The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

That Poisoned Land

Mary Stewart was a best-selling author for much of the 20th century. I first stumbled across her as a child, reading the “The Hollow Hills” and the “Crystal Cave,” two of her books about Merlin, but most of what she wrote were adventurous romances, often described as “Nancy Drew for adults.” Recently I read her book “Airs Above The Ground,” written in 1965. She was a master at landscape description, and I felt this scene of a meadow in the Alps was worth sharing:

The grass was thick with familiar meadow flowers – harebells, thyme, eyebright, and, where the scythe had not yet passed, the foaming white and yellow of parley and buttercups. What was not so familiar was the fluttering, rustling life of the meadow: the whole surface of the field seemed moving with butterflies – meadow browns, blues, sulphurs, fritillaries, and a few of my own Vanessas, the red admirals and tortoiseshells. Their colours flickered among the flowers, each vanishing momentarily as it clung and folded, then opening to its own bright colour as it fluttered on. Even the green roots of the grass were alive, as countless grasshoppers hopped and fiddled there. The air droned with bees, all zooming past me, I noticed, on the same purposeful track, as if on some apian Autobahn of their own. They were all making for a little hut, the size of a small summer-house, chalet-style and beautifully built of pine, and as full of tiny windows as a dovecot. It was, in fact, a bee-house, a sort of collective hive for several swarms, each one with its own tiny bee-door, behind which it made its honey in candle-shaped combs. Amused and interested, I watched the laden bees aiming like bullets, each for its own door, remembering how, even a few years ago, in my own childhood, the English meadows, too, had been alive with wings, and how quiet now was the poisioned countryside. .

I think it would be hard for most moderns to write such a passage, even if they had Stewart’s eye and skill; we’re almost all from the city, and we just don’t know birds and the flowers and the insects the way her generation did.

But, of course, it’s that last line that caught my eye -— such a beautiful paragraph, ends with “the poisoned countryside.”

And it has become worse. Many have noted that “bug splat,” where driving through the countryside would leave windshields absolutely plastered with dead insects, is a thing of the past.

It’s harder and harder to remember just how alive the world once was, with plants, insects, birds and animals. We can only wonder at, say, stories of the old Grand Banks off the east coast of Canada, where you had only to dip a bucket into the water and it would come up with fish. In my childhood, almost any beach in British Columbia had enough clams for a meal, but now they’re gone. Vietnamese immigrants took too many to sell commercially, and destroyed the beds.

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The long, lost passenger pigeons used to fly in flocks so large they genuinely did blot out the sun, and it was unimaginable to early settlers that one day they would be no more; and many are the accounts of how the Bison flocked in their millions, filling the prairies to the horizon. The prairies themselves were entirely different from what we now know; they had a covering which protected the soil which Europeans removed so they could farm, and thus the soil blew away and lost its fertility.

As a child in the 30s, my (honorary) Uncle Jack would take a hook and line, walk ten minutes out of town on the British Columbia coast, and have a fresh salmon in ten minutes.

All of this we have denuded, poisoned, destroyed. In exchange, we have food that has less nutrients every generation, that you can eat and still feel hungry, and we have a lot of sugar, corn-syrup, salt, and foods made to purposely addict us, so various folks could be rich.

I remember a fantasy book where the hero had traveled to another world at the end of WWII, then returned around 1970, and his description of eating some beef, “it tasted like something had been removed, and something had been added.”

In so many ways, we live in a marvelous cornucopia. I can go to the supermarket and buy a wild variety of food, unavailable to prior generations, but it is a hollow bounty, built on destruction, a heating of the house, by burning it down.

We might as well enjoy it, but the price is being paid already and will be paid even more in the future. We have traded a world that was alive and bounteous, for an artificial cornucopia, and for many of us, that cornucopia will come to an end before we die.


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  1. Dedpenguin

    Heartbreaking. Sometimes I have to stop myself describing aspects of my childhood experience of the world to my children as it seems hurtful tantalize them so.
    Do you perhaps mean passenger pigeon for the flightless dodo?

  2. Ian Welsh

    I did mean the passenger pigeon. Thank you!

  3. Plague Species

    Poisoned Land — Poisoned People

  4. Bazarov

    I don’t think “we” traded the world. A small elite brutally destroyed the commons to force the “we” into dependence on the market, which would only support the people’s lives in return for their labor. Since then, that elite has nursed that dependence into the greatest market the human race has ever seen.

    Where ever the natural world has abundance, it is a threat to the elite, since the “we” might decide to depend on it rather than on the market. Hence, environmental destruction is essential to the maintenance of social relations as they are, relations that greatly enrich the elite and reproduce a populous totally dependent on the market (one the elite, in a different way, are also dependent on for profit).

