The Commons as a fable for our time – a fable with teeth. Part I

“The People’s Climate” Blog Series, Part 2

 

Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good is an admirable, even noble, vision, and expresses very eloquently what will have to be done if humanity is to escape the current race towards disaster.”– Noam Chomsky

An uplands pasture near the ancestral Menzies lands in Scotland.

An uplands pasture near the ancestral Menzies lands in Scotland.

Fable is an old-fashioned word for a story meant to convey a useful lesson. I noticed it used in several reviews of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything on climate change and what to do about it in the context of addressing what the reviewer sensed as a gap in an otherwise excellent book: the absence of a vision to unite alternative action or, as one put it, a fable. I think the commons offers such a vision. This first of two blog posts is about being open to ancient story and vision.

Like so many activist writers, I knew what I was against: letting an overheated global corporate economy remain on a collision course with our increasingly distressed planet. But I couldn’t name what to do about this in terms meaningful enough for a social movement to sustain action on them.

I kept banging my head against ‘alternative job opportunities’ and other vagueries. Until I read Aboriginal environmental activist Clayton Thomas-Muller’s 2010 essay “The Seventh Generation” where he wrote: “something deep inside me snapped. I quit trying to be Canadian,” settling instead in the knowledge that “I was Cree.”

I packed a bag and headed to the Highlands of Scotland hoping to find remnants, faint echoes and lingering intimations of what it was like when my ancestors lived in direct relation with the earth, and called themselves “Cruithne,” simply “the people” in Gaelic. One day I tracked the small symbols on an ordinance map marking the ruins of stone shieling huts, seasonal dwellings in the upland pasturing commons where my forebears spent their summers, from Beltane to Llamas time on the old pagan calendar. The path that would take me there began at a lay-by beside a single-track road that ran around the back of Ben Lawrs, one of the biggest mountains in the Highlands. The path was a rock-studded affair that wound its way around bits of fern-covered bog, up over ridges and finally to a lovely hung valley where even I could tell the grass was taller and thicker if not positively lush.

Knowing that this area was land long inhabited not just by my father’s father’s people, the Menzies, but also those on his mother’s side and one side of my Mum’s family too, I walked into that valley as though I was coming home. I took in the feel of the ground rough and gnarled against the soles of my feet, the mist in the air billowing gently against my face. I heard the water in a stream that came boisterously down from the saddle-back ridge at the far end of the valley, and saw where it pooled beside a cluster of tumbled down stones that, yes, must be the ruins of the shieling huts, called bothies that I’d been reading about. One was more intact than others, the angle of the corner stones still sharp and clear, some cavities in the stone walls where my ancestors would have stored the cheese they’d made through the summer, plus the cooking tools, the horn and wooden spoons they used in eating. I was drawn to what seemed to be the entrance, a single slab of stone still marking the lentil above it. Some ancestors might well have shaped that stone, I realized, using an iron chisel forged from bog iron that they would have found under the peat during their summers here. My great, great grannies and aunties would have gone in and out this way, carrying armfuls of dried heather that served as mattresses for sleeping in the bothies.

I stood at the entranceway as though it was a portal to another time, and in a way it was. So I just stood there, immersing myself in the sense of this, open to what the spirits of my ancestors might have to tell me, should they by chance be present in the mist that was gathering, thicker now, in the valley. I had come to a place where my forebears had lived connected to the earth: as responsible inhabitants of a habitat, and it was helping me get my bearings.

Common means “together as one. For my ancestors on the common lands of the Highlands, it meant land and people together as one, one inter-relationship. It also meant negotiating that relationship in daily work, knowledge and governance practices – commons practices that persisted in some glens like this one right up until the Clearances (which I will unpack in later blog posts). These practices have recently been vindicated as the basis of a genuine alternative to market or state governance of land and resources, notably through the work of Elinor Ostrom, who was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics in recognition of it.

To be continued…

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