May 1, VIRUS 2020

Warning over ‘hidden effect of coronavirus’ after grandfather’s suicide. Guardian

Lockdown restrictions are being eased in NSW today. ABC

Logging returns to NSW native forests hit by bushfires: Thousands of hectares of native forest devastated by the catastrophic summer fires. SMH

Microplastics found in greater quantities than ever before on seabed. Guardian

On the far side of the river, two channels
as the river snakes, a slippage of precious
light not seen before, and breaking waves.

Gold brocade, the sea black, losing tufts of hair
the river stumbling over a fine ridge of rock.

An oyster shell that scratches the river
unravels the glass surface like silk thread.
The disturbance carries on downhill.
The cadence veers a raft of light off course.

An Osprey heads past over the sea, seconds later
another raptor follows but swings round, vanishes
among the trees. I head upstream to find it.
I find the bird on the corner, a white head,
think White-bellied Sea Eagle, but its prey

nervous flies off as a White-headed Pigeon,
the raptor had kept going back upriver.
I turned around as I heard the growling of Glossy Black Cockatoos, now vulnerable, just caught sight of a pair vanishing into the canopy.

Visual illusions map how we invent the world and interpret the optic nerve with some 80 billion nerve cells (at the last count).
I can’t stop seeing Sancho Panza riding a donkey, hand on head, or the Lapwing walking the plank.
A message inscribed, rebus,
sign, number, language, being
present to a future and a past.
Writing is taken for granted but what a strange business symbolic meaning is. The earliest was pictures of things that developed towards ideographs (abstracted symbols no longer a clear pictorial representation of external reality) as seen in seals and tablets of early Minoan. The shape could evolve or the meaning extend. In Sumerian, a foot came to mean ‘go’, ‘stand’ etc. The second revolution was the alphabet, the remarkable feat of allocating meaningless marks to represent phonetic sounds.

Depictions of visible objects came to be pressed into phonetic duty on the rebus principle, as if in English we were to write melancholy by depicting a melon and a collie. This expedient was rendered more flexible and powerful, if less picturesque, by devoting the phonetic representations to brief sounds–single consonants or syllables. The sound was represented by a hieroglyph depicting something whose name merely began with that sound. The rebus principle thus gave way to an acrophonic one. W. V. Quine[i]

We forget that despite all its usefulness, it has had a negative effect of distancing us from teh sensual, immediate, haptic world.

Our lives, locked down in a house with a garden in a village with two forests, a river, creeks and the sea, are very different to being locked down in a flat in the city. They are also very different, in all dimensions, to peasant life as described by John Berger in Pig Earth: His ideals are located in the past; his obligations are to the future, which he himself will not live to see. After his death he will not be transported into the future – his notion of immortality is different: he will return to the past.[2]

I have no children, and my work is not destined for the vault of masterpieces. Ideals are a vague concept, the term out of common usage, but I am located in the present and my obligations are to the future.

Today was festival of Beltane for the Celts of my homeland, an equinox between the light and the dark. Fire was central to the rituals of the festival, helping the community
celebrate the return of light, life and fertility to the world. In Britain ‘Bringing in the May’ festivities involved people gathered flowers and branches to make garlands or wreaths. Washing one’s face in the morning dew was supposed to bring youth and radiance to the complexion. The earliest record of dancing round a maypole is from a Welsh poem by Gryffydd ap Adda ap Dafydd (mid 14th C) describing a maypole in Llanidloes. Last year, I happened to attend a lecture in a Llanidloes church on Welsh poetry featuring Dafydd (combined with a medieval consort playing beautifully).

My Welsh blood belongs to a different time, as I scribble this down on the deck in early sunlight and a cold refresh breeze. The stain of time, wondering the meanings of these two terms. Writing this on the back of a poem to my mother for her 94th birthday, just a sketch. From when I was so young she sat me on her lap, wrapped me in a huge white fluffy towel and sang the hits from the musicals, West Side Story, South Pacific, Oklahoma. The closest to a state of grace I have ever experienced. I haven’t got any further. And she had two more children, never got to the ballet, opera, concerts, theatre you had enjoyed so much as a young nurse. Not until you retired many years later.

Both of us emerged out of Deep Time, it would take 30 years just to count up to a billion when Gondwana formed. It eventually collided with North America, Europe, and Siberia to form the giant landmass of Pangea. Pangea formed about 240 million years ago and soon (relatively speaking) began to break apart. By then photosynthesis was well established. Organisms using light to create energy appeared around 3 billion years ago. Australia separated from Antarctica about 40 million years ago

I go and find Eno’s ‘Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks’, music to feel time (composed for a feature-length documentary on the moon missions).

~

In the mid 70s, John Berger, a Marxist, abandoned fame and the art world for a mountain village above Geneva. That way of dwelling, of such intimacy with animals is almost at an end, as was hunting and gathering before it. Or maybe that’s not right. Indigenous peoples around the world are learning of their history, stories, reviving language relearning old skills. a few years ago for the first time half the world had moved into cities.

At home, in the village, it is you who do everything, and the way you do it gives you a certain authority. There are accidents and many things are beyond your control, but it is you who have to deal with the consequences even of these. When you arrive in the city, where so much is happening and so much is being done and shifted, you realise with astonishment that nothing is in your control. John Berger, Pig Earth.

