Weeds

Flying into Belgrade on a clear early April day a couple of days ago, I was treated to an amazing spectacle, glimpses of which are shown here, of the heavily farmed agricultural landscape of this part of the Danube valley.

fields outside Belgrade seen from the air

Fields outside Belgrade seen from the air

Unfolding like a bedspread it disclosed a multilayered history of order imposed on disorder, only to be subjected to continuing organisation,  disorganisation and reorganisation in a process that produces subtly changing patterns of great beauty.

it is hard not to use the hackneyed mataphor of patchwork looking at the way these strips of intensively-cultivated land are arranged

It is hard not to use the hackneyed metaphor of patchwork looking at the way these strips of intensively-cultivated land are arranged

Reminding me of the much-loved painting by Judith Rugg that hangs in my sitting room which she told me was also inspired by the view of fields from the air in the American mid-West.

a phtootograph of Judith Rugg's painting, complete with reflections. as no doubt her original view from a plane  which inspired it must have included reflections in the window.

A phtootograph of Judith Rugg’s painting, complete with reflections. as no doubt her original view which inspired it must have included disregarded reflections in the plane window.

The patterns that have been imposed on the land over the millenia make it absolutely impossible to imagine what it might have looked like before human beings singled out  particular plants and animals for special attention and classified them, disciplined them, penned them for their own purposes and disputed the ownership of these pens with their neighbours (although ghosts of earlier land use patterns and watercourses can be seen from the air underlying the bare ploughed soil).

under the bare earth of the modern fields you can see the ghosts of ancient paths or watercourses

Under the bare earth of the modern fields you can see the ghosts of ancient paths or watercourses

Fresh as I am from revising an article about how to theorise the global division of labour, this brings to my mind the way in class societies that people are classified, corralled and disciplined for the purposes of ordering production.

I wonder what history dictated the abrupt change in angle in the alignment of the fields on either side of this road

I wonder what history dictated the abrupt change in angle in the alignment of the fields on either side of this road

How quickly this landscape would change if the maintenance stopped. But this would not bring a return to the old botanical division of labour. Rather, new (perhaps non-native) species would expand aggressively, choking out others, creating a new ecosystem.

Which makes me think of the weed – the farmer’s enemy, trespassing on the areas marked out for formal planting, reproducing itself in ingenious and unsanctioned ways, perhaps brought from afar by birds or boots, an  unnoticed stowaway in the global traffic of commodities.

In human society the weed could be seen as a metaphor for the opportunist, the spiv, the perhaps- criminal entrepreneur who threatens the social order by disrupting its rules of fairness and introducing new inequalities.

But also the lone  dissenter, the voice that wants to emerge from the suffocation of the mass ranks to be heard as an individual.

The socialist in me fears the former; the artist-intellectual in me yearns to be the latter. Do we want a farm-or-be-farmed society in which people are tended in orderly fields? Or a hunt-or-be-hunted wilderness in which they can roam freely at their own risk? From the tension between the two, perhaps, some new solutions can emerge.

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4 Responses to Weeds

  1. Lovely descriptions; The road disjunction looks like a possible take-over by the road builder, where the road represents the boundary? Anyhow, re weeds, I’m a wild flower … Maybe one day we’ll take over the world and make it chaotically beautiful again!

  2. Difficult to reconcile the dystopian vistas with the sculptures on display in Ice Age art at the British Museum. Within the catalogue are photos of the Holhle Fels Woman, a pendant found near a tributary of the Danube, and carbon dated to at least 33000 BC. She evokes pre-agrarian hunter-gatherer matriarchal cultures that spanned millenia before Mitteleuropa came into being.

  3. edwin hedge says:

    A similar experience provoked by a flight over the Ukraine, the fields longer, more regimented, and endless. Strangely, the Nile Valley, with its stark contrast of barren desert and lush greenery, brought to mind Simone Weil and Simone de Beauvoir, first and second in the entrance exam for the Ecole Normale Superiore.

  4. lizheron says:

    It reminded me of Brecht’s poem ‘Of Sprinkling the Garden’:… And do not neglect/The weeds growing between the flowers, they too/Are thirsty.

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