In the Field of Human Endeavour

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Just beyond the art shop in Balbriggan, someone has painted the top of the hill with aureolin yellow. Faraway hills, in this instance, are not all green. Oilseed rape has the capacity to shine a shaft of sunlight into a dull, overcast day. It enlivens the patchwork quilt stitched together by centuries-old  hedgerows and the normally green and brown Irish landscape.The field of rape takes centre stage on a grey and sullen day. It is unlikely that the farmer thought of Gauguin and Van Gogh discovering the colours of Provence, when he planted his crop, but I thought of them. I went into the art shop and bought some tubes of sunshine.

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Jacob Bronowski graced our television screens forty years ago, with his series The Ascent of Man. He made sense of things ‘that tease us out of thought, as doth eternity.’  He held in his hand the Taung Skull, a fossil millions of years old. He explained the importance of the brain cavity as evidence of rational thought. In this child, probably killed by some predator, he saw the origins of how humanity set itself apart from other creatures. He spoke of humanity ascending from our ancient ancestors, not descending. The distinction is important. He showed what a privilege it is to be human, to have the capacity to think, to anticipate, to adapt and shape our world to our ends. We have the ability to intervene. We have language, memory, forethought, writing, mathematics, art, music and manual dexterity. Had Bronowski, a Polish Jew, not emigrated to Britain as a child, his vision would almost certainly have been obliterated on one of the many occasions when humankind slipped back into barbarism and mindless savagery. It is time that Bronowski’s series got another airing, to shine some shafts of sunlight into the dull and turgid schedules of modern broadcasting. Perhaps his views are too challenging or unfashionable. Perhaps the latest researches have proved him all wrong. He would have found that interesting, worth thinking about, evidence of the capacity of the human brain for rational deduction from the evidence. It would make a change from talent competitions, game shows, bang bang car chases and explosions.

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He explained how agriculture evolved in the fertile river valleys of the Nile and Mesopotamia. It is still evolving. The river mud gave us bricks and tablets for writing. It gave us mathematics, history and law. Agriculture gave us surpluses and great cities supporting numerous trades. It created armies to guard that surplus and the cities sustained by it. It created war. Ancient wars were characterised by capture or destruction of the enemies’ resources. From such wars came heroes, kings, queens, legends and empires. The farmers persisted. Before one of the battles of the English Civil War, to decide weighty issues of state, a herald was sent out to remove a peasant who was ploughing the proposed battlefield. You can imagine the conversation: “Ho there, clown. Remove thy horse and plough and void this field. His Majesty intends to humble his enemies on this soil, in bloody battle, making them bow the knee to their annointed lord..blah de blah..etc…etc. “Battle! Battle?? Nobody told me about any effing battle.” (This is a speculative reconstruction of the conversation.) At Aughrim farmers still plough up cannon balls and weapons from a battle fought three hundred years ago. Unexploded munitions remain a hazard to farmers, from The Western Front to Laos, Cambodia and former Yugoslavia.. The bones of the fallen at Waterloo were dug up twenty years later and ground up for fertilizer.  The farmer ploughs on, digging for victory.  He has carrots to weed and hedges to trim. Drains must be kept clear or the whole thing reverts to chaos, to swamp and bramble. He has a landscape to mind. A farmer remarked recently that his greatest asset is a bad short-term memory. He plans ahead and hopes for better harvests.

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Seventy five years ago the people of South Eastern England looked up at a battle raging in the sky over their green and pleasant land. Their heroes fought off an attempt to grab their land, their way of life, their very existence. We are familiar with photographs of downed enemy pilots being captured by farmers wielding pitchforks. Resistance is futile when faced with an angry farmer with his pitchfork. When you were young, you assembled model aeroplanes and painted them in the colours of the landscape. You bought Humbrol paint in the art and hobby shop….Henry Power’s. You fought battles with your brothers over Spitfires, Wellingtons and Hurricanes. You hung your squadrons from the ceiling and watched them wheel in the draught. Bandits at ten o’clock. It was stirring to see them again on television a week ago, writing a story of heroism in the scribbled con trails of aerial conflict.

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According to Bronowski, every two years the Bakhtiari people encounter the Oxus River in their migration in search of grazing for their goats and sheep. They lose animals and family members in fording the river. They have no time to stop and build a bridge over the torrent, swollen with meltwater from the mountains. They must move every day to find fodder. They cannot grow crops. They migrate through the margins of Afghanistan, India, Iran, the former U.S.S.R. Turkey, Iraq, Syria, in a constant struggle for survival. They avoid other pastoralists and their competing herds. They avoid conflict. They have no eventful history and few chattels. Their flocks eat all available food every day. Only they can survive in the desert that they create. They must move on….and on….and on. At least they did.  How have they survived the savagery of war and religious fanaticism in those regions? Not much cranial activity going on there…except for the obscenity of decapitation.  Where are the Bakhtiari now? If he were around today, Bronowski would find out what has happened to a way of life that had/has persisted since human ingenuity first domesticated wild creatures and subordinated them to our needs.

