Category Archives: Violence

Highland Landscapes

We’re just back from a week in Kingussie, a small village on both the trainline and the edge of the Cairngorms. It’s a place that feels wild, that looks wild. I loved it, for though I know I’ve been steadily domesticated since the age of 17, I still miss the wild intensely. Here there are moors, mountains, the 1% of ‘ancient’ Caledonian forest that still exists with its host of rare species unlikely to be seen elsewhere. Just look at this beautiful place.

I came having read Nan Sheperd’s The Living Mountain, one of my very favourite books. She writes

The Cairngorm Mountains are a mass of granite thrust up through the schists and gneiss that form the lower surrounding hills, planed down by the ice cap, and split, shattered and scooped by frost, glaciers and the strength of running water. Their physiognomy is in the geography books – so many square miles of area, so many lochs, so many summits of over 4000 feet – but this is a pallid simulacrum of their reality, which, like every reality that matters ultimately to human beings, is a reality of the mind. (Sheperd, 1)

Like her, I am captive to this place.

Yet I hadn’t quite realised before we came just how many layers of human intervention have shaped the land even here in this wild place. I should stop being surprised perhaps, after walking glorious hills where the pits left by coal mining now sit in what feels like pristine countryside, or overgrown factory ruins spill down along the stream banks of remote valleys in the Pennines.

It is hard to imagine this land much more peopled, many more townships with their cows. Ancient forests. For all that probably feeling even more wild. But so it was.

The OS map shows a scattering of hut circles and burnt mounds, of which there is nothing now really to be seen beneath the heather. Hill forts, like the great square of Sidhean Mor Dail A’ Chaorainn in Glen Banchor, also mostly disappeared into the squaring off of this glacial mound apart from the raised ring at its top.

A view of the raised ring on Sidhean Mor Dail A' Chaorainn in Glen Banchor

There were eight townships in Glen Banchor above Newtonmore. Prebble in The Highland Clearances describes the social structures of land ownership that existed in more historic memory for the people who lived here once:

Highland society had been a pyramid. Below the chief, at its apex, the tacksmen leased their land to sub-tenants who paid for it in kind and service. They had no written leases and held their meagre patches of soil from year to year on the sufferance and goodwill of the tacksmen. Their insecurity of tenure was the greatest guarantee that they or their sons could be brought into the clan regiment when needed. Below them was a bottom stratum of landless men, the cotters, who screamed into battle in the wake of the charge.

The sub-tenants formed small communities or townships. Six or eight men might hold a farm in common, and whereas in the beginning, beyond their memory, each man might have had an equal share, now one had a third and another a sixth with the obligation to divide even that fraction among their sons at their death. The township held a portion of the glen and a tract of mountain pasture for thirty or forty black cattle, a small herd of thin and fleshless sheep. The best of the arable land was farmed in runrig, strips for which the sub-tenants periodically drew lots. (Prebble, 14)

These are the relationships of honour, family, subsistence and debt that provided a way of life and were marshalled to undertake war, initially against other clans. The ruined castle on Loch Eilen that we could barely see for trees, was one of the ‘lairs’ of Alexander Stuart, 1st Earl of Buchan, Wolf of Badenoch (1343-1394), as was the castle at Ruthven. Here legend has it, the Stuart was killed by the devil himself. We just missed the anniversary.

on 24 July 1394 a visitor dressed all in black arrived at Ruthven Castle and challenged the Wolf of Badenoch to a game of chess. That night the castle was beset by a terrible storm of thunder and lightning. The following morning there was no sign of the visitor, but the castle servants were discovered outside the castle walls, apparently killed by lightning. The Wolf of Badenoch himself was found in the banqueting hall: his body unmarked, though the nails in his boots had been torn out. Such, it would seem, are the perils of playing chess with the Devil. (Undiscovered Scotland)

The highlanders who once lived in these townships would be mustered as warring bands then as regiments by such clan chiefs. In later years they would go to battle for the glory of the British Empire and then for the deposed Stuart kings.

Jacobite defeat proved calamitous.

To maintain England’s control, General Wade would carve new additions through the landscape in the form of military roads and installations starting just after the 1715 uprising. You can still walk them.

Eric Gaba, NordNordWest, Uwe Dedering, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Old_Military_roads_in_Scotland.svg

On the great mound where the devil took the soul of the Wolf of Badenoch, the more prosaic ruins of Ruthven Barracks now sit high above the Spey. They attempt to dominate the skyline as they attempted to dominate the people here. Still, the mountains pale them to something close to insignificance.

Perhaps the greatest changes lay ahead, their foundations partially laid in the 1745 defeat at Culloden. The victors forbade the speaking of Gaelic, the carrying of weapons, the playing of pipes, the wearing of highland dress. But perhaps most damningly, defeat transformed highland nobles from heads of clans whose wealth lay in warriors to landlords based in London, hungry for rents. As Prebble writes:

Once the chiefs lost their powers many of them lost also any parental interest in their clansmen. During the next hundred years they continued the work of Cumberland’s battalions. So that they might lease their glens and braes to sheep-farmers from the Lowlands and England, they cleared the crofts of men, women and children, using police and soldiers where necessary.

This process proceeded in curious counterpoint to the Napoleonic wars. Clan chiefs raised regiments of men to fight, to die. Those who returned often found their homes razed to rubble, their families dispersed for the sake of sheep.

So began the invasion of the Cheviot or True Mountain breed. They came up the old cattle roads into Argyll, Inverness, and Ross. They climbed where the deer died, they throve where black cattle starved. Land which had produced 2d. an acre under cattle now yielded 2s. under sheep. Four shepherds, their dogs and three thousand sheep now occupied land that had once supported five townships. (Prebble, 28)

The eight townships of Glen Banchor are gone but for rubbled foundations, still marked on the maps.

