December 7, 2018 § 6 Comments
Our little cabin is dark at seven in the morning when my wife leaves for work. Most of our windows are on the south facing wall, and what little light drifts in illuminates only the objects lining the periphery of our home. In the belly of the wood stove an orange fire is the only other source of light, and the only sound is the stove’s metallic ticking and clicking as its catalytic converter opens and closes. That, and the muted hum of the wind blowing through the trees and pressing against the house.
Snow has replaced rain, but has only been able to speckle the ground with a light, icy layer. Just above the distant tree line, a stark orange band of color silhouettes the tangled boughs before bleeding upwards into a dull yellow. Today we will have sun, which we need to charge our battery bank. Solar power at the coming of the winter solstice means careful use of power. Panels get covered in snow, sunlight is often diffuse, batteries underperform when cold, and of course, the days themselves are at their shortest.
The end of autumn is a time when I begin to slow down. It Is the time of year when I give myself permission to relax a bit, to read books and sip tea during the day. Of course there are still chores, but most big projects around the homestead are put to rest. The garden sleeps, and so in a sense, I do as well. It is a much needed recharge, without which, I would probably slouch towards work come spring, and the years would pile on too heavily.
2018 is coming to an end, and globally it appears to have been the fourth warmest year since record keeping began back in 1850. The four warmest years have actually been the last four consecutive years, so take a bow humanity. What we are actually supposed to do about the impending calamity seems to be anyone’s best guess at this point.
In France, President Macron tried to implement a fuel tax as part of his strategy to wean the nation off of fossil fuels, but instead what he got was the worst rioting in decades as a multiple coalitions have come together in the streets to not only protest the increase gas prices, but to make demands for major social change. Monuments and museums are closed and soccer games are cancelled as the government commits thousands of police and security forces to the streets. Of course, the fuel tax was only the spark that lit a bomb of greater social unease, and the anger seems largely based on the notion that the country’s wealthy are being coddled while the middle class bears the brunt of austerity. Still, one can only wonder what would happen in the U.S. should the government attempt to curb fossil fuel use via a regressive tax.
On the one hand, the French people are culturally much more comfortable with striking and protesting, and the French legal system is much more lenient on those who participate in a tumult. US police are far more likely to kill civilians, too, and the US media very much distributes perceptions that fetishize police while demonizing anyone crazy enough to break from the regularly scheduled program of shopping, eating, and binging on Netflix and Xanax.
How exactly would the US go about reducing its greenhouse gas emissions, should it one day acknowledge officially that climate change is real and that it is a problem? A small number of politicians newly elected to congress despite the Democratic party’s best efforts are throwing their support behind a “green new deal.”
It basically amounts to a stimulus package that would finance the installation of solar panels and wind turbines, while promising a job to any American who wanted one across a variety of “green” industries.
I have to admit, that I am never very hopeful about such proposals, and even Naomi Klein – who has written a book seeking basically just this thing – has commented that the Democrat establishment “will probably squash [it],” and hell, even if by some miracle they didn’t, the Republican majority in the senate would have Jim Inhofe back up a dump truck full of snowballs with which to bury it.
However, one thing is certain; the government is always doing stuff. Even when you don’t want them to, there they are, making choices, spending money, and doing stuff. Short of a total revolution, politicians will keep ambling in to work and signing papers willy-nilly that send other people off to attend to tasks while someone else sees their company’s bank account receive a huge influx of cash. And if put to me, I have to say, I would rather that the stuff the government felt the need to do involved installing solar panels and wind turbines than say, making aircraft carriers and bunker busters.
I have often wondered what the hell I would do if I were the authoritarian leader of the US. If anything I decreed was immediately made policy, how would I tackle the impending doom of climate change, ecosystem loss, and mass extinction? Quietly, I have considered the details and ramifications of an immediate fuel rationing program, and a ten year draw dawn to zero gasoline and diesel use. I thought about a “Luddite new deal,” in which people would be given a basic income of sorts if they volunteered to move to rural communes where they would live in straw-bale houses and tend to orchards and weaving all day. I even wondered if a dual strategy of nationalizing industries while supporting cadres of rebels to attack their infrastructure would be beneficial.
Every time I have taken on this thought exercise, no matter how deep I allowed myself to wander into it, I have always come to the same basic conclusions. For one, there will always be massive resistance from those who profit from the destruction of the planet. There is one major reason that we face the problems that we do, and it is precisely that there is more money to be made in killing the Earth than in keeping it habitable.
Then I recognize that even a likable and benevolent leader trying to unmake the destruction of industrial society slowly, with a focus on social justice and equitable distribution of resources will be despised by those who refuse to acknowledge that the modern American way of living is harmful to others. Quickly, those who profit from ecocide would form an alliance with those who don’t believe in it, and we would have a situation akin to what is unfolding right now in France.
But maybe that is what it takes. Maybe the best we have to hope for is total societal breakdown. Maybe the organized, thought out attempts at degrowth and industrial wind down that would see to a remapping of modern social geography and new old ways of meeting people’s needs can only come in the aftermath of utter calamity. After all, addicts usually have to weather a storm of shakes, chills, anger, vomiting, or worse, depending on which chemical habit they are trying to remap their brain chemistry from demanding. Perhaps the neural network of our society cannot break from its petroleum dependency without first experiencing a period of violent rupture.
Maybe a better world is only possible after this one has been brought to its knees.
Maybe we need to hit rock bottom.
Sliding my feet into my winter boots, I crunch out into the cold, sunny morning and make my way to the clearing around the side of my house. Here, two wooden frames facing slightly different directions each have three solar panels fixed to them. With my gloved hand I gently brush the snow from the smooth black glass. Thin wisps of woodsmoke are yanked from the silver chimney atop the house like a long stream of tissue being pulled by a faraway hand. I size up my little place in the world, and despite my pleasure with how far along the little homestead is, I cannot help but see projects upon projects that need attention.
But not now. Winter is coming.
November 1, 2018 § 8 Comments
“Do you think this is what Rome was like?” He asks.
“Probably. Only with more puking so that people could keep eating. Oh, and more slaves.”
