Saturday, 30 July 2016

Hemingway's Green Hills

 
 
I have just read Hemingway's Green Hills of Africa. I avoided it before, and I was wrong to do it, thinking that the subject matter would be at odds with my own views about trophy hunting and pointless, unsustainable, unnecessary slaughter; wrong because, although his and my views are indeed at odds, there are others in his memoir whose concerns he records that do chime with my own strong opinions about the killing. He is also pragmatic and honest about his own shortcomings as a hunter and a man.

It is a masterpiece of boiled-down no-nonsense prose, written in his distinctive, economic style which I admire and love. The thing that has moved me to write this, though, is that towards the end there's a stunning environmental message which describes very well the impacts of unsustainable agriculture and globalisation. I wasn't expecting it; it struck me hard and I had to read it three or four times over to enjoy his simple eloquence. It could be a metaphor for any unsustainable activity. The passage places him in the avant garde of those early American environmental writers. This was written in 1935:
"A continent ages quickly once we come. The natives live in harmony with it. But the foreigner destroys, cuts down the trees, drains the water, so that the water supply is altered, and in a short time the soil, once the sod is turned under, is cropped out, and the next it starts to blow away as it has blown away in every old country and as I had seen it start to blow in Canada. The earth gets tired of being exploited. A country wears out quickly unless man puts back in it all his residue and that of all his beasts. When he quits using beasts and uses machines the earth defeats him quickly. The machine can't reproduce, nor does it fertilize the soil, and it eats what he cannot raise. A country was made to be as we found it."
This message is as relevant now as it was back then. Hemingway wrote this fourteen years before Aldo Leopold published his classic work of ethical environmentalism A Sand County Almanac, but he must have been influenced by somebody - maybe John Muir or Franklin D. Roosevelt - before he went hunting! 
 
Hemingway's warning went unheeded and his main quarry in the book, the Kudu, has suffered population decline as a result of over-hunting and habitat loss to farming. It is now on the low-risk register of the IUCN's Red List of endangered species. But the number of farms is doing well, however tired or cropped-out the earth is.

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