To the Core

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.

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§ 9 Responses to To the Core

  • Thank you, as always. Today’s musings were about trashing the environment through the quick development glut – seems communities are trying to fight the good fight when it comes to the insanity of fossil fuel export explosive growth, but no one seems to be thinking about the environmental devastation of unmitigated growth and sprawl, and the toll it takes on more than ecosystems. we can’t separate any of it; what’s done to earth’s body is done to our own psyche. you tied this together so beautifully in atime when we really need to see the relatedness and effects of all we do. it meant a lot to me to read this today; your posts always mean so much to me. thank you for writing.

  • NikoB says:

    As always beautiful writing. The task ahead is huge and we have not the tools or stamina is get it done.

  • terry gerych says:

    loved reading your thoughts as usual. they reminded me of a few things i haven’t thought about recently. first, the spate of peak oil doomer books and films from around 15 years ago, notably the documentary THE END OF SUBURBIA and james howard kunstler. of course, it was nearly a 1/2 century ago when the club of rome tried to warn everyone of limits to growth and coming collapse, and i think even more than 60 years ago when the oil geologist hubbard coined the idea of peak oil and predicted accurately it’s coming in america around 1970. turns out the global predictions were a little off, apparently thanks to the development of new technologies like fracking and deep sea drilling that’s allowed the long plateau of peak to extend the life of fossil fueled civilization to the present day. sheeple don’t speak much of peak oil anymore it seems. i suspect that for those of us who aren’t ignorant or totally in denial, it’s one of those sticky too difficult to solve problems like your parent’s rotting bathroom floor structure. something to be covered up in the hope that it will hold up long enough not to have to be dealt with, until it becomes someone else’s problem. a hope that will probably be in vain for anyone who lives more than a decade or 2 more.

    u also reminded me of our current president’s past and current success as a ‘deal maker’. it’s these sort of sheeple, not those who actually do work of value to their community or for posterity, who thrive in the current culture of ‘winners’ (or as trump might say, ‘killers’) and ‘losers’. a sad commentary on our culture, in conjunction with it’s gross unsustainability and divorce from scientific facts and logic. in a world of make believe it seems those who thrive best are con artists and ignoramuses.

    finally, u express hope that perhaps there are some things our insane culture, some aspects of nature and ecology, it won’t be able to destroy before it self destructs. only time will tell, but if it’s any consolation, the great george carlin was optimistic that our planet will prevail (but pessimistic as to the fate of humanity:

  • Sissyfuss says:

    The cranes are back here as well as our fractured winter has opted for 20° above normal as opposed to 20 below and very little in between. I was serenaded by a true harbinger of spring today, the red winged blackbird which seems early but what is early in a world of fractured vortexes and misaligned jet streams. Nature becomes ever more bewildered of what’s happening to it and what’s causing it. But once it figures it out there will be hell to pay.

  • “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?”

    This for me is the fundamental question that no one is asking. But that leads me to ask a follow up question. Was the emotional and spiritual work ever done atal in this culture? White men have been massacring innocent people since they set foot on this land. Witness the Indigenous Americans whose extirpation is celebrated to this day as a hyperconsumption fueled holiday, “thanksgiving”. The innumerable Africans tossed overboard for any variety of reasons during the transatlantic slave trade. The Japanese who survived internment camps. And the poor souls right now working as slaves in America’s prisons. This culture was established with violence, has expanded with violence and is maintained with violence. We’re conditioned to believe it wouldn’t work any other way. That the tremendous violence perpetrated against people, other species and our Great Mother are necessary conditions for “civilization”. This barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity.” With entertainment. With policy. With relationships. With language. With education. With national myths. The violence conditioning is omnipresent. Huxley said something that is even more troubling to me:

    “The really hopeless victims of mental illness are to be found among those who appear to be most normal. Many of them are normal because they are so well adjusted to our mode of existence, because their human voice has been si­lenced so early in their lives, that they do not even struggle or suffer or develop symptoms as the neurotic does.They are normal not in what may be called the absolute sense of the word; they are normal only in relation to a profoundly abnormal society. Their per­fect adjustment to that abnormal society is a measure of their mental sickness. These millions of abnormally normal people, living without fuss in a society to which, if they were fully human beings, they ought not to be adjusted, still cherish “the illusion of indi­viduality”, but in fact they have been to a great extent deindividualized. Their conformity is developing into something like uniformity. But uniformity and free­dom are incompatible. Uniformity and mental health are incompatible too. . . . Man is not made to be an automaton, and if he becomes one, the basis for mental health is destroyed.”

    This society is not good for mental health. It tends to “undermine the inner security, happiness, reason and the capacity for love in the individual.” The fact America is the most medicated nation on earth tells alot. Depression, anxiety, panic and dissassociative disorders are all perfectly valid responses to hyperviolent and acutely abnormal living conditions. Yet, they’re medicated away. Damage control. These damaged individuals are products of a damaged culture. I’m getting the sense that their numbers are growing every day as environmental conditions deteriorate and more and more people are impacted by the effects of omnicidal globally integrated industrial scale structural violence.

    Thank You for this post. Resonates deeply.

  • Kate says:

    I am moved to comment my first time ever on a blog. Every word of this essay is hard-hitting and so deeply true. I live in the East Bay where the squalor, in the poorer neighborhoods, is just sickening. Yesterday I saw a tree in a shabby old post-industrial neighborhood of Oakland. Once a redwood, I think, by its height, but so choked and rusty, so filthy and stunted it barely seemed a tree at all. I wonder how we let things get to such a dire place. I have been aware of the earth’s stress for some years, but these small disasters seem to be suddenly popping out all over the place. Like how you proverbially go broke, gradually and then all at once…..

    I especially connect with your question, how do we tend to needs so long neglected? It seems that we are exhausting whatever resources we may still possess on “steaming the carpets” as it were. What will we (will I?) have left to offer the abandoned young amidst such cultural and economic barrenness, spiritual wasting? That’s why I am centrally challenged to nurture my own soul-resources–for the sake of family and neighbor. This, after crisis years spent struggling to “save” the larger world.

    Please keep writing. Your generosity is appreciated. Good to feel less alone in this painful consciousness.

  • Brendon Crook says:

    This is incredibly sad yet so incredibly true.

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