Animist Memories: Notes Towards a Re-Sanctification of Europe

Consult the genius of the place in all;

That tells the waters or to rise, or fall;

Or helps th' ambitious hill the heav'ns to scale,

Or scoops in circling theatres the vale;

Calls in the country, catches opening glades,

Joins willing woods, and varies shades from shades,

Now breaks, or now directs, th' intending lines;

Paints as you plant, and, as you work, designs

Alexander Pope: Epistles to Several Persons, IV


Genius is the error in the system.

Paul Klee


According to the dominant capitalist-consumer paradigm, all land is immobile and homogenous space – no man’s land, or potential building site, worth nothing until it is developed. To our pagan ancestors, however, land was place – specific, heterogeneous, animated – and that made it both essential and sacred. Place was not only a space where objects could exist, but a theatre of interwoven call and response, carefully set trails and pools of scent, song zones and kill zones, rich streams and corridors of movement and ululation. It offered refuge to the living and the dead, to our shadows and our phantoms; it was the locus of our history and our mortality, something that we perpetuated by passing across it, like the reddleman crossing Egdon Heath in The Return of the Native. Place was where our stories happened, where we bore fruit and bore witness; place was where all our connections were made, and our mortality constantly reaffirmed. As the child is naturally pagan, many of us felt this when we were young, Nature’s Druids, at least, if not Nature’s Priests.


Now, as we face what looks to me like the continuing and deliberate desecration of place, I want to argue, in all fancifulness, that Old Europe is, or could be, a bastion of pagan, animist geomancy, haunted by suchness, a terrain that could provide the very ground of active dissent from a soul-less, inert, developer mentality that, having laid waste every possible ‹new frontier›, now threatens to become a final, deathly modus operandi that would make the very notion of place redundant, replacing it with ‹spaces›, where life style options are exercised, and where everything is defined according to its systems function: presence as ‹behaviour›, courtship as mechanics, land – and the life it supports – as resource. I think – am I wrong in this? – I think we all know that this notion of ‹reality› fails utterly to take account of an essential tenderness, or to appreciate the intricate Mobius shifts of pheromone and musk between each body and its neighbouring – or distant – other. I think we all know that the unmaking of place is a calculated plot to turn space into a financial asset, but we seem to have decided that we are helpless in the face of that profit motive, or perhaps we think that it would be ungracious to get involved with its practitioners. We have all said it in one form or another: render unto Caesar, but that, under present conditions, is not much different from taking water, washing one’s hands before the multitude and saying, I am innocent….


Render unto Caesar is good advice, as long as God is in his heaven and, by definition, remote from Caesar’s power. However, when your Higher Power is not remote, but manifest in this world – as ‹Nature›, that shorthand term for all that is not reduced and limited to a human idea of order – then it is, at least temporarily, vulnerable to imperial depredation. Yes, this planet has survived ice ages; yes, it was once something close to a ball of fire and, yes, it will one day recover from the damage we have inflicted so far… Yet, having been fortunate enough to wander among giant redwoods in Northern California, having spent one clear Gloucestershire night watching badger cubs at play around their sett, having walked for hours through the Yatay palms at El Palmar in search of field flickers and cachalotes, I have come to the obvious conclusion that Caesar is not only asking too much of us, but has had his day in the sun and that he has to be stopped. Now. Immediately. You could argue that, to somebody somewhere, redwoods and badgers and field flickers are common enough sights, something more or less to be taken for granted, just as great waves of migrating pink-footed geese are common enough where I live, but the truth is that we can no longer afford to take anything for granted, not even the supposedly common sparrow, (In London, sparrow numbers fell by 60% between 1994 and 2004), or the lapwings that seemed to be everywhere when I was a boy, (between 1963 and 2008, lapwing numbers in England and Wales fell by somewhere between 50 and 80 percent). The reasons for these population declines: lack of invertebrate prey for sparrows; changes in farming practices (i.e. more intensive farming, prompted by ill-advised drainage subsidies) for lapwings. (New subsidies, for ‹biogas crops› are having a similar impact on birds in Germany now, cf Der Spiegel: ‹For example, bird species -- such as the Montagu's Harrier and the Northern Lapwing -- are disappearing because they can no longer find breeding grounds. Likewise, between 2004 and 2010, over 90 percent of the species-rich grasslands in certain areas of Bavaria have vanished -- often being replaced by corn fields.›)


