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UNEP Geopoetics & Celtic Biodiversity

United Nations Environment Programme

Global Biodiversity Assessment

 

Psychological effects of biodiversity loss in Celtic culture and its contemporary geopoetic restoration

 

Alastair McIntosh

 

This is the full, original version of a paper commissioned for the UN Global Biodiversity Assessment which, in shortened form, was first published in Posey, D. (ed.), Cultural and Spiritual Values of Biodiversity, United Nations Environment Programme & Intermediate Technology Publications, Nairobi & London, 1999, pp. 480-483. For scholarly citatation purposes, I also include on this page the edited down version as was actually published. To go direct to this version, please click here.

 

(Alastair McIntosh is a fellow of the Edinburgh based independent academic network, the Centre for Human Ecology, and a founding trustee of the Isle of Eigg Trust which, in 1997, restored 1% of private land in the Scottish Highlands to community ownership. He initiated the Pacific Regional Sustainable Forestry Programme in Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu as featured in the British Government’s 1990 white paper on the environment.)

 

 

 

There was once a man, Harry, called the Steppenwolf. He went on two legs, wore clothes and was a human being. Nevertheless, he really was a wolf of the steppes. He had learned a great deal of everything that people, with a fair mind, can, and he was a rather clever fellow. What he had not learned, however, was this; to find contentment in himself and his own life. The cause of this apparently was that at the bottom of his heart he knew all the time (or thought he knew) that he was in reality not a man, but a wolf of the steppes.

 

                                    - Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf.[i]

 

 

Deep Ecology and the Last Wolf

 

In 1743 the last wild wolf in Scotland was shot by a hunter named McQueen on the territory of my own tribal clan, Mackintosh, in the upper reaches of the Findhorn river.[ii] Three years later, and in the same region just South of Inverness, the last battle to be fought on mainland British soil, Culloden, put an end to the old culture of the Scottish Highlands in an act of internal colonial conquest by the consolidating British state.[iii] This marked the onset of the “Highland Clearances”. Some half a million people were forced off their land to make way for sheep ranching and blood sports.

 

Today, Scotland retains a feudal system in which two-thirds of its private land is owned by only about 1,000 people - one fiftieth of one percent of the population.[iv]

 

In terms of conventional historical causality, it was doubtless coincidence that a significant element of ecocide, the wolf’s local extinction, had by just three years preceded cultural genocide. But in terms of psychohistory, it is possible that the events were not unconnected. In this paper I will use material from the Gaelic traditions of Celtic Scotland and Ireland to suggest that we must understand the psychospiritual impact of historical processes of degradation of our relationship with nature. Only then can we create an authentic human ecology of harmony between the Earth, Spirit and the human heart. This lies at the core of “development” and the process of re-setting the seeds of Eden - “sustainable development” - which, from a Celtic cultural perspective, must entail insight that is spiritual and poetic as well as scientific and technical. I shall conclude by illustrating the application of such ideas to land reform and to ecodefence in the contemporary Scottish Highlands.

 

Liberation theologians of Christian and other traditions, and humanistic psychologists alike, recognise self-realisation as being the foundation of authentic human development. In predominantly Christian cultures such as Scotland and Ireland, this is founded on texts like John 10:10, where Jesus advances a concept of “life, and life abundant”, and Luke 4:16-24, where he launches his ministry with a manifesto echoing the call to social justice of Isaiah 61, including the ecological justice of that text’s reference to the “Jubilee” land restoration ethic of Leviticus 25 - often referred to in translation as “the acceptable year of the Lord”. Contemporary Celts have been reawoken to such liberation theology both from our own radical roots and through solidarity with struggles in countries like Nicaragua and South Africa.

 

Humanistic views often overlap with religious ones in seeing “development” primarily as a process is one of establishing full “authenticity” (self-authorship) and “humanisation”, as the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire[v] would put it; “becoming a person” as the humanist psychotherapist Carl Rogers[vi] calls it; “self-actualisation” to the American psychologist Abraham Maslow,[vii] and “individuation” to the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung.[viii] These different names all refer to much the same process of becoming deeply oneself in a grounded reality. The relevance of this should not pass unnoticed in the general philosophy of development as, for instance, when speaking about community development.

 

The etymology of “development” derives from de- (to undo) and the Old French, “voloper” - to envelop, as in our word, “envelope”. To develop is therefore “to unfold, unroll to unfurl.” The biological application, as in “foetal development”, accurately captures correct usage. Accordingly, “development” is “a gradual unfolding; a fuller working out of the details of anything; growth from within” (OED). The Norwegian philosopher, Arne Naess, has pointed out that, consistent with many indigenous and Eastern philosophies, becoming fully ourselves entails recognition that the human psyche extends into nature. He calls this extended self the “ecological self”. Such a synthesis between depthy psychology and ecology, know as “deep ecology”, finds fullest expression in an ethics inspired less by duty than by the joy of engaging in “beautiful actions”.[ix] Central to such approaches of the emerging discipline of “ecopsychology”[x] is the rediscovery and expression of creativity.[xi] In re-creating the fulness of ourselves, creativity helps us to re-weave right relationship with the world. It involves us in the ongoing processes of creation, thus the enthusiasm it generates.

 

It is from the standpoint of this framework of interconnection with all that the loss of the wolf, or any other depletion of biodiversity, can be seen to be a loss of an aspect of our extended selves.

 

James Hunter[xii] has demonstrated the centrality of nature poetic historiography to Highland culture and a foremost commentator, Kenneth Jackson, remarks that “the best in early Celtic nature poetry, are concerned most vitally with the singer’s own reactions to his surroundings; not with making a descriptive catalogue about the various things he sees, but with telling us how he feels about them and how they harmonise or clash with his own particular mood.”[xiii] The principles of deep ecology are, then, nothing new to the Celt but are intrinsic to our indigenous spirituality. As Celtic influence once covered much of Europe, the implications for healing certain cultural psychopathologies of westernisation are thought provoking.

