Imaginary Solutions

The science of imaginary solutions


 I suffer from chronic cluster headache and chronic migraine. I have to take lethal doses of medicine to cope  (thank you, National Health Service and Astra Zeneca. I mean that sincerely.) Just as I come to a decision to do a particular thing, the headache intrudes and takes over my being. People complain about a migraine a month. They might like to try one every day, for years and years, decades, and if that sounds intolerable, consider conditions some people endure that are so very much worse.Life itself is a terminal disease: the brief, shocking, astonishing, painful interval between birth and death.

 So, the famous journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step… but, but, but, before I can take that step, what IS this obliterating pain? What is this mental confusion and the dizziness? What is this illness? What is this urgent need to collapse and curl up and dissolve into oblivion in the dark, to escape from my own existence?

Solipsism. The self is the only thing that can be known and verified. Know self. Forget self. Forget the pain. Play, dance, skip, in the moonlit garden of the semi-conscious, the sub-conscious, the sublime subliminal, the Perfect Place, paradise for pataphysics.

Pataphysics? Often referred to as a ‘pseudoscience’, it was invented by French absurdist writer Alfred Jarry, who called it ‘the science of imaginary solutions, which symbolically attributes the properties of objects, described by their virtuality, to their lineaments’. Like Jarry, tricksterish, finding all thought deficient and inadequate, allowed only to see and think in short bursts, I must prod at the periphery of the thinkable, the knowable, with a sharp stick.

Zone: A locality, a circumscribed place, characterised by some distinctive features. A region or area, distinguished from surrounding or adjoining parts.

In permaculture, the zone system is a theoretical design tool which describes concentric areas:

Zone 00 is the person at the centre of the system.

Zone 0 is the person’s home. 

Zone 1 is the immediate surroundings of the home. 

Zones 2 to 4 accommodate the areas for growing food and keeping fowls and all the other paraphernalia which sustain human existence. 

Zone 5 is left as natural wilderness, without human intervention other than observation.

Zone 6 is the larger totality, the global commons, the Gaian system, the biosphere.

Permaculture is popular amongst the growing army of eco-minded folk who can see what the industrial machine is doing and who want out. Yet permaculture is another manifestation of human solipsism. Permaculture is anthropocentric: a system designed by people for people to provide for people’s needs.

Every living thing requires a place to be. A place to exist and a place to find food and to reproduce. When you take over an area for your own use, you take away that area from other living creatures. Habitat loss is the greatest threat to species worldwide. So, the wise permaculturalist tries to design Zones 1 to 4 in such a way as to maximise opportunities for species to co-exist. The ideal is to produce an artificial ecosystem which mimics natural systems whilst providing for human needs.

Zone 5 is, theoretically, the area where humans don’t intervene. The words ‘wilderness’ or ‘left to nature’ are frequently used. But what does this mean, in practical terms? I’m thinking now of the British Isles, where I live and farm. And in the British Isles, unlike some other parts of the world, there are no genuinely wild or natural areas.

Some people dispute this, so, it is necessary to consider the definition of terms. By ‘natural’ I mean the opposite of ‘artificially created by humans’. An example might be an island discovered by a voyager, which had never previously been visited or populated by homo sapiens. That would be pristine, virgin nature. The condition of fauna, flora and geology in the absence of human interference.

That is what we do not have in the UK or Ireland. Every square inch has suffered the effects of human activity over the last nine or ten thousand years since the glaciers retreated and the sea level rose. Even remote hilltops, although not covered in obvious stuff like plastic, tarmac, concrete, fields or streetlights, have been subjected to air pollution and soot, radioactive fallout, acid rain, and now altered weather due to manmade climate change. 

The only people who appear to have lived in anything like harmony with the original wild landscape and its natural features were the mesolithic hunter-gatherers, who can be thought of as a component of their ecosystem, like bears, wolves, beavers and aurochs. When the neolithic farmers arrived, the first thing they did was to cut down the wildwood and begin killing off the competing species. Strictly speaking, wild, pristine nature began its retreat, its defeat, at that time – around ten thousand years ago – and the speed and degree of destruction has increased ever since. 

