floating in america

Posted in Essays on July 14, 2014 by Christy Rodgers

This essay first appeared on the Dissident Voice webzine.

Remaking authentic communities into packaged forms of themselves, re-creating environments in one place that actually belong somewhere else, creating theme parks and lifestyle-segregated communities, and space travel and colonization—all are symptomatic of the same modern malaise: a disconnection from a place on Earth that we can call Home. With the natural world—our true home—removed from our lives, we have built on top of the pavement a new world, a new Eden, perhaps; a mental world of creative dreams. We then live within these fantasies of our own creation; we live within our own minds. Though we are still on the planet Earth, we are disconnected from it, afloat on pavement, in the same way astronauts float in space. –Jerry Mander, In the Absence of the Sacred

If you want to understand the United States of America at the turn of the millennium from whose pinnacle of power we are now beginning our descent – or at least, if you want to understand why you can’t understand it – you need to take to the Road.

First, let’s dispense with the idea of the Road as that mythic place of freedom seekers, pioneers, beatniks and iconoclasts. The Road I mean here is the one most Americans experience on a daily basis, and it doesn’t go all that far.

Here’s the paradox: even though on the average, each adult American spends much of his or her year behind the wheel of an internal combustion machine capable of circumnavigating the planet several times non-stop before its engine wears out – most of us aren’t really going very far. The average length of our collective car trips is just 10 miles. Over 60% of trips over 50 miles long are still within the driver’s home state. Most Americans don’t ever travel outside the country: only 18% of us have passports.

In 1903, when Horatio Nelson Jackson, the first man to cross the country in an automobile, took his famous trip, most Americans had never been more than twelve miles from their home. Since then, we’ve become infinitely more mobile, and yet overall, we haven’t gotten much further.

That open road thing, the myth of restless movement: it’s the restlessness of the gerbil on the wheel.

The Road Denies Us Context. The great sadness in our constructed landscape is its expression of contextlessness. The reason why people romanticize San Francisco or small town New England is that there are buildings in those places that have come to seem somehow connected to the landscape they are in. This is not the norm in the USA. It never was the intent of our settlements or our society as a whole to mesh with the land; we had all come from somewhere else, quite recently, in historical terms. The land was ours before we were the land’s as the poet says, with unintended irony. And particularly since the advent of the automobile, it has been more important to us that our buildings have access to the Road, than connection with the land.

So as a result, what is it that characterizes us most profoundly? Disconnection from place. It creates a distinct set of pathologies. Continue reading

after a reading at city lights bookstore

Posted in the city, Transformations on July 9, 2014 by Christy Rodgers

Read in commemoration of Csaba Polony, founder, editor and publisher of Left Curve magazine, at The Emerald Tablet, North Beach, San Francisco, July 9, 2014.

