I had not seen the family in twenty-one years, since my grandfather’s funeral here at the over-full cemetery just above the waterline, gravestones beaten and inscriptions weathered to illegibility. There were few trees and it was cold and bright. Mountains across on the mainland. Some of the gravestones had been maintained, enough of them for me to guess that maybe a third of all the dead here had our name. We went to the bright fields. Forty roe deer on the hill to the south, returning somewhere after the night. I heard of sea-eagles attacking stags, swooping down suddenly with massive wing-weight, aiming to stun and to kill. We left feed for the sheep and the cattle and in the late afternoon I became a sort of barely competent gatekeeper, running about the fields opening and closing the gates at relatives’ instruction, as they drove the sheep on and sifted them and sorted them ahead of the sale they would go to in Dingwall the next day. Bureaucracy has it that all livestock are to be individually labelled several ways; they grabbed the horns of the rams and stapled into their ears, checking teeth as well for signs of age, brittle, jerking animal legs stabbing out in mild panic. Next to a skull and some threads of wool there was another freshly dead sheep – strange, the two having both come to die at the same spot weeks apart, with all the fields and hills to choose from. I was taught how to dig a grave – obvious techniques I hadn’t even thought of – of course you first draw the shape of the animal in the ground, of course you then leave the turf to one side to be spread on finally over the compacted soil and the cut roots, which you stamp on. In the evening we ate fish and took whisky while I heard stories that were to me surprising and delightful – these men had sung! – and looked through photographs – most of them out of doors, in summer, in fields – and funeral notices, tributes to nurses and farmers, many of whom died young.
Hunting was instrumental in the brain expansion of pre-human hominid groups several million years ago. Neanderthals – whose brain was larger than homo sapiens’ – had a diet almost exclusively of meat. Meat contains more protein per gram than plant, giving more excess energy to the body. And catching larger and faster prey could only be done through group cooperation, which valued, and so increased, empathy and communication. Use of fire – possibly first suggested by lightning hitting trees, whose torched branches could be removed and carried – certainly fostered a sense of community. Charred cadavers led to cooking and food storage and distribution, furthering the social contracts that defined the descendant species. Consumption of other animal bodies played a massive and labyrinthine role in the development of brain, with symbolic capacity, social sophistication, and anatomical dimensions feeding off each other in a positive loop.
Sixty-thousand years ago the world’s human population was around a quarter of a million. Three-thousand years ago it was sixty million. Today it is seven billion.1 This growth has been enabled, not by hunting, but by agriculture, which arose independently at least eight times in a period beginning twelve thousand years ago. Agriculture yields more food than hunting does. Families could grow. Small communities developed into towns and cities.
With the end of the last ice-age an ecological period begun in which farming was possible. It was warmer and wetter and the atmosphere, containing higher levels of CO2, was more conducive to plant growth. Farming may even have arisen through the observable fertility of human latrines, blooming seeds of fruit.
There are more people alive today than the total sum of all dead. Birthrate, under agriculture, increased by orders of magnitude. The human mass unfolded to occupy and transform the major part of Earth.
Despite the food surplus, generations of farmers suffered. The new cereal-based diet – rich in carbohydrate – contained far less protein than the earlier carnivorous diet. People became smaller. New diseases spread from the necessary intimacy with livestock, and infant mortality grew, leading to an ever higher rate of birth. After making the transition to agriculture populations had grown so quickly that a reversion to a pre-agricultural state, with its lower but healthier food production, was impossible.
There was another sheep, and it did several unexpected things. First, it was alive. It had been taken for dead, a protective assumption on our part. It was difficult to imagine it not being dead. A grown sheep cannot right itself from a fallen position, neither can it shield itself. The most significant of its weaknesses is curiosity. By opening its eyes it reviewed its environment, believing doing so was automatically advantageous, its sight always associated with power. It could not learn to deviate from its tendency to look. And now we were looking, and seeing the startling evidence of its living in the tremors and the twisting of its head. Now that it was alive, it might have made a sound. It opened its mouth but only mimed. We turned it over to its front with a quick firm push, but it made no attempt to stand. The whole of its eyes were gone. No parts hung in flayed strands, no translucent threads, no hint of neural connections or of the architecture of vision. Blood sprayed several inches of compact arcs as it turned its head. It seemed to be moaning, but it was incapable of making sound. We’d chased the raven but it waited close. It was the one bird, taking one eye at a time. Could the bird stab through and tear out the lids? It was unclear whether the lids were still attached – they would have been forced open by the pulsing blood and even if they hadn’t been the pressing of the lids against whatever raw foundations remained would only have increased its pain. If the bird was unable to scythe out the lids – which seems the case – then it must have simply waited – close – for its prey to open each eye.