 

Celtic  “bards” or poets were in touch with the equivalent of our songlines and dreamtime. A growing body of evidence, much as yet unpublished, points to their shamanic role and technique, including things like the use of tigh n’ alluis  or Irish sweat lodges for dercad meditation, leading to a state of sitchain or mystical peace.[xiv] However, from the repressive 1609 Statutes of Iona onwards in Highland Scotland, the bards’ role in maintaining cultural and ecological awareness was repressed or marginalised. As in so many colonised traditional societies around the world, poetic power, by which the deep Spirit was expressed through socio-political structures, was replaced by the power of money and money as power. The mid-eighteenth century in Scotland therefore marked the local extinction of both the wolf and of the totemic wolf-like qualities that gave strength to traditional culture. The wild boar and beaver had disappeared a few decades earlier, and the bear, reindeer, lynx, and others before that. Amongst others, the capercaillie and sea eagle were soon to go. Native forest cover was reduced from about two-thirds cover five thousand years ago to 5% by the year 1600 and 1% today.[xv]

 

 

Celtic Nature Poetry

 

I now want to illustrate Celtic nature literature. The earliest recorded material reveals an acute sensitivity to the wild which is often intermingled with Christian devotional material. It shows Celtic Christianity’s most distinctive feature to be the fusion of God and nature (cf. Job 36-39). The highest flowering of early Celtic nature poetry, from the eighth to the twelfth century, reveals a creation-centred theology that anticipated, by at least a millennium modern ecotheology and deep ecology.

 

Consider the representative passages I have linked together here mainly from Seamus Heaney’s translation of “Sweeney Astray”. Heaney draws on a relatively late, seventeenth century Irish manuscript, but which had probably taken shape in the ninth century and starts with the Battle of Moira of 637 C.E.. In it, Suibhne or Sweeney, a seventh century Irish or possibly Scottish “king, saint and holy fool”, is sent “mad” in battle by a cleric’s curse. This was a shamanic madness or geilt. It projects him on a journey where he falls in love with nature and becomes a poet of deep ecology. He reconciles easily such “paganism” with Christ, but frequently challenges the clerical efforts then being made to organise a formal (built) Church. Transformed by the “curse and miracle” of his affliction into a bird, Suibhne flies around Ireland and the West of Scotland. He roosts on Ailsa Craig. He contemplates for six weeks in St Donan’s Cave on the Hebridean isle of Eigg. And he proclaims:

 

            I perched for rest and imagined cuckoos calling across water, the Bann cuckoo, calling sweeter than church bells that whinge and grind.... From lonely cliff tops, the stag bells and makes the whole glen shake and re-echo. I am ravished. Unearthly sweetness shakes my breast. O Christ, the loving and the sinless, hear my prayer, attend, O Christ, and let nothing separate us. Blend me forever in your sweetness.... I prefer the squeal of badgers in their sett to the tally-ho of the morning hunt; I prefer the re-echoing belling of a stag among the peaks to that arrogant horn.... Though you think sweet, yonder in your church, the gentle talk of your students, sweeter I think the splendid talking the wolves make in Glenn Bolcain. Though you like the fat and meat which are eaten in the drinking halls, I like better to eat a head of clean water-cress in a place without sorrow....[xvi]

 

If we might move now to the post-Culloden era in Scotland, one change that caused major social and ecological disruption was the innovation of improved breeds of sheep - the blackface and the cheviot. These started to be introduced around 1760 and, even in the inhospitable Highland climate, could produce a profitable wool yield for the new breed of voracious landlords that had subsumed most of the old tribal chiefs. The following passage reveals grief in response to biodiversity depletion, quoted from the 1803-1886 manuscript memoirs of the Scots herbal physician, Dr John Mackenzie.

 

It was in as lovely a spot in a wild Highland glen as any lover of country scenery could desire to see. I mean then, for then no sheep vermin had got hoof in it, as ere long they did. Then only cattle ever bit a blade of grass there, and the consequence was that the braes and wooded hillocks were a perfect jungle of every kind of loveable shrubs and wild flowers, especially orchids - some, of the Epipactis tribe, being everywhere a lovely drug that I often got many thanks for sending to botanic gardens in the South. The milk cows never troubled their heads to force through this flowery jungle, laced up with heaps of honeysuckle and crowds of seedling hazel and other native trees and shrubs. Till my Father's death in 1826, no sheep's hoof defiled the glen unless passing through it to the larder. But very soon after, an offer of a trifling rent for sheep pasturing let these horrid brutes into the glen, and every wild flower, and every young seedling bush or tree was eaten into the ground, so that an offer of a thousand pounds would not find one of my loved wild flowers or a young shrub from seed - nothing but a bare lot of poles, whose very leaves were all eaten up the instant one of them appeared. Those who remembered the wooded glen of 1826, and now looked at it, would never believe it was the same place - unless seen from a distance, for the sheep could not eat up the beautiful wild hills.[xvii]

 

Such accounts are far from isolated. Here is another from a Gaelic song, translated by Michael Newton as, “O Green Morvern of the Hills”. It was written by Donald Mackinnon, “Domhnull Ruadh”, a West Highland bard, between 1845 and 1860.[xviii] Mackinnon laments both the ecological and the social changes heralded after an invasive species of “foul” came to roost in the woods. The “foul” took the form of a wealthy Londoner, Octavius Smith, who bought the property in 1845 and cleared the indigenous people away to other lands on the tall ships.

 

O green Morvern of the hills

You look full of despair and sorrow

The situation has become very desperate

That you might turn completely into a wasteland

 

The reason for my sadness

Is to be gazing at your hills

Down beside the Sound of Mull

Toward the ships of tall masts

 

It is your non-native lords

Who left the natives dispossessed

And who let the people who don’t belong to you

Dwell in their place...

