Sample Writing from Soil and Soul
In his recent book The Song of the Earth, the Shakespearean scholar Jonathan Bate made the extraordinary claim that poetry could save the world. I think Alastair McIntosh has just proved him right.
This is a world-changing book, one of the most important I have ever read, which will transform our perception of ourselves, our history and our surroundings, much as the work of Alice Miller and Sven Lindqvist has done. It is a first step towards the decolonisation of the soul: the essential imaginative process we have to undergo if we are to save the world from the political and environmental catastrophes that threaten it.
Soil and Soul is an extraordinary adventure in theology, economics, ecology, history and politics. It takes us from the Hebrides to the Solomon Islands, gently guiding us towards a new and remarkable philosophy by means of compelling, beautifully written stories. It overflows with ecstasy, quiet wisdom and love – love for humanity, for the world, for our failings and our possibilities.
McIntosh tells the story of his exceptional childhood, the historical destabilisation of the community in which he was brought up and, as he travels and reads, his growing understanding of why and how this happened. He explores the colonisation of resources, of human labour and, most importantly, of our own perceptions. Then he uses this emerging wisdom and experience to develop daring and innovative means of tackling the powers that have deprived us of ourselves.
With the people of the Isle of Eigg, he helped devise a strategy for overthrowing the once-intractable power of the landlord. Their remarkable victory – the first known case in which Scottish tenants cleared a laird from his own estate – galvanised public demands for widespread land reform in Scotland. When a multinational quarrying company announced its intention to turn a Hebridean mountain into a giant superquarry, McIntosh persuaded the Native American Warrior Chief Sulian Stone Eagle Herney to come to Scotland and help assemble the first-ever theological submission to a public inquiry. The publicity converted a local issue into an international one, developing one of the most striking challenges to corporate power in British history.
McIntosh draws on these experiences to develop a radical politics of place. He transforms our engagement with soil and soul – once the preserve of the right – into a new and compelling vision of freedom and social justice. His radical liberation theology, rediscovering both the presence of God in nature and the neglected femininity of divine wisdom, is persuasive enough to encourage even such an indurated old sceptic as myself to take another look at God.
By these means, Alastair McIntosh shows us, we can break the spell of consent, unchain our imaginations and challenge both power itself and the anomie and disaggregation on which power’s abuse thrives. The work of a great thinker and a great poet, Soil and Soul shows us how we can, in McIntosh’s words, make ‘beauty blossom anew out of desecration’.
Make no claim to know the world if you have not read this book.
Whether beyond the stormy Hebrides,
Where thou perhaps under the whelming tide
Visit’st the bottom of the monstrous world.
In one of his poetic works Hugh MacDiarmid reflects on the waste of a poor woman’s life in some Continental slum. Imagine her if you will: ‘thin and gaunt, in pink tights despite the cold’; and him, watching, yet realising that it is not good enough only to pity her suffering. There must be more to life, he muses, than for human beings to owe dignity, ‘their claim to our sympathy, merely to their misfortune’.
That ‘more’ is the capacity to see a person’s potential for blossoming: to see what they could be and maybe still can be; not just the limitations of what they presently are. ‘And I am,’ MacDiarmid says, emphasising the words with which he concludes his musings: ‘And I am concerned with the blossom.’[ii]
This book is about that concern. It is about the Earth – soil, in a metaphorical sense – and people, which is to say, soul. It is about the interrelationships between natural ecology, social community and the human spirit. It moves away from the mainstream trunk of western culture and goes out on a limb, where the blossom is.
The mainstream manufactures people as a monoculture. It turns us out like cloned rows of apple trees on pesticide-manicured fields. The mainstream ‘trains’ people by pruning. It forces growth in standardised ways. The song that we sing from within the mainstream is thereby not our own song. It does not issue from the opened gates of the soul. And so our personal branches and cultural roots atrophy away. We yearn for connection with one another and with the soul. But we forget that, like the earthworm, we too are an organism of the soil. We too need grounding.