Perhaps after all nothing does really happen, nothing of cosmic import that is, in a lifespan, but there are these moments. One April afternoon in the early 21st century there was a reading for Left Curve magazine in the Poetry Room at City Lights Bookstore, 60 years of San Francisco and who knows how many centuries of literary history crowded into every corner of that close-timbered attic, where it’s warm, even hot, and alive with the stolid friendly enduring presence of aging bohemians still making that history in word, image, song, still tenaciously keeping it going, a flashing stream through strip-malled acres of oily asphalt and cracked plastic, and big seagulls strut the alley rooftops outside framed against a slice of city sky fading like old jeans. The air is richer in there; you don’t have the psychic daily struggle to breathe. Like walking in a hushed, dense cathedral of redwood pillars up north once, dreaming life in the world where this shred of forest still stretched unbroken for five thousand miles. It changes nothing outward, you’ll still go home and stare at the TV chattering like a senile uncle that night, but first steal a moment with these vivid, close-pressing ghosts, and hold at bay the pervading ghostliness of life in this weirdly soft, vicious time. Robert Lowell said it in the toxic ‘50s when City Lights, to be their antithesis, was born, the words no doubt encased somewhere on the shelves in that room, but why must they still be true? – a savage servility slides by on grease. You won’t be at the necessary bar afterwards for the revels, but you will walk the twilight streets of North Beach as if they belonged to you for once, heads that sense the unforced happiness that’s possible in human life even turning in the sidewalk cafes, and with a dear companion have a meal at the U.S. Restaurant, where the food’s almost militantly average– the bread’s a bit stale and the wine is sour, but better so because the tourists and the poseurs never go in there even though it’s right on the strip. It’ll be quiet, like the rest of the slide back into obscurity – but we’re all in such good company there anyway, and on the way home there’s one more moment to steal of time-bound but time-transcending beauty, a movie moment of gauzy San Francisco night at the top of Taylor Street, where below in the steep distance the empty prison looms upon the bay that glitters with electric phosphorescence in the darkened, mist-softened air, and to the east down Vallejo Street there’s the Bay Bridge all lit up with a mobile light show of its own, like a cartoon of carnival organ pipes, cartoon fireflies of traffic clustering and swirling brightly at its feet, and equally illuminated and self-consciously iconic is Coit Tower that you no more than Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo ever thought you’d be grateful for, but now you are, that you no more than he or his ghostly lover ever had any part in creating, any of this – but now, the faintest trace, perhaps. Back into nothing we fade, but we were here. Suddenly a memory of Castro Street in the early 1990s, the years of pages-long special supplement obituaries, another ending time in an unending fin de siècle of endings, flickering out in the tarry flood of great imperial decline: free love, peace movements, revolutions, gone, gone, gone – and someone had wheat-pasted a poster on the wall at the corner of Castro and Market, outside that bar some grim wag dubbed the Glass Coffin, the poster just a small black square with white lettering, the brave lone quote from Sappho: someone, I tell you, in some future time, will think of us.

beyond hope, or the story of the carrier bag vs. the spear

Posted in Essays on June 28, 2014 by Christy Rodgers

This essay first appeared on the Dissident Voice webzine.

Here’s today’s essay topic: The Paper of Record Does In-depth Profile of Another White Guy

Subtopic: where’s the story?

Key discussion questions: 1) Is despair just a “white male thing?” 2) What is the role of art in times of ecocide?

First of all, it should be a subject of some bemusement that contemporary media culture is so Talmudic that an entire essay can be a commentary on a single brief passage in our infinitely scrolling Torah of news (an interview in the New York Times) – but so it is.

Anyway, recently the Times profiled Paul Kingsnorth, writer and former anti-globalization activist, because of his public decision in 2009 to abandon traditional activism (which he had decided was futile in the face of global warming and whole-scale habitat destruction), and start an arts movement instead. His cri de coeur has had a perhaps unexpected ripple effect through many lives, mine included. I found the Dark Mountain website a couple of years ago and began reading what was posted there, and felt as if I’d suddenly found a place for a kind of creative discourse I’d been missing in many other forums where substantive things were discussed, and a place where I could express my own thoughts as well – they didn’t care if you had any kind of publishing CV, much less were famous (or even “well-known” – according to Peter Cook’s great distinction in the classic taxi driver skit with Dudley Moore)– as long as you were interested in exploring the multiple crises of this time without reaching for the standard props. Especially the kind of starkly binary thinking that, it could be argued, had gotten human society to this troubling point.

But the argument that swirled around Kingsnorth’s “Uncivilization” manifesto, and was resurrected somewhat with the Times piece, is more significant for what it says about the dominant culture in which the escalating degradation of our planetary habitat is taking place than about the positions of the contenders. What was contentious was his public expression of despair, and worse, in the view of his fellow activists, a kind of rallying cry for others to despair as well.

Kingsnorth and Dark Mountain had intentionally exposed, flowing interred by desperation and hidden from the glaring light of continual crisis-response in the culture of progressive activism, a veritable river of despair. And it was welling up largely among intelligent and sensitive people, but also, tellingly, those who had actually received the full benefits of contemporary civilization. Why? Because it had begun to dawn on some who had learned to think globally in this era of unprecedented globalization, that our home planet isn’t Pottery Barn and what we’ve (underscored) broken can’t be paid for and can’t be fixed. That some enormous losses, ones we’ve already racked up, are unrecoverable. And that what’s already been lost – never mind what’s to come – may have been worth more than all of what was gained. What profit when you gain the whole world and lose your soul? As somebody said.

