The Ultimate Practitioner
February 27, 2017 § 26 Comments
The road to my land is one lane. It is gravel coated and there are no street lights, so in the late evening when I am driving home from a day in town, I cruise slowly, casually avoiding the potholes that have opened up with this winter’s heavy rains. In the darkness the world before me is a vignette painted by the dull yellow glow of my headlights. Beyond the borders of this halo stands of trees surround me on either side until I come to pass a neighbor’s house. Though it is not illuminated, I know that her lawn is to my right and her pond is to my left, but before me is just the thin gray road of crumbled limestone, and standing in the center of it, is a raven.
I slow down to a crawl, giving the bird time to move. He hops a bit, not off of the road to either side, but merely a few paces away from my Jeep. Creeping forward a few feet more, the raven repeats this, hopping on one leg but not leaving the road. He is hurt, I guess, and I momentarily wonder if I shouldn’t get out and try to pick him up, to help him in some way, before I realize that I would have no idea how to do so in any meaningful capacity.
We repeat our dance, me lurching forward a few feet in my car, the raven bounding back. He has plenty of space to leave the road if he would just hop into the grass on one side or the other. He has options. But he only moves forward in his path, and in mine.
Why doesn’t he just get out of the way?
As one day of abnormally warm February weather turned into two, then into a week, then into several weeks, I found myself outside more and more. On a Sunday we mucked our chicken and duck coops. Midweek I was repairing a fence line and laying wood chips on the paths in our garden. Today I spread grass seed in our orchard and planted flowers and bulbs with my daughter. We are not wearing jackets. I sweat in a T-shirt as frogs croak down by the pond and songbirds sing in the branches all around us. Walking by a raspberry cane I looked down and noticed the green buds that are sprouting up its entire length.
Of course, weather has variance. Growing up outside of Chicago I remember that we would have an odd winter day here and there where the temperature would spike into the fifties or sixties. Snow would vanish before our eyes and all of the neighborhood kids would be out on their bicycles and playing basketball in their driveways. When two days later the temperature had plummeted to a seasonally rational twenty degrees, we would despair the fact that winter had months left with which to pummel us with gray skies, ice, and the boredom of being trapped in our houses.
I acknowledge that such variance is normal. Walking around my land, absorbing the signals of spring six weeks before their time, I know that this is not normal. These are signs of change. Where the change takes us, how it will unfold over the coming seasons, and years, and decades, I cannot know. So I take notes with silent eyes, filing away the date of the first daffodil flowers and fruit blossoms. I hope to adapt, and I hope that enough of our fellow Earthlings across the taxonomic kingdoms can do the same.
Paul Kingsnorth asks us, “What if it is not a war?” in his recent essay on the Dark Mountain blog, where he explores how social movements and our general response to the predicaments of our age adopt war metaphors and terminology. Kingsnorth writes:
“War metaphors and enemy narratives are the first thing we turn to when we identify a problem, because they eliminate complexity and nuance, they allow us to be heroes in our own story, and they frame our personal aggression and anger in noble terms. The alternative is much harder: to accept our own complicity.”
Kingsnorth’s exploration is well worth the read and offers many good points for consideration. He culminates with the idea that perhaps, as poet Gary Snyder suggests, we are not in a war but a trial, a perhaps five-thousand year journey towards living well with ourselves and the planet. Such thought experiments can be helpful, as our language clearly shapes our perceptions and then guides our behavior. To be sure, consciously crafting our worldview allows for controlled and meaningful responses to the circumstances of our age. Kingsnorth proposes a worthwhile exercise when he invites us to think of the personal qualities that we would need to possess for an extended trial as opposed to a war.
But what if there is a war, and it is not one of our choosing? What if civilization itself is a war against the living planet, and no amount of ignoring it will make it stop? What if we were born into a war and it was so normalized by our culture, so entirely sewn into the fabric of our being that we could hardly see it, and when we did, everyone around us justified it and made it righteous?
Agriculture is destroying topsoil. The skin of the planet, home to a nearly unfathomable quantity of life, is being rendered sterile, sometimes toxic, before it is finally tilled into oblivion to blow away on the wind or drift off downstream. This is how civilization feeds itself a diet of an increasingly lower nutritive value. Forests, prairies, and wetlands are razed to continue this onslaught, species are wiped out, aquifers are drained, fossil fuels burned in massive quantities, and endocrine disrupting poisons are carelessly distributed into the ecosystem.
If I went to someone’s home and engaged in all of the above activities on their land, how would they describe it? If I abandon the language of assault, I am left with little else to lean on. There is killing upon killing upon killing. Nowhere in this activity that is central to civilization can we find a relationship that isn’t one-sided domination. It is not an eagerness to slander that which I do not agree with that drives me to describe civilization and its process as an assault on life, but rather a complete lack of any other accurate language with which to speak on it. If civilization is not at war with life, is it at peace with life? Is there a truce between civilized man and the forests, oceans, and waterways? When we look around do we see the wild on the rebound? Do we see civilized man reducing the amount of destruction he metes upon the ecology of the world? Is the general course of civilized decision making to prioritize the ecological system over the economic system? Of course not.