Yes, progress and prosperity might have made us richer in material terms. But meanwhile, between thirty and a hundred plant and animal species become extinct each day, and the poor bleed. Such atrocities impact upon the psyche in ways both known and unknown, shaping who we are and what we become. This is a book about those impacts, and about how they can be healed.
The great disease of our times is meaninglessness. If fresh wellsprings of hope are to be found, we must first cut through the collective hallucination that ‘there is no alternative’ to nihilism. We must dig where we stand. We must get beneath the grassroots of popular culture and down to the eternal taproot. Here new life can grow from ancient stock.
But to make blossoming possible, we must embrace our losses. We must face the reality of a brokenness of heart that is both personal and of the world. Surprisingly, that is when we discover that the pain is the mantra: the very suffering of the world can be what repeatedly calls us back to the imperative of its healing. If we can persist and sit with the reality, not running from it, a music may eventually be heard. The fetters of destructive control loosen. Life’s dance resurges. And there is joy in spite of everything.
In ‘Natural Resources’, Adrienne Rich writes:
My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,
with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.[iii]
Today, some of us from the older corners of the world look around and ponder. Mine is a generation from the Outer Hebrides off the far north-west of Scotland, standing with one foot in the old world and the other in a new millennium. Historically, we are first and foremost navigators, Atlantic navigators. We know something about how to pilot a boat through storms. If that boat is cultural, perhaps we can make a modest contribution in seeking a more true course. And who knows, maybe there are survivors to pick up along the way. Maybe there are those adrift who had no anchor point. Well, there is room on board, and laughter grows in the sharing. Maybe a new song will emerge when ancient ways inform our times.
In the place where I come from, we see that old people have been robbed of eldership by rapid change. In any case, they are passing on. The time has arrived for the mantle of culture to be placed, with blessing, on our shoulders – premature though it may often be. And something says that what we have to share is not just for little Scottish islands out on an Atlantic limb: it is a matter of world heritage. After all, much of what our forebears learned came from navigating the whole world. Let there be no presumption of cultural superiority here: it is merely the ebb and flow of historical circumstance in the sea of all humanity.
Allow me to say a little about my writing style. Some of the time it will be very personal. The book may read like an autobiography, which in fact it is not. What I have done is to engage the particular to illustrate the general. All the parochial material will tie in, sooner or later, with themes of much wider significance. My approach uses what has been called ‘heart politics’.[iv] It aims to restore the feeling ‘heart’ alongside the thinking ‘head’ and the doing ‘hand’. It means living out, perhaps surprisingly for a man, the feminist principle that ‘the personal is the political’. Often this requires an impressionistic, multifaceted style of writing. Readers may find themselves left hanging for a while, but not, I hope, for longer than suspense permits. Seeds will be dropped in to grow, resonate and create an emerging pattern, one that illustrates the book’s main theme: life, and what causes it either to wither on the vine, or to flourish.
I have incorporated many endnotes, most of which can be ignored in the reading. They are there mainly to suggest further reading, to make due acknowledgements, or to corroborate assertions. I do hope that the reader will forgive any minor irritation they might cause, but there is little point in writing a deeply researched book if I then keep all the sources to myself.
In Part One, I explore the Isles of Lewis and Harris as I experienced them during my youth. Some of my ancestors were rooted in the ancient traditions of crofting and spiritual song; other influences were modern, cosmopolitan and not Scottish at all. I therefore chart the process of growing up with one foot in an apparently dying indigenous world, and the other hard down on the accelerator of progress. I do not argue for going back to the past, but I will be suggesting that the past should be carried forward to inform the future. In this way, fresh light can be shed on the story of modern times and wisdom harnessed to knowledge.