Some great lords moved households to other pieces of coastal land where not even sheep could thrive, each family taking the timber of their homes with them to try to build anew. Other townships were burned out by sheriffs and men of property and soldiers, their crops left to rot in the fields, encouraged to head south to Glasgow or emigrate to Canada. They fought such betrayal from the heads of their clan with sticks and stones, burned eviction writs, yet they did not win more than a reprieve. Prebble’s book is heartrending in its descriptions of the brief attempts at rebellion, the burnings and the deaths of the old, the infirm, the sick as they clung to life beside their burnt out homes.

And alongside this the lords felled the great Caledonian forests as the price of lumber skyrocketed. Today’s landowners have implemented an even more extractive method of plantation forestry across the country, so the Cairngorms are some of the last places where you can find anything ressembling the old forest still standing. But even here the oldest of the trees were the young survivors of the great fellings of the Napoleonic wars.

They are wondrous, these great Scots pines. The stands of this older forest are strikingly full of life in comparison to the stands of plantation firs, even those being thinned and left to renaturalise. We began to seek them out. But imagine the forests we might have seen had profit not driven such total destruction.

So now these lands are ‘wild’, moors empty of trees and full of sheep, or filled with dark plantations and logging roads. In places the sheep have given way to even more lucrative businesses of estates devoted to grouse shooting, deer hunting, salmon fishing. The sheep did not in fact continue to generate the wealth of those early years. Kingussie is the result of attempts to find new ways of making these lands generate ever more wealth. As their lovely local history boards state:

More than 200 years ago, the Duke of Gordon drew up plans for a new town at Kingussie one of many planned settlements around the Highlands created by landowners who wanted to make money from new industries rather than depending on rents from farming. The Gynack Burn was at the heart of the Duke’s plans. He hoped that its water would power wool and fax (linen) mills and attract “tradesmen, manufacturers and shopkeepers” to live and work in Kingussie.

Although there were small clusters of houses where Kingussie now stands there was no village. In 1792, the local minister reported that this was a great problem. “The wool that could have been manufactured … must be sent to buyers from another kingdom. The flax that might have been a source of wealth has been neglected because skilful people are not collected… to carry through the whole process.”

And in horrible irony the Duke advertised for new people to come take up residence.

“The Duke of Gordon being inclined to have a village erected near to the Church of Kingussie, will give every degree of encouragement to tradesmen, manufacturers and shop keepers who may be inclined to settle there. There is a stream of water running close to the spot, fit to turn machinery of every kind; and there is a lint mill already built on the premises. Shoemakers and weavers are most particularly wanted in the country and may depend on finding constant employment. ” (A New Village at Kingussie in Badenoch, Aberdeen Journal, 1799)

Highland history is one of such cruelty, it is hard to look at it squarely. It makes you even angrier at figures like Sir Walter Scott, romanticising an absurd sheep-herding version of the Highlands even as his heroes dispossessed their tenants by force and fire. Or painters like Edwin Landseer, whose affair with Georgina Russell, Duchess of Bedford brought him to Glenn Feshie to play at rural life in a series of comfortable refuges and to paint romantic landscapes and stags and noble shepherds.

Staring at the implications of this history also connects this landscape and its oppressed people to those of the colonies, primarily Canada. There the oppressed became potential oppressors through the conquest of indigenous lands and the genocide of Native Americans. I had not realised how much the highland clearances–and the matter of fact defense of them in discourses of civilisation of highland savages and the highest economic use of land–would resonate and intertwine with those of empire. They must have fed from each other, even as the clearances filled boats with families starving, brutalised and desperate.

And of course this history and these landscape connect to cities, for where else did a good proportion of this rural exodus head to? We began and ended our stay in Glasgow, and there is the last mark on the landscape for this blog, the lovely glass railbridge extending from Glasgow Central railway station, also known as the ‘hielenman’s umbrella’.

it was Gaelic-speaking workers (who’d arrived in the city following the Highland clearances in the 19th century) who were first known to gather there [under the bridge] and seek refuge and shelter from the harsh Glasgow weather.

Around 30,000 Gaelic speakers moved to Glasgow from the Highlands to find work, and while many found employment working as servants in the city’s affluent west end, thousands more were dispersed all over the city and separated from their friends and family.

But once a week, usually on Saturdays, the ‘Hielanmen’ would come together to meet under the railway bridge and catch up on the week’s gossip and share stories of their new lives in Scotland’s biggest city.

The Umbrella traditions reached its height in the 1920s and 1930s but following the outbreak of the Second World War and the resulting blackout, the tradition of meeting under the bridge soon became forgotten.

https://www.glasgowlive.co.uk/news/glasgow-news/hielenmans-umbrella-story-glasgow-landmark-17601507

Charles willeford on Miami’s Blues

I think few people understand the psychosis of developers and suburbs like Charles Willeford (1919-1988). He could have invented The Big Short, I’m sorry he didn’t. This does have some brilliant passages that resonate eerily with the 2008 crisis. The more things change the more they stay the same, or some other appropriate cliche.

There were thirty four-story condominium apartment buildings in the complex that made up Kendall Pines Terrace, but only six of the buildings had been completed and occupied. The other buildings were unpainted, windowless, concrete shells. Construction had been suspended for more than a year. Almost all of the apartments in the occupied buildings were empty. For the most part, their owners had purchased them at pre-construction prices during the real estate boom in 1979. But now, in fall 1982, construction prices had risen, and very few people could qualify for loans at 17 percent interest.

“There’s been some vandalism out here,” Susan said, when she parked in her numbered space in the vast and almost empty parking lot. “So they built a cyclone fence and hired a Cuban to drive around at night in a Jeep. That’s stopped it. But some-times, late at night, it’s a little scary out here.”

There was a tropical courtyard in the hollow square of Building Six—East. Broad-leaved plants had been packed in thickly around the five-globed light in the center of the patio. and cedar bark had been scattered generously around the plants. There was a pleasant tingle of cedar and night-blooming jasmine in the air.

