The Voice in the Brambles

I have a forest.

It’s not mine, of course.  No forest could be.  More truthfully, a forest has me, has enthralled me with the happy accident of its existence, its odd survival on the slopes of a hill otherwise cleared of anything not man-made.

It’s part of a park, actually, one of those odd, unmarked areas in this city not easily built-upon, gifted by some wealthy landowner a century ago back to the city.  At its lowest end, there’s a children’s playpark, and to its south is an elementary school, and behind all that? Forest.

Not the forest that was once here, of course.  Most of the trees of Seattle went to San Francisco, that city which seemed not to be help itself but to burn down repeatedly.  And of course, there are hardly any trees in San Fransico, because they were using these trees for wood.

Instead of the ancient stands, there are towering maples, small isolated cedars, and clusters of red alder.  Ferns, likely recent plantings.  Patches of Oregon grape clinging to the hillside.  Children from the elementary school and volunteers from Earthcorps planted stands of Salmonberry at the top of the hill where the stream begins.

Of course, the stream is dry now, though the rains are coming.  I’ve followed its path what little distance I could, avoiding stepping into the the muck to prevent damage to the fragile plants competing with the blackberries.  I walked along fallen trees (quite a few of them, unfortunately) pulling out hauls of old cans and bottles, because you can’t have a stream without throwing trash into it, right?

There’s a sadness I feel when I go there, even as the place gives me great joy.  North a few blocks is another, more well-tended “greenspace” which could easily connect to this one were it not for the roads and a few houses in the way, including the one I’m renting.  It’s hard not to see how they could connect–and spread–without experience a deep sorrow, almost a rage.

I’m not a “home-owner,” so I have no rights to plant trees in the median between the street and the sidewalk, something which requires a permit in this city to keep the sidewalks from buckling and the utility lines “safe” from falling branches.  I looked at the list of “approved” trees–only one of them is actually native to this area.  That is, the two restored forests cannot legally be connected by the trees which grow therein.

But I could own 17 cars if I wanted, so that’s some comfort, yes?

Needing What Suffocates You

That forest is becoming my playground, my grove, and also a symbol for all the other stuff I’m trying to understand.  The blackberries which choke the riparian zone are of particular interest as I cull them.  When restoring large areas, it’s quite bad to cut them all away at once.  The ground beneath them is useless for a bit, and they provide cover even as they’ve choked out all possible other cover.  Particularly in this area, they’ve also served to keep people away from the stream, brambled walls to prevent entry to the more vulnerable spots. Also, they hold the fragile soil in place and provide habitat for ground-dwelling animals and small birds, as well as food.They’ve become important, vital, but only because they displaced what otherwise would have filled that role.

As I cut them and they lacerate the skin on my arms, I find myself thinking on the Emperor or Lord card from Tarot, the boundary-maker, the “masculine” impulse of culling and order.  I’m uncomfortable with it, even as I know it should happen.  Staring at the shears in my hand, knowing the death I bring is necessary for the whole of the forest, always gives me pause.

Also, I spend most of my time there thinking about the rest of my life, and particularly the demands of society against the forests which it consumes to sustain itself.  If Eugene didn’t threaten to make me a primitivist, this small patch of forest, of which I am currently the sole caretaker, seems to want to continue the convincing.

Though, of course, I’m not a primitivist, but I fucking wish we had more forests.

A pagan writer wrote an inscrutable critique of Peter Grey’s essay, Rewilding Witchcraft.  A friend re-titled that critique, humorously, Re-Milding Witchcraft: A guide to feeling good about yourself without the uncomfortable or challenging bits.”  I don’t think the critic quite comprehends the implications of the argument he is proposing, nor quite the context in which his arguments function.  Quite often, we don’t.

Seeing the extreme damage Capitalism is doing to the land is enraging, but what one does with that rage depends less on the “character” of the person than on how vested one is in Capitalism.  I don’t just mean profit-motive….very few of us are actually “Capitalists” in the precise definition of the term (a person who employs others to increase their wealth–that is, business owners with employees).  Most of us, instead, are subjects of Capitalism, though some benefit more than others, some “buy-in” more than others, some tether themselves more fully to the continuation of the system than others.  The more you own and want to own, the more you consume and want to consume, the more tied you are to the continuation of Capitalism.