 

The small band of natives who remain

Their condition is precarious

Under the wings of the London foul

In the dark woods of Lochaline

 

They called you “land of the woods”

And there was a time when you deserved that

But today your woods have been denuded

By the people of the pale-faces

 

The same had happened a century earlier in Ireland. Daniel Corkery in his classic study of the role of the bards in Irish poetry and politics, The Hidden Ireland, wrote in 1924 of how colonial English landlords had destroyed the forests:

 

Everywhere the giant woods were being cut down - the woods that like a magic cloak had sheltered the Gael in every century. The undertakers, the land pirates, not ever quite sure of their standing in so strange a country, were selling the timber on the estates a sixpence a tree - they were rifling the ship they had boarded... Aodhagan O’Rathaille, who was born not far from Killarney, sorrowed ... “Is dith creach bhur gcoillte ar feochadh” (“Woe, your woods withering away”). But indeed all the poets lamented the vanishing woods: the downfall of the Gaelic or even the Gall-Gaelic nobility, the downfall of the woods - these two went together in their verses... These half-felled woods were to be seen everywhere, even in the farthest places; there was, for instance, a great clearance made at Coolmountain in West Cork, a place where even today a stranger’s face is hardly every seen. Some evil genius, it might seem, was labouring to harmonise all things into an equal slatternliness. The country, moreover, was speckled with ruins - broken abbeys, roofless churches, battered castles, burnt houses, deserted villages, from which the inhabitants were being cleared to make room for beasts; and these ruins were, for the most part, still raw, gaping, sun-bleached, not yet shrouded in ivy nor weathered to quiet tones.[xix]

 

In Eilean an Fraoich, “Isle of the Heather”, a poem about his native Isle of Lewis by a bard from my own home village of Leurbost, Murdo MacLeod (1837-1914) lamented the spiritual damage caused by leaving home to work in the factories of Glasgow. Note that this aesthetic appreciation is not a “Bambification” of nature: cattle and birds nests were all, in part, for providing food in a vestigial warrior society:

 

O Isle of the Heather, my heart longs for thee,

Like the salmon, the plover, the deer to be free;

Where by loch, sound and river, in green strath and glen,

Thrive the choicest of cattle, the bravest of men...

 

There’s a soft mist at dawn on the dark mountain brows,

While the light-hearted dairymaid sings to her cows;

They yield milk in plenty, beguiled by her strain,

and the rocks all around her repeat the refrain...

 

Oh! fain ‘mid the haunts of my boyhood I’d roam.

A-scaling the rocks to the birds’ hidden home;

‘Twas the thick gloom of Glasgow my happiness stole,

For the din of her hammers has deafened my soul.[xx]

 

An example that emphasises the need for healing such alienation or “anomie” comes from Clydebank, an industrial town further down the river from Glasgow. Here my friend, the contemporary Gaelic poet who was born there, Duncan MacLaren, dreams of his people’s Hebridean origins and yearns for rustic frugality rather than the multiple deprivation of urban decay where unemployment, during the 1980’s, exceeded 30%.

 

Bruach Chluaidh. Bidh bruadar air uair agam ‘s tu nad eilean air bhog eadar Barraidh ‘s ceann an Neimh ... Clydebank ... I sometimes dream that you are an island afloat between Barra and the end of Heaven and that the only speech on the tongues of your people is the language of the Hebrides and the mists would put a poultice on your stinking houses and it wouldn’t be vomit on the street but bogcotton and your rusty river would be a dark-green sea. And, in the faces of your people, the wrinkles of their misery would only be the lash of wind and waves and your grinding poverty would somehow be diminished ... agus thigeadh lughdachadh air do bhochdainn chraidh.[xxi]

 

 

Cauterisation of the Heart?

 

The evidence I have touched upon from the bardic record that suggests that the human heart became cauterised by historical vicissitudes - broken and sealed off from its cause of suffering. Could it be that, at an unconscious level, most of us still carry such echoes of that painful past? Could it be that we accumulate the effects of bygone extinctions, degradations and colonisations, and these inhibit our ability to act; they bind us in our apparent powerlessness to resolve the major issues of our times. Is there a parallel here with other forms of  “intergenerational trauma” such as sexual abuse, addiction and violence that can be handed down from generation to generation within families?

 

There is certainly evidence that folk memory can carry ancient traces, both consciously and unconsciously. For instance, Professor Seamas O’Cathain considers that the folklore evidence associating the bear with the Goddess Brigit in Ireland is so strong that it may demonstrate a continuous link with religious practice of four thousand years previously when the bear still roamed Ireland and psychoactive fly agaric mushrooms were probably used in religious ritual.[xxii]Just because a totem is extinct does not mean that the psychological structures it set in place or represents are dead, and cannot be restored from the remnant.

 

Christopher Hill, quotes the mid-seventeenth century English liberation theologian or “Leveller”, Gerard Winstanley, on just such an intergenerational knock-on theory of oppression, but as applied to the psychohistory of the oppressors. Winstanley proclaimed to the landlords of his time:

 

The power of enclosing land and owning property was brought into the creation by your ancestors by the sword; which first did murder their fellow creatures, men, and after plunder or steal away their land, and left this land successively to you, their children. And therefore, though you did not kill or thieve, yet you hold that cursed thing in your hand by the power of the sword; and so you justify the wicked deeds of your fathers, and that sin of your fathers shall be visited upon the head of you and your children to the third and fourth generation, and longer too, till your bloody and thieving power be rooted out of the land... The poorest man hath as true a title and just right to the land as the richest man ... True freedom lies in the free enjoyment of the Earth. [xxiii]

 

Robert Burns (1759-1796), the most acclaimed bard of Scotland, would have found much in common with Winstanley. Burns lived in the immediate aftermath Culloden. In his two-verse poem, Strathallan’s Lament (1767), he brilliantly illustrates the psychology of despair that lies behind cultural genocide. We have already seen how ecocide depletes culture. Here we see the counterpoint - repression of culture setting in place the preconditions for ecocide. Burns stands himself in the shoes of the 5th Viscount Strathallan whose Highland father was slayed by the forces of the British state at Culloden. He portrays this battle as having left behind an emotionally vacant modern world “without a friend”; one in which the ravishes of neither nature nor friendship (the “busy haunts of base mankind”) could be appreciated. The ability to feel had indeed been cauterised; the very ability to perceive reality, altered. As the thatch houses of peasant farmer and fisher crofters as far away as Rassay, off the Isle of Skye on the other side of Scotland, were set ablaze by the “butcher” Cumberland’s vanquishing troops who had been ordered to give “Bonnie Prince Charlie’s” retreating soldiers of the 1745 Jacobite uprising “no quarter” - the soul of a people resisting the unacceptable heartlessness of the forces of modernity was dealt a near-mortal blow. For them it was the end of a semi-Eden; the end of an culture with origins in the Goddesses, Gods, mythological figures and Christian saints of the archaic past; the beginning of T. S. Eliot’s Wasteland.

 

Thickest night, surround my dwelling!

            Howling tempests, o’er me rave!

Turbid torrents wintry-swelling,

            Roaring by my lonely cave!

