Faithful to Science

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Soil and Soul (1): an extract

The above image is from

I recently finished reading Alastair McIntosh’s wonderful book Soil and Soul (Aurum Press 2001). Next week I will write my own thoughts on the book as a whole. This week I would like simply to present an extract. Here it is (starting on page 31 of the paperback edition):

It would have been around 1970 that the fishing started to change in the Hebrides. I was coming up to fifteen years old and it was a very sudden thing; disturbingly sudden. We’d put to sea and find ourselves catching nothing, without apparent reason. The tide would be normal. There’d be no hint of east in the wind. Just nothing. Very dead, as Finlay would say. Conditions would be like that for about two weeks, and then the fish would come back in. And then: nothing again. So, very dead. Why?

At first we were nonplussed. This had never happened before in people’s memory. Then people started to notice the reason. Torcuil MacRath, with his croft so close to the fishing point, tells me that he was one of the first to see it. Now and again a boat would come in at night, with its navigation lights turned off, and would illegally trawl the sea loch. In one fell swoop our fish would be gone.

At first this seemed incomprehensible. You just didn’t do that sort of thing. You respected the 3-mile limit. There was a taboo – and the law. Why was nobody reporting these boats to the fishery protection vessels? Why were the skippers not put behind bars?

There was talk in the villages about dropping old cars into the sea to snag their nets. But it never happened. As the inshore fishing became more and more pointless over the course of just a year or two, the reason why nobody acted dawned with what, for me in my naivety, was a gentle horror. These were our boats: not east-coasters, not the marauding Spaniards, but local trawlers. There was nothing anybody could or would do.

Many years later I saw a similar thing in the Solomon Islands. It was 1989. I was investigating the logging of tropical rainforests and we travelled all day by canoe through the South Pacific Ocean, off Malaita Island. A baited line trailed out behind. By evening, it had hooked just one little garfish. That night we ate canned tuna. It came from the Taiwanese trawlers whose lights glittered prettily out at sea.

Polycarp, my guide, sat on a wooden bus-stop bench. He casually took out a knife and cut a long groove. Finding a hard stick, he then rubbed vigorously to and fro, blowing gently, until some shavings glowed with sufficient fire to light his cigarette. It was a year ago, he explained, that the coastal fisheries had collapsed. The Taiwanese had started coming in to net just off the coral reefs. They were after baitfish for commercial tuna operations. A few politicians in Honolulu got rich on the licensing backhanders. But for village people it had meant a shift from catching their own food to having to buy it. Only out of habit did they still navigate their canoes with a lured line hanging out the back.

And where did they acquire the money to buy tinned tuna, I asked? No problem. That came from Kayuchem, the Taiwanese logging company that paid poverty wages and a royalty of one dollar per tree – a forest giant for which the company would receive on average a thousand dollars.

Around us played naked brown children with distended bellies. A nutritionist explained to me that infant malnutrition normally declined as soon as the children developed teeth hard enough to crack the protein-rich Terminalia brassia nuts. But now this tree was all but logged out. Even crabs and shrimps were scarce, because logging had taken place right down to the shoreline, where tangled roots had previously maintained a sheltered nursery environment. Capital-intensive production methods had usurped ecology and human community. The ecosystem of place had started to unravel.

This extract from Soil and Soul has been included with the permission of its author, Alistair McIntosh.

I have included this in a blog about science and religion because I think people interested in such a blog will be interested in (and, I hope, engaged with) the subject matter, both of this quotation and of Alastair McIntosh’s book. That subject is how to engage the spiritual and the artistic and the practical all together in the pursuit of true freedom. By true freedom I mean, of course, the type which is only attainable by paying attention to how our choices affect other people, and making common cause with them. Science alone cannot make the world better. It can help us understand how our choices are likely to pan out in practice, and it can furnish a greater range of choices, but without wisdom to guide those choices we will end up destroying as much or more than we create. All this is obvious, perhaps. But the answer to the question, “how do we grow in wisdom?” is much less obvious.

I am not going to offer some glib answer to that question here. But I will say that it is not fully answered by philosophical treatises, novels, screen-plays, economic policy studies, social science, and the like. It involves also sitting down next to ordinary people living out the conditions of their lives, and seeing what they see. And it involves appropriating the physical world not just for its physicality – food and heat and building materials, etc. – but also as symbols and signposts to the reality in which we live in our innermost being.

Anyone reading this who is suspicious that I am going to fob them off by slapping unjustified religious labels over all this need not fear. I am not interested in doing that. But I will say this: you are allowed to explore. There is no shame in exploring further in a certain direction. The direction that says, be reassured if you are numbered among those who mourn, because only such people have hearts. Be reassured if you are not too sure of yourself, because the kingdom of reality belongs to you. And it’s the pure in heart who are the ones who see what is really going on. And what is really going on in the world is not what the rich and powerful people think. What is really going on is something very different, which they are hardly even aware of.



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