Several sheep gathered round, perhaps to have scared the bird away. They were unable to do this whether or not they had been inclined. They made what sounded like distressed noises. The raven waited, perched on a fence, folded in itself, caped. The instinct of the awake animal to open its eyes is so strong that it insists on its doing so even after – as? – one of those eyes is extracted. The defensive example is to close the other eye indefinitely. Is ‘unnatural’ the correct word to assign to the sheep seeing with one eye the other being taken and eaten? Because it wasn’t unnatural – this is not an exceptional occurrence. The horror of the other eye opening directly to the waiting raven, the silent, neat, proficient bird spearing in with its beak, collapsing the wet order of the globe, making the world dark. The sheep hearing the compact feasting, the tearing and bursting, knowing what this sound is and what it means, knowing that it is edible material, that its sudden darkness – the total removal of the visible world – is due to edible material. And we looked.
The immune system is the liminal point of agency, the physical definition of self, the original attempt at drawing a line between one thing and another, organism and world. It is the automatic detection of ‘other’ and ‘alien’, the primitive expression of individual life. It is our defence against disease and the reason organ transplants are so often rejected by the recipient’s body. It is the parochial intelligence of the body. In agricultural millennia human immune systems were reconfigured. The increased consumption of carbohydrates, and especially those carbohydrates that are broken down in digestion, interfered with control of blood sugar and caused metabolic problems such as diabetes. The increase in disease and in consumption of cow and goat milk exerted new pressures on the immune system.
As the immune system was altered by environmental conditions and genetic mutations, so too were other parts of the body. Over thousands of years, with an unprecedented number of new people being born at an ever greater rate, and in a radically new environment, change will occur. And the brain – intimately connected with the digestive and immune systems that are themselves being reconfigured – will not be exempt. And it is interesting, in this period of great weakness, vulnerability and change, that religion should develop.
The principles of faith, sacrifice, transformation and harvest are common to agriculture and the Abrahamic religions. It is reasonable to assume seasonal planting and rising of the yield influenced these religions. Any system that inspires faith is particularly virulent in times of hardship – another reason why it is logical that religious beginnings should coincide with this period. The organic cycles of agriculture make clear the fertility and vitality of dead objects, creating new life from soil. The first rising of plants personally sewn may have inspired feelings of religiosity and creativity and a sense of the sustenance of future generations.
Other times were spent bringing life in. He brought his hands inside a struggling sheep and eased the spill and slop of the lamb. I watched its legs ringing and chest convulsing, the dramatic interaction of its body and air, observed its liquid sheen, the mother pruning and cleaning it, waited for its urge to stand to manifest. Placenta, faeces and straw covered the floor of the barn. The nativity setting is interesting.
The cow removes itself at the approach of labour. Even in difficult steep fields it does this, getting away from the others. Any agitation might delay it, might interfere with the flow of its reflexes. This maternal exile begs appropriation, transference, the mythic – wandering in the desert, indescribable life. Afterwards the animals are curious, the other mothers sniff and inspect, clean, drink up the fertile mixtures of the ground.
A night labour in the field is a problem, difficult to monitor. There is quiet, coded debate in the kitchen, few words, a decision. There will be labour in the night. Somehow even the expression of the cow – its eyes – transmits specific information about the coming birth. It’s away in the fields and soon it’ll be dark. We lead her through the streams and rocks and mud, slopping and scooping towards the barn a mile off. The animal is inestimably more elegant on ground; we are strangers here, feet sinking. It’s steadily darker and we are at a height over the very still sea and the black treeless coastlines of island and mainland. She wanders erratically, tries oblique rushes. By walking at the correct angle and at a reasonable distance you can usher the animal forwards, take her where you want her to go, breaking off exits to vaster moorland. We reach the barn by dark and wait indoors with television and fire, all the strange silences and loneliness of being sealed. The oilskins hanging and boots lined up by the house edge have traces of wool, iodine, blood, faeces. The television is a stream of light projecting the unconsciously ritualistic movements of mysterious figures. To watch them walking, driving, sleeping, eating, dancing, is exotic. We boil water and fill a pot, step from place to place, feel the hair of the carpets and rugs, hear the strain and creak of the wind against broad sea-facing windows. The lamps produce soft fogs of light, the turning of logs in the fire is pleasantly audible. A house is a place to sleep in and pretend that you are not out there. My eyelids are closing in. Everything is so soft. At mealtimes we ease ourselves away and talk trivia, though the obsessive repetition of commentaries on self-evident weather suggests some token acknowledgement of the authority of the outside. The exchange of personal trivia as well, the deep investigations of the minutiae of our surface preferences, in its bizarre and microscopic detail, is an oblique gesture at intimacy, a substitution, an encroaching awareness of the way people spend their days. Less than a mile up the road is the labour. I am family but I am a guest, I am only playing. But this is vital. His anxiety is obvious; the contradiction of needing to observe and of observation being a dangerous disturbance. We leave it as late as we can, around midnight, and step into the silence and wonderful darkness. I wait in the jeep. He waves me in and runs back to the barn door, giddy as a child, just so I can see, letting me see.