My experience, after almost thirty years of being involved in some way in what is known as activism, is that every activist, along with many other people who are not activists, has experienced such feelings. But activists, schooled as they are in the history of progressive social reform and revolution, are duty-bound to deny and repress those feelings as soon as they arise – or at least never, ever, as Paul Kingsnorth did, to make them public and, even worse, act upon them and encourage others to do likewise.

In our bipolar culture, whether you’re a radical or a reactionary, if something isn’t good, it’s bad. If it’s bad you try to get rid of it. Despair isn’t good, so it must be bad. Progressive activism certainly can’t allow it. The evil corporate types who were profiteering off the destruction of our planetary habitat wanted us to despair so we’d just – turn the TV up louder or go out and shop more, I guess.

It isn’t so simple, as some activists, to their credit, tried to recognize. Despair is tightly intertwined with grief, and grief is common in many mammals. Failure to grieve is psychopathic in humans, when there is something real to grieve about. And there is.

Continue reading

a visit to the farm on the mattole river

Posted in Essays on June 18, 2014 by Christy Rodgers

O, teachers are my lessons done?

I cannot do another one.

They just smiled at me and said:

Well, child, are your lessons done?

Are your lessons done?

–Leonard Cohen

Once or twice a year my husband and I visit the only people we know who live on a farm. The farm lies in California’s North Coast region, 250 miles north of San Francisco, our home.

The area we visit is a hundred miles north of the last tentacles of Bay Area urban and suburban sprawl, which now grasp at the borderline of Sonoma and Mendocino Counties. Even woody Mendocino has a couple of towns that are bulging in the middle around the vertical axis of Highway 101, like municipal versions of middle-aged spread. But once you reach huge Humboldt, one of this mammoth state’s largest counties, you cross some border less artificial than the sign-posted county line. I think of it as the beginning of the Northwest. As the vistas expand, the population shrinks: California is now home to one out of eight people in the whole country, but almost all of them live south of here.

And you have entered an incomparably beautiful land: of precipitous forested slopes plunging down to stony river beds, sluicing shining green water towards the sea, shreds of mist clinging to dark ravines, gently winding valleys of pasture land spangled with poppies, lupine, and other vivid wildflowers. And of course, the Pacific Ocean: vast, moody, hidden behind the highest coastal mountains in the state—until you are actually upon it, and then it changes everything. This coast lies on the active rim of three tectonic plates; the land is thrusting up, the sea is trying to tear it down, storms, fires, earthquakes are frequent: this is young and wild earth.

And yet human settlement just since the 19th century has had the effect of many earthquakes on the whole area, reshaping the land and disturbing its “young” million year-old patterns. In his book Totem Salmon, author and local resident Freeman House described a community effort (which began in 1980 and continues to this day) to restore the Mattole River’s unique population of wild salmon from near-extinction because of rampant logging in the 1940s and ‘50s. Commercial salmon fishing is now defunct because of unsustainable practices, and logging and ranching are on the ropes, and yet these brief activities may have forever altered the character of hillsides, rivers and streams in the area so that, at best, even if there is no further reckless development, their once-stable ecosystems will be undergoing severe stress for the foreseeable future. They will likely never host the kind of natural abundance and variety they once did. House gives an admirable history of the interactions of people and place in this land, and shows how even apparently oppositional groups like conservative ranchers and hippie pot farmers can form alliances around their affinity for a sustaining home place. Along the way, you get a very clear picture of the exceptional Mattole River watershed itself, really the main character of the story.

Humboldt County is the land of the Redwood Empire, where the timber wars raged in the 1980s and ’90s, fought almost tree by tree in what seems to have been a mostly losing battle to save the last great stands of the world’s tallest living things. Talk about not being able to “see the forest for the…” not even all of its staunchest warriors may have realized that the only meaningful fight was to save the once-immense northern forests as living ecosystems—not sanitized, nature-free, tree museums—and to preserve the watersheds that the local trees, fish and people all depended on.

