February 20, 2018 § 3 Comments
Each time the sledgehammer struck the iron wedge, a clang echoed through the sliver of woodland. When I was a ten-year-old boy, this strip of pine trees was Sherwood Forest. With twine, laundry line, and whatever cordage I could scrounge I would lash sticks horizontally from tree trunk to tree trunk, on top of which I would lay pine boughs to create make shift shelters and forts. Rope slung from a branch would be used to swing wildly back and forth, and though only a few inches above the ground I felt as if I were way up in the canopy.
Now I was cutting down the standing dead pines in my parent’s suburban backyard that were once such a source of magic. My mother and stepfather will be putting their house on the market in the spring, and I travelled home with my family to help them get the place in shape. Standing in six inches of recently fallen snow, I made face and back cuts in the trees I once played amongst, in this little windbreak that I once felt was a forest. So thoroughly dead and light the trees were, that their weight wasn’t enough to topple them. Entangled in the chaotic crisscrossing and interweaving of branches thirty feet up, the trees would not fall until I hoisted their severed bases in my arms, and began walking them away from their stumps.
Once on the ground, limbed and bucked, I gathered up the branches and carried them to a brush pile at the back corner of my parent’s yard. Hidden amongst bushes and small trees, a series of old T-Posts still stood at various angles on the western edge of the property. One strand of rusted and cracked barbed wire still connected them, demarcating the line between two former farm fields, and seemingly, between the past and the present.
Really staring at a house will betray all of the slight flaws that go so easily overlooked when one is just living in it. Creaks in the floor, poorly placed trim, cracked paint, rotting wood. My parent’s house was built sometime in the 1980’s, which should not seem old. However, it was clearly built as part of a rush of development that swallowed up farms, forests, and marshes north and west of Chicago in that era. Pulling electric sockets from the kitchen walls, my sister’s boyfriend noticed the lack of ground wires. As I painted the living room, I saw how the wooden window frames were aged and flaking. Drywall seams on the hallway ceiling were obvious. Apparently, in the master bathroom a pipe in the wall had recently snapped. We triaged the most obvious issues, but everywhere we looked, if we really looked, we saw more that was either failing from age or from a complete neglect by whoever did the original work thirty something years ago.
From the outside, if you were to drive through the neighborhood, one would probably think, “This is a really nice place.” The houses are relatively big, the yards are relatively big, and everything has that “American dream” sort of aesthetic. It is suburbia, but not the chain link fence and small brick bungalow suburbia of the 1960’s. It is the two-story, four bedroom, half acre suburbia that seemed so optimal in 1995. That is, until the full on, three-car-garage, two air conditioner, and finished basement with a mini kitchen McMansion craze of the 2000’s came in and made it irrelevant.
The area where my parent’s have their house used to sit at the very edge of development. To the west were vast cornfields and pockets of forest. Plenty of big box stores and chain restaurants flourished there for a time. A mall is a five-minute drive away. But as the years passed, the cornfields were bought up and the little patches of forest were cut and scraped clean. Like an infestation, suburbia expanded. Where once I saw cows roam on grass, there are now hundreds of homes. How a neighborhood was crammed onto that pasture, I’ll never understand.
Strips of stores replaced the farms, and now where the western edge of development lies, I am not sure. But I do know that a large number of the retail structures that housed restaurants and stores when I was in high school are now vacant. Apparently when the newer bigger houses were built further down the interstate, the money went with them. The owners of the now abandoned commercial real estate have refinished the building’s exteriors, as if praying to some gods of commerce to please bring back the stores. But the gods have moved on, and now they hover over the Meijers, and Caribou Coffees, and Verizon Wirelesses some ten miles yonder.
What are people supposed to do with an empty Wal-Mart or a vacant Best Buy? When are we allowed to bulldoze the corpse of the strip mall, and bury its rubble? The twenty years these places were in business, workers smiling at customers, it was all an illusion. A sleight of hand to make this place seem relevant so money could be siphoned to some far away bank account. The employees now long let go, who knows where they went? Maybe they followed the displaced foxes and pheasant.
Entropy is a constant, yet it seems so constantly ignored. The cost of maintaining merely what we have is enormous, but it is so much less exciting to think about than the new things we could have that are just around the corner.
Standing in my parent’s front yard I look down the street at all of the other homes. With snow covered yards and roofs, the place looks quaint. Yet I wonder about the rot. None of these houses could have been built well. The desire to turn a quick profit that informed the shoddy workmanship on my parent’s house could not have been contained merely to this one structure on this one block, or in this one town, or this one state. I once heard that all of the palm trees in Phoenix were brought into the city around the same time, so that in so many years, they would all begin to die at about the same time. I do not really know if that is true, but it has me wondering if the suburbs will all start falling into massive disrepair at the same time.
Last week a nineteen-year-old man went into his old high school in Parkland, Florida and shot seventeen people to death. Mass shootings are becoming passé in America at this point, and only those with really high death tolls and really young victims even provoke much of a reaction. What could possibly cause a person to want to commit such an atrocious act? What kind of rot exists in their soul? What kind of maintenance and upkeep has been avoided in the person who walks up to a series of strangers and executes them? Further, what kind of emotional and spiritual work has gone long undone in a culture that churns out these damaged individuals over, and over, and over again?
Doing something well, making something that will last, is not prized in this culture. All that matters is completing the transaction. Once the purchase is made, the relationship is over and the poor sucker holding the bag can deal with the fall out. Empty and depressing malls ring towns of financially strapped families living in factory framed houses. Adults work wherever there is work for however long they have to while children are shuffled through overcrowded and underfunded schools until the bell rings and they are sent out into the meaningless wastes of suburbia. By some miracle a few of them turn out exemplary, while others muddle through it towards a life of alcohol and anxiety medication. Sadly, there are those who join the ranks of rising suicide numbers while for some, the isolation and emptiness of life in capitalism push them into online enclaves of the angry and marginalized. In these holes they fester together, often lionizing lone wolf killers and school shooters.
