IrishStoryteller

Tales - some short, some long, some tall - from Ireland and other assorted European countries by the writer Robert Allen, author of No Global (Irish community resistance to the globalisation of hazard), Pluto Ireland, The Dioxin War, Pluto Press, and Rendezvous with Rousseau, a novel about a dead European, a very alive American and a lot of very interesting people

Thursday, April 28, 2005

COMMUNITY TALES: Reclamation in the Face of Globalization: Fighting the Global Heroin Trade

An Introduction to the work of CHELLIS GLENDINNING

A sprawling village, home to about 3,000 people, Chimayó is the spiritual centre of the Río Grande in the upland desert of northern New Mexico, USA. Every Easter thousands of pilgrims trek by foot to the edge of Chimayó where they rest at a Christian sanctuary (El Santuario) to pray. It's a procession rooted in the earthly pagan history of the village.

On a Saturday morning in May 1999, a new date was etched into the spiritual history of Chimayó. The villagers - despairing that their village had the most drug dealers and users in the county, Río Arriba, with the most drug overdose deaths per capita in the US and increasing numbers of drug-related killings - came together on an interfaith procession to pray for the end of the violence from drugs and alcohol. Catholic, Tewa, Jewish, Sikh, Muslim, Aztec, Pentacostal and Protestant marched along the highway to the Santuario, 450 people with a collective voice that screamed, needing to be heard.

Yet the local, state and federal authorities didn't hear the scream, didn't seem to care and didn't appear to want to do anything about the drug culture in Chimayó - the drug-related robberies, the deaths, the murders, the fear. Then, out of the wide blue sky beyond the desert - four months after the procession, on September 29, 1999, an army of 150 officers - local, state, Drug Enforcement Administration and FBI - raided the homes of five drug dealers. Some say it changed Chimayó forever. Some say it was a watershed for drug-culture USA.




Chellis Glendinning, author of the award-winning Off the Map: An Expedition Deep into Empire and the Global Economy, lives in Chimayó, with its diverse mountain mix of Spanish, Mexican native, local Pueblo Indian, Lebanese, French, Greek and Anglo-American. "I fit right into this north New Mexico Chicano world," she writes. "Or at least I do now that I have navigated the inevitable hurdles and the hoops thrust into my face during my first decade [she moved to Chimayó in 1993]. Not the least of these hurdles has been the drug world - the trafficking, shooting up, syringes along the riverbank, bulgaries, throat-slittings, police presence, and prison culture associated with the abuse of chiva [the street slang for heroin]."

Glendinning fits right in because she counts as her friends in Chimayó chile farmers, community organizers and state troopers among bank robbers, ex-cons and drug dealers. "I have learned to open my heart to a wisdom that does not flee from suffering, breakdown, or error," she writes. "Rather the wisdom of this place knows these aspects of life as inseparable from job, triumph, and communion."

She argues that such wisdom is needed, especially when it comes to dealing with the complexities of the global heroin trade and its impact on the land-based communities who are forced to grow opium, the raw source of heroin, and the rural and urban communities and individuals who are affected by its consumption and abuse.

The author had become involved in the "passions of living" in Chimayó, and then, "as an afterthought" she was inspired to write about what she had seen. Because of her approach to the subject, her consequent book, Chiva: A Village Takes on the Global Heroin Trade, courted controversy before it hit the bookstores.

Glendinning's approach was to take the local (the victimisation of the users and the exploitation of the growers) and place them in the context of globalisation. The heroin trade, Glendinning quickly realised, was not a social sideshow on the periphery of society. She writes: "Through a daunting history of collusion between traffickers, business and banking institutions, governments and military dating back to the British Empire, the illicit drug trade has come to be essential to the accumulation of capital that fuels the expansion and plunder we call corporate globalization."

What makes the book instantly political and deeply personal is the way that Glendinning experienced the impact of the global heroin trade in Chimayó. "Chiva," she says, "is the story of the global heroin trade woven into the tale of my love affair with a former drug dealer - all in the service of the telling of the uprising my village undertook to rout out our heroin epidemic."

That uprising started in earnest with the procession in 1999 to the Santuario and has continued with a program Glendinning insists is community-led, "local people rising up using resources, ideas, values, strengths, and means that are peculiar to their place and history".

If the story of the community response to the drug epidemic in Chimayó is controversial, this is because, she argues, of the entrenchment of drug epidemics in society. "Like that of any imperial system, [it] always has the effect of fragmenting community into opposing predicaments, survival strategies, and factions. What we've done in New Mexico occurred by a convergence of domestic 'drug war' advocates, legalization activists, prohibitionists, police, federal drug agents, a right-wing governor, 12-step recovery professionals, department of health officials, behavioural health workers, drug addicts, former dealers, tea-tottlers, Aztecs, Catholics, aetheists, mothers of children killed by drug violence, you-name-it. My job was to reflect what the community did and its many perspectives."

Chellis Glendinning was able to do this job because she has a history of life in political movements. From an early age she was taken to civil rights demos. Born in 1947, with antecedents in Europe, and brought up in Cleveland, Ohio, she embraced the anti-Vietnam, anti-nuclear and feminist movements of the 1960s, went to Berkeley, San Francisco, and, over the next 20 years in the Bay Area, became involved in the natural foods, holistic medicine, ecology, indigenous rights and no-global movements. Her books reflect that experience - Waking Up in the Nuclear Age (1987) focused on the psychological effects of the nuclear arms race around the time she completed a degree in psychology in the mid-1980s. She moved on to write When Technology Wounds (1990 - "a study of people made sick from exposure to dangerous technologies"), My Name is Chellis and I'm in Recovery from Western Civilization (1994 - "an overview of how modern society emerged from the domestication process begun in the Neolithic and how addiction is embedded in the resulting nature/human split") and Off the Map (1999, 2002 - "about the friction edge between land-based cultures and empire, with a sub-theme of the practice of child abuse within dominating societies"). As a writer and thinker she has been influenced by Lewis Mumford, Paul Shepard, Emiliano Zapata, A.A. Milne, Che Guevara, Susan Griffin, Subcomandante Marcos, Samuel Hahnemann, Eduardo Galeano, Suzan Harjo, Jeannette Armstrong, Michael Ruppert, Kirkpatrick Sale, E.F. Schumacher and Frantz Fanon among many others. "I've been indelibly marked by all the movements I've been part of," she says, while acknowledging the influence of the Chicano culture of northern New Mexico.

"When I first moved to Chimayó, I asked a local farmer his take on the state of the world. We were riding horses across the badlands at the time, and he took enough of a moment to contemplate that a tumbleweed bounced by in the wind. Then he answered, 'The down-to-earth people are finishing.' People, I think, tend to get fired up to insist on change when our hearts are touched with realization of the most basic insights and goals.

"My friend, the Chicano activist and poet Arnoldo Garcia, says that culture is not adjunct to a political movement; it IS a political movement. Storytelling, song, poetry - these are the essential ways humans communicate meaning. They are the ways we teach and learn - and survive. It is only since imperial systems have made society monstrous, fragmented, and complex that sociological, economic, political, psychological, etc language has become necessary to describe what's going on. We are challenged as we protest and as we restore to be aware that we are creating culture - and to make sure the effort reflects the vision we wish now and ultimately to inhabit."

So Chellis Glendinning gradually found herself writing about the New Mexico community that she lived among. "This book is nothing if it is not for my community," she says. "My hope is to reflect back to the people of northern New Mexico a slice of history in order to encourage us to continue our beating out the encroaching forces of narco-trafficantes, government, and corporations through drug epidemics.

"I wish to hold up Chimayó and northern New Mexico as a model for other communities who wish to stage an uprising against drug epidemics. Or against any insidious penetrations. And I wish to alert us all to the global nature of the heroin trade. I have come to believe that the purveyors of illicit narcotics are as ambitious - and ruthless - in their dream of world domination as are Wal-Mart, Citibank, or Exxon. Right now the illicit drug business takes up a whopping eight percent of the global economy. That's more than automotive, tourism, textiles, and legal pharmaceuticals!"

In the face of this seemingly overwhelming giant, the people of Chimayó adopted an adversarial stance, that of David versus Goliath, but the real accomplishment has been their autonomous unity, which Glendinning is quick to acknowledge. "I am awed by what a group of courageous folk were able to accomplish - from turning the tables on fear and terror, to beating the dealers out of town, to inventing methods for drug recovery and launching healthy venues for youth - all in ways that spring from and enhance local traditional culture. We have a long way to go - and more battles to mount as global corporations have discovered us - but we've made a worthy launch.

"The model of Chimayó does not require that people come to New Mexico to grasp what we are doing. It's reclamation in the face of colonization. At heart it's anarchistic creativity and courage, followed by vision and sustained effort to build a different kind of world from what's been foisted upon us.

"If the humble down-home folks of Chimayó, New Mexico, can do what we did - and what we continue to attempt - why not anyone?"


Chiva by Chellis Glendinning is published by New Society Publishers and distributed in Britain, Ireland and continental Europe by Gazelle Book Services

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

TOXIC TALES: Agent Orange: Operation Trail Dust



Phan Thi Phi Phi has indelible memories of the American war in Vietnam. For five years, between April 1966 and July 1971, she saw the horrors of warfare. As a physician in Quang Nam and Quang Ngai provinces she treated the maimed and wounded. As director of Number One Hospital, which operated mobile units near rivers and streams and close to the Ho Chi Minh trail valley, she stared into a heart of darkness - a gloom so pervasive that it is still present in Vietnam today, almost 30 years after the end of the war.

Dr Phi Phi knew what she was letting herself in for when she arrived in the jungle. The Ho Chi Minh trail, which allowed the Vietnamese to transport 60 tons of aid per day and 20,000 soldiers a month from Hanoi to the edge of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), snaked through the forests where Dr Phi Phi and her colleagues set up hospital units.

When the trail was established in the early years of the war, the trek south was a hardship that took six months to endure. One in ten of those who carried supplies succumbed to malaria and other diseases. As the war progressed the trail brought a constant stream of Vietnamese soldiers accompanied by American bombs. It also brought something else, a horror so deadly it could not be imagined.

The American war in Vietnam began in 1961 when the fledgling administration of John Fitzgerald Kennedy inherited a conflict it did not want. It was a conflict that would escalate into a full-scale war in the post-JFK period, but in 1961 it was about the US-supported southern Republic of Vietnam government and how the Americans could aid its war against the northern Democratic Republic of Vietnam and the Vietnamese National Liberation Front.

Kennedy's administration did not want a global war machine. This contrasted with the interests of American business - specifically the armaments and electronics corporations but also the interests of the chemical industry giants, which, since 1940, had co-operated with the Pentagon on biological weapons research.

With big business keen to see an escalation of the war, the Kennedy administration was keen to bring about its end and when counter-insurgency operations were suggested they were given clearance. A memo from the State department to President Kennedy on 'Defoliant Operations in Vietnam', dated November 24, 1961, suggested that defoliation was an accepted tactic of war. President Kennedy was told that the north Vietnamese and the NLF operated in forests and mangroves, and were using a trail through heavily forested valleys to bring aid, weapons and personnel.