Leaning on the wall, we look out over the New York City skyline. My brother and I have made our way to the open-air portion of the rooftop nightclub. On any given day, neither of us would set foot in a place like this. He lives in Seattle, and prefers to spend his free time hiking in the mountains. I live in the Midwest, and when I have a moment to relax, I too prefer to be outdoors, slowly ambling about amongst trees and stones.
Behind us a mass of people forms an apron around the bar. My sister explained that this is a pretty hot place to be, which is why she booked a corner of the club for her wedding after party. From what I can tell, the motif is intentionally absurd, as if all of the elements present were selected by writing disparate nouns and adjectives on scraps of paper, and then drawing them at random from a hat. “Lewd topiary.” “Sexy Miniature Golf.”
Of particular note is the indoor carousel that has outward facing couches on it. Slowly it spins, displaying those who adorn its furniture like slices of pie in a diner dessert case. Pounding music fills every inch of breathable space.
“Everything you said was going to happen is happening. I just read the other day that half of all insects are dead, or something like that.”
My youngest brother is the only person in my family with whom I could talk about such things. Looking out the cluster of skyscrapers, I nod.
“Half of the human population lives in cities. They never see insects anyway. Maybe the occasional cockroach. But by and large, insects just aren’t a part of their world, so they will never notice.”
Eleven people died when a man walked into a synagogue in Pittsburgh and began to spray bullets from his semiautomatic rifle into the worshippers there. After trading shots with the SWAT team that responded, he was wounded and captured. While in police custody, he explained that he hated Jews, and wanted to kill Jews. Something, something, “Jews are globalists who are working to bring immigrants to the US,” something, something.
Only days prior, a man in Louisville, Kentucky tried to enter a predominantly black church, but couldn’t get in. So instead, he took his pistol and his anger to a nearby grocery store where he walked up behind an older black gentleman, and shot the unsuspecting man in the back of the head. After doing so, the gunman walked into the parking lot where he saw a black woman, and he proceeded to shoot and kill her. A witness who happened to have a handgun himself drew down on the shooter and yelled, “What’s going on?”
The murderer blithely replied, “Don’t shoot me, and I won’t shoot you. Whites don’t shoot whites.”
Homicide sometimes seems to be edging out baseball as the great American pastime. It’s almost shocking to see an American flag flying at full mast anymore. I often wonder whose job it is at McDonald’s corporate HQ to decide which massacres warrant sending out a memorandum to all franchises that the recent spate of carnage is enough to warrant a half-mast flag. After all, sales of hamburgers and nuggets might drop if they appeared insensitive to the carnival of death their customers must evade on the way to the drive-thru.
A good portion of the murder committed in the US is over some personal dispute, and is very often in some way a result of other criminal activity, predominantly the drug trade.
But a significant amount of the contemporary homicide is political, and that political murder usually is committed by people who hold right wing viewpoints.
Early in October, three academics revealed that they had spent a year on a project to expose not only the flaws inherent in certain academic systems, but the downright absurdity of particular workings of modern academia.
Helen Pluckrose, James Lindsay, and Peter Boghossian wrote twenty papers which they then submitted to academic journals for peer review. They used the lexicon of the various humanities they were lampooning, and made up ridiculous studies, such as an examination of rape culture amongst dogs at Portland area dog parks. This paper was published in the journal, Gender, Place and Culture, and even given an award.
The authors of the bogus papers have explained that they were trying to expose first, a flawed review process, in which their made up sources were never examined. Further, they were trying to expose how the jargon of these humanities, once familiar, could be used haphazardly and almost at random to make nearly any claim, so long as that claim fell within a prevailing moral orthodoxy in which being white, male, and heterosexual was a problem. In their words, the journals they submitted to represent the “grievance studies,” in which notions of gender, race, and identity have been molded into a near religion at universities that cannot be critiqued.
They found that despite their comical claims and patently silly notions, (such as how the “conceptual penis” is responsible for climate change) reviewers of their submissions often were excited about their work, but required fixes before publication; fixes that made the papers even more ridiculous than the authors had initially been able to achieve.
This action, of course, has many people who exist in a left wing academic setting hopping mad, and scrambling to defend their work, their positions, and most importantly, their egos.
The world is dying, and there is nothing I can do about it. The rich are getting richer while the poor get poorer, and there is nothing I can do about it. A famine is starving millions of helpless people in Yemen, Canadian glaciers are melting, oil is leaking in the Gulf of Mexico, and there is nothing I can do about it.
We exist in a world in which manmade social systems are destroying the life giving biological systems of the Earth. All the while, these social systems have stripped us of any real say over how those same systems function. Once this is truly understood, the twin pair of helplessness and dread settle in for a nice, long visit.
Long ago, the sales teams of capitalism realized they would sell more lawnmowers and VCR’s if people were more atomized, more isolated. If a big family lives together, or hell, a band of people live in close commune, they can all share one dust buster. Alone in their apartments, or broken into nuclear family suburban units, people need their own shit. Hell, they can even start competing for who has more or nicer shit.
So it is that people now stare red eyed at their glowing screens, alone, clacking away at the keys, pleading with the digital ether to come up with a solution to this giant mess we’re in. The internet is rife with chatter about potential solutions to the great crises of our age.
If only everyone gave up meat…
If only everyone gave up consuming…
If only everyone gave up breeding…
If only everyone gave up…
All by ourselves we silently beg for everyone to join in.
We are impotent, and flailing. We have no power over the political or economic systems that currently operate. It is because of these systems that we have food and electricity and homes. It is also because of these systems that billionaires jet set and rub elbows while millions starve and suffer and hundreds of species go extinct every single day.
Millennia in the making, these social systems simultaneously feed us and bleed us, and because of that, no one is exactly sure how to turn the machine off. With no real power over the things that we absolutely need to take control of, we flex our muscle where we still can.
We hyper manage our identities. We hurt each other. We go out and buy some shit. Bonus points when we do all three at once.
Then we pony up to the bar in the dim yellow light, we let the pounding music drown out the screams of the dying, and hope to get lucky.
September 25, 2018 § 7 Comments
The hatchet is very sharp. It slices through the wood with ease, carving off a thin piece about the length and width of a chopstick, which I then grab by the end with thumb and forefinger to deftly set it upon the tender fire. It is the second day of autumn. Night is falling and something in my bones demands a campfire. My daughter watches as I crouch beside the embers and blow into them, and she seeks an explanation. Then she wants to try. I return from the house with a hair tie and wrap her hair into a ponytail.