If you have a mortgage, you need Capitalism to continue long enough to give you an income to keep a roof over your head.  Same with an auto loan.  If you own stock or have any stock-based retirement plan, your future is directly tied to the success of Capitalism.  If you went to college and have loans, you require the employers for whom you work to succeed at their goal (profit) so they continue paying you so you can pay back your education.  In essence, the more you’ve tried to do with yourself, the more you’ve worked to have a good life within this system, the more you desperately need the system to continue in order to sustain it.

On the other hand, the less you have, the less you’ve gotten, the lower the class you were born in, the less you need this terrifying Carnival of Capital.  If you don’t own a car, you don’t owe money to a bank and you don’t need to buy gas and pay insurance and repairs.  Your choice not to own a car may never actually have been
a choice at all, but your poverty divorces you from the system enough that you’ve less reason to want to cling to it.

For all the other things you need but cannot obtain due to poverty, there’s Social programs, bits of socialism within a Capitalist system that keep you on life support even as you find yourself collectively derided for wanting to survive at all.

The forest makes more sense, I think, to those with little.  There’s food in there, and a place to hide and think and not feel poor.  Also, its rules are nothing like the rules of Capitalism.  If it requires us, it’s only that we clean up our mess and undo the damage our activity has wrought upon it.  In this particular one, there’s a spirit I’ve encountered, both playful and feral.  It can’t be bought or negotiated with, because there’s nothing I have that it needs.  I gave it a gift, it liked it, and that’s about all.

There’s no economy between us, the forest and myself, except perhaps that old one of gifting.  I give it gifts.  It gives me gifts. I don’t think we recognize the gifts we’re receiving from each other.  It takes me several days to understand what it gave me.  I think it’s still waiting to see the purpose of the ones I’m giving it.

But if either of us needs the other, I suspect I need it more than it needs me.  Mostly, all I can really do for it is to protect it and help it spread.  Maybe tell stories about it so others might go look for it, or another one like it, and maybe try to restore another place.

Or, better–maybe I can convince others to stop being so vested in an arrangement of society which kills forests.

My best friend asked me last week how comfortable I am with the implications of my own ideas, knowing that advocating an end of Capitalism will lead to the death of those who insist on clinging to an arrangement that benefits them at the expense of all others.  Some people will insist on choking out all others, overtaking what’s left of the world, and then offering things in return.  Food.  Shelter.  Protection.

You need us, they’ll say.

And I’ll remember the blackberries.


17 thoughts on “The Voice in the Brambles

  1. If I can leave aside the part about Capitalism and just respond to the Blackberries for a moment (tall order, I know, and maybe impossible)–but I have been struggling with this question for a few months now. Namely, who are we to decide the blackberries should go?

    What are we trying to “return” to, by culling the blackberry vines (or purple loosestrife, or dandelions, or any of the other invasive species that we invasive settlers brought with us)? Some Edenic vision of a never-was? Can we separate the plants from the people who brought them over?

    This is not a critique of your actions or your essay but a question that I am wrestling with. What if we listened to the thistles and the blackberries? Do they have gifts for this time that we don’t yet understand?

    If we are always trying to restore a place to what it was–is that looking in the wrong direction?

    I realize this response makes a hash of the metaphorical use you were putting the blackberries to…I apologize for that. It’s the end of summer and I’m strung out and mostly broken and just can’t help wondering if we’re going about it wrong, in how we look at our wild spaces. We have…always, it seems, on both sides of the political spectrum… such a need to control.

    1. No, it’s a very good question!

      I’ll never be able to remove all the blackberries from this forest, but what I can do is give the other stuff a chance also to survive long enough to compete again. One starts to get into questions of “net harm” and other things…for instance, there are some invasive species that function precisely like native ones and don’t damage the whole. Then, there are others which, because they have no predators will destroy the whole thing.

      Blackberries, interestingly, would be fine if we had ruminants and others which eat them. A buffalo, say, or more elk. But there’s nothing that cuts them back naturally here.

      Likewise, Ivy. Ivy will destroy an ancient tree in a few short years, and only a few trees like Maples can grow fast enough to out pace it. Left un-managed, you can have an entire forest of ivy-choked trees and blackberry underbrush (funny–they compete nicely with each other!).

