Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Burning and Believing

Yosemite is burning.

Let those words sink into your skin for a moment. One of our most iconic public lands is being ravaged by fire. These are the mountains that called to John Muir, the mountains that he answered with the force of his writing, his communities, all in celebration and fierce love for these lands that spoke to him. This is a place that appears in countless family photo albums, in unknowable scores of memories of uncommon times in a common place. This is a place I have never seen but love, in abstract, for what it has meant to friends and strangers.

The reality is that our grotesque consumption and fear of change are leading us to destroy some of our best protected homelands, that we are proving unequal to the gift of these places. That sadness sticks.

I do not want to assign blame for climate change, for the burning forests and melting glaciers and eroding shorelines and shrinking alpine zones. Instead, I ask for responsibility.

And I am as responsible as the next person. While Yosemite has been burning this week, I have been dealing with the headache and expense of a blown out tire. If a thousand things were different in the structure of America, of the world, then it would not matter that I ran over a nail, punctured a tire, and now need four new rubber donuts for my OPEC-supporting, dinosaur-fossil guzzling, climate-changing, metal box, in order that I may drive each day to work, to earn the dollars that will feed me, house me, keep the lights and heat on via unsustainable fuel sources, clothe me, back-pay for my education, and pay for the repairs to said automobile so that I may continue the same old cycle.

If a thousand things were different…and I begin to imagine what that could look like. All I want, truly, is to live in a way that doesn’t hurt anyone so badly, including myself. That doesn’t set National Parks, or any other land, on fire. That doesn’t melt snowpacks and acidify the sea, that doesn’t have entire ecosystems migrating, that doesn’t entrench a national and global caste system deeper and deeper.

I have some ideas of what thousand things I would revise to re-make a better world. And everything I think of calls me to make my own world smaller and smaller—less distance between me and my food, between me and how I earn my living, between my electricity and heat source and my home. I do not think these things to become insular and isolationist, rather the opposite. Something good, some best bit of myself, seems to grow larger whenever my physical world becomes limited and that is the person I want to be in this or any world. We have allowed ourselves, encouraged, limitless growth in this land since before we were her people. So much so that we had to set aside pockets and parks, protecting some of the richest landscapes from our own insidious manifest. The same American attitude that led us West, always West, always looking for more and faster and easier...the child of this destiny is a world on fire, a nationally beloved landscape destroyed by the same nation. I suspect that more of us know than are saying so that the empire has no clothes, that the empire and the corporate-bought emperors are killing us and forcing us to kill our beloved places, our beautiful world.

It is hard to say those things when you worry that you are alone. You, we, are not. This is the one thing about a climate-change fueled forest fire rampaging through a National Park that I find good—this is a place that lives in the souls of millions of people. And, as such, I do not believe its damage and the cause of that damage can escape an increase in responsibility for its continued health.

I have seen too much good, too much that is beautiful and seemingly eternal to believe that our destiny must be one of fire and destruction. There are other ways of being. A thousand others, if we let ourselves think of them, if we speak of them. And, if we can think them, speak these words and ask these questions, then we can begin to live-find the ways and answers to these better lives.

Now. Even as we have more questions than answers, even now, this is the time to begin living out our thousand different, better ways of life. 

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Of Mice and Mountains

Here is my confession: I still look for silver bullets. For all that I have written about the future being better and richer and more varied than anything that has come before, for all that I whisper these hopes to myself in the doubting nights, and preach them to friends on sunny days, I have dark times when I am looking for The Answer to present itself.

Of course this will never come. And, even if it did, I’d be fundamentally unlikely to trust it to be real and comprehensive.

It has been almost a month since I saw the mountain of coal sitting beside the ocean at the Brayton Point Power Station. I’ve been afraid to look up the rate of use per day and calculate how the mass I saw could have shrunk or re-grown in that time. The challenge of how to build a better world than the one that requires us demolish real mountains and make ourselves sick in order to live our daily energy-sucking lives…this has kept me awake some nights and made my days a little sadder now that I have some better grasp on the physical enormity of the problem. It’s terrifying and daunting and now I have tears in my eyes again about this.

Because I do not know what to do, and nothing that I do know how to do is anywhere close to what I would deem “enough.” I don’t know what enough looks like, and I know that even when an action isn’t enough, you have to do it anyway.