All summer I dream of this season, from a break in the heat and humidity. Our cabin home has no air conditioning, so August finds me always looking ahead to cooler days, to leaf litter, to the texture of flannel on my skin. When the cooler days finally come, I want to freeze them in place, to wallow in the season like a slow walk across a waist deep river, stopping periodically to feel the flow.
It is a bad habit, I believe, to yearn for a future time. Even if only to see yourself to the next weekend or even to the end of a day’s work. Of course I find myself engaging in this habit on the regular, and life within the capitalist structure makes it damn near unavoidable for everyone I would wager. Life is short though, and I would hate to wish myself quickly over the landscape of my life, always missing out on the minute details of now until all of a sudden I find myself lying on a deathbed, wanting it all back.
The autumn helps. It calms. It breathes. And in it, I can breathe too.
I have written before that civilization is a collective psychosis. It probably isn’t a very original notion. Even poor old Shakespeare said that the “world is but a stage,” and chances are, though the sentiment felt valid to him, it was antiquated even when he uttered it.
We are all play acting on the daily, but probably more than we recognize in the rare moments when we do deign to stop and recognize it. Civilization comes with a lot of set dressing; flags, uniforms, degrees with calligraphy, framed and hung with care behind a lawyer’s desk. All of our shouting at one and other and attempts to bend other humans to our will would be so stark and unjustified without a little pomp to add weight to the demands.
And so it is we go about our days pretending that the man in the robe is a judge, and the man in the collar a priest, and that the man with the shiny spat of metal pinned over his heart can commit a little bit of murder from time to time.
To question any of this is to call an audible in the middle of the show. It jeopardizes the whole damn script. So don’t.
How deep the performative nature of our existence is dawned on me recently, thanks to a video I watched online that was made by a woman named Natalie who creates content under the name ContraPoints on Youtube. She is a transwoman, apparently, an ex-philosophy student, and her videos cover a breadth of topics with humor, and absurd pageantry.
In her recent piece titled, “The Aesthetic,” she stages a mock debate between two trans characters who discuss the nature of gender; one who argues that gender is essential to us internally in some capacity, and the other who argues its mostly a performative role we play in society.
There is a fantastic line in which the character who argues that gender is performative declares that ours is a society of spectacle, and that though her opponent sees herself in a forum, in reality she is in a circus, and that “this isn’t ancient Athens, it’s Rome.”
Ultimately, I believe Natalie herself as a writer wasn’t entirely devoting herself to one side of the debate or the other, but the arguments she laid out regarding performance were interesting indeed, and I believe apply broadly to areas of our identities far beyond gender.
Wandering about my land in brown work boots and blue jeans, a knife sheathed in leather attached to my belt, I thought of my own appearance and how much of it was created for me. Culture crafted the archetype and I slipped into it like a cold hand into a warm mitten. Man. Homesteader. Father. Anarchist. Backwoods luddite.
From political opinions to musical tastes, from religious beliefs to brand allegiances, people set themselves within an identity and then make life choices that fall in line with the proper expression of that identity; a process which has been recognized and entirely captured by capitalists and their army of advertisers as well as politicians and their snake charmers in mass media.
The role demands the perfect costuming and makeup, all of which makes more real the role. A snake eating its own tail. Our belief deepens as the edges blur.
Why is this a bad thing? Is there any way to live outside of the spectacle? Is it possible for us to no longer be performing, but rather to just be being? Surely, even tribal humans had social roles and costume laden ceremony. At some point, man stepped out of the realm of psychological solitary wandering and into a shared space of articulated reality. There must be some advantages to sharing a map of existence with your kin.
When does this mental construction become toxic?
I think of feudal Japanese culture. There was a heavy emphasis on the craft of everything. Daily life was an art to be lived. The ephemeral nature of now was treasured, and such reverence for beauty and impermanence placed the highest of values on art forms like flower arranging, calligraphy, gardening, or the tea ceremony.
In the chanoyu, every detail mattered. The path stones leading to the purpose built tea house would be scrubbed clean. The layout of all of the necessary materials had to be just so. The positioning of the host and guest, the clothing worn, the gestures, the sparse words spoken, all of it the critical detail to construct the perfect experience. Every piece being just so made the act of living into a work of art, a sculpture of people existing in one fleeting moment of time.
Beauty. Or maybe complete absurdity. Or both. Or maybe the former because of the latter. Perspective I guess.
Perspective implies observation. Observation implies audience.
Who is the audience to our grand social spectacle? Who are we trying to impress when we turn the coffee cup just a bit to the left allowing its steam to catch the morning light just perfectly so we can take a photograph of it and upload it to Instagram, color corrected with our preferred preset filter? Who is the imagined audience for whom we perform when we take the eighth unnaturally candid, yet very precisely posed “selfie?”
Is it applause we seek, or merely acceptance from the other players? I am what you believe I am, and when your confidence is shaken, my identity fractures. Or something like that.
When a president isn’t “presidential,” or a man wears a dress, or someone awkwardly goes off script at a public gathering and starts talking about the ongoing sixth mass extinction, it all breaks form. Then the rest of the cast has to come back into the moment, no longer running on muscle memory, to interpret the circumstances of the now, and search desperately to reign in the chaos of non conformity.
But then even that becomes part of the show. A die is cast and a new role created. The maverick. The weirdo. The protestor. Complete with a look and catchphrases and a set of Google ads perfectly tailored to their online shopping preferences.
How do we reclaim ourselves? How do we pull back culture from the clutches of those whose only interest is to sell us merchandise? It is likely that we will always be reliant on forms, on constructed identities which we adopt and then only slightly modify, adding a this or removing a that, before laying down the role in our death so that the next generation can take its turn in wearing it.
Perhaps it is healthy when these forms are used to inform us, to assist us in navigating a complicated and sometimes confusing natural realm, binding a people in a unified survival. Perhaps then, they become destructive when pressure is applied to make us conform to a model, stifling the ability of an individual to blossom beyond the boundaries of yesterday’s perceptions and interpretations.