Specially prepared herbicides, he was told, could be used for defoliation. At the end of November 1961, believing that the north Vietnamese and NLF could be routed from the jungle, President Kennedy approved a joint recommendation from the departments of State and of Defense to initiate biological warfare in Vietnam. The order was for defoliation only. With the co-operation of the South Vietnam government, Operation Trail Dust was put into practice. At long last the US military had the chance to use a biological weapon it had been preparing for almost 20 years.

In 1940 scientists isolated indoleacetic acid - the hormone that regulates growth in plants - as part of a programme to synthesise plant compounds. Among these were 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) and 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4,5-T) - simple bondings of chlorine and phenol. Researchers discovered that tiny amounts of these synthetic plant hormones were capable of stimulating plants. When they increased the dose they learned that these synthetic hormones could also kill. Researchers realised that each compound had different effects on different plants. In combination these phenoxy herbicides formed a lethal weapon against unwanted vegetation.

It was Professor E. J. Kraus, head of the Botany Department of the University of Chicago, who alerted the US military to the existence of these hormone-like substances. Kraus suggested to the military that it might be interested in "the toxic properties of growth regulating substances for the destruction of crops or the limitation of crop production".

By 1943 Kraus had recommend 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T to a US National Academy of Sciences committee on biological warfare. A year later Kraus moved to the US army's centre for biological warfare at Camp (later Fort) Detrick. But the plan to use 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T to destroy enemy crops was thwarted by peace when the 1939-45 war ended. The research, however, continued. Kraus oversaw a programme that resulted in the screening of approximately 1200 compounds. Eventually some of these compounds were tested on tropical vegetation in Puerto Rico and Thailand. By 1961, when President Kennedy gave the order for their use in Vietnam, the military was ready with six chemical mixtures - named Agent White (2,4-D, picloram); Agent Blue (cacodylic acid); Agent Green (2,4,5-T); Agent Orange (2,4-D, 2,4,5-T); Agent Pink (2,4,5-T) and Agent Purple (2,4-D, 2,4,5-T). The US military had successfully tested Purple in 1959 at Fort Drum in New York, and US Army veterans allege that the military sprayed toxic chemicals on Flamenco Island in Panama in 1958.

Kennedy administration policy initially emphasised that the South Vietnam government would only be assisted with the herbicide operation. A 1962 pact assigned the ownership of the herbicides to the South Vietnam government, and South Vietnam soldiers handled their loading and transportation when they reached Vietnamese territory. The plans for herbicide use were co-ordinated by the US Embassy to the South Vietnam government, the US Military Assistance Command of Vietnam and a subdivision of the Saigon General Staff of the South Vietnam government, codenamed Committee 202.

From August 10, 1961 when airplanes targeted Kontum, for five months US military personnel using South Vietnam aircraft conducted tests using the new herbicides. By January 1962, after President Kennedy's order, the first shipments of the herbicides started to arrive.

Purple, Pink and Green were used to defoliate forest and mangrove. The spraying was done by airplane, helicopter, truck, boat, and by soldiers on foot. Throughout 1962 spraying of all targets required prior approval from the White House, until later in the year President Kennedy delegated limited power to the joint US/South Vietnam staff in Vietnam.

In Operation Ranch Hand: The Air Force and Herbicides in Southeast Asia, 1961-1971, William Buckingham revealed how the decision to begin destroying Vietnam's stable crops - beans, manioc, corn, bananas, tomato, pineapple and rice - was gradually wrestled from Washington.

"The decision to begin destroying crops with herbicides was longer in coming, even though President [Ngo Dinh] Diem was an early and enthusiastic advocate of crop destruction. He maintained that he knew where the Viet Cong crops were, and South Vietnamese officials had difficulty in understanding why the Americans wouldn't give them a readily-available chemical that would accomplish with much less effort what they were already doing by cutting, pulling, and burning. Although the Defense Department favored chemical crop destruction, several influential people in the State Department, notably Roger Hilsman and W. Averell Harriman, were opposed. They argued that there was no way to insure that only Viet Cong crops would be killed, and the inevitable mistakes would alienate the rural South Vietnamese people. Hilsman maintained that the use of this technology would enable the Viet Cong to argue that the U.S. represented 'foreign imperialist barbarism,' and Harriman urged that crop destruction should be postponed to a later stage in the counterinsurgency struggle when the Viet Cong would not be so closely intermingled with the people."

On October 2, 1962, President Kennedy decided to allow restricted spraying of crops.

By 1964, with Kennedy assassinated, the war escalated and with it the use of the phenoxy herbicides. Authority and restrictions were gradually relaxed and the areas sprayed expanded from forest and mangrove to include Vietnam's crops. In July 1965 Purple, Pink and Green were replaced by Orange and White when the operation went airborne under the codename Hades. The spraying was done from the air by camouflaged Fairchild C-123 planes fitted with 1000 gallon tanks and removable identification insignia in what became known as Operation Ranch Hand.

When they performed crop destruction missions, US military documents reveal that the aircraft bore South Vietnam insignia, the US Air Force flight crews wore civilian clothing and were accompanied by a South Vietnam army crew member, all working under the US departments of Defense and State, codename Farmgate, with the sole purpose of "decreasing enemy food supplies". In 1965 almost half of the total spraying was designed to destroy crops, a war crime in contravention of international law.

Agent Orange comprised of almost two-thirds of the herbicides sprayed, 95% of it from the air. Approximately 20,000 missions were flown. Between July 1965 and June 1970 13.05 million gallons of Agent Orange were sprayed over Indochina, in Laos and Cambodia (Kampuchea) as well as Vietnam. A frequent target of the Ranch Hand operation was the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which received the bulk of what has since been described as the largest chemical warfare operation in history.

It has been estimated that up to four million Vietnamese were exposed to herbicides between 1961 and 1971. It is not known how many of the 4.2 million US personnel deployed in Vietnam were exposed. Anyone - like Joseph Isaacson, a US Air Force crew chief who handled the herbicides at any of the US bases in Vietnam - Bien Hoa, Da Nang, Nha Trang, Phu Cat, plus the Aluoi and Asau valleys - faced exposure. They also included Vietnamese workers like Dr Phi Phi.

Now, in a legendary legal battle as long as the war itself, she is joined with veteran Joseph Isaacson in a compensation fight in the courts of New York seeking justice for the hurt and pain caused by Agent Orange and its deadly toxic contaminant - dioxin.

ART TALES: Protest Art and the Struggle to be Creative in the Modern World



Allegory and symbolism play a huge part in how we see our world. When Roberto Benigni, the Italian comedy writer, wrote his Oscar winning film La Vita e Bella (Life is Beautiful) - taking the title from a comment made by Leon Troksky when he realised that Stalin’s assassins were coming for him in Mexico - he literally inverted the horrors of the holocaust to create a story of love and joy for life. He took very seriously the words of the film's title song:

Smile without a reason why
Love as if you were a child
Smile no matter what they tell you,
don't listen to a word they tell you
'cause life is beautiful that way.



The Nazis played classical music to drown out the screams of their victims. Benigni turned this into a symbolic retort by broadcasting Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann: Barcarolle in a gesture designed to engender hope.

Benigni was severely criticised for this film. It is a film that is not easy to understand. This is not because of its comical approach to the holocaust. It is because Benigni introduces the audience to an allegorical journey that embraces the political art of Dante Alighieri, Arthur Schopenhauer and Leon Troksky among many other artistic references. The film is a rich tapestry of human culture and only those who understand what art can achieve are able to see what lies behind the obvious.

Does this mean that Roberto Benigni is a radical? Or simply an artist who understands the role of allegory, comedy, music and art in a world where the corporate-controlled multi-media, in the words of Irish writer John Healy, 'sledge-hammers its cultural values' into the minds of our young?

John Zerzan, the Eugene-based anarchist whose writings are said to have inspired the anti-World Trade Organisation protests in Seattle in 1999, would probably say he isn't either because he uses symbolic culture, one of the harbingers of civilisation, which many in the No Global movement apparently want to destroy. If Benigni felt a need to debate such an argument he might counter using Zerzan's own words: 'The magnitude of symbolization testifies to how much has been repressed; buried, but possibly still recoverable.'

This is not a new argument. Understanding what the artist means, when the artist's work is not easy to understand because it has to be expressed using allegory or symbolism, is why we need art to interpret the world. Art without emotional or political input is art for art's sake. It reduces and debases the role of the imagination.

In his 1926 novel Steppenwolf, Hermann Hesse, the German author, discussed the soul of the artist. When asked to summarise the meaning of his book, Hesse said: 'The story of the Steppenwolf pictures a disease and crisis but not one leading to death and destruction, on the contrary: to healing.'

Can art heal? Many artists would argue that it can, if the art under scrutiny is art that moves the senses. So what are the implications for creative artists tackling themes that are not part of the mainstream? Does art have a future in a world where all media is controlled by giant corporations, where the voices and actions of creative and imaginative artists are oppressed because their work cannot be homogenised into a commercialised entity that supports the dominant world view? Has the expression of creative art become another aspect of the social struggle against globalisation? Why is it that the art we see around us is not a reflection of what is really happening in the world? Is it because the images, stories, songs and artistry of our immediate environment are the product of the corporate world, the commercial world, the world of profit and gain?

We do not live in a world of warp-drive spaceships but we do live in a world where disaffected teenagers mow down their schoolmates. We do not live in a world that shows the bloody aftermath of a smart bomb strike but we do live in a world that shows a Hollywood hero escape unscathed from a cartoon-like hail of hi-tech bullets. We do not live in the cinematic world of constant competitive conflict but we do live in a world where mutual aid defines the lives of millions.

The reality of the real world is apparently boring by comparison with the images we see everyday from multi-media yet real life is much tougher and much harder to endure than any contrived media fest and despite this, one element of human life shines through, our ability to be creative. All over the world imaginative communities are building new futures through mutual aid, co-operation, sharing, self-respect, dignity and especially through their art in the face of oppression and injustice.

The secret to the success of the Zapatista revolution in the Chiapas region in Mexico is the way they use their imaginations. In much the same way that it was language and our ability to imagine that created civilisation, the Zapatistas changed the symbols that defined their lives. 'The Zapatistas have tried to move away from what they see as the tired language of revolution and to develop a new language of revolt,' says John Holloway, the Dublin-born lecturer in sociology at Puebla University in Mexico, who has studied the revolution. 'The role of imagination, storytelling and so on is very important: not so much as a way of getting a serious message across in popular form, but above all because the language of revolt is basically different from the language of domination. Domination is serious and boring, revolt has to be fun.'

The role of the artist, the storyteller, the poet, the balladeer, the musician, the puppeteer, the sculptor has always been crucial during conflict against oppression. In our automised, electronic age we seem to have forgotten the inspiration singers and songwriters, for example, give us, making it easier to get up in the morning and continue the struggle.

A primary reason for this is that we have become polarised into fiercely competing and mutually intolerant ideologies. This has not led to communication and understanding, it has instead resulted in a paralysing gridlock. Creative people provide the means to break that gridlock. We need creative people to present us with new visions for living, with new visions for the future, with alternatives to the models that have repeatedly lead to failure and misery.

