What is Artifice?

Sheep field next to the River Wye, nr Hay. Photo by me.

There seems a renewed and furious human chauvinism by some, rejecting the material reality of ecological processes to the extreme, including the principle of Rewilding (Soule, et al).

The fury seems based on NGO dominance in the field (they are certainly not democracies), plus purchasing power without local consent or participation. NGO’s aside, because alternative treaties for collective and local management are possible, without ecological succession we are talking about the proliferation of anthropogenic urbanization, suburban expansion, farming, fishing, and forestry as the default position on a central plank of Human Rights.

In reaction, particularly to the question of urbanization and suburban expansion, the legally trained and culturally-influenced capitalists (though they would deny the latter), are persisting in claiming the Rights for Nature. All arguments are, therefore, sucked into the realm of the Courts, to mainly White Eurocentric judges, lawyers, and clerks. Rights are important agreements of equality between ourselves as human individuals, there is no doubt, and they are judged in Courts by other humans versed in the language of humans and the Law. All of these Human Rights should be firmly based upon ecological and physical material reality because that is the ultimate responsibility. But let us not forget that ecological processes are incommensurable with complex Laws evolved for one, single species ~ Homo sapien. One could call the Courts an “artifice” in ecological terms.

Terribly oversimplified, there are three main interconnected effects that drive suffering and extinction of human and teresapien life.

a. Global human inequity (to include extreme capitalism, arms trade, neo-colonialism, GDP Growth, racism and poverty, nationalism, conflict and migration, et al)

b. Ecological depauperation and biodiversity declines (critical to existence)

c. Climate crisis (volatile, extreme, and includes sea level rises)

Inequity has a great deal to do with depauperation and climate, but without ecological resilience, quite frankly, we (all life) face armageddon. Food and clean water depend mainly upon b. And c. contributes to a. and b.

We are, indeed, nature. But we are not the sum of all ecological processes. We must understand moments when letting things go is as important as when, where, and how to intervene. In not allowing succession and a plethora of other life-sustaining processes–some of which we have no idea–to re-instate their own evolutionary force, we are continually arresting ecological growth, interfering with ecological cycles of entropy, and preventing niche opportunities for life to flourish. Disturbance can drive evolution over time, but planetary dominion by our species has all the features of a catastrophic, continued extinction event (pain and suffering). As Chomsky said, “we are the asteroid,” more accurately, the conscious asteroid.

Ecological processes are core to ‘life.’ Indigenous cultures greatly understand this, and we in the Westernish have a full opportunity to learn from these people and their wisdom. I agree, that without consent or agreement, all interventions, passive or active, are forms of oppression. But the most oppressed of all, we have to remember, don’t speak human.

Ecological disturbance (that’s what we are, ecological disturbers, primary and secondary consumers), is now so vast as to arrest and even undermine evolutionary succession across all biomes. Climate change is fundamentally linked by the nature of this dominion, especially in the destruction of ecosystems for the extraction and burning of fossil fuels.

There must be room for ecological succession without heavy human disturbance. Setting up Rewilding v Traditional Pastoral is a non-starter. There’s no pulling the past out of a bottle like a genie, but we can learn from all, science and indigenous wisdom, moving forwards.

What if.

What if it’s not the last 50 years of human interventions that have caused the crash in living systems here in the UK, but the last 200 years? What if it’s not the last 200 years of human intervention but the last 10,000 years? These are still relevant questions in ongoing geological discussions as to when the Anthropocene began. They are also relevant to how we perceive a need for change.

Without the development of farming techniques over the last 10,000 years, there could not have been an industrial revolution in the last 200+ years. Without the industrial revolution in the last 200+ years, there could not have been intensive development and farming over the last 50 years.

People are considering we must again, at least, adopt the traditions of, say, 50 or 200 years ago, but in many ways, these are assumptions based on an emotional but often warped sense of comfort that stems from nostalgia. Human Rights? I have outlined before and above the problems of Rights, and believe in a fundamental Responsibility for all life in all we do. Ecologies have changed, the climate has changed/is changing. Our numbers have changed. And all kinds of social patterns have changed. We need to look at each place, case by case. We are in crisis.

