is the world living or dead?

Posted in Essays on October 30, 2014 by Christy Rodgers

Or, The Trouble with Science

This essay first appeared on the Dark Mountain blog.

Orbit diagram for the solar system, showing Sedna and 2013 VP113

I spent the beginning of this year immersed in works of popular science. Completely absorbed, the way I have been by few works of fiction. Hours spent poring over books and articles on chaos theory, cosmology, string theory, stopping only to try to imagine some consequence or take note of some insight. Why, I had to ask myself, do I care so passionately about the arcane world of theoretical physics? Science had never been my talent or my discipline; my math was poor, my academic studies were in that softest of all subjects: literature. But for many years I had had these bouts of real absorption with the ideas of science, particularly physics. I realized it had something to do with the need to understand the reality in which I lived to the fullest extent, in a particular way that nothing else but science seemed capable of now.

As a student of literature, I favored the idea that stories and storytelling were the chief means through which we attempted to convey our understanding of the cosmos, and what our place was within it. And this had always been the case, at least since humans developed complex language. Highly specialized societies became the norm, and with them we lost myth as the organizing narrative of our lives, but we still looked for narratives and rituals that filled its function. In every area of human activity and thought, we continued to develop stories that served to position us with respect to other beings and to fundamental principles at a cosmological or near-cosmological scale.

But one after another, the disciplines we had fractured out of myth had seemed to fail at doing justice to this role: theist religion, politics, history, and the arts had mostly downgraded or dismissed the non-human world, the vast majority of reality. And either they withdrew from the ultimate questions about the nature of the cosmos and the idea of our purpose and belonging within it, or else considered them patly resolved by some suspiciously anthropoid superpower.

But not science. I grew up with the ideas of two great humanist popularizers of science, Jacob Bronowski (The Ascent of Man) and Carl Sagan (Cosmos), intimately beamed into my adolescent brain by television. The story they told was exhilarating and beautiful. Modern science was a hard-won triumph over bigotry and ignorance; it was the ultimate homage to nature. It had discovered many of the laws that governed the physical world, and yet there was so much more to know. Science was a great adventure, and there was room for us all to join. Carl Sagan told us that humans were “star stuff,” grown to be able to contemplate itself and the cosmos, and now longing to return to the stars.

Together with evolutionary biology, theoretical physics was the only contemporary endeavor seeking to present a complete picture of the cosmos and explain how it is and why it is as it is—without closing off the process at some point by attributing it all to a metaphysical dimension or super-being. I understood enough of its methods and conclusions to see that physics was striving, without any social coercion, through a union of observation and speculation, for a fundamental, all-encompassing, coherent, and beautiful picture of reality. Which was exactly what I was looking for. And with increasing urgency, in recent years, as the society that surrounded me became more fragmented, disconnected from the living world, and apparently unconcerned with any deeper understanding of it.

But now there was a problem that became clearer to me the more I read.

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silent night

Posted in Transformations, visions on October 28, 2014 by Christy Rodgers

A man staggered into our house one night. The wind from the storm that was raging outside blew in with him.

“The last one is dead,” he gasped out, when he could speak.

“Who?” “The last one of what?” We all spoke at once.

He gulped for breath, and slumped into the place that was quickly made for him by the fire.

“The last one who remembered the old ways and spoke the old language. The language of the trees and animals, of the clouds and wind. Now there is no one left who can speak to them for us.”

There was a brief silence. Then someone said: “Well, we knew it was coming. They had been dying out for generations. We knew it would happen someday.”

“But…” said someone else, “what is it that will happen, or has happened, with this death?”

“I’m not sure,” said the first, “but I think—“

“Wait,” said another. “Listen!” From within the howling of the storm through the cracks in the windows and the crevices in the walls, another sound was beginning to emerge. It was like the mournful cry of an animal, in the depths of pain or loss. Then, rising slowly, other cries joined it: animals, birds, winds, waters—everything in the world that made a sound was crying out in what sounded to us like the most unbearable grief.

There was a great crescendo of sound, as if things we had never heard at all before: the moon and stars, trees, rocks, soil—had joined the chorus. We felt ourselves engulfed and pierced through with the strength of their grief. We hung our heads and sunk to the floor with the weight of it. Within us the inconsolable world opened a chasm of loss.

And then the sound stopped completely; it was gone. We waited and listened, but there was nothing. Absolute silence. It was terrifying. Those who dared to look out the windows thought for an instant that there was nothing outside at all, that the world had vanished and beyond the walls was an endless void.

But then in less than the blink of an eye or the beginning of a thought, the dark night-forms of the world were visible again outside the windows: the black silhouettes of rocks and trees against the dark sky strewn with shreds of cloud and the dim light of re-emerging stars.

Still the silence persisted. And as we began to murmur in wonder among ourselves, we realized that there was no other sound, not a single one. No sound but our voices. No other sound but our voices now and always, echoing inside the walls of our tiny house, the only shelter left from the world of silent forms.

my walk in the wild and who i met there

Posted in WHAT IF? on October 26, 2014 by Christy Rodgers

It was a few months after my husband died, and my sister and I weren’t getting along, so I decided to go for a walk in the Wild.

I thought I’d visit the nearest people we knew, at the river mouth, a ten-days’ walk. No one who had the usual amount of responsibilities at home would make that trip only for a visit. But then, you see, I didn’t.

My sister thought I was moping too much or being lazy, sitting and watching the river for hours as it flowed past our garden. Instead of getting on with things that needed to be done – or that she felt needed to be done.

There is always work, she said, shaking her head at me when I tried to tell her I felt as if I no longer knew who I was without my husband. Grief gripped me however I turned, like the net holds the thrashing fish. But this net was inside me, tangling my organs, tightened around my heart; there was nothing I could do to wrest free.

Anyway, some things can be mended by a journey, so I decided I’d walk the river path to the sea. I had never spent so much time alone in the Wild. But I wasn’t afraid; I was almost joyful at the thought.

The Wild, which surrounded our home in all directions, was charged with life. And we were on the side of life. Our parents had taught us that this was our pride and duty. Home was here for us, but only as long as we didn’t fail in our duty to it in any way. The Wild was really all in all. And if you ever lost your sense of purpose you could go into the Wild to regain it, they said.

But when my husband died I had dreamed of the Waste, which as far as I knew no one had ever seen waking. I saw my poor husband wandering alone in the distance, on an endless, waterless plain studded with black rocks that glinted like glass under a burning sun. I called out but he didn’t turn around. I couldn’t catch up to him, and then I lost him among the twisted shadows of the rocks.

That was the night-world. In the day, the river still sang and shouted past our home; the shining fish leapt and we caught them and ate them with cress that grew in the pooled shallows and the roots and vine fruits we planted and tended above the mossy banks. But I knew I had gotten lost in the night-world and still needed to get back somehow.

So, before dawn one summer morning I took my mist-cloak, rolled it into a ball, hung it from a stick on my shoulder, and set off. I didn’t tell my sister I was leaving, but on the table as a kind of peace offering I left a bracelet of shiny river pebbles my husband had strung for me. I figured I’d be back after my trip to the coast, but the way things were, maybe there was a better place for me there. If so I’d find a way to send word. It seemed best.

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

Posted in Essays on August 25, 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.

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