    Environmental destruction was not a mere byproduct of capitalism nor a choice of some enfranchised “we”–it was and has been a tool consciously used by the elite to maintain dependence on the Great Market and ensure its continued expansion.

    This is late capitalism’s most extreme contradiction, one so dangerous that it might lead to the system’s– and indeed to humanity’s–extinction.

  5. Astrid

    Reading old books and watching old nature documentaries breaks my heart. The casual abundance and diversity of life, gone in a single life time.

    What’s also depressing is the ugly, dehumanizing North American architecture. At least the rest of the world has some beautiful buildings, towns, and cities to replace their nature with. What we have are ugly housing estates, ugly cities, ugly strip malls, and so so many asphalt roads.

    It’s frightening to think what kind of losses await today’s children. Will they have to accept a world with permanently hazy skies like much of India and Asia? Will they eat fake foods because real food becomes impossibly expensive and rare? Will they see trees? Will they live their lives like the Easter Islanders after they cut down all the palms, fished out their oceans and eaten all the birds? Except with lots and lots of microplastics.

  6. Doug

    When I was a boy in the late 50’s you could watch bears slap spawning salmon out of the Yellowstone river, and the spawners were still thick in Idaho’s then properly named Salmon River. Ancient history.
    Closer to contemporary times, even five years during nesting time bluebirds often flew into the house via the chimney. I caught and released sixteen of them during that season. Now it’s increasingly rare to see a few in the air—same with swallows and bats, which were a regular summertime feature.
    Increasing toxins, decreasing life. Yet, nature is resilient and while they won’t rebound in my life, I thinks the birds and the pollinators and the salmon and their kin will come back around again. Maybe.

  7. Doug

    That should read “. . . even five years ago. . .”

  8. Chicago Clubs

    If you visit the Desert Museum West of Tucson, you will find a beaver and otter on display. If, like me, you find this absurd, there is a little plaque near the beaver pool to explain that once the rivers of Arizona flowed freely and were vital riparian habitats home to plenty such creatures.

    Then the cows came.

    We’ve really just fucked up everything.

  9. Eric Anderson

    Perhaps if people weren’t so prone to run from their problems, we would all know a place so intimately that we too could recite the flora and fauna like we name city streets.

    I can.

    But I “know” my place. And I’ve had the good sense not to stray for quite some time now. My local knowledge is immense. Again, as Wendell Berry said, “If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.” All you know is you have the sads because some crucial part of your displaced urbanite soul is missing — Connection to the elements that make you, you.

    Maybe worth a second read:

  10. Ché Pasa

    This post reminded me of the part of my childhood I spent in a brand new far eastern suburb of Los Angeles. Much of the area had been planted to orange groves in the early 20th century, but much of it was still wild oak and manzanita dotted grasslands. There were coyotes, rattlesnakes, tarantulas, lizards, birds of prey and songbirds, and a wide variety of native (and introduced) plants. Our house and the subdivision it was part of (not yet a neighborhood, the plaster was still wet when we moved in) were built on the site of a Gabrieleno Native village which had been built along a seasonal creek that still flowed, though in a concrete channel, behind our house.

    In a sense, it was idyllic before the area was built out and built over and the orchards and native trees were pulled out and burned, and the hills were cut down and overgrown with McMansions and the freeways went through to San Bernardino and Las Vegas…

    In another sense, though, “nature” included some of the worst smog of the entire Los Angeles basin, smog that killed. Of course it was exacerbated by pollution spewing cars and backyard incinerators, but the infamous LA smog is not entirely man-made. Floods and fires were common — the San Gabriel Mountains burned every year; I watched them burn while sitting on my back fence.

    Yeah, we’ve lost a lot of the natural world, and much of it isn’t coming back. Our kind has had more than a little to do with it, and Our Rulers seem intent on taking it to the ultimate level of ruin. On the other hand, smog has been partially abated, rivers have been restored to health, and some sections of former farm and ranch land have been allowed or helped to return to their former nature.

    All is not lost. Yet.

  11. different clue

    As Bazarov up above has noted, the poisoning of the land has been very carefully fostered, engineered and rolled out on purpose by the various Overclasses in command of their various parts of the world. Until those Overclasses have been so totally eliminated from existence to where they can no longer excercise their power to poison, nothing will be achieved at the world-level collective-social level.

    But also, some countries have millions of people deeply devoted to a sick, evil and depraved death-culture of poisoning the land for the fun of it. Other millions of people within those same countries can reduce the level of poisoning the land by the death-culture land-poison people by “supporting this and boycotting that”. If those other millions of people have grown passive and fatalistic from despair, then they will not even do those things which could slow the poisoning down, because they cannot even imagine such things are available and within their power to do.

