Sunday, 21 October 2012

A Brutal Elegance - Every Grain of Sand

I don't really mean the song is brutal, far from it.  But death and evolution are infinitely brutal and infinitely elegant, endlessly turning and resolving.  The individual seems to be everything and the universe nothing.  Precisely and equally, the exact opposite is also true.

A dear friend and I discuss, and attempt to apply, the William Morris test when deciding what to chuck out of our houses and what to keep.  Only the truly beautiful or the truly useful.  Everything else must go.  But a reasonably loving observation of nature suggests  something further, namely that true utility eventually tends to some sort of wild and strange beauty.The Komodo dragon may give us pause in the consideration of this theory but I'll stick with it. A perfect equilibrium and fitness to the task is all; from efficiency arises beauty and the unfit falls away. 

The persimmon or diospyrum kaki.  A remarkable fit with human needs in a continental climate - no care other than planting required, produces delicious fruits late in autumn, ready for the dark days of winter.  How did  I ever deserve such a lovely thing?

sit here today with six scaffolders - presumably similar to scaffolders all over the world, loud, rambunctious, determined, not beautiful yet, utilitarian and proud of it.  They're a bit upset however.  We have an enormous hornets nest under the roof  in the pigsty/stall/hutch section of our Italian house and they are worried that taking down the scaffolding will cause some sort of war for survival between man and hornet - the latter on their home territory, the former keen to get on and off the job with no problems.  One of the scaffolders, perhaps with a slightly more philosophical streak, completely useless in his chosen profession, has pointed out the magnificence of the hornet construction and admires the fact that it was created without obvious scaffolding of any kind.  I suppose that's not quite true though;  in some ways a hornets nest is probably nothing but internal, integrated scaffolding.

Anyway we've phoned the firemen, who seem only slightly interested, to discuss them coming to remove the nest.  I don't know, I'd hoped that as the autumn advances, the nest could be knocked down after the hornets left it to do whatever it is that they do.  I understand smoke could be involved.  As I cook a bit of fish for my lunch, I'd rather not be responsible for the death of thousands of hard-working hornets, their loves, their hopes, their belief in a future for their children.

I see the chief scaffolders are not interested in discussion with me, the pathetic householder.  They've had a pee here and there, so something important has been achieved. They're rushing about now, swearing about the inconvenience of the location - the wheels of their trucks having ground out pits of slippery mud on what passes for an access point.  I await my friendly, authoritative chief builder, Ottavio, with concern.  I know there have been previous discussions about the access issues. Blame has been cast, at driving abilities, topography, weather.  But in the end there's little to be done but find a solution, abandonment of the job being the only other alternative.

Utility, on its journey to eventual beauty, if we are to believe my initial assertion, is all about fitting in with the reality of how things are.  Stuff works, or it doesn't.  Time moves on and sorts it all out.  What succeeds dies, what fails dies out.   Simple.  Painful.  You may have what you want in the face of that.  We have filled the world with abandoned workings, we will fill it more, all will be abandoned, knocked down.  A planet of toxic rubble will breathe deep and start again.

My tasks today are to view, with mixed horror and enthusiasm, the arrival of the donkeys which are going to clear our land.  Electric fencing and anxiety are all in place.   Then to review matters with Ottavio, the builder.  To decide with the plasterers on whether to leave exposed the iron ribs that hold the thin curved ceiling vaults in place, or whether to plaster them over, thus creating a wavy but uniform effect. 

Exposed, the ribs would look a bit stripy.  You would see the nature of the construction - would this be useful?  I'm not sure it would be beautiful.    Neither Darwin nor Morris can help me here.  No-one is prepared to admit that any other consequences follow, in time, labour, complexity or maintenance.  I find this hard to believe but have to adapt to circumstances.  Ottavio is a sphinx on the subject. OK, let's have them concealed under the plaster.


Oh let's get back to plants - so much easier, and even if they die because of bad planning or lack of knowledge - at least no suffering is involved.  I'm always astonished to discover that some people find this hard to accept and go in for the rescue of plants they see as abandoned or neglected.   This way lies madness I'm afraid, although I suppose the essential sweet naturedness of human anthropomorphism is also exposed.

I said no suffering was involved in the death of plants. Someone will tell me that there is evidence that plants produce stress hormones, screaming away beyond our hearing.  So maybe we have to devise a world where plants must be killed humanely - what could that look like? I feel deeply, self-centredly bored at the idea. 