Susan … pointed toward the dark Everglades.

“In the daytime you can see them, but not now. For the next four miles or so, those are all tomato and cucumber fields. Then you get to Krome Avenue, and beyond that it’s the East Everglades–nothing but water and alligators. It gets too drowned with water to build on the other side of Krome, and Kendall pines Terrace is the last complex in Kendall. Eventually, the rest of those fields will all be condos, because Kendall is the chicest neighborhood in Miami. But they won’t be able to build anymore in the ‘Glades unless they drain them.”

“This apartment looks expensive.”

“It is, for the girl that owns it. She put every cent she had into it, and then found out she couldn’t afford to live here. She’s just a legal secretary, so she had to rent it out, furniture and all…” (52-53

Perhaps even more interesting, thinking Miami in terms of escaping cops…

If a man had to escape from the cops, he could only drive north or south. Only two roads crossed the Ever-, glades to Naples, and both of these could be blocked. If a man drove south he would be caught, eventually, in Key West, and the cops could easily bottle up a man on the highways if he headed north, especially if he tried to take the Sunshine Parkway.

The only way to escape from anyone, in case he had to, would be to have three or four hidey-holes. One downtown, one in North Miami, and perhaps a place over in Miami Beach. There would be no other safe method to get away except by going to ground until whatever it was that he’d have done was more or less forgotten about. Then, when the search was over, he could drive or take a cab to the airport and get a ticket to anywhere he wanted to go. (67)

Willeford, Charles (1984) Miami Blues. London: Futura Publications.

‘This is a machine for killing people’

The hill was a network of lights in which the twin stars of a car’s headlights traced a live circuit. There was an abstract, designed beauty in the setting of the clusters of bright rectangles that marked out houses along the well-lit roads, climbing at last to the long, low striations of light that signified the offices and labs at the summit. A satellite dish was a shield of gold, a communications tower a lance of silver. The captive power plant twinkled with ruby points of brilliance, cadmium sulphoselenide letting only red rays through. Good gatekeeper, cutting the seamless continuum of light into freed and absorbed, escaped and imprisoned. To the lens, there was only red and not-red. There were no other questions, no other categories. Gopal sat astride his bike and watched. Here, a hundred metres down the approach road from the town to the campus gate, he could appreciate the cold schematic beauty of it all. This complex in the middle of nowhere was the child and citadel of science, clean and limpid in its stark organization, its grid layout, its lit streets and planned bungalows. He could not think of those spaces as containing people. From here it was only infrastructure, a valued and valuable asset to the nation.

Entered in the account books of the republic: so many crores of rupees, so many man-hours of labour invested. Purpose: national security. Aims: laudable. Control: absolute. Glory: unlimited.

This is a machine for killing people. (113-114)

Chatterjee, Rimi B. (2005) Signal Red. London: Penguin.

Not quite peaceful countryside: Ilford Manor and Farleigh Hungerford Castle

You can get the train to Freshford, I don’t know why we had never done this, for it looks like there are several lovely walks to be done from here. There is also a lovely pub with the best lemon crumble I have ever had in my life. It is, you know, redolent of rich people, but for a day that’s quite all right. And really, this walk was all about the violence hidden in the tranquility of the countryside, made possible by wealth inequality really.

You follow narrow lanes from the station to Ilford Manor — I didn’t think the gardens would be open but they were. A description from the website:

The Grade-1 listed gardens were designed by Harold Peto during his tenure at Iford from 1899-1933, and represent one of the finest examples of steeply terraced hillside gardening in the UK. They are characterised by colonnades, pools and steps, and offer magnificent rural views over the valley.

They are beautiful gardens though a bit small perhaps. I particularly loved the millstones set into the paving stones, the stairs up hillsides with their cascades of daisies, lovely borders, the smell of rosemary, wisteria everywhere. Quite a wonderful sculpture of a dog scratching itself.

Ilford Manor

But behind it you can see the sarcophagus — whose? There is a pond full of waterlilies, wisteria growing in bush form in a great circle around it which is quite beautiful — I haven’t seen it like that. And then suddenly you realise the statue of the old sage is actually holding what looks like a dog and the water pours from the wound in its breast.

Ilford Manor

There is a cloister, and likewise it is full of carvings of hawks and kestrels hunting hares and partridges, that moment of capture and cruel claws seen also in a lion holding a pig, and suddenly this beautiful garden felt quite a cruel place. Not least from the worry over the provenance of these old scraps of carving, columns and statuary collected from around the world…

From there we followed footpaths down the side of the River Frome to reach Farleigh Hungerford Castle. There is not much of it left, it is true, but more than would appear upon first glance. A quite incredible chapel, I am still not entirely sure how it fits within these ruins, approached as you might the center of a snail shell through a walled garden behind which rise the ruins.

Freshford Walk

Freshford Walk

There are burials here too, but at least you are quite sure that they belong here. The old, unexpected colours restored, but this families disappointing obsession with their own ancestry also on view.

Freshford Walk

Underneath a crypt, rather terrifying lead coffins. The kid who came down behind us legged it.

Freshford Walk

This family has only violence to make it stand out, really. It was built in the 1370s but Sir Thomas Hungerford, steward of John of Gaunt — I do appreciate that he was the first recorded speaker of the House of Commons. Yet he destroyed the local village to make way for the park alongside the castle. The family did well in the 100 years war, made a fortune through kidnapping Frenchmen and demanding ransom. The beautiful chapel had been a parish church, but became a private one when the walls were expanded around it. In 1523, Lady Agnes Hungerford was hanged with two of her servants for murdering her first husband, John Cottell. They waited to bring her to trial until her second husband Sir Edward Hungerford died (a natural death it seems, but his desire to marry Agnes was, of course, her motive). Given her first husband was strangled and burned within the walls of the castle itself — well.

