December 8, 2017 § 11 Comments
In the dull glow of my headlights, he drags the deer off of the road while a cigarette clings to his lower lip. My hazard lights blink rhythmically, an orange glow rising and falling on the grass lining the shoulder of the road. His son stands back and watches, and the man stumbles as the deer kicks her legs. I was the first to pull over, having seen the doe lying in the road as I drove passed her. She craned her neck and swung it in a large halo arc as if trying to shake free of an invisible infliction now crippling her. After a quick U-turn and parking my jeep in the grass, I approached the doe to find that she did not seem to be losing blood, but she clearly could not stand. A broken leg, or legs, perhaps.
The man and his son pulled over a few moments later. I had a gun in my car, but I was within town limits and not eager to commit a firearms violation. Ironically enough, I chose not to bring my knife with me to town this morning. The man’s son procured one from his pocket after his father had moved the injured animal out of the path of traffic. He flicked the blade open and it clicked into place. Turning the handle outward, he said, “Dad.”
I have made an effort to always treat the act of killing an animal as significant. What ceremony I make in the moment before I kill could be preposterous and meaningless for all I know. But I make ceremonies anyway because I am wary of hardening off, of callousing myself in manners of death. People who talk to trees do not create a business of clear cutting forests, and people who are humble in the act of killing for food do not develop a blood lust, or a sick enjoyment of the act of taking life.
Extending her neck by tugging on one of her ears, the man pulls the short blade across the frightened doe’s throat. I see the dark blood on the wet green grass, and I whisper to her. Orange light from my flashers pulses as the deer’s breath quickens. The man and his son return to their car and drive off. With my hood pulled over my head to hide from the night’s chill, I stand and watch the doe slowly die. Steam rises from the hole in her neck, and at first I speak, suggesting that she think of her mother, of days spent in the forest, of running and the wind. Then I am quiet, wondering if human voices may be hideous to her, especially in light of the circumstances. I spend the minutes silently, and somberly, until her tail flutters and her body writhes with that last flow of electric vitality that animates us all. When she is entirely still, I wait a minute longer before approaching. Her eyes are glass. My fingertips drag across her barrel.
I load her into my trunk, and head home.
Just like that, Ventura, California went up in flames. Wildfire season has drifted long past its October peak, and a week into December southern California’s hills are ablaze. Anaheim suffered massive fires already this year, as did the wine country region north of the bay. 2017 has been a record year for wild fires. Washington state, Oregon, Montana, British Columbia, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Croatia; all were affected by droughts, record temperatures, and other conditions which saw elongated fire seasons and increased destruction.
Then there were the hurricanes. Houston was underwater after Harvey dumped rains that obliterated records. Florida was walked over by Irma. Puerto Rico and several other island states were utterly hammered by Maria, and months later they still endure a lack of electricity, clean water, and supplies.
With one million cars destroyed by floods, and countless homes needing gutting or even total rebuilds for those consumed by fire, the fallback for most people is some form of insurance. In order to function, an insurance company must presume that the likelihood of a maximum payout is very small. In a world of increased storm intensity or fire frequency, the numbers insurance companies use as a foundation for their business model no longer stand.
The same runs true for health insurance. Conceptually, health is supposed to be the presumed baseline for any given human being paying into the system. Injury or severe illness should be the outlier. At least in the United States, that no longer is the case. The CDC reported in October that the American obesity rate is at an all time high, with one in four Americans registering as obese. In July, the CDC reported that more than one-hundred-million Americans are either diabetic or prediabetic, which breaks down to one in three people.
Of course, regarding insurance, increased natural disasters and a dramatic slide in human health quickly conjure images of the mathematical doom and gloom scenarios of increased premiums, failing markets, and government bailouts. But beyond the obvious morass of economic consequences, when I think about insurance as a concept, what comes to mind is the modern desire to iron out the disruptions of life.
People in modern, western societies would like to move the starting line of existence out of a wild and chaotic world and into one which is static and controlled, a world in which disasters and loss are flukes, like bugs in a software system that with enough attention and manipulation can eventually be eliminated entirely. With large material acquisition comes the desire for permanence and predictability.
A house is the greatest expense in one’s life, typically. To labor for decades on decades in order to pay for the house, as well as to fill it with stuff, is dangerous business in a world that can take it all away with one fell stroke. Insurance is a casino game we play, regularly laying a chip on a low probability event “just in case” the unthinkable happens. Is there a greater fear than being reset to zero after years and years of numb drudgery, all of it in the service of stacking up a bigger and bigger pile of things? The entire edifice of consumer society rests on the idea that we will work today and that the things we buy will still be ours tomorrow. No longer able to live in the world, to see the providence in the fields and streams, only the store shelves can keep us alive, and so we tithe the gods of chance praying that the future is long and uneventful.
The ravages of civilization and its primary bag man of capitalism are skewing all of the odds. The seeds of climate change long planted and fully in bloom, the coastal property will flood, and the house in the hills will burn. War will rage, broken people will commit mass murder, and infrastructure will fail. On top of all that, the long process of killing the family farm, destroying decent wages, and handing out subsidies and favorable legislation to agricultural and pharmaceutical corporations has placed a too heavy burden on individual human bodies and the ecology that keeps them alive. Health is no longer the baseline. Diabetes cases will increase, cancer cases will increase, mental health will decline, opiate addiction will flourish.
A numbers game generated to give the masses a sense of safety, to propagate the illusion of a world of stability and permanence will fail. It is a game that was always predicated on growth, on there always being more, on the energy and capital to rebuild bodies and homes and cities to always be plentiful. And now what? What becomes of the modern world when there is no promise of tomorrow? How will people respond when certainty decomposes and there is no promise of rescue from rare events that quickly become regular? Forget the markets, and behold the global philosophical breakdown.
The temperature was just below freezing when I hung the doe from a young maple tree outside of my house. In the darkness my cold hands were warmed as I pulled her entrails from her body cavity, slowly, so as not to burst her full stomach. With the sunrise I was outside, my newly sharpened knife barely dragging over the membrane connecting the deer’s hide to her muscle. So finely honed was the blade that it took but the faintest painter’s touch to complete the work. I cut away strips of white fat and fed them to my dog who was eagerly observing me. The chickens were given the viscera and the carcass. One foreleg was placed in the forest, a gift for the ravens.
The meat of the animal was divided into three piles, most of it wrapped in used plastic bags. One of the piles was for us, and the two others were for friends of ours. They are the families on whom we rely for anything from companionship to childcare to car repair. In this way I pad my security, with a surprise trip to a friend’s house, fresh meat and a dozen eggs in hand.
Tomorrow was always an illusion.
November 9, 2017 § 14 Comments
My wife and daughter are asleep, so I move quietly through our small house. Stepping into my shin-high mud boots, I pull my heavy coat over my arms, flipping the hood forward over my head. Gravel crunches under my feet as I take the few steps across my driveway to the ring of bucked maple logs stood on end that encircle my fire pit. Sitting down onto one of these pieces of damp wood I exhale into the cold night. Fog from my mouth drifts upwards and I follow it with my eyes. The moon is two days shy of full but its glow remains mostly diffused by a curtain of thick clouds, which are streaming across the navy sky. Breaks and gaps in this near solid gray mass offer glimpses of the shining white lunar face before shrouding it once again.
Earlier in the day I imagined having a fire in this moment, but the notion seems silly now. It is approaching midnight, and the charcoal and bits of scrap wood on the ground before me are wet from the recent rains. Clicking a lighter, I hold its fire to the wick of a little candle that I drew from my pocket, and when the flame is passed I set the candle down on the ground before me. I breathe out again, and again I watch the fog from my mouth arc and pull as it dances upwards, the vapor now a milky white saturated by the candle’s glow.
Samhain is when the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead is at its thinnest. The tall trees bending overhead are mostly bare. Life is retreating into the soil, sequestering itself to the root ball and the burrow, mulching itself deeply under a quilt of leaves and dry grass. The frogs are silent, the humming insects gone. By day, murmurations of starlings ripple and contort across the sky as they pass through to warmer meridians, and by night the barred owls call into the lonely dark. I am outside in the cold this Halloween night to speak through the veil.