Interwoven with the story of a Hebridean childhood is a dawning awareness of power, and how this shaped the world in which we all live – how it shaped it first through the colonial era of empire, and then through the globalisation of modern times. We will therefore move gradually from the parochial world of a small island and into realms of experience that all of us must today navigate, irrespective of our geography and ethnic origins. Most of us are unaware of our own deep history and its psychological effects – our psychohistory. Many experience a paradox of privilege: we are materially richer than ever before and yet suffer a spiritual poverty that is difficult to pin down. We do not realise how historical forces have shaped the human heart because these things were rarely taught to us; after all, ‘where there is no victim there was no crime’.[v]
In consequence we live, but suffer spiritual death. Our very accomplishments cut us off further from the soul. The ailments that we can observe ‘out there’, in the environment actually have their origins ‘in here’, in the human psyche. This calls for healing at an individual and a cultural level – a cultural psychotherapy. This, I believe, is what the bardic tradition of the Celtic world has always been about.
Cultural healing entails coming alive to community with one another, with the place where we live, and with soul. This interconnection is, at its deepest level, poetic. Such poetics can be deeply political, which is why, in many parts of the world, the bard has been the king’s closest advisor.[vi] It is also why the poetic function has been seen as dangerous from Plato onwards. If we are to restore meaning and heal our broken cultures, if we are to be concerned with the blossoming of human potential, then we must learn again to use such techniques that in some cultures would be called ‘shamanistic’. These, I will try to show, can be highly effective tools for community empowerment.
Part Two of the book attempts to demonstrate some principles of community empowerment by interweaving accounts of two successful campaigns. I tell how land reform was brought to top priority in Scotland’s new Parliament through achieving community land ownership on the Isle of Eigg. And I tell how a Native North American warrior chief and Sacred Pipe Carrier helped the people of the Isle of Harris (adjacent to Taransay of the BBC’s Castaway fame) to resist their mountain being turned into ‘the gravel-pit of Europe’ by a multinational road stone company.
Both these stories generated international media coverage. Here, I show something of what went on behind the headlines and use it to suggest how even Milton’s ‘monstrous world’ can be transformed. While rooted in the Scottish Hebrides, the significance of these struggles reaches out far across the world. They point to a Celtic truth about identity, which is actually a deep human truth: a person belongs inasmuch as they are willing to cherish and be cherished by a place and its peoples.
In such a spirit we can all assume responsibility for our lives and for this planet. The unity of soil and soul can be restored. Concern can truly be with the blossom. And even amid all its despair and destruction, I do believe that the world can be reconstituted.
[i] Lycidas, lines 149–51, in Palgrave 1986, 55–60.
[ii] Reflections in a Slum, in Bold (ed.) 1984, 85–6.
[iii] Rich 1978, 67. The lines from ‘Natural Resources’ are taken from The Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974–1977 by Adrienne Rich. Copyright © 1978 by W. W. Norton & Co. Inc. Used by permission of the author and W. W. Norton & Co. Inc.
[iv] Peavey 1986; Sheilds 1991.
[v] Winona La Duke (Ralph Nader’s Native American 2000 US election running mate), pers. com., Ireland, 1994.
[vi] See Rabindranath Tagore’s play The Cycle of Spring.
Part One: Indigenous Childhood; Colonial World
Digging Where We Stand
Chapter 2: Earmarks
Chapter 3: Globalisation
and the Village
Chapter 4: Celtic
Chapter 5: By the
Cold and Religious
Chapter 6: The
Admiral’s Birthday Surprise
Chapter 7: Such
Chapter 8: Gunboats
and the Old Man of Eisken
Chapter 9: Voice of
Chapter 10: Echoes
Down the Glen of Landed Power
Chapter 11: World
Without a Friend
Chapter 12: Seeds of
Part Two: The
French Revolution on Eigg and the Gravel-pit
Chapter 13: Well of
the Holy Women
Chapter 14: The
Mountain Behind the Mountain
Chapter 15: Under
Chapter 16: Too
Rough to Go Slow
Chapter 17: The
Emperor’s New Island
Chapter 18: Stone
Eagle to Fly In
Chapter 19: The
Womanhood of God
Chapter 20: Return
of the Salmon
Chapter 21: Mother
Earth will Cleanse Herself
Chapter 22: Healing
of the Nations
Chapter 23: Arrow of
Chapter 24: Storming
Chapter 25: Revolutionary
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