Building a Bender#
Landworker, musician, writer
Gloucestershire, England, United Kingdom
Over the last year, Roundhouses and Bender tents have begun to fill my waking and dreaming thoughts. I imagine myself in the woods, amongst the leaf litter, axe in hand, gathering hazel. Or with a pickaxe clearing the ground, moving the soil away to bear the shattered limestone of this valley beneath, applying cold clay to wattle walls, and bundling thatch to the rafters. These structures are low-cost dwellings made with hand tools or by hand from materials available in the landscape. I come to see them as dwellings that create a different kind of being, a being-with, in-discussion-with, and co creation-with the material agencies of the land from which they arise. I live in a landscape of hazel trees, clay, limestone, pendulous sedge, bracken, muntjack deer, squirrel, badgers, stoats, dogs, humans, and many other beings who create a social being that reaches beyond its human imposed conceptual and physical boundaries.
In thinking about how to engage with ideas of relationality, dwelling and being as resistance to oppressive ontologies, I have turned to the idea of ‘walking with’ as raised by professor of political ecology Juanita Sundberg in her article Decolonizing Posthuman Geographies (2014). ‘Walking with’ is a mode of engagement in a pluriverse (as opposed to the universalism of ‘universe’) of diverse and varied ways of being, relating and thinking about reality. Sundberg brings the idea of ‘walking with’ from Zapatista conceptualisations of “walking the world into being” (p.38), where worlds are formed by the relations of the movement of beings through a landscape. Sundberg highlights a difference between ‘knowing’ and ‘engagement with’ when thinking with various multiplicities of cosmology (p.40). She offers the reader a warning that the “will to know implies an enclosure, a hegemonic monologue, and the colonial logic of domination”(quoting Kuokkannen, p.40). Recognising multiplicity and walking with ontologies or cosmologies not one’s own is a mode of respectful engagement where one is accompanied by and accompanies thinking in a trajectory of movement that does not subsume or enclose that knowledge but instead respects and honours the agency of the pluriverse of thought. Her writing highlights the physicality of thinking and ethics, the movements and encounters we make shape the worlds we inhabit and ourselves as agents in that world (p.35).
I want to walk with the beings of the woods I live in, a deciduous woodland high on the Cotswold escarpment, where I work as a woodland manager, restoring the coppice. And with the notion that by paying attention to the relationality of this way of living - with these beings, in these woods, with these materials- a new world emerges. So almost like a child, I want to live in the woods; I want my being alive in this place to be drenched in its sunrises and sunsets seen through limbs of trees, in its birdsong, in its vivid spring green, and its snuffling badgers in the night. It is a desire founded in escapism, but the human zeitgeist of imperialist white supremacist patriarchal capitalism needs escaping in so many ways, and into an entangled, relational reality of making a home amongst trees feels like an okay place to start.
Britain is a patchwork landscape of private property, which mirrors the predominant ontologies of euro-western culture founded on enclosure and dispossession. Dwelling requires land ownership, renting or illegality. Those who refuse the inscriptions by dwelling illegally, who may see land as outside ownership frameworks, accumulation and private property, are at the risk of dispossession, a process from which, artist and thinker Denise Ferreira da Silva reminds us, accumulation of capital sustains itself (2014, p.283). Legal and geography historian Nicholas Bromley’s work documents how the enclosure of the commons of the British Isles between the 16-19th century became the model by which Britain enclosed and colonised other lands (2007). With the raising of hedges and the digging of trenches came the notion of private property and bounded land. Expulsions from commonly held land caused waves of extreme poverty and deprived the ability of commoners to lead subsistence lives (2007, p.13).
This has similarities to the concept of ‘the Plantationocene’, an idea raised by the writer Elizabeth Maddock Dillon in their article, The Plantationocene and the Performative Commons (2019). As an alternative name to The Anthropocene, the Plantationocene highlights the close links between transatlantic slavery and enclosure of land as a model for the subsequent and continued enclosure of land and the racialisation and dispossession of people for the accumulation of capital. Dillon describes how
“the plantation economy not only privatises property needed for communal survival but also seeks to enforce social death by separating a community of persons from the resources (cultural, legal, social) through which they might live as social beings, in order to extract the value of these resources in support of the “rise” of a white, bourgeois, “free” European (and later US) citizenry” (p.85).
Enclosure is a process of “large-scale disentanglement or uncommoning” (p.85) that, above all, cares for the movement of capital and not for the land’s wellbeing and all the beings who inhabit it. Counter to this enclosure is Dillon’s notion of the performative commons, where the commons are best understood as the performed relation of beings sharing space.