My words are mostly those of gratitude. But I also speak of sorrow and longing. Sitting in that deep blue night with pale moonlight drifting through fast moving clouds, I could feel myself aching for another world. A world smelling of moss on stone. A world marked by black earth running the lines on our palms like ink. A world of hair perfumed with wood smoke. A world of antler and hide, iron and feather. A world where predawn divination heralded by heaven’s movement is silently considered and a sunset punctuated by a raven’s call is taken in the day’s considerations.
We all seek signs and signals, but now gather them from within the gyre of our madness rather than from without.
The knife I carry is a fixed blade. It has a mahogany brown wooden handle and a leather sheath that fixes to my belt. I had it sharpened the other day, as years of use have dulled its edge. Yes, I paid a man a couple dollars to do it for me, as knife sharpening is actually quite the learned skill, and despite owning a whetstone, my talent for honing knives is not that great. The man who sharpened it owns a small knife store in town, and he carries some very fine pieces. As I perused his shelves I came to thinking about knives and the fetishization of knives that exists within certain communities. There are preppers, backpackers, and people who obsess over gear for their every-day-carry, or EDC, which is sort of a combination of gear obsession and prepping. For people in these niche subcultures, the knife holds a special place as the penultimate survival tool. When I think about middle aged men driving to work on an expressway or taking a city bus with an expensive knife in their briefcase or laptop bag, I wonder if somewhere inside of them they aren’t longing for a different world too. I wonder if perhaps they do not also long for a world of greater utility. I imagine men in suits awaiting catastrophe so they can have a chance to be useful, and to use simple tools to accomplish necessary goals. How many carry a knife through a prefabricated world of plastic and fiberglass so that maybe one day on the way home, they can skin a rabbit?
It is not just knives either. It’s trail running shoes, paracord bracelets, flashlights, and anything else that can be myopically focused on across forums and Amazon reviews so that when the big day comes, when an active shooter or an earthquake or Kim Jong Un himself comes to devastate their town, these people can haul ass across the rubble and then lash together a makeshift raft in the dark.
That job they worked so hard to get is boring them to death, so they imagine the day when it all disappears in a cloud of ash, and until then, they carry their high priced survival tools like totems, fingering the fire steel in their pocket like a rosary.
Another day, another festival of homicide. In a small church within a small town in Texas, twenty-six people were shot dead with another twenty wounded. Casualties like this are the numbers one would see in tribal warfare. Why within a supposedly homogenous culture are individuals declaring war on the people around them? The fact that it is even possible for a person to look at a group of people in their town and then to execute them all makes it evident that there is decay in place of meaningful bonds between people in what are communities now in name only. Interactions having been shorn of the elements that would in times past have bound people into networks of mutual aid and survival, now are reduced to momentary transactions. I need you only for the briefest time and only to run my credit card. Soon a machine will even do that. Where once we sat in a circle to laugh, to sing, to plan, and to belong, now we quickly shuffle through crowded streets frustrated by the human obstacles in our path, at best politely tolerating one and other, at worst loathing the multitudes, feeling revulsion at their presence the way one does when viewing an abscess or a tumor.
As people scramble to comprehend the “why” behind this mass murder, there are those who quickly assign responsibility to political factions they detest, a tune which we have all now heard before. Far right conspiracy theorists and militia members have done just this by going so far as to manufacture content that generates the appearance that the murderer is a leftist. If we cannot come to grips with why this culture that so thoroughly hates life churns out a steady drip of maniacs, then by gum we will at least make certain to tarnish whole swaths of people who we do not like, even if it means deceiving those we claim affinity with.
Daily, hourly, hell, every few minutes people are turning to the little oracles in their pockets for signs and signals. Trying to tease out meaning and perhaps a glimpse of the future by reading the tea leaves of click bait headlines that algorithmic compilers have assembled for their various social media feeds. Like a crystal ball psychic gauging your responses, the more you click, the more the algorithm fine tunes your respective results so you get just the reading that you want. You shape reality with your preferences, advertisers all too happy to oblige, priming your rage for the moment you see a behavior or hear an idea that falls outside the constantly narrowing boundaries of your worldview.
Civilization is a collective psychosis. Each human mind perceives its own version of reality. In slow times and small groups this is a far more manageable conundrum. Foundations of understanding can be built from simple observations – rock, tree, fish – and a shared worldview can then take shape. No two identical, but similar enough to agree upon the environment in which they exist and how to go about surviving. Civilization instead defines existence from the top down, and has drawn and quartered any and every faint inkling of the sacred or the mystical. Feelings of interaction with the living world around us have been demoted to the status of juvenile ravings. In the hyper complex modern world, entropy now is fracturing language. Symbols are bled of their meaning only to be recuperated by charlatans leaving the denizens of the national plantation unable to come to terms over how to define their present context, let alone their future. So they check their devices for an update.
Spinning in the fray the algorithms draw battle lines, and the anima mundi just whispers, speaking through the old ones who yet remain for any who might still care to hear.
Through the veil I speak my gratitude, and my sorrow. She breathes, “patience.”
October 9, 2017 § 27 Comments
I wake to rain. Hard rain falling on the steel roof of our cabin, a torrent surrounding us, not pitter-pattering but rushing through the tree canopy and over our heads with a roar. Dawn is not yet broken, and in the dull gray I hear the rain and am satisfied. I fall back into sleep.
In the late morning I walk with my daughter to the front of our land. Rain still, and we in our slickers carry the day’s compost load and a small cloth bag which I use to collect eggs. My daughter trails several feet behind me, slowed as the umbrella she insisted on carrying blocks her view.
Through the gate into the chicken paddock, a maybe six thousand square foot piece of land at the forest’s edge. Behind the chicken house a blue open topped barrel catches rainwater, and as I approach it, I hope it has at least filled to the halfway point. The days and weeks have been dry of late, rains sparse, just enough to keep the well-mulched garden alive. Across the county creeks are empty, lake waterlines low. I see that the barrel is in fact totally filled, water running down its bulk. I am grateful. In the back corner of my garden is the duck house, with its own blue barrel and small pond to boot. Both are full. Likewise, the rain collection tank at the barn is topped off.
We made it through another summer. In a few months this water freezing will be my concern, but not today. Today I give thanks.
Autumn finds me a bit morose this year. The season for me is a time of culmination and reflection, and while a bit of melancholy coloring the edges of my mind this time of year is not unexpected, it has come heavier this particular season. I am feeling the wounds of the world. My gut cries for the wild, and I am tugged by yearning, wanting to run and to howl and to pant for breath in a deep and fecund wood in some other time, in a place long before or long after humanity’s grand attempt to subdue and control the beating heart of the Earth.
A man shot and killed a lot of strangers in Las Vegas the other day. The immediate reaction of many people was to presume this man belonged to an opposing political faction than their own, and in a macabre game of hot potato they tried to excoriate their enemies by tossing him like a live grenade into the other’s camp. Some howled for gun control laws. Others crafted bizarre conspiracy theories. We have seen this play out time and again in cases of random mass murders. Such events are almost a seasonal holiday in the US at this point. With such frequency it is a shame that so rarely is it uttered with any volume that these happenings are the result of the particulars of the culture.
Life in the modern, capitalist west is tedium. It is an exhausting bore. Without any substantial sense of belonging or meaning, stripped of spirit and tasked with an endless quest for money that buys less and less, people are miserable. Life has been shorn of all of the ceremonies and customs that once bonded a people and gave them a sense of purpose, and they are left with mere commerce. If a person out in public is not engaged in some act of buying or selling, they are loitering, they are a nuisance to be moved along. Most of the public has come to understand this unspoken premise, and they enforce it with vitriol at the sight of the homeless, the panhandler, the protestor. “Get a job!” they yell, but what they mean is “participate,” by which they mean “succumb, as I have, and call it virtue, as I do.”
The malaise of existence in this world where the wild is all but extinguished is felt far and wide, whether it is understood as such or not. Absent community and a deep sense of both autonomy and personal value, people become damaged. This damage expresses itself in myriad ways, as each individual filters the abuse of the dominant culture through their specific experience and biology. For many, self-medication is the obvious solution. People drink away the boredom and the sorrow. They smoke away the frustration and rage. Some turn to harder drugs, those with money buy them from a doctor and stay on the safe side of the legal apparatus. Those with less acquire their narcotics from a street dealer. Both buy their way out of feeling the depression, the pointlessness, the pain. The former boost pharmaceutical stock prices, the latter boost the share values of private prison enterprises.