Urban agriculture, urban ecology, community gardening, produce share is totally underestimated here in the UK. These are lands already heavily occupied by our species. To most people, rural land is utterly unavailable. To them, rural land may as well be the deep blue sea or the rocky mountains. Cities and suburbia offer, at least, a chance to form strong community bonds with a critical mass of political will in order to form gardens, homesteads, and varying organic horticultures: Reclamation of the public place. Why do we continue to allow ourselves to be dominated by landowners, NFU, supermarkets, NGOs, and/or corrupt state politics interested only in maintaining the status quo? Bring back food/ecology into local control, where the majority of people reside, including distribution, and let locacede happen where it can be agreed and will be welcome.

Above all, we are making choices now. Claiming successional processes, or re-introducing trophic species, are an “artifice” in favour of Homo sapien farming practices 50 or 200 years old is a broken concept, because all we do about living within resilient ecologies from now on could, therefore, be classed “artifice.” Remember, and for Earth’s sake, the real “artifice” is pouring tons of chemicals onto the land, draining rivers and water tables, forcing seasonality, and being exclusive about who manages the land, whether it be farmers, rewilders, developers, or industrial biochemical and genetics companies. We can do better and for all life.




Snake Goddess, a modern emblem?


‘Medusa.’ What image comes to mind at the mention of her name? I doubt very much if it is one of renewal and wisdom.

The Hellenic myth of Medusa remains as metaphor for all that is wicked and vendictive in the world. Homer, the ancient Greek poet, drew her literary character as the epitome of ugliness and danger, with large glaring eyes, into which no-one should ever look unless wishing to be turned to stone, and hissing snakes for hair, each one ready for that lethal strike.

But the root of the snake symbol is more ancient than any Greek myth or religion: The Egyptian Ouroboros, represented as the circle of a snake devouring its own tail, was a common emblem of cyclicity, the seasons, the eternal return, death and the renewal; the Minoan Snake Goddess was worshipped as a symbol of naturalism and grace; the Celts and early Pagans used the image of a snake in a similar way; before that, an hypothesis stands of a Neolithic Great Mother, with multi-functional powers of priest, ruler and warrior, and of plant and animal cultivator and protector. Indeed, some of the earliest human artefacts are depictions of women, recreated in the image of a snake-bird goddess, not of an evil female presence, but a depiction of all that is good. This neolithic woman co-existed with animals instead of conquering them. Her eyes were large, owl-like, and her locks were snakes, above the neck, as an animalistic indication of high wisdom and prophetic powers, rather than spite and hostility.
The Greek myth diverges: All three dreaded Gorgons were sisters, two of them immortal, Stheno and Euryale; Medusa was the only mortal one, but into her eyes all men may look and stop, dead, turned to stone. Using the mirror of his shield in order to look upon her without fear of death, demigod Perseus was guided by the owl-like Goddess Athena to decapitate Medusa and use her stare, even beyond death, to save Andromeda from the sea monster Cetus. The head was said to have been placed upon the heroic Athena’s breastplate as lethal ward. Medusa’s serpentine image remains as one of the earliest stone temple pediments in Hellenic Greece, carved around 600 BC: A symbolic defense against all evil; wickedness against all wickedness.

So, the Owl and the Serpent Woman of all that is good seems to have tumbled down through generations of oral stortelling and split into the brave owl goddess Athena and the wicked snake-like Medusa. Brennan Root refers to Athena and Medusa as shadow sisters, the light and the dark, with an interwoven story as one and the same but divided by misfortune and mortality. Both icons appear to have been preserved in modern culture. But here-in lies a tragedy.

Remember, for the majority of human history, the symbol of snake has been one of birth, death and rebirth. For the snake sheds its old skin, only to live on in a new state of being.

Pre-Christian agrarian Mesopotamia imagined prototypes of snake gods to fear, and these were most likely replicated by the Judeo-Christian tradition thereafter, in the perils of the Garden of Eden. Perhaps, it was the abandonment of hunter-gathering for cultivating the land by hand which changed our human relationship with snakes. Inevitably, there would have been an increased risk of an early death, for both farmer and snake. If snake denies man immortality, then the Serpent of Eden is the ultimate representation.