Finding the balance is the challenge. Not allowing ourselves to become the tools of our tool, as Mr. Thoreau may have phrased it.
Perhaps too, such forms can be used as a cultural hack to chip away at the status quo models drafted and pitched by ad men to keep us always wanting, and eagerly consuming. The aesthetic of the ascetic if you will. The culture of the content.
Orange lilies and deep red roses stand in their vase at the center of the kitchen table. Gray light meanders in through the window with no urgency, a steady rain falling through the forest sounds like a small river rolling in the distance. My daughter sits on her knees at the table as she practices writing simple words.
I often wonder in what ways I am helping or hindering her with the cultural values I inscribe in her wittingly and not. She cannot navigate this human world, after all, without a mastery of various forms of symbolic thought, such as math, reading, and writing. Beyond that, every day she witnesses the invented truths of man, and sees them as if they are as real as the stars and sky.
So I show her which plants she can eat. I stress the turning of the seasons with rituals and acts of beauty. And on cool nights, I make a fire, and as we stare into it, I say nothing.
August 24, 2018 § 5 Comments
Wind rushes in through the fully open windows of my truck as I wind down the rural highway. The air conditioning doesn’t work, but even if it did I wouldn’t use it. There is hardly a straightaway to be had, just one long bend to the right and then back to the left as the road follows the bottomland between hills. Where it’s flat, patches of brown cornstalks grow tall on either side of the snaking pavement. Mostly there are trees. Deep green leaves of walnut and maple. Sycamore leaves already show hints of yellow, folding inward, preparing to drop in a few more weeks time.
The sky above is demarcated by dark clouds. A stark line where the azure blue meets the dense gray. I depress the accelerator, not wanting to be caught in the coming summer storm, hoping that if I pick up the pace I might just make it home before the imminent downpour. Golden sunlight still defines the shape and hue of the masses of trees on either side of the roadway, but the smell of the air portends the certainty of the coming rain.
Come September of this year, we will pass the ten year anniversary of the collapse of the investment firm Lehman Brothers, and the kick off of the sub prime mortgage fueled financial crisis. Interestingly, on August 22, 2008, shares of Lehman Brothers closed up by five percent. By the closing bell of September 9th, the share value had dropped by half. Six days later, on September 15th, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy.
In October of 2008, the stock markets of the world began experiencing major drops. The Dow Jones Industrial in the United States, which had peaked at 14,164 in October of 2007, fell to 6,469 by March of 2009. As of this writing, ten years later, the Dow sits at an inconceivable 25,732, a stratospheric value made possible by the gift of a decade of free money to the investment class from the Federal Reserve Bank.
There are now, as there were in the years preceding the crash of 2008, voices crying from the wilderness that these numbers represent nothing more than a bubble which is bound to burst, and likely soon. However, most of the very serious people who work in finance are more afraid of missing out on the largesse of upside than they are of the potential ruin of the downside.
And we regular folk who have no say in any of it can only sit back in steerage and watch, waiting for the music on the upper decks to suddenly stop and for the panic to set in. When that moment comes, will we be caught up in it? Will we be laid off again? Because there is one truth that crosses time, and that is when the rich start losing money, they stop the bleeding by robbing everyone else. Maybe they foreclose on a house, or close a plant, or cut a benefit, or just hand themselves a few trillion dollars to fill the gap, but dammit, they will not, sell the vacation home in the Vineyard!
Twenty years ago I was a senior in high school. Gas cost ninety cents per gallon, and I drove a 1987 Ford Escort station wagon in which I had installed an expensive CD player so that I could listen to my favorite music as I moved about my Illinois suburb. I had a job at TGI Fridays that was within the apron of a local mall, and I dated a girl who I met on the internet on an Indy music bulletin board, but I lied about that part, because back then it would have seemed very uncool to have met a romantic partner online. Instead, I told my friends I met her at the local record store. Oh yeah, and no one owned a cell phone.
Paradigms change, and they change faster than we recognize. Sometimes, it isn’t until we sit down and carefully compare the present with the past that we can come to grips with just how much has changed. It was in the spring of my senior year that the massacre at Columbine High School happened, an event which cast a pallor of horror across American society. Nowadays, if a school shooting tallies less than ten dead, it barely warrants a Twitter condolence.
After 9-11, and with the rollout of the Iraq war, came the invention of the “free speech zone,” a small caged area in which people were allowed their first amendment right to assemble and to petition their government for redress of grievance. The NSA began listening to any and every electronic communication in the land, the fourth amendment be damned. Environmental saboteurs like Daniel McGowan began being slapped with “terrorism enhancements” and sent to maximum security prisons.
A paradigm is a comparison, a setting of things side by side, and it is when we do so that we see sharply not only what we have lost with time, but how quickly we have lost it.
For those who find themselves concerned with the cascading calamities of our age; the ecocide and mass extinctions, climate change and resource depletion, etc. it is easy to begin wondering when everything will go to hell in a hand basket. This is often expressed with the question, “When will the shit hit the fan?” Arm chair analysts abound on the internet, and guesses and prognostications range and vary. Depending on the specific variables used as tea leaves for the individual reading, be it a focus on an impending Blue Ocean Event, stock market crash, massive crop failure, or global war, you can find diviners scheduling impending doom as soon as next month, or more commonly, as a process of deterioration that washes over civilization over the next century, punctuated by bursts of failure and suffering in various locales.
Predictions are difficult, it is said, because they are about the future. Perhaps it is not predictions then, which are relevant. Perhaps instead the curious and concerned individual should focus on paradigms, and the rate at which their evolution accelerates.
At what rate are we watching climate change unfold? At what rate are we watching resources grow more scarce? I can say pretty confidently that socially, the world around me looks and behaves a lot differently than it did ten years ago. People’s expectations about their future are vastly different. Hell, if I look to what I was being told my senior year of high school those twenty years ago, as to what to expect from the future and how to prepare myself for it, with the common attitudes amongst people of a similar age today, I can see that nearly all hope has been demurely snuffed out.
This extends beyond an individual’s life plan to achieve career goals and to attain the “American Dream.” The general attitude now about major issues such as climate change or the destruction of the world’s oceans is one of essential hopelessness, whereby when I was young it all seemed so solvable, so long as we all pitched in and spread “awareness.” Now there is a level of acknowledgement that all that remains is to endure it, to perhaps try as a single person to not make it much worse, but to accept that as a society, we’re fucked.