Many thinkers are drawn and point to the boundaries, margins and ‘elsewhere’ of enclosure, a reality under or despite oppressive ontologies, a place teeming with potential regenerative growth. The cultural theorists Stephano Harney and Fred Moten discuss the concept of ‘fugitivity’ in their book The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study as a mode of fleeing the oppressive ontology of colonial capitalism (2013, p.76). So too, Donna Harraway proposes a better name for the time we inhabit as the Chthulucene rather than the Anthropocene, a time of recognised relationality, describing it as “an elsewhere and elsewhen that was, still is and might yet be” (2016, p.31). These works offer thought spaces ‘elsewhere’ to dualisms of atomised thought (self/other, human/nature) and anthropocentrism. This elsewhere can be a kind of refusal - a powerful resistance to enclosure of being.
The writer Jack Halberstam, in his introduction to Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s The Undercommons (2013), reminds us that refusing terms as offered by the predominant culture “is a game-changing kind of refusal in that it signals the refusal of the choices as offered” (p.8). We are offered ways of being in the world, but perhaps this is only a narrow bandwidth of being. The terms given by the predominant atomised metaphysics shapes our relationships with the land, seeing it as inert or as a commodity and invisibilising any alternative thinking. This comes from the history of enclosure, extraction and the creation of private property, where the enclosure of Britain was the model for the enclosure enacted across the world. Existing differently within, despite, below and under oppressive ontologies is of deep concern for many as we aim to shape less oppressive alternatives. This is a desire I found in the work of Moten and Harney’s discussion of the undercommons. For me, the undercommons is everything outside a cosmology that allows for enclosure of land and thought, the enforced impoverishment of all that is collective, all that is entangled and tentacular. In that sense, the undercommons is ineffable, huge, expansive, its relational inhabitants -multilimbed -reaching out and entwined, and its horizons far beyond our ken.
The role of the land and material agencies of the plants, animals and minerals that inhabit or form a landscape, are vital to consider in constructing a dwelling (being) outside of oppressive ontology and a great deal of work has been done in Indigenous Scholarship to highlight the importance of land as a common concern rooted in a cosmology of material agency. Academic in Indigenous studies, Vanessa Watts, describes how in Anishaabne and Haudensaunnee philosophy, humans are an extension of the land, an ontology expressed by the agency of the land who is seen as the Skywoman of Turtle Island (2013,p.22). Watts highlights how these are not stories, not myths, but the actual events of the emergence of ethics of interrelation of land, plants, animals, and humans. She calls this framework Place-Thought, where being, ethics and knowledge cannot be extrapolated, nor can its creatures from its land. I understand this to mean that animals, plants, and land think as one relational being, humans included, of course. For Watts, the agency of land and its ability to communicate that agency with indigenous people is stifled by colonial hegemony, dispossession and destruction. It is imperative to listen to this agency at this time of ecological collapse as “Listening to what she tells us is not only about a philosophical understanding of life and the social realm, rather it is about a tangible and tacit violence being done to her - and therefore to us” (p.32). Of course, the labour of Indigenous ontological thought long pre-existed the current (re)turns in euro-western academia towards an acceptance of material agency, and this, as Zoe Todd (2016) and Rosiek et al. (2020) point out, is crucial for euro-western thinkers to recognise; for, in not acknowledging the work of Indigenous philosophy in its various forms, academics risk enacting the very violence of colonialism they wish to dismantle (Todd, 2016, p.8).
So what is left to those who wish to dwell outside these colonial concepts of land relationship in a landscape marred by private property? They can leave that centre behind, and they can dwell ‘elsewhere’ even if that centre deems them irrational. I live in a mixed broadleaf woodland home to wrens, deer, stoats, squirrels, oaks, beeches, dogs, cats, and humans, among many others. It is nestled on the North facing slope of five intersecting valleys that sit on the edge of the Cotswold escarpment, a high plateau of Jurassic rock. The springs that emerge in these woods find their way through streams to the wide Severn valley and down into the estuary to the West. This plateau and its valleys are dotted with the remains of long barrows, stone circles, roundhouses, remnants of other ways of being with the material of this place, structures that existed before enclosure. Acknowledging the materiality of this land and its being and beings, dwelling close by them and with them feels like a leaving of a centre characterised as human exceptionalist and colonial.