    If any ” revive and regreen the land lifeculture ” people are reading this thread, they might want to offer ideas as to what those lifeculture people can do to foster regreening of those areas, however tiny, which are within their control and which the deathculture people can do nothing about. And they might want to bring here advice on what to support and what to boycott to weaken, degrade and attrit the economic and social power of the deathculture people to spread their ecodeath terracide within particular countries where “support this and boycott that” activities exist to be undertaken.

    For example, the co-op where I live ( and the brushy woods next to it) still seem to be low-poison enough that when any of us plant pollinator-insect-attracting flowering plants, that a lot of pollinator insects still come to them. I notice, for example, that a lot of honeybees still come to my sedum flowers. Those honeybees must be survivng somewhere, that they are still alive enough to visit my sedum flowers. And many kinds of pollinators visit my goldenrod flowers, because I have goldenrod flowers for them to visit. And so forth and so on.

    A few million green-minded suburban yardowners could create a few million green-minded low-poison microcenters of insect survival. If the surrounding world gets de-poisoned enough, insect survivors from those micro-fortresses of insect survival could spread back out to the surrounding world. IFF! . . . insects are kept alive within a few million fortresses of suburban micro-fortresses of green insect survival.

  12. Mary Bennett

    different clue, I have a set speech I give when new neighbors move in. It goes like this (only a bit more politely expressed): Mr. or Ms. New Neighbor, I do not care how many guns you have. I don’t care if you park a tank in your back yard, but you will please refrain from spraying roundup or pesticides into mine. I will sometimes reference roses which cannot tolerate herbicide. Really, they can’t. I try to play on the private property angle–the landlord says I can grow whatever I want, and (it is implied) the landlord really likes rent on time like clockwork and no hassles.

    Other than that, start where you are with what you have. Produce, don’t consume. The more you do for yourself, that opens up cultural space for other less brave persons to do the same. An added bonus, the wokies really, truly hate self-reliant people. Don’t ask me why. I couldn’t say although I do have some theories.

    A new org and website called Real Organic Project is worth a look. And, the way food prices have gone up, with no end in sight, it can now make sense to buy from your Farmer’s Market vendor and cook at home. I found out that fluid milk can be frozen in a glass jar, so long as I leave room for expansion. I don’t drink milk, but I do cook with it. 5 bucks for a jug of special grass-fed organic milk from the local guy isn’t so expensive if I spread it out over several weeks.

  13. Trinity

    Ian, I also read both her Merlin books when I was young. I read a lot of books as a kid, but few were as memorable as hers. Another unforgettable book from that time was A Passage to India. Most “modern” books lack that rich detail that really brings the story alive, a much more immersive and memorable experience.

    “All you know is you have the sads because some crucial part of your displaced urbanite soul is missing — Connection to the elements that make you, you.”

    This is me. One can have the sads in the middle of what looks like paradise, but is soon revealed to be yet another over sprayed toxic factory farm, operated by yet another narcissistic family seeking control over everyone and everything they can grasp. The bumble bees are already gone, and it’s been a couple of years since I saw a hummingbird or wild turkey or fox, but hey! There’s a nifty new, professionally designed solid wood sign with a farm name on it, and the veal keeps getting loaded onto the truck a few months after the bull’s visit. The only plant grown is hay, so we are only eating the pesticides and herbicides indirectly, not that it matters.

    I’ve been unable to grow my own food. The land is out of the question, and none of it is mine anyway. Indoors I’ve had no success because the spider mites are so extensive, and can apparently hibernate right up until something green appears. They eat everything from the inside out, so it can be days or weeks before you realize they are there, and they are so incredibly small you almost can’t see them.

    I can move, but I have no idea where to go and no ties to bind me, no one landscape that calls to me, I’ve experienced so many! Right now, it’s anywhere but here, which is completely unhelpful.

    The land will never come back the same. One of the main lessons from my environmental restoration classes is that the land can never be remade to what it was. You’ll hear people say it can, but it’s been shown (over and over again) that it cannot. This is partly the lesson of “everything is connected to everything else” but also why you hear clamoring about vanishing individual species. Every species played a part in what was. Every species is important. Many are now lost, perhaps forever. The sickness that is the overclass will repent one day, but not anytime soon.

    All is not lost for the land, however. I’m sure that our tech overlords are planning digital versions of what used to be, and will be happy to sell us the experience for a price. /sarc

  14. different clue

    @Mary Bennett,

    I am intrigued by the statement that wokies really truly hate self-reliant people. I don’t know if anyone else here is interested in any possible theories as to why, but I would be interested. I wonder if I have to start regarding wokies as yet another enemy plotting against eco-peasantism as eco-peasantism begins to emerge.

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