We live in a world of competing lies. The old virtues of honour and honesty have tragically been lost and forgotten. Whenever we hear a statement coming from a politician, a corporation CEO, or a news reporter, we can have good faith that what they are saying is very likely to be partially or completely false. The absence of honour and honesty leads to the decay and collapse of nations, communities, families, and individual lives. So, who will tell the truth?

Throughout human history, creative people have been truth-tellers. They have played important roles in countless dramas of social change. Today, it is no different.

Jim Page is a Seattle-based singer-songwriter well known to radical audiences for more than four decades. By the end of the 20th century this street singer was still celebrating the protest movement's effect on culture and politics, with his masterly summation of the Seattle protest in November 1999 in his ballad Didn't We.

November 30th '99 history walking on a tightrope line
big money pulling on invisible strings getting into everything so deep. it's hard to believe it's in the food and the water and the air you breathe and the chemistry, the biotech, the banker with the bottomless cheque, the corporations and the CEOs and the bottom line as the profit grows, the money talks, you don't talk back, they don't like it when you act like that but didn't we shut it down didn't we

November 30th '99, it was a Tuesday morning when we drew the line, it was the WTO coming to town and we swore we gonna shut it down and they stood there with their big police, they had the national guard to keep the peace with the guns and the clubs and the chemical gas but still we would not let them pass and they raged and roared and their tempers flared and there were bombs bursting in the daylight air and they'd run us off, do us in but we came right back again, yeah didn't we, shut it down didn't we

November 30th '99, millennium passing as the numbers climb and the people came from everywhere there must have been 50,000 out there there were farmers, unions rank and file, every grassroots has its own style, there were great big puppets two storeys tall, there were drummers drumming in the shopping malls, there were so many people that you couldn't see how that many people got into the city and the WTO delegates too but we were locked down so they couldn't get through yeah didn't we. shut it down didn't we

November 30th '99, locked down at the police line,
and they hitting you with everything they got
but you ain't moving like it or not and then they're tying your wrists with plastic cuffs and they loading you up on a great big bus and taking you down to the naked bays, pepper spraying you right in the face, trying to break you down, trying to get you to kneel but you got the unity and this for real and they can't break a spirit that's coming alive, that's the kind of spirit that's bound to survive, didn't we, shut it down didn't we

Now the media loves all the glitter and flash, you know the newspapers talking out a whole load of trash about the violence of the people in black and how the cops were so tired they just had to attack and the secret sittings in that deep dark hole they call the city hall may never be told, the major's out doing the spin, the police chief quits so you can't ask him but they can swear to God and all human law but I was there and I know what I saw. and the visible stains wash away in the rains, but this old town'll never be the same cause didn't we, shut it down didn't we

Now it's the greatest story ever told, David and Goliath are you be so bold, standing up to the giant when the going gets hot, and all you got is a sling shot but they tell me that the world turned upside down, they gotta pick it up and shake it, gotta turn it around, you gotta take it apart, rearrange it, I don't wanna see the world I want to change it, don't let em tell you that it can't be done because they gonna be the first ones to run just take a little lesson from Seattle town, WTO and how we shut it down, yeah didn't we, shut it down didn't we

November 30th '99


David Rovics sings songs of social significance, about what is really happening in Palestine, in the USA, in America, in Europe, and he places his songs in a personal context, like all good storytellers. Song for Ana Belen Montes from his 2003 CD release Return (Al-awda) tells the story of a woman who worked deep in the Pentagon establishment on Caribbean policy in the Department of Defense. And was a spy for Cuba. 'That is,' says Rovics, 'she was committed to a higher law, committed to fighting US terrorism …'

Twenty-five years was what the judge said
Then he banged his gavel and shook his head
You've done wrong, you broke our trust
Now we caught you and this is a bust

Now you'll spend these decades behind bars of steel
You thought you could play with us, but this is for real
He said you gave away secrets to the enemy
Now you'll live in prison in the land of the free

But here beneath this Cuban sun
I'd just like to thank you for all you've done
My heart today is torn apart
Ana Belen Montes, you are a spy after my own heart

'I obeyed my conscience rather than the law,' so you said at your secret trial
You took no money for your work, so says your declassified file
You warned the Cubans of the plans of the assassins from the US
Just what other good deeds you did, they may never tell us

But here beneath this Cuban sun
I'd just like to thank you for all you've done
My heart today is torn apart
Ana Belen Montes, you are a spy after my own heart

High up in the ranks of the DoD you served the common good
Working alone, night and day, you did just what you should
Of all the great people I have known, there are few that I'd call greater
Than one woman who obeyed a higher law, who the judge called traitor

But here beneath this Cuban sun
I'd just like to thank you for all you've done
My heart today is torn apart
Ana Belen Montes, you are a spy after my own heart


Humans became powerful because of our mastery of language - the power of our stories,' wrote Michigan poet Rick Reese. 'We studied nature intensively, learned a great deal about the ways of plants and animals, and built stories around this knowledge. We learned stalking from the cats, tracking from the wolves, deception from the possums, trapping from the spiders, community from the apes, and joy from the chipmunks. We learned the finest magic of all beings, and enriched our stories with it. Stories are our software. Stories are the heart and soul of every culture. Stories define who we are, what we believe, and how we behave. Stories are our most important and powerful possessions.'

Storytelling has been replaced in the modern world by novels, which in turn have been replaced by packets of pages containing words written to a specific formula usually about the same subjects we see on cinema and television screens conflict, murder and war.

Some people tell it as it is.

Two women shine in this patriarchal world as storytellers, an Indian woman called Arundhati Roy and an American woman who calls herself 'Starhawk'. Roy is the best selling author of 'The God of Small Things', a novel that is centered in Indian life but rooted in the intimate tragedy of humanity that our daily rites of passage are consumed by the little things, that we tell lies because it is easier than telling the truth and that these add up to destroy families. A former scriptwriter, Roy has a prose style that is chatty, erudite, passionate and witty. It brought her a global readership in 30 languages, and when the elites tried to co-opt her to their world she shrugged her shoulders, content instead to tell the world about the damage the World Bank were causing in her country with their funding of the Narmada Dam. Instead of writing another best-selling novel that would enrich the corporate publishers of the western world she wrote a book, 'The Cost of Living', about Narmada Bachao Andolan - the alliance of indigenous peoples willing to die to defend their land in the Narmada valley in the north-west of India criticising the Indian state over the building of first world-funded dams. Roy's participation in protests against big dams in India led to contempt of court charges against her by the Supreme Court of India, which eventually gave her a one-day jail sentence. This did not shut her up; her subsequent books have been collections of essays about globalisation and the role of the US in Chile, Palestine, Israel and Iraq.

Starhawk spent several weeks during 2004 in the West Bank, where she was doing what she does very well - recording the daily lives and actions of oppressed people and putting their stories into the public domain. Her writings are the stuff of real soap-opera. She too is a creative writer, conjuring up stories about eco-spirituality, and she too decided her talents were better employed telling the stories of those who, for various reasons, are unable to speak to the world. This is an extract from her April 9 report, Last Day on the West Bank.

'After the last day of the women's training, we go home with Arish to her village of Sarda, open the door in the blank cement wall that faces the street, and enter a walled garden, with mint and fava beans, fig trees and grape vines, sages and roses lining the paths. In front of the house is a wide porch, and on the sides and back are courtyards. Arish brings us inside, to sit and drink tea and admire a perfect model of the Al Aqsa Mosque made by her brother, the engineer. Arish is young, in her early twenties, not yet married, an artist and writer. She shows us her drawings of her nieces and her mother, She has a round, bronze face and half-moon eyes that crinkle up as she smiles. Then the women beckon us out back, and we crowd onto a low bench in a small, cement-block outbuilding. In one corner is a sunken oven, heaped with coals and ashes from burning olive pumice, what's left after the oil is pressed. Arish's mother presides, patting out flat slabs of dough, and Arish removes the lid which has a long, vertical handle so they can lay them in the pit, replace the cover, and heap the ashes on. After just a few moments, the bread is done. Wide sheets of flat bread dripping with olive oil, with flat leaves of zata sandwiched in, and thin pasties of crisp, sweet bread basted with honey. They fill our hands with it, and we eat as tea is poured. It's a warm, intimate women's space, heated by the oven, like a sauna or a sweat lodge, and we laugh and smile and eat. I have seen clay models of this oven in sculptures thousands of years old. Generations of women have patted the dough, baked the bread, gathered at these hearths to gossip and laugh a warm and womblike female space in a male world. I feel so safe, so welcomed, that I'm lulled into being happy, a feeling I just can't shake as the afternoon goes on. In spite of the harsh realities we've been discussing in the training, the techniques for self-protection when facing tear gas, sound bombs, rubber bullets, beatings, the ominous approach of the Wall that will shatter the fabric of these villages, the overwhelming oppressive realities of the occupation, something strong and sweet as this honey bread survives. For a little while longer.'


Artists show us other ways of looking at the world. Painters like the Belfast-born artist, Dermot Seymour, reveal the obvious through their art, which can satirise the politics of power. When asked why he painted cows all the time he said, 'There are 8 million cattle in Ireland. Bewildering, isn't it? It is often obvious to work with the obvious …' But when the obvious is shown, as he did with a painting of an Orangeman, a crumbled harp can and a cow, he drew criticism from the Unionists because they claimed he was 'taking the piss' out of them.

Dermot was simply painting an obvious scene, yet taking the piss is an old artistic tradition. In medieval Europe, particularly in southern Europe, street theatre artists deliberately took the piss out of the ruling elites. These artists were called the giullari and they were the beginnings of the street theatre we now know as Punch and Judy and Zanni the clown. Giullari were wandering performers, actors and comics who travelled from place to place poking fun at church authority and rich people. Dario Fo has continued this tradition, particularly with his play 'Accidental Death of an Anarchist', which tells the story of an anarchist called Giuseppe Pinelli who police said fell out of an open window. Fo wrote his farce to show people this was a lie, that police had pushed him to his death. The Spacecraft street theatre group in Dublin took Fo's plot to present 'Hypothetical Death of an Activist', facilitated by Felicity Ford and Les Shine, to describe the events behind the garda (police) violence against the Reclaim the Streets protest in Dublin in 2002.

'The play,' says Felicity, 'has a history of being re-appropriated to various political situations, and it lives as a continually evolving artwork, which Dario Fo has generously given to anyone who wants to re-write it. It acts as a common cultural reference point for events that display similar characteristics across a globe where police habitually abuse their power. It connects lots of activist theatre groups in this way, and contests the idea of the artist as some kind of specialised figure whose work is a holy cow that can't be taken, played with, re-written, and re-configured. The lack of ego with which Fo has passed that script on to different groups is, to my mind, a really progressive way of making a type of art that genuinely encourages group input, co-operation, and discussion. I believe art is made to make sense of the times; that it does so on many levels, from personal through political (for they are not really separate) and in terms of creating art that is truly dissenting, an irreverence for external forms of validation of expression, and an almost insane confidence in the validity of one's own perception and vision are to be highly encouraged among artists. It is my fervent hope that healthy selves, not afraid to openly reject the values of society, the counter-culture, or any other dogmatic belief systems, are creating, as we speak, inspiring artworks, plays, songs, and stories that will encourage more to do the same. Inspiring each other is the best way for us to engender change and hope. A sustainable form of artistic resistance can be created only in the presence of real affirmation and confidence.'


