Lynne and I went adventuring, visiting a 2,000 year old iron age settlement here in West Penwith. What I love about these places is that it’s possible to get a feeling of the lives of people who once lived there, long ago – of grandparents sitting by the fire, children playing, grown-ups coming and going, busying themselves with tasks and chores.
This settlement, Goldherring, had a workplace feeling: it looked as if many of the buildings were functional workshops and stores while only some seemed to be residential.
There was a chill, rather cutting springtime wind, even in the milky sunshine, so we squatted down in the sheltered remains of a roofless iron age building, erected about a hundred generations past. Out came the tea flask and biscuits – necessary ingredients in antiquarian investigations – and we sat there chatting about life two millennia ago and life as it is now.
Goldherring was occupied in three or so phases in the late iron age, the Roman period and early medieval times. Apparently the first lot came from abroad, since items from Brittany were found in the lower archaeological layers. Later on the place seems to have been a forge, the home and workplace of a specialist craftsman. The Romans didn’t have a great impact down here, since they never invaded Cornwall – stopping at Exeter – though they influenced the place, rather like USA or China influence us now, here in Europe.
Like many people I’ve been quite shut away and mostly alone for what seems like a very long time, so when Lynne comes to stay it’s A Big Event, and when she leaves there’s rather a large gap. We aren’t unused to it: over the last five years we’ve had a hundred-ish long weekends together and we’ve developed strategies for dealing with it, but there’s still a gap, and sometimes it yawns vulnerably.
Sometimes it gets tested too. During the first lockdown in 2020 Lynne couldn’t visit for quite a while. It activated that ‘distance makes the heart grow fonder’ experience you can sometimes get when you’re a human on a planet, locked into time, geography and circumstance. This might happen again too, now. Covid has hit Lynne’s business (she’s mainly an astrologer), she’s been bumping along fending off the wolves from the door, and now her car has suddenly failed its MOT test, needing big repairs or replacement. And Covid has drained her money-pot. Uh-oh, looks like we might miss some weekends!
This is a small, personal part of an incremental, degenerative social and economic hollowing out, as the cascading impacts of Covid work their way through. We look a little too closely at the pandemic to see clearly what’s going on. In the end, the pandemic will be forgotten – it was a catalyst of a bigger process of change – and what the longterm future will reveal is that in 2020 we crossed a tipping point – though really this tilting of history started perhaps in 2008-12. Or around 1989-93. Or perhaps around 1965-70.
It concerns the scaling down of an overinflated economy running on coffee, cocaine, excess and shady dealings, the power of people to have agency and influence in that economy, the hearts and minds of crowds and publics worldwide, the willingness and consent of society to go through changes we know to be urgent and necessary, and the relationship between the world’s ecosystems and human behaviour. Big questions – quite bottomless societal, environmental and psycho-spiritual questions. We’ve gone too far, something fundamental needs to change, and there’s something very factual about that.
This isn’t really a question of politics or ideology any more. The word crisis comes from ancient Greek. It means a situation prompting us to distinguish, choose and decide. We spend a lot of our lives engaging in avoidance strategies, and of course crises are uncomfortable, threatening, often painful and cruelly indiscriminate. They present truth and facts, whether or not we like it – there’s no stopping an earthquake, hurricane or an advancing army. But a crisis is also an opportunity, an integral part of the pattern of change. There can be unpremeditated, instinct-led possibilities available, and sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes you get a tragedy, sometimes a miracle. For better or worse, crises tend to force and resolve multiple issues at the same time. Crunch, bang, that’s it.
I personally am not in an immediate crisis right now – I’m kinda chugging along – though I’m in an ongoing one as a cancer patient. Since I was diagnosed in Nov 2019 I’ve had three crunchy crises and others will follow, and one will cut me down one day. But it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that my own problems are bigger than other people’s, since they involve confronting death and quite high levels of difficulty and pain. Yet, looking at Lynne and the bill-paying concerns and daily-life complications she’s labouring through, I find myself wondering what’s genuinely harder – a long, hard grind like hers or a red-flashing-lights crisis like I sometimes get?
Two thousand years ago in Goldherring they didn’t have money worries – they didn’t have money! They bartered, gifted and negotiated, and a large part of that negotiation was with nature itself. A bad harvest or a cold winter made a big difference. An Atlantic gale could rip the thatch off your roundhut roof, at the wrong season for replacing it. They faced the tough realities of living on Earth, just like we do.