To say this is to say what most of us already know, I suppose. Some of us feel that pointing any of these things out is purely academic: as a species, human beings are, as Daniel Nocera points out ‹crappy environmentalists› and, as David Owen concludes, in his excellent if unsettling 2011 book, The Conundrum, ‹It’s easy for wealthy people to look busy on energy, climate, and the environment; all we have to do is drive a hybrid, eat local food (while granting ourselves exemptions for anything we like to eat that doesn’t grow where we live), remember to unplug our cell-phone chargers and divide our trash into two piles. What’s proven impossible, at least so far, is to commit to taking steps that would actually make a large, permanent difference on a global scale. Do we honestly care? That’s the conundrum.› As it happens, I think we do care – as individuals – but humans, even those who make great individuals, tend to get lazy, greedy or plain negligent when acting in groups. As Owen says, ‹our climate and energy dilemma is really a world-sized version of the tragedy of the commons› –but it doesn’t end there. An observer, arriving on earth to make notes on how we work en masse might quickly come to the conclusion that as long as any two or three of us are gathered together, something bad is bound to happen. As Garrett Hardin said: ‹Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.›


It is a sentiment familiar to us from the work of the poets, John Clare in particular. Yet are there not grounds for more than lament in our discussion of common land? What was it about the commons that made them so special in the making of England? I find it heartening to read bold statements like this, by Paul Kingsnorth, in his recent novel, The Wake ‹The Norman invasion and occupation of England was probably the most catastrophic single event in this nation’s history. It brought slaughter, famine, scorched-earth warfare, slavery and widespread land confiscation to the English population, along with a new ruling class who had, in many cases, little but contempt for their new subjects. It wasn’t until 1399, over three centuries after Duke Guillaume of Normandylaunched his successful invasion, that England had a king who spoke English as his first language.› He continues, ‹This is all the more regrettable as the effects of Guillaume’s invasion are still with us. In 21st century England, 70% of the land is still owned by less than 1% of the population; the second most unequal rate of land ownership on the planet, after Brazil. It is questionable whether this would be the case had the Normans not concentrated all of it in the hands of the king and his cronies nearly 1000 years ago.›

We need such bold language to remind us of something we should never have lost sight of – and, I remember this clearly, I remember as a child wondering how people stood it, that the land was owned, and that one man or small group could do as they liked with it – just as we need to temper such statements with remarks like these, from Wendell Berry’s essays: ‹Until we understand what the land is, we are at odds with everything we touch. And to come to that understanding it is necessary, even now, to leave the regions of our conquest - the cleared fields, the towns and cities, the highways - and re-enter the woods. For only there can a man encounter the silence and the darkness of his own absence. Only in this silence and darkness can he recover the sense of the world's longevity, of its ability to thrive without him, of his inferiority to it and his dependence on it. Perhaps then, having heard that silence and seen that darkness, he will grow humble before the place and begin to take it in - to learn from it what it is. As its sounds come into his hearing, and its lights and colors come into his vision, and its odors come into his nostrils, then he may come into its presence as he never has before, and he will arrive in his place and will want to remain. His life will grow out of the ground like the other lives of the place, and take its place among them. He will be with them - neither ignorant of them, nor indifferent to them, nor against them - and so at last he will grow to be native-born. That is, he must reenter the silence and the darkness, and be born again.› Taken together, the bold critique and the lucid reminder enter into a kind of play that might inform a possible future: reclaim the land, nor for our possession, but for its own sake, and we may reclaim our native-born souls. End land as property, and we may regain a pagan sense of land as home place, where it is a privilege to feel ourselves commoners. Abandon our miserable ‹development› plans, and we may arrive at our places and enter into a magical pact with the longevity of the land – a longevity which includes us, but is not ours alone. Let me return to Alexander Pope, once again, for the final word on genius and systems; this is from his ‹Essay on Man›:


From Nature's chain whatever link you strike,

Tenth or ten thousandth, breaks the chain alike.

And if each system in gradation roll,

Alike essential to th' amazing whole;

The least confusion but in one, not all

That system only, but the whole must fall.

Let Earth unbalanc'd from her orbit fly,

Planets and Suns run lawless thro' the sky,

Let ruling Angels from their spheres be hurl'd,

Being on being wreck'd, and world on world,

Heav'n's whole foundations to their centre nod,

And Nature tremble to the throne of God:

All this dread ORDER break -- for whom? for thee?

Vile worm! -- oh, Madness, Pride, Impiety!

John Burnside: Animist Memories: Notes Towards a Re-Sanctification of Europe. Internationale Autorentage zu John Burnside (17. - 19. October 2014).