The smoke from the Sherpa Fire daubs the morning sky in playful streaks of apricot and the smell of burnt brush hangs in the air.
There is, in this election year, as two corrupt, compromised and, it must be said, old candidates, the one a vicious neo-Nazi the other an equally vicious neo-liberal - separated in their lack of probity only by their sex - vie for the presidency of the United States: a sense of End Times; a sense of the imperium collapsing in on itself.
The fire is a natural thing although perhaps maliciously caused, the quadrennial obeisance to Democracy a gruesome tic that now consumes the body politic.
The nation is in deep shadow: late in the day, long past its high noon of power, influence and prestige in the world; signs of environmental collapse are all consuming, and writers everywhere compulsively reflect these twin strands of apocalyptic zeitgeist. Your Urbanwildland scribe follows dutifully along. What if the Federal election was about the recovery of this country’s lost connection with the natural world - about the loss of its animistic soul?
It is at this moment that Annie Proulx’s epic novel Barkskins, 2016, has appeared: the New York Times‘s suggests that “This is a jeremiad about the loss of North America’s “monstrous pine finery,” in the author’s resonant phrase, and thus its weird, old pagan soul”. She chooses, as the epigraph to her multi-generational, 736 page book, a passage from the medieval historian Lynn White Jr.’s seminal eco-theological article, The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis, 1967.
“In Antiquity every tree, every spring, every stream, every hill had its own genius loci, its guardian spirit. These spirits were accessible to men, but were very unlike men; centaurs, fauns, and mermaids show their ambivalence. Before one cut a tree, mined a mountain, or dammed a brook, it was important to placate the spirit in charge of that particular situation, and to keep it placated. By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.”
In the last two pieces I have referenced David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous, 1996. He makes the point that since the adoption of an alphabet we, as a species, have become distanced from our environment - now veiled by the abstractions of our written language. Where once the natural world was the co-creator of our reality, and we (in our long ago oral traditions) were fully involved in the unfolding of its sensory information, we now see it encoded in the matrices of text: imprisoned in a human construct of abstract symbols. We have lost, he suggests, the ability to hone our consciousness against the whet stone of the biosphere - we are trapped in an iterative loop of purely human intelligence.
Lynn White takes a narrower view, essentially blaming the teachings of Christianity rather than the development of an alphabet for our abusive behavior towards our world. The two are connected. Abram’s notes that the aleph beth (the first semitic alphabet) was an integral part of the Hebrew religion, where the primacy of text was acknowledged in their appellation as ‘People of the Book’. Christianity, an offshoot of this earlier monotheism, gained institutional support only when it was enshrined in the gospels – where it was made clear that divine grace was dispensed not in this world but in an abstract heavenly realm accessible only in death. A full engagement of life on this planet was made secondary to some future off-world paradise with instructions for its access encoded in the Good Book.
This evening a full moon rises over the east ridge and to the west, three brownish-purple bars streak the sky, watery vapors of dust, debris and smoke from the fire splayed across the flesh of an evening sky like striated bruises.
Annie Proulx writes,
“I am sure that wild natural woodlands are the only true forests. The entire atmosphere — the surrounding air, the intertwined roots, the humble ferns and lichens, insects and diseases, the soil and water, weather. All these parts seem to play together in a kind of wild grand orchestra. A forest living for itself rather than the benefit of humankind.”
The wild, fire-burnt sky that floats over the westerly sea is resonant with the grandly sonorous tones of an oboe.
This country’s overt linkage of Christianity with Republican politics and neoliberal economics was established in the 1950’s under Eisenhower, when our national motto, ‘In God We Trust’ and a new line in the Pledge of Allegiance, “one nation under God” were coined (Kevin Cruse, One Nation Under God, 2015). Now Democrats too, are subject to the same conflation of their politics and Christianity. Who will stand, in this country, for the pagan animism that might lead it out of its environmental morass?
For my Father’s Day treat, I was taken to Redcat, the performance space founded by CalArts beneath Disney Hall where we saw the world premiere of an LA Opera production, anatomy theater. Composed by David Lang with a libretto by Lang and Mark Dion, it is set in the early 18th century, and features the hanging of a murderess and her subsequent public dissection, ostensibly conducted for the scientific purpose of discovering where evil might reside, manifested as some deformity in her vital organs. “Where does evil lie” is a recurring refrain and it occurred to me that this enquiry might be directed towards our country’s existential electoral plight.
As we confront our contemporary choice between two white, pasty-faced, cosmetically enhanced cadavers, who will be publically dissected by the press and the citizenry over a long summer and fall before November’s voting, we may all soon harbor such metaphoric imaginings. Splayed on a dissecting table tilted towards the audience, a naked Peabody Southwell, playing dead but occasionally singing, represents the body politic: her bleeding Christian heart, and her viscera (redolent with the stench of politics?) and finally her Lady Liberty parts are extracted from her pale body, Filipino psycho-surgeon style, in a fruitless search for Evil, or more prosaically an answer to ‘where did she/we go wrong?’
David Abram would suggest that human awareness has folded in on itself, and transfixed by technology, we have short circuited the sensory connections that we once made with the earth and have thus denied ourselves the opportunity to be fully human in a world we recognize as much more than human. Annie Proulx echoes Lynn White Jr. in believing that we must come once more to revere not a universal, distant deity but the local gods of place and the spirits and sprites that inhabit the living planet and its earthen mantle. These are meta-prescriptions: cosmic shifts in consciousness from our current position, where the only demand we make of our leaders is that our society is managed to better support our acquisitiveness and that the resulting consumption is more closely aligned to the few or the many depending on our philosophy. But they are also shifts that can be initiated in tiny incremental acts of observation and reverence.
Last night, the full moon’s reflection in the swimming pool (left uncovered to let it cool it down) attracted swarms of white moths (Caenurgina erechtea). Many flew too close to the pool’s lunar illusion: in the early morning its dark water was patterned with drowned moths, their pale wings still stretched in flight.