The ‘Lady Tower’ here is so called because it was used to imprison Elizabeth Hungerford, wife of Sir Edward’s son, over a period of months. She also accused him of attempting to poison her. Sadly, this is not the reason he was executed. He was executed on charges of treason and ‘unnatural vice’ (almost makes you like him) after his patron Thomas Cromwell fell from grace with Henry VIII.

His grandson would go on to accuse his wife of adultery and an attempt to poison him. He lost the court case, refused to pay her costs and went to jail. The castle was lost to the family by Sir Edward ‘The Spendthrift’, who gambled and frivolised away the fortune under Charles II and was forced to sell it.

I don’t really know why anyone thought aristocracy a good idea. But someone here did own this lovely little thing created to tamp down tobacco in the bowl of a pipe:

Freshford Walk

I do also love ruins, probably because they are ruins and reminders that all tyranny must pass.

Freshford Walk

Though it felt good and fresh and clean to escape into the countryside, down along the other side of the river.

Freshford Walk

Freshford Walk

We also passed the site of an old priory where the lay brothers once lived attached to the Carthusian Priory of Hinton. Little remains but the practice of farming (pigs, bees, lovely vegetable gardens) and some of the old cottages (now with solar panels) and this sign showing what it once resembled:

Freshford Walk

And then back to Freshford. The countryside is so beautiful here, but sprinkled about with absurd mansions being too close to Bath for comfort.

Freshford Walk

Freshford Walk

But the Inn at Freshford, as I say… incredible cakes, ales, full of dogs and beautiful in itself.

Paula Meehan, Prayer for the Children of Longing

I should be on break, should be done, but instead I am working and working to finish up this report for the Welsh Government on the progress of the new homelessness prevention agenda of the Housing Act 2014 and I just finished the section on vulnerable groups… fucking vulnerable groups. The young people I spoke to sit within this category as though trapped in amber, bureaucratically stripped of the fierce tragedies of their angry, lost, scared, funny, resigned presences vibrating with life sometimes falling in tears, sometimes erupting in a torrent of abuse on the phone. They survive streets and misery and old wounds and abuse with alcohol and drug medleys, and more and more with mamba, ‘legal highs’, spice. These kids are not easy, but they are ours and we are letting them die.

I read this poem this morning, and it felt like a Christmas gift. One among many, for Paula Meehan’s Painting Rain must be one of the best poetry collections I’ve ever read. A gift for me and for them. For all those who loved them, tried to save them. A prayer to whisper beside every Christmas tree.

Prayer for the Children of Longing

A poem commissioned by the community of Dublin’s north inner city for the lighting of the Christmas tree in Buckingham Street, to remember their children who died from drug use.

Great tree from the far northern forest
Still rich with the sap of the forest
Here at the heart of winter
Here at the heart of the city

Grant us the clarity of ice
The comfort of snow
The cool memory of trees
Grant us the forest’s silence
The snow’s breathless quiet

For one moment to freeze
The scream, the siren, the knock on the door
The needle in its track
The knife in the back

In that silence let us hear
The song of the children of longing
In that silence let us catch
The breath of the children of longing

The echo of their voices through the city streets
The streets that defeated them
That brought them to their knees
The streets that couldn’t shelter them
That spellbound them in alleyways
The streets that blew their minds
That led them astray, out of reach of our saving
The streets that gave them visions and dreams
That promised them everything
That delivered nothing
The streets that broke their backs
The streets we brought them home to

Let their names be the wind through the branches
Let their names be the song of the river
Let their names be the holiest prayers

Under the starlight, under the moonlight
In the light of this tree

Here at the heart of winter
Here at the heart of the city

Origins of Fear…from Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad

Cora rarely thought of the boy she had killed. She did not need to defend her actions in the woods that night; no one had the right to call her to account. Terrance Randall provided a model for a mind that could conceive of North Carolina’s new system, but the scale of the violence was hard to settle in her head. Fear drove these people, even more than cotton money. The shadow of the black hand that will return what has been given. It occurred to her one night that she was one of the vengeful monsters they were scared of: She had killed a white boy. She might kill one of them next. And because of that fear, they erected a new scaffolding of oppression on the cruel foundation laid hundreds of years before. That was Sea Island cotton the slaver had ordered for his rows, but scattered among the seeds were those of violence and death, and that crop grew fast. The whites were right to be afraid. One day the system would collapse in blood (206)

Loved this book.

[Whitehead, Colson (2016) The Underground Railroad. London: Fleet.]

Ophelia

I missed the orange sky. Missed hurricane winds scooping up and flinging a warm filter across our autumn sun, a whispering of earth from a far desert. I left work early to come home. To work. The world had only some welcome gold to it. I tuned in, but only briefly — this procession of friends and family acknowledging #metoo. The ones who can. I can. I unwillingly sifted my own memories the way I know we are all doing. Must we? Alongside gendered pain I stared at pictures from Somalia, Santa Rosa, Puerto Rico, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, Yemen. As helpless facing these other displays of power, exploitation, indifference. If only I had known, I could have gone to stand outside face upturned to receive these visiting desert sands.

My lord, he hath importun’d me with love

There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love,
remember.

Essential Writings from Winona LaDuke

Winona LaDuke…damn. This collection is so due to be updated (hold on a second, it has been! A new collection, The Winona LaDuke Chronicles, came out this year). Published in 2002 this reader already represents decades of struggle and wisdom, imagine what that must look like now? She is still fighting at Standing Rock, still going strong to defend lands and peoples, still writing and speaking. It is humbling to read these words.

From ‘Building with Reservations’, speaking to architects and educators she described this:

If I were to describe the architecture of my community, I would describe it both as an architecture of poverty and an architecture of what is sacred. … But there is this sorrow–I have to say sorrow–that exists when you are stripped of the cultural integrity of your house, of your architecture, and given something that does not resonate. Sure, it provides a shelter, but as you all know, a house is more than a shelter: it is a home, it is something that reflects you. So that is the architecture of poverty in my community.