But they didn’t live in our particular kind of civilisation, with its copious discontents and MOT tests. Living in their own culture and just outside the big-booted Roman empire will have had its own issues, but perhaps those issues were a little more real than ours. Not least because, in our day, simulated realities seem to be replacing manifest reality: belief seems to be overriding what’s standing in front of us. This isn’t new in human history, but the scale of it is new. There are more souls alive today than ever before, experiencing that simulation and, unfortunately, believing that it’s reality.
Philosopher Teilhard de Chardin invented the idea of the noosphere (pronounced no-osphere), the constructed world of human belief – what we think is going on. It becomes a self-programming mega-algorithm that then defines our collective reality as we perceive it. Early in prehistory the ecosphere largely conditioned people’s beliefs and behaviours, and human history since then has been one long story of the development of an ascendant cultural consensus, the noosphere. It has replicated to a point where, in our globalised, urban-industrial-digital society, it shouts louder than the ecosphere, especially to city-dwellers, who also tend to make the decisions on everyone’s behalf.
Nowadays, if the ecospheric world impacts on the noospheric world, we dynamite and bulldoze it, setting scientists, doctors, engineers and politicians on it to chase it away. But the noosphere increasingly resembles a house of cards, resting on shaky dependencies and rising so high that its foundations have cracked, and the ecosphere is impinging on us anyway.
The pennyworts were poking up into the sun and a buzzard wheeled overhead as Lynne and I sat there, huddling together in the iron age with our tea and Nairn’s biscuits, reflecting on life. For the plain fact is, while Lynne is scraping along to pay the bills and my pension is modest, as inhabitants of the rich world we are still in the top 25% of wealthy people. For many people worldwide, Covid means not illness but hunger, and many of these people – farmers, favelistas, enterepreneurs, employees – were doing alright enough before Covid came along.
Yet within our own sphere of reality, each of us has our problems. Some are really dire (think of many Syrians or Yemenis, or of people keeling over with Covid in Brazil) while many people are confronting ‘grindstone mentality’, the uncomfortable feeling that we’re not doing enough to solve our problems and we must do more, setting aside our main priorities to do so – yet again. Then we worry about our ‘mental health’ when many of us, and society as a whole, are having a spiritual crisis. WTF are we here for, and is this the world we really want?
I’m psychologically quite self-sufficient but Lynne nevertheless makes a big difference in my life. She’s one of those who is willing to prioritise things that aren’t in her immediate self-interest, doing so with a lot of love and care – not only for me but for lots of people. And for the plants and microbes in her garden.
It rests on this kind of person to save the world: this has been demonstrated during the Covid crisis. It has been a case of ‘amateurs built the Ark and professionals built the Titanic’. Society has leaned heavily on dedicated people who have an altruistic bent and the skills of service. It has leaned especially on non-professionals acting out of goodwill, service and commitment – in the rich world social care and healthcare have been over-professionalised, while family and community support systems have been asphyxiated by ‘progress’ and the busyness of a demanding modern life. Lynne is one of those non-professionals, a quiet supertrooper. Though some professionals have done a heroic job too: I’ve seen this with the doctors and nurses I’ve met, and through the eyes of my son, who’s in the air ambulance business.
It’s also a joy, as a disabled cancer patient, to get up in the morning, light the stove and bring Lynne tea in bed. For in truth there is no such thing as helping: it’s an energy-exchange. Lynne brings so much goodness into my life yet mercifully she seems to feel that it’s reciprocated.
By healing we become healed. By giving what we can, even when we have limited possibilities, we do receive. It is possible for a whole economy to work like this – and I’ve seen such principles at work in Palestine, where officially there is high unemployment and a lot of destitution yet everyone is busy and more or less catered for, even under the duress of living under longterm military occupation. Sometimes, when we need help, the best thing to do is to help someone else. Help the world.
One awkward question we need to face in the coming time concerns social roles and their tendency to get fixed: whether we’re a net helper or a net recipient, male or female, black or white, progressive or resister, we mustn’t get too attached to any positions in the spectrum. Because help and support flow around society in the most miraculous and amazing of ways. If we permit it. For this to work, everyone, no matter how helpless or seemingly useless, has something to give and we need to give it. Withholding our humanity and creativity holds the world back.
Over the last month I’ve been chugging away at completing a five year research project. It’s something I can give to the world, in my reduced capacity. Its value will be appreciated only by a small number of people, but it contributes to society’s cultural capital and it’s a contribution I can make. I’ve just finished it. It’s an online map and database of the thousands of prehistoric sites in Cornwall, providing online resources for use in researching prehistoric sites and their meaning and purpose. It’s here: Map of the Prehistoric Sites of Cornwall.
If you’d like to sample some music I’m enjoying right now, try this – Trance Frendz.
All is as well as can be. Beeee goooood. Lots of love from me. Thanks for reading.