tragedyΔfarce: a litany

Posted in culture shifts, Transformations on October 4, 2014 by Christy Rodgers

First, they came for the amphibians, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t an amphibian.

Then they came for the charismatic megafauna, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t one of them either.

Then they came for the marine life, and I was a little depressed about that because – no more seafood. But I kept quiet about it.

Then they came for the last indigenous peoples, and for the poor – who were in fact, almost all of the people by then. But, well, whatever.

Finally they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out.

Just a lot of insects, jellyfish, and microbes.

(And I think they were glad to see me go, to be honest.)

tiwanaku – weeds

Posted in the wide world, Transformations on October 2, 2014 by Christy Rodgers

Outside the ruins of Tiwanaku, a hundred school children run about in a dusty, trash-strewn field, chasing balls and one another. There is almost nothing to play with but they are playing.

The builders of Tiwanaku built their city like a mountain. “If we build our cities like mountains it is because they are meant to endure as long as mountains,” they thought. “Our realm is eternal. We must have the favor of the great gods, because we take care to honor them so well. We have built effigies five times the height of a man out of a single block of stone hauled arduously over the plain from quarries many miles away. Only gods can give this kind of skill and power, and they give it to us, so that we may honor them. On occasion, we sacrifice our best men and women to them, to please them and earn our continuance, our place in their eternity. The world is forever, and we were meant to live and rule forever in it.”

Now their city is a crumbled pile of jumbled monoliths that later men and women have come to reconstruct, like children playing with giant wooden blocks. No one conquered the old ones, who ruled over as many as three million for two thousand years. Their kingdom stretched far beyond the crooked colonial boundaries a later empire drew on the vast landscape.

They simply fell. They were and then were not powerful. They dispersed.

And today we know, and are always forgetting that we know, that the mountains are not eternal either. The whole exalted plain lay deep under the sea a long time past; the great original lake, highest of its size in the world, which may have once been sea too has risen and fallen, swallowing other monuments; the earth’s crust cracks and shifts; our perfect alignments with the eternal heavens become imperfect, because we are always moving through heavens that are not eternal, but in motion themselves everywhere and always. Everything moves. Everything scatters and regathers and scatters again, like the children playing in the stubble field. There is no such thing as stillness – it is an hallucination we have come to believe in by staring too long at stones, admiring the dead stillness first of stone and then of steel and plastic. Stop. Time. Stop it, we beg. If we can think beyond it then we must be able to live beyond it. Yes, we must.

But today we have in fact forgotten to beg or negotiate for continuance and instead demand it, making more and more and more of ourselves, like weeds that colonize an empty (but not truly – never truly empty) plain, covering the great wide spaces of the old world with our undecaying flocons of plastic trash, our pocked roads, and the rubble of our frenzied construction. With drafty structures that won’t last two dozen years much less two thousand, grasping in our hands tiny tools to collapse time into nanoseconds, freeze-dry it into data bits, transform eternity into the zero point of nownownownownow.

The children on the dusty plain will live in houses that are half-finished, ride in buses that are always breaking down, talk to each other on phones that work intermittently and get thrown away every two or three years. Their lives will be happy or sad, successful or frustrated, marked by health or illness, joy, hope, accomplishment, boredom. But like the rest of us, each one will leave behind a legacy of net increase of local entropy – energy lost to heat, material converted into waste. Which may be the only epoch-enduring sign that we were here.

A great cracked Door, the Gateway of the Sun, ten tons of stone carved from a single block, once marked a temple entrance but was found on the site collapsed, broken, and covered in mud. It has been raised again and made to stand upright, marking nothing now. A gateway to blue air. At the center of its lintel the Sun God appears to weep as he holds the upside down figures of a condor and a jaguar like scepters in his hands. Both creatures are nowhere to be seen in these windswept spaces. To conquer all nature is to weep, because it is to understand perhaps that after all the killing, all the paving and carving and digging and fighting and poisoning and torturing and buying and selling and planting of stones and flags, the unquiet living world keeps on shifting under your feet. Why would the sun, without which there would be no life here, need all this death as tribute?

We have misunderstood; we have gravely misunderstood.

Are the playing children our hope or a kind of weed or virus or nothing but playing children? Does what I can see now matter at all?

The mysteries of Tiwanaku are not really the mysteries of how the past was but of why the present is. – And the future?

Is only temporary.

Tiwanaku stella

the end of the end of nature

Posted in Essays on September 1, 2014 by Christy Rodgers

This essay first appeared on the Dark Mountain Project blog.

Backpacking in the Marble Mountain Wilderness of California last summer I had a revelation. I stood looking up at a glowing, ancient peak over a small, clear lake a dozen miles from any road with no sign of any human presence but my campsite anywhere in view. And for the first time in such a situation I seemed to feel the contingent, circumscribed nature of the place I was in compared to the vastness of the human-built and intervened-with world that bounded it on all sides. I also understood that its official designation, “wilderness area,” was an unredeemable oxymoron. I knew that I was in a park, not the wild. Even more: I knew that wilderness in any meaningful sense no longer existed anywhere on earth. In that moment, at that place, I had cognitively entered what scientists have named the Anthropocene.