So, although it may suit some Romantic city dwellers to imagine that there must be, out there somewhere, a truly remote patch of untamed wilderness, where they can commune with Nature as she once was, this is a fanciful illusion. Of course, Glen Affric is closer to true wilderness than is central London or Leeds. But Glen Affric is, despite the remnants of ancient forest, not anything like an original intact ecosystem. Most of the original forest cover is long gone. Bears, wolves, lynx, eagles and many other species which would have made for a different ecology if they had remained have been wiped out by humans. People have lived there, grazed their animals, encouraged deer for hunting and much more over millennia. The semblance of wild nature remains, but not the real thing.

In most of the rest of the British Isles, not even the semblance remains. What we have is pastiche, ‘mock-natural’, a faux idea of the wild which convinces those who know no better. Our beautiful rolling mountains were denuded of trees during the stone age and the bronze age and the iron age, the soil was washed away, and they’ve remained bare ever since because of the grazing of goats, sheep and cattle. The landscape is Manmade. If Britain had never seen people, it would be unrecognisable – a lost world.

Where is my Zone five? There is no Zone five.

If you are an urban permaculturalist, then, where – among the streets, houses, bus depots, factories, motorways, airports – will you go, to find your Zone five? 

What would you be looking for? And if you don’t know what you’re looking for, how will you recognise it if you find it?

The British countryside is a wonderful palimpsest, the work of hundreds of generations of humans, from those who mined flint and copper or built the megaliths, the hilltop camps and forts, the Roman villas, the drove roads. Our ancient, green, troubled rural landscape is like a vast dilapidated cathedral, full of wonders and symbolic of the human quest in so very many ways. But that’s not nature. That’s people.

Meanwhile, the manifestation of the human quest in most of today’s countryside – modern agribusiness – is fascistic, a totalitarian regime which allows no opposition or dissent. The land is a factory floor, to be swept clean of anything which might intrude, anything which might be an interference with the machinery that makes the money. Organic farming is a more tolerant, liberal, regime. It welcomes a sprinkling of weeds and wildflowers, and is kinder to the soil and the stock. But it’s still not nature.

Permaculture is a huge philosophical advance on the dominant mainstream industrial techno-culture-religion, where nature is seen as irrelevant and short term human interests and advantages are taken for granted as ‘obvious’ priorities. But it’s still about people. What about the destiny of all the species which play no part in permacultural design? What about otters? What about leeches? What about Scottish wildcats? What about stoats and weasels and mink? Permaculture shoves all these off into Zone 5.

Then what? 

If you were a natterjack toad, a sand lizard or a smooth snake intent upon constructing a perfect heathland permaculture design, you would probably want to leave out a few predatory species, like the domestic cat, or the carrion crow. But would you omit humans? Probably not: you’d need them. Heathland is a manmade habitat, maintained by the grazing of domesticated livestock, sheep, cattle, ponies. ‘No human management’ equals ‘no more heathland’ equals ‘no more habitat for heathland species’.

The same goes for many other landscape features – hedgerows, traditional orchards, water meadows, hay meadows, marsh, moorland, machair – which, in the absence of grazing by domesticated animals, would go through successional changes, turning into a different habitat, typically scrubland and forest. Scrubland and forest are good for wildlife, but not necessarily good for the species that pattern our landscape today.

Many species have co-evolved with humans over the millennia. The corncrake is a good example. Ask a corncrake to design a permaculture system for corncrakes and it would say yes, we need humans in our system, but we need them to behave differently, we need them to return to the old agricultural methods, when we were common everywhere, not the modern ways which have driven us off the land and to the brink of extinction, clinging to the machair. Ask the harvest mouse, the partridge, the peewit, the sparrow, the swift and they’d say the same.