Crystal streamlets gently flowing,

            Busy haunts of base mankind,

Western breezes softly blowing,

                        Suit not my distracted mind.

 

In the cause of Right engaged,

            Wrongs injurious to redress,

Honour’s war we strongly waged,

            But the heavens deny’d success.

Ruin’s wheel has driven o’er us;

                        Not a hope that dare attend,

The wide world is all before us,

            But a world without a friend.[xxiv]

 

Towards a Cultural Psychotherapy

 

If, as US Vice-president Al Gore suggests, the whole of western culture has become a  “dysfunctional civilisation” which is in the psychopathological grip of “a new kind of addiction ... the consumption of the Earth itself (which) distracts us from the pain of what we have lost”,[xxv] then the question arises as to whether whole cultures and subcultures can be healed.

 

In my own work this is what I think of as being, in effect, a “cultural psychotherapy”. Just as in personal psychotherapy the recovery of lost aspects of a person’s individual history can help the psyche to reconstellate into a more functional (i.e., developed - sufficient, rhythmic and beautiful) orientation, so at the cultural level, the recovery of communal history is central to understanding past conditioning and re-connecting with the taproot (as distinct from the mere grassroots) of personal and community empowerment.[xxvi] Drawing on insights of psychotherapy,[xxvii] liberation theology[xxviii] and feminist methodologies which address the regeneration of feeling,[xxix]  my work with communities involves a three-part process of re-membering what has been lost, re-visioning how we could live, and re-claiming what is needed to achieve that vision.[xxx] To avoid destructive or exclusive aspects of ethnocentricity it is paramount that this be undertaken in a profound spirit of inclusivity and forgiveness - something, fortunately, which the Christian theology of the region in which I work lends itself to admirably if with variable effectiveness.[xxxi]

 

I consider that renewal of community and the cultural spirit comes about in considerable degree through re-connection with the deep poetics of place - that is, with the totems, and their expression of underlying psychospiritual dynamics. This is broadly what the Scots poet, Kenneth White, calls, “Poetry, geography - and a higher unity: geopoetics...” [xxxii] Such a mythopoetic underpinning represents uninhibited rehabilitation, after four centuries, of the repressed bardic tradition. So can it be effective as a change agent?

 

Conscientisation, as Freire would call it, partly through a consciously geopoetic approach, was used over a seven year period in helping to bring about land reform on the Isle of Eigg in the Scottish Hebridean islands.[xxxiii] A community of some sixty-five people were assisted, by me and many others and not least themselves, to waken up to their history, grasp a vision of what it could be like if seven generations of oppressive landlordism were put behind them, and develop the unity and media know-how that enabled them to repel the landlord’s 1994 attempt to evict 12% of the population for no good reason except, perhaps, that they were starting to speak out and take responsibility for their own emancipation. This process finally resulted in the island coming into community ownership on 12 June 1997.[xxxiv] Partners with the community in the process were both the local authority, Highland Council, and the Scottish Wildlife Trust - a unique unity of social and conservation interests.

 

Part of the community’s empowerment process involved erecting two standing stones - one of which had last stood some 5,000 years previously when the ancient forests were at their maximum post-glacial extent. Another part entailed an only-half-joking identification with legends about Amazonian “big women” on Eigg by some of the women activists who played lead roles. A further element was the organising of the first traditional feis (music festival) to be held in modern times. This restored a respect for indigenous arts and knowledge, as communicated by some of the elderly residents who had thought it would die with them.

 

For some, the two pairs of eagles resident on the island, and the oystercatcher associated with St. Bride (Bridgit, the Goddess Brigh), and little flowers through which “God can be seen”, played privately empowering roles. The result is that £1.5 million was raised by public subscription. Coupled with market spoiling tactics to knock down the price, this enabled the island to be bought, meaning that both human culture and biodiversity now have permanent security of tenure. The principle of land reform has consequently moved very high up the Scottish political agenda. One of the four members of parliament present at the Eigg celebrations, Minister for State for the new Labour government, Brian Wilson, announced the establishment of a new government unit to advance the cause of community land buy-outs, and feudalism is to be abolished. Many of us look towards cautious yet radical land reform under a future restored Scottish parliament so we do not have to buy back what we consider to have been stolen property.

 

I have used a similar process, which to me is “geopoetic” (and which heeds the deep Spirit consistent with the Greek origin of the word, “poetic”,  poesis - the “making” or upwelling of reality), in my work with opposing the proposed Isle of Harris “superquarry”. This would turn the biggest mountain in the South of this National Scenic Area in the Outer Hebrides into road aggregate. Initially, the community were some 90% in favour of the quarry because of promised jobs. It was clear that in the government public inquiry, conventional arguments alone were not sufficiently going to shift local opinion. Most people had little conception of the magnitude of probable impact. Accordingly, working in close liaison with other objectors, I arranged for the Rev. Prof. Donald MacLeod of the Free Church College in Edinburgh and Mi’Kmaq warrior chief and sacred peace pipe carrier, Sulian Stone Eagle Herney, to give evidence at the inquiry with me on theological grounds.

 

This approach reached to the taproot of vernacular values in what is a deeply Calvinist culture. The relevance of Stone Eagle was that, although not a Christian, his people were also alienated from their tribal lands - ironically, in large measure, by cleared Highland settlers. They are now subject to a superquarry threat at their sacred mountain, Kluscap (Kelly’s Mountain) on Cape Breton Island. The late Mi’Kmaq Grand Chief, who went by the grand Scottish name of Donald Marshall, had made Stone Eagle responsible for opposing this. Professor MacLeod is Scotland’s leading reforming Calvinist theologian. John Calvin, as it happened, referred to the Creation as the “beautiful theatre”, in which we might do well “to take pious delight”.[xxxv]

 

The outcome of the 1994-95 Harris public inquiry has been long delayed and will not be known until well into 1998. However, after the hearings closed, a postal vote organised by the Electoral Reform Society revealed that 68% of the population now opposed the project. The Western Isles Council revoked its intention to grant planning permission. The Labour Party member of parliament, Calum MacDonald, is firmly opposed and is considered to be one of the most environmentally astute members of his party.

