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In praise of the people who know how to stay alive
Gran died decades ago, but I still remember things she said. One winter in the late 1980’s, with an air of annoyance, as though someone had wronged her but she hadn’t yet worked out who, she said ‘we don’t get proper seasons any more’.
She was old by then, but it didn’t show. A few years later, in her last weeks, all her days would land on her body at once, like a skyfull of rooks taking to a tree; but the gran I remember complaining about the seasons was still unbowed. Her life had been hard, so hard that if I told its story you would call me liar, but she hadn’t let it callous her. Her kindness seemed effortless.
I look over green winter fields where no snow sticks, and her words come back again. Here in Yorkshire, our weather softens. Old-timers tell us about snows so deep that the tops of the dry-stone walls became the paths they would walk down to the village, but that was long ago and those that remember it are few. Hard winters are becoming a folk memory. Soon they will be legend.
Probably global warming is part of it; but the disquiet that gran expressed 35 years ago and I feel today is about something deeper and worse. We don’t get proper seasons any more. Climate change is only a small part of that. Time itself is falling apart.
Charles Taylor is smarter than me, but in A Secular Age he falls into a maze of contradictions when he tries to talk about changes to time. It is easily done. The very concept of change relies on the concept of time. It is a disconcerting part of the book nevertheless. The rest of it progresses with the steady momentum of an aircraft carrier crossing an ocean, but for a few pages it suddenly feels more like a rowboat in a whirlpool.
Get hold of your thwart and get ready to bail. I’m doing my best to row.
I’ll start with the easiest unweaving, the one most noted: the way that agricultural time unfurled into industrial time. As folk moved from country to city, days lived dawn to dusk were swapped for a sixteen-hour block from knocker upper to shift’s end. Seasons passed, but at one remove. Work no longer surged and receded along with their swells. The mechanical divisions of the clock replaced the movement of sun and stars. The image of time as a great circle, coming from the divine and returning to it, was replaced by the image of an arrow speeding forward forever, and the arrow’s name was progress.
Two mistakes must be dodged when talking about this unweaving. The first is to take it too metaphysically. Then we would speak as though Time changed when our relationship to it did, as though Nietzsche's eternal recurrence was stopped by a mill in Halifax. The second is to not take it metaphysically enough. Then we would speak as though nothing else was changed by the change in our relationship to time. But that would be just as false. As farms become factories, as oil fuels secondary harvests, and as the climate itself shifts, it is not only our relationship to time that changes. We bring our companions in this world along with us. The wheel of the biosphere stutters out of rhythm.
Perhaps some readers think that I am rationalising nostalgia and pining for a pre-industrial time that was dirty and brutal. For you, if you exist, I make an aside.
Gran took that step from one time to another. She knew starvation and the loss of loved ones both on farms more isolated then than Antarctica is now and in the midst of an industrial war that tore the world apart. She is no longer here to tell me which is worse; but it is, at least, an open question. Those that confuse agrarianism for nostalgia too often betray eyes that are closed to our present brutality. But that is not their only fault. As I say, gran was not broken. She was kinder than me, more humble, wiser, more faithful. Accusations of nostalgia often rest on an unspoken assumption that it would be terrible to have to live ‘like that’. Probably it would be for us. But if we lived like that, we would not be us. I consider it at least plausible that we would be better people.
The unweaving from agricultural to mechanical time is much commented on, but it is almost done. Now the mechanical arrow unweaves itself. The sixteen-hour factory shift is replaced by the email job done from home. You’re never at work. You’re never not at work. The rhythms of life fall further into silence. Facebook tells you what you were doing last year, teenage mistakes lurk online forever: the past is still present. An app plots your fitness ‘journey’ as you prepare for your goals, Amazon suggests you pay in four easy instalments: the future is already here. Mechanical time is being replaced by flat time, a directionless field.
If you could hear the progress of metastatic cancer through an organism it would sound like a complex melody made of a thousand harmonies being steadily replaced by a single incessant beat – ‘growth, growth, growth, growth’ – and then the beat faltering and falling silent. From agricultural to mechanical to flat time, that is what we are hearing, a death.
Of course, death is only truly terrible in mechanical time, where it prevents you from partaking in the only thing with meaning: the endless forward march. In agricultural time, death is just part of the cycle. Something will feed on the corpse and grow. In flat time, death is just a moment that occurs. The past is always present, so death’s significance is slight. Dead time does not know it is dead.
These, too, are the three common responses to the coming collapse. Those that belong to this time, caught in a boundless present, do not see it. Those that belong to mechanical time fear the end of the march, which for them can only mean meaningless brutality. Those that belong to agricultural time, and I have tendencies that way myself, trust something else is being born.
There is, however, another response; for though each of these three times presents itself as as eternal, none are. Flat time shows the endless now, but it is just an unweaving of the mechanical arrow. Mechanical time shows us the endless forward march, but it is just an unweaving of the agricultural cycle. Agricultural time shows us the endless loop, but it is just an unweaving of...
There was a time before agriculture that echoes faintly in story, in myth. In the Bible, agriculture is a result of sin. To Adam eating the forbidden fruit, God says ‘In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread’. In the Zhuangzi, Robber Chi says:
“I have heard that in ancient times the birds and beasts were many and the people few. Therefore the people all nested in the trees in order to escape danger, during the day gathering acorns and chestnuts, at sundown climbing back up to sleep in their trees. Hence they were called ‘the people of the nest-builder’. In ancient times the people knew nothing about wearing clothes. In summer they heaped up great piles of firewood, in winter they burned them to keep warm. Hence they were called `the people who know how to stay alive.’”
Ah, Zhuangzi! With your jokes more serious than ten thousand sermons.
When the endless present fractures, the forward march halts, and the very cycle of the season stutters, we need ‘the people who know how to stay alive’. We must learn how to become them again. I am not suggesting a movement because movements are creatures of linear time, never escaping the Machine; but if I was, then ‘the people who know how to stay alive’ would be a fine name for its members. I am suggesting them as an ideal, something to become, or to help your children become.
If you think ‘the people who know how to stay alive’ sounds too amoral, too Mad Max, then remember what I said about gran, about the hardness of her life and her kindness. People do not stay alive by enacting a Hollywood picture of toughness. They do it by heaping up piles of firewood together.
If time is a directionless field for the email worker, a forward arrow for the mill hand, and a turning circle for the peasant, then what is it to the people who know how to stay alive? Perhaps it is the spiral, of which there are many prehistoric examples in Yorkshire.
The spiral has the rhythm of agricultural time without the lie that we can return to the same point. It has the movement of mechanical time without the lie that it has a direction. It has the all-encompassing field of flat time without the lie that nothing will change. Perhaps we can sing a spiral song with the world awhile.
On Whitby headland, site of Hild’s great abbey, fossil spirals can often be found. In legend, Hild turned all the snakes thereabouts to stone; so for centuries locals would carve snake’s heads onto fossils and sell them to pilgrims. The world is mysterious. The little carved lie ornamented, but never erased, the big natural truth those pilgrims carried home.