Tragedy is all but unavoidable.
How do we tend to needs that have gone unmet for decades? How do we do social upkeep in a culture that wants us to believe that there is no society, only hard working winners, lazy losers, and a stop at Chick-Fil-A in between? How do we build places worth living in, and how do we make lives worth living? While trillions are spent on militaristically enforcing empire around the globe, our bridges and water mains crumble, and our population has sunk into such a deep pit of despair that it spends almost every non-working hour escaping into a drug or a fictional landscape. Hell, even those working hours are often only accomplished with the aid of a chemical, be it a pharmaceutical or just some whiskey in the thermos or coffee cup. Then a quick dash home to watch the game, or to binge watch netflix, or to strap an AR set on your face.
It seems as though easy problems are the only ones that get tended to. A coat of paint is pretty easy to apply, and carpets can be steamed and come out looking pretty nice. The creaking floor in the bathroom is another issue altogether. The tile has to come up to get to the subfloor, and the tub has to come up to get to the tile, and if you’re pulling the tub you are going to have to pull up that counter top that hangs in the way.
Shit. Throw down an extra plush rug and hope it muffles some of the sound.
Days later, back in my own woods the sun is shining as I walk towards my garden. It is seventy degrees out in February, and so I am told the polar vortex has split in two, or something of the sort. I see tulip leaves gently shifting mulch to the side so they can grow skyward. My daughter walks next to me and I point out to her the small green spikes of daffodils breaking through the well-thawed surface of the Earth. Cranes whoop overhead, and I smile. They have made that journey countless times.
Then I wonder if there is something we haven’t broken.
January 8, 2018 § 4 Comments
Cold air bites at the tip of my nose and the upper rim of my ears as I crunch across the driveway to the wood pile. Pulling from a rick consisting mostly of Ash, I load my arms. We burned through the last rick of wood too quickly. Sub zero temperatures moved in right after the winter solstice, and for weeks they held strong, the winds at night drawing the heat from our cabin through every crack and seam. Wool blankets cover the windows, and we trade light for heat. At night we nestle into our bed as a family, buried under our down comforter, which can effectively create an ecosystem all its own. Before sunrise though, I will feel my cheeks getting cold, and I will head to the kitchen to find the last embers of the fire on the verge of extinguishing. In the dark I will snap small sticks with my hands, then feed them into the steel belly of the woodstove, and layer split wood on top of that. I wait, watching, listening. When I am sure that the fire has taken, I head back towards bed with the orange flicker lighting the way.
The year has rolled over on the calendars of western humans, and the northern hemisphere has had its shortest day in this particular planetary revolution around the sun. It is a time of transitions and resolutions, reflections of the year passed and goals laid out for the year to come. Personally, I feel that we are in a time of exposure. Open secrets once whispered and acknowledge but never loudly spoken are no longer able to be contained. An obvious example of this is the so called, “me too” movement in which powerful men in politics and entertainment who used their status to sexually assault others were publicly exposed, which then blew open the door for women in a variety of industries and lifestyles to report on the bosses and colleagues who used their positions as leverage to seek and sometimes force sexual attention. Basically, a lot of men in a lot of places of power have been using that power to harass and assault women (and yes, sometimes other men) and a lot of dirty laundry has been aired all at once.
Open secrets are not uncommon in our society. Uncomfortable truths that we all come to know, but fear to speak about lest our murmurings disturb the delicate balance of our universe, and tip the whole order into disarray. One of these open secrets that is getting more and more attention is the fact that the police in the United States are arguably a bigger threat to many people than criminals. With nary a legal or civil consequence for their actions to be had, police killed another thousand or so Americans in 2017. The case of former Mesa, Arizona cop Philip Brailsford being acquitted of murdering Daniel Shaver attracted a lot of attention after the body cam video of the event was released, and the general public viewed what was essentially a snuff film with horror, aghast as Brailsford smugly derided the weeping father Shaver who begged for his life before being murdered. Most of the population too, now accepts that the police and justice systems by and large treat black Americans far differently, and far worse, than they treat white Americans.
Of course, when a nasty truth comes to light, especially a truth that cuts right through the heart of a person’s – or nation’s – identity, there are those who will flat refuse to believe it. In the case of the many exposed men who have been accused of sexual assault and rape, there are cadres of defenders who nit pick each case looking to find where the accuser is either lying, or perhaps sought or deserved her treatment. It is just so with the issue of police in America. With each new horror show of a news story, even those complete with heartbreaking video as in the case of Daniel Shaver, there are defenders of the system, professional analyzers who find the moment the victim screwed up by not, in their moments of terror, following some command or by having made some innocuous and unconscious movement of the hand. Then they scream, “See! He deserved to die!”
To these reactionaries desperate to believe that everything is OK, women who are abused and harassed by their bosses and colleagues deserve it if they ever take a meeting with a man alone, and untrained and fearful civilians must act with professional precision while teams of academy graduates laden with military firearms and earning a government wage can ignore standards and statutes alike while engaging in murderous street justice.
However, if we believe all these stories of rape and assault, we then have to start examining our culture and try to understand their source. If we believe that the police are racist and unnecessarily violent and murderous, then we have to start examining our culture and try to understand why. Such digging leads to dangerous places for the egos and identities of many. Our lies are pillars that hold up entire institutions and ways of viewing ourselves and the world around us. We have cursed and damned so many people to live out their days in slums or cages, if we haven’t just flat out killed them. If these sentences of impoverishment, imprisonment, and death were all the extension of a society built on lies, then that would make us some pretty terrible people.
