Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Consumer

I have been reading Fintan O'Toole's biography of William Johnson, White Savage. Johnson was an Irishman who migrated to the wilds of central New York in the mid-1700s and established himself as a vital link between the British colonial government and the Iroquois.

By the time Johnson appeared on the scene, Native Americans had become dependent upon European manufactured goods. Hawks bells, mouth harps and Dutch pipes replaced ceremonial items the Iroquois had previously crafted themselves. Iron hoes, guns and cooking pots had become can't-do-without items, even though without blacksmithing skills the Iroquois had no way of repairing and maintaining these goods. Alcohol took its toll. From being a self-sufficient people, the Iroquois had become a consumer society, spending long hard hours trapping furs to pay for "necessaries" their ancestors had done without.

Of course, their fate was sealed.

There is a temptation to draw analogies with our own consumer culture, and see in our present fate something of the Iroquois. I think of our first decade here on the hill in the west of Ireland, without electricity, telephone or internet. Making our own furniture with hand tools. Furnishing the house with local crafts. Creating what we needed as we needed it. Eating local produce. Writing with pencil on paper. A richly rewarding life, full of creativity and the satisfaction of making do.

Now we are in possession of a multitude of can't-do-without items manufactured in China or Indonesia that we have no way of fixing when they break. Our food comes from Germany or Chile, our wine from Australia or South Africa. We produce obscene amounts of trash, mostly plastic, that must be hauled away. And this in a little green house that is almost primitive by the standards of the developed world.

I can't think of an alternative. It's easy to be pure when you are young. Old age needs its creature comforts. But still I feel that something of me has been lost, something that had to do with the products of my own brain and hands, something that had an organic connection to this particular place.

I sit here typing on my MacBook, totally dependent upon the convenience and reliability of a machine that is complicated beyond my understanding and cost more than all the local arts and crafts that together make this room such a pleasant place to be. Organic it is not. But maybe I can tease a few words out of it that are uniquely my own. At my elbow my lettuces are growing on the sill. The sun is shining.