      Restoring this place is impossible. There were 2000 year-old trees here when Whites came. Now there are none. The most I can do is help a diverse amount of trees and plants survive long enough to get past the threat of invasives, of which the greatest part of them walk on two legs…

      1. The only ivy on our property is wrapped around a huge maple trunk that continues to sprout! I am attempting to work *with* blackberry, for exactly the reasons you describe!

    2. I’ve struggled with this and related questions: who ARE we to decide these things? These values come from some set of cultural beliefs, right? Just because I believe this set of values is “better” – does that mean it IS? In 200 years, 500 years, what will the land do with all these invasives? Will the invaders adapt and change and be less problematic – will some of the natives adapt and change and eat them, overcome them? In the bigger picture, species move into new areas all the time; displacement happens. Things evolve; some go extinct. That’s how things work here, right . . . but I can’t NOT go out and try to fix things that we helped break. I can’t NOT try to help the plants and creatures that are hurting because of the invaders. It shows I care, if nothing else, and I think that has value, too. (Restoration work is both what I want to do career-wise, and what a number of my spirits want me to do on the spirit-side of things . . . and They /care/, a lot, about the physical side, too.) Maybe it’s only staving off the inevitable – but there are places where restoration work has made noticeable differences in short amounts of time, which has bigger-picture beneficial impacts. (will it last? will the blackberry and traveler’s joy and ivy and etc. make it to those places and ruin them in 30 years? not to mention global warming impacts)

      I started reading a bit on the concept of resilience in systems, and I’ve started to look at it from that perspective: if I can do some particular things, that can help that place get itself back into a place where it can better resist and recover from other negative impacts, maybe that’s enough. I -can- fight back the ivy and clematis that the native plants cannot, and that can create more space for the natives to take over again. Maybe not enough to totally restore everything, everywhere, but enough to help what is here be strong enough to deal with worse things coming, keep cataclysmic changes to a little smaller scale.

      It’s terrifying, too, to read about restoration work done where, through insufficient understanding of what was there, people have inadvertently caused even worse harm. We know /so little/ and we keep meddling and . . . The issue of Orion magazine out right now, which I think I need to go buy, has several articles about wilderness in it, and the bits I skimmed were honestly depressing. In the US, wilderness really isn’t “left on its own,” it’s all being managed in some way, and some of that management has fucked some things up. :\

      I’ve had meltdowns in the forest over this, talking to ancient trees, or deities, whatever, Whoever it was asking me what I was doing there, what are my goals: is it worth it, is this just my particular human bias and I should take a different view, will it have any lasting benefit? I don’t really get any answers, except encouragement to keep going – and maybe that’s for my benefit, because if I didn’t try, I think I’d be overwhelmed with despair.

      1. All these questions are huge.

        One of the most interesting things I’ve noted about particular land-spirits is how much the ones who’ve been around humans lately are more likely to note my presence, versus those that haven’t. The Hoh Rainforest, for instance, really doesn’t acknowledge your existence one bit, whereas small patches of forest are more likely to reach out or acknowledge your reachings.

        Also, different areas are different. I spoke to someone about land spirits in Florida and I concur with their opinion–they’re fragile, very eager to please, and too easily pushed around. In Eugene, Oregon? Feral, angry, but also really, really eager to throw gifts at you, if you’re willing to share their rage.

        I think much of this has to do with what the places have endured, how they’ve been shaped by humans (in the case of the Hoh–not really at all), and what they, themselves, remember. Also, First Nations’ presence is huge–the places where the first-tenders are gone seem more willing to deal with us descendents of settlers except there’s a palpable pain, while the ones with the first-tenders still around seem hostile or indifferent.

        I think the key is probably figuring out what the land spirits want first and working around that, Not always easy, though, and sometimes it’s like trying to help a wounded animal.

        But ultimately the question comes to, “who are we to act?” And mostly I think, “who are we NOT to act?” But balancing the wisdom of water with the drive of fire is rarely easy….