Yes, better to not look down that well.
I find myself in a bookstore fairly regularly, and I have noticed that over the past few years, there has been significant growth in the survival magazine market. Of course, there are the homestead magazines, the gardening magazines, the hunting magazines, and the straight up gun fetish magazines, but then the other day I noticed something new. It was a magazine that had on its cover a man, a boy, and a woman, all presumably a family. They carried packs, radios, and firearms. A setting sun painted their faces a golden hue, or who knows, maybe it was a distant nuclear blast, as they stood near a ruined vehicle in some scrubland. The father was handsome with chiseled cheek bones, and the lightest Hollywood smattering of dirt across his brow. In true marketing fashion, this was a magazine with a good looking family surviving a civilization ending EMP blast, bug out bags in tow.
Seeing this I thought to myself that I think it is basically an open secret now that our society is fucked. We are fucked, and no one is coming to save us. Things are going to get steadily worse and worse until the entire façade of civil life breaks into a series of dysfunctional pieces, and deep down, everybody knows it.
A few weeks ago a friend came over to my house, and as she helped me truck firewood from the front of our land to the house, I made a comment about this to test my theory. I cannot now remember how I snuck it into the conversation, but at some point I said, “We’re fucked,” in regards to the future stability of our climate and the world of human comings and goings. She looked at me with a light, knowing smile, and very sincerely said, “Oh yeah.” I might as well have told her that the sun would set.
Of course, my friends are not exactly going to be a random sampling of the population, and they are all going to fall under an umbrella of social consciousness and ecological concern, to be sure, but the increase in television shows, magazines, and books that all orbit the topic of surviving the collapse of society, to me, is telling. For now, we can treat the topic with a bit of irony should we not find ourselves in like company, and laugh at the commercial selling dehydrated beef stroganoff that one can store in their closet for emergencies.
But the idea is out there. Year’s worth of promised solutions to energy and ecological woes have not been delivered. The fires are worse, the floods are more frequent, and still the powers that be are drilling and scraping for every last bit of hydrocarbon. I think most people assumed that somewhere, some group of serious people was laying out the roadmap of transition, and making sure that it would be implemented. The consequences are rolling in as expected, but the global solutions are nowhere to be found. A few companies absorb government subsidies and put out press releases to keep the investors chomping at the bit, but a look around does not show me a world much different than the one in which I walked as a child thirty years ago.
If it becomes understood that this society as it exists has no future, that would mean we have to ask ourselves serious questions about how, or if, we are going to survive. That is a deep, black well indeed.
With a night rain came warm air. Gray morning light expands through the wood revealing a half decayed carpet of leaves. Only islands of snow remain, and they are thin and vulnerable. I have eagerly awaited this warm front. The straw in duck and chicken houses needs tossing, and when out in the animal yards I begin to survey first the damage; a plastic rain collection barrel has burst at its base. Then I look to the work; scraping away the ground in front of every gate and door, as the heave of frozen Earth has made opening and closing most of them quite difficult, and no fix was to be had during zero range temperatures.
Animal gates and hen house doors that cannot be closed again once open are not a problem that can be ignored. Raccoons and foxes are particularly hungry this time of year, I can only imagine. A day or two above freezing are opportunities not to be squandered. Winter is only beginning.
December 8, 2017 § 11 Comments
In the dull glow of my headlights, he drags the deer off of the road while a cigarette clings to his lower lip. My hazard lights blink rhythmically, an orange glow rising and falling on the grass lining the shoulder of the road. His son stands back and watches, and the man stumbles as the deer kicks her legs. I was the first to pull over, having seen the doe lying in the road as I drove passed her. She craned her neck and swung it in a large halo arc as if trying to shake free of an invisible infliction now crippling her. After a quick U-turn and parking my jeep in the grass, I approached the doe to find that she did not seem to be losing blood, but she clearly could not stand. A broken leg, or legs, perhaps.
The man and his son pulled over a few moments later. I had a gun in my car, but I was within town limits and not eager to commit a firearms violation. Ironically enough, I chose not to bring my knife with me to town this morning. The man’s son procured one from his pocket after his father had moved the injured animal out of the path of traffic. He flicked the blade open and it clicked into place. Turning the handle outward, he said, “Dad.”
I have made an effort to always treat the act of killing an animal as significant. What ceremony I make in the moment before I kill could be preposterous and meaningless for all I know. But I make ceremonies anyway because I am wary of hardening off, of callousing myself in manners of death. People who talk to trees do not create a business of clear cutting forests, and people who are humble in the act of killing for food do not develop a blood lust, or a sick enjoyment of the act of taking life.
Extending her neck by tugging on one of her ears, the man pulls the short blade across the frightened doe’s throat. I see the dark blood on the wet green grass, and I whisper to her. Orange light from my flashers pulses as the deer’s breath quickens. The man and his son return to their car and drive off. With my hood pulled over my head to hide from the night’s chill, I stand and watch the doe slowly die. Steam rises from the hole in her neck, and at first I speak, suggesting that she think of her mother, of days spent in the forest, of running and the wind. Then I am quiet, wondering if human voices may be hideous to her, especially in light of the circumstances. I spend the minutes silently, and somberly, until her tail flutters and her body writhes with that last flow of electric vitality that animates us all. When she is entirely still, I wait a minute longer before approaching. Her eyes are glass. My fingertips drag across her barrel.
I load her into my trunk, and head home.
Just like that, Ventura, California went up in flames. Wildfire season has drifted long past its October peak, and a week into December southern California’s hills are ablaze. Anaheim suffered massive fires already this year, as did the wine country region north of the bay. 2017 has been a record year for wild fires. Washington state, Oregon, Montana, British Columbia, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Croatia; all were affected by droughts, record temperatures, and other conditions which saw elongated fire seasons and increased destruction.
