Sunday, February 04, 2007


There’s a pilot scheme round here for recycling food waste. I’ve got a council-issued kitchen bin, plastic, rich brown in colour, in which I deposit my food waste. The waste is heat-treated and so can include meat, though I don’t eat meat. I'm not really sure what it's used for, compost I suppose. But how do you define food waste? Food no longer desirable, certainly; cold and congealed on the side of the plate like lumpy western mountains. Or food that’s been allowed to go off, but disgusting more than toxic; blackened pimentos, jade-capped yoghurts, bitty milk. Also, the offcuts of kitchen preparation: potato peelings, the fibrous parts of vegetables, avocado skins and stones. These bits and pieces are certainly not digestible by humans (which of course is why I cut them off and throw them away in the first place).

I meditate idly, but rather frequently, on this matter. Food off-cuts are not necessarily food in themselves. Take nutshells; say, the shattered stone of an almond (not strictly a nut but a kernel). Who can eat the stone of an almond, or the shell of a hazelnut? Undeniably, they class as food waste, but still, they are basically wood, and the only creature that would like to eat them is woodworm. So, if I'm allowed to throw nutshells in the bin, shouldn’t I reasonably be allowed to throw other bits of wood in there too? Perhaps not table-legs, exactly, that would be a bit extreme, but pencil shavings, twigs, fir-cones? (I confess, my particular household economy does run to an unusual number of twigs.) Should the definition of food waste include any material that can be eaten by something (i.e. basically, biodegradable)? Would this include the prunings of pot-plants? Could I in good conscience toss in fragments of a plant I know to be highly poisonous - to humans -; hemlock, perhaps? (Again, I admit this to be a dilemma not all householders will find as pressing as I do.) Insects happily consume candle-wax, tissues, fag-ends, putty, ink, medicines, fabrics…

I’m getting late for work, again.

What about our own body parts, which I conceive to be highly nutritious to micro-organisms? When I die, could the food waste accommodate me? More immediately, what about nail-clippings (well, if eggshells are OK…), blood, snot, ear-wax and the dust off the bedside table?

What about the sweepings of cut hair around the base of a kitchen stool? My imagination dives into the bio-degrading earth and sees how its processes soften and dissolve the knottings of our civilization; how fibres become loose and pulverized, how even plastic twine eventually fragments; otherwise the upper layers of the healing earth would by now be one gigantic mare's-nest of tangled cords into which you couldn’t plant a spade.

Hair is odd, mysterious stuff. It's something that we mammals share with plants; we are both terrestrial groups of creatures, and plant hair has one of the same principal functions as mammal hair, protection from the sun's heat (plants, however, have different methods for dealing with winter cold). Of course plants vary greatly in hairiness, some coated in thick down while others are waxy smooth - the resemblance of plant stems to "limbs" has always struck the human imagination and is reflected in our languages.

They say your body stops growing before you’re twenty, your feet never get any bigger. But hair, nails and skin, well, they just go on growing. Are they part of our bodies or not? In our civilization we have developed a great many taboos concerning hair, especially recently. It would not be going too far to say, we hate hair. The etymology of barbarism is by no means only about the customs of ancient peoples.

Things we put in our mouths (we have come to feel), should definitely not be hairy. I have read, in one of those books about hedgerow gleanings, that comfrey leaves are as cool and mild as cucumber; that a couple of fresh leaves of comfrey make a highly palatable filling for a sandwich. I’ve tried this and it’s not far off true, but this comfrey snack is never going to make money for anyone, because comfrey leaves are covered in bristles. Kiwi-fruit skins are edible, but very few people think of eating them; they’re too furry. Nectarines are displacing peaches – children now are repelled by a peach's woolly bloom. As for animal food, hair is right off the menu, though an occasional pig’s bristle emerging from a piece of golden crackling is vaguely thrilling, evoking the rough, messy heartiness of a feast of roast meat turned heavily on a spit over a fire. In a more general way we are fussy about the outsides of any food, vegetable or animal. People don’t feel good about fish-skin, fatty or webby elastic tissues, dimpled or pimpled or slimy surfaces. We scream with amused horror witnessing the TV trial of westerners in the jungle consuming insects and other very small creatures; as much as anything, because it necessarily involves them registering the shelly or rubbery surfaces in their mouths. Small size is an issue, when it comes to our animal food. In my meat-eating days we were sometimes repaid for various services in hare. Unfortunately the kids never really took to hare, and I admit I was a bit squeamish myself. It wasn't picking out the shotgun pellets that bothered me, it was, well, a skinned hare is just about baby-size and baby-shape, and I didn't like chopping it into quarters. I suppose that’s one reason our era has lost all enthusiasm for eating rabbits, though our not-so-distant ancestors went into mouth-watering ecstasies about a snared coney. The fact is, we don’t like our animal foods to be recognizable. We gather in crowds to eat the insides of cows and pigs, but we have developed ways not to be shown the eaten-out shells of their external appearance. Somewhat analogous to vultures, whose naked heads enable them to probe deeply into the wound of a kill and to tear flesh from the inside, emerging without ruffled feathers.