  2. Firstly, I am coming to love Blackberry. Very deeply much so.

    And now to ask some questions about the capitalism part:
    I agree that less we have the less are invested in capitalism. Mostly. I don’t know where or how one is supposed to secure housing. As a recent first time homeowner -which, frankly is a farce. A mortgage is a rent, the only difference is I’m the landlord and I have to pay for repairs- I question that it’s made me more dependent on capitalism. Yeah, the whole house price/mortgage/interest baloney is predicated on capitalism, but so are rent prices. I am starting to think that there is some benefit to owning my own house, because now I can live more honestly with the land. Our previous landlord used all kinds of pesticides and this land hasn’t seen a pesticide in 30 years or more. We plan to continue this, and can! Because we’re in charge of the land. (“In charge” haha)

    Adam and I talk about him expanding his business to include others, which would make him an outright capitalist by your definition. However, there is camaraderie in having an office. I suppose he could establish a bigger business as a collective. That’s an option. But we would like to make more money. It’s not because we want *more* stuff, but because we’d like *different* stuff. For example, I’d like to be able to afford more of my kids clothes from people like Alley, but it’s just not feasible on my budget. Which sucks. Establishing a wardrobe only from Goodwill is possible, but exhausting, especially with three kids. So we hit Target for some stuff. I’d rather be able to support Alley. I’d rather my furniture not be from some midlevel corporate furniture company and instead have a bed frame and dining table from an ecological artisan – but hand carved tables can run into the thousands! They are worth it for the skill and whatnot, but my family can’t afford to eat off the floor for 5 years while we save up.

    It’s important to opt out of as many of the “Capitalist Carnivals” as we can. I opt out of a lot (don’t use shampoo, cloth diaper, only own one used car, don’t use credit cards, barter with locals, and so on).

    I go on and on here, because I’ll admit I’m feeling a smidge confused. Sometimes I think you are advocating that poverty is perhaps the best way forward. I don’t think there’s any inherent nobility in poverty. Food and housing insecurity sucks. Doubly so when you have kids. For many people, poverty actually keeps them indebted to systems to capitalism because they have to rely on socialist/ish programs that are in turn slashed or funded at the whim of capitalism, because they have even fewer choices over where to live, what to eat, and how ethical the things are that they can purchase.

    All of that is to say: forests. Yes. More forests for all.

    1. My point certainly isn’t that anyone should be poor, only that the poor have the least to lose by the end of Capitalism, and the more invested any one of us is in the system, the harder any decision to fight Capitalism actually gets.

      Others besides the wealthy are invested in Capitalism-as-is. Consider, people living with HIV rely on medications patented and sold by mega-corporations. They will die if the Capitalists decide to take their toys and go home (similar to what the Portuguese did when they left Africa, trashing the infrastructure to prevent others from using it). This is why worker-takeovers of infrastructure are important, or, to return to the blackberries, planting something amongst a space in the blackberries (Maples, since they’re fast) instead of just tearing them out.

      Regarding having a business with employees,
      you probably already can suspect what sort of answer I’d give to that, but I can elaborate on the particular difficulties such a situation creates. Tethering your livelihood to the work of others is one thing (we all do that do some degree), but entering into a relationship with people where they produce on your behalf but you are sole benefactor of all excess derived from that production is another.

      I make candles, right? (I do–they’re awesome!) When I make and sell them myself, I’m not a Capitalist. When I pay other people to make them for me and then I sell them and take the extra money I get after paying them all to myself, I’ve “extracted” their labor from them for profit. The money ought to be theirs, because they’re the ones who made them, but I give them less than the total people pay for it for no reason other than I’m the “employer.”

      If that’s my only or primary means of survival, then the moment one of my chandlers (or all of them) demands a raise, I have every reason to oppose them. After all, any extra money they get is money I don’t get, and maybe I was hoping to buy a new laptop or new boots. Or maybe I need cancer treatment, or funds for a funeral for a family member. Or I was hoping to build a larger chandlery and have more people make candles for me, and they’re foiling my plans. Right there is the antagonistic relationship between owner and worker, and I could be the nicest guy in the world but I now have reasons to be an ass to them. In fact, the nicer and kinder I am, the worse that antagonism gets, because generosity does not a good businessman make.

