Into The Woods, Into The Dark.

“We struggle to understand that which our eyes cannot see, and so our minds revert to the years of conditioning we all have had. It is but another way at disconnecting us from our true selves, from our true nature.”

From Emma Kathryn

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Last night I went to the woods.

It always feels like a dream when I go into the woods at night. The first time I ventured beneath the boughs after nightfall it felt more like a nightmare.

The woods where I go to are close to my home, I’ve written about them before, the ones tucked away, across a field, hidden between the industrial estate and a housing estate. To get there from where I live you must go across the field and through the industrial estate. Even at this hour the factories are still lit up, still churning, still producing. Then you take a gravel track between a used tyre factory that makes playground surfaces and their storage facility. On either side are plastic covered piles, too high to see over. On nights when the clouds cover the moon and the stars it feels like you’re walking through a tunnel.

It feels like you’re the only person. It’s liberating and scary all at the same time, and all the while there’s the noise of production, the ceaseless hum and whine of machinery and the sound of the gravel crunching beneath my feet.

On one side, the fence ends and the trees begin. There’s a tall bank and if you look as you walk, your eyes play tricks on you. Sometimes you think you see something that isn’t there. I don’t look, lest I should lose my nerve. The dog stays close, as though she can sense the battle that wages inside of me. Just go home Emma, that traitorous part of my mind whispers, go home. Why are you even here? What’s the point? But I know that voice, I’ve heard it many times in my life. It’s that voice that tells you to close your eyes when things get tough, to turn the other cheek when you see something terrible, that makes you want to say stop. It’s the voice of fear.

But I ignore it. I must. I know that if I give in, if I turn and leave now, that I will regret it even before I reach my own front door. I know from experience that when we confront our fears, we reduce them and then get over them. For instance, I used to be afraid to walk across the playing field in the dark. And so I push on, feeling the burn in my calf muscles as the path ascends. When I reach the top, it opens out into a huge meadow. The grass is long and after the heat of the summer, it’s yellow, like straw.  Here the path forks. One path takes you around the meadow, the other leads into the darkness. This is the path I take.

The path heads straight through the woods so that it looks like it disappears into darkness. The woods on either side are pitch black, a dark shadow against the backdrop of the night sky. Even now I get that feeling as I approach. I don’t know if it ever really goes away.

Have you ever been in the woods after nightfall? It’s so dark beneath the canopy of the trees that you can’t see anything and even when your eyes have adjusted to the gloom, you still can only make out what is right in front of you. Your other senses take over, especially your hearing. You can hear everything. Twigs snapping and the rustle of undergrowth as the night critters go about their business. If there’s a wind, the trees creak as they sway. It’s easy to imagine all of monsters from all of the horror films you’ve ever watched are lurking within the woods, hiding in the dark. Even when you go with others, you still feel that.

Perhaps what is really so frightening though is that loss of control. We struggle to understand that which our eyes cannot see, and so our minds revert to the years of conditioning we all have had. It is but another way at disconnecting us from our true selves, from our true nature. Why are we afraid to be in the woods? Why are we afraid to be out alone in nature? We are a part of it, not separate from it.

So what’s that got to do with going to the woods at night, you may well ask?

For me, it is about confronting my fears. It is about facing them head on, knowing that really it is the confronting of my own mind. It is the first act of rebellion against a system that destroys the very thing from which we all come all for the sake of profit. It is about taking back our minds. As Hermeticism tells us, everything is mental, the all is mind, and so it is the first step in reclaiming ourselves.

But it is also more than that too. For when you conquer that fear, it gives you the opportunity to relearn, to form a relationship with that which you used to fear.

Last night I went to the woods and found myself in the darkness.


Emma Kathryn

My name is Emma Kathryn, an eclectic witch, my path is a mixture of traditional European witchcraft, voodoo and obeah, a mixture representing my heritage. I live in the middle of England in a little town in Nottinghamshire, with my partner, two teenage sons and two crazy dogs, Boo and Dexter. When not working in a bookshop full time, I like to spend time with my family outdoors, with the dogs. And weaving magic, of course!You can follow Emma on Facebook.