Is religion an imaginative way of understanding what our bodies are, how they are maintained and how they fit into the long stretches of time in which they are not present? It is evident that a body is nothing – it is not there – then it is made, it is there, and then it is destroyed. It is the same with a species: it will not be, then it will come to be, then it will be gone. It is also the same with a planet, and beyond a planet a galaxy, even a universe. It is a narrative that is impossible to comprehend. One imaginative response is to deny the narrative conventions of beginning, middle, end. The existence, out of nowhere, of an event, a something, is illogical. Matter is illogical, but it is. Matter instructs our imaginations.
A living body is an impossible narrative. It conducts itself – live, feeling tissue – through an unceasing going away and new-coming. It seems to be enabled to be at all by cancelling itself and re-emerging at all times. The main cellular action of a body is a giving away of itself, the repeated destruction of its constituents, repeated because it is countered by the immediate regrowth of everything always. During a body’s time the finality of ending is not relevant, because the automatic self-ending of a body is its central creative process, the very thing that for a period allows it not to end. Ending has been harnessed as a growth engine. Ending is a means to going on.
The self-renewing and replicating action of the body is in accord with that of all matter, including world objects that we call inanimate or non-living such as rocks. Continents move over hundreds of millions of years as oceans evaporate and reform and support the emergence of changing organisms, radiating into species, whose populations fall into the ground or the seas or are extinguished by fire, settling again, as molecules spilled by sundered bodies, into coarser elements of the earth. A thing that is born is a different presentation of material that was already present and will be so after death. An organism – an animal, a human, a plant – is not a sudden invention, not a piece of inspiration. It is an old thing reformed, material of the age of earth.
All of the body is a tension delicately held in place, a form rejuvenating itself out of its own rot. We are distinctly unstable – the stuff we are is breaking and arising like surf. We cover the affects of our lives – the things we touch – with the invisible ash of our bodies, our last layer of skin. It is a striking liquidity, an intercourse with everything we might consider apart from ourselves. The body turns itself over, breeds itself from molecular residue. Our basic vitality, the gust of ourselves, the motor of our breath and thought, is the brilliant biology of life from death and so the motifs of our religions should come as no great surprise.
Our ideas of resurrection may be instructed by the regenerative activity of the cells that compose the thing that has ideas. It is natural that this supple discontinuousness, this resistance to narrative, should emerge in our mental activity just as in our physical. As Freud revealed the dominance of the unconscious and the fragility of the ego, the strangeness to ourselves of ourselves, and as attachment theory sketched the effects of intimacy, blurring the outlines of one person and another, and as the whole enterprise of neuroscience has come to see the brain as an uncentred organ, the mind as an undirected amalgamation of modules, one part literally not knowing another, it is implied that our mental solidity – the certainty of ‘I’ – is as illusory as our physical solidity. The bizarre narrative of biology, which may have it that in one sense we are never born and we never die while in another sense both actions occur simultaneously and always, is complemented by the suggestion from psychology that there is no self and thus nothing to experience such ultimate liminal stages as birth and death. If the self has never existed except as an illusion, if we accept that, then what does death become? What is it that may be faced? What may be destroyed?
Approaching the bridge that will take us from the island I am aware of the masses of earth and rock piled up and looming over oppressed cottages, a treeless vertical desert, and of the slow circular motion of our vehicle tracing the veledromic contours of the blasted rock. Under enclosing black mountains the quiet ribbon of road, the tiny white square cottages, the limp upturned boats and other remaining industrial effects sit fixed to the caldera. Everything petrified in time. The animals are being ended; two dozen sheep butting against each other and charging the gaps in the back of the lorry. The clatter of stamping and the dropping of faeces. They cannot know where they are going.
We pass the graveyard, headstones fallen and split to pieces. Everything is brave in the upheaval of the moving earth. I wonder who lives in each of these houses, and I crane my neck for evidence of a pale face by a window, a small figure shuffling into uneven field with a basket of white linen, a blond child carrying flesh-warm eggs from a chicken coop. Directly facing the almost sheer black mountain, in grand comedy, are two white deck-chairs, several inches apart.
What are we turning over? The shooting of the eyeless sheep, I now heard, did not go smoothly: a slip of a finger in the rain and the release of the bullet at the wrong time, into the wrong part of its head. The shock of the removal of most of a face. The boots and skins scrubbed. Difficult to remove, from the house, the smell of what happened. In the last night, with family, I had almost gone to say something – how is it that…? How do we…? That with all of this, in all of this, there is somehow a celebration, a dawn persistence. But I said nothing.
1. The statistics on populations and genetics are drawn from The 10,000 Year Explosion, Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending, 2009.
First published in Edinburgh Review 138: What Light Remains