Marx knew that our lives are bound up, circumscribed and sometimes offered opportunities by being in a community, and flourish best when community and individual share. We are creative productive beings, work should be valued, as should play. In 1886, socialists celebrated the anniversary of the French Revolution by declaring May 1 International Workers Day. The symbol of a red triangle represents the day divided equally (fairly) into work, sleep and leisure.

Species-activity and the species-spirit whose real, conscious and authentic existence consists in social activity and social enjoyment. Since the essence of man is the true community of man, men, by activating their own essence, produce, create this human community, this social being which is no abstract, universal power standing over against the solitary individual, but is the essence of every individual, his own activity, his own life, his own spirit, his own wealth. Marx, ‘Notes on James Mill’, 1844.

From 1844, Marx identified his ideas with communism (which he saw as an historical transition). Four years later he and Engels published the Communist Manifesto, one of the most influential books of all time: when ‘in the course of development class distinctions have disappeared and all production has been concentrated in the hands of a vast association of the whole nation… to win the battle of democracy.’[3] Thrown out of Belgium, then Germany, the following year Marx sailed for England.

While Marx was writing ‘The Communist Manifesto’, Thoreau wrote, ‘I confess that I have very little class spirit, and have almost forgotten that I ever spent four years at Cambridge. . . I don’t know whether mine is a profession, or a trade, or what not. It is not yet learned, and in every instance has been practiced before being studied.’[4]

        ~

The artistic landscape is limitless, the ecological networks of happenings are limitless. There’s always time to close your eyes. And a time to open them again as a cloud sails though an open window.

The German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte provided the clue to Marx that: ‘All animals are perfect and complete; man however, is merely suggested … Every animal is what it is; man alone is originally nothing at all. What man is to be, he must become.’[5] This revolutionary idea influenced Marx – to change the world requires a change in the self and relations with others.

It is not the unity of living and active humanity with the natural, inorganic conditions of their metabolic exchange with nature, and hence their appropriation of nature, which requires explanation, or is the result of a historic process, but rather the separation between these inorganic conditions of human existence and this active existence, a separation which is completely posited only in the relation of wage labour and capital. Marx, Grundrisse, 1858. [6]

Marx is thought of as a thinker of factory production and urban workers but he also suggests that capitalism prompts a ‘metabolic rift’ between man and nature. He read about agricultural developments, particularly the political economist James Anderson who examined the grain crisis and stated that the judicious application of manure would sustain soil ‘for ever after’, but that huge amounts of useful waste were being ‘daily carried to the Thames in its passage through which it subjects the people in the lower part of the city to the most offensive effluvia.’[7] Anderson argued that alienation from the land had led to the degradation of soil which led to the grain shortage, not over-population.

Capitalist production collects the population together in great centres . . . it disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth, i.e. it prevents the return to the soil of its constituent elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; hence it hinders the operation of the eternal natural condition for the lasting fertility of the soil … Capitalist production, therefore, only develops the technique and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth – the soil and the worker. Marx[8]

A new revolution is possible only in the wake of a new crisis. But the one is as certain as the other. Marx/Engels[9]

The crisis will make me feel as good as a swim in the ocean
. Engels to Marx, 15.11, 1857

The crisis instigated a second agricultural revolution, an industrial one together with the enclosure of the common lands. Soil science developed the manufacture of phosphates. Nitrogen was harder to synthesise, leading to the guano industry, then to the massive chemical industry of today. The industry itself producing chemicals for anything and everything, as wall as  fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides, pollutes, invading the environment from many different sources: farms, landfills, incinerators, tanks, drums, factories.

~

Our village is in relaxed lockdown, the two cafes and pub are open for take-aways only. The police moved on two friends sitting at an outside table have a coffee. There’s no maypole, this place is full of ring ins, the opposite to the knotted intimacy of Pig Earth. Our lockdown is being eased. Two adults and their children can visit friends in their homes in New South Wales from today. We invite friends over for morning tea tomorrow, phase two of the lockdown.

I don’t want to think what this pandemic is reaping in Africa, South and Central America, the Indian subcontinent, the Pacific. And that is bloody typical.

 

 

[1]  W. V. Quine, Quiddities, Harvard UP, 1987in the section “A” for “Alphabet”.

[2] John Berger, Pig Earth, 1979. The first of ‘Into Their Labours’ trilogy.

[3]Manifesto of the Communist Party’ in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, known as The Communist Manifesto Collected Works, New York, International Publishers, 1976, p504. Marxism is a deterministic theory of culture developing from the productive base, which Raymond Williams developed in his famous essay ‘Base and Superstructure.’

[4] Thoreau reply to a Harvard class secretary’s questionnaires of graduates. Walter Harding, The Days of Henry Thoreau, (1965) Princeton UP, 1982.

[5] G. Fichte, The Science of Rights (1796) Trans. A.E. Kroeger (1889) Harper & Row, 1970, p118-9.

[6] ‘Fundamentals of Political Economy Criticism’, 1858, left unpublished. A precursor to Capital.

[7] James Anderson, A Calm Investigation of the Circumstances that have led to the present scarcity of grain in Britain (1801).

[8] Karl Marx, Capital, volume I: The Process of Production of Capital,1867.

[9] ‘Revue. Mai bis October (1850). See Rachel Podd, ‘La Grande Mortalità: Florence and the Black Death’, (2011). Undergraduate Student Research Awards 4. http://digitalcommons.trinity.edu/infolit_usra/4

[i] W. V. Quine, Quiddities, in the section “A” for “Alphabet”.