Hair and nails are conceived as vegetable growths that are to be maintained for the relief of the public mind, like a front garden. When we see this not done, we infer a sub-social being, a wild person to be avoided and despised. It’s surprising how enduring this attitude is. Since I like to investigate woods and meadows rather energetically, I've learnt only too well how instant and instinctive the reaction is to “straws in the hair”, to a too-close contact between one’s body and a twig or leaf. Everywhere you go these are considered unmistakable signs of lunacy and idiocy. Even flowers are considered rather wild adornments of the person (as per King Lear, Ophelia...); only to be forgiven if they are conceived as celebrating the play-time of someone who is very beautiful, very young, very rich or very in love.

Western society is unprecedentedly hairless, and becoming more so. The naturally luxuriant growth of female hair under the arms, on the calves and around the pubic region is viewed with almost as much terror as the equally natural growth, for many women, of facial hair. Keep your lawn trimmed, as one expression has it. Eliminating (or, in the pubic case, at any rate neatly corralling) this "unsightly" hair is simply the most minimal, the most scarcely-even-needing-to-be-mentioned, basic of “taking care of yourself”; for your self, it seems, is something quite different from, something urgently to be distinguished from, your natural body. Nor is the male entirely exempt from such profitable prejudices. Male shoulder-hair, back-hair and even chest-hair are coming to be perceived as grotesque, unkempt, not really acceptable. Beards and moustaches are generally unpopular, certainly beyond the pale unless very short and groomed. The closer that neighbourhoods are to real poverty (that is, to a more natural existence), the more determinedly they maintain this line, and the shorter the hair. Here on the estates, the danger of letting oneself go, of slipping across the border of settled society into vagabondism, nomadism, weird solitude; onto the roads, into state care and greasy lodgings, into the streets; (metaphorically speaking, into the woods and fields); the vital importance of badging oneself as a member of the strongest community; all this is far more palpable than it is in prosperous circles, where a floppy, unkempt mane can be flourished, with scarcely any social consequences, as a gesture of mild rebellion against one’s surroundings.

But fashion and youth are always looking out for something new and different. Why is it that our society keeps on getting less hairy? Well, because youth leads fashion, for one thing. Another is that models, actors and celebrities, those critical opinion-formers, tend not to have very much hair, except on female heads. Their careers require rapid-fire changes, jumping in and out of costumes, a new look every week. This is much more practical if you keep virtually close-shaved; after all, a beard takes a long time to grow and cannot be conveniently taken off at will. Tallness, slimness and hairlessness work best, if you are a model; over time, these attrbiutes have proved the best for showing off clothes and accessories. Over time, we too tend to adopt not so much the wares on display as the underlying template of these human coat-hangers, these sites for product placement.

It's also about commodifying ourselves. That's something that humans have always done, it's our idea of being desirable, but the principal commodities that we are familiar with are no longer herd animals. Our principal commodities are machine-tooled, moulded in metal and plastic, shiny and slim. We wish to be as flexible and smooth as fish glinting in tropical waters.

For fish are yet more animal than we are. Here on land, we animals have distinguished our lifestyle from our vegetable companions by becoming more mobile, more speedy. Plants are slow. The rapid, flitting accidentals caused by the breeze, the rain, and the surrounding animal life are protectively filtered out by the plant’s senses; it only takes notice of what is so gradual that it must be important. (When I accidentally reflect the sun off my shiny mobile phone onto a crocus in the shade, it does not instantly open its petals; from the plant’s point of view, that would be sheer madness.) The plant lives in its one spot and, unconfined by the need to move around, grows its unique response to its only world, a baroque complexity of outline, a frost-work of branches and twigs and leaves and ray-florets. For an animal, protuberances of that sort would be highly inconvenient, constantly getting snagged and at risk of breaking off. The animal body is, comparatively speaking, rounded, symmetrical, compact, with a very short outline, and with severe limits when it comes to size. Society has always been uneasy about protuberances; even universal ones, if they happen to jut unusually, cause distraction and fidgetiness, cause conversations to dry up. Society has always positively loathed warts, carbuncles, boils and other things that we call, with vegetable implication, “growths”. Society fears people who are the wrong shape or size. Growth is what plants do, that’s how they live, it’s what they do instead of moving around. We, in some respects more animal than our forebears, super-animal perhaps, now hate hairiness because a hairy person, someone who lets hair “sprout”, has too much outline, and verges on plant-life; static, helpless, disturbingly unconcerned.

Three degrees by the end of the century...


At 10:20 am, Blogger Yves said...

Wonderful post Michael, with much food for thought and much compost material for the unconscious. With religion, Freud & Marx largely discredited, we can populate the vacuum with our own musings, loosely based on Darwin, whose pioneering work survives as a coherent framework explaining why we are here; and the shape and behaviour of living things.

Government, central & local, and political correctness lobbies continue to ply gospels of the day, as if there were certainty, but as you have shown, this is a time for us to contribute our own wisdom, not the hastily-thought revisionist pronouncements of the authorities. (E.g. this morning on Radio 4, a church service from Jesus College devoted to showing the environmental credentials of Christianity, complete with texts from Genesis, Isaiah, St Luke's gospel etc.)


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