And then you have the architecture that is sacred. Next to some of these houses, you’ll see a sweat lodge, or you’ll see a miichwaap, which is like a tepee, but it is used for smoking meat. The most beautiful thing to me is when I consider the fact that a lodge that is used for one of our ceremonies is based on the mirror of a star constellation; it reflects where the poles are located. That, in its essence, is sacred architecture. I think that that is the most beautiful thing in our community. (46-47)

I’m pretty obsessed with with ideas of home, of architecture, I love this redefinition of poverty in architecture which we are in fact seeing in gleaming steel and concrete across all of our cities in the form of luxury apartments built for the global market. So different than pieces of shit HUD homes on the reservation, I don’t mean to compare them in any other sense beyond their bankruptcy of creativity or human feeling.

She talks later on about the importance of culture, the way that in universities it is treated as anthropology and folklore rather than literature and something vibrant and lived. She writes

In my life and in the life of my family, many of us in our community find that those teachings are not about the process of going back, but that’s kind of the mythology that surrounds the view of native people… It’s not about that at all. It’s about recovering that which the Creator gave us as instructions, and then walking that path… (173)

It provides an alternative — not to be appropriated but to be learned from — of systems that value balance and ‘a good life’ over profit. Like this:

There should be beauty in “process,” whether it is harvesting with intelligence, whether it is the use of recycled materials, or whether it is observing energy efficiency. (53)

It is particularly explicit in the essay on ‘Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Environmental Futures’, a term I know has been problematised, but which lays out a different basis and a better source of expertise for our thinking about how we relate to the world around us:

Traditional Ecological knowledge is the culturally and spiritually based way in which indigenous peoples relate to their ecosystems. This knowledge is founded on spiritual-cultural instructions from “time immemorial” and on generations of observation within an ecosystem of continuous residence. I believe that this knowledge also represents the clearest empirically based system for resource management and ecosystem protection in North America, and I will argue that native societies’ knowledge surpasses the scientific and social knowledge of the dominant society in its ability to provide information and a management style for environmental planning.  (78)

It is based around a very different idea of success, of life’s meaning.

“Minobimaatisiiwin,” or the “good life,” is the basic objective of the Anishinaabeg and Cree people who have historically, and to this day, occupied a great portion of the north-central region of the North American continent. An alternative interpretation of the word is “continuous rebirth.” This is how we traditionally understand the world and how indigenous societies have come to live within natural law. Two tenets are essential to this paradigm: cyclical thinking and reciprocal relations and responsibilities to the Earth and creation. Cyclical thinking, common to most indigenous or land-based cultures and value systems, is an understanding that the world (time, and all parts of the natural order-including the moon, the tides, women, lives, seasons, or age) flows in cycles. Within this understanding is a clear sense of birth and rebirth and a knowledge that what one does today will affect one in the future, on the return. A second concept, reciprocal relations, defines responsibilities and ways of relating between humans and the ecosystem. (79)

I don’t know how different, in fact, Minobimaatisiiwin actually is from what most people outside of these traditions would term a fulfilling life, but we have still bowed before money and power as measures of success and as enough justification for any number of terrible things. She describes a very different understanding of development, light years removed from that which now prevails but without question one way, perhaps the only way, to step back from the precipice of ecological disaster:

By its very nature, “development”–or, concomitantly, an “economic system” based on these ascribed Indigenous values-must be decentralized, self-reliant, and very closely based on the carrying capacity of that ecosystem. (80)

And this is, indeed, a very good question:

I believe there is a more substantial question meriting discussion: Can North American society craft the social fabric to secure a traditional management practice, based on consensual understanding and a collective process? (82)

I am taking these out of order here, thinking about how this all connects to our relationship to the earth, that perhaps many of our problems emerge because we have been so divorced from place:

Implicit in the concept of Minobimaatisiiwin is a continuous inhabitation of place, an intimate understanding of the relationship between humans and the ecosystem, and the need to maintain that balance. These values and basic tenets of culture made it possible for the Cree, Ojibway, and many other indigenous peoples to maintain economic, political, religious, and other institutions for generations in a manner that would today be characterized as sustainable.4 (80)

She returns later to this topic:

Native environmental groups have a commitment and tenacity that springs from place. “This is where my grandmother’s and children’s umbilical cords are buried … That is where the great giant lay down to sleep … That is the last place our people stopped in our migration here to this village.” Our relationships to land and water is continuously reaffirmed through prayer, deed, and our way of life. Our identity as human beings is founded on creation stories tying us to the earth, and to a way of being, minobimaatisiiwin, “the good life.” (57-58)

It is not just positionality and the structural oppression faced by indigenous communities, but this connection to place that drives experience, meaning and struggle.

All this to say that Native communities are not in a position to compromise, because who we are is our land, our trees, and our lakes. This is central to our local and collective work. (62)

There is a lot about land in here, and what has destroyed traditional connections to it:

The governance of this land by traditional ecological knowledge has been adversely affected by genocide, colonialism, and subsequent circumstances that need to be considered in the current dialogue on North American resource management, the role of the environmental movement, and indigenous peoples. (82)

She describes the two worldviews at play:

The conflict between two paradigms-industrial thinking and indigenous thinking-becomes central to the North American and, indeed to the worldwide, environmental and economic crisis. … For many indigenous peoples, the reality is as sociologist Ivan Illich has suggested: development practices are in fact a war on subsistence. (86-87)

Capitalism, industrialism…can the two be separated? But it is definitely a war and this seems to be exactly the idea that we might belong to the earth that is being decimated. The clearances and enclosures in Europe were to the same end.

