Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category


Much of what lies ahead of us is undoing the mistakes of the last few centuries.

The last half of Chapter 19 in Adam Bede by George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans). Divided into paragraphs for readability on the web.

As he made up his mind to this, he was coming very near to the end of his walk, within the sound of the hammers at work on the refitting of the old house.

The sound of tools to a clever workman who loves his work is like the tentative sounds of the orchestra to the violinist who has to bear his part in the overture: the strong fibres begin their accustomed thrill, and what was a moment before joy, vexation, or ambition, begins its change into energy.

All passion becomes strength when it has an outlet from the narrow limits of our personal lot in the labour of our right arm, the cunning of our right hand, or the still, creative activity of our thought.

Look at Adam through the rest of the day, as he stands on the scaffolding with the two-feet ruler in his hand, whistling low while he considers how a difficulty about a floor-joist or a window-frame is to be overcome; or as he pushes one of the younger workmen aside and takes his place in upheaving a weight of timber, saying, “Let alone, lad! Thee’st got too much gristle i’ thy bones yet”; or as he fixes his keen black eyes on the motions of a workman on the other side of the room and warns him that his distances are not right.

Look at this broad-shouldered man with the bare muscular arms, and the thick, firm, black hair tossed about like trodden meadow-grass whenever he takes off his paper cap, and with the strong barytone voice bursting every now and then into loud and solemn psalm-tunes, as if seeking an outlet for superfluous strength, yet presently checking himself, apparently crossed by some thought which jars with the singing.


Adam, you perceive, was by no means a marvellous man, nor, properly speaking, a genius, yet I will not pretend that his was an ordinary character among workmen; and it would not be at all a safe conclusion that the next best man you may happen to see with a basket of tools over his shoulder and a paper cap on his head has the strong conscience and the strong sense, the blended susceptibility and self-command, of our friend Adam.

He was not an average man. Yet such men as he are reared here and there in every generation of our peasant artisans–with an inheritance of affections nurtured by a simple family life of common need and common industry, and an inheritance of faculties trained in skilful courageous labour: they make their way upwards, rarely as geniuses, most commonly as painstaking honest men, with the skill and conscience to do well the tasks that lie before them.

Their lives have no discernible echo beyond the neighbourhood where they dwelt, but you are almost sure to find there some good piece of road, some building, some application of mineral produce, some improvement in farming practice, some reform of parish abuses, with which their names are associated by one or two generations after them.

Their employers were the richer for them, the work of their hands has worn well, and the work of their brains has guided well the hands of other men.

They went about in their youth in flannel or paper caps, in coats black with coal-dust or streaked with lime and red paint; in old age their white hairs are seen in a place of honour at church and at market, and they tell their well-dressed sons and daughters, seated round the bright hearth on winter evenings, how pleased they were when they first earned their twopence a-day.

Others there are who die poor and never put off the workman’s coal on weekdays. They have not had the art of getting rich, but they are men of trust, and when they die before the work is all out of them, it is as if some main screw had got loose in a machine; the master who employed them says, “Where shall I find their like?”


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The reality is that fossil fuels will no longer be available to power our civilization.We will have to go back to relying on the sun for energy. We can’t be sure exactly when or how this inflection point will take place, but it will take place.

Energy becomes more expensive; conflicts over energy become the norm.

It’s wishful thinking to imagine that photo-voltaic cells, hydrogen or any other technology can take the place of petroleum. Natural gas, coal, and uranium will make a dent in the downward curve, but but they are limited and there will be no going back to cheap energy.

(Nothing original here. The foregoing is the position of Richard Heinberg and his school of Peak Oil thinkers. The same ideas were circulating in the 70s. See Peak Oil Links for details on this argument. See especially the Die-Off site.)

If we are going back to solar energy, how do we do it? For the most part, through gardening. Gardening means harvesting the sun’s power through vegetation to produce food, drink, medicines, fabrics, dyes, fuel (biomass), and building material. Gardening is intensive and intelligent, de-centralized and local.

But Gardening Needs a Culture

Eventually (after centuries), we will recover the knowledge and attitudes necessary for good gardening.

What a waste though. The technical knowledge is available now. Now, it would be easy to develop techniques and infrastructure to get us through the hard times to come.

What to do?

Here, now. Struggle to earn a living, meet family and other obligations. How to start the new culture? Well, be patient. // I want to get gardening away from the specialists. They keep the information alive, but as a special group, they have habits that make it difficult for everybody to join. And it’s critical that it be open to everyone.

Trying to read 200 pages of dense text on fruit growing. (Calif MG Handbook). It’s a good reference, but it is irrelevant to the job of creating a new culture. For that, need stories, meaning. How frivolous and superficial seem our gardening texts, compared to the central role gardening and farming had in previous centuries. Here we talk about the colors and textures of landscape plants. The Bible uses gardening imagery for the most profound of ideas.


I had a strange feeling reading about trees, fruit trees, and pruning. Trees are more imposing presences than herbs and vegetables. More of a personality. An imposing presence. A greater emotional relationship to them. Fig tree in our back yard. The cherry trees. Redwoods, eucalyptus. Tape on plant amnesty, crusading against bad pruning. // Trees are there… but do we write about them? Do we think about them? There are bureaucratic, technical, and legal approaches, but these aren’t satisfying. They are just the silly response of an overly developed culture. // Walk among them. They are beings. Long-lived. // a sick, guilty, feeling… of my own superficiality and inconsequentiality. // remember trees wrapped up in my memories, relationships. took place. Quote from Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy. Beginning of first chapter:

To dwellers in a wood almost every species of tree has its voice as well as its feature. At the passing of the breeze the fir-trees sob and moan no less distinctly than they rock; the holly whistles as it battles with itself; the ash hisses amid its quiverings; the beech rustles while its flat boughs rise and fall. And winter, which modifies the note of such trees as shed their leaves, does not destroy its individuality.