For others, it is all too much to bear, and they kill themselves. In rare cases, the desire to kill turns outward.
It’s actually strange that this outcome is seen as strange. We are a people who isolate themselves in personal domiciles, personal cars, individual cubicles. From others we hide under headphones and behind screens communicating without voices or faces, just curt text and childish pictographs. By and large our hands never touch soil, our noses never smell wood smoke, our muscles don’t pump with lactic acid, our brows do not know sweat, our eyes do not know starlight. We have hammered the circle of time into a straight line, and bent the circles people used to sit in while they sang and laughed into single file queues in which we are silent, eyes cast down lest they meet another’s.
We do not live. Living is active. We are only active in the pursuit of making someone else rich while we earn just enough to make it until the next paycheck, and then we are passive. We sit and stare, trading entertainment for experience, hoping that watching others pretend to live will suffice by proxy.
Of course, there are outliers. There are some who recognize the ugliness of this existence, who with blood pumping in their veins take to the streets against the police and politicians who hem us all in with laws, with the confiscation of the commons, and with the baton and gun that back it all up. These people are too few, and the great proportion of the public spits at them. Any mention of the great crimes and shortcomings of civilization indicts all who refuse to act, and most prefer not to act, knowing that to act against power is dangerous. Further, most know that acquiescence of conscience and soul is far easier when one’s fellow downtrodden don’t ever talk about it. If we all agree to call the cage freedom, then it is freedom. If we call the plantation the country, or the economy, then we cease to be exploited and can through the power of linguistic device instead be the citizen.
Of course, the heart and the head can only be fooled so much. So the cracks in the veneer are filled with alcohol, drugs, shopping, watching, and occasionally a foray into homicide.
I was reading about the buffalo the other day. In the nineteenth century the US military set out to intentionally destroy the buffalo, even if by turning a blind eye to white hunters who illegally killed buffalo on Indian lands. It was remarked by Col. Dodge that “every buffalo dead is an Indian gone.”
After the plains Indians had finally succumbed to the genocidal pressure of white settlement, and their remnant bands were forced into reservations, white ranchers brought cattle to their lands. There were some Indians who asked if they could hunt the cattle, primarily as an attempt to maintain their culture. They wanted to sing their hunting songs and perform their ceremonial dances. After allowing it briefly, the whites decided it was best to just package the meat and give it to the Indians.
What becomes of people when you strip them of everything that makes them human? What becomes of people who no longer sing? What becomes of people when they have been taught to insist that the world is silent, and dead? This is all of our heritage. Somewhere far enough back, your progenitors were brought into the fold through death and indignity. Their songs are silent. Their ceremonies are forgotten. And so we stumble blindly forth, in dark corridors seeking. In the black, some remain broken, others take up with history’s killers, and angle to fill the role of the abuser.
In my region there are those who want to cut the forests. They think that they have observed the forest long enough to know how to control it. They think they have the wisdom to manage a forest better than it can manage itself. How does one argue? The only words they will accept are in their own language, the language of domination, the language that insists on seeing only disparate pieces in a grand machine, the language that has exorcized the sacred.
I cannot convince you to leave the forest be in that language. I cannot convince you to seek the wild with those lifeless words. I cannot convince you to abandon this culture in the language that it birthed.
You have to feel it. Perhaps you do already. Perhaps you aren’t sure what you feel, other than a general sense that something is not right. Do not snuff it out. Nurture it. Breathe life into it. Let it guide you to others. Give yourself permission to feel even if it is only the pain. Move boldly through the darkness, and listen for the howl.
October 6, 2017 § 4 Comments
Over the last year I have been engaged in a writing project with a friend, which is why my posts on this blog dropped off. With that effort now wrapping up, I am ready to return to writing essays for this blog. Before you ask, no, the writing project I was working on is unfortunately not on the same type of material I write for this blog. Expect something from me shortly.
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.
January 23, 2017 § 24 Comments
Slow crunching of gravel beneath my tires and the hum rattle of my Jeep engine are all I hear as I pull down the long driveway across my land to the front of my house. The world outside the grasp of my headlight beams is deep blue and black. There is almost a hush of relief exhaled by the forest when I turn the key to shut off the car. With a breath, I exit the vehicle, and when the door slams behind me the echo dies quickly, absorbed by the trees and hills around me.
I take a few steps towards the front door, then stop to lean on a maple tree. As my fingers drag down the surface of the tree they find grooves to run like tracks. The night sky is a dark and formless navy color, betraying no stars or planets above. When I get home late on a Saturday night after closing down the bar where I work part time, I need this. I need to breathe and to embrace the silence. A night of so many human voices yammering about so much nothing at all has my brain and my posture suffering a vast weariness.
So I stand and I stare at the night. I listen hard for the creaking of tree boughs, for the tapping of twig on branch. In a world so thoroughly crammed to hilts with noise, with voices, with opinions, silence and calm are a drug. The light chill of the air, not nearly cold enough for January, graces my skin, and I am happy for it.
What does the world itself want?
The last three years in a row have each in their turn broken the record for being the warmest year yet. Donald Trump’s Whitehouse removed all mention of climate change from the Whitehouse website. When Donald Trump’s inauguration did not host much of a public turn out, his spokesperson Kellyanne Conway defended the White House Press Secretary’s claim that it was a record turnout by claiming that the secretary was offering some, “alternative facts.” Despite my lack of social media participation, what conversation I do have on the internet and in person has made me keenly aware of just how divisive the language of the present political and social climate is.
There are so many people airing their opinions so constantly, and doing so in such a manner as not to be offering a discussion of ideas, but rather treating each dialog like they need to break the defensive line and run fifty yards to the end-zone before spiking the ball, doing a silly dance, and bro-hugging all of their teammates.
Everything is competitive. Discussion and conversation have become battlegrounds and everyone has joined a team. Listening is no longer required because a few keywords clue each participant in to whether or not the person they are engaging with is an ally or an enemy. Unfortunately so many of these keywords are used in a fashion that either completely eviscerates them from context, or even uses them to mean something that is diametrically opposed to their dictionary definition. Good luck finding more than a handful of adults who can accurately define socialism or capitalism, and further, good like finding adults who have a functional grasp of the history behind these systems. Of course, finding someone to express their heated opinions on them should be no challenge at all.
If you were trapped on an island with a person and you had no common language between you, learning to communicate would be an arduous effort. For instance, if you find a banana on this island and show it to the other person and say, “Banana,” that person might think you are saying “Food,” or “Fruit” or “Yellow” or even “What’s this?”
Today we exist in a complex civilization that is held together by an interlocking web of systems and agreements and the whole thing is made to function with the application of complex technologies, some mechanical, some human. As a society grows more complex, the language needed to explain and understand the society must axiomatically grow in complexity. As the society moves over the arc of time and generations of people are born, live, breed, and die the history of that society grows in breadth and depth and complexity.
I have a lingering notion that the level of complexity and the depth and breadth of the historical knowledge required to grant proper context to that complexity has far outpaced the average person’s linguistic ability to keep up adequate comprehension.
Everywhere we hear arguments between people who might be using the same basket of words but who are ultimately speaking different languages. When one person says “market” or “right” or “freedom” the other person is not receiving a clear signal as to what the speaker is actually referring to. Of course, in the best of times verbal communication has its lackings, but with the added politicization of language and the increased complexity of how much one must know to understand the terms being used in current political discourse, we have found ourselves in an era where quite frequently we cannot communicate clearly on issues of current relevance. We try, but too often our meanings are lost in translation.
So language is breaking down, and where complexity outraces ability, people have installed a host of shortcuts. No where is this more evident and more devious than in the realm of politics. It is in this realm that the centuries old history of a nation’s rise, expansion, plateau, and decline — all of which were affected by various international factors, energy factors, financial factors, and beyond – could be boiled down into a simultaneously meaningless and majestic combination of four words: “Make America Great Again.”