He demonstrated the square on the hypotenuse equal to the sum of the squares etc.  by using fragments of roof tiles and some cherry twigs. He sat where Pythagoras must have sat on many an occasion, wondering about such matters. It was exhilarating to see. I can’t remember how he did it. My grand daughter, Alice, played with her youth orchestra in the street on Sunday. It was a delight on a sunny morning. I noticed that the bunting was composed of isosceles triangles and right angled triangles.

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Thank you to those clever and talented children for lightening the world and also to Pythagoras and Jacob Bronowski for explaining how it works. Think for a moment also, about the Taung child and the perilous world in which he or she lived and died.

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Walls, Warts and Reflecting on Nimrod.

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Did you ever darn a sock? It’s slow-motion weaving, now consigned to history by technology and indestructible artificial fibres. There was a big cowrie shell at home, that my mother used, to get around the corners of socks. There was history in that cowrie shell. Some seafaring ancestor brought it back from his travels. You could hear the South Seas and waves breaking over the reefs of distant coral islands when you put the cowrie to your ear. Inside the reef  in all the stories, lay a lagoon, a place of calm and safety. The sharks stayed outside, in the fathomless depths of the dark waters beyond the reef. I could still darn a sock should the need arise but modern fabrics have made my skill redundant. There was great comfort in a well darned sock. I knew a man who didn’t become a hero by diving into the harbour to rescue a dog, because, as he admitted shamefacedly, he had a hole in his sock. His friend did the noble deed while he stood by, encumbering the hero with unnecessary advice. On such small things fame can hang.

This piece of wall is known as The Bay Wall. Various explanations are offered for the name, but the most likely is that the bay encompassed the town when high tide flooded the low-lying fields on the periphery. There was comfort in a good wall.  On inspection you can see that the lower part is built from uncut stone and sea cobbles. It has been darned over the centuries but the cracks return, under the weight of the years. Most of the wall has disappeared but here and there, you can see short stretches that have survived development and modernisation. Alice |McGuinness lived in a little house set into The Bay Wall.

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At the base you can see where people gathered sea-rolled cobbles and broken rock from the foreshore. They worked together, building a sense of security, safeguarding their common future. The wall has been breached over time, to allow access to gardens won from the sand and  tidal marsh. (Click images to enlarge.)

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At Holmpatrick the shadow of the original wall is visible, the work of a generation long gone. The top half is much more respectable but the lower half holds the massive rocks that speak of struggle and the work of bare hands. It has withstood the tide and easterly gales for centuries. It wears its crown of ivy with a certain panache. We have an affinity with this wall through the calcium in the bones that hold us upright.

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Cromwell, the first republican in Ireland, specialised in knocking down walls. He made a right haimes of Baldungan Castle. The remains have been darned together with cement. His cavalrymen smashed the windows in Canice’s cathedral. They depicted it seems, idolatrous images. Gunpowder and high explosives are now the tools of those who see only a bright future of their own devising. A former Minister for Local Government applauded the decay of Georgian Dublin and the great houses of  Ireland….’everything I hate about our history.’ Chairman Mao’s cultural revolution directed its venom against anything old—including old people. The Taliban destroyed ancient statues. The new Puritans, the fundamentalists, are bulldozing the ancient palaces of Nimrod and smashing their own history with sledgehammers. They are smashing everyone’s history. They post images!! Will there be a bright new future when all the old stuff has been destroyed? Every aspiring politician parrots the mantra of Change. Progress.  ‘A time to break down and a time to build…a time to love and a time to hate…a time to throw stones and a time to gather them together.’ It’s the stone throwing that worries me….and the hate.

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A friend told me how her father used to remove warts with a compound that burned off cows’ horns. If you missed, it went some way to burning off the whole hand. I decided against it. I took two of our children to see Alice McGuinness. They had developed little warts beside their eyes, no place for cow-horn remover. Alice was old and gentle. She explained that she cured warts even by post. She had treated horses for a man in Australia. All she needed was a diagram: ” They have to know exactly where the warts are.”  I didn’t ask who They were. The children listened, wide-eyed. “Is Alice a witch?” they asked afterwards. The warts disappeared and never came back. Cromwell might have done better to consult Alice about his excrescence, instead of having it immortalised by the artist, Samuel Cooper. He didn’t like the portrait at first but it grew on him. (Sorry. Couldn’t resist it.) In reality he and his dismal Puritans would more likely have burned her for being old and for knowing something they didn’t understand.

There is a bit of new wall cobbled on, where Alice’s house once stood. It’s a bit of an excrescence. It will take a few centuries for it to mellow.

By that time maybe we will have a Walmart on the site. Wide selection of socks. The march of progress.