Beginning of last chapter:

The point in Yalbury Wood which abutted on the end of Geoffrey Day’s premises was closed with an ancient tree, horizontally of enormous extent, though having no great pretensions to height. Many hundreds of birds had been born amidst the boughs of this single tree; tribes of rabbits and hares had nibbled at its bark from year to year; quaint tufts of fungi had sprung from the cavities of its forks; and countless families of moles and earthworms had crept about its roots. Beneath and beyond its shade spread a carefully-tended grass-plot, its purpose being to supply a healthy exercise-ground for young chickens and pheasants; the hens, their mothers, being enclosed in coops placed upon the same green flooring.

All these encumbrances were now removed, and as the afternoon advanced, the guests gathered on the spot, where music, dancing, and the singing of songs went forward with great spirit throughout the evening. [wedding takes place here]

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REAL Writing

In a world of teenage bloggers, is there any room for REAL writers and REAL writing? How can you explain the difference between trash and quality?

All I know is that I feel nauseous and depressed after spending too much time reading blogs and discussion forums. Superficial opinions, insults, brash humor, vulgarity. It makes me want to throw myself into 19th century literature and never come back.

What prompts this curmudgeonly train of thought is that I just finished reading aloud to my wife the novel Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy. (We read to each other at bedtime.) Sheer delight. The story is simple. Fancy Day, a new school teacher comes to the small village of Mellstock. Three men fall in love with her: a rich farmer, the vicar, and Dick Dewy, the son of the trantor (hauler of goods). Over the course of a year, Dick Dewy courts Fancy Day and they marry. The end.

Obviously not enough action for modern tastes. Besides, the characters are strange and unkempt. They speak in dialect with queer turns of speech.

But for those of us who are out of love with Amercult, the pleasure of Hardy lies in immersing ourselves in the genial, slow-moving rural society of early 19th century England. Our blood pressures go down and we begin to notice small things, like the matted leaves on a path in the rain.

Maybe Peak Oil will force us to stay in one place and rediscover the quieter pleasures of earlier eras.

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Slowly I seem to be recovering my enthusiasm for gardening and other projects.
I’m not sure why I got burned out. Maybe because I always tackle too much at once. In any case, I’ve been reading about traditional gardening and Gertrude Jekyll.

Gertrude Jekyll, aka “Bump”

One problem with Gertrude Jekyll and the English landscape designers — at least for me — is that their history is intertwined with the rich and privileged. Even that would be okay, except for the tremendous snobbery and condescension. The lack of any awareness that there is a problem with living off a peasantry. As her biography admits, she was a great snob.

On the other hand, one cannot avoid admiring Gertrude’s productivity and what she accomplished. Her taste is impeccable. Many of the values she held are good values (tradition, nature, etc.). Is this the Tory view of the countryside? I don’t know English history and culture well enough — thank God! My ignorance enables me to appreciate the good about Gertrude Jekyll without having the emotional reactions a native would.

Sometime I’d like to write about the way that Gertrude taught herself one craft after another. Amazing discipline and talent.

Apparently, she was quite a formidable figure. What humanized her for me was her long relationship with the much younger Edwin Lutyens, the famous country architect. With Lutyens, she was able to unbend; he called her “Bump” and teased her playfully. At the same time, they collaborated on many projects and influenced each other’s craft. It’s the sort of relationship that is unfamiliar to us in our cynical, overt times.

Some interesting facts about Gertrude’s family. Her brother Walter was a Church of England cleric who was unfrocked because of his radical views (I wonder what they were?). He moved to Jamaica, became a Buddhist, collected folklore, and served as mentor to Jamaican/American writer Claude McKay (“Jamica’s poet laureate”).

In England, he had been a friend of Robert Louis Stevenson, and there is speculation that he lent the Jekyll name for Stevenson’s classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Also, there was a nephew, Francis Jekyll (nickname Timmy), who was a figure in the first English folk music revival and wrote a biography of his famous aunt. His personal life, however, sounds sad — dominated by severe depression.

Reculer pour mieux salter

Reading about Gertrude Jekyll makes me think about my direction. There’s something in her life that is a bracing tonic for us moderns. Her “environmentalism,” expressed as a love of traditional crafts and the countryside, came from within, from deep personal needs. It pushed her to productivity and creation. In contrast, the modern impulse might be to join a group, take a class, become an activist.

Is there anything wrong with the modern approaches? No, not in themselves. What’s wrong is what is missing — the personal, the family-ar, the unique point of view. One can’t imagine Gertrude Jekyll taking her opinions from the Web, from environmental magazines, or from anywhere in the media. There is a strength that comes from standing on the earth, from being in touch with something deep.

How does this look in practice? Staying in one place. Attachment to people, places, and customs, especially to the homely and non-commercial. Attachment to land. Gardens. Landscapes. One’s personal history.

Not being so quick to jump into group activities. Instead, commiting to a few connections of high quality.Not letting one’s life fill up with trivia and detritus.

The distinction I’m making here does not correspond to the environmentalist/mainstream, left/right or urban/rural dichotomies.

It’s an awareness of who one is, where one came from, what one’s place on earth is. It’s neither brash nor apologetic. As one begins to value tradition and nature, one becomes vulnerable, as so much in the modern world seeks to destroy or exploit these values.

Certain things kill these values: TV, modern movies, modern magazines,

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