 

In effect, the theological testimony drew out a Judeo-Christian deep ecology. It received extensive local, national and international media coverage. It was only one of many powerful testimonies in the inquiry, but at a deep structural level in the community’s psyche, it probably made its share of contribution towards the general change in attitude.[xxxvi]

 

I would like to conclude by quoting the words of the John MacAulay of the Isle of Harris, who was the island’s principal spokesperson at the inquiry. Irrespective of what the Secretary of State for Scotland’s decision proves to be, this statement stands as graphic illustration of how human culture and nature cannot and must not be separated. It is exemplary of the simplicity and practical spirituality of indigenous Celtic nature understanding. I believe that it also exemplifies the ultimate bio-physical, cultural and spiritual basis of a world that comprises a “United Nations”. John MacAulay summed up saying:

 

(Mt. Roineabhal) provides peat for fuel from the lower slopes; clean fresh water from the upper streams for public water supplies; grazing for sheep; salmon and trout from the surrounding lochs; the very best of shellfish from around its coastline. It is of excellent educational and recreational value, both from the geological and historical significance of the area. It quietly dominates the crofting townships of Strond, Borosdale, Rodel, Lingerabay and Finsbay, as well as the main southerly village of Leverburgh. It is not a “holy mountain” but is certainly worthy of reverence for its place in Creation.[xxxvii]

 

Fr. Noel O’Donoghue, who taught divinity at Edinburgh University until retirement in 1988, has the following to say about such mountains and the life they support. He writes in the context of discussing Kathleen Raine’s poetry in his book which uses as its title an expression of hers, The Mountain Behind the Mountain. In June 1997 I telephoned John MacAulay and read him this passage by the Irish-born O’Donoghue. I reminded him of his summing up statement at the inquiry. The effect on this indigenous, Gaelic speaking shipwright and folklorist, was like holding up a mirror to somebody for the first time. It was recognition and therefore vindication of a shared reality, for O’Donoghue had said:

 

The mountain behind or within the mountain is not the perfect or ideal mountain in some Platonic sense. Neither is it the mythical Mount of Parnassus on which the Muses dwell. Nor yet is it the Holy Mountain in which God reveals himself in theophany (a manifestation of God to people) or transfiguration (elevation to a spiritual state). Each of these mountains belongs to its own mind-set, it’s own world of imagination. The mountain of that kind of Celtic tradition to which Kathleen Raine belongs, and which nurtured the people from which I came, is neither an ideal nor a mythical mountain, nor is it exactly a holy or sacred mountain made sacred by theophany or transfiguration. No, it is a very ordinary, very physical, very material mountain, a place of sheep and kine (cattle), of peat, and of streams that one might fish in or bathe in on a summer’s day. It is an elemental mountain, of earth and air and water and fire, of sun and moon and wind and rain. What makes it special for me and for the people from which I come is that it is a place of Presence and a place of presences. Only those who can perceive this in its ordinariness can encounter the mountain behind the mountain.[xxxviii]

 

To open ourselves out to sustainable lifeways, we must cut through the conspiracy of silence that marginalises the cultural and the spiritual in modernist and postmodern nihilism. Only then can we hope to know the wolf and bear that remain alive in our souls; the mountain behind the mountain; the ecological self underlying the urbanised self. Only then can we glimpse the further reaches of Reality, which is the sole font of values often perceived but dimly. As the feminist philosopher Charlene Spretnak suggests, we are talking about nothing less than the recovery meaning; the resurgence of states of Grace.[xxxix]

 

References

 

Corkery, D. (1967). The Hidden Ireland, Gill and MacMillan, Dublin.

 

Darwin, T. (1995). Creativity, Ecology and Becoming a Person, The Trumpeter, Fall 1995, Canada, 175-177.

 

Ellis, P. B. (1995). Celtic Women: Women in Celtic Society and Literature, Constable, London.

 

Evans, E. E. (1981). The Personality of Ireland, Lilliput.

 

Freire, P. (1972). Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Penguin, Harmondsworth.

 

Gore, A. (1992). Earth in the Balance, Earthscan, London.

 

Grof, S. (1985). Beyond the Brain: Birth, Death and Transcendence in Psychotherapy, SUNY, Albany.

 

Gutierrez, G. (1988). A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, Salvation, revised edn., SCM Press, London.

 

Gutierrez, G. (1983). The Power of the Poor in History, SCM, London.

 

Harting, J. E. (1972). British Animals Extinct Within Historic Times with Some Account of British Wild White Cattle, Paul Minet, Chicheley.

 

Heaney, S. (1984). Sweeney Astray (Buile Suibhne), faber & faber, London.

 

Hesse, H. (1965). Steppenwolf, Penguin, Harmondsworth.

 

Hill, C. (1972). The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas during the English Revolution, Penguin, Harmondsworth.

 

Hodge, W. (1997). They’re All Lairds Now, New York Times, 6 June (internet version).

 

Hunter, J. (1976). The Making of the Crofting Community, John Donald, Edinburgh.

 

Hunter, J. (1995). On the Other Side of Sorrow: Nature and People in the Scottish Highlands, Mainstream, Edinburgh.

 

Jackson, K. H. (1995). Studies in Early Celtic Nature Poetry, Llanerch Publishers reprint of 1935 CUP edition, Felinfach.

 

Jackson, K. H. (1971). Celtic Miscellany, Penguin, London, 1971.

 

Jung, C. G. (1932). The Development of Personality, Collected Works, 17, 167- 186, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London.

 

Lorde, A. (1984). Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Crossing Press, USA

 

MacInnes, J. (1978). The Panegyric Code in Gaelic Poetry and its Historical Background, Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness, 435-498.

 

McIntosh, A. (1992). “A collector’s item” or community ownership - the Isle of Eigg debate, Edinburgh Review, 88, 158-162.

 

McIntosh, A., Wightman, A.  & Morgan, D. (1994). The Scottish Highlands in Colonial and Psychodynamic Perspective, Interculture: International Journal of Intercultural and Transdisciplinary Research, XXVII:3, 1-36,

Montreal. (See alternatively abbreviated version in The Ecologist, Reclaiming the Scottish Highlands, 24:2, 1994, 64-70.)

 

McIntosh, A. (with MacLeod, D. & Stone Eagle Herney, S) (1995). Public Inquiry on the Proposed Harris Superquarry: Witness on the Theological Considerations Concerning Superquarrying and the Integrity of Creation, Journal of Law and Religion, XI:2, 755-791, Hamline University Law School, USA. See also commentary by Alesia Maltz in same issue which explores potential US constitutional implications, 793-833..