It is fitting that the president who ran and won an election based on that slogan finds his favorite communicative outlet to be an internet application that limits user’s posts to a meager one-hundred-and-forty characters. Such a format of course does not lend itself to completeness of full and elaborate thoughts, to be sure. ‘
Working at a bar I must endure all manner of people and of course, their libation liberated opinions. In this regard I frequently find that I can temper my responses and offer an appropriate level of contrarian thought, pulling back before offending, offering a joke before off-putting, and generally balancing the atmosphere before someone throws a pint glass at my head. However, my talents like my patience have limits, and after so many nights hearing such confidence and sureness behind declarations concerning the sanctity of free markets, the laziness of the unemployed or the lack of equality for men in our society, my shoulders slump and I just walk away.
The complexity of an issue like “free markets” would require that a person read a variety of books on the matter to even have a foundational understanding of what they are talking about. It is, of course, so much easier to pick a team, learn a few slogans, and take to the field to blitz one’s opponent with anecdotes, non-sequiturs, and out right fallacies.
Expecting the general public to have the knowledge and the language to adequately understand the great issues of our age is at this point foolish. And such an understanding is not rewarded anyway, as the media and the political realm utilize shortcuts, slogans, and a near disdain for intelligence like a sword to cut down anyone who tries to enter nuance into a complex discussion. Nuance is bad for ratings, I suppose. It really diminishes team spirit.
So instead we have memes. And snark. And shitposts. Now go vote so the rich who have profited from the destruction of your schools and your bodies and your minds can retain their power and convince you to love and fetishize them.
The problems firing at civilization like shot from a double barrel are the products of generations of complex human activity engaged in before its ramifications could be understood. The decline in topsoil viability, the acidification of the oceans, the mass extinction of species, the body burden of toxicity in our blood and tissue, the decline in global net energy, all have a long and sordid history to describe their making. Solving any one of these problems would be a herculean effort at this point, and that is before taking into account the very inability of most people to understand that a problem even exists in the first place.
Listening to the public discourse it is evident that the narrative of our society itself has splintered into fragments, and when one takes that into account it is easy to understand why so much anger and vitriol floods all systems of communication. Each actor perceives themselves to be the good guy in a grand narrative of unfolding disaster. Of course, the various factions perceive that disaster entirely differently with conservatives, for instance, convincing themselves that climate change is not real and liberals convincing themselves that green technology can provide everyone on Earth with a constantly upgrading standard of living, forever.
The splintered narratives are many, and with every hollered bellicose opinion they fracture and mutate further. Attempts to center the spinning gyre of growing confusion are liable to be upended by “alternative facts.” Contrary to common sense there are people who suggest that based on the media’s treatment of him, Donald Trump at least is not a puppet of the deep state, to which I must counter that the primary concern of the media and their paymasters is the narrative. They want to control the narrative of society because the narrative of who we are, where we came from, and where we are going is central to controlling people and exploiting them for capital gain.
Donald Trump does not threaten capitalism. He does not threaten the state. Perhaps he threatens a particular sector of either, but where he restrains one set of wealthy or powerful people he will reward another. The edifice is safe under his watch. The living Earth which we all rely upon and which is daily being wounded by industrial capitalism, is not.
To be clear, declining global net energy is likely the penultimate cause of the crack up of various systems of finance and the societies that rely on them. Not grasping that complex impetus, let alone the history of how such reliance came to be, has fractured the glass of the window through which people view the world. As people seek answers to explain lost prosperity, diminished growth, lowering standards of living they are met by a many eager salesmen of truth, all offering different versions of reality to which they can subscribe.
It makes for a lot of noise and very little signal.
Sundays are good days on the homestead. My wife and I lay in bed with our daughter until we feel like getting up. We make coffee and breakfast. This Sunday our friend comes over with her toddler son, and we chat about life in our corner of the county.
Outside I do not need a coat for the high of the day is sixty-three degrees, an aggressively warm January day indeed. With a dull butter knife I drag and scrape the flesh and membrane from a goat skin that is stapled to a piece of plywood. My daughter runs around pulling her imaginary unicorns on her sled, which with no snow present, bumps and skips over the gravel driveway. As I draw the knife towards me in short, tight motions my mind wanders from images of black bloc participants rioting in Washington D.C. to the disappointing comments belched out by the previous night’s bar patrons concerning the women who marched on the capitol.
Then I stop and breathe. I look out over the ravine to the leafless trees standing sentry over the landscape. My daughter giggles. In my head I ask, “I wonder what the world wants?”
December 31, 2016 § 9 Comments
Rushing down the highway a semi-truck roars with a proper Doppler fade and a slight movement of the air that drifts passed me even these thirty yards from the interstate. My brindle pit bull is sniffing the disrespected patch of land between the highway and the truck stop parking lot, pissing here and there on the jetsam scattered about the gravel.
North-eastern Arizona is a patchwork of poverty, of industry, and of mountain deserts; each a courtier of death in their own right. Behind the truck stop at a distance is a petrochemical refinery of some kind. Tanks and stacks and a fleet of heavy trucks move and hum releasing god knows what from the rocky basin there cradled by sheer faces and jagged peaks. A long closed restaurant fit with plywood window dressings stood silent in front of me and ravens circled, finding what noxious fare of gas station calories they could on the cracked pavement. One such bird came and landed on a pylon only a few feet from where I stood. He called as ravens do, not so much a crow, but three low rawks as his hackles flared.
“How are you?”
We stand in silence gazing at one another. My wife calls and I turn to see her returning to the car with my daughter in her arms. The raven sits motionless, perched on the concrete pole.
“Good luck out there.”
Phoenix is a strange city. It is where I met my wife a decade ago, when I was a different man. We came to see her family, a massive group of people spread about the valley and the copper mining towns of the outskirts. It takes over two days to get here by car from our southern, Indiana home, and there isn’t a person we tell this to who doesn’t think we are crazy for eschewing airplanes. Most of the time I do not even bother trying to explain our decision to abandon the notion that we all have the right to jaunt about the world on heavy carbon emitting jet planes, and that even driving here in our fuel efficient automobile every few years is an act of extreme privilege. Instead, I suffice to say that travelling this way allows us to experience the country, to absorb the changes in topography, and of course, to be able to bring our dog.
The layout of Phoenix would be disheartening to anyone who makes regular efforts to reduce their consumption or to lessen their negative impact on the ecology of the planet. Mega-highways wrap and weave around and across the Valley of the Sun which is itself an edge to edge expanse of concrete sprawl, a veritable temple to the god of consumerism and consumption. Perhaps the edifice of this dark church is invisible to the residents of this metro area, but for myself it is hard to ignore the arrogance, hubris, and downright insanity that here is writ with every brick and stone.
Nothing comes from here. The drip of maybe cotton, cattle, or citrus that Phoenix exports could not possibly stand in balance to the amount of resources that flow into the city. Resources all paid for by the blood of some far away lands and their peoples. At the edges, saguaro and ocotillo hold ground, often contorted into the poses of supplicants who hold their arms aloft to both beg and praise of the gods in need and gratitude for what moisture they are given. Hardened beings of thorn and spike that offer up a delicious irony in their great contrast to the human residents so dependent upon far flung food, far flung water, and far flung energy that delivers them.
What is crazy to me is not even the state of this place, but just how normal it is all made up to be. It seems that no one is questioning the oversized pick-up trucks that will only ever drive down well paved and dry freeways or the enormous houses equipped with multiple air conditioners. Locals queue up in long lines for drive through coffee not even paying deference to the near Martian landscape they inhabit.
“Magick is the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will”
Most grown and serious people would balk at the notion that magic is real. In large part this is because most people would be using a definition of magic that included a lot of false notions and assumptions. When I speak of magic I am usually leaning on a definition that is in line with the one above. When I look around at modern industrial people, all so smug in their conviction that magic is hokum and that their material domination of nature is both under control and right, I almost smirk as I see how just how deep and pervasive are the spells that transfix these people.
