It was a long time ago, perhaps even five or six thousand years ago. In one way that’s not long at all, when nowadays we think we know that humans have been around on this planet of ours for a million years or more. But when you see how things have changed these past few thousand years it surely is a long time now. Nobody remembers his name, though there are those who think a memory still echoes in one or other of the names we have given to the gods we have invented since then. And it was a man. For all we know suggests before that time, the people, in all their different places on our planet, thought the world was made by a goddess of one sort or another. An interesting creature that goddess, sometimes appearing like the howling dogs of hell mixed with a psychopathic loathing of all life and other times like everybody’s mother – it’s just the way we try to tell the story of life to each other that causes the confusion. But when the change came, and there can be no doubt it came – slithering like a junkie thief in the pre-dawn hours when sleep is deepest – it was a man who did the deed. A simple thing, it seemed like a good idea at the time, what real harm could there be in such a small re-arrangement of things. Times must have been hard for him to get away with it – no family would allow such obscenity, no secure community have tolerated quite such a passing of responsibility. For what he did, that man, so long gone now, was invent poverty. Living in a time when enough was plenty, he saw that he could get a little more, and others a little less, by a judicious application of self-interest.
Maybe his neighbour’s house had fallen down, and being troubled times, the neighbour, recently come, had no family to call of to help him raise his walls again.
“ Oh never mind,” he said, smiling,” I will help you. My sons and I will work alongside you once we have finished in our own fields but, as you are a stranger to us and we do not know that you will help us, if a time of need should come upon us, I have a plan. We will help you but for that help, as we are not of your kin, and we do not know you well, I would ask but a small thing, a little price, let us say a tenth of al the food you grow for the next five years.”
For he saw the stranger had no friends or kin to help him, and more than that, he spied a chance to take back more than he would give from the weakness that the stranger had. And the stranger, new to the village, with no one to turn to for advice or succour, felt he had to agree. And it seemed to the stranger that he was being given help, sure he would have to give of his land’s produce for five years, but without a house and a comfort for his wife and children how could he work his land at all. And so when others came to the valley, and many did, for the times were hard in many places and the land there was fertile, he told the newcomers of the good man’s generosity and that if they asked he they might get help. And little by little the village grew, for the friendly man had food enough to spare and was always ready to help newcomers find a space to build a house and land enough to feed themselves, for just a small piece of what they themselves made from that land.
And being as they were all people who understood that a word given was a sacred thing, the bargain that was struck with each was nobody’s business but their own. The first year when the good man worked with his sons beside the first newcomer in the fields, the talk was all of what they shared, the pleasure in the ripening fruit, the beauty of the children as they grew. But the season after that, when the newcomer worked his fields he saw the good man sent his sons to do the work on his own land but did not take up a hoe, or walk behind an ox himself. And in the fifth year the newcomer broke his leg and his children being young, his wife with child and hard times looming, the good man simply said, “ Fear not, just let me help and our arrangement can go on for five more years.”
And at the end of the five years, the newcomer, though he was no longer that, looked around and saw that many of the people who had come to this fine and fertile place in the past ten years worked just as hard as he did, yet were poor. And the good man, well he never worked at all – why should he, he had made a new thing – a way of growing things that did not need the turning of the earth, the planting of seeds or the tending of crops. He had created something new. They call it poverty and it made the good man rich, and his sons and theirs have tended that very invention to this day,