Tag Archives: landscape

Enrique Salmón: American Indian Stories of Food, Identity and Resilience

13226644I came to Enrique Salmón’s Eating the Landscape through The Colors of Nature, this covers some of the same territory, but I learned even more about the Colorado Plateau that we had just been driving through. The landscapes of my baby-self, and so many of my dad’s stories. But no one in my family ever had anything as awesome as this:

I recall the many plant-related lessons I learned in my grandma’s herb house. this latticed structure was filled with hanging dried and living plants as well as pungent and savory smells from the many herbs hanging from the ceiling. The roof was no longer visible through the layers of vines that draped over its eaves to the ground. (3)

I love this connection between food and landscape, so obvious and yet I had not quite seen it in this way before.

…because so much of the food we are discussing in this book comes directly from the land, food landscapes remain intact when old recipes are regenerated. The food itself, and the landscapes from which it emerges, remembers how it should be cooked. This can happen because the food itself activates in us an encoded memory that reminds us how to grow, collect and prepare the food. (9)

Thinking about what our food teaches us about our landscape…well. I have learned a lot through my short time on smallholdings, through growing up in the desert, but I don’t know enough.

An essential lesson for us, as we continue on our current self-destructive path of monocropping, genetically modifying our food using artificial irrigation, and overfertilizing, will be to relearn how to cook our landscapes: the manner in which we sustainably steward our food crops, relying on a process that began in our home kitchens. (10)

It is not just loss of knowledge through city living or supermarkets, I think of Vandana Shiva writing about just how much the proponents of monocropping have actively destroyed. Yet there is so much happening that gives me hope. Like Emigdio Ballon, come from the highlands of Bolivia to Tesuque Pueblo of New Mexico. Working now with the Pueblo to grow fruit trees and beans, and maintaining a seed bank of heirloom crops.

I think too of settler and scientist arrogance, the kind that has driven unsustainable agricultural practices through the fields and lives of small farmers on the land for generations. Not seeing the complex systems these farmers were often embedded within:

For the longest time, the conservation and environmental movement had assumed that the human-environment equation would always result negatively for the land…until recently, researchers had not considered the possibility that humans could actually enhance their landscapes; that human communities might actually play a role in enhancing diversity; or that humans could be a keystone species of some ecological systems. (75)

In southern Arizona the Hohokam are everywhere, I remember hearing stories, imagining their presence across the land. There is a chapter on the Sonora desert and this:

The word Hohokam from the Pima language — always translated as ‘”those who have gone,” or “those who have vanished.” Archaeologist Emil Haury, who has studied the Hohokam, provided a more literal translation of “all used up.” (82)

Damn.

Up near Phoenix, along the salt river, they built extensive irrigation systems. Left them. Salmón writes that this is possibly because they became salinized, silted up. Instead of upping the ante, the people returned to a simpler agricultural system, one that was more beneficial to their landscape and more sustainable over the years.

Damn. I can’t imagine that conversation, our current reality is worlds removed from that kind of thinking. Perhaps this is a great part of the problem. One other thing I never have experienced, but so want to:

The diversity of the Sonora Desert seems more obvious the farther one travels through its namesake Mexican state. (128)

There are lots of stories here of the Colorado plateau, the fields in canyons and along washes hidden from sight — oh, I wished so much we caught just a glimpse. He writes of Peabody Coal’s draining of the aquifer and the drying up of springs. An enterprise bringing death to extract energy, destroying place to facilitate movement. A mindset alien to the people here, and to me. I loved the description of a concept from Juan Estevan Arellano:

Hispano querencia: that which affords his people a sense of place. Querencia is also simply the love for the land and place. (118)

Salmón continues:

To Hispanos, querencia is a blend of mental spaces not only involving bioregionalism but also including emotional, spiritual, cultural and ecological health. When people think of land the concept is enmeshed with notions of cultural memory. These and other mental spaces merge into a multidimensional blended space… (118)

This is the space of resilience, of community, of words. The thing evoked so powerfully in Jimmy Santiago Baca’s poetry describing these same places. It is strange finding the language of development I am so familiar with rewritten, recoded in this way:

Story is at the core of community resilience. It comprises the matter, substance, and adhesive of human capital. Stories communicate our values through the language of our heart and our emotions. Stories are what we feel. In northern New Mexico, enough of the viable land remains in which the story of querencia can be housed. (121)

More ways to reframe development debates, from The Declaration of Seed Sovereignty that came out of the Traditional Agriculture Conference held March 10-11, 2006 in Alcalde, New Mexico:

Sustainable stewardship and cultural resilience are neither decisions nor rights. Nowhere in the Declaration of Seed Sovereignty does the notion or term of rights arise. Instead, the associations conferred to include in their “living document” concepts of relationships, generational memory, embodied practices, spirituality, caring, respect, traditions, and celebration when declaring their revival and survival of their way of life. Together, these concepts reflect identity connected to responsibility towards one’s place in a community within a landscape. (150)

Everything is relational and connected.

Salmón, Enrique (2012) Eating the Landscape: American Indian Stories of Food, Identity and Resilience. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Quarai and Abó, dust and rain

After the Turquoise Trail, after Los Cerrillos and Madrid, we headed south to Quarai, south through Moriarty (!) and McIntosh, Estancia to Mountainair.