Through image, through sound, through geometry and construction, the masses bend to the will of a master class, priests who wield advertising and news shows to deliver symbols and phrases that work so effectively to control behaviors and to influence the deepest held thoughts and emotions. Disbelief in the power of magic, one might observe, makes a population ever more susceptible to it. It is not uncommon to find reference to Goethe’s maxim, “None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free,” but so rarely is it applied to the psychology of the mind that believes itself rational.
From the passenger seat I gaze at the endless strip malls and parking lots that fill almost every square foot of the greater Phoenix area, and I understand that though most denizens of this city would claim Christianity as their religion if they claimed one at all, truly, the predominant belief structure thriving in the hearts of the people here is one that worships consumption. And it is religion, to be sure, that has built and that sustains this and every other great temple of modern industrial civilization. It is a set of beliefs that inform how people view themselves, how they view the world, how they view money, how they view happiness, how they define the reasons to live and the methods to go about doing so. Included in these beliefs are mantras about consumption supporting the economy, which in turn supports consumption effectively completing a circle of life gifted to us so long as we trust the invisible hand and the divinity of his corporeal acolytes in the world of high finance. Piety is to purchase, to work for wages, to tithe the owners, to take on debts, and to never miss out on a holiday shopping season. Heretics extoll the innate value of the wild, our dependence upon biological systems that are themselves constructed of so many other living beings. Believers bring the sword to the heathens by way of bulldozer and cement mixer because stasis is death, and without growth, the temple will fall. Faith, they have, as they believe despite all evidence to the contrary that their consumption can continue forever, that it can expand, that nothing could possibly go wrong.
Frequently we who wish to see the psychopathy of modern industrial civilization brought to a halt will ask ourselves, “What can we do?” Imagining a viable resistance is not easy, and often I find myself embracing a grand contradiction – having a deep love for life, but supporting an insurgence that would destroy critical infrastructure. Is there any other option? There will be blood. That is known. If we do nothing, the world as we know it will cease to be, and so many human lives will perish by famine, fire, and plague. If we act, surely lives will be lost, but perhaps stronger threads in the web of life will remain, and in time, humans will find a balanced way of being.
There are no easy answers when discussing such things. I do not pretend to know the right way forward. In moments of quiet I do though wonder, “what if we could embrace a new religion?”
If our thoughts inform our actions, and our deepest beliefs guide us in our behaviors big and small, then it seems obvious that we need to perpetuate a new set of primary beliefs. Of course, some of the beliefs I might humbly suggest we meditate on would not seem new at all to certain indigenous cultures around the world. For example, I might suggest that we cease to believe that humans are superior beings relative to the other living creatures with whom we share the planet. Further, I would offer that we need to cease believing we are wholly individual, and instead that our place within human and greater ecological communities is just as valid as the view that we are solitary beings. Perhaps we could form our beliefs around a core concept that we are actually the Earth walking around. Our bones are the mountains, our blood is the oceans, inside and out we contain and house biomes of bacteria and fungus while the atmosphere flows back and forth, into and out of ourselves and every other living being.
Laying out an entire belief structure is not something I believe I am qualified to do and frankly, I have no interest in trying. This is something for all people of solid mind and spirit to meditate on. Of course, bringing such beliefs to teeming hordes of people all too happy to remain bent at the altar of consumption would be no easy feat, and here I would humbly suggest that perhaps through the application of sound, of symbols, of well crafted phrases and unassuming images, we could work new spells. The necessity to cause change is certainly before us, and the very first step could likely be the focusing of our will.
Across magical traditions one often finds that the raven is a harbinger of change. Between the worlds and across time the Raven can travel bringing tidings of new life or portending a coming death. Celtic lore held that ravens would fly over battlefields deciding who would live and who would die. Perhaps these ravens were not so much choosing, not picking out of preference those who would and would not survive the melee, but merely observing the signs, more knowing than selecting those who had a place in the future and those who did not.
The city of Phoenix will fall beneath me as I drive the mountain roads out of the valley on my return trip to our forested home so very far away. I will look on the city, and not choose, but with a dispassionate eye witness the obvious truth.
December 2, 2016 § 13 Comments
Gray dawn rises in the east. The windows in our woodland cabin levitate in the dying black of morning until slowly the walls, the stairs, the furniture it is all dimly painted by the faintest light, placing the glass panes in proper space once again. My daughter accompanies me through the trees to the front of our land where our chickens and ducks have their respective houses. She coughs a deep cough. Two-year-old lungs breaking and cracking against mucous, seeking air. My left arm pulls her closer to the heat of my body, and her head rests slightly on my shoulder, not tired, just tender.
With each step the heavy gravel underfoot rattles. The leaves that cover the driveway are silent, having been thoroughly pulverized by car tires. Air not cold, just crisp, fills my chest with each breath, and I kiss her sacred, rosy cheek.
We don’t watch our children die. In our modern, industrial world, children live. That is what our adult minds perceive as normal. Little ones who are diagnosed with cancer are an aberration to the rule, as are the infants who succumb to pneumonia, influenza, and other microscopic cruelties that ingenuity otherwise banished into the harsh and backward past.
Death is on the ropes; a weakened and humiliated God. That is what we tell ourselves. So we pack generations of spiritual and psychological resilience into boxes abandoned to dusty attics.
There is a prevailing trend in the stream of web headlines that seems to acknowledge the doom of man. Some of this is overt as it focuses on rapid climate change, ecosystem collapse, and agricultural failure. At other times human mortality is couched in futurology, and is relegated a bit more to the subtext of articles that discuss space travel and the colonization of other worlds. Talk of ideal numbers of people for new planet settlement or innovative spaceship propulsion systems is given serious attention in serious publications that provide manna for the serious modern industrial human.
Serious modern industrial humans have a wide enough attention to know that even if the destruction of this Earth’s life giving systems can be halted through the application of grand new technologies, outside threats like comets hurtling towards our planet or even the death cycle of our star will eventually require that our species abandon our home world for distant horizons.
These thoughts are carried by those who proudly assert their intelligence, their superiority to the ranks of the superstitious. To those who regard themselves in such ways, death is an engineering flaw, a bug to be programmed away with the application of cleverness and computer code. They see so clearly a shiny vessel in the cold, black of deep space, humans cozily adrift, eating god knows what as they day by day forget that the mountains are their bones and the oceans are their blood.
I have a friend who claims that she channels an archangel. She is writing a book in fact, that she says is being spoken to her by this disembodied entity. A pleasant woman, articulate and intelligent (a chemist by education, actually), she sits in our home and lets down her guard to open up the truth of her world before my wife and I.
Five years ago this same conversation would have had me squirming a bit in my chair. Back then I was more serious. To be sure, I had been very intelligent at one time, and I said the things intelligent people say. It did not matter that much of what I spoke of was fed to me through books and articles. What mattered was that I selected the right books and articles; those that contained healthy skepticism and a heaping dose of fetishization for anything that smelled of the ideology of western materialism and its grand deity, Science, with a capital “S.”
My friend sips her lemon balm tea. I recline in my chair a bit and ask if she has ever smoked dimethyltryptomine; DMT.
When I was a serious person, I would have waved my hand and asserted an unearned superiority as I smugly dismissed the psychedelic experience. Despite lacking anything that would pass as first hand knowledge of the topic I would confidently explain that thousands upon thousands of years of human experience with psychedelic drugs, or even their experience with disembodied entities was all illusory, a trick of the imperfect human brain tripping itself up with a combination of handicapping chemicals and pure juvenile ignorance.
With profound gratitude and relief I can say that I am no longer so serious. Happily, I now embrace my juvenile ignorance.
Five years ago a friend convinced me to use DMT, and these days I don’t squirm so much in my chair when talk turns away from the reality we take for granted towards esoteric grounds that modern industrial peoples with serious and well respected egos fear to tread upon.
It is so easy to allow what little we know to fill the space in our minds until it feels complete. It is easy to mistake our arrogance for wisdom.
Humbly I now defer to the mystery, not so concerned with tacking down the corners of a reality I can only ever pretend to know that I know. Instead I listen to the stories people have to tell, and I try to remember that across time the gamut of human descriptions of real and not real have varied immensely. And I listen now to our friend as she speaks of lives lived before. She listens in return as I wonder aloud about the strength a population could wield against its masters if no longer did dying seem so terrible.
