This is the story arc of our species: we have traveled, although with many meanderings, a single traceable path from wild to domesticated to mechanized beings. We still carry our past with us – sometimes it is expressed, sometimes only potential, but it is not entirely (never, thus far, entirely) lost; it is embodied in us. So there are still groups of human beings who have more wilderness in them, many more who are fully domesticated but not (yet) mechanized, and some – in fact, considered the most privileged in contemporary civilization – who are being positioned for, and now, like good domesticated creatures, actually trotting faithfully towards, machine-life. Clutching essential contrivances to which they have outsourced their memory, sociability, wealth, intellect, and imagination. The next step on this path is to further incorporate (embody) our machines: first to wear them, then to implant them, and finally to become them.
Robert Macfarlane’s book Landmarks made me realize children are the throwbacks. Domesticated children held the wild in them, released when they went outside to play; machine children will probably still hold the domestic, creating farms and households and schools on their virtual reality playgrounds. All children have held the body, the physical, preeminent – a physicality in constant motion, irreducible because it is alive at all levels, seen and unseen. What adults abstract to a separate and imaginary realm, the metaphysical, is merely a single reality that is alive throughout. This is the world of children.
It was the children who perceived, as Macfarlane says, doors everywhere in the landscape, the children who could slip between worlds without difficulty, just as they can speak in different languages without interposing translation, or express paradoxical ideas without a sense of contradiction.
While reading Landmarks i was also reading in various other places that we must somehow recapture the mythic in our lives, because – as storytellers have been trying to warn us since the dawn of the Machine Age – without it, without stories and daily rituals that reconnect us to the regenerative living world, we are at risk of irreversible degradation: of becoming completely sealed off, emptied out and meaning-free beings. As all other social ways are blocked, and we head down the conveniently provided and thus far highly profitable chute towards a fully mechanized existence.
This is being marketed in some quarters as the only way we can survive the impending revenge of the natural world upon us. It is the end game of having for a thousand generations seen the living world as a battlefield: first it was humans, as prey turned alpha predator, against the other species; then tribe against tribe, and finally each against all. Thus the only door to safety from the forces we have unleashed is the door to the machine – a thing we invented ingenuously perhaps, with the intention of relieving ourselves of hard physical labor – but ultimately a nonliving thing that exists to neutralize and supplant the contingencies of the living world.
Salvation. Die and be born again as a sequence of zeroes and ones. The unfortunate others – billions of them – trapped outside the door, stuck in their domestic dependence on the farmed world, will die when it turns wild again and ceases to feed them. Like livestock caught in a flash flood. This way, folks, step right up – this way to the egress…
Our own hubris got us here, of course – but that is downplayed, our niggling concern about it a castoff of a prior world we are told we have superseded – thanks to nothing else but the machine. Well, mythic stories are full of punishments for technological hubris, from Icarus to Frankenstein. Their numinous power is paradoxical: they compel our attention because they have no agency; they are true because they are consistently unheeded. Yet like today’s collapse narratives and dystopian hunger game stories, they also don’t provide the other half of the mythic story: regeneration, reconciliation, synthesis.
But what if, as Paul Kingsnorth asks, it isn’t a war in the first place? What if the wild children are right, and the doors are everywhere? What if we can teach ourselves to see them again, and slip through them – not back, into a past that isn’t real anyway, but sideways, into Somewhere Else? A time-space which, when you think of it, we often call timeless but might actually be the immanence of Time Itself – all-changing, omnipresent, expressed morphologically all around us from microbes to galaxies, not a local illusion as the physicists would have it, or the reductive chronology to which our seductively convenient machines have reduced it, but Something Else. The force that through the green fuse drives the flower…
And place. What if our experience of intimacy with living place, plus our existence in time, creates the chronotope, the time-space that gives us initiation to that Elsewhere? Where the fluke of individuation, the self that those hard materialists reify when they say it is “only” electrochemical signals – this weirdly materialist abstraction that has been so easy to drive into the abattoir of machine life – disappears?
What if Martin Shaw is right, and the place can be as small as the patch around a struggling rowan tree on a city street, or a cluster of weeds that pushes through the pavement? What if we can even sit in a train with living bodies around us – each its own “place” (although perhaps plants are better guides) and incorporate the meaning of the chronotope, however briefly?
I had thought words, complete abstractions that they are, would not be helpful in this joining effort, this re-membering against the dismembering we have experienced from wildness to mechanization – but Macfarlane made me rethink that too. “Every language is an old-growth forest,” he quotes Wade Davis. What do humans particularly among all species offer to this world? Words, complex patterns of sound and image – not doors themselves (our great mistake to think so) but ways to help us recognize them. Signs and symbols that point to the reality we cannot experience in any other way. No computational short cuts, no machine dreams. Our offerings are necessary to us if not the world that made us; without them we lose our way.
Now the next step is clear: tell that story.
Begin: “Once upon a time in the future, this is How We Found the Door…”