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.
February 20, 2018 § 9 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 § 14 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.”