Akiing is the word for land in our language, and in the indigenous concept of land ownership or the Anishinaabeg concept of land ownership, it is much more a concept that we belong to that land than the land belongs to us. … land tenure itself and concepts of land ownership are of course a concept of culture–they are a concept of your teachings, a construct of how you are raised and how you live in your community. (138)

Important to always remember that these things are not natural or self-evident but constructed. And the creation of the US is definitely one of predator…I am pondering how this might help us think about the political economy of land.

Indigenous people traditionally have been the people who have lived on the land, but the predator/prey relationship that exists between America and the land is one that has caused the constant erosion and taking of the indigenous land base in the Americas. And it has caused the constant erosion and the taking of other people’s land outside of that context as well. (143)

Again mobility, predation, frontiers, all those things that capital needs, as opposed to connection, balance, care…

One of the challenges that we have in America is that America is built on conquest, not on survival. It is a society, by and large, based on the concept that there is always a West, always a frontier. There will always be someplace to go. We don’t necessarily have to give thanks for where we are because we’re moving.

That is the challenge..This conceptual framework between one worldview and another worldview, indigenous and industrial, or land-based and predator….the predator world-view. It is, in fact, manifest in how we live here. And every ecological crisis we have today is a direct consequence of that… (180)

From the land to rights as Native women, I loved her speech ‘I fight like a woman’ from the UN Conference on Women in China, 1995.

Positionality:

As one woman, Corrine Kumar from the Asian Women’s Human Rights Association explained simply, “From the periphery of power human rights looks different.” (205)

A challenge to mobile, global power to look those it is destroying in the eye:

Vicki Corpuz is an Igarok woman from the Philippines, head of the Cordinera Women’s Association. … “We found that a lot of our problems were related to trans-national corporations and institutions. And we thought it was time to get more accountability from them. We can do basic empowerment work here – but all the decisions are actually made elsewhere. They should have to look at us in the face when they make those decisions.” (208)

The need for indigenous peoples (as true of other struggles) to operate at a global level…

It was several years ago Mililani Trask, Kia Aina or Head of State of the Native Hawaiian Nation changed her mind about work. “The real reason why all Indigenous people have to be apprised of, or involved in the international arena is because their individual land-based struggles will be impacted by these nation states and international interests.” (209)

More on militarism — I love this quote, hate what the US and others are doing on other people’s lands…

Militarism is a form of colonization which takes away from our lives. That future is without hope for us. But, we will fight for our rights. I believe in nonviolence and civil disobedience. I am ready to go to jail, to take blows or die for our cause, because I believe in the struggle for the freedom of my people. I don’t want your sympathy, I want your support, your strong and collective support against the oppression of your government. What are need is your resistance.” Penote Ben Michel made this plea at a 31 January 1987 conference in Montreal on militarism in Labrador/Nitassinan. (230)

I am furious with Geroge Dubya all over again. I volunteered to do precinct walking for Kerry in Vegas I was so furious with that man. Might have campaigned for her, though, if I’d been a little more woke, though I still might have bowed to the dual party system.

This is from her acceptance speech for the nomination for Vice Presidential candidate, running with Nader.

I am not inclined toward electoral politics. Yet I am impacted by public policy. I am interested in reframing the debate on the issues of this society — the distribution of power and wealth, the abuse of power and the rights of the natural world, the environment and the need to consider an amendment to the U.S. Constitution in which all decisions made today will be considered in light of their impact on the seventh generation from now. That is, I believe, what sustainability is all about. These are vital subjects which are all too often neglected by the rhetoric of “major party” candidates and the media.

I believe that decision making should not be the exclusive right of the privileged. (267)

All of that. We need all of that.

This is only a sampling of some of what I loved most/have been thinking about most recently. There is so much more here, and of course so much more written since this was published.

[LaDuke, Winona (2002) The Winona LaDuke Reader: A Collection of Essential Writings. Stillwater, MN: Voyageur Press.]

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Forgiving the Inquisition, Birgu

We visited the Inquisitor’s Palace in Birgu (Vittoriosa) — I was curious, was just about to finish Q by Luther Blisset, a splendid telling of the Protestant battle for faith and a revolution of the poor and oppressed which helped give rise to the inquisition in a wave of incredibly violent repression. As Q makes clear, for some this involved faith, but this was as much about maintaining the old order and the jockeying for power between the Pope, the Hapsburg Emperor Charles V and the German princes and their small states. Henry VIII is also up in this mix. It had to do with money as well of course, much of which was confiscated from Jewish and Marrano money lenders along with others who refused to ‘repent’.  None of this complex history is reflected here, but formed the background in my head. There is no acknowledgment of a pervasive atmosphere of fear created by the constant demand to denounce self and neighbour, the burning of books, the treatment of any curiosity as heresy, the absolute power over life and death held by all too human Inquisitors.

You cannot feel the darkness here.

The description on the website, which I confess made me choke just a little.

The Inquisitor’s Palace, situated in the heart of Vittoriosa, is one of the very few surviving palaces of its kind which, in the early modern period could be found all over Europe and South America. Many of these palaces simply succumbed to the ravages of time or were victims of the anti-reactionary power unleashed by the French Revolution. Fortunately, the Maltese Inquisitor’s Palace, throughout its five centuries of history, always hosted high-ranking officials representing the main powers on the island, who therefore ensured its survival.

Mgr Pietro Dusina arrived in Malta in 1574 as the first general inquisitor and apostolic delegate of the Maltese Islands. The Grand Master offered him the unused palace as an official residence. Almost all successive inquisitors sought to transform the palace into a decent mansion.

From the museum itself, the nicest description of the inquisition you will ever read:

Vittoriosa

The building itself is made up of huge rooms, incredible wooden ceilings and bands of frescoes beneath them.

Vittoriosa

The staircase was central, and your rank defined where the Inquisitor met you on it. The absurdities of hierarchy.

Vittoriosa

Like this marble entry that seem better suited to the outside of the building not the inside.

