The Ultimate Practitioner

February 27, 2017 § 19 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.

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§ 19 Responses to The Ultimate Practitioner

  • Dennis Mitchell says:

    …and Trump wants to increase military spending ten percent. I’m hearing war drums beating more everyday. I wonder if having Trump has given the right enough say in our destruction to keep the right wing militia pacified. Now my liberal daughter in suddenly very interested in Malcom X. Telling me gun sales have not gone down just the folks buying them have changed. I take heart that we are still so terrorist free. So much anger and fear boiling over, still we have yet to reach the discord of the sixties. After Trump I expect an equal and opposite reaction. The waves of national discord will keep increasing till we recognize the enemy as unlimited growth and start dealing with actual bogeyman and not made up ones. Hopping one legged, backwards, in the dark, wanting to fight something we are powerless over. ..Maybe we need a new road.o

  • Thank you as always for speaking the many nuances and shades of grey that comprise truth. i have been thinking much about some of these same things, and grappling with how easy it is to go right into warrior or ostrich stance when witnessing injustice upon injustice to our planet and to all life on it. i feel so grateful that you address these things with much deep thought and apt metaphor. lately i feel like that raven more and more and as you say, maybe we all are that… unwilling to step to the side of the road, wounded as we are; risking being run over to make a stand, however ineffectual it may seem.

  • the virgin terry says:

    i just thought of something. the last few times i’ve tried to post comments on this blog, for some reason wasn’t able to. so b4 taking time, making effort to post this one, i’ll just try posting this first to see if it goes thru…

  • the virgin terry says:

    ‘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?’

    civilization is in fact essentially humanity waging war on other species, behaving as though only one species matters, and that one species is thought to be so exceptional as to exist independently of all others. 2 particular sources helped me see this: richard manning’s book AGAINST THE GRAIN, and daniel quinn’s writing. and as u point out, this war/attitude has become very deeply culturally ingrained or ‘normal’,, as the air we breathe. unfortunately it’s a quite rare human with the ability to see this and to see the catastrophic consequences of it.

    it is this fundamental understanding of the basis of civilization that is almost completely absent, even amongst ‘radicals’ and enviros, which makes me, and i suspect similarly minded folks, despair. it seems a hopeless case. nothing can or will be done of any great consequence to ameliorate the great collapse/reckoning to come. certainly not on a global scale. as far as individuals go, i fear that all efforts shall prove to be utterly futile, except perhaps in a near term measured in a few years or decades at most.

    ‘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.’

    bingo.

    ‘Humbly, I offer that when we sit in thought about how we are to respond to the great challenge of our time’

    in reading the rest of your essay, i see that u’re as flummoxed to come up with an encouraging response as i, or any honest rational one who confronts it. unlike in fairy tales, in sur(real) life, dilemmas sometimes have no satisfying, encouraging solutions.

    i hope u keep writing and struggling though. as i do. as others do. what better choices do we have?

  • […] on Pray for Calamity on February 27, […]

  • ALLEN J THOMA says:

    I truly appreciate your writing. Nowhere do I find such depth of insight into our current dilemma. I am a product of civilization and have the same angst that you appear to express at receiving its “benefits” and being culpably aware that I am at the same time a cause of its wanton destruction of the planet and its other life forms. Perhaps there is a way out for humanity, but I despair that we are lost in the dark.

  • Robert says:

    Your thoughts have once again provided much needed fuel for the great debate of our time, but I must say that given the degree of destruction around us there is nothing left but to declare war, be it on ourselves or the system, before there is nothing left to fight for. What we need most now is a war cry to stir the masses from their techno slumber.

  • Ward A Van Frost says:

    “To be always at war with the world is exhausting, especially when defeat looms.” I for one, am very tired. Is it time to give up, I wonder.

  • ALLEN J THOMA says:

    Ward A Van Frost,
    I feel your tiredness. I feel like an old man and I wonder if younger people feel up to the struggle of war in this context. I also feel lonely (except for the few of you on these and other blogs) as so few see the future as clearly as we all do. I can’t go down the route of NTHE despair of some. However, a good shot of whiskey an a cigar no longer erase the tiredness. I too wonder.

  • […]      by Pray for Calamity […]

  • Matt Colombo says:

    Humans are, most certainly, at war with the rest of existence on the Earth. It’s likely that most won’t acknowledge it for more than a split second because it would melt down their worldview. The view that humans are not at war, but heading toward better days, is constantly reinforced, and those that hold that view are rewarded. Thank you for your writing!

  • Shad says:

    I can’t tell if the indigenous are now allowed to be human, just in time to be blamed as part of the “human” problem, or are we still savage beasts, free and clear.

    • td0s says:

      Very interesting point. I see doomers and collapsers frequently blaming all humans as a “cancer” on the Earth, and try to remind them that it is a culture, not the species, that is the primary problem. Obviously, there are plenty of indigenous people still existing in their tucked away corners of the world, as they have existed for thousands of years.

      But yes, from the way many people talk, the grand bargain offered to indigenous people is that they can finally count (and maybe almost be equal!) so long as they shoulder the blame for what their oppressors have been doing.

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