The Village of the Damned

Now also at www.urbanwildland.org

Awakening on a remote mountain shelf in the Carpathians in 1934, Patrick Leigh Fermor writes, in Between the Woods and the Water, 1986,

“There was no dew; but mist wreathed the clefts and ravines. Faraway spurs rose up, stage-wings only defined by the hair-thin line of their summits against the next vaporous upheaval, each a paler blue as it receded, while the valleys that twisted downhill were dusky with timber."

Sounds like early mornings in Upper Ojai. Missing only are shepherds playing small bone flutes, their wives following in their wake spinning wool between distaff and spindle whom Fermor describes populating these wild reaches of Transylvania; but on cold mornings here in the Upper Valley there is the thrum of wind machines stirring the gelid air and dispelling the icy fingers of Jack Frost as he grabs for the tender citrus; at other times, the creak of pump jacks and the fluttering orange flag that is the nearby gas flare animate the scene. The settings are similar: the ancient human rituals of sheep herding replaced by automatons or, on Wednesdays, when Harrison sends giant trucks that grab our garbage cans and upends them over their gaping maws, before peremptorily setting them down again and departing in search of fresh canned prey - their human operators almost entirely invisible - by a mechanical ballet, staged against the stunning backdrop of chaparral, mountain and sky.

We get by, somehow, without a roster of Arcadian extras to flesh out the bucolic scene. Shakespeare called these all too human bumpkins 'mechanicals'. We have attempted to dispense with flesh and blood in this postindustrial world and the bumpkins exited stage left some time ago; our service workers are made invisible in the interest of creating the flawless, non-human, technological surface that threatens to shrink wrap our existence. Now we see little of our world being made (but suspect that much of it may be happening in the Middle Kingdom) the better to function as creatures of unalloyed desire – units of economic consumption.

In the village of my dreams there are cottages, workshops, crossroads, a church, a farm, stables, a dairy and dark, inscrutable barns. There's a blacksmith at his forge, a farrier, a butcher, a baker at his ovens and a candlestick maker. There’s a thatcher, a brick maker, a carpenter and a tinsmith.

There are shops - a butcher, a green grocer, a grocery store, a bakery, an ironmonger, a toy store, a book store, a stationers, a newsagent (because these reveries are often sourced by memories of England) and a bank. There’s a laundress, a tailor, a tanner and a gunsmith; even a furniture maker, a seamstress, a tailor and a cook. There is a winemaker and a brewer, a schoolteacher and an undertaker; a farmer, a jeweler and a silversmith; a woodcutter and a miller, a stone carver, a cooper and a wheelwright. There are agricultural laborers and ditch diggers - and Gypsies. At the crossroads there is an inn.

There is doctor and a lawyer, even an Indian chief (outside of the tobacconist); a fortune teller and a story teller, a bank teller and a musician, a soldier and an artist, a sign painter, a poet, a dancer and a druggist; a witch and a wizard, a cobbler and a preacher.

At a distance is a benign despot, The Good King.

Just your average chimerical village - where human activities are clearly attached to material benefits, life processes are attended to by living beings, and our nourishment conveyed to us by its farmers and its cooks, its processors and packagers; where the business of survival (of community, of life) is transparent. Where, in the daily round, the moving parts, the actors and the hangers-on, the movers and shakers and the mechanicals, are all on full view. A life where there is clarity of exposition. An existence where we understand the plot: where we know what's going on for chrissakes. We should be so lucky.

It is in our dreams, in our fairy tales, our myths and our imaginations that we seek exegesis: simple explanations for complex operations - or in economic theory. The fairy-tale village may be a construction of our childhood imaginations, built at a time when we remain mostly unaware that a taxman is lurking to enforce the social contract that each and every one of this happy throng (except, perhaps, for the itinerant Gypsies) has made with The Good King. Only later do we realize exactly of what those fairy tales had been grimly hinting – of the menace hiding in the bushes, of a wolf waiting to garnish our hard-won wages.

The Carpathian moment in Paddy Fermor’s sepia-tinted youth existed during the erratic rule of the Rumanian King Carol whose government swung between royal absolutism and an indigenous fascism. A brief alliance with Nazi Germany then led into the long night of Soviet domination, which reached its apogee in the nightmare of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu’s dictatorship which lasted almost a quarter of a century, from 1965 to1989. Through it all, victors plundered the vanquished whether by taxes or privation. Fermor saw an Arcadian idyll which, if it existed at all, was perilously brief and owed much to his own romantic vision when seen at first hand then further mellowed by the years through which his journey was recalled - something like the illusory village that lodged in my own callow imagination and that I now, many decades later, happily visit.

But we need to go back further than an idealized village, that figment from some golden age (reifications of which Fermor wanders through in Eastern Europe), to find The Happiest Place on Earth, in a Magic Kingdom (and that kingdom, of course, was not a kingdom at all), far, far back into time, before a long ago global warming presaged the end of the ice age and of the mega fauna that ranged the open tundra. So far back, that neither is it a village; so far back that this ‘it’, this nirvana, preceded the development of agriculture and of what Kojin Karatani calls “The Sedentary Revolution” (The Structure of World History, 2014).

Karatani makes the point that economic activity began with the pooling of resources within bands of nomadic hunter gatherers who also practiced reciprocal gift giving with outside groups. There was no incentive for nomadic peoples to store food – instead, they moved to an area where fresh supplies could be obtained. Acquisition ran counter to the nomads’ need for mobility and as long as there was room to roam and mega-fauna to hunt there was no reason to settle – where conflict was more likely with outside groups and, within the band, social malcontents could stir resentments; neither was there any desire to reside alongside their dead: far better to bury the departed and move on.

Between ten and fifteen thousand years ago, as the ice was melting, the steppes and prairies began to be forested and the great herds of mastodon, giant bison and other megafauna began to diminish. At the same time, increasing seasonal fluctuations in weather made foraging a less successful year-round activity. Global warming thus generated conditions prejudicial to nomadic hunting and gathering and fishing began to be of increasing importance to humankind’s survival. River bank settlements became proto-villages. Smoked fish created the first opportunity for the stockpiling of food - initiating the long history of resource inequality. Food supplies were soon augmented by the herding of domesticated livestock and the cultivation of crops. Notions of ownership developed that established the rich and the poor, those who had and those who had not.

As the climate warmed and the rivers ran more freely, construction of permanent settlements dependent on agriculture initiated a complex syndrome we know as Civilization - what Jared Diamond characterizes as “the worst mistake in the history of the human race” and with it, the degradation of the planet.

Human labor began to be commodified - something bought, sold or stolen. The weak toiled for the strong; leisure for the few replaced leisure for everyone. For the many, it was in Civilization, rather than in Hobbesian Nature, that life became nasty, brutish and short.

Long, long ago, the happiest place had been no-place - where there was little thought of tomorrow and little memory of yesterday. A filmic succession of places, a songline, a journeying embedded within the pulses of the planet as it pursued its irregular orbit around the sun, informed all of human life.

Only the sick and dying were sedentary, confined to one place: the village of the damned.

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