Of course, technophiles lost in their collective Gene Rodenberry fantasy still believe that a whiz bang solution to all of our woes lies just around the corner, and the uber capitalists among them think that a billionaire titan of private industry will be the one to bestow it upon us. At the same time, the news racks now boast a variety of survival themed monthly magazines, apocalypse porn dominates the realm of TV and film, and a generation of Instagrammers stare at their glowing screens, smiling down and reposting color corrected images of backyard poultry and wild harvested foods they’ve come to fetishize.
For every fool still smiling down in the muck, trudging towards the electric light at the end of the tunnel, there is someone dragging their fingers along the brick, feeling for an exit.
When will everything fall down around us? When will that critical link in the web of life be driven into extinction? When will that Chinese trader post a sell order that kicks out the global financial house of cards? When will a global heatwave cause massive famine and the deaths of millions? I don’t know.
Every once in a while there is a big event, but every day there is an imperceptible shift, and when you turn and look in the rearview, the comparison between then and now is stark. The line that divides the way things were from the way they are is usually very thin indeed.
My neck cranes upward to the deep blue of the night sky, following the smoke that pours off of the burning wood piled on the gravel before me. The moon’s white light is stifled by the tree canopy, but its effort doesn’t go unnoticed, as streams of silver break free of the leafy hold and land gently on the steel roof of my house.
Today’s work is done, and tomorrow’s stands ready to call when the sun rises once again. I breathe in the evening and wonder what this little corner of the world will look like in another five years. The most stable forces that I know are the seasons, and in the coolness, I can feel the summer slowly tilting towards the fall. The regularity of blooming flowers are a calendar of the year. I rely on gray dogwoods, day lilies, and a host of mushrooms to anchor me, to guide my procession through the world.
Without them, I would be lost.
July 31, 2018 § 7 Comments
It is easy to get lost. The digital world exists parallel to the real, and just by flicking a finger across a piece of glass, one can open a doorway to all of the happenings any other human has written of, or photographed, or filmed. My morning ritual includes making a cup of tea, hopefully before my daughter has woken, and through the steam that rises from my cup I read what news of the wider world has come through my various feeds.
Fires rage in the Arctic, and in Greece, and in the American West. Heat has gripped the globe from Japan to Algeria to Portugal. There are floods, and parched farm fields, desperate refugees, and the most grotesque horror show of state sponsored famine and homicide in Yemen.
Pounding footsteps move across the floor from my daughter’s bedroom through the kitchen. I exit the digital. My daughter lumbers to me with tired eyes and I know she wants to be picked up, and to be held.
“Oh, my girl. My wonderful girl.”
She doesn’t say anything, her head on my shoulder, facing away so that I can smell her long hair. My exhale is deep and satisfied. She is right where I want to be. An hour later as we walk our stone driveway to go feed our chickens and ducks, I watch her small legs plodding along in pink plastic rain boots. The air is cool, actually, and I realize that this is my real, and that all of those terrible things I read about in the quiet dawn are far away, if they exist at all.
I have a fascination with orienteering. A while back a friend gave me his compass, which his father had given to him. I already had a compass, a cheap one that stayed packed in my camping bag. This new one my friend gave to me is much nicer. It has a weight to it that makes it feel significant and truthful, like the weight of a proper kitchen knife or an old, leather bound dictionary.
Upon receiving this gift from my friend, I realized I only ever used a compass to figure out which direction was which, but that I really had no idea how to properly use a compass in accordance with a map. So I began to read instructions on how to do so online, and even watched some videos on orienteering.
The word “orient” is saddled with an enormous historical and social burden. It is a derivation of the latin word for “east,” (the opposite being “occident,” a derivation of “west”) and is typically used to refer to the continent of Asia. Of course, what is “east” (or west, for that matter) really depends on where you are standing, so to conceive of the orient as Asia is to be speaking from a European perspective geographically, or at least as one influenced by European perspective. This is all rather contemporary though, as in Ancient Rome, anything south of the city of Rome was the Orient, as they had drawn in their minds an east-west line running through that city, and made determinations based on whether one lived above or below it. We seem to often set ourselves as a fixed point, the pivot of the spinning needle that whirls around us.
A map is wonderful, as it is a representation of terrain. But if you don’t know where you are, a map can be worse than useless. A compass is very useful, as it can point you in a cardinal direction. But without a map, the name of any given direction becomes trivia.
To “orient” seems to literally mean to find east, the direction we know we can reliably look to find the rising sun. When lost, one must orient themselves or remain so. One must align the compass with the map before shooting a bearing and heading out into the wilderness.
In my moments of greater clarity, I want to absolve myself of all political inclination. If I ask myself, point blank, “what is it I am most concerned about?” the answer comes quite quickly: Ecology, the living world. My great worry regarding the world at large centers on the fact that human industrial civilization is every day bringing the web of life closer to the brink of total collapse. Through climate change, extinctions, pollution, the promulgation of invasive species, and the conversion of wild spaces into regions managed and exploited for extraction and production, human civilization is destroying everything upon which it stands. With such an insurmountable threat bearing down, it seems silly to get drawn into conflicts over petty human arguments. Of course, most of what is trumpeted by the TV and print news seems to be just this, at least in comparison to the storm looming over us.
But it happens. I get pulled into the gyre. Despite my desire to stay focused on the material world beneath my feet, the political nature of industrial collapse maintains itself as undeniably evident. As the conditions under which people exist continue to get worse, conflicts expand, and those in power exploit these circumstances for their own gain. Thus it is that ideologues create out groups of others – immigrants, Muslims, black folk, the poor – who they soak with blame for the downward trend lines that define our age. So it is that we have endless wars at home and abroad, with piles of dead victims of drone assassination and cages full of terrified children.
Like it or not, collapse is political. Will the downward slope of Hubbert’s peak be pocked with debt prisons or bread lines? Will the despair of climate chaos be met with concentration camps or communes? Will we slouch towards Olduvai while erecting walls or by tearing them down? Even if we believe all our best efforts will fail us, even if we believe that the wounds we have inflicted on the world are too deep to heal, and that a great suffering is certain, wouldn’t at the end of it all we prefer to fail at decency than to succeed at evil?