Graciela Monteagudo is an Argentinian puppeteer who has taken the tradition of the Giullari onto another level. When Dario Santillan and Maximiliano Costeki were killed by police in Buenos Aires on June 26, 2002, Graciela joined 50,000 people who marched to the Plaza De Mayo to protest the murders. In the days before the march Graciela organised people to help her create what she called 'a giant puppet street theatre piece'. This piece led the march through Buenos Aires, and is now seen a symbol of the creative will of the unemployed peoples of Argentina.

Graciela tours the world with a unique puppet show. She uses a variety of puppet styles, acting and singing, also involving the audience. The main character is a woman, who used to be a worker and is now picking up cardboard from the streets of Buenos Aires every night to sell for a few cents. The message, says Graciela, 'is about organising and struggling.'

Images, like pictures and paintings, can portray a meaning and get to the heart of an issue much quicker than the use of words. Posters, which combine the subtle use of both images and words, are an artistic outlet those who are organising and struggling can use to great effect.

There is a rich world of struggle out there and without our creativity it would be a joyless place. Creative artists, whether they are poets or puppeteers, bring that world alive by sharing with the rest of us their ability to dramatise daily events and to highlight the truth. There are no implications for creative artists tackling themes that are not part of the mainstream. Once art becomes part of the mainstream it is no longer art, it is a commodity, something that has to have a value.

This was a point made by Neil Young, the Canadian singer-songer writer, when he was with the super group that included David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash. Four students were shot dead on the campus of Kent State University in Ohio in May 1970. Their crime was to protest against the Vietnam War. Crosby was enraged by the event, but Young expressed his reaction by writing a song there and then. The pair flew to Los Angeles, and went straight into the studio with Stills and Nash, to record the song, which was released within the week. Although it was banned by several radio stations, the CSN&Y single, simply titled Ohio, was a hit. Seven years later, when Young included the song on his Decade compilation, he wrote that "it's ironic that I capitalised on the deaths of these American students". Even more ironic is the inclusion of the song in Young's 2004 compilation of his best songs and his suprise at the continued popularity of the song. "It felt really good," he said, "to hear it come back so fast, that whole idea of using music as a message and unifying generations and giving them a point of view."

Few among the popular mainstream who have had success with politically-tainted songs have attempted to reconcile the contradiction that art, once successful, is no longer art, it is commerce that benefits the artist financially. Young is joined only by Bruce Springsteen among the best-selling giants of popular music with their ability to use their creativity to highlight political events and issues. Bob Marley was a beacon with his songs about Jamaican political culture, which got into the mainstream, but few mainstream popular groups achieve today what the Rolling Stones managed in the 1960s and 1970s when songs like Street Fighting Man and Sympathy for the Devil sold in millions.

Today the images, stories, songs and artistry of the corporate world are manufactured items that serve a function for commerce, they do not and never will be mistaken for creative art. Thea Gilmore, a second-generation Irish, English-born singer-songwriter, hit this particular nail bang into the corporate drum with a line from her song, 'Mainstream'.

'If we grow up we're all going to be famous.'

MORE TO GET YOUR HEAD INTO
Change the World without taking Power by John Holloway, Pluto Press, http://www.plutobooks.com

Running on Emptiness: The Pathology of Civilisation
by John
Zerzan, Feral House, http://www.feralhouse.com

The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile: Conversations with Arundhati Roy
, Interviews by David Barsamian, South End Press, http://www.southendpress.org


Power Politics
by Arundhati Roy, South End Press, http://www.southendpress.org


War Talk
by Arundhati Roy, South End Press, http://www.southendpress.org


The Algebra of Infinite Justice (The Cost of Living and Power Politics)
by Arundhati Roy, Flamingo


Webs of Power: Notes from the Global Uprising
by Starhawk, New Society Publishers, http://www.newsociety.com


Accidental Death of an Anarchist
by Dario Fo, Methuen


Jim Page, http://www.jimpage.net


Sean Tyrrell, http://www.seantyrrell.com


David Rovics, http://www.davidrovics.com


Starhawk, http://www.starhawk.org


Dermot Seymour, http://www.dermotseymour.ie


Graciela Monteagudo, http://www.autonomista.org

Thea Gilmore, http://www.theagilmore.com

Friday, July 30, 2004

ECO-TALES: A Sense of Place


credit: swiss-image.ch

When the Geneva-born philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote that "the sweet voice of nature is no longer an infallible guide for us" he was referring to a time when the civilised world was about to embrace a new alchemical age. It was the beginning of an era that would bring us to where we are today – living in a civilised, human-built environment that is based on our ability to play the role of Gods using the natural resources of the planet – iron, salt, water, oil, plants and trees – combining them with natural elements to make electricity and petrol, engines and tools, medicines and plastics, computers and televisions, microchips and transistors, furniture and paper, and many other items we now take for granted. Rousseau, who added that the independence we have received from nature is not "a desirable state", would not, in his wildest dreams, be able to imagine the world we live in today or the precarious relationship we now share with the planet's species and its dwindling resources. By the time of his death, at Ermenonville in July 1778, his native Swiss were destroying their natural environment by stripping the mountains of their tree cover, so much that today avalanches, floods, landslides and rock falls are a serious threat, despite an equally serious attempt to erect defences.

The Valais canton, in south-west Switzerland, was devastated by floods in 1987, 1993, 1999 and 2000. The storms of October 2000 brought an earthflow of immense proportions into the Rhone valley, laying waste the carefully constructed human-built infrastructure. In Gondo 13 people were killed when the earthflow burst through a barrier that was insufficient to withstand the pressure. Flooding is now costing between one and two billion Swiss francs a year.

Despite this threat from nature in its fury the human-built environment continues to expand with 40 billion Swiss francs (€25.7 billion) spent each year by the federal government on the country's infrastructure. In 1998 the Swiss people voted to spend 31.6 billion Swiss francs (€20.3 billion) on two base tunnels through the Alps. One of these, the 34.6 kilometre Lötschberg base tunnel between Raron in the Valais and Frutigen in the Berner Oberland, started construction amidst the chaos of 1999 and 2000, workers beginning to blast and drill out 16 million tonnes of rock.

Nowhere on this planet is the social relationship between the civilised, human-built environment and the natural, ecological world better defined than in Switzerland, where nature in its fury frequently destroys what humanity has built, with blood, sweat and tears, and where the ecological balance is a constant concern to every Swiss person. Suddenly the sense of place that has always existed among the Swiss has become an emotional issue among its people. Heimat, the German word that describes identity, place and belonging, has taken on a social and ecological significance among the Swiss that is slowly becoming apparent – and which Rousseau might have approved of. When Rousseau was advocating a social contract between the individual and society, Europe was attempting to drag itself out from an era of barbarity that the philosopher despised and that left him a pathetic paranoid figure whose philosophical thought was centuries ahead of his time. In his 1755 essay, A Discourse on Inequality, he wrote: "All the inequality which now prevails owes its strength and growth to the development of our faculties and the advance of the human mind, and becomes at last permanent and legitimate by the establishment of property and laws."

Rousseau argued that humanity could never return to a state of nature, no matter how hard it tried. Civilisation, as Rousseau perceived it, had ruined humanity and there was no turning back. The late 20th century would see a movement develop that Rousseau might have approved of and then referred its philosophers to his argument: "The philosophers, who have inquired into the foundations of society, have all felt the necessity of going back to a state of nature; but not one of them has got there ... Peace and innocence escaped us for ever, even before we tasted their delights. Beyond the range of thought and feeling of the brutish men of the earliest times, and no longer within the grasp of the 'enlightened' men of later periods, the happy life of the Golden Age could never really have existed for the human race. When men could have enjoyed it they were unaware of it; and when they could have understood it they had already lost it."

Those who call themselves social ecologists and many others now argue that Rousseau got it wrong, that humanity cannot return to a state of nature because it never left it; all humanity did was evolve using its imagination and its ability to interact and adapt; it was the process of using tools and exploiting the planet's resources that changed humanity into a social animal that Rousseau believed had left nature behind. Rousseau, looking around him at a world that was being swiftly changed by science and technology, was viewing the world through a glass as dark as his moods. What he really wanted to see was a society that was not based on the exploitation of nature and of labour, a society that did not define itself by unequal competition and a flawed belief in a red-in-tooth-and-claw nature. Rousseau's obsession with nostalgia meant he believed humanity had abandoned its natural state, and it wasn't until the Russian geographer and anarchist Peter Kropotkin came along with the evidence that the planet's species actually cooperated with each other using mutual aid that human society began to understand its true relationship with nature. Kropotkin would argue that it was not a return to a state of nature that was required but a move forward towards a time when humanity could live in a world defined by cooperation, mutual aid and respect.

It was no co-incidence that the first no global protests took place in the multi-cultural, international city of Geneva, in 1998 and that some protesters, with their mouths gagged, carried a coffin to bury the 'social contract' in front of Rousseau's memorial. Switzerland has been the scene of two of the most brutal police responses to the no global protests, in Geneva in 1998 and in Lausanne in 2003, while the continent of Europe has become a violent battleground, the forces of globalisation killing one protester and hospitalising many others during peaceful protests since 1998. This is not what Arne Naess, the Norwegian philosopher, expected when he advocated non-violent direct action and the ideal of a biocentric, eco-defence movement (Earth First!). It was, however, exactly what Murray Bookchin, the American radical and one of the principle authors of social ecology, expected when he advocated a left-libertarian eco-social movement that would challenge and set out to radically change the hierarchical structure of society (Peoples Global Action, Social Forums).

It was George Marsh, in his seminal 1864 work Man and Nature or Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action, who remarked that man (sic) is everywhere a disturbing agent. "Everywhere he plants his foot, the harmonies of nature are turned to discords." Lewis Mumford, who challenged the role of technology in the destruction of both humanity and nature, called Marsh's book "the fountainhead of the conservation movement". Sadly, this is where the challenges, against those who would destroy so that they could gain personal wealth and power, went astray. The conservationist movement, especially in north America, attracted people with bourgeoisie sensibilities. It became a liberal movement that naively believed it could prevent the destruction of nature using polite protest. By the 1980s it was no longer called a conservationist movement, it was called environmentalism and its philosophical core was known as deep ecology – and it was flawed.

The emergence of Bookchin's social ecology differed significantly from Naess's deep ecology, yet both could be seen to influence each other, especially in modern Europe, where anarchism and socialism would become the defining forces in an eco-defence movement that was evolving into an eco-social movement. Rousseau's eco-social ideals and nostalgia had been clarified and modified by Kropotkin, with his argument for mutual aid in society. This brought the debate back into the realm of the individual, where sense of belonging, identity and place are paramount in the relationship between humanity and nature.