The Egyptian war goddess, Neith, is cited by Plato as the inspiration for Athena, said again to have been rooted in a Mesopotamian owl goddess, resulting in the Greek ideal of womanhood in Athena; of strength and purity. What of Medusa as woman? Ovid, the Roman poet, claimed the mythological Medusa was a woman of immense beauty, perhaps a nod to her early virtuous incarnations. Athena, the virgin goddess, turned her into a monster/victim in a fit of jealousy, after Poseidon raped her in Athena’s own Temple. Feminists of the 20th Century seized upon Medusa as, therefore, a symbol for both victim of men and of retaliatory strength. Here was a woman who could deaden a man’s voyerism and render him nothing but a cold lump of stone. Her gaze was victor in the face of patriarchy. By contrast, the Russian philosophical Nihilists of the 1860’s had said those who do not stare into Medusa’s eyes fear reality, that life is without meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value. It is unfortunate that Medusa as deterrent to voyeurism appears to have been somewhat eroded very recently by Hirst and Rihanna in their photo shoot for GQ magazine, where the male gaze is actively encouraged to pour over Medusa’s form (and snakes) as sexual objects. Although there is a vague resemblance here to the Abrahamic religious symbolism of snake as sexual desire, it’s far less complex, and therefore, less rich in meaning, simply by its empty, commercial objectification. A sign of our time.

I prefer to imagine the cultural richness of some kind of neo-neolithic snake goddess. Faced with anthropogenic environmental impacts, I think we could steal ourselves anew and look deep into Medusa’s big owl-eyes, which search for light far into darkness. We can embrace the wisdom of her serpent locks and reclaim the image of snake as all that is good about this ever-renewing world. It is not that I wish all humans to be turned to stone or return to the stone age! Her image could be re-imagined as one of insight, wisdom and integration, an affirmative message from our neolithic ancestors. And if we can face down those fears of imminent death and sweep aside any notion of Medusa as victim, perhaps we may re-draw her character for the modern age, of the strength of the wilder things and the wild inside us all.

Wolf Manoth: Reintroducing wolves to mainland Britain, an ethical dilemma.

According to the 9th Century Anglo Saxon Chronicles, key historic manuscripts written during the reign of King Alfred the Great, January was known as ‘Wolf Manoth’. This was a more stable meteorological era, with native Eurasian wolves almost guaranteed to come out of the relative safety of the woods to approach human settlements for food in harsher weather. They were perceived, not surprisingly, as an agri-cultural threat. And so Wolf Manoth was deemed the first full month of wolf hunts by the all-prevailing feudal nobility.

After the fall of the Roman Empire and before the Medaeival Renaissance, with bloody Saxon invasion and the spread of Christianity, any indigenous pagan reverence to nature was lost. There was a drive to dominate land, defend it, convert and reap it.

Britain’s native wolf, Canis lupus lupus, the Eurasian Wolf (or perhaps a sub-species), was said to be as big an animal as ever found in the Arctic. They were noted at battle scenes scavenging on the dead but were equally considered noble, courageous, persevering and tireless. As such, the wolf was often symbolized on the heraldic Arms and Crests of nobility. To kill one was a feather in one’s cap.

In terms of natural history, events of the Middle Ages are a short hop away from our industrially farmed landscapes and sheep-shaped uplands of today. The Welsh Borders were once graced by thick native woodland, plenty of prey species and, before settlement, would have fueled good populations of Eurasian Wolf, largely out of sight of Celts, Romans and Anglo Saxons alike. But as humans warred over these Borderlands and castles were built to occupy and defend, wolves, in predating Royal game species like deer and boar, were out-competing Kings and Princes. Worse still, they posed an increased threat to commoners’ livestock, young children and as a species, were not afforded any Royal protection from them, unlike deer. Their end was perhaps an inevitability. Every last beast — male, female and cub — lost in taming the British Wild.

No-one seems to know for sure where exactly the last pure wolf or breeding pair was killed. Hybrid bones have been discovered and identified, perhaps throwing light on a more gradual intermingling of wolf genes with those of domestic dogs. There are a few locations cited as contenders, however. Somewhere and at some point, the deed was done.

There is a section of the Upper Irfon river, a tributary of the Wye, called Camddwr Bleiddiad, a spectacular place in itself, but all the more exotic when you know the translation… “Wolves’ Gorge”. If you know the Abergwesyn Valley at all, it will be easy for you to imagine wolves up among sheep on the open slopes, or calling to one another on the ridges, above the rush of water. And on Bryn Gawr, in the Desert of Wales,the Cambrian Mountains. Ecological ghosts remembered in a name.

