Sunday, June 05, 2005

Commodify your wonder

Robert MacFarlane touches on something essential in the conclusion to his series on literature and landscape when he writes of those moments of encounter that take us to the heart of things (see here).

For me, as for many others over many years, it is at such moments that I have felt most fully alive to the beauty of existence. Often but not always, such "encounters" have been in solitude where in fact one feels
least alone.

We are in a dire situation when "autism toward nature" (see here) means that, for example, 94% of British children are unable to identify native trees - beech, ash, birch, hazel (Woodland Trust, April 2005), but that people burn with desire for Landrovers named "Tuareg" or "Bedouin".

As noted in a previous post, I sympathise with MacFarlane's approach, and will endorse his proposal - echoing Barry Lopez - for a new series bringing together the best in nature writing from around the British Isles (returning to the isles, or other places where we started, and knowing them for the first time).

My first thought for the series is Hogg's and Bull's Herefordshire Pomona - so wonderfully described by George Monbiot and featured in luminous exhibition at the Ashmolean which I happened to see today - A new flowering: one thousand years of botanical art.

But I do this with limited optimism. Here, maybe, is a reason. The same, 4 June issue of the Guardian book review that carries MacFarlane's essay also carries a review by the sane journalist Andy Beckett of
The Rebel Self: How the Counterculture Became the Consumer Culture by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter (see here).

Heath and Potter follow Thomas "Commodify-Your-Dissent" Frank in arguing that "enemies" of "consumer capitalism" misunderstand and profoundly underestimate it.

So one can create another product - in this case a classic book series - that may itself be both part of the problem and part of the solution? Like so much shaped by human desire and organised into material form, even books can be two-edged swords.

On the downside, the classic UK nature books series could become yet another set of positional goods for those who want to set in opposition to - "better than" - the established order.

The upside can come with learning to better recognize and manage the destructive aspects of desires and how to enhance their positive sides. This is an endless process with no guarantee of success. It's worth a try, though, and maybe these books could help.

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