quite simplyPosted: January 21, 2013
longing for a more vernacular economy…
I have recently started to read a revealing and inspiring book, Soil and Soul by Alastair McIntosh, in which the author eloquently tells of the victorious empowerment of a local people to fight a landowner and multinational corporation’s plans to turn a mountain into a super-quarry. He begins by outlining a childhood in the indigenous[i] Celtic community of the Isle of Lewis, off the west coast of Scotland, including a description of the ‘vernacular economy’[ii] that he was then privileged to experience…
“In the Hebridean vernacular economy, people understood themselves to be responsible for one another. Everyone was their brother’s and sister’s keeper. […] At the deepest level of care is mutuality. As the owner of a fishing boat, let’s say, I will give you fish simply because I have plenty and you have need. It would be nice if you could give me some eggs in return, but only if you are able so to do. If you can’t, because you are too sick, too old, or just a bit feckless, somebody else will see that I have eggs. The fact that I have need will get around, because gossip is the oil of oral culture. It lubricates relationships and we slander its character when we, the children of the written truth, predicate it with the adjective ‘malicious’.
Now, my giving you fish comes from a sense of obligation, because we are mutually part of the community. Likewise you giving me eggs. And nobody keeps a formal score of things because the village economy is centred around seeing that everybody has sufficient. In this system sufficiency is the measure of prosperity. Surplus is for sharing before trading, and the joy is in the giving, not the accumulating. Our ‘poverty’, if it is that, is a dignified frugality, not the degrading destitution of economies where an elite harbours all the resources to profit from artificially maintained scarcities.”[iii]
The passage carries on to describe the various degrees of mutuality, barter and the eventual complete shift to fiscal exchange that the author witnessed while living on the island in the 1960’s. Such openness of spirit personified in such a locally derived vernacular economy is seldom experienced in today’s society, an openness, generosity and playfulness of spirit that lets everybody win[iv] as might be aspired to, or more correctly simply lived within many tribal cultures around the world.
Over the last 25 years I have been fortunate enough to enjoy such generosity both through others actions and my own – family, friends and strangers have offered what they may give to support the simple lifestyle choices I have made as an artist, and I have been able to continue my practice. Whether this is through a conscious respect for what I have aimed to represent or through some otherworldly karmic exchange I am not sure, but thankfulness for the smallest things and a faith in the universe to provide have certainly been a major part of my meditations, as well as a certain degree of self-sacrifice towards any personal contemporary indulgence. One way or another I have managed to get by and to continue with what I firmly believe to be my path and my essential aptitude in this lifetime.
Maybe this is true for all of us – that the universe allows us what we need if we are open to its provision in whatever form it comes – but more lately I have become painfully aware of the anxiety that may be caused by a society that demands a multitude of ridiculous material and fiscal qualifications before providing what is so obviously plentiful but clearly misappropriated! Where then is the openness of spirit or indeed the common sense that allows everyone to be provided for and that makes community just that – a community?! And maybe more importantly how may such a spirit be invoked within a society that is so desperately in need of such generosity and mutual care?! Hopefully there is an answer in art, or at least an art that recognizes the connection between all things and aims to nurture that connection.
From a personal perspective we all, quite reasonably, would like our needs to be met, but when it comes down to more shared political or group motivations why cannot like-minded people quite simply come together and share the sense and resources that are clearly abundant amongst us? Are we so scared of scarcity that we must hold our natural talents and worldly attributes so tightly to our chests that the supposed, proposed calamity will come to pass whether we like it or not? Did the Iron Lady and her ilk so effectively destroy any real sense of commonality and mutual intent among us that we would prefer to wring our hands perpetually in fear and resentment, rather than come forward and take our true place among it all?! Are we simply so broken and so blinded by misguided propaganda that we no longer want to share?!
Well, that is a great shame!
In my opinion, in my heartfelt understanding, we are a lot greater than that, a lot stronger than that and a great deal cleverer. We are as old as the stars, as strong as bears, as patient as the trees and as resilient as needs be. There is no sense in holding back, in saving ourselves for that rainy day when the moment has already passed and we can only look back at what might have been if we had simply opened our hearts without regret or regard for any selfish consequence. We are brothers and sisters all, coexistents in this carnival of life where everyone can win. There is no middle ground as there are no real edges, just a big swirling pool of joy-filled misadventure where we may glimpse our determination and our fate. We may resist or exist consequentially and eventually endure this all together or not. I only hope we will choose correctly.
Ultimately, and in response to the initial questions raised by Alistair McIntosh’s account of a past vernacular economy, in a society dominated, it seems, by financial exchange it is often hardest to see just what things or services we may offer as a contribution to our communal goals. I do not have a fishing boat or chickens or even a garden. I could gather sticks for a fire but do not have a fireplace and they will certainly not pay the rent. This society has become so severed from the earth, from the bountiful means of our own mutual subsistence, that even the things we may offer freely, like a smile or a helping hand, are considered somehow demeaning and given little value. Why, for example, are nurses and carers[v] paid so little for the essential services they provide? And why do farmers and fishermen struggle so hard just to get by when the food they provide is the substance of our being? Without them society would fall apart yet they can hardly pay their bills.
My own aptitude, as an ecological artist founded upon a childhood love of natural history and many years living in the wilds of western Ireland, suggest that what I may offer is this – words and pictures and a simple space to contemplate our relationships in this world[vi] so that our life choices may be more informed by the nature in which we exist. Again such simple and essential fayre is largely disregarded, misunderstood and misrepresented by today’s society, or at least greatly undervalued or taken for granted, and more often than not unlikely to pay the bills. But I may offer only that which I have and have faith that the great wheels turning will provide, that somehow our needs will be met and our prayers for a fairer world answered.
[i] For my feelings on the word indigenous (literally meaning ‘of a place’) go to https://intim8ecology.wordpress.com/2012/10/28/contemporary-arts-practice-as-a-means-towards-indigenous-intelligence/
[ii] ‘Vernacular economy’ was a term coined by social thinker Ivan Illich in 1981 to describe an economy based on mutuality, reciprocity and exchange as well as and as much on cash transactions.
[iii] from Soil and Soul, People versus Corporate Power, by Alastair McIntosh (Aurum Press; London, 2004)
[iv] from Medicine Cards by Jamie Sams and David Carson – insights into Native American Culture (Bear & Co; New Mexico, 1988)
[v] Interestingly the word ‘carer’ is not recognized by the popular word processing system I am writing these thoughts on!?
[vi] I also offer services in graphic design and illustration, run art workshops for children and adults, have a full driving license and a standard CRB check. I am an experienced painter and decorator, am happy to labour on building sites, am a proficient carpenter, have cared for children and the elderly and am an enthusiastic cook (both vegetarian and otherwise, enjoying experimenting with a variety of cuisine) and can provide nutritious meals on a large or small scale, if for one minute you thought that all I did was waft about with pen and pencil in hand or if indeed you would like to share your fortunes! 🙂