Real and not real are but railings to lean on as we make our way. But make our way to where exactly?
Drought has gripped the southeastern United States, and the dry forests set alight by arsonists burned rapaciously with the assistance of hurricane force winds. Gatlinburg, Tennessee is, for the time being, gone. Meanwhile, arctic sea ice struggles to reaccumulate despite the polar darkness, water rationing has been initiated in La Paz, Bolivia, disease is ravaging reindeer and northern antelope populations, and on and on the list of tragedies grows. The costs of industrial civilization are by and large being paid by those with the least amount of access to its benefits. And the costs are mounting.
But on the cold plains of North Dakota, the Sioux and their allies, many indigenous, many not, are taking a stand against the construction of an oil pipeline that would directly threaten their water supply, and indirectly threaten the biosphere of the planet. Their resistance orbits around the notion of a prayer camp. A kernel exists amongst them that is a belief, refined or not, articulated or not, that this particular piece of infrastructure is wrong. Together, people from disparate cultures are by the thousands suffering the bitterness of great plains winter winds, and the even greater bitterness of police weaponry and violence, because they believe that a threat to that most life giving of molecules, water, is wrong.
Belief informs action. When we look at what industrial society is doing to the living world that has made and kept us, so many of us see clearly that the time for action is now. If civilization has not yet broken beyond repair too many of the interlocking systems that allow life to exist, we must prevent it from doing so, because if left unchecked, it will. Happily, it will.
Too many serious and intelligent human minds are busily working wherever the sun shines to excavate, to extract, to clear-cut, to genetically modify. The healthily skeptical who read the right books and quote the right articles do not believe in disembodied entities, or that the trees and flowers sing, or that birds and wolves speak to us. By their actions, they don’t seem to even believe that they require clean air to breathe or healthy soil from which to eat.
They believe in a domed city on Mars. They believe in a shiny silver ship alone in the abyss. They believe death has been bound by their chains, and that the ceremonies and rituals humans have breathed into being in order to heal the wounds he metes upon us are quaint anachronisms. They believe death to be all but conquered, even as they sharpen his blade.
Golden light transforms the world around us. The drab gray surrendered to the sun and the forest feels uplifted. Behind me our ducks are quacking as they hurriedly move about the garden, plodding their feet and burying their bills into piles of mulch in search of bugs. My large boots again elicit a crunch and grind as I walk back towards our house.
On the road in front of me my little girl is stooped, picking through the rocks. She handles a small piece of quartz in her hand. Glassy and remarkably polished for a piece of stone plucked from our driveway, she admires it.
“I found a magic rock, Daddy.”
“Put it in your pocket baby.”
She does, and I bend to scoop her into my arm.
November 11, 2016 § 14 Comments
Only two bolts hold the crankshaft-position-sensor in place. It is their distance from me that makes replacing the sensor a moderately frustrating task. The ratchet handle, cold in my left hand, has two six inch extensions on it, followed by an elbow joint, followed by a three inch extension, followed by the eleven millimeter socket. My right hand braces this ridiculous tinker-toy of a tool, or tries to at least, as I slowly loosen the bolts. The contraption feels only slightly more effective than attempting to loosen a bolt with a wet noodle. Through out the process, I have to constantly replace the socket as it slips off the hexagonal bolt head. More than once the extensions separate. At one point when they do, one of the heavy metal sections falls onto my face, smashing into my lip.
I don’t yell it. I just sort of say it.
The rain starts to fall harder. I am covered by the hulking mass of my Jeep, but I hear the patter of drops hitting the dry paper leaves that cover the forest floor. Pulling my body out from beneath the vehicle takes a few seconds, and when I stand I brush the mud from my black sweatshirt. The hood slams with a hollow aluminum thud, and once back underneath the car, I realize I cannot see what I am doing now that light cannot pass through my engine compartment. I call for my daughter. She brings me a reading light that works wonders in tight spaces between your exhaust and your transmission.
I spent my election day at home. A friend came over with her toddler son. She kept an eye on our children as I attended to tasks about the place. My Jeep has had a start up issue that I have been trying to solve for almost a year. It’s not nearly as prevalent during warmer weather, but now that November is bringing nights in the high thirties, the issue is rearing itself again, and I am piece by piece chasing a ghost in my machine.
Working on my own car makes me feel capable. By no means would I describe myself as mechanically inclined, but I hate having to pay mechanic’s rates, being that an hour of their time costs about what I can earn in four or five hours of my own. Further, I will fight tooth and nail to not ever buy a car with a loan. If I could get by without a car I would, and I think about this as my hands and arms become sore as I remove the sensor from my crankshaft. In order to see what I am doing and to manipulate the bolts through their last counter-clockwise turns in their threads I sort of have to hold my body in a crunch position, abs tight, torso heavy. With an exhale, I relax and lay back on the gravel beneath me. I think about the complexity of maintaining our stations in life. I think about the energy invested in maintaining even what might be described as a “lower standard of living,” by contemporary standards.
I don’t own a car because I love cars or driving. I own a car because the geography of my existence requires one. On our land we are doing everything we can to regularly increase our capacity to support ourselves, but our neighbors aren’t, and even if they are, we aren’t all doing it together, collectively, in a manner that would lend itself to efficiently creating a small community. When I draw a sketch in my mind of the ideal small community, there is one four-wheel drive truck between us. Once a week, maybe once a month, we carpool to town to sell our surpluses and to buy supplies. Maybe I really start dreaming and that truck is a horse or two and our nearby town, a day’s ride, is fit with a livery. Then I abandon the shackles that bind my imagination with questions like “how?” and get to the real joy of daydreaming a nomad’s life where my band follows seasons, follows herds, follows the rhythm of the Earth and the turning of the stars.
A crankshaft-position-sensor is basically a magnet. I turn it in my hands. Dangling from it is a long coil of a cord like that of a handset telephone from the eighties, only smaller. I toss it onto my passenger seat for the time being.
The best I can hope for is that in some amount of years my wife and I have created a homestead situation that supports our family well enough to where we might be able to drop to one car, and to use it infrequently. The simple fact is that the pace at which this society functions even makes horses irrelevant. If I am to need anything from the outside world, I need to be able to earn the currency it demands, which means operating on its timescales and pacing. Conversely, this means that a massive decline in the speed of this society will allow for people to slow down as individuals, and since the primary energy source that fuels society is declining in its net ability to do so, perhaps I will see the day when drawn carts return to common use. Or maybe people will just walk, to nowhere really.
This summer I wrote an essay in which I predicted hard economic times in the near term future to rise to the fore in a fashion that would be undeniable. Thus far, I must eat crow on this prediction. This is why I make no habit of prediction. Of course, I watch the daily tea leaves and bone castings that tell of real estate bubbles in China, negative interest rates in Europe, and shipping slow downs around the world. Like most, I try to arrange these shards of information into a complete picture by which to prevision perhaps the coming tides. I think of what I think I know about energy and economics and it seems as if objects are solidifying in the mist. But often shards of information begin to feel like knowledge, and not knowing what we don’t know prevents us from grasping just how many pieces of the picture we aren’t taking into account.
Complexity is a hell of a thing. My gut still says there is an event of severe magnitude not far from our doorstep, but for now I’ll suffice to finishing the current portion of corvid I have stewed for myself, and gander about at the present instead of losing myself in the future.
And though I am in a sense greatly loathe to do it, I will comment on the US presidential election.
This morning there was a crescendo of editorial pieces released trying to explain the campaign and now victory of Donald Trump’s run at the American presidency. He is a fairly disgusting braggart of man with few admirable qualities, and I feel I might be generous in presuming that he has any at all as they have not once been displayed despite his plethora of opportunities to do so over the entire sad course of this year’s election. But he won, and it’s no surprise really, which is why I find it stunning that so many people seem surprised.
The complexity of maintaining our station is too encumbered; the thermodynamic requirements of our class status are going unmet by a decline in available net energy per capita. It’s almost boring. Like when a spike in ethanol use in the US raises food prices in Africa and causes riots and revolutions. There is not much romance to analyzing large political swings and convulsions when we find that at their core, so rarely is sheer passion for life and love of justice the sole driver of mass movements. More often than not, the underlying cause of tumult and upheaval is access to resources. People like to eat. Every day if possible. They really like it when their kids eat. Clean water and a safe place to sleep are huge bonuses. Start inhibiting their access to such things, and people tend to stir.
