In search of weirdness
Exploring the Culture in Permaculture
by Dave Prescott
It has always been the ‘culture’ bit of Permaculture that has interested me: the idea of low-energy art, what it might mean, what it might look like, or energy efficient poetry, or zero-carbon music. Right in there among all the important and practical stuff, all the growing food and creating shelter, I was attracted to the idea of art in its broadest sense. Bill Mollison looked at a forest and saw a disguised lake; there was so much water held in the trees. This kind of thing is pure poetry, surely. But I have not found much out there about creative self-expression that responds to the time when the world is tumbling down around your ears. Or even, right out there at the cloudy limits, creative self-expression that untumbles the world.
Recently I walked along the South Bank in London with my three-year-old daughter, a little girl who saw the old power station that houses the Tate Modern and asked if it was a church. A bit like a lake disguised as a forest maybe. Anyway we were walking along a little beach by the Thames, a diversion from the Thames path (stepping over a dead fox to get to the beach (‘Is that dog asleep, Daddy?’) and picking up pebbles to go with the ones we’d collected from the beaches of Pembrokeshire, one of which is being engraved with my daughter’s name with a hammer and chisel by a local craftswoman. There we were, walking along this riverine beach – with sand, unbelievably (my daughter asked if she could build a sandcastle) – and there dozens of other people all walking along the beach as well, it was like the world had ended and we were refugees looking for shelter, and all this – my daughter’s comments, the post-apocalyptic vision, the jarring mixture of the natural and the manmade, this is exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about…
I could call it the ‘weirdness’, the feeling like on the Thames beach that afternoon, where my mind inflates like a balloon, unhitches itself and floats gently away. The weirdness is when the underlying seething absurdity of life is laid bare for a moment before the tide of what passes for normal closes over again. Inspired by Walter Benjamin and other ‘flaneurs’ who spent their time in 1920s Paris being inspired by the buildings and the people and crazed urban flotsam, I used to go on long walks around London looking for weird stuff. Since moving to this area from London I have tried to continue what Walker Percy calls ‘the search’ and I’ve found some fragments: to my delight I once discovered a red fridge placed, with unfathomable purpose, next to a solar panel and a tree on Merbach common; on a walk into Hay-on-Wye along an overgrown path, I spotted a mirror hanging randomly from a tree; and then, in a rare example of motorised flaneuring (flaneurity?) I was driving home through the Brecon Beacons and the phrase ‘He could read mountains like a book’ popped clearly into my head. I had no idea what it meant: it sounded like the kernel of a story, and it lead me to the book ‘How to read the landscape’ by Patrick Whitefield. But Patrick’s book wasn’t quite it – though beautiful and eminently wise, I was after something a little more pointless, something a bit weirder, something a bit more musical somehow.
Maybe I’m making too much of the distinction between city and countryside. In the book ‘Wild’ by Jay Griffiths, an Inuit hunter is taken on a tour of the UK and he sees no meaningful difference between London and the countryside. For him, compared with the Arctic environment he called home, everything in this country, including the agricultural landscape, is cultivated and manufactured. But if the Inuit guy was right about the lack of natural wildness, I reckon there is still some human wildness in this country, visible when the tide rolls back. People have been here so long there are human traces everywhere, maybe songlines as well… Well maybe in Wales. That doesn’t sound so unlikely as looking for the songlines of Luton, say, but I’m sure there is wildness there as well. It is just more obvious in some places, like Pembrokeshire for example, where only a hundred years ago people used to go out at low tide and harvest firewood from the underwater remains of a primeval forest.
To try and explore some of these half-formed ideas in practice, I had the idea of building a garden at the Hay Festival based on Permaculture principles. It was called the Garden in Transition. It was a reasonable approximation of my state of mind at the time, an attempted artistic response to Permaculture. It was beautiful and at least a little bit wild, it was voted by one group of children as their favourite element of the festival – but it failed in one important respect. The heart of the garden was to have been a piano. In the back of an electrical contractor’s van we brought an old piano down to the site from Leominster, but it was no good - it was unplayable, and I had wanted it to be functional so that people in the garden could play, and so that we could have had a bit of Chopin while we constructed the fence - music to take the edge off hard work. I reckon that anything becomes bearable with a good enough soundtrack, even the end of the world. Putting a piano in a garden was a perfect example of the weirdness, and it didn’t quite work, the instrument wasn’t quite good enough, so we had to dismantle it and that was that.
I’m still looking for the weirdness: I feel like there is something important, some combination of thought and nature, or words and Earth, which will contain the motherlode of weirdness, maybe something that combines a piece of industrial detritus with something organic, and yet contains a kind of beauty – something to distinguish what I’m talking about from fly-tipping – something beautiful as well as surreal, wild and ancient. Ideally I would like to come across this stuff by accident, but in the meantime I may have to try and create some myself, but where in the world to start? How would I go about creating, for example, a living room in a field where some of the elements are really living – a straw-stuffed armchair seeded with fungal mycelia and sprouting oyster mushrooms, and a rug made of sedum, with an actual coffee table in the middle? Or, in a woodland clearing, on a bright winter afternoon with shafts of sun shining through the branches, a string ensemble in full concert garb, playing Gorecki’s ‘Symphony of sorrowful songs’? Or a waterproof art exhibition ranged bravely along a footpath next to a river, distracting and puzzling the dutiful dog-walkers as they pass? Or a huge and beautiful mural on the back of an unlovely supermarket wall which can only be seen by cows in the neighbouring field or by canoeists as they drift down the river? I don’t know. Maybe there’s a way to do these things.
The start of a weirdness reading list
John Lane, Timeless beauty
Jay Griffiths, Wild
David Abram, The spell of the sensuous
Patrick Whitefield, How to read the landscape
Iain Sinclair, London Orbital
Will Self, Psychogeography
Walter Benjamin, Illuminations
Paul Stamets, Mycelium running
Brian John, Pembrokeshire
Walker Percy, The Moviegoer