      On the last point about indebtedness to Capitalism, I’d point out that the plight of the poor is the same regardless of whether the economy is good or horrible. The last economic downturn? The poor didn’t really notice. The last big bubble? Same. Their plight is the same regardless, even if the social programs get cut. But there’s the extra thing we should remember about social programs–they stave off civil unrest. Unemployment benefits keep workers from rioting, welfare reduces property crime by keeping people from being so desperate that they decide to steal. The New Deal, if anything, staved off an overthrow of the Capitalist system in America.

      1. As always this is a conversation I’d love to have in greater depth in person. It’s my turn to come to you.

    1. Teehee. I did when she wrote it, and liked it a lot. I almost linked to it after writing this, particularly because I love Broom and there’s some on the edge of the forest that I won’t be touching for awhile because it’s not intruding. But quoting her has its pitfalls, sadly:

  3. This may seem like a dumb question–or, at very least, a question that is naïve and simple-minded–but oh well (just because I have a Ph.D. doesn’t mean I’m not a hayseed to the core). When you take out the blackberries, do you pick the berries off first?

    Personally, blackberries have never done anything for me in terms of being a tasty treat, no matter how or in what they’re prepared; but, I do know other people like them, they’re edible, and if you get them in the wild, they’re also free. If the earth is being choked by them, they should of course be curtailed; but, in the meantime, wouldn’t it be somewhat in the mode of Dionysos (and various other deities) to at least honor the sacrifice of the earth by eating the fruits while culling the roots?

    Again, it’s a simple and perhaps stupid question, but I just wondered. I have no critique or useful response to anything else you have written, and I don’t think I can usefully add to, much less comment upon, Peter Grey’s words either.

    1. I do, indeed. 🙂 I’ve made several pies in the last two weeks, blackberry, pear, apple-pear, and pear-blackberry. Mostly fed local witch-folk. Alley Valkyrie and Niki Whiting (and family!) got to enjoy a dutch apple-pear with me a few days ago, and Tony Relling and Lisha Sterling have also come over for some.
      Which brings me to a very important question–
      When shall you come over for pie? 🙂

      1. I hope soon! 😉 Summer quarter ended Friday, but I’m doing grades as I type this (taking a break…), as they’re due in a few hours.

        Will you be at the EBC this coming weekend? I will be arriving Friday afternoon, will need to leave off my stuff where I am staying (w/M.Seb.Lvx in the U Dist.), but there will be a few hours until the rock opera starts, so perhaps we can meet up?

  4. “A pagan writer wrote an inscrutable critique of Peter Grey’s essay, Rewilding Witchcraft. A friend re-titled that critique, humorously, “Re-Milding Witchcraft: A guide to feeling good about yourself without the uncomfortable or challenging bits.”

    Yes my Witchcraft is completely mild. I do no work of value and I’m a capitalist stooge. I’m sorry I don’t use apocalyptic terminology and my writing as a platform for economic theory.

    1. I see that made you quite defensive, Jason.

      You’re hardly a “capitalist stooge,” nor would I assert that you do nothing of value or that your witchcraft is completely mild.

      That person’s critique, as well as mine. Alley’s and all the others’ are about the implications of your suggestions, not about you. That should be awfully obvious, particularly the accompanying sentence about context. No one’s talking about you, we’re critiquing your writing and the consequences of your ideas.

  5. Emotive post. We have similar problems with himalayan balsam in North West England. I did a balsam bash once but didn’t feel good about it.

    I’ve been quite laissez faire with ‘invasive’ wild plants in our wildflower meadow in my local valley as I’ve had bad reactions from removing things in the past. I guess what it comes down to is working with the spirits of place and there’s no strict rules but theirs either way.

    I know what you mean about the exchange of gifts either way not making sense. Of I’ve experienced this with both spirits of place and gods.

    1. “there’s no strict rules but theirs either way.”
      Absolutely. There’ve been a few times I thought I was doing good and then realized I wasn’t, because I wasn’t listening to them.

      Also, that exchange of gifts matter can be quite fascinating. A friend of mine and I have talked extensively about how the gods and spirits don’t quite understand money. When something is asked of me, and I make clear I’ll need money to accomplish it, I quite often will find a five-dolllar bill on the sidewalk within a few hours. This is never sufficient, of course, but kind nevertheless! 🙂

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