Dust or Magic, Tuesday, April 7 2009


Up the garden and into the trees - a fable.

Once upon a time there was a small riverine people whose leaders led them up the garden path, over the fence, through a ditch and across several fields and finally into a wood, where they scaled the largest tree they could find right up into it among the branches. Nobody was left behind or in fact allowed to stay behind if they wanted to. Even old people and people with tiny babies scrambled or were helped up somehow. Some, unfortunately, fell and were injured or killed but most of them got up there, and there they stayed.

Which may sound like an unpromising arrangement. Life was hard, especially on the arms, knees and ankles, especially if you were handicapped in some way (such as by a baby or an old mother) or hadn't managed to collar one of the better branches. Indeed, some people complained at first that life had been perfectly OK in the garden and why on earth come and sit in this bloody tree where you couldn't even go for a piss in comfort? But these were roundly condemned as being woolly idealists. Some were thrown out of the tree and died of their injuries on the ground beneath. Nobody felt confident about going to help them and after a while people decided that this was what life was like and they'd better get on with it.

And to an observer it looked as if life was in some ways not all that bad. Wealth was being created: remarkable tree-houses of great beauty sprouted along the main boughs; much more spectacular houses than anything people had ever built for themselves in the garden. How were these wonderful houses built? They were built by the Shitheads: the people (the majority) who lived precariously in the lower branches and on little perches close to the huge accretions of faeces that surrounded the lower trunk. In their situation, life depended on keeping on the right side of the Big People who lived in the tree-mansions. They were prepared to and did make stupendous feats of endurance and skill for pathetic scraps of comfort. And although many shitheads died of hardship, in childbirth or of disease from the huge piles of faeces above which they lived, some of them seemed to thrive on it all, developing powerful muscles and incredible endurance, in which they learned to take pride. And some of these successful shitheads did in fact come to enjoy lives of privilege and power: as servants and bodyguards for the Big People and as warriors and policemen, with power to kill the tree's enemies and, when necessary, its enemies within: the disaffected and the whingers who, alas, are always with us, it seems. And even the whingers came to believe that although life in the tree was no bed of roses, it was at least infinitely better than the miserable life to be had down on the ground.

So, eventually, the dominant opinon in the tree came to be that this indeed was the ideal life, or at least an infinitely superior life to any other. Or at least it was the only opinion anyone was prepared to utter.

One day, after a very long time, it became clear that the tree was dying. The piles of shit round its base, and the Big People's insistence on having huge fires in their fine houses, were killing it.

One group of Big People realised that the piles of shit that were killing the tree were the basis for a new and more lucrative life. Free energy in the form of methane from the shit-heaps; highly productive gardens from the nutritious composted more ancient shit. This breakaway group eventually came to form a serious threat to the ancient lineages of tree-dwelling aristocracy, on whom they declared war in which, failing to win the outright victory they had expected, they enlisted the support of the Shitheads, promising them freedom of association, freedom of expression, a free health service, public ownership of the tree and its surrounding middens and full, delegate democracy with annual parliaments and a standard "party-maximum wage" for all.

Galvanised by this sudden discovery of their own powers and potentials, the Shithead forces with their Breakaway leaders (and increasingly, their own very passionate and articulate leaders) stormed the tree and completely defeated the Big People.

You know what happened next of course: the Breakaway Big People betrayed their newly radicalised Shithead allies by making an accommodation with their old enemies. They started to build fences around the choicest, most fertile bits of the great middens and put meters on the gas.

More years and generations passed; by and by, the great middens approached exhaustion.

Throughout these generations, as they dug, the Shitheads would find the remains of ancestors who had fallen from the tree in earlier times. And as the middens neared exhaustion, disturbing evidence emerged. The skeletons they were now uncovering were those of giants! These skeletons - surely those of the most ancient, primitive, ground-dwelling ancestors newly ascended but still imperfectly adapted to the arboreal life - were of shocking size. Hardly any were shorter than five-foot-two (1.6 metres); all were straight-limbed; all had perfect teeth; some were six feet tall (1.8 metres) or more: bigger than the Big People themselves.

And one day, a Shithead was digging in the ancient shit that had surrounded the now long-rotted Great Tree and came across a book, which had presumably been dropped by one of the original garden-dwellers in the original scramble into the trees. It was "Stone Age Economics" by Marshall Sahlins (Tavistock, 1972). In it, he came upon the chapter called "The Original Affluent Society", which described daily life among the supposedly primitive gardening and hunter-gatherer peoples of Indonesia and Polynesia. To his complete astonishment, these people, who had no fine aristocracy or Great People and certainly no castles or mansions of any kind, led lives of outrageous ease and contentment.

This ancient writer, Sahlins, described a day in the life of one of these families a "work day". It involved a late get up and a prolonged breakfast. Departure was delayed by a neighbour bringing over some chickens, which had to be admired at length. The short walk to the orchard was interrupted for some time by the sight of whales on the horizon. On arrival at the orchard there was a brief flurry of purposeful activity but this could not be sustained. The daughter spent all afternoon trying to catch butterflies and the mother sunbathing. The total work done for the whole family amounted to about six hours.

"Bugger this for a game of soldiers" said the Shitheads. "All that stuff about life being nasty brutish and short before we came here was just lies! Henceforth, let us all cultivate our gardens."

And after they had deported all the Big People, whether of ground-dwelling or tree-dwelling persuasions, to the Isle of Wight, that is what they did.


Posted by Bob Hughes on Tuesday, April 7 2009

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