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,

Two Islands by Becky Liddiard –

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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the meaning of vertigo in the utopian city of collapsed time

Posted in Essays on August 9, 2014 by Christy Rodgers

This essay first appeared on the Dissident Voice webzine. A version of it also appears in Left Curve Magazine #38.

[W]ith the weight of Magna Carta, the [British Film Institute] proclaimed Hitchcock’s 46th feature the greatest film ever made, displacing Citizen Kane’s 50-year reign at the top. – The Guardian, August 2012

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 critical and commercial flop, Vertigo, is a film about obsession that is itself an object of obsession. Those whom it does not leave indifferent it tends to haunt, and as its subject is also a haunting (or several, at different levels of narrative reality), there’s an appropriately vertiginous dynamic between the film’s story and its reception.

The story is an adaptation of a French crime novel about a detective who falls in love with the married woman he has been asked to follow by her husband, an old friend. The husband says he’s afraid his wife’s been possessed by the ghost of a suicidal ancestor. The detective gets hooked on the haunted dame and wants to run off with her. However, his chronic fear of heights (which had forced him to retire from the force when it caused the death of a fellow cop) stops him from saving her when she (apparently) leaps to her death from a tower. He’s devastated; he breaks down. Later, still mentally fragile, he finds another woman who hauntingly reminds him of the first. He sets out to remake her in the image of his dead love, with disastrous consequences.

While the plot points are mostly the same, the film has access to a mythic visual iconography the novel does not. The femme fatale, Madeleine, is played by ice-blonde sex goddess Kim Novak; the detective “Scottie” by (the much older, but that’s Hollywood) Everyman hero Jimmy Stewart. Vertigo cooks up a new character, career girl Midge, to be the luckless third wheel in a love triangle with Scottie. And the setting is transposed from grim, dark, wartime and postwar France to an idyllic, exquisitely beautiful and prosperous mid-century San Francisco and its wild, lush environs. I’ll come back to this.

But like its source (titled D’entre les morts, or Back from the Dead), Vertigo ends in death and failure – never auspicious for good box office in the US. Hitchcock described the film with typical ironic deprecation as “boy meets girl, boy loses girl – boy meets girl again, boy loses girl again.” He was publicly dismissive of his product in retrospect because it was a commercial failure, although it remained his personal favorite. He didn’t live to see Vertigo even make the BFI list, much less climb to the top of it. So, with the triumphant irony that characterizes our age of cultural production, his film has acquired a life entirely independent of his intentions for it. It is viewed as Hitchcock’s masterpiece at least in part because it is said to be the most deeply revealing of his own obsessions, a kind of reading he would likely have feared and despised.

In fact, the bizarre transformation of Jimmy Stewart, the ultimate guy-next-door, into the creepy alter ego of the obese, manipulative, blonde-obsessed Hitchcock is only one of the movie’s embedded mirrors (although it is also a lens through which many fans view the film, since Hitchcock, the ultimate obsessive-cum-auteur, has been an industrial-scale generator of character studies).

What is it about Vertigo that gives it such caché? I will give a personal reading, but for all those who share the obsession, there is a common thread: not theme, setting, imagery, story or characters in themselves, but the sheer beauty and elusiveness of the thing created of all these elements. Obsession through the ages has a common trait: its object appears beautiful to the obsessed, and also in some fundamental way, inaccessible. Beauty can exist without this quality of elusiveness – the Chrysler building is beautiful. Elusiveness can exist without being beautiful –the sources of human cruelty are elusive. But wherever the two conjoin with enough force, in someone’s eyes, obsession is born.

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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

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 big-windowed 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.

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