And of course, many paper- and wood-consuming people living far from large stands of trees of any kind had trouble understanding why they should care. Beyond the tunnel vision of business boosters who said “Try wiping your ass with a spotted owl,” some urban activists I knew dismissed it as a privileged struggle: trees were beautiful things, but shouldn’t we focus our attention on ensuring that people in our own neighborhoods weren’t dying in a hale of police gunfire, or from toxic pollution or preventable diseases? What is a forest to us, who have never been granted even a park or a playground? Now, however, as the effects of the Anthropocene start to gather all people and all ecosystems in their growing chaos, the battle for the trees seems less elitist, if it ever was.

But this is not the story of that debate.

Continue reading

the listening post

Posted in WHAT IF? on June 6, 2014 by Christy Rodgers

I don’t remember how old I was when I was taught to tend the listening post. The lottery was held when Good Gillem, who taught me, was an old man and ready to be replaced. All the children who were old enough to work were given a stone; we put them in the box; mine was drawn.

So I had to leave the oasis, where the other children would work all their lives as our parents and grandparents had to shepherd the tiny spring into channels where a few fish would spawn each year among the cress and rice we planted. To tend and harvest the palms, weave their fibers into cloth, mend the screens and strengthen the mud walls. To grind the flour and bake the dry, flat bread. My work would be different from theirs. I felt sad and proud.

As I stood in the shadowed doorway of my parents’ house, ready to set out, my mother held my shoulders tightly and kissed me on the top of my head. She was not crying, but her face was twisted in sadness. We’ll see you on Year’s Day, she whispered. Be good till then. One day each year they would come to visit me, for once I was at the post, I could never leave it again.

On my shoulder I carried the little bundle she’d prepared for me. Alone I walked out beyond the storm screens, to the open desert, which I’d never seen before. I stared. Stretched before me were endless hills of red sand under the burning sky. The vastness of it made my heart jump like a netted fish in my chest. Everything I knew shrunk to nothingness before it. Carefully I followed the old markers that led over the dunes. I climbed the highest dune and looked back down on my home. The oasis looked indistinct, just a grainy shadow behind the screens, its colors, plants, and people gone. I turned my face away, twisting it as my mother had done to keep from crying, and went on.

The sand shifted and whispered around me. It was red, soft, warm, moving like a smooth-limbed body turning in its sleep. For a moment I felt tempted to leave the marked path and just walk into that great red place, join my body with its body and sleep in its softness. I thought I heard it calling me as it whispered: come and sleep with me, little one! Come and lie down in my arms! It was so great and I was so little. Why shouldn’t I do as it wanted?

Another sound woke me from my daze: the clinking of the old metal flags of the marker as I approached. I realized the sun outside the screens was too strong and it had opened a channel in my head for the whispering sand to enter. Quickly I pulled my hood over my head and wrapped it tight. Behind the screens I mostly forgot to wear it, unless a big storm came. I drank from my water jug until the whispering died down, and went on again.

At sunset I reached the foot of the black rock mountain, and saw the marker flashing at the entrance to the cave. Gillem waited there. He stood leaning on a great staff of knotted wood. It must have been older than he was, perhaps much older, as there were no trees from which to cut such staffs now in the oasis or any of the places we knew.

I followed him inside the cave and set down my bundle on its smooth, swept, rock floor. Gillem nodded to me in greeting but that was all. My training began at once.

He showed me the wall at the back of the cave, behind a stone outcrop that shielded it from view. Into the wall were set the devices of the listening post. They were like nothing I had seen in the oasis; I didn’t understand them at all. You don’t have to understand how they work, Gillem said. I don’t, nor has any Listener before me, as far as I know. You just have to do exactly as I show you, and the devices will sweep the skies, as they have down all the lifetimes since they were put here, for a message.

How many Listeners have there been? I asked.

I have never counted, replied Gillem. Each one keeps his archive and when he is finished, adds it to the others, to show that he has fulfilled his task. The count can be made if you want to – he waved his arm at the huge archive wall – but it would take a long time and it is easy to lose track. There’s enough to keep you busy.

And has any message ever come? I asked.

No message has ever come, he said.

Continue reading

“think different?” think again: reading vine deloria, jr..

