It is nearly Lughnasadh, fair season. This is the time of year when we gather together to celebrate and share and boast about our handicrafts. The Irish have a such a deep passion for these crafty clan gatherings, they put a deity in charge. Lugh was the primary god of the Tribe. These days, he is often depicted as a warrior-king, but the string of epithets behind his name point elsewhere. Notably, he is not involved in many battles, nor is he imagined as a physically imposing person. His Welsh cognate, Llew, kills exactly one person — the man who made a public cuckold of Llew — and then falls into such a guilty depression that he transforms himself into a rotting eagle and flies off into the wilds to wallow. No, Lugh is not a warrior. Lugh is the god of craft. He is all-talented. He excels at all things and bests all challengers. This included sword-play and physical prowess in the tales told of him, but more as an afterthought (perhaps even a translator’s late addition). He outwits his opponents as often as he beats them in physical combat. He invented the game of fidchell, a strategy game somewhat akin to chess. He is better known for his skill at crafting words and music. He is an herbalist and healer and teacher. And he makes stuff! He makes his own harp, his own special clothing, a cup, a sword, jewelry and adornments. He is a blacksmith and silversmith. He renovates the sagging Tuatha Dé Danann mead-hall and designs the furniture. He farms and breeds strong livestock and brews the best mead. He cooks mouth-watering meals that feed thousands. He is Lugh Samildánach, Lugh the All-Skilled.
I rather think it is time our society invokes Lugh. We have a need of skills. We are too much enamored of the tools we’ve made. We believe these tools have freed us from hard labor, hand labor, back labor; but it seems to me that we are working harder than ever. We use and abuse our hands and backs now, but we make nothing of skill. We are busy. And that is all. Yet we scorn the real work done to maintain and enrich life. We scorn the workers as well. I wonder, if Lugh were among us today, would he be a god? Would a craft-master, a god of hand-skill, be honored? Or jeered? I suspect the latter.
Our economic system can’t tolerate a skilled populace. If we can do things for ourselves, then we don’t need to buy things. If we don’t buy things, then money stops flowing and the whole system implodes. Our society is predicated on the death of hand-skills. And to hasten that death, a huge encompassing edifice of propaganda was created to malign the productive work that people used to do for themselves — especially the things that fill our daily needs. The more regular the need, the more the profit in selling us the means to fulfill it. Kitchen work is sneered at; cleaning is disparaged; care work of all kinds is seen as inferior to the work of capital accumulation. And the workers that do this work are equally diminished. There was and is slavery — the idea of a master taking the labor of another human for his own benefit with no recompense — and women were largely relegated to these roles. The concept of race was created so that there would be a whole pool of inferior, not-quite-humans to do this inferior but necessary work. Farmers and those engaged in the trades (note the noun… not productive craft, but economic exchange) became toothless troglodytes in sagging trousers who haunt the margins of humanity. Ironically, the main weapon in belittling this work was deeming it unskilled.
Those who have placed themselves in charge, claiming unique understanding of the the zeitgeist, tell us that we must preserve the present system at all costs. Well, of course they say this; they benefit from that system. If change proceeds as it’s been going, it is likely they will no longer be in a position to narrate our lives for us — while getting paid handsomely for doing so. They are opposed to all things that threaten this position. Our influencers particularly loathe any intimation that society is trending toward the local, the small, and the hand-hewn human-scale ends of energy and resource use. Their platforms and pedestals require a culture that is large, centralized, and flush with advertising revenues — which only flow freely if we all buy large amounts of stuff, if we are unable to meet our needs, if we are de-skilled and never engaged in the productive labor that is now called un-skilled.
They acknowledge that things are slipping. However, in their minds, the cracks merely reveal untapped markets, new income streams, more stuff for us to buy. And they exhort us to get out there and buy that stuff in order to keep propping up this failing mess. Look at the recent entreaties to return to “normal”, to get out of the house and fill theaters and restaurants, to go spend tourist dollars, to fly — while thousands of people are still dying every day and millions are still unvaccinated, including all our children. But hey, we can’t let a little thing like this pandemic erode our great spending machine. If we fail in our role as a giant collectively consuming mouth, if our society grinds to a halt through its own too much, they say we face a hellish future. Degrowth means a certain descent into drudgery, misery and chaos, they claim. We’ll all be forced to lead lives of quiet desperation — ugly, brutal, short and whatnot — by which they likely mean that they will be forced to lead lives of quiet desperation (since many of the rest of us are already there). They seem to be increasingly shrill on this point.
