An Open Letter to Paul Kingsnorth

Dear Mr. Kingsnorth

I came across a reference to you in the online magazine “UnHerd”. A few clicks later and there was “Dark Ecology”. It made a deep impression on me because it drew together, in a way that moved me deeply, many of the strands which make up my own psyche. I knew  the name. In my notes somewhere is a quote from you about withdrawing from the world. What I didn’t know was that you were, like me, a devotee of the scythe – “this thin crescent of steel”. Scything and me go back a long way. I first learnt how to handle one in my teens in Wiltshire in the late 50s. My teacher was a dairy farmer from down the lane with the memorable name of Mr. Lait.

The scythe became an element in a growing fascination with smallholdings, beekeeping and the books of Ethelind Fearon. That was the beginning, but my deeper involvement with what was then called Ecological politics began with a television interview: Joan Bakewell was talking to Satish Kumar, the editor of a magazine called “Resurgence”. I subscribed to the magazine. I even went to see him and as a result of that visit was invited to the inaugural meeting, in Red Lion Square in London, of what later became the Green Party.

There were other strands: the books of John Seymour, Schumacher’s “Small is Beautiful” the writings of  Phil Drabble, the CAT near Machynlleth, Appropriate Technology, Stonehenge, and a club I co-founded in Marlborough called “The Green Phoenix Club”. At the heart of my politics was the certainty, which has never left me, that our civilisation is based on a cheat. Our prosperity depends on cheating the natural ecology of the world by exploiting resources we cannot replace.

If you are reading this you are probably thinking something along the lines of “another old greenie”. Not quite. At some point in the mid 70s a group of “alternatives” were tramping the length of Britain pushing a huge cartwheel to publicise and fund the founding of an eco-community. When they reached the Marlborough area my wife and I invited them to our home for a meal. They were clearly what we then called “crusties”, and they smelt bad. That I could tolerate, but as someone who has been self-employed for most of my life, what shocked me and engendered a deep and lasting dislike of “hippie” culture, was the fact that their version of self-sufficiency was propped up by unemployment benefits – they were all on the dole.

Before I read your essay I had many times watched in bewilderment as teams of council employees, with three or four vehicles, in full protective gear set about our roadside verges with strimmers and brush cutters. I felt like shouting “I’m paying for all this; get a scythe.” From your analogy of the brush cutter on, your essay pulled together all sorts of strands in what has become a deeply uncomfortable political position. I love  your scorn for the meaningless mantra “sustainable development”, your identifying as male and American the peculiar phenomenon of the neo-enviromentalists, but I also loved your list of the things they get right, for example that “9 billion people all seeking the status of middle- class consumers cannot be sustained by vernacular approaches.”

Green politics has got so much wrong – Peak Oil for example – yet the core belief is now vindicated. It is quite likely that a majority of the literate world now subscribe to some sort of Greenwash, but even with this level of support, we have not been able to dent the onward march of “progress”. In my own case it is even more complicated because I have, for most of my life, worked with power tools and machines in various forms of woodworking. I have a profound love and respect for clever technology, and am deeply fascinated by IT in all its forms except one: the Singularity. Our technology must move us towards nature, not away from it.  I do believe we have it in our power to restore the ecology of our world and that appropriate technology could have a central role, but to do so means trying to change that pioneer instinct which lies deep in our genetic make-up; that part of us which “will remain buried in the ancient woodland floor of human evolution and in the depths of our old ape brains”.  You ask the question “why would any (human) community move from hunting and gathering to agriculture”. Your answer is profound:  “because they had to”. They had fallen into a progress trap.

My core belief now is that we humans are part of an ancient ecosystem and that we cannot sustain a way of life in conflict with the natural world. If it were ever possible for me to influence the society I live in and how we manage our lives, it is now too late. At 76 and deaf I am too old, handicapped and disillusioned, so what would not be a waste of time for me? You list five possibilities:

  • To withdraw. Yes, but I am far too restless to do so without some way of occupying hands and brain.
  • Preserving non-human life. Absolutely.
  • Getting my hands dirty – I do this already and have for most of my life.
  • Valuing nature – of course
  • Building refuges – Not places of physical refuge, that idea is much too tainted by another group of mad male Americans: the Preppers. But networks as refuge, or a refuge  of skills – now that is an idea.

I’m good with my hands but a poor teacher. Could you teach me how to teach scything?

Yours Sincerely

Richard S Turner



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1 Response to An Open Letter to Paul Kingsnorth

  1. Gaynor Jones says:

    Fantastic piece Dick

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