Then there were the hurricanes. Houston was underwater after Harvey dumped rains that obliterated records. Florida was walked over by Irma. Puerto Rico and several other island states were utterly hammered by Maria, and months later they still endure a lack of electricity, clean water, and supplies.
With one million cars destroyed by floods, and countless homes needing gutting or even total rebuilds for those consumed by fire, the fallback for most people is some form of insurance. In order to function, an insurance company must presume that the likelihood of a maximum payout is very small. In a world of increased storm intensity or fire frequency, the numbers insurance companies use as a foundation for their business model no longer stand.
The same runs true for health insurance. Conceptually, health is supposed to be the presumed baseline for any given human being paying into the system. Injury or severe illness should be the outlier. At least in the United States, that no longer is the case. The CDC reported in October that the American obesity rate is at an all time high, with one in four Americans registering as obese. In July, the CDC reported that more than one-hundred-million Americans are either diabetic or prediabetic, which breaks down to one in three people.
Of course, regarding insurance, increased natural disasters and a dramatic slide in human health quickly conjure images of the mathematical doom and gloom scenarios of increased premiums, failing markets, and government bailouts. But beyond the obvious morass of economic consequences, when I think about insurance as a concept, what comes to mind is the modern desire to iron out the disruptions of life.
People in modern, western societies would like to move the starting line of existence out of a wild and chaotic world and into one which is static and controlled, a world in which disasters and loss are flukes, like bugs in a software system that with enough attention and manipulation can eventually be eliminated entirely. With large material acquisition comes the desire for permanence and predictability.
A house is the greatest expense in one’s life, typically. To labor for decades on decades in order to pay for the house, as well as to fill it with stuff, is dangerous business in a world that can take it all away with one fell stroke. Insurance is a casino game we play, regularly laying a chip on a low probability event “just in case” the unthinkable happens. Is there a greater fear than being reset to zero after years and years of numb drudgery, all of it in the service of stacking up a bigger and bigger pile of things? The entire edifice of consumer society rests on the idea that we will work today and that the things we buy will still be ours tomorrow. No longer able to live in the world, to see the providence in the fields and streams, only the store shelves can keep us alive, and so we tithe the gods of chance praying that the future is long and uneventful.
The ravages of civilization and its primary bag man of capitalism are skewing all of the odds. The seeds of climate change long planted and fully in bloom, the coastal property will flood, and the house in the hills will burn. War will rage, broken people will commit mass murder, and infrastructure will fail. On top of all that, the long process of killing the family farm, destroying decent wages, and handing out subsidies and favorable legislation to agricultural and pharmaceutical corporations has placed a too heavy burden on individual human bodies and the ecology that keeps them alive. Health is no longer the baseline. Diabetes cases will increase, cancer cases will increase, mental health will decline, opiate addiction will flourish.
A numbers game generated to give the masses a sense of safety, to propagate the illusion of a world of stability and permanence will fail. It is a game that was always predicated on growth, on there always being more, on the energy and capital to rebuild bodies and homes and cities to always be plentiful. And now what? What becomes of the modern world when there is no promise of tomorrow? How will people respond when certainty decomposes and there is no promise of rescue from rare events that quickly become regular? Forget the markets, and behold the global philosophical breakdown.
The temperature was just below freezing when I hung the doe from a young maple tree outside of my house. In the darkness my cold hands were warmed as I pulled her entrails from her body cavity, slowly, so as not to burst her full stomach. With the sunrise I was outside, my newly sharpened knife barely dragging over the membrane connecting the deer’s hide to her muscle. So finely honed was the blade that it took but the faintest painter’s touch to complete the work. I cut away strips of white fat and fed them to my dog who was eagerly observing me. The chickens were given the viscera and the carcass. One foreleg was placed in the forest, a gift for the ravens.
The meat of the animal was divided into three piles, most of it wrapped in used plastic bags. One of the piles was for us, and the two others were for friends of ours. They are the families on whom we rely for anything from companionship to childcare to car repair. In this way I pad my security, with a surprise trip to a friend’s house, fresh meat and a dozen eggs in hand.
Tomorrow was always an illusion.
November 9, 2017 § 12 Comments
My wife and daughter are asleep, so I move quietly through our small house. Stepping into my shin-high mud boots, I pull my heavy coat over my arms, flipping the hood forward over my head. Gravel crunches under my feet as I take the few steps across my driveway to the ring of bucked maple logs stood on end that encircle my fire pit. Sitting down onto one of these pieces of damp wood I exhale into the cold night. Fog from my mouth drifts upwards and I follow it with my eyes. The moon is two days shy of full but its glow remains mostly diffused by a curtain of thick clouds, which are streaming across the navy sky. Breaks and gaps in this near solid gray mass offer glimpses of the shining white lunar face before shrouding it once again.
Earlier in the day I imagined having a fire in this moment, but the notion seems silly now. It is approaching midnight, and the charcoal and bits of scrap wood on the ground before me are wet from the recent rains. Clicking a lighter, I hold its fire to the wick of a little candle that I drew from my pocket, and when the flame is passed I set the candle down on the ground before me. I breathe out again, and again I watch the fog from my mouth arc and pull as it dances upwards, the vapor now a milky white saturated by the candle’s glow.
Samhain is when the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead is at its thinnest. The tall trees bending overhead are mostly bare. Life is retreating into the soil, sequestering itself to the root ball and the burrow, mulching itself deeply under a quilt of leaves and dry grass. The frogs are silent, the humming insects gone. By day, murmurations of starlings ripple and contort across the sky as they pass through to warmer meridians, and by night the barred owls call into the lonely dark. I am outside in the cold this Halloween night to speak through the veil.
