“A multitude of men are made one person, when they are by one man, or one person, represented. And unity cannot otherwise be understood in multitude… For by art is created that great Leviathan called a commonwealth or people, which is but an artificial man; though of greater stature and strength than any man might be.” – Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan
The Atlantic Ocean has been falling on my head for the past week. Snagged currents in the north Pacific have tripped the Jet Stream south, bending a kink in the river of wind and trapping easterly rain-laden clouds between the Appalachian Mountains and the coastline. The air is wet. Soft clouds drift among the treetops. My wooden door sticks.
Driving home, I saw my neighbors’ cars along the side of the road, and my neighbors gathered on the banks of the creek that drains the valley where we live. They were pointing at the churning brown waters and speaking in hushed tones. Whenever the river is high like this, people come down to the banks to observe. I say ‘observe’, and I think I mean it in a religious sense. Re-ligare: the rule of law. We are compelled, it seems, by some never-written law. The power of the river is obvious in these moments of flood; it becomes absurd to deny its mute influence on the mind.
Standing beside the flooding river on my own, throwing fistfuls of tobacco into the water reflexively, it occurred to me to pity the fish. There must be safe havens scattered throughout the creekbed- behind waterfalls, in eddies near the banks. But in the main, a vast population of creatures must perish in frightful circumstances whenever the creek floods.
In the year since I began writing this essay (then ran out of steam, set it aside, started falsely, returned) two more flood months came and went. Sixteen straight days of rain in springtime. Just past midsummer a derecho slammed into the central Appalachians and tumbled whole towns down the mountainside in a torrent of mud.
It seems unfair. It was the parents and grandparents of the people there who weakened the roots of trees and stone with mines and bad logging. But if a family may be joyfully all of a piece, the ancestors breathing wisdom into new parents, the grandmothers subtly teaching the granddaughters, it may be culpable all together. That may be the wrong way of approaching it- justice. When an elephant tramples a notorious poacher, there is a form of justice I can identify. When six generations of country folk plunder a living from an uncomplaining mountain only to be scoured from its face in the seventh by a sudden storm, the intention seems less clear. It argues for randomness on the face of the world, or caprice maybe.
Why are the activities of land-destroying people tolerated? Life on earth is in a fix because of city thoughts and industrial practices. Storms like the ones glibly called “Katrina” and “Sandy” have shown how vulnerable city thoughts and industrial practices are to a change in barometric pressure. If the earth is of a piece as families are of a piece, why do the storms not orient themselves in a more strategic fashion? Maybe this is what strategy looks like to an entity with seventy billion eyes and the patience of continents. Maybe because the earth is of a piece in exactly the same way that families are of a piece, and turbulent youths will never follow their parents’ instructions. Both seem like oversimplifications.
In the predominantly Anglo, aesthetically nature-oriented circles I tend to run in, I’ve noticed a certain flattening of distinction when it comes to non-human entities (or powers, or spirits, or natural forces, or whatever terminology appeals). Stones, trees, rivers, winds, birds, fire, elephants- all are supposed to be of a piece, or at least on the same ‘side’ in the endless, perhaps Christian-inherited, battle between the good, beautiful ‘Nature’ and evil, ugly ‘technology/civilization/what-have-you’. Rain represents inherent purity, every wind brings a blessing, fire is always there for the benefit of your personal growth, birds exist to teach you how to be a better person, trees were set on earth by a benevolent creator being to provide nourishment for the chosen children of earth, all the gods of all the cultures of the earth are naught but metaphors you can make free use of to unlock your own godlike potential, and so on. This attitude, which I am of course reducing to a lampoon, leads to some cognitive dissonance when, for instance, a conservationist is eaten by bears, or a petro-chem billionaire fails to die in a yachting accident.
In my experience, rain falling on my bare head orders ill thoughts, relieves aches and joint pains from a persistent case of Lyme, soothes and brings peace to me. I would not stand in a dry arroyo when dark clouds gather from the west, though. In my experience, candle flames and hearth fires are generous with comfort and clear thinking when approached with the gifts they have, in dreams, requested. I would not walk across burning coals and demand not to be harmed. I’ve learned much from birds, much of it about birds, because I was paying attention to birds. If I believe everything I read, I suppose I must be a better person for it, but I don’t suppose it’s for me to say. The road goes by many names, and I’ve heard the Buddha can quote from scripture with the best of them; I trust you’ll know what to do when you meet Him there.
The awareness that non-human entities are, well, entities and not merely wooden or atmospheric or fleshly automata seems seldom to be much developed among my people. The corollary is sometimes drawn that other, non-Western cultures recognize non-human personhood and enter into relationships with the spirits of weather, vegetation, etc. Stories of heroic medicine people summoning thunderstorms and purifying cancers with the sympathetic powers of the fair folk are told- as isolated incidents. The bridge is cast across too wide a span: ‘Spirits are real. Spirits have helped humans. Any time I, a human, need help, I may call upon spirits.’ If the entities of the living earth deserve our respect and alliance, the industrial processes which frame every aspect of contemporary Westernized culture- and which result, without exception, in the toxification of some corner of the globe, the disruption of some natural process, and the enslavement of one or another people- are indefensible on ethical grounds and must be brought to a halt. If we who declare ourselves to be friends of the earth continue to engage in every-day pollutions, it must be for deliberate, tactical purposes. It doesn’t do to be keen to the world of ‘spirits’ (whomever they may be) while blind to the patterns of cause and effect.