I ran away from all this darkness and doubt over the weekend. I went to the mountains, surrounded myself with the crisper air and the colors of sunlight on granite and schist and balsam fir and good people all the rest that I love up there. When I lived in the mountains, when I found my mountain people and we engaged in the common work peculiar to those beautiful hills, one of the best things I learned was how very capable we humans can truly be. An action needs to be done, and there being no one else there to do it, no one to pass the buck to, you quickly learn to jump in with little knowledge and cautious instinct. You have to trust yourself to be able, and to correct any mistakes you make. And to feel no shame in trying and failing, in learning.

When I look to my time in the mountains, there are things that I want to mine, to bring down the trails and into the world as so many treasures. There are the obvious things, that a hotel sleeping 100 people can run off of wind and solar and propane, that we simply do not need so much stuff, that physical labor is not something to avoid, that the best times of life happen when you least expect them, and so on. But, above all that, I would bring down that spirit of willing-to-risk-capability.

If we’re going to escape the nefarious grasp of the Normal—the American unfillable hunger for new and more and bigger and shinier and faster, the race to the top that tramples our hearts and happinesses—then we’re going to need to trust ourselves of being capable of anything and everything beyond that tired way of being.

Specifically, I went to the mountains this last weekend because Madison Springs Hut was celebrating it’s 125th Anniversary. Anyone who has spent an appreciable amount of time in those walls will have many and sweet memories. I love this. But there is a strange dark side up there too—in general the huts, in my experience were lousy with mice. I cannot begin to quantify how many traps I set, how many mouse carcasses I sent flying into the krummholtz. It was disgusting, it was horrid to think of those naked pink feet and tails scrambling over your foodstuffs, it was a stark lesson in mortality and human entitlement to empty their gray-brown bodies from the traps. But it was part and parcel of being there, just another piece of life that needed doing. So, we all did it, and now we know.

When I came home to Cambridge on Sunday night, exhausted body and soul from my time at Madison, the first thing my housemate said was “could you set the mousetraps?”

I do not believe in Destiny, but often, the answers we’re looking for are closer than they seem. I want to bring the willingness to try and fail and learn and become capable out of the mountains. I had not thought that it would be through the mice. But then, if there are no silver bullets, then the multitude of answers and actions we need can and will and do come from anywhere, from everywhere.

My words are braver and stronger than I am—no matter what I say or do, I’m still haunted by all the specters of a changing climate and unhappy people questing for a sick version of Normal that is killing our planet. That’s still a big pile of coal--and it's far from the only one. Neither my blogs nor my mousetraps are evenly matched opponents for such harsh reality. But, one has to start somewhere.

I’m off to check the traps, you come, too?

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Laundry Day

I’ve spent a lot of time of late thinking about how to build better worlds, how more and more people can find happiness and feel connected to their people and this sweet earth. One thing I’ve hit upon is the theme of common labor. Our bodies are lovely when they are in motion, when we’re bending and lifting and doing. I emailed with a friend this week about this quest and question—he responded with Khalil Gibran’s words that “work is love made visible.”

Earlier today, I watched my backyard neighbor bring in his laundry. I could see this from my third story fire escape, where I was hanging out my own laundry. His movements and his drying clothes were reflected in the large window at the back of his house—I didn’t see him, only the reflection of his actions. That I mirrored those same motions, up three stories, across two backyards, and at least a generation removed…I can’t quite say how sweet I find this.

Amid all the good talk of solar and wind replacing coal and gas, I find that the question of why we need so much energy is rarely asked. To advocate for and build clean, renewable, sustainable methods of creating energy are laudable goals, ones that I heartily support.

My deepest support, though, is reserved for the simpler goal of using less. We cannot buy and buy and buy our way out of a problem that has its deepest roots in mindless consumption. There is no other planet to upgrade to when this one’s operating systems become obsolete. We are on the brink of, as Toadvine says in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, running out of country. We are reaching, surpassing, the limits of what is livable, and we are running out of places to run away from ourselves and our habits.

In light of this, I propose a decidedly un-American idea: go back. If the heart of the climate crisis has to do with using too much, perhaps the solution lies in using less. This will be more work, undoubtedly. It takes more time to hang my laundry out to dry than to pop it in the dryer. It takes more labor to make dinner than to nuke a burrito in the microwave. It takes more effort to bike than drive. To limit what technologies you use, to become your own cap and trade program, this takes forethought and planning and effort. It forces us to take more responsibility, to be more accountable to ourselves. And it is freeing—to make and hold your own life as you wish life to be.

My nightmare is to become like the isolated, liquid diet, technology-suckled, balloon-humans of Wall-E. Taking steps back from the robots, from our “need” for constant contact, from the tethers of our devices, from the demands that outside forces place on our time, these are hard. This is work. To take the time for this work is the highest expression I know for the love for the world.

