the bellwethers

This essay first appeared on the Dark Mountain Project blog.

When I read the diagnosis, and fully believed it for the first time, I felt the emotional shock, just as you do with cancer or a blood disease, that even as you look at yourself and nothing seems wrong, your mind is forced to realize that your body will die – a disease of which you see only the faintest initial signs at this moment is going to ravage and kill you in the future.

But that was it, precisely  – even though the numbers were there, and test after test had come back positive, I couldn’t see what they were talking about. Around me everything still worked as it always had. People worked and machines worked. Nothing I needed for my survival was lacking: air, water, food, shelter. What was happening to the earth’s climate and its multiplicity of species was a backdrop, the way foreign wars or famines (and they’d always been foreign, my whole life) were. I felt vaguely depressed at the idea that my habitat, the body in which my species lived, was facing a terminal illness, but this phenomenon was more abstract and less of a disturbance to my everyday life than a bus breaking down or my computer crashing.

Almost immediately I began to make those calculations, just like you do with cancer: with luck and some help from the latest technology, I was a good candidate to live out a normal lifespan, to die of something else before the habitat-sickness got me. I wasn’t living on a sinking island surrounded by a storm-whipped sea, or at the edge of an expanding desert. I wasn’t too young or too old. I wasn’t poor, and it was the poor who were always hit first and worst, in obscenely anonymous numbers, by any disaster, and sickened, died, or were uprooted and had to flee for their lives. I wasn’t a bellwether, an early victim, like those tragic men in the first years of the AIDS epidemic who wasted away while the world shunned or ignored them, and their friends went on partying like the guests in the castle in “The Masque of the Red Death.”

But at the same time, and more and more, I began to feel an odd sense of ghostliness, as if somehow, strangely, I had already died. Perhaps this was a consequence of the realization that I wasn’t at risk of losing something that I had ever truly possessed. I had never known what it was like to be connected to my natural environment to the extent that I sensed changes in its rhythms without being told. Nor had I ever had to wrest my food from my surroundings every day, and thus experience in my own body my success or failure at understanding what my habitat could provide. I had never felt for sunlight, air, water, and soil that immersive, wholly dependent love a child feels for its mother. What consciousness of nature I had possessed was almost entirely aesthetic. It was landscapes; it was “pleasing to the eye.” This was not a trivial feeling – but neither was it enough to give me a sense of vitality. A non-living object can also be intensely beautiful, and many were, to me.

But without any fundamental connection to an enveloping vitality, living in a technologically mediated world that didn’t require much intimate engagement even with other humans, I felt more and more like something that simply kept moving through space in isolation without any clear purpose except self-perpetuation. That is, like a ghost.

What can a ghost do? Ghosts, our legends tell us, are incapable of acting to alter the physical world. I looked around and realized that I was surrounded every day by legions of similarly ghostly beings, all moving through their lives with the same abstraction, floating above the natural world in layers and layers of artificiality that grew deeper as our technology grew more sophisticated. And only our clumsy, lumpy, defective bodies still tied us to the receding natural world, but more as a dog’s chain, not a life-giving umbilical cord. Those who had the money set about intervening in all sorts of ways to try to make their bodies more to their liking, to resist their imperfections, fight their decline. The rest mostly cursed, ignored, or feared them.

We had moved into a new phase in our collective experience of the world: for all of our previous history, the survival of the group had been paramount, but we were now surrounded by a culture of which the individual was said to be the highest expression. The ghosts kept speaking about our “freedom,” and what was freedom? The ability to pursue your dreams, they said. Just think about that phrase for a minute. What they really meant was a world where nothing was real but oneself, one’s fantasies, floating free of the body, tied as little as possible to the imperfect, hostile world.

Ghosts, vampires, zombies – our freedom meant a kind of permanent Halloween. I began to understand why a new crop of legends of the undead had such wild and extreme popularity. They were a fun-house mirror way of reflecting our fear, not of what we might become, but of what we had become.

On the opposite side of the mythic year, May Day, the celebration of the living world and of human labor, had dwindled to nothing. We didn’t base any blockbuster movies or television series on its figures and legends.

Still, even as we lurched to grab the means to free ourselves from them, our bodies were the bellwethers. What our minds refused to see, our bodies tried to tell us. Most of all they said that for all beings in nature death was inevitable – but collapse was not. You could live in ways that were healthy, and die as all living things did when the body had completed its cycle. Or you could live in a way that would bring about a total breakdown of your body – in its most violent and dramatic form, this was suicide. If you could believe that bodies other than your own were as real as yours, and that yours did not exist in isolation but was part of larger systems that also functioned as bodies: society, species, ecosystem, planet – then perhaps you could begin to glimpse that what could happen to your personal body could unfold at these larger scales as well.

