Filling the Void
February 18, 2016 § 13 Comments
The flue damper drops with an iron clang that reverberates through the kitchen. At three hundred square feet, the straw bale cabin we are currently living in heats easily with the old wood stove. I pile the belly of the steel box high with oak so my lady and our daughter can return to a warm home. Plodding through the snow in my knee high boots, I head out to start my Cherokee. It fights me when temperatures are below freezing, and convincing the engine to turn over requires patience and a handful of tricks, including occasionally popping the hood and manually pumping some gas at the fuel rail. This is not a process I enjoy, and I have been researching a solution for a couple of weeks now. It would seem that a new fuel pump and assembly are in order. Last week found me replacing degraded “O” rings in the oil filter adapter to seal a leak there. Removing the filter adapter was an exercise in zen. The process required that I lay on the cement floor of my friend’s unheated garage, the ground drawing my heat from me, as I removed a very inconveniently placed motor mount bolt while flecks of aged engine grime fell into my eyes and mouth. Turning a wrench an eighth of an inch at a time can really ground you. On my next day off I can try to tackle this rough start problem. Always making plans, making to do lists, spending my days before I meet them.
The driveway is a little over a half mile long, and I move slowly over it, absorbing the details of the forest on every side of me. Gray sky, born of a mist that intermingles with the countless slender fingers of trees reaching upwards, arterial in their deliberate formlessness. A monochrome wash of tones accentuates the golden leaves of the beech trees. These small tear drops of paper flicker like watercolor candlelight. Through the forest I curve on roads still layered in an inch or two of snow. Even the thinnest branches of the trees all have a brushstroke of white highlighting their organic motion, which speaks of rivers and lightning, of nerves and fissures, of the geometry of the world entire. It is clear to me in this moment that I am witnessing poetry, that the Earth sings, that there is the most amazing, most gut-wrenchingly divine performance before us, all containing pieces of wisdom great and small, waiting for us to grasp them. And we don’t care. We aren’t interested.
A car pulls up close behind me. I am driving too slowly. I let them pass.
Collapse is a very odd fascination. I cannot help but think that such an interest is a by-product of the civilized mind. I also cannot help but think that the collapse so many people fear is related to their perception of time, which is in its modern form, shaped by the superstructure of our society. Capitalism has commodified our time. People in our culture sign thirty year mortgages, they make promises to pay for cars and phones and anything that can be bought with a credit card. The entirety of neoliberal capitalism is predicated on the notion that there will be more energy and stuff tomorrow than there was today. Imaginary wealth in the form of digital notations, be they named “stocks” or “bonds” or any other “investment vehicle” exists purely in an abstract future space. Civilization already has us living within the confines of abstractions built from so much collective imagining, and these abstractions form the foundation of an even more illusory notion of time in which we have convinced ourselves that we exist. When predominantly western, white, middle class people fear collapse, what exactly are they even talking about? I posit that they are actually anxious about the destruction of the future, by which I mean a constructed notion that does not actually exist.
Certainly, I am out on a limb, but that is exactly where I mean to be. Time, as it is, is not “Time” as we experience it. This is not surprising, as nothing is as we experience it. We interpret the world around us via our senses and generate a picture of it in our heads, which itself is informed by our individual biology and experience. When we speak of time, we are speaking of the abstract way in which we interpret it. Past, present, and future are clunky attempts to place ourselves within this abstract notion we ourselves have imagined into being. This understanding is culturally informed and not a hard and fast representation of reality. Not surprisingly, modern industrial civilization has imagined time into the most expedient and efficient of forms for the benefit of production; the straight line.
Over the years I have found myself constantly hurrying, loading myself with tasks in order to manifest the future. When I was saving money to buy land, I was constantly at work, picking up extra shifts, staying late. When my partner and I finally bought our land, I had to build a house, and do it quickly. If I was idle, if I spent a day at rest, I felt guilty. This guilt still builds in me whenever I find myself not busying about. Always I am in a hurry to manifest the future, and most importantly, to have it match the abstract picture I have generated in my head. It is almost as if the very existence of tomorrow depends upon me laboring to generate time itself, that without me holding it on my shoulders like Atlas, the future will fall out of being. And then where will I be? In the uselessness of the present, which is itself, destined to be an obsolete and immutable past mere microseconds from now.
The civilized mind is bent on domination. The land must be bent to serve human desires. The flesh of other beings must be whipped and tormented into serving human desires. The bodies of women must be confined, contorted, and too often forced to serve the desires of men. The story of civilization is the story of domination, the exertion of force and the repudiation of symbiosis. Interestingly, the abstract notion of time generated by the civilized mind is just another tool designed to dominate, however it contains within it a contradiction; time as modeled by civilization is infinite, particularly as it projects into the future. This creates a conundrum, as the generation of an infinite future space creates an infinite workload on the civilized mind, having to now manifest, maintain, and control an infinite terrain.