Of course, determining the difference can be quite tricky. All men mean well, it is said. Good and evil are meaningless terms, like north and south. If you know nothing of the terrain, if you have no map, you’re likely to just walk downhill because it’s easier.
“The core question that brings liberalism, conservatism, nationalism and identity politics into conflict with each other is a fundamental one: who has the authority to describe society? Whose version of history will be heard?”
This is an excerpt from a recent editorial in The Guardian by William Davies entitled, “The Free Speech Panic: How the Right Concocted a Crisis.” I was struck by the clarity of this concept. So much of the current argument, or rather, the tangled mess of arguments surrounding politics, individual identity, national identity, and so forth stems from this very conundrum. Who gets to draw the map? By whose standards do we orient ourselves?
Daily the world is changing in ways that were not foretold by those who have been tasked with explaining reality. By neglecting to confront the crisis of net energy decline, by declining to confront the crisis of debt based money on a finite planet, by declining to confront the crisis of ecological overshoot, the social caste of media makers and politicians have left people scraping to understand the knock on effects that have rippled through society because of these very crises.
People are finding themselves lost in a wilderness of information that runs contrary to the official “everything is fine” narrative put forth by the state and capital. In this rugged and dark place, people are seeking to orient themselves so that they can understand just what is required of them in order to survive and to provide a future for themselves and their families. Whether it is a young college student wondering if it makes sense to take on a debt load in order to attain an education, or a middle age worker wondering why the hell it is so damn hard to pay for a home, and food, and healthcare for their family, people eventually recognize that the explanations for the world around them that they are being fed by those in power do not match the geography of their day to day existence.
When the political narrative one has been given fails, all a person can do is look around and scan the horizon for recognizable features, looking for enough of the familiar so they can finally mark an X and at least understand where exactly they stand.
To orient oneself in a social space can be difficult, and one ultimately does so by recognizing who they are not. Other people become boundary markers, warnings of what not to do, how not to be. Group identities form, people join teams, they carry flags, we don’t necessarily know who we are, but we damn well know we aren’t them.
You’re with us or you’re against us. Better dead than red. Bash the fash! West is best. Resist! Traitor!
Who gets to draw the map? As climate change progresses and the wealth gap grows wider and the pain and struggle of every day life grows more intolerable for the average person, this question will be the hill we die on.
My wife plunges a knife into a dark green watermelon. It is near perfectly round and about the size of a bowling ball. The second one we pulled from our garden this summer, it is at a perfect stage of ripeness. Standing in the kitchen the three of us spit small black seeds into a glass bowl as we enjoy the sweetness of the fruit.
The rinds get dumped in the chicken paddock, and I lock the door to the coop. The sun has set behind me as I walk silently back towards the house. Even when we tell people how to get here, our little plot of land can be very hard to find.
May 30, 2018 § 16 Comments
My farm truck is fairly old. It’s a Ford F-150 and it was made in 1992. While not a vehicle I need every day, if there is a load of firewood or manure to be moved, it is the only thing that will do the trick. So last week when I went to fire it up and it wouldn’t start, I was frustrated to say the least. Not only was my day’s plate of errands full, but beyond that the truck was blocking our narrow driveway preventing another vehicle from passing.
Lifting my daughter out of the cab I took a deep breath. An azure blue sky beamed overhead as I shifted the truck into neutral, placed my hand firmly against the steel doorframe, and began heaving with my legs. Slowly the tires began to roll backwards as I used my free hand to steer the truck onto the grass under the shade of a hickory tree.
“OK, fire it,” he yelled. I turned the key in the ignition, and got the nya-nya-nya-nya sound of the starter motor. My friend was under the hood holding the handle of a thin screwdriver, the tip of which was in a wire running out of the distributor.
“Well, you’re getting good spark.” I am not a gear-head by any stretch of the imagination, but I attempt to fix what I can on my cars, which also means I tend to prefer older cars, hence the 1992 Ford. However, whenever I have an issue I cannot readily tend to myself, I have a friend I call over who is a far better mechanic than myself.
After changing out my cap, rotor, plugs, wires, and ignition coil, and checking to make sure I had fuel pressure at the rail and gas getting into the cylinder, I was stumped. My friend was stumped too. At this point, it could be numerous things preventing the engine from catching, from a timing issue to a failing in the computer.
Computers in cars. Goddammit why? Even the 92’s have them, primitive as they may be by today’s standards. Looking at the myriad different color wires running in a tight bundle to the truck’s computer, I have a brief flash, a memory of my friend’s 1970 Ford Mustang. This is a car my friend bought maybe twenty years ago and had worked to restore. The engine was so simple, so clean. Its functional simplicity was like a Japanese tea ceremony. A loud, roaring, ground shaking tea ceremony.
Mass shootings are almost a weekly occurrence in the United States these days. In fact, more students have died at school in 2018 than US troops have died in combat zones. For a nation with troops on the ground in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Niger, and lord knows where else, that is a morose statistic indeed. After each shooting event, there is a ritual of news coverage and political handwringing, and somewhere in there amongst all of the constitution waving and twitter snark, someone will suggest that the tragedy is the result of the fact that the perpetrator was crazy.
It is a simple argument on its face, for of course, who but a crazy person would commit an act of mass murder? For a particularly shining example of a seemingly very mentally unhinged person acting out violently, we only have to harken back a few weeks to April of this year, when a young man walked into a Nashville, Tennessee Waffle House – naked – brandishing an AR-15. After fatally shooting four people, another young man, James Shaw, who had been hiding in the bathroom rushed out and disarmed the murderer, who then fled.
Upon capturing the suspect, it was revealed that he had a very storied past of behavior that was more than bizarre. For instance, he had gone to a public pool wearing a lady’s housecoat and exposed his genitals to the lifeguards. Apparently he was under the impression that musician Taylor Swift was stalking him, and he had even once approached the secret service at the White House and demanded to inspect the grounds.
If killers are merely crazy, then there isn’t much we can do about them, I guess the argument goes. We can only throw up our hands and roll the dice every time we go to a movie theater or a restaurant or a high school. Unless someone asks the next most obvious question: What is making so many people crazy?