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1143647We were driving through the countryside poet Jimmy Santiago Baca writes about so compellingly. I read Martín & Meditations on the South Valley, look how time and evil rewrites the nature of towns — driving now we would only know Estancia as home to yet another prison, networked into the US carceral nation. This is how Baca knows it from Martín:

III

The religious voice of blind Estela Gomez
blackened the air one day.
“92 years mijito. ¿Que pasó? There were no more
beans to pick, no crops to load on trains.
Pinos Wells dried up, como mis manos.
Everyone moved away to work. I went to Estancia,
con mi hijo Reynaldo.
Gabachos de Tejas, we worked for them. Loading
alfalfa, picking cotton for fifty cents a row. (11)

Here too, are the ruins of Quarai. Before looking for the hotel we stopped at the ruins, hoping for a sunset peak. It was all closed off, sadly, but the town’s church was beautiful:

Quarai

the countryside golden:

55

We came back in the morning, the church is mostly what is visible:

Quarai Ruins

There was once a great pueblo here too, up to three stories. It sat along the trails by which salt was once traded, another place of encounter (Three such church and pueblo complexes form the Salinas Pueblo Missions Natinal Monument — Quarai, Abó, and Gran Quivira, which we weren’t able to see).

Here is it’s reconstruction from about 1300 — fascinating that it seems to have been left to the ancestors for many years just around this time, and reoccupied just before the arrival of the Spanish:
IMG_7073

Like Cicúye / Pecos, this was a place of coexistence for a very long time after the Spanish Entrada. This is a reconstruction of the church.

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It is huge, making us feel small.

Quarai

Quarai

Called El Misión Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Cuarac, it was completed around 1629, and for a while served as a seat of the Inquisition. That gives me chills, though the park service information boards focus on the inquisitions struggles with the army more than its actions surrounding native beliefs and religions.

Like Cicúye, there are kivas here too amidst the Christian buildings. Like this one, square. That sits in my heart somehow. Change, contrariness built into stone and ceremony.

Quarai

The pueblo ruins remain at peace beneath great mounds, covered with melons.

Quarai

Jimmy Baca writes of how this place continues to live.

VIII

***

Dawn in the Manzano mountains.
Pine and piñón from chimneys
smoke the curving road
with resinous mist.
My black feathered heart
effortlessly glides
in the clear blue sky
above the pueblos
de Manzano, Tajique, Willard and Estancia.
At the foothills
my grandmother herded sheep
and my grandfather planted corn y chile.

I turn my motorycle off
next to QUARAI RUINS
and silence drops
into the canyon
sounding like an ancient song of sadness,
like a distant boulder
echoing into the blue sky and stubble grass

I step into the open rock pit
hollowed in the earth
with flat rock door facing east,
pinch red clay and chew
my teeth black with earth prayer,
then speak with QUARAI–

O QUARAI! Shape
the grit and sediment I am,
mineral de Nuevo Mejico. (38-39)

I am not sure how much work had been done here when Baca arrived, it it was closer to what we could see, or this view of the church in 1935.

Quarai was abandoned in the 1670s and fell to ruin. Above, the mission church before excavation and stabilization, c. 1935 Courtesy of the National Park Service
Quarai was abandoned in the 1670s and fell to ruin. Above, the mission church before excavation and stabilization, c. 1935
Courtesy of the National Park Service

 

We traveled down Highway 60.

Route 60

Abó is very similar, but people still live just to one side, and more recent ruins of settlement make this place feel a bit less like a ‘monument’. This is nice. They believe that while Quarai was of the Southern Tewa or Tiguex people, this was the place of the Tompiro. My favourite picture:

Abó Ruins

It is more lush here:

Abó Ruins

Another massive church here:

Abó Ruins

Abó Ruins

Again a kiva.

Abó Ruins

The pueblo hidden beneath mounds of earth. Bordered by flowers.

Abó Ruins

Abó Ruins

From here we drove on, drove on home

Route 60

A final poem from Baca’s Meditations on the South Valley:

IV

Send me news Rafa
of the pack dogs sleeping
in wrecked cars in empty yards,
or los veteranos
dreaming in their whiskey bottles
on porches
of the past, full of glory and fear.
The black smell of wet earth
seeps into old leaning adobes,
and prowls like a black panther through open windows.
Austere-faced hombres
hoeing their jardines
de chile y maíz in the morning,
crush beer cans and stuff them in gunny sacks
and pedal on rusty bicycles
in the afternoon to the recycling scale.
and at Coco’s chante
at dusk tecatos se juntan,
la cocina jammed like the stock exchange lobby,
as los vatos raise their fingers
indicating cuánto quiren.
There is much more I miss Rafa,
so send me news. (57)

Route 60

We ate lunch in Truth or Consequences. Were too tired to stop in Hatch. We hit rain and a huge dust storm just outside of Deming. Pulled to one side. They are terrifying if you live here, have grown up with the news of 10 (20 to 30 to 100)-car pile-ups along these freeways. Fatalities. People drive like where they got to go and the time they got to get there are more important than life.

I-10

Finally then…good to be home.

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New Mexico’s Acequias — Things Invisible From the Road

51PGPTD2KZL._SX313_BO1,204,203,200_New Mexico (and Colorado’s) acequias are communal irrigation ditches — from another book I brought with me, though never did start reading on the trip. I later discovered the wealth which we drove through unknowing:

the gravity-driven, earthen-work irrigation networks handed down from late antiquity–remain the pivotal material basis and ecological precondition for the existences and sustenance of a four-hundred-year-old bioregional culture. (58)

They emerged out of the tortured history of the Southwest before Anglos arrived, out of the land grants and the traditions of Iberian settlers borrowing from the moors, as well as indigenous farming practices. There is such an amazing richness and melding of very different traditions here, but all connected to living in arid lands. From another article by José A. Rivera, found online here that gives more of the historical background.

