In Centuries and Seconds
December 3, 2015 § 10 Comments
She was a yearling. Not very large, maybe one hundred pounds I would guess, as I was able to easily hoist her body into the back of my Jeep. Gauging by the blood leaking from her ears and mouth and lack of any other visible wounds, I assumed the car that killed her struck her in the head, possibly breaking her neck. What I could not gauge was how long she had been lying dead on the side of the highway. Her eyes were open and not yet eaten by birds, and her anus was also free of any infestation. I chuckle to myself when I imagine the reaction more domesticated individuals might have if they knew that there are people like myself who assess the edibility of roadkill by the presence of uncorrupted eyes and assholes. To be fair, I also took stock of the stiffness of her body and the lack of any immediately offensive odors emanating from it. She was worth taking home for a greater look, anyway.
From a cross beam of the carport I anchored a carabiner, and I fastened another to the yearling’s hind legs so I could create a “z-rig” pulley system, effectively halving her weight so that I could hoist her body into the air and tie of the cordage without help from a second person. My partner was going to come outside and watch the dressing so she could have a greater understanding of the process, and she bundled up our daughter too, who showed no fear or anxiety concerning the large animal hanging dead before her. Gently, I explained that the deer had died, and I was going to harvest its meat for us to eat. Not yet two, she stood looking at the yearling and said, “Deer, off.”
“Yes honey, the deer is off.”
“She can’t be turned back on. Once something dies, it cannot come back to life. But her spirit and her flesh return to the Earth.”
The year is closing as we approach the winter solstice. From the corners we inhabit, we watch the fallout from terrorist attacks in Paris and the downing of a Russian war plan by the Turkish military. Those who tally the climate statistics are telling us that 2015 is set to be the warmest year on record, globally. South Africa grapples with drought, the rainforests of the Amazon are burning, and world leaders sent to negotiate climate deals are converging on a Paris conveniently locked down by security forces preventing mass demonstrations under emergency restrictions imposed due to the aforementioned terrorist attacks. Not that it matters. Floats and puppets are fun to look at, but only a complete restructuring of society could address the challenge of climate change, and that restructuring begins with erasing existing borders and property lines, canceling existing debts, dismantling industrial infrastructure, and of course, toppling the standing systems of power. The puppets and street theater capable of such feats, I would love to see. As I have previously stated (and my blog name continually hints at) I do not believe humans capable of achieving such goals, at least, not without a little help from our friends calamity and chaos. The gatekeepers are just too well equipped to stave off conscious revolution. If you want to get into the citadel, you will just have to wait until a tornado throws a bulldozer through the wall, or a plague kills most of the guards.
Until then we watch, we wait, and we endure. We keep repeating the conventional wisdom of collapse; that which cannot be sustained, will not sustain. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it didn’t collapse in a day, either. The collapse of a civilization is not one event, but the consummation of many events that eventually birth a catastrophe that overwhelms the ability of that civilization’s people to rebuild what has been destroyed, whether material or social.
Fast collapse and slow collapse are really the same thing, looked at from different vantage points. What is built over centuries can end in seconds.
November 16, 1532. Francisco Pizarro has one hundred and sixty eight men laying an ambush in the Inca city of Cajamarca. Atahualpa, the emperor of the Inca empire, arrives for a meeting with the Spanish backed by an unarmed cadre of six thousand. A friar and barely competent translator tell Atahualpa they are there, in essence, to bring the Inca into the fold of the Catholic church and the Spanish empire, and they offer him a bible as a seal of their truth. As was to be expected, and likely, the intention of the Spanish, Atahualpa rejects what he is being offered. This rejection of the bible and the truth of the Catholic church gave the Spaniards what they considered to be legal grounds to attack the Inca who had amassed there. A century of empire with its conquest, expansion, and grandeur, could be said, to have ended in the following seconds.
Those seconds, however, were the ripe culmination of years of internal strife concerning who the rightful heir to the imperial throne was, a waning ability of the empire to effectively control far flung principalities, and a plague of smallpox brought to Mesoamerica by Europeans that advanced faster than conquistadors on horseback. Political turmoil and disease were eating away at the Inca empire, and the Spanish arrived just in time to add the critical pressure necessary to break it. And they had guns.
History, of course, is complex, and the fall of the Inca empire extended beyond the massacre at Cajamarca, as Pizarro played disaffected Inca regions against the center, installed puppet emperors, and fought rebellions. As the colonization of the Inca proceeded, European diseases continued to decimate the indigenous population as well. The Inca actually learned how to effectively defeat the advantage of firearms, but the viruses ravaging their insides were too much.
