I’ve finally got round to reading Bruce Chatwin’s ‘The Songlines’, a recollection of his wandering through Australia and encountering nude snorkelling Irish priests, sunburnt survivalists with dodgy guts, and of course – most interestingly of all – the Aboriginal people whose Songlines he is on the trail of. Drunks, mavericks, jokers some might be, sleeping under corrugated iron ‘humpies’, or laughing in a bar with beer mats embedded into knitted hats, or brawling slowly, patiently, with broken bottles under a relentless, lethal sun, the undercurrent of Aboriginal culture was still the mode of living that they had successfully followed for millions of years become the white men arrived.
The Songlines are the tracks that embroider the landscape with the songs of the ancestors who walked the earth singing everything into existence. As they walked they strewed the land with souls, and when a woman steps on one of those spots while pregnant, the foetus experiences its second ‘conception’, marked by its first kick, which designated the totem it will have for life. Songs are the maps that mark territories, the currency that can be exchanged for rights of passage, and even a melodic description of the lay of the land.
Every landmark, pinnacle of rock, outcrop of eucalyptus in the scrub is the site where an animal ancestor went back into the mesh that separates the eternal from the mortal. It would be sacrilege for them to inflict any kind of crime against this beautiful, song-studded earth.
Reading this puts me into a near-hallucinatory state of wonder. Of course! If you are a nomad, obliged to move from place to place in search of pastures and water and thus dependent on the open spaces that form your roof and walls, your understanding of nature would have to be close to telepathic. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be any more you.
Then I go online, where the hypnotic rhythm of bad news sends me into a different kind of trance. Fracking. The Keystone XL pipeline. Conflict minerals. Brazilian logging companies rounding up the Awa Indians (of whom only some 350 are left) and shooting them. Epidemics of birth defects due to agrochemicals. Even Amazon.com’s German depot has come under fire for neo-Nazi working conditions.
It is becoming clear that every commodity, from gold to oil to gas to slate to wood to books to vegetables – vegetables! – is a cause of suffering in the world. Every time we buy some gadget or frock or piece of jewellery that we have been conditioned to want, there is a chain of murder, theft, and injustice that trails all the way back to the spot where the Earth was forced to yield its treasure, where human beings were obliged to give their time, sweat, and blood for the brief clink of money – usually in someone else’s pocket.
Where have our Songlines gone? Back when we were all nomads, as we were for at least 99% of human history, the touch of our feet on the earth must have stitched it to us in ways we cannot comprehend today, so rare is it for our bare soles to come into contact with concrete-free soil. Would we have had in England a Ladybird Dreaming, or a Milk Cow Dreaming, or a Heavy Fog Dreaming? I wonder what kind of totemic being we might have now. A Chocolate Wafer Biscuit? A Car Tyre? A Wet Wipe?
Perhaps it is true, as George Carlin says, that the Earth will survive a long, long time after we have gone, that “the Planet’ll shake us off like a bad case of fleas”. In the meantime, though, we still have to live with ourselves. And everything else has to live with us, too. It’s not just about Saving the Planet, even; it’s a case of refinding our songlines, the threads weaving us together and in and out of our environment. Every act that revives our touch, our physical experience of the world, brings us back to that wondrous apprehension of how very small we are, and how in need of each others’ mercy.
That, against all the rhetoric of free-marketeers, is where happiness lies. Not is being big and flashy and better than everyone else – how easy it is for ballooning pride to burst! – but by being compatible with life as a whole, interactive, interdependent, intercompassionate. There would be no necessity for all our poisonous trades in glittering stones and metals and black liquids were it not for our desires for them. The less we are reliant on the world of big business, the less we are compliant with it. So, I would like to sonorously announce, the answer to the world’s multifarious ills is quite simply this: to find some joy wherever it causes no harm. Joy cancels out greed, and with it a host of other sadnesses.
Here are some things that I think not only pay tribute to our need for less need, but also gave me a glimmer of joy in the process. Please feel free to add your own!
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SBWi3NtND68 (Simple 55w solar lights from a plastic bottle and water)
http://www.ehow.com/how_5240773_make-shoebox-solar-oven.html (Make your own solar oven)
http://inhabitat.com/cyclean-bike-powered-washing-machine/ (Bicycle powered washing machine)
http://www.instructables.com/id/Home-Made-Solar-Panel/step1 (DIY solar panels)
http://deciwatt.org/ (Light powered by gravity)
http://www.ecoinventos.com (All sorts of clever upcycling and eco tricks in Spanish)
http://webecoist.momtastic.com/2009/02/17/green-it-yourself-15-innovative-eco-friendly-diy-projects/ (Particularly loving Elvis the hamster charging Peter Ash’s mobile phone)
http://www.greenprophet.com/2011/11/7-cleantech-arab-world/ (Ice in the Sahara! Really!)
http://ygtainternational.wordpress.com/2012/07/06/the-ecoladrillos-eco-brick-project/ (The Eco brick project in Latin America)
http://pinterest.com/cathybureau/eco-friendly-projects/ (DIY eco-friendly projects)
http://www.ecotippingpoints.org/our-stories/topic-energy.html (Over 100 success stories from around the world – there is hope!)