Acequia technologies and irrigation methods employed by the Hispanic settlers in the new province were melded from diverse sources. Historians agree that these antecedents included the irrigation practices common to the arid regions in the south of Spain, particularly Andalusia, Castilla and Valencia, based on traditions from the Roman period; the superimposition of Arabic customs and techniques during the seven centuries of occupation of Spain by the Muslims from north Africa and the Middle East; the influence of Pueblo Indian agriculture as observed by early Spanish explorers and expeditions; and the irrigation horticulture of Mesoamerica brought by Mexican Indians who accompanied the Spanish caravans along the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro.

Similar to the aboriginal peoples before them, hispano irrigators of the upper Río Grande revere water and treasure it as the foundation of the community, and from inception they have utilized water as the main structural factor in spatial and landscape modification.

In a roundtable discussion also presented in the reader, Devon Peña gives a concrete example from a newer study of 8 specific farms:

The oldest one was founded before the Oñate Entrada [the first Spanish explorer’s entry], it is part Indian and they have probably been there for a thousand years, but now there is intermarriage between the San Juan Pueblo family and the Chicano family, so that land has been worked for over a thousand years and yet they have a six-foot soil horizon, and no plough pan: the hydrologist on our research staff says that the gravity-driven earthen work irrigation system … actually create soil, rather than destroy soil, especially when it is a multigenerational art form. (18)

Art form is exactly what it is.

Back to Peña’s examination of how the acequia sits within the landscape in the specific article:

The acequia irrigation system is based on the use of water released by the gradual melting of winter snowpack…The capture by humans of this renewable energy, like beaver works, concentrates ecological processes that expand the riparian life zone, creating new habitat and movement corridors for native flora and fauna…The patchy long-lot mosaics and wetlands resulting from subirrigation are renowned examples of anthropogenic wildlife habitat. Other important ecosystem benefits of the acequias include the maintenance of water and soil quality and the preservation of agrobiodiversity through heirloom seed-saving. (58)

So this:

The acequia is a profound accomplishment because it exemplifies the possibility that local cultures sometimes fulfill “keystone” functions in eco-systems by providing habitat for numerous species of native flora and fauna. (59)

He quotes Nazarea (1999) as describing this mosaic as “an almost compulsive need to link up and connect’, yet another example of networks, interconnectedness, emergence. All these things I am become more and more obsessive about.

This map from the New Mexico Acequia Associations shows that much of our drive from Chama to Pecos Ruins at least was through lands managed by the patchwork of local acequia associations along the Chama and the Pecos rivers.

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On the Rio Arriba acequias, :

The acequia is a communally managed institution that is organized under the authority of local customary practices…the acequia as a civic institution for local self-governance has emphasized three normative principles: (1) the use value of water to the community, (2) mutual aid, and (3) cooperative labor. (60)

Here they were organised into the Sociedad Protectora Mutualista de Trabajadores Unidos, the Protective Mutualist Society of United Workers, SPMDTU. This is broader than the acequia associations and continues in many land-grant villages, there is actually a resurgence of it in Antonito, which made me happy to hear. (68) Here are fields and sunflowers we passed on the train:

Cumbres & Toltec Railroad

I love this description of how farmers organize memory through landscape, one cannot be separated from the other:

During the field research, the farmers began to narrate memories that were clearly organized according to a set of cognitive maps — mental pictures of their home places. (64)

I loved also the use of James C. Scott’s idea of métis, or local practical knowledge — again knowledge intimately bound up in a physical landscape. Peña writes:

…métis has technical and sociocultural dimensions. The practical knowledge in a given locality is not the sum of local knowledge a community creates to produce a range of right livelihoods located in place. Métis inclusdes knowledge related to expressive oral traditions and these nearly always encompass moral and not just technical qualities. (72)

So we move from acequias in the landscape and the greater region, to the ways in which acequias contribute to the making of place:

The acequia is not just a sustainable, regenerative, and renewable irrigation technology. It is a political and cultural institution that intersects with the place-centered identities and environmental ethics of the local community. The acequia is the material and spiritual embodiment of people making habitable places. But it is not without its antithesis in the degradation of homeland by the forces of modernity and maldevelopment. (61)

Maldevelopment — I like that word. Because of course there are no great profits to be made from these systems, and they are very much under threat. Peña goes on to describe the attempt to carry out the massive logging of contested lands in the Sangre de Christo mountains — exemplary of how greed works. Behind it all, showing how history continues to resonate through the landscape:

Zach, “Junior”, was the second generation owner of the Taylor Ranch and a direct descendant of President Zachary Taylor, himself notoriously well known to us as the army general who led the war against Mexico in 1845-48. (62)

The logging of tens of thousands of acres has immense effect on traditional irrigation systems dependent on managing the regular melting of snow over a period of months, yet anglo-American law and tradition finds it hard to encompass such things.