Dead plants create every form of life - there's no question of managing without them, though those who live in cities in the desert may sometimes wonder about that.

Death is life.  We're all in this together.  Wanton cruelty  confuses us, for we know that death is supremely utilitarian and therefore must be beautiful.  But cruelty is a final sort of ugliness and cannot tend to beauty.  The equations seem unlikely to work, but I believe they do.  I just believe it.
I see one of the scaffolders is sitting down to eat his lunch on a bank where I may have planted some pieces of this or that, anxious to learn what will live through the winter. Now I will gain knowledge about another aspect of my planting's resilience, I only have to run  out later and see what is or was there.  

Oh this is rather more exciting than I'm sure about.  Apparently one of the scaffolders gave the hornets nest a hit with what must have been a very long pole.
He did this deliberately, but completely insanely.   The others  carried on with their work, less obviously bothered about the hornets since they were told to pull themselves together by their head honchos.  So we rush, from one extreme to another.

Since the terrible event the hornets are just clambering about over the nest, and flying back and forth.  It's like a bomb's gone off for them I suppose. But rescue and recuperation is clearly their primary purpose, not retaliation.  Good, wise hornets, we might think, but they wouldn't do better if they'd stung us all into toxic shock, gaining only a day and all-out war against all their kind in the entire area.
The odds are, as usual, stacked, immensely stacked, apparently in our favour.  Eventually they will climb so high that they collapse on top of us.  We will go to hell in our own way, taking down everything we can.
Here's Dylan with a song I cannot hope to do justice to, one whose beauty and truth  fills me with tears I need not shed because of the control and the cleverness.   I choose, with nothing but pleasure, the version from the album Shot of Love.  Listen to it, it's the beating heart of a hymn to an absent but not dead watchmaker.  Whether that watchmaker can see what he's doing or not is somehow not the issue here.  The singer expresses a dearly won but honest doubt against the forces of belief and manages to remain, with a brilliance of neutrality for which he is rarely lauded, a little outside the absolute finalities in the idea of intelligent design, or not, in the universe.  Nothing is resolved, we hang, we balance.
The song is depth-charged with ancient literary voices.   The plaintive Alice in Wonderland opening, Blake, Bunyan, Dante, Epicurus, the Bible and Lucretius, ringing through the mind. Epicurus I only know through Lucretius, but I know they both believed that human fear of death is the worst and saddest sin.  They hold the line against the panicked excesses of human superstition: I'm with them, hunting the calm of acceptance. The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt is a great read, all about the Renaissance rediscovery of Lucretius, though I'm sorry to sound like a person with a showy and extensive reading list, when I can barely get through a newspaper.

The story of the song is a moment of reckoning in the difficult stony passage through life, where past mistakes and failures are rejected in recognition that one can only move forward, exercising the best one can of free will and accepting the inevitability of death. I've put that portentously and turgidly; the opposite of this delicate stepping through the song, listening and seeing as we pass, thoughts embodied in the images, washed by the waves of the sea.

The donkeys have arrived, only eight or nine, one pretty close to unacceptably male. They're a happy little band, eating with gusto.  Jessica is keeping an eye on them, stick in hand, until the fence is turned on.  Donkeys, hornets, try a stick.

The day is nearly over - it's been something, perhaps not quite fun.  My clothes are full of burrs from the burdocks and I've parked a few plants brought from England.  Proper planting will follow building.  Anna, who lived in this house many years ago and now lives at the top of the hill, has popped down for a chat and told me of the wonders of tagetes and oleanders.  My sanguisorbas and thalictrums are unlikely to impress, or even register. But the pale mauve allium pulchellum carinatum, a late flowering bulb like a larger, slenderer, more disorganised chive, with the same tendency to seed about, brightened her eyes.

My motley collection of agaves and aeoniums interested and enthused her. They're destined to winter, imprisoned like criminals, in the cantina, neither beautiful nor useful to me, but so far surviving against the odds.  In my mood of evolutionary austerity against the endless wastes of time evoked by the song, they represent nothing more than the flowers of indulgence and the weeds of yesteryear; great question-marks of fitness and responsibility hang over their meekly vegetable, spiky heads.

I listen once more to this miraculous song, so beautiful it must be useful, my heart lifts again.  The harmonica breaks, where Pan slips into the scene, are full of the agonising sweetness of life.  I'm right with the singer, here on this earth, where sparrows must fall. For me, no master counts them as they fall.  Even so, while we live, everything counts, just everything. Despite the stony path, and our own errors and failures, we're already in Wonderland.