Zyklon B was invented as a pesticide. The Haber-Bosch process was developed to supply nitrogen for munitions. If it is not war that civilization is waging, then what is it? And if civilization is at war with the living planet, then why does it make sense to pretend that it isn’t?
“It makes no difference what men think of war, said the Judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of a stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.”
– Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West
Kingsnorth says that we love war, though many of us pretend not to. Maybe he is right. For the westerner, it is so easy to avoid the overt wars of our culture, because they are fought far away by paid grunts, and their victims are demonized. We are happy that the media obliges the lies we tell ourselves by not running an endless stream of images showing the dead civilians in third world nations around the globe. Even better, they make it so easy for us to not see the less obvious war, to not know just how much killing and slave-making civilization engages in every day to keep the oil, and the food, and the consumer products flowing into the stores (and the trash flowing away from the neighborhoods.) Again, most people just call this “business” or “capitalism,” and they see in it nothing but the mundane transactions of commerce, but when it all can trace back to one group of people pointing guns, and tanks, and warplanes at another, are we not lying to ourselves if we say it is not war? What if it all traces back to dead primates, dead rivers, dead oceans, dead people?
Maybe we should embrace war, instead of hiding from it. Perhaps if we stop pretending that there is no war, we could finally fight back in some meaningful way. Honestly, the fact that it is so difficult to know just how we could go about such a daunting task is likely why we never speak of it. To fight back against civilization is to risk the livelihoods of everyone we know, and everyone we don’t. There is not one cabal of people who if brought before tribunal or lined up against a wall and shot would unmake the machinations and complex systems, hundreds if not thousands of years in the making, that comprise the belts and pistons of civilization. If we were to try to stop this system from destroying our planet and our future by rising up against it, we would first have to have some inkling as to how that could be accomplished, and all the while we would know that the odds of success were infinitesimally small. Also, we would be risking everything we have while simultaneously inviting the scorn of almost all of humanity upon ourselves.
Put in such a way, I can see why most people work so hard to unsee the war that is civilization.
Ultimately, Kingsnorth is right about the fact that the language of war is a tool for the destruction of nuance, of gray tones, and uncertainty. This is a conundrum that has existed throughout human history, as people of good heart and conscience always question the righteousness of their motives and actions, a process that often slows their reaction and mutes their response to forces of nihilism and destruction. Albert Camus laments as much in his essays, “Letters to a German Friend,” when he writes about the confused French response to Nazi invasion. Alternatively, civilization is not in possession of a conscience, the systems that are its make up having been so atomized and bureaucratized, splintered into an untold number of moving parts that no one actor can be held accountable for the actions of the whole. This is the great and dark promise of civilization; it will provide a bounty of material access while diluting and thus absolving every recipient of their guilt.
The good and decent bind themselves and blunt their effectiveness with questions of conscience, while those bent on conquest and power never do. Resistance fails to get its shoes on while civilization fells another forest, removes another mountain top, extirpates another species.
It is not my aim here to reduce the complexity and nuance of our situation into a simplified binary. In fact, if anything I would suggest that our times call for an almost contradictory way of thinking, embracing that in any given context we are both complicit in and victim to the war that civilization makes upon our planet. At different times and in different places we must make both peace and war. Humbly, I offer that when we sit in thought about how we are to respond to the great challenge of our time, that we try not to be only one thing, neither solely a warrior nor a monk, but at various times we are each. Language of war falls short of describing the healing that we must engage in as individuals and communities, whereas language of trial and endurance falls short of describing the fight that we are called to make upon the systems, infrastructure, and yes, individuals whose daily work threatens to drastically shorten the time we may have available to trial and endure.
The heart of Kingsnorth’s point seems to be that when we convince ourselves that we are at war, we break our world into allies and enemies, demanding conformity of the former and diminishing the humanity of the latter. Throughout history such reductionism has often had tragic results. If the war of civilization against the living world has us each playing enemy and ally at different times and in different contexts, we would be wise to caution ourselves against lining up behind eager executioners. However, we would be foolish to continually forgive and appease the people who use their social, political, and economic power to not only blind the public to the horrors of civilization, but to actively increase the breadth and scale of those horrors.
Language of war can, if we allow it, claim nuance as its first casualty. So can the language of peace, or trial, as it were. But let us ask ourselves, to whom do we do service when we refuse to speak of war? Are we doing service to our children and their chance of survival? Are we doing service to the ecosystems under threat of eradication? Or are we doing service to the bulldozer, the pipeline, the feedlot, the open-pit mine?
Accepting that civilization is a war and using the language of war to understand the gravity of its processes does not necessarily mean that we must assume a conventional posture of warfare in order to stand in opposition or to react in a meaningful way. This is to say, not all fights are won with open combat alone. To be always at war with the world is exhausting, especially when defeat looms. I understand the fear of losing everything, before we lose everything. The first challenge to overcome is to understand the existential nature of this war, that it is not necessarily individuals or groups who we must oppose, but the space between us, the relations and duties and notions and systems to which we all find ourselves often unwillingly subservient.
If we honestly want to observe and honor the complexity of this time and our circumstances, maybe it is not one side of the road or the other to which we must hop to avoid being run over. Maybe the clarity we seek will never come as the strands of all of our relations stretch and snap, context ever fluxing, all of us reacting, reacting, wounded and hobbled in the dark.