Another place not far away and a contender for that last wolf kill in Britain (possibly as recently as the early 1700s) is the Upper Lugg Valley, also a tributary of the Wye. It rises from north of the Radnor Dome, where prehistoric burial grounds have been found on the summits. There are a few small villages alongside the river as it flows west, Llangunllo, Whitton and on to the town of Presteigne. There’s a steeper, more isolated valley to the South of Llangunllo and a lone village called Bleddfa. Settled a long time before the turnpike road was built in the 19th Century, it was surrounded by a Royal hunting enclosure, otherwise known as the Radnor Forest, the remains of which are now stewarded by NatResWales. The castle there, Bledewach, now a grassy mound, was the scene of fierce Welsh/English skirmishes, and indeed was captured from the Mortimers by  Llewelyn ap Gruffydd himself, the last true Welsh Prince, in 1262. Bleddfa can be translated from Welsh to “Wolf’s Nook or Abode”.

Now here’s my own twist. My mother’s paternal family hail from the Upper Lugg Valley. There are remnants of my ancestral DNA scattered in graveyards all around, and we’ve genealogy records relating to one particular hill farm dating back to the early 1700s. It’s not beyond reason that my ancestors may have participated in that supposed last brutal kill, and others before.

Despite my deep beliefs in non-human nature as kin, I am not filled with guilt for the actions of my Medieval ancestors. Neither do I feel compelled to put this obvious wrong right. But I do, with a biocentric consequentialist leaning*, value the moral worth and high moral standing of wolves.

According to supporters, not least author and columnist, George Monbiot, there are strong ecological arguments to reintroduce the Eurasian wolf to mainland Britain, and I would agree in theory. The wolf of the weald, of the woods, could be a strong symbol of woodland succession, self-will of the land, and a renaissance of our currently denuded shoulders of upland England, Wales and Scotland. New frontiers in ecological science tell us that apex predators, in the few areas around the globe where they are able to exist without human persecution, or where they’ve already been reintroduced, are crucial to “Trophic Cascades.” These are powerful interactions controlling entire ecosystems, where top predators limit the density and/or behavior of prey species, therefore benefiting the next lower trophic level in the ecosystem, and so on. In the case of wolves, they initiate a more natural ecosystem balance down to flora and soils, particularly through the predation of ungulates like deer.

We need to ask ourselves again, however, are we simply playing ‘God’ by restoring historical or forming novel ecosystems? Isn’t this the same old attitude of dominion which caused the demise of the wolf in the first place? What are the guarantees of success in a changing world and a changing climate? Are we not simply trying to assuage collective guilt, acting upon a sense of duty to put things right ecologically or as Monbiot suggests, acting from ecological boredom and the rewilding of our own minds?

I’ve learned recently that funds are being raised for a first major British upland rewilding scheme, in the Desert of Wales.** To succeed, advocates must bring along with them local hillfarmers, communities, estates, any potential intolerance, particularly to wolves should they decide to re-introduce them there in future. Education, particularly in neighbouring settlements but also beyond, of wolf ecology, behaviour and depredation (or deterring techniques to protect pets and livestock) as well as introducing strict regulations in their welfare, prevention of starvation and hunting are vital. We live in the 21st Century, but some still see themselves as ‘traditional country people’ with ‘traditional rights.’

Outlanders imposing new ideas may not be warmly welcomed. Broadly, attitudes may have changed since Tudor times, but in some rural areas, not as much as you might think.

Three hundred wolf heads, five wolf tongues a year, three hundred wolf pelts in exchange for gold coins, property, lands, even freedom was bought by the extirpation of magnificent British wolves. And those individuals forming packs were as social as any human community at the time, with senses and sensitivities even beyond our full comprehension today. We are still naive of the fullness of their being, but we are learning. The wolves that once were, or the wolves that are to be, have moral worth in themselves and rights to exist for their own sake. I suggest we have to look carefully at the potential consequences for them, and indeed, for the hillfarmers and communities. Hopefully these consequences will be positive. For now, I am heartened there will be no wolf killings in Radnorshire this Wolf Manoth, neither by Nobility nor Commoner alike. Sadly, I cannot say the same for foxes.

* More on Prof Robin Attfield’s Biocentric Consequentialism http://doingethics.com/Blog/2008/08/biocentric-consequentialism.html
** Cambrian Wildwood Crowdfunding, Sustain Magazine http://sustainmagazine.com/can-crowdfunding-help-rewild-wales/