I’ve been desperate to write about this book ever since I started reading it many weeks ago – but how to write about a book as rich and multilayered, as unique, as Alastair McIntosh‘s Soil and Soul: People versus corporate power?
When I read I usually mark pages that capture my imagination, provoke thoughts, connect with other things I’ve been reading, ideas I’ve been pondering. In most books I mark 20 or so pages at the most. I marked more than 50 of Soil and Soul‘s 284 pages. There is just so much in it. And it is so richly woven and idiosyncratic, so much spun from the life and soil and soul of its author and his place, the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, that it would be impossible to do its depth and breadth of vision justice here. But I will try to evoke its range … and I urge anyone interested in the power and importance of place – for itself, for its ability to bond people and communities, for its spiritual significance, its soul connections – and who believes in preserving the natural world against the interests of corporate capital, to read this book.
Among many other things, Soil and Soul shows that when the heartlands of large corporations can be broken open and penetrated by people such as McIntosh, their managers are capable of restraint, of deciding against the short-term interests of capital (profit) – and deciding FOR the preservation of the natural world.
McIntosh tells his story in two parts.
PART ONE Indigenous Childhood; Colonial World is about McIntosh’s childhood on Lewis. The first chapter, ‘Digging Where We Stand’, begins:
‘I must start where I stand. As children, we used to be told that if you dug a really deep hole, you’d come out in Australia. I think in some ways this is very true. If any of us dig deep enough where we stand, we will find ourselves connected to all other parts of the world.’
This truth – of our (potentially) deep connection to our immediate place and the way this connects us to our wider world, to the entire planet, to all life, to all forms – guides McIntosh’s story, which becomes in its second half the tale of a twin mission: to return the Isle of Eigg to its indigenous people and to save a mountain.
PART TWO The French Revolution on Eigg and the Gravel-pit of Europe is the story of people standing together for their place against the outside interests of landlords and corporate power. This people power works slowly, accruing over a decade, using passion, faith, patience, humour, daring, determination, intelligence, intuition, imagination, mischief, folklore and legend, guided by the heart and always by some greater force to which McIntosh gives the name God but which could just as well be called love.
Part two opens with a chapter called ‘Well of the Holy Women’ and a visit to McIntosh in 1990 from a crofter from Scoraig called Tom Forsyth:
‘A fine, strong, white-haired man he was, of mystical and sometimes outrageous disposition … Tom had suffered enough of landlordism. He was sick of Scotland’s feudal system, which had endured since the eleventh century. He’d seen too much of ordinary folks needing the big man’s permission to plant a few trees; to shoot something for the pot; to extend a house. Rarely a week went by in rural Scotland without some story emerging of a laird pulling down a home because he didn’t want people living near ‘his’ river, charging fees for the ancient right of cutting peat as winter fuel, or blocking walkers’ access to a remote but beautiful glen.’
Soil and Soul is truly an extra-ordinary story, told in an uncommon way. McIntosh takes his time. He weaves a complex tapestry, inviting readers deep into his world, into its past, telling of its terrible losses, its people, its beliefs, its saints and legends, its landscape of rock and water and ocean and vast skies. It is, as George Monbiot says in his Foreword, ‘an extraordinary adventure in theology, economics, ecology, history and politics’ – thrilling, exhilarating and incredibly inspiring.
Monbiot writes: ‘It is the first step towards the decolonisation of the soul: the essential imaginative process we have to undergo if we are to save the world from the political and environmental catastrophes that threaten it.’
I recommend Soil and Soul as strongly as I do Tony Juniper’s What has nature ever done for us? – but it is a completely different reading experience, it is like reading a spiritual text, or a poem.
As McIntosh says of his book:
‘It is about the Earth – soil, in a metaphorical sense – and people, which is to say, soul. It is about the interrelationships between natural ecology, social community and the human spirit. It moves away from the mainstream trunk of western culture and goes out on a limb, where the blossom is.’
Monbiot writes: ‘Make no claim to know the world if you have not read this book.’ I think he could be right