Vittoriosa

There are fascinating things here, exhibits from the archives kept as evidence in the trials, amazing things really. Like a magical hat with spell in Arab script used by Didacus Mifsud against heavy headaches, confiscated by inquisitor Fabrizio Verallo (1600-1605)

Vittoriosa

Magical spell … included as evidence by Inquisitor Lazzaro Pallavicina (1718-1719)

Vittoriosa

This devotional image, originally hanging in the prisons of the Order of St John, was the target of convict Grazio Laura who started throwing stones at it after loss in gambling. Reported by his inmates, the offender tried to defend himself stating that he erroneously hit the image while throwing stones at mice. He later admitted and was whipped in public.

Vittoriosa

There was a great book burning here in 1609, among them Rabelais’ Les Oeuvres.

The description of torture:

Rarely inflicted by Inquisitors, torture was not a sanction in itself, but a means to extract truth during trial. It was generally used when the accused persisted in declaring himself innocent when the Inquisitor was absolutely sure about his guilt. It was applied following strict rules and after considerate guidance.

They have a paper signed by Caravaggio here, witness in a case of bigamy 1607-1608

Vittoriosa

Abjuration (a public solemn confession of repentance, necessary prior to any verdict by French Theologian Michel Moren in from of Inquisitor Paolo Bellardino (1587-1590, 1591-1592)

Vittoriosa

Ominous signs:

Vittoriosa

On Corporal Punishment:

Corporal punishments were generally vindictive, containing an element of shame to make up for the harms committed. This included kneeling or whopping in public, rowing on galleys, nursing in hospital, work on fortifications and imprisonment. Such sanctions were inflicted in less than 10% of cases.

On Confiscation:

Not to be misinterpreted as working towards financial rather than spiritual gain, inflicting fines and confiscation of property and belongings were generally forbidden by the Supreme Congregation in Rome. Inquisitors however did confiscate devotional material on account of their improper use.

Devotional paper with Corona of Spirit confiscated by Inquisitor Paolo Bellardino for inappropriate use.

Vittoriosa

There are some brilliant, incredibly complex Arabic charts. In explanation:

In a complicated case of witchcraft Maltese architect and military engineer Vittorio Cassar appeared before the Tribunal…He produced a lot of evidence in Arabic text…Cassar was warned and absolved.

Vittoriosa

Vittoriosa

But I wonder what they really were. Especially as the Arabs were still more advanced in their knowledge, mathematics, architecture and engineering than the Knights of Malta at this time…

The incredible recounting of a case against 40 witches:

Prisons were probably stretched to the limit when Inquisitor Visconti had to arrest forty witches accused of love witchcraft in 1625. Their trial lasted three years and provides precious insights into Maltese spells. They abjured and were sanctioned with public flogging, perpetual exile and attend [sic] for confession and holy communion four times a year for four years.

‘had to arrest’. A mad sentence.

Two Quakers were held here, Katherine Evans and Sarah Cheevers, arrested in 1658 for spreading Protestantism, they were discharged without sentence — four years after arrest. I wonder how these women arrived here, what their goals were. Why this illustration should accompany their story.

Vittoriosa

The inquisition created a school of Arabic to teach missionaries, to allow them to preach the faith among slaves in Malta and other Muslim lands. Slavery is referred to so off-handedly here, as though it wasn’t really serious.

The Inquisition remained in operation in Malta until the arrival of Napoleon in 1798. Hurrah. But they were already on their way out. They have a brilliant letter in cypher to Inquisitor Antonio Felice Chigi Zondadari (1777-1785) about earlier attempts to get rid of the Inquisition in Naples.

Vittoriosa

We move to descend to the prison cells. Shh.

Vittoriosa

The roles of the prison warden are given here beside his spartan quarters, incredibly contradictory I find, written to be abused to the warden’s own benefit but very much of their time.

Vittoriosa

Just outside, through the bars, you can see a sun dial carved in 1730 by prison warder Leonardo Palombo. I wonder how he arrived here in this position, what he wanted for himself rather than this:

Vittoriosa

The ominous timeline of a trial:

Vittoriosa

The judgment chamber:

Vittoriosa

A description of the purpose of the many edicts:

Every now and then the Inquisitor would feel the need to issue an edict thereby reminding people of their obligations as good Catholics to report any kind of misdeeds against the Catholic faith and the punishment incurred by those who did not do so.

They had 12 days, if they failed to report they were automatically excommunicated, and only the inquisition could lift the excommunication.

Activities that had to be reported:

  • Abuse of sacraments for superstitious remedies
  • Owning or perusing of prohibited books
  • Infringement of abstinence
  • Bigamy
  • Apostasy to Islam
  • Magical activities
  • Solicitation during confession (!)
  • Heretical opinion
  • False witness
  • Hear confession or say Mass without permission
  • Blasphemy
  • Lack of cooperation with the inquisition to eradicate heresy

On the Torture Chamber

This room was used alternatively as a prison cell, the prison warden’s room, and a torture chamber according to the needs of the palace at the time. These ‘secret’ stairs were used to elad prisoners, or those who wanted to denounce someone to the Inquisitor, straight into the Tribunal Room without using the main staircase, thus not exposing himself to others. … Utmost secrecy was of paramount importance for the legal procedure of the Inquisition.

On torture itself:

Vittoriosa

And on to the cells. Small squares like those of Gozo’s Citadel. A view from the prison yard to freedom up above.

Vittoriosa

The happiest thing about this place? A prisoner managed to dig himself free EIGHT TIMES. But there is nothing else happy about this place.

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Hold Everything Dear: John Berger

John Berger gives us words to live by, Hold Everything Dear. An amazing book. This is a rather Benjaminian collection of quotes that I particularly loved really.

