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John Burnside: The tyranny of the world’s “centre”

For generations, people on the periphery have watched their ways of life – often informed by deep wisdom and ancient traditions – being sacrificed for “resources” for those in central nations. 

A Sami family, Lapland, c.1900. They saw their homeland as the centre of the world. Photo: Galerie Bilderwelt
A Sami family, Lapland, c.1900. They saw their homeland as the centre of the world. Photo: Galerie Bilderwelt

Recently I took part in a conference that brought together writers, economists, business strategists and politicians to discuss the future of European culture in a changing world. It wasn’t the usual kind of event for me, so I took the prompt for my panel debate – “Where is the middle of the map?” – as a provocation, a fun talking point rather than a serious concern; but in this, it seems, I was mistaken.

Having pointed out that Europe had been “at the centre” for a very long time, the opening speaker seemed troubled by the notion that the centre might have shifted away, first to North America, and now, with the growth of Asian economies, somewhat towards the east. Another speaker said it was possible to decide where “the middle” was by studying the surface of the earth from space, to see where the greatest concentrations of artificial light were to be found. Everyone seemed encouraged by the fact that Europe was still one of the “brightest” – that is, most light-polluted – areas of the planet.

By this time, I was lost. I am not accustomed to thinking of culture in terms of its competitiveness or possible superiority (one panellist felt that European capitalism was more humane than the American version, and asked that “we” should strive to hold the centre for that reason). In fact, I am accustomed to assuming that this argument is moribund – and as the discussion continued I kept thinking of the Sámi atlas that the activist and artist Hans Ragnar Mathisen gave me many years ago. This is a set of maps that re-envisions the world from a Sámi perspective, the centre at one point being the North Pole, with the Sámi homeland illumined by polar ice while other territories, such as the US and central Europe, drop away towards the periphery, into darkness.

Surely by now, with a wealth of post-colonial studies behind us, we could all see that to create a centre is also to create a periphery; and, as power is established, that periphery is inevitably reclassified as “resource” (human labour, minerals, natural gas, dammed rivers, endless agri-industrial monocultures), a harvest to be reaped in order to keep those at the centre well lit and cosy in their superior culture.

We know that, in order to dine on beef and chicken as frequently as it does, the centre destroys vast areas of forest and prairie to grow fodder for its livestock. We know that somewhere else, poor farmers are denied water so that luxury golf resorts can be well irrigated. We know that fish stocks have been exhausted all over the world, that precious rivers have been dammed to provide cheap electricity to major cities. No wonder the centre’s concerns seem so callow; the only philosophy it seems to have espoused is “out of sight, out of mind”.

For generations, people on the periphery have watched as their ways of life – often informed by deep wisdom and ancient traditions – have been sacrificed for these “resources”, or to create spaces for weary centre-dwellers to escape into well-managed pockets of “nature”. These peripheral folk do not speak of “the centre”; they speak, often in an elegiac key, of home. Sitting on that panel in the centre of Europe, I remembered a definition that Kathleen Dean Moore offers in her powerful collection of essays Holdfast. Home, she says, is:

salmon and yellow cedar, the River, the Inlet, and a little town where wooden houses stand on stilts above great schools of fish . . . A place where bears roll boulders on the beach, sucking up crabs and sculpin. Where gardens grow in milk crates stacked above the tide – daffodils and garlic, and rhubarb for pies. A place where women’s voices call to children across the docks, and salt wind carries the laughter of men. A place where people can make a living, but not a fortune. A place where enough is great riches.

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