To be clear, I’m not arguing for a pure ‘lifestyle activism’ approach. Generally speaking, living in an ersatz wickiup and eating ramps and pemmican may not be the most effective use of one’s time (provided one has the social privilege and absence of economic familial responsibility needed to make free choice of that lifestyle) if one is concerned with the degradation of human experience and the despoliation of the living planet. Cars and computers are useful tools, but only if they are acknowledged as such, treated as such, and used as such. In order to mitigate the damage inflicted on other landscapes and other people’s communities in their construction, assembly, delivery, maintenance, disposal, and recycling, they must be used towards a better purpose than the gratification of conformity.
There are spirits, too, in tools that seem like enemies. Here the concept of yua may be useful. This Yupik word refers to a willful essence that inheres in all things. Everything discretely formed, be it grown or crafted has a way and a will. Every river, every channel, every rill and ripple is itself inviolate, and also part of a broader self. As a human being is part mammal, part bacterium, part arthropod, fungus, protozoan, and each of the us who are us are ourselves the consensus of many cells, so one might consider the nested selves of the rest of the world’s people. Many times in many societies in many places in the world this principle has been discovered. The renegades at Findhorn called these spirits ‘devas’ and, for a time at least, negotiated with them to good effect. Marie Kondo, famed for ‘The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up’, recommends thanking one’s unneeded possessions before disposing of them, out of the respect that ensures good relations. The yua of this keyboard is to thank for these words, the yua of your screen gives you their image with grace. I think we all know this, on some still child-like level incompletely indoctrinated with fashionable atheism or other religious writ. We name our cars, and talk to them. Coffee-makers are blessed, or cursed. We sacrifice holy currency to commune with the spirits who live in bottles and open the way to courage, or forgetfulness, or peace, or rage.
The awareness of subtle patterns disdainfully called ‘superstition’ is a full part of our sensation, useful as sight or hearing- and just as easily lost. I do not presume to know the ways and wills of the yua-kind. An ecology of spirit is among us in the world, as surprising and complex as any physical forest. ‘Spirits’ is the closest modern English word, but it refers to so broad a class of unseen or unlooked-for peoples as to be less than useful most times.
A dim awareness of the regard of the world ought be met with renewed curiosity. Have you ever experienced ‘the feeling of being stared at?’ Who was looking? The feeling of certain places- calming, threatening, welcoming, forbidding- may be due to the mechanism of autosuggestions, but what moves those feelings to emerge in the first place, unbidden? Why are some people lucky, in what ways does their luck fail, and are there any patterns to be discerned? Who are those figures who repeatedly show themselves in dreams- if they are of your day’s thoughts composed, are they wholly of your own thoughts composed- and how might you test the hypothesis?
These sorts of questions must be at least asked, and pondered on, I think, before the ways of a landslide or a hearth-spirit will become sensible to a human observer. Plate tectonics cannot be understood without some foreknowledge of the difference between igneous and sedimentary stones. Despite my disgust and contempt for the corporate mercenaries and fatuous technology-worshippers who have commandeered the bulk of the funding apparatus and nearly the entirety of the narrative of academic science, I have not lost my taste for empiricism as a useful tool. The trouble comes in assuming that one tool is all one needs to build a worldview, like that fellow with one hammer and a universe of nails.
Stormclouds scud across the continent’s sky in unfamiliar ways. Some springs dry out while other valleys flood. Nighthawks gyre in their migrating masses, weaving a shape that points first north, then northwest. Frogs in a wet meadow sing through the passing of a fox and cease their calling abruptly at the sound of no footstep. Others have read patterns in the shape of events, others have been explicitly told ways of healing, or death, or prophecy by entities we have no English word for and so deem impossible. One would imagine that if these were idle pursuits they would not enjoy such long and varied histories among the diverse cultures of the world.
Is it so wretched to admit the possibility that we share this world with other thinkers? Are we doomed to terror if we acknowledge that not all wild nature means us well? Don’t walk with headphones in lion country. Don’t clear a woodlot for lawn and expect good health and easy sleep. Ask what gifts are appropriate for which personages, give freely, and maybe something will be learned.
Cancer cells seem not to age. Given sufficient nourishment, they continue indefinitely, resisting any command to apoptosis. Alone they persist, and their rebellion is infectious. Would you, if offered a choice between dying for “the greater good” or living free on your own terms, choose differently? The price of such individuation, however, is the life of all. Unextracted, cancer cells do not outlive their host.
Every river, every channel, every rill and ripple is itself inviolate, and also part of a broader self. Perhaps the sense of place, the inclination to superstitious connection, the mechanism of awareness of non-human others are ways of experiencing the relationship between our own little yua and the broader stream in which we rill. Perhaps the mind which clamps hands to ears and shouts into the gale “I am alone in thinking on this earth!” is deranged in the way of a tumor cell- packed in with peers and yet demanding solitary immortality. Perhaps the mind which perceives, dimly, the presence of others and attempts to bind them to its will is misled by the same madness. Perhaps the curious mind which wishes to catalog all things and peoples and pin to them an according season is no less corrupted. If so, I suspect that the ability to heal is greater within the river than the rill.
The neighbors are standing at the waterside, watching the powering torrent lick the pilings of the bridge. Quiet for a moment in our own thoughts, we mill like starlings. What each sees in the river, I couldn’t say.