So we see the denizens of working class westerners labor endlessly in an attempt to place their circumstances in crystal, to eliminate any variance or uncertainty from days to come. Can this reasonably be described as anything other than absurd? Perhaps insane?
Sweet potatoes stick out the tops of water-filled mason jars along my window. In time they will drop roots and then slips with small purple leaves will spout from them. I will pull the slips and place them in water where they will establish further roots, and when the last danger of spring frost has passed, I will plant the slips in my garden. All of this exists in a future I have concocted in my mind. Agriculture cannot exist without a plan, without a perception of a day many days beyond this one. Civilization requires that we collectively imagine tomorrow into being, in full technicolor and high definition detail. It is hard for me to not assume that this requirement is the birth of anxiety and stress.
Abstract notions of time are, like all of our abstractions, a tool. We create tools to serve a need. Tools require not only the knowledge of how to generate or operate them, but the wisdom to do so skillfully, safely, and most importantly, of when to not use them. As is the case with the vast majority of the cognitive tools civilized humans have invented, we have found ourselves in the service of the tool of time. We are not present. We are not here. We are not listening to the poetry of the world before us because we are altogether somewhere else.
Of course, there will be those who insist that without a view of the future, we will destroy the world of the present. After all, if someone takes all of the fish from a river or dumps radioactive waste in the ocean for a benefit here and now, the future will be one in which no one will be able to eat from the rivers or oceans. Why is it then, that we see these very same behaviors running rampant at the hands of a culture so lost in its projections of time? The very economic structure of capitalism demands that tomorrow contain more production than today, yet it simultaneously destroys that very possibility. So lost in a vision of the future, capitalism blinds modern civilization to the actual makeup of the present. The map is given precendent over the terrain.
There exist cliches about various indigenous cultures maintaining a concern for their progeny seven generations out. Such ideas would suggest that concern for the future, or the invention of the future as an abstraction, is not a product of the civilized mind at all, but the human mind. Still, it strikes me as highly unlikely that any band of hunter gatherers would find themselves so concerned with a decline and fall of their world in some distant time to come. Obviously, any attempt to think the thoughts of an imagined person in some long ago circumstance is open to folly, but none the less, when I do attempt to place my own mind in such circumstances, what jumps out at me is this: Pre-civilized hunter gatherers would exist in a world where everything around them that they interacted with was placed there by nature. Pre-civilized humans must have remained ever cognizant of their surroundings, paying attention to the plethora of details in their experience in order to find food, avoid danger, note their location, etc. Seemingly, such people would find their minds more present in their circumstances. Perhaps at night they would lose themselves in thought as they stared deeply into the night sky or the cook fire, but I digress. It is hard to imagine pre-civilized people creating and agonizing over the future the way civilized humans do.
For a bit more insight on this issue, I asked a Metis man about the civilized notion of time versus the indigenous notion, and he had this to say:
“Talking about core pillars of a completely foreign worldview very quickly turns into an esoteric mess. Any explanation of concepts of time, like saying time is cyclical will have a westerner looking for spots to add his seconds, minutes, and hours. The concept of future apart from past and present suggests a linear view of time. If you stand at the center of a circle with the past present and future all flowing within the circle, where are you? And why would you not be able to see a future? Euro worldview sees the future as a black void that needs to be filled with all the new stuff one can imagine into being. Their present is of no consequence, as it quickly becomes a frozen point in the past that can not interact with the present and certainly not the future void. Indigenous worldview sees a future that looks much like the present and past if all beings act in a responsible way. European worldview is collapse, it is an irresponsible actor.
Indigenous peoples are often accused of claiming European Worldview is evil. This is not the case. It is seen as a mental illness. That mental illness has now infected most of the human population.”
People who talk to trees are very unlikely to clear cut a forest. Mainstream society would consider such people crazy. People who reject a linear notion of time, who speak to their ancestors and believe that the past is just as important as the present and the future, do not create economic systems that are predicated upon the infinite growth of material production. Mainstream society would consider such people crazy. As I sit here I cannot say that I know for certain the shape or make up of time. I can say that the tools we create are of limited use, and that when they bend us to their service and to our own detriment, we are fools to not remake them, if not abandon them altogether.
Tomorrow will come, to be sure. It will bring with it happenings and consequences. In no way am I suggesting we abandon concern for such things, but perhaps, that we remember that there are a lot of pictures we have drawn up in our minds, often collectively, and that anxiety is the byproduct of our efforts to match reality with these projections. We must remain flexible. We should make efforts to remain present, and thus committed to the terrain.
Of course, with this, I struggle too. At the end of the day, I am merely a man trying to make sense of his heartache. By the hundreds of millions humans race about, neglecting their spirits and their physical well being to make certain that lines on charts always trend upwards, to fill the black void. In doing so, they close their ears to the song that the Earth sings with every sunrise, to the poetry she writes with each curve and undulation of the topography, and to the ancient wisdom she has joyously written into every leaf, and stone, and star. We are all so much less for it. And we all but guarantee our doom.