The enclosure of the commons, the fencing of the land to prevent locals from exercising their traditional use rights, becomes an act of violence because it deprives people of their liberty. The barbed-wire fence is invoked as a symbol of the loss of an open landscape that was once an undisturbed part of the community’s identity. (65-66)

There even exists a fascination with the materiality, the physical artificial of barbed wire itself. I doubt anyone not from the Southwest knows just what an art form was made of vicious wire meant to divide. This board is from the mining museum in Los Cerillos, but Tombstone’s courthouse museum once had a whole room dedicated to it, and I have seen them in a number of other places:

Los Cerrillos

Still, I love that acequias continue the fight to exist — to read more you can start with the New Mexico association. I love that throughout New Mexico the boundaries of old land grants are marked. My dad must have worked to support acequias when he was working in Taos back in the 70s, I wish I could ask him about that now. He used to bring in food and supplies in to at least one of the land grant occupations during that time too. I was born in Taos, I know it doesn’t connect me in too concrete a way to these things, but it is a connection of the heart.

[Peña, Devon (2002) ‘Endangered Landscapes and Disappearing Peoples? Identity, Place and Community in Ecological Politics,’ pp 58-81 in Adamson, Joni, Mei Mei Evans and Rachel Stein (eds) Environmental Justice Reader: Politics, Poetics & Pedagogy. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.]

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Remnants of Polish Empire: Milosz and Sienkiewicz

The Polish Empire…I confess my ignorance, immense ignorance, and thus shamefaced astonishment to find such an empire existed once. I realise anew how parochial US education is. Perhaps in high school’s elective class on European History there was a mention, but I remember Poland above all as a tragedy, a land of both centrality and flatness, leading to repeated invasions by countries and peoples bigger and stronger and bent on a vastness of domination. I am not sure how much is my failure and how much faulty interpretation U.S. style, where Polish jokes were sadly legion through my growing up and our own history of conquest and empire (and fear of decline) so steadfastly ignored. Both of which perhaps explain avoidance of presenting this history and its aftermath alongside the tragedy (which is no less true for the existence of the commonwealth).

A map of the changing borders:

Territorial-changes-of-Poland-1635-2009-small
By Esemono – Own work, Public Domain

 

I am going to Poland! It is a good year for going places, given unemployment and a wonderful partner who I can trail after like the discombobulation of stars behind a comet. Hopefully at some point here we will start trading off who gets to be the comet and who the (poetic rather than realistic) discombobulation. Anyway, I came up with a list to read as I always do, and started in chronological order, now slightly broken but happily. I find Henryk Sienkiewicz’s With Fire and Sword (1884 — translated by Jeremiah Curtain in 1898) more interesting since reading Czeslaw Milosz’s The Issa Valley (1955) because of the way one echoes in curious ways the subjects of the other.

5145F9XFZ9LOf course, all of With Fire and Sword takes place in Central Ukraine, based on the historical uprising of the Cossacks against the land’s occupation by Polish nobility. That was initially a bit disappointing, but almost made up for by some splendid descriptions of Chigirin, giving it such a border town feel but also doing much to show the diversity of connections between town and wilderness and agriculture and the meeting of different cultures that I have become so interested in. Also, in this case, the machines of war.

Barabash pointed to the market-square and to the people moving around upon it. The whole square was thronged with great gray oxen on the way to Korsún for the army; and with the oxen went a crowd of herdsmen (Chabani), who passed their whole lives in the steppe and Wilderness,–men perfectly wild, professing no religion, (“religionis nullius,” as the Voevoda Kisel said). Among them were forms more like robbers than herdsmen,–fierce, terrible, covered with remnants of various garments. The greater part of them were dressed in sheepskin doublets or in untanned skins with the wool outside, open in front and showing, even in winter, the naked breast embrowned by the winds of the steppe. All were armed, but with the greatest variety of weapons. Some had bows and quivers on their shoulders; some muskets or “squealers” (so called by the Cossacks); some had Tartar sabres, some scythes; and finally, there were those who had only sticks with horse-jaws fastened on the ends. Among them mingled the no less wild, though better armed men from the lower country, taking to the camp for sale dried fish, game, and mutton fat. Farther on were the Chumaki (ox-drivers) with salt, bee-keepers from the steppes and forest, wax-bleachers with honey, forest-dwellers with tar and pitch, peasants with wagons, registered Cossacks, Tartars from Bélgorod, and God knows what tramps and “vampires” from the ends of the earth.

It continues with some of the persistent and matter-of-fact contextual anti-Jewish sentiment that shouldn’t have surprised me yet did.

The blaze from the piles on the square spread such a glare over the town that all Chigirin seemed burning. The bustle and shouts increased with the approach of night. The Jews did not peep from their houses.

Jews hide in their houses throughout this book in fact. The (simplified and partial) explanation for people’s own understanding of this is given by Hmelmitski, leader of the rebellion:

I want no war with the king, I want no war with the Commonwealth! It is the mother, and he is the father. The king is a merciful lord; but the kinglets!–with them it is impossible for us to live; their extortions, their rents, meadow-taxes, mill-taxes, eye and horn taxes, their tyranny and oppression exercised through the agency of Jews, cry for vengeance.

Sienkiewicz writes, of course, in celebration of the Polish kinglets vital to the existence of the Commonwealth. He tries for balance occasionally, but passages like the following occur over and over again expressing a belief in the requirements of progress through the civilization of the wilderness (we meet once again these tropes), and support for the unspeakable levels of violence acceptable for its achievement, though this is often sorrowful.

Order reigned in all the lands of the prince, with plenty, justice, peace, but also terror,–for in case of the slightest opposition the prince knew no bounds to his anger and to the punishments he inflicted; to such a degree was magnanimity joined with severity in his nature. But in those times and in those regions that severity alone permitted life and the labor of men to thrive and continue. Thanks to it alone, towns and villages rose, the agriculturist took the place of the highwayman, the merchant sold his wares in peace, bells called the devout in safety to prayer, the enemy dared not cross the boundaries, crowds of thieves perished, empaled on stakes, or were changed into regular soldiers, and the wilderness bloomed.

