The word “love” has long been graffitied on the brick of a nearby clock tower; it had, until sometime recently, been there for at least the few years that I’ve lived hereabouts. Today, on a local mosey, I saw that this four letter word had been censored, cleaned away.
It was only later in the same walk that I realised that this seemed to be the sole graffito to have been cleaned away locally of late: many tags, signatures, and other street obliquities remain scrawled on the suburb’s various surfaces. I am, generally speaking, welcoming of it: I’d much rather graffiti than advertising. (‘Love’, the only missive to be effaced – imagine!).
On another recent jaunt in the area, I came across a somewhat distressed woman, de-littering a freshly-shredded hedgerow by the river in an agitated manner. My remarking on my sadness at seeing what had evidently happened to this patch of ground – trees cut down, bushes ripped out and dumped, the bramble angularly slashed – brought forth from her a torrent of pained outpourings regarding the desecration. “Neanderthals!”, she cried, explaining that, having tried in vain over several years to persuade the Council to come and free this patch from litter, she was alarmed to see their workmen turn up and instead begin liberally lopping, chopping and tearing, inflicting upon the area a treatment as savage as it was pointless. (Neanderthal man and woman, it must be said, might well have treated the land with greater respect – but one appreciates, I think, what the woman was expressing through her use of the term). It’s worth pointing out that this is not a piece of land which is near to any residences, and has no other reason for being manicured as some showpiece; neither is it being prepared for any building work. It’s purely the occurrence of natural habitats along a riverside, adjacent to a sizeable area of rough grassland.
Similar examples can be found of public authorities, and their hired hench-forces, taking it upon themselves to do precisely what isn’t necessary. The detritus of our neoliberalised existences accumulates in gutters, gardens and hedges; polluters are left to idly belch as they see fit; the city street is everybody’s flytip. Meanwhile, Councils up and down the land waste their time, and our money, in busybodying themselves with nature. They send their troops to engage in the futile and carcinogenic glyphosating of ‘weeds’; trees are pruned and hedges hacked, and at the wrong times, when they are growing or when birds want to nest. Grasslands are often mown to within millimetres of their life: even if this does not kill the grass outright, it is left much more vulnerable to drought; its roots are stunted and struggle to bind the soil, which is at greater risk of being washed away by rainfall; and the danger of flooding is increased. Further, the biodiversity upon which we depend is instantly lost. (Conversely, when such areas are left and life allowed to take its course, the natural assets we are increasingly aware of badly needing – soil, trees, insects – spontaneously flourish … These incidences seem small matters – but writ large and expanded across nations and continents, they have significant impact; and in any case, I care about every chaffinch that bids me visitation).
There is perhaps more going on here than simply the need for folk to be given things to do by which they can earn money (etc etc, world without end, Amen), or a ritualised fixation with an idea of tidiness as a measure of local character. The philosopher E.M. Cioran wrote much about humans’ perceived need to impose themselves through any form of doing upon each other, the world, and time; he described this as a form of inherent vanity, a seemingly inevitable offshoot of our notions of ourselves as selves. “Contaminated by the superstition of action, we believe that our ideas must come to something” [his italics], writes Cioran in the pointedly-entitled essay ‘Thinking Against Oneself’ in the collection ‘The Temptation To Exist’, in describing what he referred to elsewhere in the same tome as “the idolatory of becoming”. (I have sometimes mused on the notion that the simple, even puerile need to have something to do may be a major factor in many acts of murder). In this sense, Cioran paints a colonialist instinct as intrinsic to us: the question is to what extent, through awareness and restraint, we can offset this.
We live in a society with a strong bias towards doing, and being seen to do, one abetted by the ubiquity of functional accessories: “What if our reveries were not productive? … What if we lay back on a lily pad, with nothing to do? Would someone call the police?”, enquires Richard Seymour in concluding his book The Twittering Machine. And in the neoliberal era, wherein we are primed to compete and to be wring as much from the earth as possible, it may be that desecration and domination is a yet more likely expression of this ‘need’ to seek recognition (from self and others) via activity. (Note that there are generally higher rates of violent crime in more unequal societies, in which the spirit of competition is enhanced).
The overall effect, if not the underlying aim, of such neo-Neanderthal nature-cowing as described herein is the extension of the project of humanising the world as much as possible. Only latterly have the ecological needs, and perhaps natural rights, of other forms of life begun to be spoken of in the same breath as the grand plans humanity has for earth and space. It remains the case that our distorted sense of self-significance, and our perception of our own force of life as being individually possessed, rather than part of a universal energy, provokes our craving to make our mark (concrete is required for us to leave a lasting imprint) – to take some ownership of, or some virginity from, the world; be the user, not the used. One might think that by now we’d be getting the message that our human dominion over nature only serves to threaten our own survival; however, this perhaps fails to account for the deeper drives that are in play, acknowledgement of which may be key to our safe collective passage into a habitable future.
The spontaneity of love, and love of spontaneity, will each be required in this quest: thus, plans are afoot to re-inscribe that four letter word upon the brick of the clock tower, and to undertake geurilla planting of trees and wildflowers along a nearby riverside path. Further to which, in that patch of land, there may really be nothing for we humans to do.