Or perhaps more accurately: What is making so many Americans crazy?
Or perhaps even more accurately: What is making so many American white men crazy?
Or perhaps even more accurately: What is making so many American white men lash out violently at those around them?
Of course, I am not the first to ask this question or a variant of it, and the easy answers have flowed forth in a torrent.
Epidemiological studies are often used to make some sort of nutritional claim, like, “Eating pasta helps you lose weight.” These make for great headlines (which is why Barilla pasta finances them) but usually make for a terrible understanding of nutrition. The reason is co-factors. Nutritional epidemiology is basically running surveys. Get a group of people, ask them what they eat, examine their lives over a set window of time, spit out a result.
However, putting aside for a moment that these are not double blind, controlled, randomized, clinical trials which can actually tease out causality, we have to look at all of the lifestyle factors that aren’t being considered. Is this person a smoker? Are they under a lot of stress? Do they drink? Do they exercise? And even after all of that, when some headline about some new epidemiological study tells you that eating this or that thing causes cancer, we have to ask, “Was adding the new thing bad, or is absence of an old thing the problem?”
So when a kid walks into his Santa Fe, Texas high school with a shotgun and executes teachers and students, there will be plenty of talking heads and social media policy gurus who settle on the idea that the young man responsible is crazy. Some will even venture to posit that this modern epidemic of craziness stems from the addition of the internet, video games, cell phones, or movies to young people’s daily activities.
Perhaps we should not just look to what things have been added to the lives of young men, but also look to what has been replaced.
Social media use has been linked to increasing rates of depression. Is this because people get anxiety seeking the approval that comes in the form of shares and likes? Is it because of the increased level of scrutiny people face when a large portion of their lives becomes public? Or is it because people spend more time engaging with other humans in a non-intimate way, interfacing with keyboards and glowing touchscreens instead of in person with all of the gesture, eye contact, subtle humor, and other nuance of face-to-face interaction? Is it the new thing, or the lack of the old?
Capitalism is built on a simple premise: Locate a resource, use labor to convert it into a good, sell the good at a profit, repeat. For generations this has meant a sprawling march of death moving over the globe, seizing lands, razing them, expropriating the resources available, subjugating the masses to labor, and leaving mountains of waste in the rear view. This has made life interesting indeed. In the US, and likely much of the west, even high-end goods are so plentiful that they become valueless nearly instantly. Peruse the racks at any Goodwill and you will find DVD players and video game systems less than ten years old haphazardly strewn about. Yet the songbirds are going silent, and the insects are vanishing.
In any given town in America you could hop on Craigslist and find a functioning small car for less than a thousand dollars. You could certainly find a dollar store of some kind chock full of sugary drinks, vape pipes, cheap home goods, and a discount bin of blu-ray discs. Everything is available everywhere in disgusting heaps of material excess, all so the individual can return to their isolated apartment to enjoy this stuff alone. Atomized. Singular. Powerless. Meaningless. Then they can hoist it into the dumpster before going out into a dying world for more.
Every year I go on an extended camping trip with friends. It is important to me that I spend time with people I care deeply about, who care deeply about me, and that we sit directly on the Earth. We share food together. We laugh and play games. It is a spiritual recharge to head down to a lake or river with one another, and to swim in the cold water, mossy rocks underfoot. At night we tell stories around a fire. Wood smoke whirls towards the charcoal blackness above and we breathe in the night together, and then exhale. Sitting in a circle we sing. We lean in onto each other’s shoulders. We slowly fumble towards our respective beds and sleep that good, out of doors sleep.
For the record, I do not actually think that Americans are any crazier than anyone else in the developed world. I think living in ways that are completely foreign to our evolutionary self throws us out of whack. Eating foods foreign to our guts, sitting for long stretches of time, staring at screens, existing in digital worlds, working jobs which have no direct benefit to ourselves, financial struggle, the bombardment of advertising, the bombardment of propaganda, authoritarian power structures, the almost total lack of ability to effect our world, the list goes on.
There are the things we are doing that are new, and the things we aren’t doing because of it. Touching the Earth. Touching plants. Singing with friends. Wrestling with friends. Smelling a fire. Walking long distances through unpredictable, non-man made spaces. Harvesting wild foods. Drinking from springs. Touching bone. Touching flesh. Listening to owls. Staring at stars. Engaging in ceremonies thoughtfully designed to highlight our sense of place and wonder within this great and beautiful and tragic mystery called life.
We live lives foreign to our physiology and damaging to our souls in a rapidly changing context that is always requiring that we prove our value to people we do not know.
I cannot help but to think that these things place a massive stress on us, all of us. Despite having everything we seemingly need in the form of food and shelter, something is not right. As we are all individuals with individual circumstances, how we crash land through the plinko game of modern capitalist civilization is anyone’s guess. Some of us adapt, some of us suffer in silence, many of us self medicate, and a tiny fraction – who also happen to have been mystified by narratives about their place in society due to their gender – pick up a gun and kill.
Is it all this new stuff we are surrounded by? Is it something we have lost? Is it a dynamic combination of both? Who knows, exactly?
What I do know is that in the United States guns are pretty easy to come by. We probably aren’t any crazier than anyone else. The crippling physical and psychological stress of the modern industrial world reaches far outside of US borders. We just make it a lot easier to slaughter one another.
If we want to keep the guns around, the culture has to change. I, for one, would happily trade this economy for actual, functioning community. Though something tells me it would be a hard sell, especially to those who benefit most from our fracture. Until then, the bi-weekly festival of carnage is likely to continue undeterred.
Better keep the flag at half mast.
We had fuel, we had air, we had spark, and still that old truck wouldn’t start. Biting the bullet, I had the old mule towed to a nearby mechanic’s shop. Days later he called me on the phone to tell me I had a dead MAP sensor, which is a little doodad that effectively controls fuel system pressure. A damn doodad.
I had everything I needed for proper function, just not in the exact right amounts at the exact right time. The devil is in the details.
April 15, 2018 § 14 Comments
The world was white. From ground to sky the white was constant, and etched in it were the vertical brown streaks of tree trunks. Stepping outside on the first day of spring the forest around my house was gone, entombed in snow. Ice came first, so that when the snow followed for several hours it sheathed every branch and twig. Heavy with now frozen leaves, the smaller beech are bent downward, tips touching the ground until all of these young trees become arches, man sized croquet wickets frosted and strewn about the land.