So I am drawn to the material of this place, the hazel and the clay, the bracken and the sedge. I suggest to the landowner of the woods where I live that I’m interested in building a structure; I show her pictures of recreations of Neolithic roundhouses made from the same materials that surround us and talk about vibrancy, temporariness, and small scale. She, to my surprise, agrees, as long as it’s not visible. She is applying for planning permission for a barn to store forestry equipment and to dry timber - the existence of an illegal dwelling on-site could damage her relationship with the planning officers and thus her plans.
I walk through the winter months through the woods trying to find a spot and eventually find it between a young oak and an older elm who has evaded dutch elm disease so far. The spot is on a flat ridge on the side of the valley, crisscrossed by muntjack and roe deer paths. A rich seam of damp clay rises at the foot of the elm, and sedge grows abundantly.
In this place, where deer leave their desire lines and the indentations of their day beds, where children leave hidden dens, this landscape is manufactured by those who pass through it, including the trees. The sound of two-stroke engines drones through the valley as the trees creak overhead. The robins chat away despite all the human din, and when the night comes, it is only tawny owls and the snipe eerily resonant in the blanket of darkness. Hazel has inhabited this land for at least 1000 years in human record and has been cut and managed for building materials and fuel. Its cutting and management creates a rotational moving habitat of new growth favoured by nightjars and nightingales.
As the winter begins to wane, the hazel catkins drop their pollen, and their red flowers open; I begin to gather the materials I will need. I walk out amidst the hazel, axe in hand. The wonders of forged steel weigh on me, and I think of hominid ancestors doing the same work in this landscape with knapped flint lashed onto wooden handles to make an axe. I cut coppice for my dwelling, choosing rods and weavers the diameter of my thumb. These rods will have the flexibility and strength to weave a circular wall, into which I can weave thicker rods to form a dome for the roof.
Perhaps I am aiming at an inquiry in response to the provocation, How do you want to live when a world/worlds are ending? And the answer seems to be that I want to dwell in honouring relation, to live acknowledging the entanglement of ethics, being and knowing. As Donna Haraway reminds us in The Companion Species Manifesto, “beings do not preexist their relatings”(2003,p.6); we cannot be separated out from our symbiotic interdependent entanglement. And so we are where we choose to pay attention, where we choose to dwell, linger, labour and love. In paying attention to our relationality, our interbeing with the worlds we inhabit, perhaps we start to catch glimpses of what it is to dwell outside of oppressive ontologies, what it may be to dethrone euro-western anthropocentric agency and instead walk with the agency of the lands we inhabit.
My dwelling is nearly finished; it only awaits its thatch. The spring has come again, and as I weave, I am immersed in an emerging canopy of trembling new leaves and small birds gathering linings for their nests, the ground is suddenly vibrant in green and blue. Here I feel more able to be with the fear and grief I carry for the consequences and damage of atomised thought; here I can feel a part of the steady ongoingness of life.
Bromley, N. (2007) ‘Making Private Property: Enclosure, Common Right and the Work of Hedges’, Rural History, Vol.18 (1) p.1–21.
Da Silva, D. F. (2014) ‘”Transversing” the Circuit of Dispossession’, The Eighteenth Century, Vol. 55, No. 2/3, Special Issue: The Dispossessed Eighteenth Century, p. 283-288
Dillon, E.M. (2019) The Plantationocene and the Performative Commons in Minnesota Review, Issue 93, p.83-93
Haraway, D. (2003) The Companion Species Manifesto, Prickly Paradigm Press, USA.
Haraway, D. (2016), Staying with the Trouble, Duke University Press, USA.
Harney, S. & Moten, F. (2013) The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study, Minor Compositions, USA.
Rosiek, J.L., Snyder, J., & Pratt, S. L. (2020) ‘The New Materialisms and Indigenous Theories of Non-Human Agency: Making the Case for Respectful Anti-Colonial Engagement’, Qualitative Inquiry, Vol. 26 (3-4), p.331–346.
Sundberg, J. (2014) ‘Decolonizing posthumanist geographies’, Cultural Geographies, Vol. 21(1), Special section: Indigeneity and Ontology, p.33-47.
Todd, Z. (2016) ‘An Indigenous Feminist’s Take On The Ontological Turn: ‘Ontology’ Is Just Another Word For Colonialism’, Journal of Historical Sociology Vol. 29 (1).
Watts, V. (2013) ‘Indigenous place-thought & agency amongst humans and non-humans (First Woman and Sky Woman go on a European world tour!)’, Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society Vol. 2 (1), p. 20-34