately the vast majority of people, and amazingly enough even many who wish to try and adapt our lives to be more in sync with the natural world, seem bent on defining themselves primarily as individuals.

It seems to be that the problem lies in the fact that we are afraid to give up our freedom.  Part of the siren song of modern life, that has been sold to us in ways that cut across political philosophies, is that there is nothing more important than our individual freedom.  We have been willing to destroy all the old obligations and affiliations in the name of liberating us from the tyranny of being bound to any particular person, place or custom.  If we look back at our architecture, we see that certain details only exist in reference to their place in the whole, and some of the most beautiful details derive their beauty by the limits of their form.  Turning to nature, it is almost nonsensical to imagine a certain species or organism being “liberated” from the constraints of it’s place in an ecosystem.  Of course it must be said that humans are not buildings, and that we have the ability to transcend our ecology in a way that lower animals and plants cannot do, but when we see what a poor job we have made of it, we might be tempted to think and act with greater humility.

It is no coincidence that among early Christian writers, humility was seen as the source and cornerstone of all the other virtues.  Indeed it might be said that love (aside from self-love, which often become monstrous) is not possible without humility, that is preferring something or someone outside of oneself, to ones own needs, wants, or opinions.  It is puzzling then that many who show humility in their dealings with the natural world are so unwilling to display it towards other people, lest someone else get power over them.   There is much talk about restoring lost community, but we always seem to want to have community on our own terms, without accepting that in order to truly be a part of a community we must necessarily be willing to give up some of our autonomy (or more precisely, the illusion of autonomy that has been sold to us by modern society).  Before I got married a wise friend of mine told me, by way of warning and encouragement, that my marriage to my wife was not just between her and I, but would affect our entire community for better or for worse.  On the one hand our community had a stake in supporting and helping us in our married life together, but on the other, we had to understand that the actions we took as individuals in our marriage and as a married couple extended far beyond ourselves.  By accepting our place as a new family in this community we accepted both the support the community could provide as well as an obligation to something outside ourselves.

Oftentimes we prefer to show our care for those things outside ourselves for something very abstract.  “The Environment”, “The Oppressed”, “The Working Poor” becomes the objects of our affection, because on a sub-conscious level, we know “The Working Poor” will never hold us accountable.  It is nearly impossible to be accountable to “The Environment”, but we can be accountable to the environment in a particular place.  If we wish to show our love in humility to the people and natural world around us, that love needs to be manifested in showing care to concrete people and places, because care cannot be true without a sense of accountability.  It is a frightful thing to accept limitations in order to take one’s place in the the pattern of a place or community, but of the three types of love identified by early Christian writers, kenotic or self-emptying love has always been seen as the highest.

Risk and Certainty

Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.

Wendell Berry – Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front


The late David Pye, in his to my mind indispensable book “The Nature and Art of Workmanship” (along with it’s companion, “The Nature and Aesthetics of Design”) sets out as one of his main theses the difference between the “Workmanship of Risk” and the “Workmanship of Certainty”.  This distinction has less to do with the quality of the work (both type of workmanship can create poor or excellent quality goods) or the type of end product (most things made can be done with either method, but more in how the work is done.  The the Workmanship of Risk, at every step along the way there is the risk of failure, mostly because the work is guided more directly by the hand of the workman.  Conversely, in the Workmanship of Certainty, once the work is begun, the end product is not in doubt.  In woodworking the Workmanship of Certainty is achieved through the use of jigs (broadly meaning, any device which guides the work to achieve a predetermined result).  Even very simple woodworking tools involve a lesser or greater degree of the Workmanship of Certainty, for example a hand plane as aided in creating a flat surface by the machined flat surface of it’s sole.  In the Workmanship of Certainty, it might involve a great deal of skill to set up the jig or machine, but once everything has been set, skill is no longer a requirement.  In the Workmanship of Risk, skill must be applied throughout the process, and close attention is required from start to finish.

This concept can, of course, be applied to the world outside of woodworking.  With some notable exceptions, the modern world seeks to submit everything to the Workmanship of certainty.  Most of the objects and systems around us, when they work, are designed to eliminate risk and give us a certain, predetermined outcome.  For example, it is getting harder and harder, at least in the US, to find cars with manual transmissions.  The industrial food system from start to finish, tries to remove all uncertainty from the growing and distribution of food, providing people with a consistent end product, available everywhere, at any time.  It should be clear that by submitting our lives to the Workmanship of Certainty, we allow those who create the systems to determine the end result, since we are simply part of a pre-determined path, and no longer in control of the end result.  That this should result in a depressing homogenization is compounded by the fact that we no longer have to apply skill in our lives.  This probably accounts for the popularity of most hobbies, as people try to reclaim a place for skill in their lives.  The Certainty of industrialization has made the owners and controllers of industry quite wealthy, and has been sold to the general public as relieving them of drudgery, freeing people from having to do work.  It is interesting how successful this has been, because in essence we have been sold on the idea that we should choose to be incompetent.  Most people would not probably consider themselves more free than in the past, and I know the modern life has more than it’s share of drudgery, so what have we received in trade for giving up our skill?

Living a life of skill, where skill is constantly employed, has benefits to one’s outlook that pass beyond whatever skill that may be, but are probably the most richly realized in the skills needed in farming.  More than anything else, bringing food from the ground, the planting, nurture, and harvest, changes one’s outlook and brings one to an understanding of the complexity of the world and the rhythm of the natural world.  The Workmanship of Risks teaches one to acknowledge limits and learn to accept and deal with failure.  On the other hand Pye explains that all the great works of art were created mostly through the Workmanship of Risk.  One false brushstroke, one bad blow with a chisel, one misplaced note or musical phrase, and a masterpiece of art would be ruined.  So it is with more mundane applications of the Workmanship or Risk.  If you use the old definition of art is broadly speaking the exercise of human skill, then perhaps only by accepting risk will we have artful farms, shops, houses, and lives.

The conflict between Risk and Certainty can lead even deeper than how we live and work in the world but also has a bearing on our personal philosophy and habits of mind as well as our relationships with others.  Our idea of how things should be done, our ways of looking at the world are tools we use to make sense of the world, and like and tool can be partially understood by the Workmanship of Risk and the Workmanship of Certainty.  Even openmindedness can provide us with a certain sense of certainty by ensuring we will never take the risk of making an irrevocable decision (G.K. Chesterton once quipped that the purpose of an open mind was to be able to close it on something).  There are any number of political philosophies and ideologies that use “tools” to help place whole groups of people into convenient categories, turning people into products that can then be dealt with uniformly.  Anyone who has done a good deal of hand tool woodworking can tell you that even in the same species of wood, every piece of wood must be treated a little differently, and often two piece that look the same will respond to the tool in total different manner.  Furthermore there are times when the proper application of skill requires one to depart from the “accepted” methods and use one’s intuition and understanding to work with the tools and the wood in a completely unorthodox way.  One of the appeals of traditional woodworking is the fact that the methods used developed over the ages as a response to the uncertainty and variability of wood.  In our garden and orchard as well we see that Certainty is almost nowhere to be found, the growing plants and trees all require individual care, and do not generally respond well to attempts to impose our systems on them.  But then are also times when even the most harmonious systems and ways of growing do not work (plants that do not thrive, even when planted and fertilized”correctly”, trees that become damaged despite all the “correct” treatments) and it is only through the application of skill and close attention to this particular plant or tree, outside of all systems or ideologies, that finds the solution.