On the barest winter day, I can look to the southeast and make out the shape and color of my nearest neighbor’s house through the foreground of maple and poplar. Today there is just the solitude of white.
The unseasonable eight-inch snowfall was followed days later by highs in the sixties, which retreated to nights below freezing, and only days later shot back into the seventies with beaming sun, to land once again in the cold of the thirties. The entire month of April has been a mix of glorious spring warmth and bouts of freezing rain and snow. Apple trees are budding, hyacinths are donating flashes of pink and purple to the landscape, and trout lilies are breaking from the leaf litter in such densities as to make the forest floor look like it has a carpet of grass. Then a quick layer of ice will fall in the dark of night to test them all.
In early April the House of Commons Library detailed how the richest one percent of the population is on track to own two-thirds of all of the world’s wealth by the year 2030, should trends maintain as they are. Oxfam reported prior to this that eight billionaires have as much wealth as the poorest half of the global population – 3.6 billion people. All of the land that is being gutted and made uninhabitable, and all of the laborers the world over who stoop and heft and daily erode their bodies through exertion and chemical exposure are part of a great machine that exists to send a steady stream of excess to a small handful of individuals.
Capitalism was supposed to have corrected the contradictions and failures of feudalism, and it seems to have done so by creating a class of people with no loyalties, no fidelity to place or people or principle other than a berserk lust for profit. Capital and its controllers float freely over the borders that cage the underclasses. Money and power write and erase laws, and at whim wage war against the peasant class and nonhuman life with a cold business class gusto.
Centuries ago, the edicts of lords could only reach so far. Kings and their vassals had broad power of life and death within the ringed walls of cities. This power held sway in the nearby villages and hams, but dissipated at the edges of settlements until the commands that they bellowed were shorn of all pomp and circumstance in the reality of the wilderness. In the wild there is no king and money buys no quarter, a truth so bare that the masters of civilization have tried to destroy any incarnation of wilderness the world over with visceral contempt.
The wild suffers no man’s stories. The order of the world was set in the rock and soil long before any human named them, and the immutable simplicity of this order is visible in the golden sunlight that beams through a forest canopy, in the sweep of a raptor’s flight as it falls upon its prey, and in the stinking decay of a maggot eaten animal slowly returning its flesh to the ground.
We are invited to walk within this order, to find humility in the gifts and tragedies of nature. Conversely, if we try to subjugate this order to our own narratives, then we are invited to suffer and die. The lords of capital, who worship a god named production, have chosen the latter. Technocratic full spectrum dominance casts eyes over the entirety of the planet.
Where are we to escape to?
This past week French police came in a force of thousands to evict the ZAD, a sprawling piece of farmland crisscrossed with hedgerows that has been occupied by anarchists and recalcitrant farmers for years in an attempt to prevent the construction of an airport. Previous eviction attempts always failed and sparked waves of tumultuous protests in the cities. In January the French government finally abandoned plans to build the airport, and this latest attempt to boot the anarchist squatters was the most intense.
Blockades were built and fire bombs thrown in response to police concussion grenades and tear gas. After days of battling the residents of the ZAD, which included the wholesale destruction of many of the homes and structures they had built there, the state finally backed off, unable to break the will of the occupants. The victory of the Zadists is not total however, as police currently hold a piece of the land under their control, and have thousands of officers stationed in the region. Barricades are being rebuilt, and the future of autonomous life in the ZAD stands on a razor’s edge, as does the success of people around the world who attempt to carve out a space for themselves to freely exist.
For the Zapatistas in Mexico, the Kurds in Rojava, and even all of the people camped out on a pipeline easement in the backwoods of the rural United States, danger abounds for those who dare shuck off the rule of the wealthy.
If the wilderness is gone, we fight where we stand. Instead of escaping to an unseen frontier, let us invite the wild in. Let it consume civilization from the inside out.
Eight clouds arise. The eightfold fence of Idzumo makes an eightfold fence for the spouses to retire. Oh! That eightfold fence.
-Kojiki, “Records of Ancient Matters”
In James Clavell’s novel, “Shogun,” the character Mariko explains to Blackthorne that in a world of paper walls and crowded spaces, that to avoid going mad and killing one and other, they rely on a type of mental compartmentalization, hiding their true selves deep within a mental maze. She refers to this as the “eightfold fence.”
In a world of facial recognition technology, big data, electronic tracking of the movement of nearly all people in some regard or another, are we not pushed deeper and deeper within the fence complexes of our minds? As civilization and its capitalist architecture demands more and more of our time, our effort, and our attention, less and less remains for us to keep for ourselves. Interests and hobbies are commodified as advertising opportunities. Free time is gig time, driving around strangers for a few extra dollars. The precious moments of our lives are harvested by corporations to be sold back to us as monetized Instagram “lifestyle” posts.
Our eightfold fences shall guard our hidden wild. Within us we can foster vast wildernesses and let them grow fecund and thick. Loving the smell of woodsmoke and the bitter cold of a stream clinging to our ankles, the wind pressing on our faces and our lover’s breath on our necks. Detesting the rich with contempt for their pathetic pleasures while desiring so entirely to watch the failure of their industrial projects. When the wilderness is rooted deeply within our thinking, safe from being uprooted by contact with the madness of the world, we can safely expose it to one another, and foster a wild amongst us.
They have worked very hard to make commerce the primary human relationship. We cannot cede the space between us, the last space, the space where all potential for rebellion to their false order exists.
We must let each other know that we have no love for this false narrative. We must make it safe to declare that our allegiance is to life, not to the dreams of wealthy men. The wilderness can be reborn between us, and there give us refuge.
A chill blew across the land with the gray dawn. Diagonal rain falls on my daughter and me as we walk past the barn to tend to our morning chores. Mayapples seem to have all decided that this was the morning to reveal themselves. They line the drive like sentries, somehow already inches high where yesterday they were completely hidden beneath the soil. Dark pink flowers are blossoming on the tips of the jane magnolia, daring to brave the cold air that feels entirely out of place.
We are invited to take our place within the order of the world. Or we are invited to die.