Depending on where we stand, we can focus on the centuries or the seconds.
If tomorrow the Dow Jones Industrial plummeted by seventy percentage points or NATO declared war on Russia, we would likely see those seconds as the critical break between the past and the future, the old world and the new. But of course, years of maneuvering by humans and the consequences of those movements all came together to generate just the specific combination of factors required to outflank the established firewalls civilization has established to protect itself, and to outpace the efforts at rebuilding that are guaranteed in the aftermath of catastrophe. Resource scarcity primarily in the sphere of fossil fuel energy, the manipulation of capital to the point of diminishing returns by the global ultra-wealthy, the decimation of ecosystems around the world; all have played their part in dressing the set for those critical seconds that seem to hang over us like a sword.
How does an organism die? If you magnify the death of any given being, presumably you can find one second, one still frame in time that separates living from dying. When we die of old age in the most quintessential of circumstances – our heads atop a fluffed down pillow as we lie repose in a king-sized bed replete with Egyptian cotton sheets and a mahogany headboard, family and adorers walling in our bedside and wishing us fair travels as we draw a final breath, smile, and say something childishly simple yet agonizingly profound – a critical second passes when our heart ceases to beat, electrical impulses in our brain fade, and we’re gone. The room exhales.
But we were dying for so long. How many years had it been since our body’s ability to repair cellular breakdown was outpaced by the aging process? We had peaked decades before. From that point forward, despite every adventure, every new idea, every material acquisition, we were hurtling ever forward toward our imminent demise. Our vision blurred, so a doctor prescribed us glasses. Our heart stuttered, so we began taking pills. Our mobility waned so we got a Hov-R-Round from the Scooter Store thanks to the endless advertisements targeted towards we septuagenarians aired on day time TV. We pressed on.
Our bodies contain countless living beings and units; cells, tissues, and bacteria that all comprise the whole of what we perceive as our self. A veritable civilization that is born and advances through stages of growth and maturation until the energy necessary to maintain integrity is outpaced by diminishing returns. We insert techno-fixes of every imaginable stripe to stem the twin tides of time and entropy, buying what time we can until the inevitable enters stage left to take us by the hand and demurley return us to the soil.
Civilizations are no different. Shaped in centuries, defined in seconds, feeding the fertile soils of time. Billions of human hands and minds carving, digging, screaming, warring, building, repairing, maintaining until it just isn’t enough and the center can no longer hold. Hydraulic fracturing, negative interest rates, solar arrays and soyburgers all applied to patch the holes and to bail the bilge water. Industrial civilization passed its peak decades ago, sometime around the time when women in skirts freely attended University in Kabul and the United States didn’t need to stand guard over Wahhabist Monarchs in the House of Saud in order to keep the game of growth afloat. Selfie sticks and social media stock options are your glasses and nitroglycerin. The internet is your Hov-R-Round. Do not kid yourself into thinking this is a civilization still in the wild throws of maturation and bloom. The billions of organisms that make this civilization possible are under threat, from phytoplankton to pollinating insects and carbon sequestering trees, all of whom feed the the billions of humans who swing hammers and pour concrete and fit pipes and string lines and who somehow, by some curse of the lottery of birth, drag themselves to the factories and cubicle farms day in and day out, all to keep this storm born Galleon afloat. Shaped in so many of our precious seconds, defined in the roil of faceless centuries, feeding the fertile soils of time.
The car struck her head, I had guessed. Her life probably ended quickly in a split second of sound and light. Without any abrasions on the body, I assumed the meat would be well preserved by the cold evening air. With only a beam of light to guide my hands under the dark of night, I gently separated her hide from her flesh, using light strokes of my knife to cut away at the membrane that held her skin to her flesh. Something was wrong. Her skin had a green tone in places around her ribs. I cut away more, examining the muscle as I worked. The green hue, almost an electric blue really, blotted here and there on her leg muscles, like watercolor oceans on an aging map. Hoping the backstrap was untainted I continued to skin the deer, but it was hopeless. On her left hind leg a subcutaneous tear in the protective membrane had likely allowed the passage of bacteria. She must have been spun or thrown by the vehicle in some fashion that impacted her rear leg with a substantial force.
The meat was inedible. I sighed in the night. Fog from my mouth drifted upwards as I set my knife down, and lowered her body. Walking beneath the stars I carried the yearling downhill, briars grabbing at my boots, twigs snapping underfoot. I thanked her and apologized while burying her under a light blanket of leaves. Coyotes, buzzards, someone would eat her. Someone with an enviable array of gut flora. I plodded and crunched my way home to wash the blood from my hands and wrists. The smell would last for days.