The end of the wild as a separate thing, a thing that surrounded civilization and was never fully penetrable by it, always a threat to its sense of order, to its sense of power – that end was not near – it had come. I was living in it. Now, here and anywhere on the planet’s surface, it was the wild places that were surrounded, besieged. When, ever before in history, had mountains or forests been called “fragile?” Our so-called wilderness areas were bounded and gated off, but they were utterly porous too.

Legions of backpackers (sustained, as I was, by factory-made gear and industrial food grown and packaged by somebody else) marched up the Pacific Crest Trail every year through this one, making the trail a dust-stream an inch thick. Planes flew overhead almost hourly. Cattle and sheep grazed at the verges, and frequently managed to stray inside. Firefighting crews helicoptered over or plunged in to fight ever more-frequent wildfires. Cellphone signals were retrievable from all the high places; GPS coordinates had mapped every square foot. And principally, and likewise invisibly, as Bill McKibben had written decades before in The End of Nature – the effects of civilization were warming the air, drying out the summers, seeping into every molecule of the wild. No atom of “wilderness” on land, sea or air was untouched by civilization anymore.

But then again, the existence of the wild as a separate thing was itself historical. Before civilizations began to emerge it wasn’t a separate thing; it was our home. Once they had emerged, they rose and fell, and the wild returned where the cities fell, even if it was a desert wild, no longer a forest or a marsh. The people who continued to live closest to the unbuilt (I use this term for lack of a better one to replace “natural,” which has fatally slippery definition problems) ecosystems on which they depended directly for survival had no concept of wilderness.

Wilderness was never an intrinsic condition; it was a concept that depended for its existence on its opposite, civilization. It was always the construct of a worldview whose mechanism for understanding and operating on the world was essentially binary. Environmental historian William Cronon, writing about the peculiar history of US wilderness areas says unequivocally “There is nothing natural about the concept of wilderness.”

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notes from the island

Posted in WHAT IF? on August 19, 2014 by Christy Rodgers

This story first appeared in Zahir Tales Magazine (nom de plume: Diana Swift)

by becky liddiard, http://cargocollective.com/beckyliddiard

Two Islands by Becky Liddiard – cargocollective.com

I decided to start keeping a diary today. Yes, it is ridiculous. There’s no one else to read it here, of course. Nor will there ever be, here or elsewhere, if what we believe has happened since the last Visit is true. Years have passed since then; we’ve no reason to doubt our belief. So why write anything? But I’ve decided this will be company for me, of a kind. My diary will be like the invisible friend a child has, and I had once upon a time as well. With all that has happened in my life, I don’t suppose I ever imagined I’d want an invisible friend again. But there you are. Today I do.

Lars has his music, and his solitary nature, and he has me. He never needed other company much. When he was exiled here, after the first shock, he adapted quite quickly. When I chose to follow him rather than to become one of the slave-women in the Director’s household, I, by contrast, had to relinquish my pleasure in a small society of friends, family, a circle of acquaintances. Because his preference for solitude and the sparseness of his family had not added anyone to that limited circle, the connections we lost were almost exclusively mine. I was never entirely dependent on society; in fact, I had learned to be independent of it from living with Lars. But it was still almost unbearable for a time, the loss.

It was more difficult for me, yes. But that was so long ago; it’s funny I should decide to take this up now, after twenty years of life on the island, after forgetting even to miss any other human voice, any words but his terse daily commentary. Nothing particular has happened; that’s the beauty of our situation, the strange beauty of it: we’ve grown into our routines like plants, and nothing disturbs them any more. So I really don’t know what made me do it, finally. Nothing I could name. An ancient instinct, perhaps.

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

Posted in Essays on August 12, 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.

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the overcoats

Posted in WHAT IF? on July 29, 2014 by Christy Rodgers

Everybody wears the overcoats now, since we stopped touching. The overcoats were the right solution at the right time; that’s why they were so successful. They put an end to the shivering we’d been beset with.

For a long time we’d been getting chills, all the time, no matter what the weather did. In fact, the weather was often warmer than it had been when we were children. But you used to see people shivering out in the street, all the time, even in the hottest weather, before they started making the overcoats. Once I saw a man keel right over and die of it. And of course, no one touched him—we were all afraid to, because we were told it was contagious, the shivering.

You never touched strangers anyway: that had been the rule for generations, for longer than anyone could remember. When I was a child, visiting a museum, I remember once being shown a grainy video of ancient people shaking hands; it made me shudder with fear. Strangers touching: how hideous! And yet they were smiling in that scene, but I’ve always felt they were lying. Eventually even such historical images disappeared; the authorities said they disturbed people too much.

Still the shivering kept up, kept spreading, and more people died of it, and special teams were sent out to take them off the streets or out of their houses. There was panic. People who were not strangers were now afraid to touch as well—friends, family. It was terrifying, this shivering disease that no one could identify, spreading everywhere.

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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

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