A wild country and its wild inhabitants needed such a hand…

Impalings and the destruction of entire villages along with each of their inhabitants…there is no ‘civilian’ in these battles. Nothing sacred. No woman unraped, no field unburned, no child spared. No cruelty too extreme.

They saw on both sides of the road a long row of “Cossack candles,”–that is, people with hands raised above their heads, and tied to stakes driven into the ground, wound around with straw steeped in pitch and set on fire at the hands.

A little thought and you realise the peasants must have quite a lot of grievances to have embarked on a course of rebellion.

“Why do you croak, grandfather, like a raven?” asked an old peasant. “We believe that the black hour is coming on the lords; and there will be neither on the Russian nor Tartar bank lords or princes,–only Cossacks, free people; there will be neither land-rent, nor barrel-tax, nor mill-tax, nor transport-tax, nor any more Jews, for thus does it stand in the letter from Christ which you yourself spoke of. And Hmelnitski is as strong as the prince. Let them go at it!

Again, the a long list that has me nodding my head until we reach the Jews. The violence shown by peasants in the revolt is treated very differently by Sienkiewicz of course:

Through the broken windows Skshetuski saw the multitude of drunken peasants, bloody, with rolled-up shirt-sleeves, going from house to house, from cellar to cellar, and searching all corners, garrets, lofts; from time to time a terrible noise announced that a nobleman, a Jew, a man, a woman, or a child had been found. The victim was dragged to the square and gloated over in the most fearful manner. The crowd fought with one another for the remnants of the bodies; with delight they rubbed the blood on their faces and breasts, and wound the still steaming entrails around their necks.

It is terrifying to read the battle cries on every side: Kill! Slay! It is full of irony to hear bemoaned on the one hand the terrible betrayal of the Cossacks joining with the Tartars in their uprising, and then on the other to celebrate the mercenary Tartar regiments of the crown putting down the rebellion.

Above all is the weight of contempt heaped upon non-Polish peasantry. I present you a short selection among so so many phrases:

in his ears the words of Yeremi were roaring: “Better for us not to live, than to live in captivity under peasants and trash.”

Or:

The peasant breaths, filled with the odor of gorailka, came upon the faces of those nobles of high birth, for whom the pressure of those sweating hands was as unendurable as an affront. Threatenings also were not lacking among the expressions of vulgar cordiality.

Or:

Would not every dog-brother of them be better at home, working his serfage peaceably for his land? What fault is it of ours if God has made us nobles and them trash, and commanded them to obey? Tfu! I am beside myself with rage. I am a mild-mannered man, soft as a plaster; but let them not rouse me to anger! They have had too much freedom, too much bread; they have multiplied like mice in a barn; and now they are dying to get at the cats. Ah, wait! There is one cat here called Yeremi, and another called Zagloba.

I have not started on the misogyny. I don’t think I will. I don’t know enough to argue that Sienkiewicz necessarily agreed with all of these views expressed through the mouths of characters and sympathetic narration. But the overwhelming feeling is their promotion, alongside a fierce nationalism tied to land and a certain kind of honour. Written, as well, in a period where Poland as a country did not officially exist.

So many of the better parts of the book engage in lyrical descriptions embodying a love of land, of crops, of wildlife. An understanding of seasons. A desire to create a peaceful land of fertility and beauty. This is partly what it shares in common with The Issa Valley, maybe why I kept reading. It could also be just the absurd knightly adventures with swords and romance.

9780349123318-uk-300Milosz’s memoir of the Issa Valley is lyrical, lovely, haunted. Its rural community remains divided, separate and ranked along the same lines established by the Commonwealth. A Polish ruling class still sits in position over Lithuanian ‘peasants’ (though Sienkiewicz’s account numbers a Lithuanian knight amongst the heroes. A man capable of cutting off three heads at once and splitting people down the middle a-la Song of Roland).

I found this about Czeslaw Milosz — In Memoriam, from the University of California, Berkeley:

Czesław Miłosz (d. 14 August 2004), Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures and the University of California, Berkeley’s only Nobel Prize winner from the Division of Arts and Humanities, was witness to much that was central to the history of the twentieth century. He was born on 30 June 1911 in Szetejnie/Šateiniai, a small town in rural Lithuania, then a part of the Russian Empire. His parents, Aleksander and Weronika (née Kunat), were members of the long polonized lesser Lithuanian nobility. Miłosz would always place emphasis upon his identity as one of the last citizens of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, a place of competing and overlapping identities. This stance—not Polish enough for some, certainly not Lithuanian to others—would give rise to controversies about him that have not ceased with his death in either country.

Again there is a narrative of colonization, of civilization of empty wilderness (but without the swords and scythes and impalings):

Starting in the sixteenth century, the Issa Valley had been colonized by settlers lured there by the Princes Radziwill, and the Bukowskis had come from the Kingdom of Poland in their covered wagons, through forests, across fords and uncharted wilderness, before reaching their destination in the virgin forests of Lithuania. Many fell on distant fields of battle — in the wars against the Swedes, the Turks, and the Russians. (92)

Covered wagons and virgin forests almost left me speechless, confused about the parallels with, or borrowings of, US mythologies. Again there is a constant divide between Polish (Polonized?) nobility and Lithuanian peasantry:

Masiulis, the wizard, sat with his back against the farmhouse wall, smoking his pipe. They were not on the best of terms. The magician laid claim to as much land as Romuald, but he was a peasant — a Lithuanian peasant. (93)

Or

But no Bukowski had ever married a peasant. (172)

Though this Bukowski did in fact end up marrying the peasant.