My words are mostly those of gratitude. But I also speak of sorrow and longing. Sitting in that deep blue night with pale moonlight drifting through fast moving clouds, I could feel myself aching for another world. A world smelling of moss on stone. A world marked by black earth running the lines on our palms like ink. A world of hair perfumed with wood smoke. A world of antler and hide, iron and feather. A world where predawn divination heralded by heaven’s movement is silently considered and a sunset punctuated by a raven’s call is taken in the day’s considerations.
We all seek signs and signals, but now gather them from within the gyre of our madness rather than from without.
The knife I carry is a fixed blade. It has a mahogany brown wooden handle and a leather sheath that fixes to my belt. I had it sharpened the other day, as years of use have dulled its edge. Yes, I paid a man a couple dollars to do it for me, as knife sharpening is actually quite the learned skill, and despite owning a whetstone, my talent for honing knives is not that great. The man who sharpened it owns a small knife store in town, and he carries some very fine pieces. As I perused his shelves I came to thinking about knives and the fetishization of knives that exists within certain communities. There are preppers, backpackers, and people who obsess over gear for their every-day-carry, or EDC, which is sort of a combination of gear obsession and prepping. For people in these niche subcultures, the knife holds a special place as the penultimate survival tool. When I think about middle aged men driving to work on an expressway or taking a city bus with an expensive knife in their briefcase or laptop bag, I wonder if somewhere inside of them they aren’t longing for a different world too. I wonder if perhaps they do not also long for a world of greater utility. I imagine men in suits awaiting catastrophe so they can have a chance to be useful, and to use simple tools to accomplish necessary goals. How many carry a knife through a prefabricated world of plastic and fiberglass so that maybe one day on the way home, they can skin a rabbit?
It is not just knives either. It’s trail running shoes, paracord bracelets, flashlights, and anything else that can be myopically focused on across forums and Amazon reviews so that when the big day comes, when an active shooter or an earthquake or Kim Jong Un himself comes to devastate their town, these people can haul ass across the rubble and then lash together a makeshift raft in the dark.
That job they worked so hard to get is boring them to death, so they imagine the day when it all disappears in a cloud of ash, and until then, they carry their high priced survival tools like totems, fingering the fire steel in their pocket like a rosary.
Another day, another festival of homicide. In a small church within a small town in Texas, twenty-six people were shot dead with another twenty wounded. Casualties like this are the numbers one would see in tribal warfare. Why within a supposedly homogenous culture are individuals declaring war on the people around them? The fact that it is even possible for a person to look at a group of people in their town and then to execute them all makes it evident that there is decay in place of meaningful bonds between people in what are communities now in name only. Interactions having been shorn of the elements that would in times past have bound people into networks of mutual aid and survival, now are reduced to momentary transactions. I need you only for the briefest time and only to run my credit card. Soon a machine will even do that. Where once we sat in a circle to laugh, to sing, to plan, and to belong, now we quickly shuffle through crowded streets frustrated by the human obstacles in our path, at best politely tolerating one and other, at worst loathing the multitudes, feeling revulsion at their presence the way one does when viewing an abscess or a tumor.
As people scramble to comprehend the “why” behind this mass murder, there are those who quickly assign responsibility to political factions they detest, a tune which we have all now heard before. Far right conspiracy theorists and militia members have done just this by going so far as to manufacture content that generates the appearance that the murderer is a leftist. If we cannot come to grips with why this culture that so thoroughly hates life churns out a steady drip of maniacs, then by gum we will at least make certain to tarnish whole swaths of people who we do not like, even if it means deceiving those we claim affinity with.
Daily, hourly, hell, every few minutes people are turning to the little oracles in their pockets for signs and signals. Trying to tease out meaning and perhaps a glimpse of the future by reading the tea leaves of click bait headlines that algorithmic compilers have assembled for their various social media feeds. Like a crystal ball psychic gauging your responses, the more you click, the more the algorithm fine tunes your respective results so you get just the reading that you want. You shape reality with your preferences, advertisers all too happy to oblige, priming your rage for the moment you see a behavior or hear an idea that falls outside the constantly narrowing boundaries of your worldview.
Civilization is a collective psychosis. Each human mind perceives its own version of reality. In slow times and small groups this is a far more manageable conundrum. Foundations of understanding can be built from simple observations – rock, tree, fish – and a shared worldview can then take shape. No two identical, but similar enough to agree upon the environment in which they exist and how to go about surviving. Civilization instead defines existence from the top down, and has drawn and quartered any and every faint inkling of the sacred or the mystical. Feelings of interaction with the living world around us have been demoted to the status of juvenile ravings. In the hyper complex modern world, entropy now is fracturing language. Symbols are bled of their meaning only to be recuperated by charlatans leaving the denizens of the national plantation unable to come to terms over how to define their present context, let alone their future. So they check their devices for an update.
Spinning in the fray the algorithms draw battle lines, and the anima mundi just whispers, speaking through the old ones who yet remain for any who might still care to hear.
Through the veil I speak my gratitude, and my sorrow. She breathes, “patience.”
October 9, 2017 § 27 Comments
I wake to rain. Hard rain falling on the steel roof of our cabin, a torrent surrounding us, not pitter-pattering but rushing through the tree canopy and over our heads with a roar. Dawn is not yet broken, and in the dull gray I hear the rain and am satisfied. I fall back into sleep.
In the late morning I walk with my daughter to the front of our land. Rain still, and we in our slickers carry the day’s compost load and a small cloth bag which I use to collect eggs. My daughter trails several feet behind me, slowed as the umbrella she insisted on carrying blocks her view.