In modern Ireland sense of place is often confused with nostalgia though its more recent association with culture and with ecology would gave the impression that we too, like the Swiss, have an understanding of the relationship between the human-built and natural worlds and are aware of the philosophies of deep and social ecology – and what needs to be done. The evidence however is sparse. Attempts to save waterways, woodlands and bogs, prevent the denuding of mountains, the planting of ecologically-destructive commercial pines and quarrying at ancient sites, and generally improve the quality of Ireland's ecology have been met with failure, with few exceptions. The greater failure, however, has been our inability to marry the philosophical thought or theory with the ecological and social practice. Deep ecology has never had a hearing in Ireland while social ecology has been misunderstood, in much the same manner that Bookchin has been maligned. The history in Ireland of eco-social theory and practice is, so far, a short one. It consists of an attempt to form an Earth First! style direct action collective to protect Ireland's wild places and ecologically sensitive areas and ecosystems; an attempt to form an alliance between eco-social non-violent direct action groups in other countries and use their knowledge and experience to develop both an ideology and a campaign structure in Ireland; and an attempt to introduce a debate about the differences between environmentalism, sustainable development, self-sufficiency and social ecology.

Bookchin's definition of social ecology is not even a subject for debate. "Social ecology calls upon us," he wrote, "to see that nature and society are interlinked by evolution into one nature that consists of two differentiations: first or biotic nature, and second or human nature. Human nature and biotic nature share an evolutionary potential for greater subjectivity and flexibility. Second nature is the way in which human beings as flexible, highly intelligent primates inhabit the natural world. That is to say, people create an environment that is most suitable for their mode of existence. In this respect, second nature is no different from the environment that every animal, depending upon its abilities, creates as well as adapts to, the biophysical circumstances-or ecocommunity-in which it must live. On this very simple level, human beings are, in principle, doing nothing that differs from the survival activities of nonhuman beings." In Ireland it is a definition that has no resonance in society.

In Ireland all we are concerned with is development and destroying the natural world – for gain. Only the wind and rain brings the kind of devastation that the Swiss in their mountain valleys are used to. It is all that reminds us of our relationship with nature, as we seek to stand apart from it. We talk about self-sufficiency and sustainability when we actually mean something else, something Rousseau identified 250 years ago, when he said we contradicted our need to return to nature with "want, avidity, oppression, desires and pride".

Nowhere was this more apparent than during the campaign to prevent Wicklow County Council widening the road through the Glen of the Downs and destroying one of the few remaining natural woodlands left in Ireland. There was no real debate, among the greens, among the bureaucrats, among the academics, among the politicians. What should have been an eco-social reaction to the state's desire to spend EU funds on road building became a misinterpretation of the EU's desire to move freight off the roads, for environmental and ecological reasons. It also made a mockery, at the same time, of an non-EU country, Switzerland, putting in place a project that would reduce vehicle emissions while EU member states prevaricated.

The campaign in the Glen of the Downs said more about the problems within Irish society than it did about any desire to protect a threatened eco-system. It did not seem to matter that various species would be affected by the road widening and that the slopes of the valley and the tree roots would be compromised by the destruction. The campaign was mirrored by other campaigns around the country, against other threatened woodlands, against the planting of genetically-modified sugar beet, and against the against the erection in rural areas of telecommunication masts. The real interface between the human environment and the natural world has occurred among the grassroots within communities who understand the meaning of heimat. While they attempt to define what this means to modern Irish communities they realise they are up against power and money. These days land and property are seen as essential elements in our lives and to get them we must do what we can. For some of us that means exploiting natural resources without consequence to the eco-balance and exploiting other humans without consequence to their well-being. This has been a refrain of politics in Ireland for many years, that it is impossible to live low-income sustainable lives, that we must trade our natural resources for the jobs that will provide us with our basic needs. "A society based on grow or die as its all-pervasive imperative," argued Bookchin, "must necessarily have a devastating ecological impact." There is certainly a recognition that Irish society must change if it is to survive. But that recognition has not got past the talking stage. When a liberal green like Richard Douthwaite stated that "a sustainable world ... will be one of small communities that run their own affairs ... meeting or making their own requirements from local resources" he was lauded by fellow liberals. But when a Sinn Fein policy document stated that "community regeneration is a key process for ensuring that responses to disadvantage are community led, strategically driven and correspond directly to the actual specifics of local social need, the development process itself as well as sustainable outcomes" the issue was side-tracked by the same liberals. The publication of county development plans with sustainability at their core would indicate that the state is aware of the issues and has encouraged county councils and their development boards to seek partnerships that will improve the human environment with minimal harm to the natural world. What is missing from this plan is the ideal of self-sufficiency and the even greater ideal of community empowerment and participation, and the belief that the 21st century solution to our needs is a bioregional vision based on cooperation and mutual aid.


credit: Blsalptransit

It was the Swiss people who voted to make long holes in their mountains, and it was the Swiss people back in 1912 who voted, with the threat of war hanging over Europe, to turn their county into a self-sufficient haven. They did this by reclaiming their valleys from nature and by using the power of nature to build large dams high in the mountains along with hydro-electric installations and by encouraging everyone to grow food and participate in a cooperative system. The result is a public transportation system, buses, trams and trains, run on electricity; a land abundant with food, from wheat to vines to fruit to cattle; and a society that realised that to sustain its self-sufficiency it would have to work with rather than against nature. The theory was thought out and it was put into practice, slowly refined using an ecological model – everything that was taken out of the system was put back in. Swiss society is a society with virtually no waste. Recycling is an everyday habit and a countrywide industry. However Switzerland is not a perfect society; it has deep moral and social flaws with historical roots. The people speak four languages that are distinctive to Switzerland, they practice several strands of the same Christian religion; the urban people think that the rural people are ignorant and insular, while the rural people think the urban people are arrogant and competitive. Sounds familiar?

Compared to Irish society, however, Switzerland is an ecological paradigm with deep social roots, that are fed and watered by a system of government that is ultimately decided by the people. It is not an anarchist system but it has anarchist qualities; it is not a capitalist system but it has advanced capitalist qualities. It has the yin and the yang, and more significantly it has a balance between human and nature that is both ecological and social. Rousseau said that our needs bring us together at the same time as our passions divide us and the more we become enemies of our fellow-men (sic), the less we can do without them. Writing at a time when gender issues were firmly patriarchal, Rousseau identified the issues that now face humanity in the early 21st century – how to change society without personal harm, how, in the words of the Dublin-born, Mexico-city based academic John Holloway, to change society without talking control.

Few of us understand why we should challenge this global culture – the product of civilisation, the consequence of our greed and our selfishness – and the impact our consumer-dependent lives are having on the eco-systems we depend on for our survival. The reason for this, asserted Sandra Postel in the 1992 edition of the Worldwatch Institute's State of the World, is because most people are in a "psychological state of denial" concerning the seriousness and magnitude of the global ecological threat and the consequent effect on our lives. According to eco-psychologist Chellis Glendinning, "in western culture, we live with chronic anxiety, anger, and a sense that something essential is missing from our lives, that we exist without a soul". This is understandable. "Never before," the eco-theologian Thomas Berry lamented, "has the human community been confronted with a situation that required such a sudden and total change in life style under the threat of a comprehensive degradation of the planet." Yet Naess made the answer seem simple. "[People] must also find others who feel the same way and form circles of friends who give one another confidence and support in living in a way that the majority finds ridiculous, naive, stupid and unnecessarily simplistic. But in order to do that, one must already have enough self-confidence to follow one's intuitions – a quality very much lacking in broad sections of the populace. Many people follow the trends and advertisements and tend to become philosophical and ethical cripples."

The Grassroots Gathering is certainly not a circle of friends given the diversity and age range of the people involved but, if one journalist's reaction to it is a barometer, it definitely gives those involved "confidence and support" in promoting a way of life "that the majority finds ridiculous, naive, stupid and unnecessarily simplistic". The first Grassroots Gathering attracted 80 people in Dublin on November 24, 2001. It is now a feature in Irish radical society, with GG groups based in most towns and cities, and a regular gathering shared between Belfast, Cork, Dublin, Galway and Limerick.

Laurence Cox described the motivation behind GG:

We're working really hard to reach out to movements, which are only tangentially involved – particularly community activism, anti-racist and solidarity groups – as well as trying to get beyond 'the usual suspects' in terms of individual participants. That's not for tokenistic reasons, but because once again the way to achieve real change is to bring all those different voices and struggles together. So it's about getting beyond the natural tendency of any group of people [including us] to define 'politics' [or whatever they call it] as being the kind of thing they do, define 'activists' [or whatever] as being the kind of people they know, and so ignore and fail to communicate with other people and struggles. Basically our strength, as people who want to change very fundamental aspects of this society, lies in each other. And so we constantly have to move beyond our own comfort zones, at the same time as hoping that other movements and individuals are doing the same kind of thing themselves. Of course there are also a lot of gobshites, but the point is that these emotional responses are not the private property of a small group of activists surrounded by an uncaring mass. And that translates into the ability of many activists – not all, but many – to remain human, not to be traumatised by the pressures of the situation, to look after themselves emotionally and to support each other. And those are very important things – and the sense that things are changing, that we don't really know where we're going but the sense of possibility is becoming bigger, and the future is seeming more open. Which is absolutely wonderful, not simply to be playing a part in a script that's already written, but to be present in making our own history and feel that that's the case. It is not an easy task.

In Towards an ecological society, Bookchin wrote: "The problem they face is the need to discover the sweeping implications of the issues they raise; the achievement of a totally new, non-hierarchical society in which the domination of nature by man, of woman by man, and of society by the state is completely abolished – technologically, institutionally, culturally and in the very rationality and sensibilities of the individual." Yet, a movement forcing perpetual change is now a reality all over the world, embracing eco-social issues in a holistic manner seemingly destined to shape a brand new world. It could be argued that this change is anarchistic by its nature because it is happening without structure and form as more and more people realise they have no choice. They are empowering themselves to challenge the political and economic orders because that is all there is left to do. People are beginning to realise that their lives have a meaning that is not simply an extension of consumerist society. More people are empowering themselves to change this abstract thing called "civilisation". To be a passive viewer or an intense participant is the choice facing large sections of society. Let's put this into perspective. Prior to civilisation, 10,000 years ago, forests covered one third of the planet or 6.2 billion hectares. By 1975 forest cover had been reduced to a quarter. By 1980 it was a fifth. Now forests vanish at a rate of 17 million hectares per year (about half the size of Finland). Twenty years ago, the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) estimated that 35% of the earth's land surface was threatened with desertification. The four principle causes, stated UNEP, are:
•1. Overgrazing of rangeland.
•2. Overcultivation of crop lands.
•3. Waterlogging and salinization of irrigated lands, and •4. Deforestation.
We are also raising the temperature of the planet with our industrial and domestic activities. In 1998 natural disasters caused more global damage than during all of the 1980s. Drought devastated 54 countries while 45 countries suffered from floods. These disasters are not the natural consequence of planetary cycles, they are, said the Worldwatch Institute, a consequence of modern society. "Higher temperatures mean that there is more energy driving the earth's climatic system. This in turn means more evaporation, more destructive storms and more flooding." Civilisation, said William Kotke, is murdering the planet. "We must create the positive, co-operative culture dedicated to life restoration and then accompany that in perpetuity, or we as a species cannot be on earth," he wrote. At the close of the 20th century Lester Brown summed it up in the 1999 edition of State of the World. "The western economic model – the fossil-fuel-based, automobile-centered, throwaway economy that so dramatically raised living standards for part of humanity during this [20th] century is in trouble. Indeed, the global economy cannot expand indefinitely if the ecosystem on which it depends continues to deteriorate."