But ask the human permaculture designer if they need corncrakes and, of course, they don’t. Ask them if they include lichens and bryophytes in their design. Ask them if they include foxes and otters. Or peregrines or polecats or ptarmigan. The permaculturalist is, of course, content that such organisms have liberty to exist. Somewhere. That’s when you get the wave of the arm that depicts an imaginary ‘out there’, over the hills and faraway, in hypothetical Zone-Five-Land. 

Perhaps we could envisage re-establishing a more authentic ‘wilderness’ as an ideal to move towards: an artificially reconstructed British Zone Five involving the re-introduction of the 100+ species which have become extinct over the last 8000 years or so? Wolves, lions, brown bears, elk, beaver, wolverine, walrus, bison, lynx, cranes, pelicans, bustards and many more. Even this would not be nature or wilderness, of course – it would be a heritage project. But the average permie on their smallholding or allotment is likely to flinch at the idea of a zone five featuring lions and bears. How much real, live, dangerous, disobedient nature do we – even those of us who think of ourselves as ‘green’ – really want to have contact with?

The tamed, manmade British countryside is beautiful – landscape painters, photographers and poets testify to that over generations. But real nature isn’t just pretty, and it is not necessarily welcoming either. It has power and ferocity, and that scares us in our urban and suburban enclaves, where we sleep safe from the growls and snarls of things with big teeth and sharp claws. Perhaps only in nightmares do we understand the primeval fear, the primary fear, of being torn apart and devoured. 

I soon heard a man’s strong voice in a stern, commanding tone telling someone to leave immediately. The Ju/wasi never took that tone with one another. I came out of the tent to see what was happening, and behind some of the shelters I saw four very large lions, each three times the size of a person…The speaker was ≠Toma. Without taking his eyes off the lions, he repeated his command while reaching one hand back to grasp a flaming branch that someone behind him was handing to him. He slowly raised it shoulder-high and shook it. Sparks showered down around him. ‘Old lions,’ he was saying firmly and clearly, ‘you can’t be here. If you come nearer we will hurt you. So go now! Go!’…The lions watched ≠Toma for a moment longer, then gracefully they turned and vanished into the night.

That is an extract from Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s account, in her book The Old Way, of her life with the Kalahari Bushmen. For 35,000 years, the Bushmen constituted the world’s longest-lived and arguably most successful human culture, before it was destroyed in the twentieth century by the nation state and the global market. In all of that time the Bushmen lived with, and were forced to accommodate the needs of, genuine wild nature

In the West, we can no longer even imagine this. The closest some of us get to being threatened by nature is the hysterical response one sometimes witnesses at the appearance of a wasp. I recall reading in a newspaper that some Buddhists were taking over a building for a retreat centre. They called the council pest control officer to come and destroy a wasp’s nest they’d found. I read the item to the woman I was with, remarking contemptuously that they must be pretty crap Buddhists to be afraid of wasps, and anyway, as it was autumn, the wasps would all be dead in a few days. The woman responded, scornfully, ‘Huh ! You wouldn’t want wasps living in your house!’ 

The next year, when I left an upstairs window open, a queen wasp entered in the spring and made her nest inside an Epiphone acoustic guitar that was leaning against my wall. The wasps kept coming and going, until the fabulous papery structure of their nest had filled the guitar and extended in an impressive mound out of the soundhole. They were there all summer. I didn’t trouble them, they didn’t trouble me. The guitar was ruined.

I keep rheas. Rheas are South American ratites, smaller than their better-known African cousins, the ostriches. Because I’ve found most humans to be idiots (some are very charming and pleasant company, of course: if you’re one of those, please don’t be offended) I was forced to turn elsewhere for wisdom. Rheas are wise.

The ratites are thought to be of Gondwanan origin. They have been around since the Cretaceous Period, more than sixty five million years ago – considerably longer than we naked apes. It seems fair to suggest that they might have learned a thing or two about survival.