Through the gate into the chicken paddock, a maybe six thousand square foot piece of land at the forest’s edge. Behind the chicken house a blue open topped barrel catches rainwater, and as I approach it, I hope it has at least filled to the halfway point. The days and weeks have been dry of late, rains sparse, just enough to keep the well-mulched garden alive. Across the county creeks are empty, lake waterlines low. I see that the barrel is in fact totally filled, water running down its bulk. I am grateful. In the back corner of my garden is the duck house, with its own blue barrel and small pond to boot. Both are full. Likewise, the rain collection tank at the barn is topped off.
We made it through another summer. In a few months this water freezing will be my concern, but not today. Today I give thanks.
Autumn finds me a bit morose this year. The season for me is a time of culmination and reflection, and while a bit of melancholy coloring the edges of my mind this time of year is not unexpected, it has come heavier this particular season. I am feeling the wounds of the world. My gut cries for the wild, and I am tugged by yearning, wanting to run and to howl and to pant for breath in a deep and fecund wood in some other time, in a place long before or long after humanity’s grand attempt to subdue and control the beating heart of the Earth.
A man shot and killed a lot of strangers in Las Vegas the other day. The immediate reaction of many people was to presume this man belonged to an opposing political faction than their own, and in a macabre game of hot potato they tried to excoriate their enemies by tossing him like a live grenade into the other’s camp. Some howled for gun control laws. Others crafted bizarre conspiracy theories. We have seen this play out time and again in cases of random mass murders. Such events are almost a seasonal holiday in the US at this point. With such frequency it is a shame that so rarely is it uttered with any volume that these happenings are the result of the particulars of the culture.
Life in the modern, capitalist west is tedium. It is an exhausting bore. Without any substantial sense of belonging or meaning, stripped of spirit and tasked with an endless quest for money that buys less and less, people are miserable. Life has been shorn of all of the ceremonies and customs that once bonded a people and gave them a sense of purpose, and they are left with mere commerce. If a person out in public is not engaged in some act of buying or selling, they are loitering, they are a nuisance to be moved along. Most of the public has come to understand this unspoken premise, and they enforce it with vitriol at the sight of the homeless, the panhandler, the protestor. “Get a job!” they yell, but what they mean is “participate,” by which they mean “succumb, as I have, and call it virtue, as I do.”
The malaise of existence in this world where the wild is all but extinguished is felt far and wide, whether it is understood as such or not. Absent community and a deep sense of both autonomy and personal value, people become damaged. This damage expresses itself in myriad ways, as each individual filters the abuse of the dominant culture through their specific experience and biology. For many, self-medication is the obvious solution. People drink away the boredom and the sorrow. They smoke away the frustration and rage. Some turn to harder drugs, those with money buy them from a doctor and stay on the safe side of the legal apparatus. Those with less acquire their narcotics from a street dealer. Both buy their way out of feeling the depression, the pointlessness, the pain. The former boost pharmaceutical stock prices, the latter boost the share values of private prison enterprises.
For others, it is all too much to bear, and they kill themselves. In rare cases, the desire to kill turns outward.
It’s actually strange that this outcome is seen as strange. We are a people who isolate themselves in personal domiciles, personal cars, individual cubicles. From others we hide under headphones and behind screens communicating without voices or faces, just curt text and childish pictographs. By and large our hands never touch soil, our noses never smell wood smoke, our muscles don’t pump with lactic acid, our brows do not know sweat, our eyes do not know starlight. We have hammered the circle of time into a straight line, and bent the circles people used to sit in while they sang and laughed into single file queues in which we are silent, eyes cast down lest they meet another’s.
We do not live. Living is active. We are only active in the pursuit of making someone else rich while we earn just enough to make it until the next paycheck, and then we are passive. We sit and stare, trading entertainment for experience, hoping that watching others pretend to live will suffice by proxy.
Of course, there are outliers. There are some who recognize the ugliness of this existence, who with blood pumping in their veins take to the streets against the police and politicians who hem us all in with laws, with the confiscation of the commons, and with the baton and gun that back it all up. These people are too few, and the great proportion of the public spits at them. Any mention of the great crimes and shortcomings of civilization indicts all who refuse to act, and most prefer not to act, knowing that to act against power is dangerous. Further, most know that acquiescence of conscience and soul is far easier when one’s fellow downtrodden don’t ever talk about it. If we all agree to call the cage freedom, then it is freedom. If we call the plantation the country, or the economy, then we cease to be exploited and can through the power of linguistic device instead be the citizen.
Of course, the heart and the head can only be fooled so much. So the cracks in the veneer are filled with alcohol, drugs, shopping, watching, and occasionally a foray into homicide.
I was reading about the buffalo the other day. In the nineteenth century the US military set out to intentionally destroy the buffalo, even if by turning a blind eye to white hunters who illegally killed buffalo on Indian lands. It was remarked by Col. Dodge that “every buffalo dead is an Indian gone.”
After the plains Indians had finally succumbed to the genocidal pressure of white settlement, and their remnant bands were forced into reservations, white ranchers brought cattle to their lands. There were some Indians who asked if they could hunt the cattle, primarily as an attempt to maintain their culture. They wanted to sing their hunting songs and perform their ceremonial dances. After allowing it briefly, the whites decided it was best to just package the meat and give it to the Indians.
What becomes of people when you strip them of everything that makes them human? What becomes of people who no longer sing? What becomes of people when they have been taught to insist that the world is silent, and dead? This is all of our heritage. Somewhere far enough back, your progenitors were brought into the fold through death and indignity. Their songs are silent. Their ceremonies are forgotten. And so we stumble blindly forth, in dark corridors seeking. In the black, some remain broken, others take up with history’s killers, and angle to fill the role of the abuser.