These exhortations to keep the growth machine going are in direct conflict with evidence from all across the globe showing that, far from becoming miserable louts, those who are engaged in de-growing, in building a world that will thrive within the limits and means of this planet, are the most creative, most joyful, most contented people living today. They are not shrill. They are skilled. They may not be loud, may indeed be quiet, but they are in no way desperate. They are living lives of abundance. They have agency. Theirs is a life of work that they want to do. Imagine that, you folks who say that degrowth is unskilled drudgery! Every day, the people who are de-growing their world are doing challenging craft-work that they have chosen to do. And not merely chosen, they are doing things that they enjoy. Every day. This is a life of exquisite pleasure. A good life. A skilled life.
This relationship to work and to choice spills over into an out-pouring of skillful creativity. Most of the degrowth and neo-peasant people I interact with are writers because that is the corner of the world I choose to inhabit. They write about their experiences as neo-peasants and degrowthers, all stories that are entertaining and eminently readable — sometimes wry, sometimes bittersweet, always inspiring. But they also write poetry, award-winning novels, brilliant philosophy and most of the best nature writing in existence — because they have tangible, tactile experience with the more-than-human physical world. They have skilled hands entangled in the real living world right up to the elbows.
They make word-craft alongside a daily flow of hand-craft. They make things, useful and beautiful things. Like a host of Little Lughs, most are many-skilled — pottery, cooking, a facility with plants and animals, building, fixing, and on and on and on. Most have lived many lives, worn many hats, experienced many things, practical and wonderful. Most have broad educations and advanced degrees, yes, in STEM areas as well as the less practical but more meaningful humanities. (There are probably a few fidchell masters in this group.) Many never specialize but choose to dabble in everything. There is so much interesting in the world; it is hard to settle on one thing. It is very like Marx’s notion of being a hunter in the morning, a rancher in the afternoon, and a critic in the evening. Humans thrive in this way of being (except who has the urge to spend evenings in criticism!). We love diversity. We love making things. We love having agency and choice. We love the novelty and the challenge to mind and body. What will this lump of clay become in my hands? What will grow from this seed? What will I do with all the pleasurable minutes in this bright new day? What miracles will I have accomplished by sunset?
Yes, there are menial tasks that nobody likes. I don’t know anyone who truly enjoys cleaning the bathroom or mucking out the chicken coop. (Which task gives special meaning to muck.) But these are more than balanced, perhaps overwhelmed, by the myriad pleasures — solid, tactile pleasures — in this life. You have to clean the bathroom in any case. But in a Neo-lithic world, you also get to mow the hay in the sunshine with no other demands on your time, nothing at all pressing except to cut this sweet-smelling grass, so that your mind is free to soar with the swallows. You get to knead warm dough, creating delicious and nutritious whole food with flour-covered hands (incidentally, one of the best things I know for arthritis pain relief), while musing on the meaning of life bound up in this living microbial community coating your fingers. You get to knit together a human community by stitch and purl, laughing while you make practical art, practical magic, practical beauty to share, to clothe the world, to keep your loved ones warm. You get to make messes that turn into vibrant life, into useful tools, into durable and desirable things. You get to wake up and decide to clean the bathroom. Or not. And that is the most essential difference between the world we are creating and the world we are abandoning. We get to choose what we do.
And make no mistake we are choosing to abandon the world that takes away our choices and steals our skills. We are scrubbing the system that places us in restrictive boxes, forces us to do ridiculous and often harm-filled unskilled tasks each and every day for wages that are spent to feed the growth machine, not ourselves. We are leaving all that behind in droves! The shrillness of the influencers is likely grounded in the recognition of their eroding platform. Soon they will be squawking only to each other while the rest of the world gets on with the wonderful work of living. Then, soon after, there will be no elevated position to squawk from at all — and they’ll be forced to join us, if they want to eat.
I believe Lugh might be inspiring these changes. (Let me have my little fancies.) We are reacquainting ourselves with our hands. We are rediscovering our delight in productive creativity. We are reclaiming our skills. Lugh must be giving us his blessing. Let us, in turn, give him due honor. After all, a god of all skills could be quite useful in these changeful times!
Here are a few of the people I see doing wonderfully skilled things and eloquently describing their experiences.
A Stone in the River (https://www.astoneintheriver.net), Stefanie Hollmichel
The South Roane Agrarian (http://www.wingedelmfarm.com/blog/), Brian Miller
The Alchemist’s Studio (https://rakupottery.ca), a mysterious potter in Canada
Small Farm Future (https://smallfarmfuture.org.uk), Chris Smaje
Shepherd (https://www.patreon.com/ManorofMixedBlessings/posts), a truly entertaining Tweeter under @NeolithicSheep
Winona’s Hemp & Heritage Farm (https://www.winonashemp.com/home), Winona LaDuke
©Elizabeth Anker 2021