Books: Craeft

Book cover of Craeft by Alexander LanglandsI’ve just about finished reading this book by Alexander Langlands called Craeft, about traditional crafts and their meanings and origins in Britain. The book begins with a meditation or reflection on the Anglo-Saxon word Craeft, from which we derive the modern word “craft” meaning something like artisanry or Maker work. But for Langlands, as for King Alfred the Great of Wessex ten centuries before him, the word Craeft is packed with deep meaning and purpose. It means something much deeper than artisanry or craftiness. It’s much closer to an intellect of the hands and the mind and the heart working together with the landscape. The word is something much closer to Wisdom, the domain and teaching of the wise.

In each large chapter, Langlands delves deep into an understanding of a particular British craft — spinning and weaving sheep’s wool into yarn and cloth in this chapter, describing the stench and wretchedness of leather-tanning in another, the hard work of digging with the Neolithic-era mattock in another, only barely improved by the addition of an iron head in the last half-millennium. What are we to make of basket-craft, or thatched roofs, or brewing, or hay-making, or transhumance?

It’s a good thing that Langlands explains in detail what transhumance is, because I found the word bewildering. It’s the habit in most sustainable cultures of driving the sheep or goats or cattle up onto the hilltops or into waste land, away from human food production, during the summers; and bringing them back down again in the winter to feed on the stubble of last year’s wheat or barley crop, and fertilize the fields with their manure. It’s also the ebb and flow of young people minding the flocks or herds in the mountains in the summer, possibly under the care of a foster parent or an uncle; and returning to their home farm each autumn — and the production of abundant wool in the cool mountain air all through the summer, and the preparation for a warm sheep in the winter and a happy sheep at spring shearing. There’s a lot of economic data, animal husbandry, and cultural history packed into that one word, transhumance — a whole way of life which suits capitalism not at all, but does run in tune with the land and the animals and the people. I found that knowing the word, made me look at the hilltops and river valleys of New England differently, almost immediately.

Today I’ve been mulling over his insight about barrows. Barrows are large piles of rammed or packed earth and stones; some are long and narrow and as high in the middle as a five-story building; others are round and mostly-conical, and similarly tall or taller. Some of them contain tombs or graves, but these tombs are often dug into the side of a barrow or down from the top, after the earth is already piled, rather than planned from the beginning to be a tomb. There’s lots of them in the neighborhood of Stonehenge, for example, and many are thousands of years old.

In the chapter on digging, Langlands explains that he’s had to clear gardens on virgin land four times in his life, and each time he’s ended up with a pile of rocks and roots, dirt and stones, that almost always resembles a small barrow, and is always roughly proportional to the ground cleared. The long barrows of England and the nearby dome or round barrows are surrounded by some of the most ancient and richest farmland in all of Britain — fields that have been continuously worked and manured and hayed for eight thousand years. Is it possible, he implies, that these barrows are not tombs — but the prestige monuments that mark successfully-cleared farmland? Are the barrows the piled-up detritus of virgin land changed laboriously into farmland?

Mind blown.

In an earlier chapter, Langlands explored the labor that goes into a thatched roof. I must admit that I didn’t follow that explanation all too well. It may be the least-well-described part of the book. And yet I understood that most English thatched roofs are made of the waste plants that grow within twenty miles of the house with the new roof — that the heather and bracken of one part of the country get replaced with sedge and reed in other places. That is to say, the land provides the materials for the roof; and the roof is made of the plants that are least useful for food, for clothes, or for animal feed. They may as well be turned into shelter, right? And so the act of clearing the “weeds” from overgrown ground, also turns the undergrowth into the canopy of the house.

I’ve chosen these three examples from the book — the thatching of the roof, the barrows as monuments to cleared ground for farming, and Transhumance — to show that what Langlands is talking about is the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of permaculture. That Langlands is exploring and defining a pre-Enlightenment and even pre-Conquest (AD 1066) version of sustainable gardening, animal husbandry and land management in which the house has a roof from the plants that crowd out forage; the animals forage on the (artificial?) hills while the beer and the bread grow in the valleys; the valleys are beautiful farmland overshadowed by the waste piles of aged past; and the laborers in the fields are clothed in the woolens from the sheep. The household is managed — food, clothing, shelter — less than twenty minutes’ walk from the front door.

Langlands, in whole, has demonstrated that Britain used to have a tradition of sustainable permaculture: transhumance to make use of the high lands; thatching to remove less useful plants; barrow-building to create places of ceremony, meeting and prestige in the landscape; wool-production to clothe the people; people living in a kind of harmony with the land.

What’s missing, is profit. I don’t mean this as a criticism of Langlands’ writing or insights, either. There’s a sense, reading this book, of how little surplus there must be in a sustainable system — there’s no waste, virtually nothing that is non-biodegradable, and all kinds of land and ground in use from the valley to the hilltops.

It’s just that… there’s virtually no surplus. There’s no way to turn what’s there, into money that goes elsewhere. I’m not sure that this is a disadvantage — science doesn’t really include the $ emblem as a formal output of most chemical or physical or biological processes. Craeft, the wisdom of Britain, holds land in the sway of of summer and winter, of using all bio-available materials purposefully, of providing food and clothing and shelter to much cattle and sheep and people, of managing water and weather, of bracken and barrow-piling.

And there’s a critical lesson here, I think — that to live in harmony with nature, humans have to learn to use everything around them for food and clothing and shelter for a life that’s both beautiful and sustainable. That there is delicious Craeft, or wisdom, in learning to live and manage all aspects of life close to one’s front door. But to live in that framework requires understanding that the richness of your life comes from the wisdom of how you live in harmony with the world, and not from the coinage one’s labor creates: the Craeft lives in the mind, not in the wallet.

All in all, the book is a model of what a flow model of living in permaculture used to look like.

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  1. Another thing: by putting bodies into the barrows, it sequesters them away from agricultural land in places that don’t have graveyards based around churchly temple technology.
    Are the barrows in England deliberately placed away from lay lines? Because that would be a big hint, too.

  2. Heh.

    I saw this book in a local book store, flipped through it, and though I’d mention it to you–but on the level of the wisdom of work with the hands. Missed this whole deeper dimension of the book.

    Thinking on your post, this kind of “stealth permaculture” is sitting right there in every folk tradition! Deviating away from this system in favour of purely profit-based agriculture explains why every “great civilization” is doomed to some sort of Greerian catabolic collapse as a side effect.

    So…is this book going on your bookshelf?

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