In my region there are those who want to cut the forests. They think that they have observed the forest long enough to know how to control it. They think they have the wisdom to manage a forest better than it can manage itself. How does one argue? The only words they will accept are in their own language, the language of domination, the language that insists on seeing only disparate pieces in a grand machine, the language that has exorcized the sacred.
I cannot convince you to leave the forest be in that language. I cannot convince you to seek the wild with those lifeless words. I cannot convince you to abandon this culture in the language that it birthed.
You have to feel it. Perhaps you do already. Perhaps you aren’t sure what you feel, other than a general sense that something is not right. Do not snuff it out. Nurture it. Breathe life into it. Let it guide you to others. Give yourself permission to feel even if it is only the pain. Move boldly through the darkness, and listen for the howl.
October 6, 2017 § 4 Comments
Over the last year I have been engaged in a writing project with a friend, which is why my posts on this blog dropped off. With that effort now wrapping up, I am ready to return to writing essays for this blog. Before you ask, no, the writing project I was working on is unfortunately not on the same type of material I write for this blog. Expect something from me shortly.
February 27, 2017 § 26 Comments
The road to my land is one lane. It is gravel coated and there are no street lights, so in the late evening when I am driving home from a day in town, I cruise slowly, casually avoiding the potholes that have opened up with this winter’s heavy rains. In the darkness the world before me is a vignette painted by the dull yellow glow of my headlights. Beyond the borders of this halo stands of trees surround me on either side until I come to pass a neighbor’s house. Though it is not illuminated, I know that her lawn is to my right and her pond is to my left, but before me is just the thin gray road of crumbled limestone, and standing in the center of it, is a raven.
I slow down to a crawl, giving the bird time to move. He hops a bit, not off of the road to either side, but merely a few paces away from my Jeep. Creeping forward a few feet more, the raven repeats this, hopping on one leg but not leaving the road. He is hurt, I guess, and I momentarily wonder if I shouldn’t get out and try to pick him up, to help him in some way, before I realize that I would have no idea how to do so in any meaningful capacity.
We repeat our dance, me lurching forward a few feet in my car, the raven bounding back. He has plenty of space to leave the road if he would just hop into the grass on one side or the other. He has options. But he only moves forward in his path, and in mine.
Why doesn’t he just get out of the way?
As one day of abnormally warm February weather turned into two, then into a week, then into several weeks, I found myself outside more and more. On a Sunday we mucked our chicken and duck coops. Midweek I was repairing a fence line and laying wood chips on the paths in our garden. Today I spread grass seed in our orchard and planted flowers and bulbs with my daughter. We are not wearing jackets. I sweat in a T-shirt as frogs croak down by the pond and songbirds sing in the branches all around us. Walking by a raspberry cane I looked down and noticed the green buds that are sprouting up its entire length.
Of course, weather has variance. Growing up outside of Chicago I remember that we would have an odd winter day here and there where the temperature would spike into the fifties or sixties. Snow would vanish before our eyes and all of the neighborhood kids would be out on their bicycles and playing basketball in their driveways. When two days later the temperature had plummeted to a seasonally rational twenty degrees, we would despair the fact that winter had months left with which to pummel us with gray skies, ice, and the boredom of being trapped in our houses.
I acknowledge that such variance is normal. Walking around my land, absorbing the signals of spring six weeks before their time, I know that this is not normal. These are signs of change. Where the change takes us, how it will unfold over the coming seasons, and years, and decades, I cannot know. So I take notes with silent eyes, filing away the date of the first daffodil flowers and fruit blossoms. I hope to adapt, and I hope that enough of our fellow Earthlings across the taxonomic kingdoms can do the same.
Paul Kingsnorth asks us, “What if it is not a war?” in his recent essay on the Dark Mountain blog, where he explores how social movements and our general response to the predicaments of our age adopt war metaphors and terminology. Kingsnorth writes:
“War metaphors and enemy narratives are the first thing we turn to when we identify a problem, because they eliminate complexity and nuance, they allow us to be heroes in our own story, and they frame our personal aggression and anger in noble terms. The alternative is much harder: to accept our own complicity.”
Kingsnorth’s exploration is well worth the read and offers many good points for consideration. He culminates with the idea that perhaps, as poet Gary Snyder suggests, we are not in a war but a trial, a perhaps five-thousand year journey towards living well with ourselves and the planet. Such thought experiments can be helpful, as our language clearly shapes our perceptions and then guides our behavior. To be sure, consciously crafting our worldview allows for controlled and meaningful responses to the circumstances of our age. Kingsnorth proposes a worthwhile exercise when he invites us to think of the personal qualities that we would need to possess for an extended trial as opposed to a war.
But what if there is a war, and it is not one of our choosing? What if civilization itself is a war against the living planet, and no amount of ignoring it will make it stop? What if we were born into a war and it was so normalized by our culture, so entirely sewn into the fabric of our being that we could hardly see it, and when we did, everyone around us justified it and made it righteous?
Agriculture is destroying topsoil. The skin of the planet, home to a nearly unfathomable quantity of life, is being rendered sterile, sometimes toxic, before it is finally tilled into oblivion to blow away on the wind or drift off downstream. This is how civilization feeds itself a diet of an increasingly lower nutritive value. Forests, prairies, and wetlands are razed to continue this onslaught, species are wiped out, aquifers are drained, fossil fuels burned in massive quantities, and endocrine disrupting poisons are carelessly distributed into the ecosystem.