Thomas, the young boy of the story, comes of age and grows into the immensity of the distance between himself and the peasants who surround him, despite his love of the land, his knowledge of the harvest, threshing, hunting, fishing. He is increasingly separate, which he feels with sadness and longing and his family bolster with pride and constant vigilance. The book opens with pages of factual moving to lyrical description of the place, love and memory constantly well up through every phrase throughout the whole of the novel:

I should begin with the Land of Lakes…This part of Europe was long covered with glaciers, and the landscape has much of the severity of the north. The soil is sandy and rocky and suitable only for growing potatoes, rue, oats and flax. This explains why such care was taken not to spoil the forests, which helped to soften the climate and offered protection against the Baltic winds. The forests are [predominantly of pine and spruce, though birch, oak, and hornbeam are also in abundance… (1)

This continues to be a world where everyone has their scythe. This continues to be a world of peasant uprising and violence — a grenade is thrown through the mansion’s window. It fails to explode, and comes to rest under Thomas’s bed. This is the time of land reform — resented by the narrator’s family who use money and corruption to try to preserve their lands. The Deluge is remembered in the form of The Swedish Mounds, great earthworks from the 17th century battles.

I am a third of the way through Vol. 1 of Sienkiewicz’s second volume The Deluge, though I am a little at a loss as to quite why…

The other thing the two books share in common is the uncanny, which I quite love. An example or two from Milosz:

The Issa Valley has the distinction of being inhabited by an unusually large number of devils. (3)

And this brilliant thing that recalls another aspect of history:

…he was visited by a monster. Shatybelko described it as a sort of bumpy log that moved sideways, level with the ground, and which was mounted with three heads — all with Tartar features, he said — baring their teeth in hideous grimaces. (41)

With Fire and Sword, however, has Horpyna. A beautiful giantess dressed as a man and valiant, who shows promise of great supernatural powers.

I had served long in Wallachia, where there are more vampires than people, but where there are weapons against them. I sprang from the horse and thrust my dagger into the ground. ‘A vaunt! disappear!’ and it groaned, seized the hilt of the dagger, and slipped down along the edge under the grass. I cut the ground in the form of a cross and rode off.”

“Are there so many vampires in Wallachia, father?”

“Every other Wallachian after death becomes a vampire, and the Wallachian vampires are the worst of all. They call them brukolaki.”

“And who is stronger, father,–the werewolf or the vampire?”

“The werewolf is stronger, but the vampire is more stubborn. If you are able to get the upper hand of the werewolf, he will serve you, but vampires are good for nothing except to follow blood. The werewolf is always ataman over the vampires.”

“And Horpyna commands the werewolves?”

“Yes, surely. As long as she lives she will command them. If she had not power over them, then the ataman would not give her his cuckoo, for werewolves thirst for maiden’s blood above all.”

Vampires! Werewolves! Still:

The giantess herself who guards the princess is a powerful witch, intimate with devils who may warn her against us. I have, it is true, a bullet, which I moulded on consecrated wheat, for a common one would not take her; but besides there are probably whole regiments of vampires who guard the entrance.

I was so hoping for a supernatural turn and a novel all about Horpyna, yet these are left only as stories. Still, I greatly desire a visit to Wallachia, part of Romania.

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Somerset Coal

We went on a brilliant walk last weekend, starting in Pensford, taking in the Stanton Drew Stone Circles and the village, and then along to Stanton Wick and Pensford Colliery and back down to where we had started.

It was strange to be so deeply affected by first ancient Neolithic ruins of life and worship, and then the modern ruins of coal mining. Everything about them is so different, and yet they share the Chew Valley and both stand as a record of the people who have lived here.

A brief history of the various historical monuments of the area can be found here, in the Banes placemaking plan.

The Old Colliery is now the only large scale remains of the 20th century mining industry in North Somerset.

6977769656_309245481d_zWe wandered into its ruins, trying to find the old public right of way down the hill our book insisted was there — as like its author we believe in standing firm on old rights of way. It is no longer accessible, but we found a footpath down the road beyond the piece of the colliery that is now a private residence, and it does join the old path the miners took as described in our old book.

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This Colliery employed over 400 people.

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A Dirty Job, but we had to do it’ – The Bristol Post

There is a letter in The Bristol Post from Leon Thomas who once worked here as he studied, now a lecturer at University of Sydney, and then a professor of mining engineering in the University of New South Wales.

The carbide lamps show we were still a naked-light pit, and I recollect electric cap lamps came in for officials in about 1950 and the mine changed over to safety-lamp operation soon after. There had been an explosion at a naked-light pit in the North of England, and the NCB stopped all naked-light pits in the 1950s.

Pensford had just installed its first belt conveyor face in late 1949, and the signal whistle around the neck of the third person from the left in the front standing row was used by the puffler – face charge hand – to give stop/start signals for the belt, and to warn the colliers that it was starting. There has been an incredible increase in mechanisation since those days.