These are gloomy predictions which those with eco-social sensibilities have been listening to for a long time. Around the world people are coming together to create cooperatives that combine capitalist economics, worker participation and fiscal realities. So far they are centered primarily on food; such as the fair trading by native workers of indigenous crops (dried organically-grown bananas, mangoes, pineapples, tea, coffee and sugar); such as the wholesale supply of organically-produced vegan and vegetarian produce; such as the retail supply of organic seeds; such as organic farms, organic retail stores and organic box suppliers. Housing co-ops supported by lending agencies that do not demand a high return of interest are helping people with bioregional visions to create small, autonomous, interactive communities determined to live self-sufficiently. Eco-villages, despite a tendency towards elitism and isolation, are lighting up like tiny beacons all over the western world. Barter schemes, local currencies and mutual aid clubs are working alongside capitalist economic methods of exchange in many communities.

What all these activities have in common is a gradual drift towards a bioregional paradigm. Kirkpatrick Sale, in his impelling book on bioregionalism, does not underestimate the personal and social obstacles. "It will take some broad and persuasive education to get people to realise that it is not the bioregional task that is irrelevant but precisely the business-as-usual politics of all the major parties of all the major industrial nations, not one of which has made ecological salvation a significant priority, not one of which is prepared to abandon or even curtail the industrial economy that is imperilling us. And it will take patience to lead people past their fear and lingering hatred of the natural world, which grows as their ignorance of it grows."

That ignorance is not unusual in people who no longer spend their lives in commune with nature or struggle to live in an environment where exploitation is their only means of survival. But, as Sale and others of his persuasion now realise, times are changing and people are beginning to realise that something is wrong with the way we live. Jean-Jacques Rousseau would approve of their thinking and particularly of their actions.


credit: Blsalptransit

This is based on an essay first published in the Irish geography magazine Chimera.


SELECTED FURTHER READING:
Allen, R. and Jones, T. Guests of the Nation, Earthscan, London, 1990
Allen, R. No Global, Pluto, London/Dublin, 2004
Allen, R. Rendezvous with Rousseau, (forthcoming)
Allen, R and Dowling, É. Ireland Unbound, (forthcoming)
Anon. Switzerland 2003-04, Kümmerly+Frey, Berne, 2003 (annual)
Berry, T. The Great Work, Bell Tower, 1999
Bookchin, M. Post-Scarcity Anarchism, Black Rose Books, Toronto, 1971
Bookchin, M. toward an ecological society, Black Rose Books, Toronto, 1980
Bookchin, M. The Ecology of Freedom, Black Rose Books, Toronto, (1982), 1991
Bookchin, M. Social ecology versus Deep Ecology, Socialist Review, London, 18(3): 9-29, 1988
Bookchin, M. (with Dave Foreman), Defending the Earth, Black Rose Books, Toronto, 1991
Bookchin, M. The Philosophy of Social Ecology, Black Rose Books, Toronto, 1996
Booth, S. Into the 1990’s with Green Anarchist, Green Anarchist Books, Oxford, 1996
Borgmann, A. The nature of reality and the reality of nature, in Soule, M. and Lease, G. (eds) Reinventing Nature? Island Press, Washington, D.C., 1995
Bradford, G. How Deep is Deep Ecology? Times Change Press, California, 1989
Brown, L, Saving the Planet, Worldwatch/Norton, New York, 1992
Brown, L. State of the World 1999, Norton, New York, 1999
Capra, F. The Turning Point, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1982
Commoner, B. The Closing Circle, Bantam, New York, 1971
Davis, J. (ed) The Earth First! Reader, Peregrine Smith, Salt Lake City, 1991
Day, D. The Eco Wars, Harrap, London, 1989
Devall, W. Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature Mattered, Peregrine Smith, Salt Lake City, 1985
Ehrenfeld, D. The Arrogance of Humanism, Oxford University Press, 1978
Evans, D. A History of Nature Conservation, Routledge, London, 1992
Foreman, D. Confessions of an Eco-Warrior, Harmony, New York, 1991
Foreman, D. and Haywood, B. Ecodefense, Abzug Press, Chico, (1987), 1993
Glendinning, C. My Name is Chellis and I'm in Recovery from Western Civilisation, Shambhala, Boston, 1994
Holloway, J. Change the World without taking Power, Pluto, London, 2002
Kitschelt, H. New social movements in West Germany and the United States, in Zeitlin, M. (ed) Political Power and Social Theory, JAI Press, Greenwich, 1985
Kotke, W. The Final Empire, Arrow Point Press, Portland, 1993
Kovel, J. The Enemy of Nature, Zed, London 2002
Kroptkin, P. The Conquest of Bread, Black Rose Books (1907), 1990
Kroptkin, P. Evolution and Environment, Black Rose Books (1912), 1995
Kroptkin, P. Fields, Factories and Workshops, Black Rose Books (1913), 1994
Kroptkin, P. Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, Black Rose Books (1914), 1989
Marsh, G. P. Man and Nature, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge (1864), 1965
Martell, L. Ecology and Society, Polity, London, 1994
Mumford, L. The Future of Technics and Civilisation, Freedom Press, London, 1986
Naess, A. Ecology, Community and Lifestyle, Cambridge University Press, London, 1989
Pepper, D. Eco-Socialism, Routledge, London, 1993
Pepper, D. Modern Environmentalism, Routledge, London, 1996
Roszak, T. Where the Wasteland Ends, Anchor Books, New York, 1972
Rousseau, J-J. A Discourse on a subject proposed by the Academy of Dijon: What is the Origin of Inequality among men, and is it authorised by natural law in The Social Contract and the Discourses, Everyman's Library/Knopf, New York, (1913, 1973), 1993
Rowell, A. Green Backlash, Routledge, London, 1996
Sale, K. Dwellers in the Land: The Bioregional Vision, University of Georgia, Athens, (1991), 2000
Scarce, R. Eco-Warriors, Noble, Chicago, 1990
Sessions, G. (ed) Deep Ecology for the 21st Century, Shambhala, Boston, 1995 Shepard, P. Nature and Madness, University of Georgia, Athens, (1982), 1998
Shepard, P. The Only World We've Got, Sierra Club, San Francisco, 1996
Taylor, B. Ecological Resistance Movements, State University of New York Press, 1995
Wall, D. Green History, Routledge, London, 1994
Wall, D. Earth First! and the Anti Roads Movement, Routledge, London, 1999
Zerzan, J. (ed) Against Civilisation, Uncivilised Books, PO Box 11331, Eugene, Oregon, 97440, 1999
Zerzan, J. Running on Emptiness, Feral House, Los Angeles, 2002
Zimmerman, M. Contesting the Earth’s Future, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1993

Thursday, July 15, 2004

VEGAN TALES: The Apple of Sodom

This is the first of a series of A-Z entries that will make up the book The Lazy Vegan


alberginia/al-babinjan
/aubergine/brinjal
/eggplant/melanzane
/melitzane


Solanum melongena: An Asian delicacy thought to be native to modern Burma, the aubergine upset the sensibilities of western physicians when it reached Europe in the middle ages and until the late 19th century was still being grown as an ornamental plant. A member of the Solanaceae family (pepper, potato, tomato), these ignorant doctors claimed it caused fevers and fits. Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist, named it Solanum insanum because of its reputation and then changed his mind and gave the vegetable its modern name - Solanum melongena.

Brought into the eastern Mediterranean region by the Arab caravans that travelled to and from the Far East, the aubergine with its distinct fried oyster flavour became popular among the Moors of northern Africa. When they invaded Spain in the 12th century they introduced its seeds to the slightly colder climate. It thrived in the porous well-drained soil and was soon grown all over western Europe but doctors were convinced it was poisonous, calling it 'the mad apple' and 'the apple of sodom'.

The wiser people of the Middle East knew it for what it was - 'poor man's meat' or 'poor man's cavier' - and today the aubergine is a popular favourite in southern Italy, southern Spain, south-eastern France, Turkey, Greece and the Middle Eastern countries, where it is still known by the name the Catalans called it - berengenas - 'apples of love' because it was thought to be a love potion. It's not.

All the way from the European lands through the Middle East by way of Israel, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, the Maghreb of north Africa and into Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Kurdistan, Pakistan, India, China and Japan - where it is among the most popular national dishes - the aubergine has been adapted into national cuisine.

Known for thousands of years in Asia by its various native names, the Arabs called it al-babinjan, the Spanish alberginia and later berengenas, the French and British aubergine, the Italians melanzane, the Greeks melitzane while it is popularly known as brinjal in south-east Asia. Because it was shaped like a goose egg it became popularly known in English speaking countries, particularly north America, as eggplant.

Modern nutritionists know the aubergine as an essential vegetable that lowers cholesterol, aids the digestive system, combating constipation. It stimulates the liver and intestine and generally helps the body deal with internal problems. Despite being 90 percent water for every 100 grams and low in protein (just one gram), the aubergine is rich in calcium, iron, niacin, phosphorus, potassium plus vitamins PP, A, B1 and B2.
And like all popular vegetables (though in fact it is a fruit) the aubergine has its own story, which emanates from the East, probably India, where the British first encountered its nutritional and medicinal properties.

A long time ago, perhaps around the time of the one thousand and one nights, a young girl known as a good cook was selected by an Imam for marriage. As a dowry the priest asked her father for 12 large jars of virgin olive oil. Returning from her wedding, the girl cut up many brinjal and left them to soak in the olive oil her father had put aside for her dowry, but after 11 days the brinjal had soaked up all the oil. When the Imam saw this he fainted. This is why many restaurants serve brinjal fried in oil and call it 'Imam Bayildi' - in English 'the priest fainted'.

Once on a mid-day train from Foggia to Napoli in Italy my lunch was young spinach leaves, baked aubergine in breadcrumbs and spices, mozzarella, sundried tomatoes, fresh tomatoes, pumpkin seeds, olive oil and chilli sauce. All these were acquired in a supermercato in Foggia but the delight was the baked aubergine. I suspect the recipe was simple. Thick slices of aubergine were baked in the oven covered with a layer of olive oil and breadcrumbs sprinkled with ground paprika or chilli.

Because of its popularity aubergine recipes number in the thousands. Most people are familiar with aubergine in moussaka and in ratatouille, and while these are fine vegan dishes they only hint at the richness of the aubergine platter. The aubergine can be boiled, baked, cooked in oil, steamed and roasted, and added to other vegetables (and dare I say it meats) in various combinations.

Here is our modest contribution but before you cook the aubergine take a look at the Belladona plant, the queen of the Deadly Nightshade family, and look at their similarity. Now you'll know why European doctors were suspicious.

Aubergine and potato bake

Deep baking tray or oven proof dish
Olive oil
Two large aubergines, cut along their length into half inch thick slices, salt and leave for an hour, rinse salt away and dry. Or a dozen small aubergines (of the Asian variety), cut into thick slices.
Four large waxy potatoes, cut into quarter inch slices.
Two large onions, cut into thin slices.
Two tins of plum tomatoes.
Ground paprika

Layer the potatoes in the tray on a film of olive oil, place the onions on top and finally the aubergines. Add several spoonfuls of olive oil until the aubergines are soaked. Sprinkle the paprika over the aubergines, as little or as much as you like. Bake for 30 minutes on a moderate heat, and then add the tomatoes and cook until the potatoes are done. Serve with couscous.