If I went to someone’s home and engaged in all of the above activities on their land, how would they describe it? If I abandon the language of assault, I am left with little else to lean on. There is killing upon killing upon killing. Nowhere in this activity that is central to civilization can we find a relationship that isn’t one-sided domination. It is not an eagerness to slander that which I do not agree with that drives me to describe civilization and its process as an assault on life, but rather a complete lack of any other accurate language with which to speak on it. If civilization is not at war with life, is it at peace with life? Is there a truce between civilized man and the forests, oceans, and waterways? When we look around do we see the wild on the rebound? Do we see civilized man reducing the amount of destruction he metes upon the ecology of the world? Is the general course of civilized decision making to prioritize the ecological system over the economic system? Of course not.
Zyklon B was invented as a pesticide. The Haber-Bosch process was developed to supply nitrogen for munitions. If it is not war that civilization is waging, then what is it? And if civilization is at war with the living planet, then why does it make sense to pretend that it isn’t?
“It makes no difference what men think of war, said the Judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of a stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.”
– Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West
Kingsnorth says that we love war, though many of us pretend not to. Maybe he is right. For the westerner, it is so easy to avoid the overt wars of our culture, because they are fought far away by paid grunts, and their victims are demonized. We are happy that the media obliges the lies we tell ourselves by not running an endless stream of images showing the dead civilians in third world nations around the globe. Even better, they make it so easy for us to not see the less obvious war, to not know just how much killing and slave-making civilization engages in every day to keep the oil, and the food, and the consumer products flowing into the stores (and the trash flowing away from the neighborhoods.) Again, most people just call this “business” or “capitalism,” and they see in it nothing but the mundane transactions of commerce, but when it all can trace back to one group of people pointing guns, and tanks, and warplanes at another, are we not lying to ourselves if we say it is not war? What if it all traces back to dead primates, dead rivers, dead oceans, dead people?
Maybe we should embrace war, instead of hiding from it. Perhaps if we stop pretending that there is no war, we could finally fight back in some meaningful way. Honestly, the fact that it is so difficult to know just how we could go about such a daunting task is likely why we never speak of it. To fight back against civilization is to risk the livelihoods of everyone we know, and everyone we don’t. There is not one cabal of people who if brought before tribunal or lined up against a wall and shot would unmake the machinations and complex systems, hundreds if not thousands of years in the making, that comprise the belts and pistons of civilization. If we were to try to stop this system from destroying our planet and our future by rising up against it, we would first have to have some inkling as to how that could be accomplished, and all the while we would know that the odds of success were infinitesimally small. Also, we would be risking everything we have while simultaneously inviting the scorn of almost all of humanity upon ourselves.
Put in such a way, I can see why most people work so hard to unsee the war that is civilization.
Ultimately, Kingsnorth is right about the fact that the language of war is a tool for the destruction of nuance, of gray tones, and uncertainty. This is a conundrum that has existed throughout human history, as people of good heart and conscience always question the righteousness of their motives and actions, a process that often slows their reaction and mutes their response to forces of nihilism and destruction. Albert Camus laments as much in his essays, “Letters to a German Friend,” when he writes about the confused French response to Nazi invasion. Alternatively, civilization is not in possession of a conscience, the systems that are its make up having been so atomized and bureaucratized, splintered into an untold number of moving parts that no one actor can be held accountable for the actions of the whole. This is the great and dark promise of civilization; it will provide a bounty of material access while diluting and thus absolving every recipient of their guilt.
The good and decent bind themselves and blunt their effectiveness with questions of conscience, while those bent on conquest and power never do. Resistance fails to get its shoes on while civilization fells another forest, removes another mountain top, extirpates another species.
It is not my aim here to reduce the complexity and nuance of our situation into a simplified binary. In fact, if anything I would suggest that our times call for an almost contradictory way of thinking, embracing that in any given context we are both complicit in and victim to the war that civilization makes upon our planet. At different times and in different places we must make both peace and war. Humbly, I offer that when we sit in thought about how we are to respond to the great challenge of our time, that we try not to be only one thing, neither solely a warrior nor a monk, but at various times we are each. Language of war falls short of describing the healing that we must engage in as individuals and communities, whereas language of trial and endurance falls short of describing the fight that we are called to make upon the systems, infrastructure, and yes, individuals whose daily work threatens to drastically shorten the time we may have available to trial and endure.
The heart of Kingsnorth’s point seems to be that when we convince ourselves that we are at war, we break our world into allies and enemies, demanding conformity of the former and diminishing the humanity of the latter. Throughout history such reductionism has often had tragic results. If the war of civilization against the living world has us each playing enemy and ally at different times and in different contexts, we would be wise to caution ourselves against lining up behind eager executioners. However, we would be foolish to continually forgive and appease the people who use their social, political, and economic power to not only blind the public to the horrors of civilization, but to actively increase the breadth and scale of those horrors.
Language of war can, if we allow it, claim nuance as its first casualty. So can the language of peace, or trial, as it were. But let us ask ourselves, to whom do we do service when we refuse to speak of war? Are we doing service to our children and their chance of survival? Are we doing service to the ecosystems under threat of eradication? Or are we doing service to the bulldozer, the pipeline, the feedlot, the open-pit mine?
Accepting that civilization is a war and using the language of war to understand the gravity of its processes does not necessarily mean that we must assume a conventional posture of warfare in order to stand in opposition or to react in a meaningful way. This is to say, not all fights are won with open combat alone. To be always at war with the world is exhausting, especially when defeat looms. I understand the fear of losing everything, before we lose everything. The first challenge to overcome is to understand the existential nature of this war, that it is not necessarily individuals or groups who we must oppose, but the space between us, the relations and duties and notions and systems to which we all find ourselves often unwillingly subservient.
If we honestly want to observe and honor the complexity of this time and our circumstances, maybe it is not one side of the road or the other to which we must hop to avoid being run over. Maybe the clarity we seek will never come as the strands of all of our relations stretch and snap, context ever fluxing, all of us reacting, reacting, wounded and hobbled in the dark.