I remember the name of only two other people after this long period. Second and third from the right in the front row are the Packer brothers, reputedly the two highest-paid men in the pit. They worked as partners in a stall. The one on the left is Bill Packer, who worked in bare feet. There was no mandatory safety footwear in those days, or mandatory fibre helmets. Both Packer brothers are wearing the old canvas hats. Bill scavenged old boots out of the scrap heap in the pithead baths so that his toes would not get stamped on while waiting for the man-riding dolly cars or the cage. But he had worked at the face in bare feet since his youth at the Mells and Vobster pits with their very steep seams where bare toes could get a better grip on the timber props that were set almost like a ladder, and on the slippery floor. He was an inveterate gambler on horses but, to my recollection, not particularly successful.

I also remember him getting a bad gash on one of his shins, requiring three stitches after he had finished his shift, and he was back at work the following morning. He could not afford sick leave, with his numerous family and a bookmaker to support, and he was really tough. The photo was taken in front of the banksman’s cabin, alongside the downcast shaft. You can see on the wall the large bell that repeated the shaft winding signals.

Somerset archives contain some other real riches connected with the mining industry, but to return to the Banes placemaking plan, the mine was extensive, reaching:

towards Stanton Drew and Byemills, through to the Station Approach area of Pensford, to Publow Church, out to Lords Wood and included a drift mine at Common Wood, Hunstrete.

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Old Colliery Buildings

The Old Colliery now comprises an extensive range of unusual redbrick buildings, including the former Winding Engine House (known as The Winding House), that has been converted as a private residence.

The remaining red brick buildings are standing redundant and comprise:

Larger road fronted building – known as The Power House (where electricity was generated prior to SWEB installing a substation)

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Smaller road fronted building was the blacksmith workshops and stores for miners tools and other necessities.

Small building to rear of The Power House is the hauling engine house from which 2.5 miles of wire rope hauled the 500wt tubs between Pensford Colliery and Bromley Colliery along the tramway. Part of the tramway embankment wall and embankment have also survived.

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The small single storey building (located in Filer’s Coaches yard) was the weighbridge, electricians’ workshop and small store.

On the opposite side of the road, the bath house has been rebuild, only a section of the rear wall remains as original, and was incorporated into the design.

The brick lined tunnel also remains, which miners walked to give them easy access to and from Pensford village.

Brick lined tunnel! We saw no hint of that. But we did find memories of an industrial past already being swallowed by the woods:

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the old concrete stiles used by the miners

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The memories of a community grown up around this industry, even if the coal and soot and steam are gone. The website does mention that a collection of stories and oral histories of the collieries are being collected, which would be a wonderful thing. Especially as all but a few marks of the jobs and the lives that shaped this place for so long have been erased, and a much wealthier group of people is clearly moving in to enjoy the newly verdant countryside:

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Topophilia (pt 1)

4462961I’d seen Yi-Fu Tuan mentioned  a number of times, but it was still whim that led me to pick up this book because I thought it might help with some of the ways I’ve been thinking about how human beings connect to places. This particularly in a still unfinished response to some of Doreen Massey’s work on the politics of place, which to me mirrors many of the problems in capitalist development and also sadly in Planning and Geography both. I saw this

Topophilia is the affective bond between people and place or setting. Diffuse as concept, vivid and concrete as personal experience, topophilia is the recurrent theme of the book (4).

So it was surprising, and a little delightful I confess, to go from there bounding off through some social biology like this:

Ultraviolet rays are invisible to man, though ants and the honey bees are sensitive to them. Man has no direct perception of infrared rays, unlike the rattlesnake… (6)

I am easily distracted by thinking of how much in the world we are missing, all the things out there that we cannot see or feel or smell. I am easily impressed by rattlesnakes, have loved them ever since we were little even though we invariably killed them when they came too near the house. But it is interesting to think of the biological bases for our perceptions.

It turns out that this is a sprawling book that unearths various academic disciplines, art and poetry to examine from different viewpoints our connection to land. I’m still considering what ties it all together, it is not at all obvious, so this reads something like a collection of my favourite bits. Which it is, but in that sense it mirrors the book itself.

The first half in particular took me back to my old undergrad sociology and anthropology days raising no small degree of nostalgia with section headings like ‘harmonious whole, binary oppositions, and cosmological schemata,’ and citations of Durkheim, Mauss, Levi-Strauss. There were stories of remote tribes and how they related to the world. A man emerging for the first time from the Amazonian rainforest and unable to judge distance, like Dougal from Father Ted (who had no such excuse) unable to tell what was small and what was just far away. He also calls upon Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, poets Eliot, Sandburg and cummings.

This walked a thin line for me as I hate it when people gaily argue we are all the same, but I think he managed to stay on the right side of it — teasing out processes, ways of thinking, methods of making sense of the world that peoples around the world hold in common rather than the content of our understandings. Something I find useful though it can be by no means definitive. Like this one, which I particularly liked:

Generally speaking [my partner usually attempts forlornly to shut me up when I start a sentence like that], we may say that only the visitor (and particularly the tourist) has a viewpoint; his perception is often a matter of using his eyes to compose pictures. The native, by contrast, has a complex attitude derived from his immersion in the totality of his environment. The visitor’s viewpoint, being simple, is easily stated. Confrontation with novelty may also prompt him to express himself. The complex attitude of the native, on the other hand, can be expressed by him only with difficulty and indirectly through behavior, local tradition, lore, and myth (63).

I think he misses here the role that art can play, the different ways in which a photographer/ painter/ writer/ self-aware person might compose scenes, layer history and character and experience on top of them. But I like to think about how we experience place when we’re not thinking about it, which this attempts to capture. He argues the vistor’s ‘evaluation of environment is essentially aesthetic…The outsider judges by appearance, by some formal canon of beauty. A special effort is required to empathize with the lives and values of the inhabitants (64).’