And, like all good loves, these labors return as much as you give into them. The physical joy of using your body to walk or bike, the better taste of food you’ve given your time to, the sweet smell of the sun and wind in your clothes and on your sheets, the immense satisfaction of rebelling against expectations, of finding yourself capable of what simpler, better worlds you believe possible, these are the rewards for your work. 

No matter what powers it, what technology can compete with a full and working heart? None that I know.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Fezzik and Inigo

It is no secret that I love a good fairy tale. Or, if you prefer, “classic tales of true love and high adventure.” Let’s call it that. On the hottest night of this summer, I sat on my roof and read William Goldman’s adaptation of S. Morgenstern’s “The Princess Bride” cover to cover as the sun burnt down through the hot copper and gold clouds. I cannot recommend the book enough—all the best bits of the movie are in there, verbatim. And, like most things, the book is even better.

It was the Friday at the end of the heat wave in Boston. I had spent the day being horribly uncomfortable in my sweat-soaked skin, while also being riotously sad that we’ve made the world this hot. I was landscaping all day, trying to keep the remaining flowers in the gardens of strangers from crispifying in the heat. It’s not that I particularly care if the petunias and hostas of the greater Newton area live or die, but to see living things in the soil crumble and die because of the temperature concerns me deeply. I like food and, despite the changing climates and erratic growing seasons that are coming, I hope to eat for the next sixty to seventy years.

It was in this spirit that I clambered up to the roof, where I could almost pretend that I might feel a breeze and opened my book, looking for escape relief from the Cliffs of Insanity and the Pit of Despair.

However, as they say, “wherever you go, there you are.” 

I am incapable of divorcing whatever is in front of me from my larger desire to find ways to save the world, from and for, our own sweet selves. My reading of “The Princess Bride” was thusly colored. And, perhaps not inconceivably, Fezzik and Inigo—the best adventurers of the book—turn out to be great models, if you’re looking for ways to rescue something important.

Here is the main introduction to Fezzik, as he is climbing up the Cliffs of Insanity:
“But his real might lay in his arms. There had never, not in a thousand years, been arms to match Fezzik’s. (For that was his name.) The arms were not only Gargantuan and totally obedient and surprisingly quick, but they were also, and this was why he never worried, tireless. if you gave him an ax and told him to chop down a forest, his legs might give out from having to support so much weight for so long, or the ax might shatter from the punishment of killing so many trees, but Fezzik’s arms would be as fresh tomorrow as today.”

We’ve all got arms. Fundamentally, I believe that every person has something, some talent or strength or gift that we can each put in service to whatever task we find before us. While I also believe as strongly in people being as capable as possible in as many disciplines as possible, I do think that everyone has a grounding passion that can be used without depletion. Whatever that is for you, it has equal power to Fezzik’s arms, Inigo’s sword, Westley and Buttercup’s love. It’s not fool proof, but if you’re looking for your arms, I’d suggest co-opting Rilke’s advice to a young poet: “acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to…”

Whatever fills that ellipsis are your arms.

Fezzik and Inigo rhyme all the time in the book. It is their private language of love, what gives them joy and sanity amid the controlling demands of Vizzinni, what keeps their fears of loneliness and failure at bay. So as they enter the five-storied underground “Zoo of Death” that culminates in what would more commonly be called the Pit of Despair. “I’m just scared to pieces,” admits Fezzik.

“Just see that it ceases,” replies Inigo. And so they go into the depths. When an enormous snake wraps itself around them both, squeezing the life out of the pair and immobilizing even Fezzik’s arms, Inigo says, simply, “Oh Fezzik…Fezzik…I had such rhymes for you…”

Fezzik, furious to know these rhymes before he dies, finds the strength to break both of them out of the coils of the snake.

We need to find our tools, and use them to save what we love, what gives us joy. And, what gives us joy, what we love, these feed into our strengths as well.

I don’t have a blueprint for this hope of world saving. All I know how to do is bumble ahead with my hopes and passions and a variety of skills. I know I am not alone—Inigo, Fezzik, Buttercup and Westley are unstoppable with their combined strengths and passions.

And for the scary, unknowing times when we are afraid and frustrated and cry through heat waves, we have the words of Inigo to Fezzik as they descend into the darkness and fight monsters and make up rhymes to cheer each other up while they quest: “Then let’s look on the bright side: we’re having an adventure, Fezzik, and most people live and die without being as lucky as we are.”

Let’s have an adventure, and save the world. You think a planet this nice happens every day?