London: Aurum Press Ltd.
As someone who did not grow up in the UK, I was shocked when I first heard about the brutality of the Enclosures Act in 1845. It seemed supremely selfish and just plain wrong to shut people out from what had always been common land. I had a similar reaction to reading Alistair McIntosh’s account of the Scottish Clearances. Apparently local inhabitants of Hebridean islands had no say at all in the buying and selling of their ancestral lands and could just be evicted if the new land owner wanted to change its use.
In the foreword to this inspirational book George Monbiot calls McIntosh’s work a “first step towards the decolonisation of the soul.” What a wonderful and pithy way to describe the essence of this extraordinary book. Various reviewers refer to it as containing mythology, theology, ecology, economics, history and politics. It does all this and more. The author’s love for the land and traditional ways of life that respect the natural world for its own sake, is evoked with poetry and passion.
I loved reading how, in his childhood on Lewis, McIntosh experienced an ‘economy of mutuality, reciprocity and exchange’, where “sufficiency is the measure of and surplus is for sharing before trading.” Any fish caught, butter churned or vegetables grown were to be shared, rather than bought and sold. McIntosh relates how, from the age of fourteen, he would go out alone onto the open sea, in order to catch the fish for the evening meal and how, in this community-based society, everyone had a role to play no matter how young or old.
How amazing that this way of life still persisted in the 1960s and how sad that it has now largely gone! As measured by GNP, people on the Hebridean islands are now less poor. However, as McIntosh argues ‘the use of GNP to measure wellbeing is an astonishingly crude yardstick’ as rather than being a valued part of the local economy, these days “young people get drunk, inject drugs, fight, smash windows and otherwise create some sort of rite of passage, no matter how perverse.” Apparently, all this adds to GNP. “Repairs to vandalised shop fronts also count as ‘wealth’ in national accounting. So do the hospital casualty services, and the alcohol consumed, and the policing and court time’.” (p36). Madness indeed.
The book relates the story of how the local inhabitants of the Isle of Eigg took on corporate power, for the first time in history, to prevent a beautiful mountain being turned into a superquarry. The style of writing is poetic and passionate, and a joy to read. It is also a wake-up call: according to McIntosh we are all sleepwalkers, hypnotised by the current social reality, which sees no alternative to our current form of capitalism, dominated as it is by the greed of large multi-national corporations. He argues that we need to wake up to what is happening to us and our world, and reconnect with an ‘authentic’ spirituality, which is deeply grounded in a nature-based mythology.
Within the current Covid-19 lockdown we have the opportunity to take an honest look at our way of life, and how it has contributed to the situation we find ourselves in. On the last page of the book the author suggests that if humankind is to have any hope of changing the world, we must constantly work to strengthen community. He sets out three main points:Within the current Covid-19 lockdown we have the opportunity to take an honest look at our way of life, and how it has contributed to the situation we find ourselves in. On the last page of the book the author suggests that if humankind is to have any hope of changing the world, we must constantly work to strengthen community. He sets out three main points:
- We need to make community with the soil, to learn how to revere the Earth. In practical terms, that means ecological restauration, walking lightly in the demands we make of life – sufficiency rather than surplus, quality rather than quantity, and buying (if and when we can) products like organic food and sustainable timber that are produced by working with rather than against nature’s providence.
- We need to make community of human society. We need to learn empathy and respect for one another simply so that people get the love they need…………..shifting from competition to cooperation in politics and economics, and buying ‘Fair Trade’ products that avoid exploitation. For there’s no such thing as ‘cheap’ when it comes to right relationship.
- And third, but not least, we need community of the soul. Whatever our religion or lack of one, we need spaces where we can take rest, compose and compost our inner stuff, and become more deeply present to the aliveness of life. We need to keep one eye on the ground and the other to the stars. We need to remember that when we let loose our wildness in creativity, it is God-the-Goddess – or call it Christ, or Allah or Krishna or the Tao – that pours forth. It does so from within, as a never-ending river.
Before deciding on any course of action McIntosh suggest we ask the following questions:
Does it help the poor?
Does it restore the broken in nature?
Does it bring music to the soul?
In short, is it concerned with the blossom?
I hope that this review has whetted your appetite to read the book, and that you will enjoy it as much as I have.