 

Mackay, J. A. (ed.) (1993). Robert Burns: the Complete Poetical Works, Alloway Publishing, Darvel.

 

MacLeod, M. (1962). Bardachd Mhurchaidh A’ Cheisdeir Laoidhean Agus Orain: Songs and Hymns  by Murdo MacLeod the Lewis Bard, Darien Press, Edinburgh.

 

Maslow, A. H. (1962). Toward a Psychology of Being, Van Nostrand, USA.

 

Maslow, A. H. (1973). The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, Penguin, Harmondsworth.

 

Merchant, C. (1980). The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution, Wildwood House, London.

 

O’Baoill, C. (1994). Gair nan Clarsach: The Harps’ Cry: An Anthology of 17th Century Gaelic Poetry, Birlinn, Edinburgh.

 

O’Cathain, S. (1995). The Festival of Brigit: Celtic Goddess and Holy Woman, DBA Publishing, Co. Dublin.

 

O’Donoghue, N.D.  (1993). The Mountain Behind the Mountain: aspects of the Celtic tradition, T & T Clark, Edinburgh.

 

O’Driscoll, R. (ed.) (1982). The Celtic Consciousness, Dolmen/Canongate, Portlaoise/Edinburgh.

 

Rogers, C. (1961). On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy, Constable, London.

 

Roszak, T., Gomes, M., & Kanner, A. (eds.) (1995). Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth; Healing the Mind, Sierra Club, San Francisco.

 

Seed, J., Macy, J., Fleming, P., Naess, A. (1988). Thinking Like a Mountain: Towards a Council of all Beings, New Society, USA.

 

Shaw, C. B. (ed.) (1988). Pigeon Holes of Memory: The life and times of Dr John Mackenzie, edited from his manuscript memoirs, Constable, London.

 

Smout, T. C. (ed.) (1993). Scotland Since Prehistory: Natural Change & Human Impact, Scottish Cultural Press, Aberdeen.

 

Spretnak, C. (1991). States of Grace: The Recovery of Meaning in the Postmodern Age, Harper, USA.

 

White, K. (1992). Elements of Geopoetics, Edinburgh Review, No. 88, Polygon - Edinburgh University Press, 163-181.

 

Wightman, A. (1996). Land Tenure and Conservation in Scotland, ECOS: a Review of Conservation, 17:3/4, British Assoc. for Nature Conservation, 25-30.

 

Wink, W. (1992). Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination, Fortress Press, Philadelphia.

 



[i] Hesse 1965, 51.

[ii] Harting 1972.

[iii] See for instance, McIntosh, Wightman & Morgan 1994; Hunter 1976.

[iv] Wightman 1996.

[v] Freire 1972.

[vi] Rogers 1961.

[vii] Maslow 1962, 1973.

[viii] Jung 1932.

[ix] For succinct expression see Seed, Macy, Flemming & Naess 1988.

[x] Roszak, Gomes & Kanner (eds.) 1995.

[xi] Darwin 1995. I am also grateful to Tess Darwin’s husband, Dr Ian Edwards of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh, for inspiring some of the thought in this paper.

[xii] Hunter 1995.

[xiii] Jackson 1995 (1935), 80.

[xiv] Ellis 1995, 174-175.

[xv] Smout 1993.

[xvi] Composited from Heaney 1984, 19, 20, 43; Jackson 1971, 255.

[xvii] In Shaw 1988, 22. My thanks to Ronald Black of Edinburgh University’s Celtic Department for alerting me to this text.

[xviii] Translated by Michael Newton (pers. cor.) from the original in Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness, Vol. LII.

[xix] Corkery, 1967, 35-36.

[xx] MacLeod 1962, 3-4.

[xxi] Clydebank, (English quoted in full), personal communication, 1989.

[xxii] O’Cathain 1995, xi, 157-163, etc., and in pers. com. at Edinburgh University Celtic Dept., 1995.

[xxiii] Hill 1975, 132-133.

[xxiv] In Mackay (ed.) 1993, 287.

[xxv] Gore 1992, 220. It has been suggested that since coming to power, Gore should “read his own book”!

[xxvi] Highland crofter, Tom Forsyth, founder of the Isle of Eigg Trust, sees this as a process of grafting the scion that we presently are onto the deep taproot. This goes far deeper than the grassroots, which often get stuck at the level of drink, television and spectator sports.

[xxvii] Especially transpersonal approaches, cf. Grof 1985 with his insight into psychohistory.

[xxviii] For instance, Gutierrez 1983 & 1988; Wink 1992, as well as Freire 1972’s secular approach.

[xxix] For instance, Lorde 1984, especially “Uses of the Erotic” and “Poetry is not a Luxury” as well as the writings of Alice Walker, Adrienne Rich, Mary Daly and others.

[xxx] McIntosh 1992 & 1996.

[xxxi] Matthew 18:21-22.

[xxxii] White 1992, 174.

[xxxiii] McIntosh 1992.

[xxxiv] This was covered in newspapers and broadcast media in the Solomon Islands, Zimbabwe, Australia, etc.. See, for instance, a particularly good article, Hodge 1997 (New York Times).

[xxxv] Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III, Ch. XIV, para. 20.

[xxxvi] McIntosh 1995.

[xxxvii] “Let the people of Harris decide on their own future”, West Highland Free Press, 9 June 1995, 5.

[xxxviii] O’Donoghue 1993, 30-31, my parentheses.

[xxxix] Spretnak 1991.

 

Psychospiritual Effects of Biodiversity Loss in Celtic Culture and its Contemporary Geopoetic Restoration

 

(Cut down version, as was actually published)

 

Alastair McIntosh

 

 

In 1743 the last wild wolf in Scotland was short by a hunter named McQueen on the territory of my tribal clan, Mackintosh, in the upper reaches of the Findhorn River (Harting 1972).  Three years later, and in the same region, the last battle to be fought on mainland British soil, Culloden, put an end to the old culture of the Scottish Highlands in an act of internal colonial conquest by the consolidating British state.  This marked the onset of the “Highland Clearances,” whereby some half a million people were forced off their land to make way for sheep ranching and blood sports.  Today, Scotland retains a feudal system in which nearly two-thirds of its private land is owned by only about 1,000 people—one fiftieth of one percent of the population.