From ‘Wanting Now’, thinking  of all the struggle that lies outside of a ‘movement’:

Today the desire for justice is multitudinous. This is to say that struggles against injustice, struggles for survival, for self-respect, for human rights, should never be considered merely in terms of their immediate demands, their organizations, or their historical consequences. They cannot be reduced to ‘movements’. A movement describes a mass of people collectively moving towards a definite goal, which they either achieve or fail to achieve. Yet such a description ignores, or does not take into account, the countless personal choices, encounters, illuminations, sacrifices, new desires, griefs and, finally, memories, which the movement brought about, but which are, in the strict sense, incidental to that movement. (2)

From ‘Let Us Think About Fear’ — it seems even more uncannily accurate about Trump and the Republicans today, who almost make me miss Bush Jr.

The leaders of the New World Order, however, would seem to be married to Fear … Day and Night the partners of Fear are anxiously preoccupied with telling themselves and their subordinates the right half-truths … It takes about six half-truths to make a lie. As a result, they become unfamiliar with reality, whilst continuing to dream about, and of course to exercise, power. They continually have to absorb shocks whilst accelerating. Decisiveness becomes their invariable device for preventing the asking of questions. (53)

From ‘Stones’ — on the walls of Ramallah:

Today there is not a wall in the town centre of Ramallah, now the capital of the Palestinian Authority, which is not covered with photographs of the dead, taken when alive and now reprinted as small posters. … These faces transform the desultory street walls into something as intimate as a wallet of private papers and pictures. … Around the posters, the walls are scarred with bullet and shrapnel marks.  (59)

I confess, I am perhaps a bit wary of such essays as a form, printed in a small book they seem part of the elite tradition of letters. I still love this book, I know Berger was a Marxist to the end. Yet it makes me so sad that the cover should name Berger one of the great intellectuals of our time, that he could then write such an essay so powerful on Palestine, and that it should continue to be ignored. It makes me wonder what we are doing, what we should do, what we can do.

As I read Raja Shehadeh, another such powerful writer, on his wanderings and the beauty of Palestine it reminded me so much of the Arizona  desert I love, that was also lost though not in the same way. So this had a bit of an eerie feeling to it:

I have never seen such a light before. It comes down from the sky in a strangely regular way, for it makes no distinction between what is distant and what is close. The difference between far and near is one of scale, never of colour, texture or precision. And this affects the way you place yourself, it affects your sense of being here. The land arranges itself around you, rather than confronting you. It’s the opposite of Arizona. Instead of beckoning, it recommends never leaving. (68)

This captures capitalism I think, and our history of conquest and pillage of which Bacon knew quite a lot — On a new appreciation of Francis Bacon’s work ‘A Master of Pitilessness’

Today’s pitilessness is perhaps more unremitting, pervasive and continuous. It spares neither the planet itself, nor anyone living on it anywhere. Abstract because deriving from the sole logic of the pursuit of profit (as cold as the freezer), it threatens to make obsolete all other sets of belief, along with their traditions of facing the cruelty of life with dignity and some flashes of hope. (87)

More about walls, about poverty, about home. ‘Ten Dispatches About Endurance in Face of Walls’ (Oct 2004)

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The poor have no residence.

The poor have no residence. They have homes because they remember mothers or grandfathers or an aunt who brought them up. A residence is a fortress, not a story; it keeps the wild at bay. A residence needs walls. Nearly everyone among the poor dreams of a small residence, like dreaming of rest. However great the congestion, the poor live in the open, where they improvise, not residences, but places for themselves. These places are as much protagonists as their occupants; the places have their own lives to live and do not, like residences, wait on others. The poor live with the wind, with dampness, flying dust, silence, unbearable noise (sometimes with both; yes, that’s possible!) with ants, with large animals, with smells coming from the earth, rats, smoke, rain, vibrations from elsewhere, rumours, nightfall, and with each other. Between the inhabitants and these presences there are no clear marking lines. Inextricably confounded, they together make up the place’s life.

***

The poor are collectively unseizable. They are not only the majority on the planet, they are everywhere and the smallest event speaks of them. This is why the essential activity of the rich today is the building of walls – walls of concrete, of electronic surveillance, of missile barrages, minefields, frontier controls, and opaque media screens. (91-92)

‘Looking Carefully — Two Women Photographers’ made me feel inspired to be a photographer again, but I particularly liked this:

Within such a concept of history we have to come to see that every simplification, every label, serves only the interests of those who wield power; the more extensive their power, the greater their need for simplifications. And, by contrast, the interests of those who suffer under, or struggle against this blind power, are served now and for the long, long future by the recognition and acceptance of diversity, difference and complexities. (134)

Ah, to take pictures that do not capture and simplify but render up complexities.

I end where the book actually begins, with a poem. It has been too long since I shared a poem.

Hold Everything Dear
for John Berger

as the brick of the afternoon stores the rose heat of the journey

as the rose buds a green room to breathe
and blossoms like the wind

as the thinning birches whisper their silver stories of the wind to the urgent
in the trucks

as the leaves of the hedge store the light
that the moment thought it had lost

as the nest of her wrist beats like the chest of a wren in the morning air

as the chorus of the earth find their eyes in the sky
and unwrap them to each other in the teeming dark

hold everything dear

the calligraphy of birds across the morning
the million hands of the axe, the soft hand of the earth
one step ahead of time
the broken teeth of tribes and their long place

steppe-scattered and together
clay’s small, surviving handle, the near ghost of a jug
carrying itself towards us through the soil

the pledge of offered arms, the single sheet that is our common walking
the map of the palm held
in a knot

but given as a torch

hold everything dear

the paths they make towards us and how far we open towards them

the justice of a grass than unravels palaces but shelters the songs of the searching

the vessel that names the waves, the jug of this life, as it fills with the days
as it sinks to become what it loves

memory that grows into a shape the tree always knew as a seed

the words
the bread

the child who reaches for the truths beyond the door

the yearning to begin again together
animals keen inside the parliament of the world

the people in the room the people in the street the people

hold everything dear

19th May 2005
–Gareth Evans

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