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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.