6 May 2009

Revaluing the Wasteland

T. S. Eliot gave the wasteland a bad name. But then he did begin his famous poem with the words:

APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

Some cruelty! And he doesn't even mention the bluebells.

Yes, yes, I know he had a sort of spiritual wasteland in mind, where humankind had strayed off the path of learning Greek and revelling in high culture. His pessimistic view might have been tempered somewhat if he had strayed off his own path of intellectual endeavour and found his way into the highways and byways of the real Wilderness.

I have a soft spot for Eliot, though. Something about the cadence of his writing rather than the recondite content. And not unconnected to the fact that one of my first boyfriends caught me with a short bit of his verse involving a rose-garden - no doubt the wildest sort of place Eliot himself ever strayed into.

But I digress. What I meant to share with you was the vast range of uses that peasants once put wastelands to. This was before the days of the National Trust, when non-agricultural land was available for foraging rather than recreation. The study by J. M. Neeson called Commoners indicates just how much they were able to provide. Obviously there was grazing and the possibility to gather firewood and other materials that were used for fires — furze (gorse) and bracken (fern). Commoners also took hazel loppings to make hurdles for penning sheep, and fern was also used for animal bedding and, once burnt, its ash was used to make soap. In addition:

'Reed was plentiful and valued most as thatch for roofs and also to cover the stacks, ricks and clamps for all kinds of crops and vegetables. Rushes — bulrushes — were equally plentiful, waterproof, and woven into baskets, mats, hats, chair seats and toys. . . they were also good for bedding, as a netting in the plastering of walls, and wrapping for soft milk cheeses. They made cheap, bright rushlights too' (Neeson, 1989: 166).

The list of foraging crops, especially nuts, berries and fungi is equally long, and as varied as were the possibilities for salad crops and herbs that could be gathered. It is clear from these accounts that the commoning lifestyle offered two other characteristics crucial to a bioregional approach to provisioning: seasonality and shared experience.

The dismantling of the commons was disastrous for commoners but crucial for the growth of the industrial market system, which they were required to staff. Neeson’s account makes clear the link between the ending of subsistence and the population explosion which Malthus and other political economists later bemoaned. She also chronicles how the move from commoner to labourer undermined the resilience and self-reliance of British citizens.

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