Contemporary, “first world” people have less than they are used to, or less than they think they ought to, and they are mad about it. Sure, many of them still have access to cheap calories, electric lights, and a veritable universe of streaming time sucks. But then again, their lives are complex. Maintaining their station, even a low station often means having a car, and a phone, and enough money to clean one’s clothes, and to make themselves presentable, and so on. Even for the rural poor lucky enough to live on owned land, property taxes climb, gas prices climb, the kids need shoes, the kids need dental work, and the Dollar General is the only employment and grocery option around.
Meanwhile existing where we do on the arc of late-stage capitalism, which happens to intersect with the end of the oil age, it must be stated that growth is very clearly dead. Sure, there is a skulking heap dragging about that pundits and politicians call growth, but this gangrenous creature is nothing but central bank injections by way of bond purchases. More clearly stated, it’s fraud. And like most good fraud’s, a club of insiders are making a killing off of it. Everyone else slowly bleeds out, spinning faster and faster to keep the cobbled mess of their almost middle class existence glued together.
And then one morning, the car just won’t start.
Donald Trump has spent a year and a half hawking easy answers to this complex problem, and fortunately for the second rate grifter, the American lumpen has a third rate education. For years, network television has carried water for Trump by selling him as a shrewd and cunning businessman via his reality television show. Despite his repeated lambasting of the biased media, he forgets that they basically ran a commercial for him for several years in prime time.
Through out his candidacy Trump often spoke of himself as the best or smartest or most qualified person for this and that task, whether it was rewriting the tax code, brokering international trade deals, or defeating ISIS. Most of his explanations fell short due to his habit of meandering verbally from one topic to another while splashing his rhetoric with constant criticism for everything that his political opponents have done. This, in a way, left the audience to fill in the blanks, and when I listen to people in my rural community speak of Trump, or when I read the comments of well educated acquaintances as they degrade him, it is interesting to note that it seems as if everyone has their own take on the man. His blankness lends him to be a projection screen for each individual’s monsters from their id.
Personally, I find the man to be abhorrent. To be fair, I find representative government to be equally abhorrent, as well as nation states, rigid hierarchies, and capitalism. Clearly, I would not then favor anyone who ran for such an office or who believed they had the ability or right to represent anyone other than themselves. Trump is piggish to boot. But what is any of that worth?
Complex societies cannot be efficiently run via a hierarchy. Recently some people did math to prove this. I didn’t need numbers, I needed only to look at the state of the world from my still young eyes many years ago to abandon support for such systems. Support or no, the system persists, and in its current state of mal-service, it is convulsing, seizing up on itself like an engine in which water has entered into the combustion chamber. Like everyone else, I cannot predict where this current scenario leads exactly, but I can step back and point out that it is helpful to briefly put aside seeing Trump the man, Trump the racist, Trump the genius, Trump the misogynist, Trump the maverick, Trump the fascist, and every other shadow we have cast on him to instead, for a moment, view Trump the signpost on the road to collapse.
We are at a very specific place on the arc of decline, and the election of Trump in the US places a very bright red pin on the map of that arc. After decades of global expansion, oil fueled industrial civilization is in a state of crack up. It may be an early stage, but take note that protectionism is on the wind. That nationalism in the western world is timing out to completely coincide with the bursting of the fracking bubble in the US and the inundation of global financial markets with negative yield is likely no coincidence. The US electing a charlatan strong man is something that many presumed would come when conditions were right. So that is where we are. What comes next?
Complexity is a hell of thing. And even with great effort, consciously simplifying a vastly complex system when all previously existing support structures have been decommissioned and sold for scrap is a hell of a thing too.
I know this all too well. I would ride a horse to town if I could. Hell, I would live in a wig-wam if I could.
How do we slow the spin of this gyrating flywheel of a society? How do we walk it back? Can it be walked back? Or is everyone too damn convinced that they can grab hold and steady it, control it, hell, innovate it, automate it, make it more efficient?
It is probably silly that a sense of accomplishment coursed through me when I finished changing out the crankshaft-position-sensor on my Jeep. I knew to temper my optimism until I had turned the key in the ignition. The starter whinnied as the engine refused to turn over. I fought it for a moment and eventually the old Cherokee revved to life. The ghost has slipped me. Maybe a leaky injector, I wonder. Sitting in the driver’s seat I stared out through the windshield to the ravine before me. Very few leaves are left on any but the beech trees. The gray afternoon was calming if nothing else.
With effort I have worked at shrinking my world. I ready myself for a time when news that originates more than twenty miles from my front door is a rare and rumor laden thing.
I leave the keys on the seat as I walk to the house. My daughter’s hair is matted from the rain she demands to keep playing in. I take her hand in mine while our young friend picks up her son, and the four of us retreat to the house for warmth, and food, and calm.
August 18, 2016 § 9 Comments
She bends low in the dark. Her index finger and thumb clumsy as they meet, she pulls from the waist and the stalk she holds rises out of the hummus eagerly, offering no resistance. Her hand is dwarfed by the firm yet undulating orange blossom. The sun’s remaining light barely penetrates the gauntlet of trees that stand sentry across the rise and fall of the ridge line. Tangerine daubs speckle through the here and there breaks in the thick ceiling of maple and oak leaves.
“Say, ‘thank you, Chanterelle.’ ”
“Thank you, Chanterelle.”
Her small voice is sincere because I am sincere. She watches her feet as she steps high over sticks and briars heading back towards the trail where her mother stands smiling.
“Remember to shake it.”
She passes the mushroom side to side, moving it from her shoulder instead of her wrist. I follow behind her with long slow steps, my hat in my hand, it is full of chanterelles. Holding the bill like the handle of a small skillet, I gently bounce the mushrooms to release their spores. The rains have finally passed and the trail is soft beneath our feet.
Summer is an incredibly busy time on the homestead, which usually means I put away the effort of writing in favor of merely ruminating as I attend to the constancy of the tasks before me. This has been our most productive year yet insofar as providing our food is concerned, which is encouraging as we have accomplished this yield while living off site until our septic system installation is completed. The abundance of foods like tomatoes and green beans has been overwhelming, and the high heat has made the effort of canning very unappealing. Fortunately, we have friends willing to can for us if we are willing to share the end product, and there are even local restaurants eager to buy our produce.
Squash bugs infested my yellow crook necks and zucchini, and they killed off my Crenshaw and cucumber vines. I collected a satisfying quantity of fruit from all of these plants over the past couple of months so it is with even temper that I yank them by the root, shake them, and place them in a compost pile. When the space is clear I walk over to a wooden gate and lift the chain that holds it closed. As I pull it open a single file line of Rouen ducks comes marching out, quaking proudly as they all make their way to the now bare space before lowering their beaks and feasting on the slow moving squash bugs. I lift my feet high to avoid stepping on the kudzu like sprawl of sweet potato vines and make my way to the garden gate where I pause to wipe the sweat from my forehead. It’s hot. Humid and hot at four in the afternoon. I think on what else I can get accomplished today. We will be moving back into our home soon and there are still jobs to finish up before doing so, mainly rigging the cistern to the gutters, and installing a hand pump in the kitchen to draw from the cistern. That and cutting another few ricks of firewood. And slapping walls on the barn. And laying the flooring in my daughter’s bedroom. And planting the winter garden.
I could “and” for days. Instead I take a breath and look back at my little girl as she giggles watching the ducks. Its hard to not feel rushed and I make a conscious effort to be present, to be content with the work already done instead of always existing in the stress of that yet to do. The moist air is stagnant, and as I take a moment to scan the spaces around me, noting the tasks big and small that require attention, my mind wanders a bit, and I feel like we are on the edge of something.