 

It was doubtless coincidence that a significant element of ecocide, the wolf’s local extinction, preceded cultural genocide.  But in terms of psychohistory, it is possible that the events were connected.  Gaelic traditions of (Celtic) Scotland and Ireland suggest that we must understand the psychospiritual impact of historical processes of degradation in our relationship to nature in order to create an authentic human ecology.  This lies at the core of “sustainable development” and, from a Celtic cultural perspective, it is in part a spiritual process. Spirituality is about interconnection, thus the loss of the wolf, or any other depletion of biodiversity, can be seen as a loss of an aspect of our extended selves. Such a principle of deep ecology is therefore germane to indigenous Celtic spirituality.

 

Celtic “bards” or poets were in touch with the equivalent of our songlines and dreamtime.  A growing body of evidence, much as yet unpublished, points to their shamanic role and technique, including things like the use tigh n’ alluis or Irish sweat lodges for dercad meditation, leading to a state of sitchain or mystical peace (Ellis 1995).  However, from the repressive 1609 Statutes of Iona onwards, the bards’ role in maintaining cultural and ecological processes was repressed or marginalised.  As in so many colonised traditional societies around the world, poetic power, by which the deep Spirit was expressed through socio-political structures, was replaced by the power of money and money as power.

 

Celtic Nature Poetry

 

The earliest recorded Celtic nature poetry reveals an acute sensitivity to the wild which is often intermingled with Christian devotional material.  It illustrates Celtic Christianity’s most distinctive feature—God and nature.  The highest flowering of early Celtic nature poetry, from the eighth to the twelfth century, reveals a creation-centred theology that anticipated, by at least a millenium, modern ecotheology and deep ecology.

 

Consider the representative passages I have linked together here mostly from Seamus Heaney’s translation of Sweeney Astray.  Heaney draws on a relatively late, seventeenth century Irish manuscript, but one that had probably taken shape in the ninth century which starts with the Battle of Moira of 637 C.E.  In it, Suibhne or Sweeney, a seventh century Irish or possibly Scottish “king, saint or holy fool,” is sent “mad” in battle by a cleric’s curse. This was a shamanic madness or geilt.  It projects him on a journey where he falls in love with nature and becomes a poet of deep ecology.  He reconciles easily such “paganism” with Christ, but frequently challenges the clerical efforts then being made to build an institutional church.  Transformed by the “curse and miracle” of his affliction into a bird, Suibhne flies around Ireland and the west of Scotland, where he contemplates for six weeks in St. Donan’s Cave on the Hebridean Isle of Eigg.  And he proclaims:

 

I perched for rest and imagined cuckoos calling across water, the Bann cuckoos, calling sweeter than church bells that whinge and grind ... From lonely cliff tops, the stag bells and makes the whole glen shake and re-echo.  I am ravished.  Unearthly sweetness shakes my breast.  O Christ, the loving and the sinless, hear my prayer, attend, O Christ, and let nothing separate us.  Blend me forever in your sweetness ... I prefer the badgers in their sett to  the tally-ho of the morning hunt; I prefer the re-echoing belling of a stag among the peaks to that arrogant horn ...Though you think sweet, yonder in your church, the gentle talk of your students, sweeter I think the splendid talking the wolves make in Glenn Bolcain.  Though you like the fat and meat which are eaten in the drinking halls, I like better to eat a head of clean water-cress in a place without sorrow ... (Heaney 1984, 19, 20, 43; Jackson 1971, 255)

 

Typical of actual historical accounts that reveal the importance of nature is a Gaelic song, translated by Michael Newton (personal correspondence) as “O Green Morvern of the Hills.”  It was written by Donald Mackinnon, “Domhnull Ruadh,” a West Highland bard, between 1845 and 1860.  MacKinnon laments both the ecological and the social changes heralded after a wealthy Londoner, Octavius Smith, bought the “property” and cleared the indigenous people away on the tall ships to create space for ecologically devastating sheep ranching.

 

O green Morvern of the hills

You look full of despair and sorrow

The situation has become very desperate

That you might turn completely into a wasteland

 

The reason for my sadness

Is to be gazing at your hills

Down beside the Sound of Mull

Toward the ships of tall masts

 

It is your non-native lords

Who left the natives dispossessed

And who let the people who don’t belong to you

Dwell in their place...

 

They called you “land of the woods”

And there was a time when you deserved that

But today your woods have been denuded

By the people of the pale-faces

 

A modern example, that emphasizes the need for healing such alienation or “anomie,” comes from Clydebank, an industrial town down the river from Glasgow.  Here my friend, the contemporary Gaelic poet who was born there, Duncan MacLaren (personal communication), dreams of his people’s Hebridean origins and yearns for rustic frugality rather than the multiple deprivation of urban decay where unemployment, during the 1980’s, exceeded thirty percent:

 

Bruach Chluaidh.  Bidh Bruadar air uair agam ‘s tu nad eilean air bhog eadar Barraidh ‘s ceann an Neimh ... Clydebank—I sometimes dream that you are an island afloat between Barra and the end of Heaven and that the only speech on the tongues of your people is the language of the Hebrides and the mists would put a poultice on your stinking houses and it wouldn’t be vomit on the street but bogcotton and your rusty river would be a dark-green sea.  And, in the faces of your people, the wrinkles of their misery would only be the lash of wind and waves and your grinding poverty would somehow be diminished ... agus thigeadh lughdachadh air do bhochdainn chraidh.  

 

Cauterisation of the Heart?

 

The evidence I have touched upon from the bardic record suggests that the human heart became cauterised by historical vicissitudes—broken and sealed off from its cause of suffering.  Could it be that, at an unconscious level, most of us still carry such echoes of that painful past?  Could it be that we accumulate the effects of bygone extinctions, degradations and colonisations, and these inhibit our ability to act; they bind us in our apparent powerlessness to resolve the major issues of our times?  Is there a parallel here with other forms of “intergenerational trauma” such as sexual abuse, addiction and violence that can be handed down from generation to generation within families?