He is not initially writing about modern redevelopment here, but captures in a nutshell its purpose of attracting visitors and its ugliness as it discourages such empathy — and goes on to cite the work of Herbert Gans’ study of Boston’s West End, a much-loved neighbourhood demolished for urban renewal.

There is a section on changing views of mountains, and this:

A great Alpine tourist, Johann Jacob Scheuchzer of Zurich, made nine extensive trips through the mountains between 1702 and 1711. He was a botanist and a geologist. He made barometric measurements of height and theorized on how ice moved but he also gave a reasoned catalogue of Swiss dragons, arranged according to cantons.

A beautiful fragment from Thomas Traherne:

You never enjoy the world aright, till the sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with stars (98).

He reminded me of how we have lost our awe and fear in face of the wilderness — because nature no longer exists in the raw overwhelming power it once did. We have for the most part confined it to parks and preserves, big and wondrous as they are we are still aware of their boundaries and their vulnerability in our minds. He writes ‘As a state of the mind, true wilderness exists only in the great sprawling cities’ (112). I have to think about that.

I laughed when I read ‘The Sudan is monotonous and niggardly [! a word that dates this as surely as the all male pronouns] to the outsider, but Evans-Pritchard says that he can hardly persuade the Nuer who live there that better places exist outside its confines’ (114). Evans-Pritchard, what a dick. Only proving the point that it is often where we are raised that defines our aesthetic sense of a good place to live — and we desert dwellers often suffer for it. Yet sadly it still doesn’t stop people stealing the land.

There is a wonderful section that looks at the relationship between the natural world and how we depict and recreate it through art, words, gardens. He writes:

Only roughly do painted landscapes image external reality. We cannot depend on the visual arts to provide us with clues as to how particular places looked in the past; nor can we depend on them for what the artists personally delighted in, but we can take painted landscapes to be special structurings of reality that for a time enjoyed a measure of popular acclaim (122).

The contrast between Chinese landscapes and others:

…the Chinese have never developed linear perspective with the mathematical rigidity that for a time found favour in European painting. Perspective existed but from shifting standpoints. There is no single horizon. Elements in the landscape are drawn as though the eye were free to vary the horizontal direction along which it looks into the depth of a picture (137).

I love his discussion of cathedrals, in medieval times surrounded by clusters of buildings, never really meant to be seen in its entirety:

…to see the cathedral from a distance would diminish its impact of bulk and verticality. The details of its facade would no longer be visible. The medieval cathedral was meant to be experienced; it was a dense text to be read with devout attention and not an architectural form to be merely seen. In fact some figures and decorations could not be seen at all. They were made for the eyes of God (137-138).

From cathedrals to gardens — it’s like he knows my favourite things. Clearly there is a relationship here with traditional Chinese landscapes:

The Chinese garden evolved in antithesis to the city. Poised against the rectilinear geometry of the city are the natural lines and spaces of the garden. In the city of man one finds hierarchical order, in the garden the complex informality of nature, Social distinctions are discarded in the garden where man is free to contemplate and commune with nature in neglect of his fellow human beings. The garden is not designed to give the visitor a certain number of privileged views; seeing is an aesthetic and intellectual activity that puts a distance between the object and the observer. The garden is designed to involved, to encompass the visitor who, as he walks along a winding trail, is exposed to constantly shifting scenes (138).

How liberating these must have seemed to Europeans, and he captures their gardens perfectly:

The garden was for show: it glorified man. From the royal bedroom at Versailles the Sun King of France could gaze down a long central vista, which was made to seem even longer by the flat sheets of water and the sentinel of trees. Such a show of human will in formal design left no sense of nature or of the divine.

… emphasis is put on the increasing tendency to see the garden as an environment for the house, the garden as a place of controlled aesthetic experience from a limited number of standpoints. The garden caters primarily to sight. .. the habitual use of the eyes leads us to appreciate the world as a spatial entity of well-defined lines, surfaces and solids. The other senses teach us to perceive the world as a rich unfocused ambiance (140).

I am loving thinking that through, turning it over in my mind. Tuan then looks at how this translates into language, which is rather fascinating I confess, though I am wary of such generalisations:

The cosmos of premodern man was multistoried; nature was rich in symbols, its objects could be read at several levels and evoke emotion-laden response. We are aware of ambiguity in language. The language of ordinary discourse, and a fortiori of poetry, is rich in symbols and metaphors. Science, by contrast, strives to remove the possibility of multiple readings. A traditional world has the ambiguity and richness of ordinary and ritual speech. The modern world, on the other hand, aspires to be transparent and literal (141).

Again it is a shutting down of meaning, of richness into clean definitions. This reminds me of Voloshinov and especially Bakhtin’s celebrations of the carnival of language and how that continues always, but often in opposition of those who would seek to control and kill it.

I feel that there is so much in here that offers a particular insight to a particular problem, roughly like a cloud forming I feel what it might mean for our lived spaces and how we experience them — how they experience us. Do they encompass us, hold us, are they forced to frame our greatness like a backdrop or inspire others with an awe of our power over them. Do they control our points of view, our interactions with others, or do they allow us to relax, look and wander, feel respite from the presence of people. I still struggle with this book as a whole, want to move on to something a little more concrete. This is far too abstract for the intensity of connection I feel, and I know others feel, for certain places and the struggle that invariably arises over that under capitalism.

It was also particularly rich in the final sections on the city, so those will fill a future post