So now I suppose you'll want to know how to grow them yourself? Couldn't be easier. If you are in a cold climate start the seeds indoors or in a greenhouse or polytunnel, setting outside after all danger of frost has gone. The seeds should be planted two months before the usual date for the end of the frost. In hot climates they can be set out as soon as the soil warms.

Aubergines need at least five months of hot weather with day temperatures no lower than 80 degrees, and night no lower than 70 degrees. In colder climates when the aubergine seedlings are planted out it is wise to keep them under cloches until the weather reaches a constant high temperature.

Aubergine seeds should be soaked before they are planted, in rich porous soil that drains well and has a ph of 6 to 7. A mulch should be added to the soil around the plants. This will help retain moisture and make it available to the plant and help suppress unwanted vegetation.

Aubergines come in several eggshapes and numerous colours. The large elongated eggshaped glossy deep purple aubergine is the most common and it might surprise some people to learn that the fruit also comes in black, green, yellow and white. And that the aubergine prized by chefs and those natives in the know is the small purple variety set by growers in India.

Like its family the aubergine needs constant feeding. Liquid compost and seaweed will help its initial growth. Once the fruits emerge regularly feed with liquid compost.

Author: English physician with a deadly imagination

TOXIC TALES: Nowhere

Mary Brackwell lived in a company village on the northern side of a valley near the border between two countries. She was the mother of seven children. She should have been the mother of 16 but something happened to the other nine. Until the day she went to her own grave no one was able to tell her why so many of her children had died.

The company was a subsidiary of a large American corporation. For most of the time the village, on the middle slopes of a reclining valley, stank. The villagers, because most of them were economically and socially dependent on the company, put up with the smell.

The company made products from raw chemicals and insisted that the smell was harmless. The villagers told themselves that the company would not lie to them, so most of the time they chose to believe what they were told.

Except when a mother, like Mary Brackwell, had another miscarriage or a stillborn child. Mary lived at the top of the village, on the higher slope amidst the rising smog that was emitted from the stacks and vents of the chemical factory. Everynow and then Mary would notice various colored specks on her washing and on her husband's car. Her newly washed clothes stank of chemicals. Her husband got fed up washing his car. Mary never complained when she had to wash the family's clothes again.

No one thought to complain to the company that their emissions were a domestic inconvenience for the neighbours, especially those closest to the factory.

The part of the country they lived in was a tourist trap. Beyond the hill that the factory stood out on lay the sweep of a majestic valley, flood plain and meandering river. Some said the large mound on the valley floor beside the river housed the remains of a medieval castle. Others said knightly ghosts guarded the people of the land and safeguarded their future.

Such romanticism did not go down well in the public houses and drinking clubs of the company village. Lives had to be lived and money had to be earned to feed the families who depended on the company for their livelihoods.

So Mary Brackwell never complained when she lost another child - until one day a stranger from the valley came asking questions. She told the stranger, a young woman whose family had lived at the edge of the valley for many generations, the story of her lost children.

All the mothers had miscarriages, Mary told the young woman. It was common, she said, in the village to lose a few. After the second one, she said, I asked the doctor if he could do something to stop them. He said anything could have caused the miscarriage. It was better to place her trust in God and pray that her next child would survive. Times are hard, he told her. Mary often thought the doctor had missed his calling.

Over the years as her surviving children grew, the pattern continued. Mary would have a normal child, then a miscarriage, then another normal child. Until one year she lost two children in a row. The first miscarried after a few weeks, the second was stillborn - the first of several. It would not be the last.

Mary questioned her doctor, who was also the company doctor, if he knew what had caused the miscarriage and then the arrival of a stillborn child in so short a time. He said he couldn't comment without sending Mary to the hospital for tests. She said, can't you do tests on the fetuses? He said she would have to endure three miscarriages before a post mortem could be done to determine the toxic causes. He said he was sorry.

Mary had never heard the word 'toxic' before. Why, she asked, would they want to do toxic tests? To determine if a toxic factor caused the stillborn, he replied. Mary didn't think about it again until her next pregnancy, which appeared to be going well. Eight months along she feared a premature birth.

She told her story to the young woman. The child was stillborn, Mary told her. It had been dead for days, she said, and I had been carrying it dead in me. It was terrible, she said.

Jack, my husband, told me the doctor got him to wrap up the poor little thing. Jack told me it was tiny and deformed. He spared me the details, Mary said.

The doctor, Mary said, told Jack to wrap it up in a newspaper. Jack told me he asked the doctor why he wanted him to do that. Go over there, the doctor said pointing to the fireplace, and burn it, Jack told Mary. And Mary told the young woman. It was the first time she had told the story to a stranger, to anyone. My husband Jack, Mary said, never talked about it. It affected him, she said.

Mary never did ask the doctor why the stillborn child was not given to the hospital to make tests. Why, Mary said. He knew I knew, Mary told her. That doctor knew and everything that has happened in this village involving mothers and dead children goes back to the factory. We all knew, we pretended we didn't know. We're not stupid here you know. They think we are stupid, well we're not, Mary said, tears forming in her eyes, her head bowed, fists clenched.

Monday, July 05, 2004

CULTURE TALES: Visions of Árainn

The Aran Islands look barren because they are. To the geologist they are limestone outcrops floating a few miles off Galway Bay. To the native islanders they are the product of generations of back-breaking toil, breaking stones, building walls, bringing seaweed and sand to the rocky fields. To the visitor, a quarter of a million each year, the islands are a window looking in at the past. It has always been so.

A century has passed since John Millington Synge decamped to the Arans on the sagacious advice of John Bulter Yeats. The Dublin-born son of an Anglo-Irish family went to these western isles to find the primitive in himself, which Yeats believed would inspire him. What he found was a community unchanged by the fin de siécle modernity of the Victorian Age, a community self-sufficient in all their daily needs except fuel because no bogs or trees grew on the islands. This was the islanders only dependence on the mainland. In return for turf they bartered the foodstuffs they produced on the islands. Today, with few exceptions, all foodstuffs are imported, leaving the islanders with a dependency on the mainland Synge would probably find strange.

But the Arans are different places to the native and the blow-in. What most visitors look for when they land on the shores of Árainn (or Inis Mór), Inis Meáin or Inis Oírr is an idyllic vision of a time, as recent as fifty years ago, when the islands were dotted with thatched cottages, crews of three men carried the traditional rowing boat, the curragh, on their shoulders to the sea, while the women tended their small holding. This was the culture Synge celebrated in his plays, particularly The Playboy of the Western World, and in his 1907 book on the islands.

Now with some exceptions, the natives have embraced modernity to free themselves from subsistence farming and fishing. They have traded the hard toil of the past for the difficulties of participating in a high cash-flow economy. They have no time for romantic visions of the past.

The Aran islands are a microcosm of modern Ireland. The Irish do not grow and produce their own food locally, everything is geared towards intensive industrial farming and export. Now farming is being threatened by a state policy that favours attracting foreign direct investment (particularly from corporates producing pharmaceuticals and electronic components, which are enticed with subventions and fiscal incentives) and by EU legislation (particularly the directive on nitrates, which has not been implemented by the state because of pressure from the Department of Agriculture who fear that cattle stocking yields will be detrimentally affected).

The traditional support from children, family members and the community - the meitheal (mutual aid) - in agricultural activity has been eroded in modern Ireland. The co-ops that serve as local government in each of the three islands should ideally be a modern system to support the production of food for the island people and its visitors. The reality is different.

People who have tried to set up self-sufficient and organic systems on the Arans had to do it on their own. Some are natives born on Árainn - the big island, Inis Meáin - the middle island or Inis Oírr - the south island. Some are blow-ins, who settled on the islands from other parts of Ireland or from abroad. Here is one story.




Árainn
Arriving at Kilronan Pier through a thick mist on the Aran Flyer from Ros an Mhíl in Connemara, Árainn was like nothing I had been prepared for. The island of my imagination clashed with the island of my reality. As it was October the tourists had gone, leaving behind a community about to settle down for winter. I accepted a seat in one of the small buses that ferry tourists to their destinations in the hotels, hostels and bed and breakfasts that characterise Kilronan and its hinterland. The bus driver wasted no time speeding around the horseshoe-shaped pier, turning up past the American Bar and out of the village. I had little time to take in the surroundings, the drystone walls and the crumbling 19th century houses, when the driver announced my stop, telling me to take the sloping road that forked away from the main road. "That's Mainistir," he said.

I had been invited to Árainn by Dara Molloy, a former priest living with his partner Tess Harper a lifestyle others would find idealistic. Dara had given me directions to their home - a few miles from the village on the rise towards Kilmurvy. He told me it was thatched so I knew it would stand out. The islanders of Árainn share their Connemara neighbours' love of the modern bungalow. As I walked down the road I passed several bungalows. The road turned sharply and I passed more bungalows and then a row of old empty houses. None were thatched. Then I saw it, dirt gold streaming over a large two-storeyed square house. Dara's dwelling couldn't be different. Sitting on the hill sloping towards the mainland, the house, polytunnel, sheds and gardens epitomise the low impact, self-sustainable environment they sought when they built the house meitheal-style a few years before. Ducks and geese run around the place. Seaweed decomposes in the sandy soil. An old working tractor sits at the gate.

I settled in easily. I took to the kitchen which dominated the two storey house, cooking whatever food there was to be found. This was a mix of bulk food (flour, muesli, grains plus jars and tins of various foodstuffs from peanut butter to molasses) and organic food (stored potatoes, onions and whatever was still growing in the gardens). There's something very gratifying about cooking and eating food you've picked out of the garden moments before, especially salads, leaves and roots. Most nights before dusk I went collecting herbs to make tisanes.

Dara and Tess have a prayer hut at the bottom of the garden overlooking the mainland. I used it to meditate and chill out. Sometimes when I was in the garden I used it to escape from the sudden showers that occasionally lash the island. On most days you can see the shape of the Connemara mountains and the outlines of the bleak landscape and the growing Galway conurbation. Other days the mainland is shrouded with low-lying clouds and a drizzle that drifts relentlessly across the land. When the rain clears, the clouds part, revealing a patchwork of blues.

The primitive in me likes the weather when it is like this. Stormy but clear, no rain. There's more energy about. The rain dissipates the energy of the storm and then the cycle begins again. On a clear day you can see the Mayo, Galway and Clare coastlines, Achill island to the north, Connemara's Twelve Bens mountain range to the east and the cliffs of Moher and the Burren in Clare to the south. This gives the impression that the islands are closer to the mainland than people imagine. Islands always seem closer than they appear and it is only when you've rowed over to them or even travelled in a powerful boat that you realise they are much further away, over turbulent seas. The 40 minutes on the Aran Flyer boat can be a bumpy ride even on a calm day.