 

Robert Burns (1759-1796), the most acclaimed bard of Scotland, lived in the immediate aftermath of Culloden.  In his two-verse poem, Strathallan’s Lament (1767), he brilliantly illustrates the psychology of despair that lies behind cultural genocide. I have alluded to how ecocide depletes culture.  Here we see the counterpoint—repression of culture setting in place the preconditions of ecocide.  Burns stands himself in the shoes of the fifth Viscount Strathallan whose Highland father was slayed by the forces of the British state at Culloden (1746).  He portrays this batttle as having left behind an emotionally vacant modern world ‘without a friend’; one in which the ravishes of neither nature nor friendship (the “busy haunts of base mankind”) could be appreciated.  The ability to feel had indeed been cauterised; the very ability to perceive reality, altered.  As the thatch houses of peasant farmer and fisher crofters were set ablaze by the “butcher” Cumberland’s vanquishing troops who had been ordered to give “Bonnie Prince Charlie’s” retreating soldiers of the 1745 Jacobite uprising “no quarter”—the soul of a people resisting the unacceptable heartlessness of the forces of modernity was dealt a near-mortal blow:

 

 

Strathallan's Lament

Thickest night, surround my dwelling!

Howling tempests, o’er me rave!

Turbid torrents wintry-swelling,

Roaring by my lonely cave!

Crystals streamlets gently flowing,

Busy haunts of base mankind,

Western breezes softly blowing,

Suit not my distracted mind.

 

In the cause of Right engaged,

Wrongs injurious to redress,

Honour’s war we strongly waged,

But the heavens deny’d success.

Ruin’s wheel has driven o’er us;

Not a hope that dare attend,

The wide world is all before us,

But a world without a friend

 

(Mackay 1993, 287).

 

 

Towards a Cultural Psychotherapy

 

I consider that the renewal of community and the cultural spirit comes about in considerable degree through re-connection with the deep poetics of place—that is, with the totems and their expression of underlying psychospiritual dynamics.  This is broadly what the Scots poet, Kenneth White (1992, 174), calls, “Poetry, geography—and a higher unity:  geopoetics.”  Such a mythopoetic underpinning rehabilitates, after four centuries, of the repressed bardic tradition. But can what amounts to a cultural psychotherapy be effective as a change agent?

Conscientisation, as Freire (1972) would call it, partly through a geopoetic approach, was used over a seven year period in helping to bring about land reform on the Isle of Eigg in the Scottish Hebridean islands (McIntosh, Alastair (1997), Colonised Land, Colonised Mind, Resurgence, No. 184, 28-30).  A community of some sixty-five people were assisted, by me, many others, and not least themselves, to waken up to their history, grasp a vision of what it could be like if seven generations of oppressive landlordism were put behind them, and develop the unity and media know-how that enabled them to repel the landlord’s 1994 attempt to evict 12% of the population for no apparent good reason, except, perhaps, that they were starting to speak out and take responsibility for their own emancipation.  The process finally resulted in the island coming into community ownership on 12 June 1997.  Partners with the community in the process were both the local authority, Highland Council, and the Scottish Wildlife Trust—a unique unity of social and conservation interests.

 

Part of the community’s empowerment process involved erecting two standing stones—one of which had last stood some 5,000 years previously when the ancient forests were at their maximum post-glacial extent.  Another part entailed an only-half-joking identification with legends about Amazonian “big women” on Eigg by some of the women activists who played lead roles.  A further element was the organising of the first traditional feis (music festival) to be held in modern times.  This restored a respect for indigenous arts and knowledge, as communicated by some of the elderly residents who had thought it would die with them.  For some, the two pairs of eagles resident on the island, and the oystercatcher associated with St. Bride (Bridgit, the Goddess Brigh), and the little flowers through which “God can be seen,” played privately empowering roles.  

 

I have used a similar geopoetic process in my work opposing the proposed Isle of Harris “superquarry.”  This would turn the biggest mountain in the South of this National Scenic Area in the Outer Hebrides into road aggregate.  Initially, the community were 90% in favour of the quarry because of promised jobs.  It was clear that conventional arguments alone were not sufficiently going to shift local opinion.  Working in close liaison with other objectors, I arranged for the Rev. Prof. Donald MacLeod of the Free Church College in Edinburgh and Canadian Mi’Kmaq Warrior Chief and sacred peace pipe carrier, Sulian Stone Eagle Herney, to give evidence at the inquiry with me on theological grounds.  This approach reached to the taproot of vernacular values in what is a deeply Calvinist culture.  The relevance of Stone Eagle was that, although not a Christian, his people were also alienated from their tribal lands—ironically, in large measure, by cleared Highland settlers.  They are now subject to a superquarry threat at their sacred mountain, Kluscap (Kelly’s Mountain).  In effect, the theological testimony drew out a Judeo-Christian ecology which received extensive local, national, and international media coverage. 

 

At the conclusion of the government public inquiry on Harris (which has yet to report its findings), the island’s chosen representative, John MacAulay, summed up the cultural, economic and environmental importance of the mountain. He said, “It is not a ‘holy mountain’ but is certainly worthy of reverence for its place in Creation.” (Let the people of Harris decide on their own future, West Highland Free Press, 9 June 1995, 5.)

 

Reverence towards nature and one-another is the keystone of “sustainable development.” As if to corroborate, the Irish-born Scottish based theologian, Fr. Noel O’Donoghue, makes use of words almost identical to those chosen in Mr MacAulay’s full statement to describe what he calls “the mountain behind” such mountains: 

 

The mountain behind the mountain is not the perfect or ideal mountain in some Platonic sense ... [It] is neither an ideal nor a mythical mountain, nor is it exactly a holy or sacred mountain made sacred by theophany or transfiguration.  No, it is a very ordinary, very physical, very material mountain, a place of sheep and kine (cattle), of peat, and of streams that one might fish in or bathe in on a summer’s day.  It is an elemental mountain, of earth and air and water and fire, of sun and moon and wind and rain.  What makes it special for me and for the people from which I come is that it is a place of Presence and a place of presences.  Only those who can perceve this in its ordinariness can encounter the mountain behind the mountain (O’Donoghue 1993, 30-31).  

 

Thus the ancient Celtic worldview has a place even in modern political debate. It suggests that to open ourselves to sustainable lifeways, we must cut through the conspiracy of silence that marginalises the cultural and the spiritual in modernist and postmodernist nihilism.  Only then can we hope to know the wolf that remains alive in our souls; the mountain behind the mountain; the ecological self underlying the urbanised self.  Only then can we glimpse the further reaches of Reality, which is the sole font of values often perceived but dimly.

 

 

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