This July was globally the warmest month in human memory. Such headlines are almost blase these days as warming trends continually break records. Thousands of people in Louisiana have lost their homes in what FEMA has dubbed the worst natural disaster in the United States since hurricane Sandy. Fires rage in the drought stricken American west from southern California to Glacier National Park in Montana. Social tensions continue to flare too, as the National Guard was called in to subdue rioters in Milwaukee, and random acts of violence seem to break loose from the percolating underworld of racist authoritarians emboldened by Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Venezuela’s economic collapse continues apace, various African nations are succumbing to famine, the war in Syria is drawing larger battle lines between major powers, and despite the best efforts of central banks across the globe, major financial institutions just cannot turn a profit in a world of net energy decline.
For years I have watched the world through a particular lens, and that is the lens of peak oil. Despite the failures of particular peak oil advocates to predict the future, and despite the inability of even larger numbers of critics to actually understand the peak oil concept before engaging in attacking it and its proponents, I still feel that this is a particularly useful lens for viewing the macro picture of human industrial civilization. Of late, I have admittedly felt that I am without a map, and I have found myself in my quiet moments attempting to piece one together. Of course, drawing a map begins with placing a center pin where you currently stand. So where am I? Or if I may be so bold, where are we?
I first became aware of the peak oil concept in 2004 when I was twenty-three years old. After reading the various assessments of the issue that were available on the internet at the time, and of course, being young and impressionable, I took to some of the worst case scenarios presented by outlying bloggers. By and large, these were not the better experts to trust, and I was convinced that ten years out we would be living in a very different world. The economic crash of 2008 felt validating in a sense, but the divergence from prediction that followed forced me to begin rethinking how the decline of industrial civilization would play out. Eight years of very, let us say, creative economics have prevented the full on breakdown of the growth based financial paradigm. I do not believe I am alone in wondering exactly how long such creative policies can sustain the physical world of the production and distribution of material goods.
To be perfectly clear, I am no fan of the civilized model of human organization, and I have repeatedly stated this in my writing. But I do my best to be aware of its functionality so I can properly place myself and my family to best buffer ourselves from the swings of forces beyond our control. The internet is rife with commenters who are eager to bargain with Moloch, hoping to right what they perceive to be the ills of state and capital so that some form of industrial civilization can carry them into the future. These commenters have altars to different demigods. Some light a candle to technology while others burn incense for invisible hands and supposedly free markets. I look out and see dying ash trees and the onslaught of invasive stilt grass and I know in the core of my being that there is no bargaining with civilization. No vertical farm, no vegan diet, no gold-backed currency, no handing over of the means of production to the proletariat will stop what’s coming.
But it is equally true that it is next to impossible to know exactly what is coming, or when it will get here. That is why we try to draw maps. And if we want our maps to be of any use, they should probably start with what we know about the past and the present, so maybe, the best of our efforts can draw lines between the two that give some clue as to the trajectory and direction of the future.
Over the years as I have written on these topics I have been careful to avoid prediction, simply because most people who in engage in it are so often wrong. What’s worse, is that so many people who make names for themselves as so called “trends analysts” and such, not only are often wrong, but they refuse to acknowledge when they are so, and they just continue with the business of making predictions. I would rather make a map, a sketch of the terrain we have covered and of that which I can see through the fog in front of me. As this is a map of the industrial civilization in which we live, there are two compass points which are of extreme importance.
First, is net energy. All work done requires energy to make it happen. The primary energy source for this civilization is oil. This is what makes an understanding of peak oil concepts so valuable. Oil is the foundation of the lion’s share of the work done in this civilization, even being the foundational energy source behind the manufacture of items like solar panels. The diesel trucks that mine for metals or that grow the crops that feed workers are all run with oil. The economic and social architecture of this society requires a growth in the net energy available with which to do work. This is not necessarily a growth in the amount of barrels of oil available at any given time. If those specific barrels of oil utilized more energy in their acquisition than usual, we may be in a situation where we have more quantity of oil available yet less total energy. This will hamper growth, which while good for the ecology of the planet, is a death sentence to financial paradigms where debt is the basis of currency and investment.
The second compass point of importance is the ecological material available to support society. Drinkable water, healthy soil, viable biomes thrush with life, a stable climate; all are necessary to maintain human life and activity. Unfortunately, this point is lost on the so-called educated class who think only in terms of capital. I stress this point because even in the event that a miracle occurs and our energy woes vanish, there is still the issue of our destabilizing climate and over burdened ecosystems. We need bees and butterflies and ants to pollinate crops. We need amphibians to keep insect populations in balance. We need birds to spread seeds. We need fungus and soil life to make plants viable at all. Human activity threatens all of these beings and their habitats.
So as I sketch my map I note the peak of conventional oil production that occurred in the 2005-2008 timeframe. I note the bankruptcies that are tearing through the US unconventional oil industry. I note the banks across Europe that are on the verge of insolvency. I definitely note the trillions of dollars worth of debt monetization across the global financial sector which have been an attempt to cover the spread of missing growth that is required to make good on previous loans and outstanding interest. I also note the shortfalls in needed rain in the American west, the predicted water shortage in Lake Mead, the rising seas and the unprecedented storms. When I step back at my scrawled lines, I see images reminiscent of times past. Politically there are movements that seem to rhyme with what came out of the depression era, and economically there are movements that very much remind me of the warnings that began flashing in 2007 as the mortgage industry began to implode. The page, too, is dotted with the unpredictable lines of natural disaster and ecological calamity.
Simply stated, this is what I see: A period of economic depression is on the wind. My gut says we see an undeniable beginning of this period before winter. Where it all leads is too far out to say. I think it is simplistic when people draw a timeline of the future that consists merely of one trend-line pointing downward. There are hundreds if not thousands of trend-lines that together combine to graph the arch of a particular civilization, and some will yet be on the rise. It is when a majority of the significant trend-lines slump downward that we can say with certainty a society is in decline. It is my humble position that what we have on the horizon is a period of greater unemployment and struggle on a family by family level here in the “first world west.” There will be a shake out of never-to-be-solvent again institutions, and a generalized acknowledgement of a paradigm of “hard times” being upon us. Natural disasters will be harder and harder to recover from as they will strike more often in regions where status quo thinking believes them too unlikely or impossible and this will combine with a financial inability to afford repair. Politically, people will seek easy and incorrect answers, so on that front we will have nothing new in thinking modality, but we will see new lows in practical application.
Of course, this is a map I am trying to draw for myself so that I can better prepare for the terrain before me and mine. And I’m just some guy who likes homegrown beets and wild mushrooms, so take anything I have to say with that in mind. But at least I’m not trying to sell you a pamphlet about gold coins, and you’ll notice there are no ads for gas masks or survival seeds on my web page (unless word press puts them there.)
My personal activity includes shoring up on the basics. Preventative car maintenance on both of our four wheel drive Jeeps, which each contain tools and flashlights, so that floods and storms are more navigable. Selling off unneeded items to pay for home improvements as well as a bit more archery gear as I want to take a deer by bow this fall and to make as much jerky as possible. Buying all of my spring seeds now, and making sure we have plenty of simple things like candles and lighters, lard and honey. This is all stuff that gets regular use, so there are no regrettable wastes of money.
My index finger presses into the soft soil with ease. A dried pea falls silently into the hole and I sweep lose earth with the blade of my hand to cover it. Four inches to the left, I repeat the process, and then again, and then again, all the way down the fence line. The red cabbage have only just broken through the surface of the dirt in their seed trays, so it’ll be a week or so yet before I move them into the field where right now potatoes are living their final days before harvest. Parsnip greens are tall, and I mentally make note of which ones I want to leave to winter over before checking on the newly planted kale. Everbearing strawberries are still putting on fruit, and my daughter is occupied now lifting their leaves and excitedly yanking the plump red berries.
Cicada chatter rises and falls in the nearby tree canopy and again I stand to survey the land. Tent worms are killing an apple tree. Sunflowers stand tall in the afternoon heat. I see dead trees that need felling, weeds that need mowing, fence posts that need straightening, and job after job after job that lay before me. I have a plenty of time to ruminate, observe, and ruminate again, and will revisit writing again when cold winds blow. Maybe I will think back to this piece and feel foolish, but I will not be afraid to say I was wrong. My immediate terrain is so more much knowable, even if it is pocked with struggle and strain. To my left our gravel drive stretches off into the woods, and as I look off to the cool forest there is a flash in my mind of a hunter walking with his bow, and in this moment, I envy him.