Consider their sex life. The males make the nest. The male courts the female, steering her towards the nest site, where she will deposit an egg. When sufficient eggs are accumulated, the male settles down to incubating them. When they hatch he takes care of the youngsters. The females take no interest in the proceedings. It works for them.

Rheas also know how to meditate. Like Bodhidharma facing the blank wall, if times are hard, if it’s cold or pouring with rain, they settle themselves down, gather their chi, tuck their long necks between their wings, fix their gaze on the ground about a metre in front of them, and enter a trance state until things improve. When the youngsters do this, they keep their spirits up by singing a round, each taking a turn to vocalise, as the song circulates around the group.

Rheas have a good memory for the rhythm of the year. There is a damson tree on my land which fruits prolifically, and having once gorged on the fruit for a week or two, they are ready and eager the same time the following year. This led me to an interesting observation. Bill Mollison’s vision, (which grew into what we now call permaculture), was the insight that it might be possible to build artificial ecosystems which mimic natural ecology. The concept views plants and animals as components which are arranged in such a way as to produce beneficial relationships.

What I find fascinating is that these kinds of systems seem to arise spontaneously. They don’t require a human designer. They don’t require long periods of time to evolve. The damson is the product of human selection – the Damascus plum, introduced from Syria by the Romans. Rheas have been in Britain for about 300 years, so they can’t be considered part of the native ecology, but they seem to slot into that ecology just as if they were a native species.

So they eat the damsons off the trees, then excrete the kernel with their dung. The dung lays on the ground providing a fertilised patch of soil for the damson seed.  The large native dung beetle, the Dor beetle, the British scarab, comes along, drills a hole down into the soil and takes some dung down the vertical tunnel, where it lays its eggs. Mated pairs together work as a team to find suitable dung, usually at night. The female then digs a hole underneath it, about 60cms deep, with some small chambers off to the sides. The male helps to clear the excavated soil, and brings small bundles of dung into the chambers. The female then lays an egg in each chamber. When the egg hatches, the larva has enough dung to eat for the first few months of its life. When fully grown the larva pupates underground, and the following year it emerges as an adult beetle.

When the damson seed sprouts, it already has this ready-made beetle hole full of soft soil and manure into which to extend its tap root. Eventually, it will grow into a damson tree, providing more fruits for rheas. The rheas gathering beneath the damson tree, reaching up to pluck fruits, trample down all competing vegetation and cover the ground with a layer of broken vegetation and copious rhea droppings, which make a splendid fertile soil for the tree’s roots.

This is not a system that has evolved over millennia. The damsons are man-made; a selected, cultivated species. The rheas came from a different continent quite recently. Yet they slot into a sort of archetypal pattern, with the soil and the dung beetles, where all gain mutual advantage. Everything happens by itself.

What is the meaning of ‘land’? I can look out of my window at a panorama, a land-scape. There are features: a standing stone, a Bronze Age cairn, telegraph poles, haylage wrapped in black polythene, clouds, sky… but all I am doing here is letting words trickle through my mind, and what does that amount to? Neuro-chemical activity. I overlay a verbal description upon the… well, that’s the crux of the matter: upon the what ?  

It seems that the original meaning of the word ‘land’ was ‘a definite portion of the Earth’s surface owned by an individual or home of a nation’. The trouble is that nobody knows what the Earth is. We’ve named it and studied it and exploited it, and yet we have no idea, really, what it actually is, or why it is, or why we are… all we have is stories.

We use words, tell stories, so that we can function. So that we can navigate and communicate. So that we can ‘make sense’ of our surroundings. And, in doing so, we destroy all the magic, the awe. Because the cultural window we inherit, and are taught, and pass on, is deadening, moronic – the neuroses, the ideas, the concepts of a thousand generations of small-minded psychopaths lusting for power and control and riches: the culture that created William Blake’s ‘mind-forged manacles’ and laid them upon the Earth. A description is not an explanation. 