Posted in Essays on June 3, 2014 by Christy Rodgers

This essay first appeared on the Dissident Voice webzine.

You can’t think your way to right action. You can only act your way to right thinking.

- AA proverb

Vine Deloria, Jr. died in 2005, leaving behind as eloquent and comprehensive a critique Western society and culture as anything else I’ve read or am likely to read. Taken together, works like Custer Died For Your Sins, We Talk, You Listen, God is Red, and Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties were not just catalogs of historical wrongs, but indictments of an entire civilization and, most importantly, the fundamental modes of thought that have provided ballast for its centuries of conquest and exploitation. His writings and talks were also, happily, full of wit and humor, and a real engagement with the particularities of the Western (his term) mind. Deloria was fascinated by the Western scholarly tradition, and sought tirelessly within it for thinkers who truly represented alternatives to the mindset that had unleashed ecocide and genocide on the North American continent.

Deloria’s holistic view of the catastrophic effects of Western expansion led him to critique Western religion and Western science (in both its “hard” and social formulations). The 1999 collection of essays called Spirit and Reason, a selection of writings from the above-mentioned works and others, contains exemplary work in this regard. Deloria went unhesitatingly out on some shaky theoretical limbs, supporting outsider-thinkers like Immanuel Velikovsky, whose ideas of catastrophic cosmological interventions into human history have been largely discredited by scientific and historical research. But his real goal is to attack the creation of scholarly consensus itself, and he bemusedly cites his own experiences in academia and publishing as indicative of just how supine to the demands of power the manufacturers of such consensus can be.

In the midst of the Kansas-centered culture wars, Deloria published Evolution, Creationism and Other Myths, which cursed the houses of both Darwinians and Dominionists. For someone like me, deeply committed to the idea of evolution as the cosmos’ ultimate expression of non-teleological purpose, some of this is hard going, especially his dismissal of someone as genial, intelligent and humane as the late Stephen Jay Gould. (I’m happy to report I found their books coexisting quite peacefully on the library shelf, with only a slender Matthew Fox volume between them). But here again, Deloria was after a bigger idea: that both the materialistic explanations of science and the teleological historicism of Judaeo-Christianity leave no room for a sacred, respectful, and wholly encompassing relationship of humans to their biosphere, because both deny that that it is wholly alive and sentient.

Continue reading

disappearing act – kathputli

Posted in the wide world, Transformations on May 29, 2014 by Christy Rodgers

They had never been able to kill all the artists with poverty, war or even drugs. Some always survived. They wandered through the towns, dancing and juggling on the streets, living in disrespectful squalor, performing slight-of-hand tricks and small cons that separated the gullible from their coin.

There were always violent and dirty places where no one else wanted to live, and there the artists would congregate, and share cheap liquor and food, and tell funny stories of how they cheated this one, and escaped death at the hands of that one, and practice their tricks. But they also took care to have children and care for them and school them in their colorful arts: puppetry and mask making, music, dance – as well as rope and nail tricks, snake charming, and acrobatics, all that was left of the ancient magic of the yoginis, who once could fly, or the swamis of the Indus Valley princes whose superbly trained, godlike bodies contained the whole universe, from hell to heaven.

This went on for perhaps a thousand years.

But then we came and taught them a new and better way to deal with artists: offer them money, offer them townhouse apartments, offer (some of) them a steady job in the shopping mall we’re going to build on this filthy spot where their slum once stood. Decent people live inside four walls, and so must they, not camp in a stinking concrete and tin warren like animals. Decent people perform work, not clever tricks to fool others into giving up their money. You don’t need to drag around a smelly, moth-eaten bear skin to perform a play – you can learn how to make videos to post on YouTube, or get a job as an actor in Bollywood, or maybe work for the Americans who make those funny cartoons. The country is changing, and you must change too. Think of your children.

They will go to school, and sit in rows, and wear uniforms, instead of practicing contortionist skills or dance steps or running like rabbits through the painted alleys thick with smoke and slick with shit and rotting fruit.

When they are no longer poor, everyone else will be poorer, but we won’t even realize it. This is the best of all possible worlds.

 

 

 

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