It's coming up to Samhain, the celtic harvest festival, a time when the earth has given up her fruits, the turning of the season, the seasonal journey from light to dark - a time to celebrate. On the mainland this celtic festival is celebrated by the few who know why, on the Arans it is celebrated by everyone in some form or other. To celebrate people dress up in clothes they hope no one will recognise them in. The tradition says that those who dress up are not allowed to talk. People are also allowed to go into each other's houses and make themselves at home. Usually the adults go to the pubs while the younger children go to the houses and the older children hang out. The idea is that there are two worlds, the outer world and the inner world. If you dress up you become part of the outer world and escape the other world. This is the kind of lived spirituality that attracts people to celtic ways. It also invigorates those with celtic sensibilities - like Tess Harper.

When she set out on the spiritual journey that would bring her closer to the natural world it brought her in contact with her anam cara, her soul friend, her kindred. When she left Maynooth college where she had successfully completed a degree in Theology, English and Philosophy she headed for Árainn, knowing only that her instincts were taking her there. "My aims, as I look back on it, were threefold: to be as independent (of systems as I see it now) as I possibly could. To live close to the land and in the heart of nature. To live a spiritually based life," she said, remembering her teenage longing to belong to a world that celebrated nature. The moment she knew she belonged to this natural world has remained with her.

"I'm sitting at the back of the classroom in the Holy Faith Convent School, Glasnevin, Dublin. There are twenty-eight students in three rows. I look out of the window to where I can see the tops of the old trees. I long to be outside. What is going on in the class does not interest me in the least. It has been five years of this, a survival course, an endurance test - to say nothing of primary school. I am sixteen years of age. Thankfully, a teacher of another class has intellectually adopted me. I find my soul finally nourished by Camus, Sartre and Dostoevsky. These books I read under the desk while the class goes on. This does nothing for my french, maths and latin, but they were sorry causes anyway."

In five years of secondary school education Tess went through the motions, valuing only poetry, prose and drama. The rest meant nothing to her. She when completed her exams, cramming to pass them, she realised she had learned nothing at all. "Later, at least, in Maynooth College, I felt I was directing my own course," she said. "I simply missed lectures that did not stimulate me and devoured the rest. My time was my own to do what engaged me."
"Yet as I had once looked longingly at the tops of the trees from the schoolroom window, by third year in college I would be gazing longingly at the road west - to Galway, and more specifically, to Aran. For that was where I was headed. With an instinctive certainty at the age of 19 that baffled simply everyone, I packed up as soon as I had an honours degree and went to metamorphose my head full of ideas into earthen compost from which something could grow."

Her path had been mapped out by others. She would become a teacher. She had different ideas. On Árainn she got to express her creativity, doing a variety of jobs - retreat work, workshops, lectures, knitting coloured jumpers, designing greeting cards, editing and layout computer work, writing," - whatever she could put her hand to.
When she arrived on Árainn in 1985 the real learning began. She learned organic gardening. On the Aran Islands that means collecting seaweed to manure the shallow soil. It means companion planting and rotation. She learned animal husbandry - how to keep ducks, chickens, goats, geese and sheep. She co-founded The Aisling Magazine which she co-edits with Dara Molloy. She learned to build a stone house. She learned carpentry. For Tess these were the real learning years - "of hands-on living, of learning many skills and experiencing the intricate inter-relationships between many many things". Her celtic soul was honed in the furnace of life. This was the lived spirituality.

"The theology I studied in Maynooth has long since gone into a compost bin and the soil that has replaced it is refreshing and fecund. There is an inherent spirituality in all I've done on Aran, in all the tilling, sowing, reaping, the chasing of sheep, the loving of goats, the building. It is a spirituality that makes a nonsense of all the dogma and doctrines I had learned. It makes a nonsense of religion.

She didn't know when she left Maynooth what she was letting herself in for. This was no hippy dream. There was, she said, "no set course, no pre-written map, no 'Guide to Wholesome Living'. It is there for the creating and it is far from simple". In 14 years on Árainn she constantly challenged herself, asking questions, demanding answers mostly of herself. She consigned the concepts and practices of "development" and "progress" to the "intellectual compost heap". She wondered how to get the balance right "when so much in our western society is chronically out of balance". She questioned the role of technology in the natural world. She juxtaposed the conflicting ideas of sustainability and economics. The answer, she realised, was always the same - every decision we make has to be a personal one. "What nappies to put on the baby? What mode of transport to use? What meat to eat or not eat? What fuel to use? The list goes on and on. Each choice requires a thought-out decision. At this point in my life I do not believe in a definitive right and wrong answer to these choices. The situation, environmentally, socially, economically, is far too extreme for simplistic black and white solutions, yet I do feel the integrity of the choices we make, the quality of the thought we put in and the harmonising of our choices with our inner self - these are the things that can count and that may make a difference in the world.

"I have made my home in Aran. When I first decided to come here, a college lecturer predicted that I would not last the first winter. Yet Aran is home for me in ways that Dublin never was. Much as I love Dublin, especially its people and their wit, Aran provides a landscape that knows my name, that eases my spirit and captures my soul. I belong here - not necessarily to the people, for blood does run thicker than water and I'll always be a Dub and a "blow in", but I belong to this place, these fields whisper to me and their song makes me smile."

Unlike the seafarers who stumbled upon the Arans or the celtic priests who were called there by their deity or the writers who searched for the primitive or the academics who sought an inner truth, Tess Harper made a conscious decision to create a life for herself on Árainn. She came to stay. Tess survived the first winter because she found other kindreds who had been drawn there for similar reasons. One such kindred was Dara Molloy, a priest from Dublin who had begun to question the role of modern religion in Irish life.

He arrived on Árainn in January 1985 with no particular plan: "I wanted space to allow my life to evolve without being manipulated by various institutions and needs defined by other people." He brought with him some spare clothes, books, a typewriter and a stencilling machine hoping that he could do some writing and some publishing, and keep in touch with people. He rented a house for £15 a week, and for the next ten years this was his home. He had been inspired by the celtic monks, like Colmcille and Enda (or Eanna), who had come to the Arans millennia before. "I wanted to live in that tradition and for me that meant living in close relationship with the earth and being aware of the relationship in general with everybody and every thing and to work at that relationship so that it was right and wasn't abusive or disrespectful and so that I found my right place - like when you floated me where did I float rather than tying me down and trying to regulate me and control me - trying to find my own place in the world. Part of my way of life was to offer hospitality to other people who were searching and wanted to become free. I was only in the house for two months on my own. After that I always had people living with me. Over the years there have been thousands living with me I'd say. I never count them but all the time there are people coming."

Gradually Dara and Tess began to build a life "outside of the social structures that keep people in their place". This included being able to grow their own food and domesticate their own animals. Not long after they had settled, they had a system in place which was beginning to fulfil their needs. After five years they were becoming self-sufficient. "Our emphasis has gone into providing food for ourselves so that we don't have to go to the shop and we've really worked hard on that. We grow anything that will grow - we have potatoes and vegetables all the year round. We have our own honey, our own milk, our own eggs and our own meat as well - sheep and goats which we kill but we don't breed them to kill them. We don't eat meat every day or anything like it - possibly once a week," said Dara.

The animals play an important role in their system. As well as providing animal manure for the compost used on the land they become an integral part of what is a functioning ecosystem, particularly the food chain. For example, the ducks eat the slugs which feed on the vegetables. And the humans, being at the top of the food chain, eat the animals but as Dara stressed they do not breed the animals for slaughter, for meat. "If you have animals they breed and you can't feed them all, so you have to kill some or give them away. It's on that principle that we kill them. It's not for producing our food specifically. We only kill what we can't keep and we only eat what we kill so if we don't kill it we don't eat it. We don't have animals for our food. We don't have them for meat. We have them for eggs and milk and for wool."

When they built their own house on some land on the eastern slopes of the island, a few miles from Kilronan, in Mainistir they transferred the system. "We have very small pieces of land," said Tess. "In one garden we use a crop rotation method, brassicas, root crop, and others including lettuces, beans, aubergines etc. We sow a small field of potatoes every year and our polytunnel keeps us in tomatoes all summer."

Their garden now provides cabbages, kale, onions, carrots, leeks, beans, peas, potatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, spinach among others and sage, fennell, mint and lemon balm for herbs. The polytunnel allows them to bring on seeds in trays and to have winter greens and tomatoes in summer. Ducks, chickens and goats, geese, dogs and a cat wander around the place. "We grow enough vegetables to keep us going all year round," she said.

The Aran Islands are not easily defined despite the efforts of many gifted writers. The atavism that drew Synge to the Arans a century ago in search of the primitive might have been selfish but it was no greater than the impulse that attracted Colmcille and Enda and no lesser than the lure that brought the many academics like Tim Robinson who have studied the islands and its people. Aran has featured in the myths of our imaginations for millennia, and even today people still talk of another Aran, an island in the mist, an island few have seen - the mythical island of Hy Brasil.

Early maps placed it out in the Atlantic, later maps south of the Arans off the coast of Clare. Known in Irish as Árainn Bheag or Little Aran and in English as O'Brasil from its Norse and Irish roots, hy the Norse name for island, breasail (or Brazil) the Irish name for reddish substances, this island features strongly in Irish folklore. Roderic O'Flaherty wrote about it in his 1684 book A Chorographical Description of West or H-lar Connaught: "Whether it be reall and firm land, kept hidden by special ordinance of God, as the terrestiall paradise, or else some illusion of airy clouds appearing on the surface of the sea, or the craft of evill spirits, is more than our judgements can sound out."
It's likely that those who heard about and sought Hy Brasil were looking for the Aran islands. You can imagine what these islands must have looked like hundreds if not thousands of years ago. So near yet so far. Sea travellers from the Iberian peninsula and from the Mediterranean countries frequently travelled to Ireland's western shores. If you look at a globe of the Earth you can see how they would have ended up on the Arans first or even passed these islands in a storm.

What you cannot see from a map are the reasons why these islands, particular the largest island Inis Mór or Árainn attracted druids, hermits, monks, priests, poets, writers, dreamers and utopians. To see that you must go there. The Aran Islands have a magical quality about them. Everyone who has been there has a story and for most that story is fantastical because people see in the Aran islands what they want to see. Tim Robinson was so moved by Árainn that he wrote its history, concluding with an apology. "Whether it be the terrestial paradise, an airy illusion of clouds on the sea, or the work of delusive spirits, I have brought back a book as proof that I was there." Aran attracts romantics, dreamers, artists and writers because it is a place of the imagination, just as Hy Brasil was. You see what you want to see when you travel to these islands and sometimes you see a little more if, like Dara Molloy and Tess Harper, you decide to make your utopian visions come true. They have done this by marrying their romantic idealism to the pragmatic realism of the natives, utilising the living memory of the islanders, their knowledge of the land, the ancient skills, traditions and stories, without which no-one could survive on Aran as Synge so tragically observed one hundred years ago.

FURTHER READING/INFO:

PRINT:
JM Synge, The Aran Islands
JM Synge, The Playboy of the Western World
L O'Flaherty, Thy Neighbour's Wife
L O'Flaherty, The Black Soul,
L O'Flaherty, Spring Sowing
L O'Flaherty, Skerret
T Robinson, Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage
T Robsinon, Stones of Aran: Labyrinth
D Molloy, Legends in the Landscape

WEB:
THE AISLING
JM SYNGE