Robert Macfarlane asks in, ‘The Old Ways’, what does he know when he is in a place that he can know nowhere else, and, what does this place know of him that he cannot know of himself.
‘The Old Ways’ is an account of various walks Macfarlane has made and what he has learned by them, the intimacies of nowhere else around, within and without him. So far as I have accompanied him along his written recollections, some of the routes of and locations on the walks are familiar to me, e.g. the Icknield Way, yet by his eloquent knowing and writing the ways are also rewardingly unfamiliar.
Macfarlane suggests there is vanity involved in the making of the journeys (and the written accounts) however he has looked beyond himself, his sense of place, to seek the insights of others who have made similar and very different journeys to him, most notably, the old way romantic, George Borrow, and the haunted and haunting poet, Edward Thomas. They, and other companions, have enabled Macfarlane to avoid immersion in a vanity project.
I have been wondering where I have been and where I could go to apply Macfarlane’s questions. Appropriately, a place come to personal prominence recently might have much to say about vanity; the place being a polytunnel on an allotment in Chingford at the edge of the Lea Valley. This polytunnel and the site around it has some relevance to E17 in that surplus fruit and vegetables grown there are sometimes sold from Organiclea’s Saturday stalls – and are labelled ‘ultra local’.
Organiclea Stall Skill Share 4th August
Red ants in the polytunnel
I have been going to the allotment since late summer 2003 following an invitation via a flyer from Organiclea. The polytunnel was erected by the founding members of Organiclea who had started reclaiming the neglected site from a bramble thicket in 2001. The tunnel consists of a series of metal hoops, deeply set in the ground, over which translucent plastic sheeting is stretched. Its length runs east west; an orientation that maximises the sunlight it can receive. The special ‘greenhouse’ plastic has seldom been cleaned and therefore the tunnel is not performing optimally although for such an old tunnel it is still in good shape structurally. The brambles have only just started encroaching through the inevitable cuts, tears and rips in the plastic skin and so are perpetuating a cycle of counter reclamation (with more vigour this year) since the collectively minded ‘Organiclea’ departed for pastures new and more in keeping with ‘permacultural’ ambitions.
Recently I found myself walking, standing then dancing in the polytunnel, making awkward balletic steps on my toes to move between the raised beds, in-between the lush verdance, all the while holding a watering can to water the needy plants. What had precipitated my clumsy toe stepping and wayward spouting? This year the polytunnel has become something of a formicarium – a ‘formilopolis’ - and there is barely a square inch let alone a foot of ground that is not teaming with red ants, each of them, I’m told, selflessly pursuing an anarchistic socialist utopia. My two toe steps were made to minimise the square footage of my rubber based footprints for heavier steps trigger the offensive defensive instincts of the myrmidons and their intensely irritating bites. Increasingly my efforts to avoid the attentions of the ants were made in vain as this year many ants have scaled the heights of my inside legs and bitten where no ants have bitten before. What indeed does this place know of me that I cannot know of myself? Modesty?
What is the anarchistic socialist utopia I was trampling? William Morton Wheeler (1865-1937), the founder of American myrmecology, was inclined to anthropomorphise ant behaviour (or sociality) with an imagination perhaps informed by a culture of classical myth and militarism. John Berger (1926- ) wrote in, ‘Why Look at Animals’, ‘animals first entered the imagination as messengers and promises ..... magical functions, sometimes oracular, sometimes sacrificial.’ Sacrifice is what Homer celebrated of the ancient nation, the Myrmidons, in The Iliad,
“Ye far famed Myrmidons, ye fierce and brave! Think with what threats you dared the Trojan throng”
Modesty prohibits me from describing the fate of the ants which scaled the mythical heights however I imagine way down deep beneath my toes the Myrmidons are exchanging classical concoctions of pheromones describing legendary derring-do in the dark and nether regions of Field Study’s Man in E17 in E4.
Another ethologist, Konrad Lorenz (1903 – 1989), questioned this metaphorical and mythical coexistence more seriously in the wake of World War II and The Cold War, stating he ‘was tempted to believe that every gift bestowed upon man by his power of conceptual thought has to be paid for with a dangerous evil as the direct consequence of it.’ Ants had emerged terrifyingly large from the irradiated deserts of that man’s generation.
As ever, one man’s (if not ant’s) utopia is another’s dystopia and according to Pierre Andre Latreille (1762 -1833), a place of ants is one ‘of inequalities, hard labour and dreary chastity’. When Latreille penned his gloomy perceptions of the lot of ants, ‘myrmidon’ was also a term used to describe a loyal, unquestioning follower and hired ruffian; that is, a person lacking imagination.But here from the peaceable gift of the polytunnel (a modest Eden nestled in a vein of the Lee Valley) milk and nectar must break, and honey sweat through the pores of oak* and so there has to be another way of re-imagining the proliferation of ‘them’, the ants. So I have continued to dance contorting to bloodily scratch the tops of ant bite induced spots, to enter a funky reverie of pain that could have been of a rite of passage by which, one day, I could become Solenopsidini. Alas conceptual thought disrupted the trance as a question occurred to me about the collective mass/weight of the ants in the polytunnel and around the allotment as a whole. Could it be there was more ’ant’ than ‘man’ at work in the paradise garden? This year the allotment as a collaborative human effort has been something of a failure as few of us sharing the allotment have been able, willing or wanting to cultivate it; some loss of oneself to the intimacy and poetry of the place has been tainted by resentful thoughts about the absence of ‘the others’. Outnumbered and outweighed! To counter this emotional density I have tried to accommodate thoughts about the benefits of the ants – how fantastically they are turning over the soil, how efficiently (ruthlessly?) they are preying upon all sorts of fellow beasties that can try the patience of a hopeful gardener. I can also wonder at their intimacy with the place, how there is barely a square millimetre of the terrain untracked by and to the power of 6 legs & feet, and communicable by senses only imaginable.
Have I found the ‘nowhere else’ of the place and the nowhere or no one else of me? This is unlikely for vanity has come between the place and me as typically I performed for a story to be recounted later on. In this state of un-communion I am overweight rather than outweighed, carrying too much of a sense of self towards a place that prevents actually getting and being there. In, ‘The Old Ways’, Macfarlane probably gets over this threshold (of vanity) by a balance of imaginative recall and reinvention.
* Ovid, Metamorphosis - http://www.uvm.edu/~hag/ovid/garth/garthb1p3.html