So. Break the manacles. Sit. Look. Jolt yourself into awakeness. Discard every idea you ever had, throw out all knowing. Rheas can help. I look at them and bring myself onto another level of consciousness. Completely in the moment, I am able to see everything as if for the very first time, as if I’d just parachuted onto an alien planet. It’s easy for an instant, but it’s hard to sustain. It takes practice and training and effort. Build the new habit of no-habit. Just see. Rediscover the child’s awe which has been stolen by education and indoctrination and a culture which mis-interprets everything to suit somebody else’s way of seeing.

Zone 00 is inside your head. The only place. The place where the idea of place is conceived and considered. The ‘ Know thyself ‘ place. My Zone 0 is this room. I reserve my right to exclude nature from it. I don’t like snails eating my books. Over the years I have thrown out toads and newts, hedgehogs, at least three species of bat, beetles, spiders, moths, butterflies, mice, rats, shrews, a sheep, robins and chickens on a daily basis. But once I step over the threshold, outside, the land belongs to nature, and I am merely a guest. I try to behave accordingly.

Despite the headaches, despite it all, I am blessed. Someone, a better writer than myself, and a lifetime ago, looked up towards my home and wrote down his thoughts:

We are apt to pity the small farmers of the mountains, and think they lead a poor sort of life, forever in the clouds, while we dwell in the sun and the mild sea air, to the song of the white horses upon our steep northern cliffs. It is a surprise to us when, at rare intervals, the clouds glide from the proud empurpled contours of the mountains, leaving the skyline sharp and naked and we see that the hill cabins are not swept away after all, but stand there, whitewashed and dazzling in the rare sunlight. Truly a hardy and tenacious race are these smallholders with their black cows, their patches of rhubarb and cabbage, their mountain sheep and the little dark red ponies they ride in the stony lanes. Up there, we say, what are they thinking of us ? Do the poor devils envy our wide smiling fields ? *

Consider the lilies of the field…. except that there are no lilies to consider. Nor even any field, anymore. Contractors came. Machines eliminated the tadpole pool and the fallen rotten willow tree. Men and machines dug drains, brought concrete and tarmac, raised structures of brick and glass with revolving doors. Landscape contractors brought turf and planted exotic well-behaved shabby shrubs, hardened by prior life in a harsh desert so they can withstand the exhaust fumes, the discarded plastic bags, newspaper, cigarette packets, used condoms congregating beside the rusty ‘Keep off the grass’ sign and the bent ‘No litter’ sign.

What is to be done? Remember pataphysics – the science of imaginary solutions? In the absence of any real solutions, I suggest the pataphysical route is the only realistic option for a sensitive, caring individual to take on an island populated by criminals and willing amnesiacs. Choose your place. Find your place. Find your spark of wildness. I don’t mean Golding’s Lord of the Flies wildness, I mean Ian Niall’s Poacher’s Handbook wildness: 

It is not a new thing. It is old, old like the scent of peat smoke from the lonely cottage; the cairn on the hill; the flight of geese in late October. In the flat country of East Anglia a man rose at five today to take a pheasant, and last night, in Wiltshire, kindred spirits were running out the long net, stopping to recognise the yelp of the fox and the cry of the owl.

I think the bottleneck is coming. I think each person should look into their own heart and see if there’s something they love, and then take that thing and cherish it, so that maybe there will be a chance that it gets through. It could be a bluebell wood, a reed bed, an estuary, a wildflower meadow, or playing the uilleann pipes or archery or knitting, or the skills of the blacksmith or stone mason, or rare breeds of poultry or sheep or fruit trees, or anything that resonates with grace and integrity which merits preserving and handing on.

What can be abandoned and discarded? What don’t we need? I believe that the ship is sinking. For smart people, that means gathering up whatever few things seem useful and precious. When you can’t take it all, you must make choices. May you choose wisely.

The Golden Year, R.M. Lockley