But no – our consciousnesses had not expanded but shrunk because of our ghostliness. I remember a radio announcer on a community station, a lonely voice in the wilderness, who used to say with an invisible wink: “when one is wrapped up in self, one makes a very small package,” but he was drowned out by thousands of voices telling us every day how great we were, how much power we had, we the ghosts. “A single person can change the world,” they lied. “Your first responsibility is to yourself.” “You can do anything you set your mind to,” they lied. “Anything you desire can be yours, if you want it enough.” And in the face of this constant clamor, how could we believe that we were subject even to our own body, much less the body politic, or the body of the nature?

Drifting in the world of ideas, while food and water still flowed easily into my body, the parks were green, the distant mountains snow-capped, and lilacs in the dooryards bloomed, I read about what causes civilizations to collapse: The negative feedback loop of destructive trends that, rather than mitigating or reducing, a given society escalates or reinforces until they completely override any positive capabilities that still exist.

I made a mental list: inequalities of wealth, power, and control of resources; repression, warfare; reductions of genetic, cultural, social, and economic systems diversity; consumption of non-renewable resources; commodification of life, speculation; reliance on complex technological intervention – all of these were escalating, some geometrically.

There might be more, but I stopped there. I knew that while I was completely convinced that these behaviors were fatally harmful, they were all presently described by influential people as being either regrettable but necessary to human progress, not actually harmful at all, or else bound to diminish at some future point if current operations were simply allowed to continue. And these conclusions were still accepted by most of the people who, like me, were not facing any imminent threat to their survival. What I believed was solid diagnosis, they denied as petty obstruction.

It seemed obvious that such lists would only become matters of consensus after the fact. And probably not even then – by definition, a civilization’s collapse wasn’t something that could be analyzed as it unfolded. Collapse usually entailed loss of the recordkeeping systems upon which the civilization had relied, so any future historians who emerged would always be speculating about its causes as well.

Obsessing about the exact characteristics of our civilization’s putative collapse, then, was another sign that one was subsumed in the ghost-life: It might be a pastime for those who thought they were too smart for zombie movies, but no more useful to forestalling any potential terminal decline than listing the ways a person might commit suicide would forestall the taking of one’s own life.

As Dorothy Parker, wit and suicide, had demonstrated:

Razors pain you
Rivers are damp
Acids stain you
And poisons cramp

Guns aren’t lawful
Nooses give
Gas smells awful
You might as well live

But what then should we do? Ghosts cannot come back to life, if they are truly ghosts. They are the condemned for whom there is no reprieve. But I was still a living organism. I would inevitably die, but I was not dead yet, and I still had some latitude within which I could act. Existentialism guided me as neither environmental nor social necessity could, given my situation. Existentialism told me that humans have breached all the sustaining walls, cognitive and physical, that kept us shielded from the absurdity of our condition, and yet there is still a way to live that is not a complete concession to absurdity. Against the ruin of the world, there is only one defense- the creative act, says the poet. Neither “bad faith” (denial) nor despair offers us release from the ghost world. (Nor can we think ourselves out of it, however much those of us who love to think would like to believe that). But very specific things one does with one’s body, like physical activity for some life sustaining purpose, can, temporarily.

And that is how I began learning to grow a little bit of food, in small leftover spaces, and in ways that tried to mimic rather than manipulate natural processes. And to give my labor to a couple of equally small and contingent projects for building soil, creating habitat, and repairing broken land, in my own city. To watch and learn something of the birds and other creatures of the wild that still interpenetrated my over-built world. And also – don’t laugh – to sing.

These things have made up only a small portion of the hours of my life so far. I still live largely in the ghost world, but now I know it has edges.

And I found others there at the edges: bellwethers not of danger and sickness but of a fuller life. Not of future ill but present good. Not of freedom but responsibility.

We are in an odd position, acting from inside the half-life, not because we are compelled, nor because we believe our individual actions, even heaped one upon another, have the power to change large-scale outcomes or transform reality – which is still the reality of a progression towards death not just for us personally but at the largest earthly scale – but we act as we do because it is a way to be more fully alive, right now. And when you step into a world that is more fully alive, even briefly, you realize that only from that world can any human reality that is not absurd – which is to say, that is different from ours – be born.

Sometimes I stand at my back door in the twilight, with the noise of the television a senile murmur in the background, and wait, and listen. I know I am listening for the faint sound of a distant crash, a kind of final sound reverberating through layers of time, to tell me that a vast and seemingly monolithic absurdity, an old empire of illusion, has collapsed under its own weight and is crumbling back into life. And I know I will never hear it, because that isn’t the way it works, but still, for a little while as the day is ending, I listen, and I wait.