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Mourning a Tree and Denouncing a System

From the microcosm of personal grief, to Western civilization’s atrocities throughout the ages.

From Mirna Wabi-Sabi

Texto em Português (BR) aqui

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Photo by Christiaan Braga.

After 15 years of living abroad, I came back to my childhood home to find the front-yard treeless. The house was not big; one-story, 2 bedrooms, and a 30 by 15 meter yard; in Itaipú, Niterói. The yard had lots of trees: mango, java plum, hog plum, acerola, banana, and all sorts of miscellaneous bushes. Had. First, the bushes went away to make way for pavement. Then, an extra bedroom replaced the banana and the acerola trees. Now, one mango tree stands alone caged by concrete. I cried. I didn’t cry because I’m attached to things in general. After living in 3 different continents and I-don’t-know-how-many cities, I’m very used to leaving things I care about behind- houses, records, pets, books, routines, loved ones, familiar languages, cultures, etc. So, if something being gone truly breaks my heart, it’s because it runs deep.

The mango, java plum, and hog plum trees were massive; imagine these 40 year old trees (at least) forming a triangle and interlacing branches like comrades in peaceful but epic resistance. We used to put 2 hammocks between the 3 trunks, and lay all day talking and drinking mango juice. As a kid I thought I was the most radical athlete when I climbed on the thick branches to pick the mangoes before they fell on the floor (and bruised or cracked open). That was until I found one already cracked open while still hanging, with juice dripping down and a tiny spider with giant colorful legs sucking on it. It was scary, and confusing. How could a spider slice through the thick skin of a mango? I mean, the tear was bigger than the spider itself. It must have been the Chupacabra. Every night since, I’d see the swift black shadows of fruit bats and I was convinced it was the alien goat-blood sucking monster in the news. Of course, it was the 90’s; we had the X-files, and sensationalist Brazilian “news” shows with reenactments of real people’s accounts (you can probably tell I kind of still want to believe). When I asked the new tenants why they cut down all those trees, they said it was because they were afraid of the bats (I was also scared- as a child; that doesn’t mean- chop it down).

If people can relate to my sorrow in the microcosm of a front-yard, then I hope they can imagine this sorrow in the context of the most bio-diverse country in the world, as well as the country with the highest rate of deforestation. What leads people to want to cut down trees? Literal slash-and-burn techniques used to make cattle ranches, with the help of soy-bean farms, were responsible for the obliteration of 13% of the largest rain forest in the world, just like that, up in smoke. All of that for beef? It has got to make you wanna cry, or curse, or both.

There is no need to go to the Amazon to see this kind of senseless destruction happening. The Flamengo park in Rio de Janeiro is a good example of the brutal way in which landscaping is done in Brazil. The ‘Santo Antonio’ hill was dismantled with high pressure water to make way for a road, which they describe as urban evolution. The rumble was used for the landfill, on which the Flamengo Park was built. The flora in this park was carefully selected out of a catalog by Brazil’s most renowned landscape artist, Burle Marx. The only things that survived the dismantling of the hill were a convent and a church, because they are considered “exceptional works of art” from Rio’s colonial era. The lake that used to be on that hill and the site of one of Rio’s first favelas were not worthy of preservation. In this fashion, Burle Marx pioneered, or shall I say paved the way for, Brazil’s modernist landscaping style, where we combine industrial urban development with a shallow concern for rain forest biodiversity preservation. In other words, we can turn lakes into landfills, obliterate mountains, and build roads, as soon as we also buy exotic plants and put them on display for tourists. This not only diminishes biodiversity to an angle in marketing strategy, it also does real damage to preservation efforts because it provides a fraudulent remedy for the issue of deforestation (we might as well sell ivory to raise money for an Elephant sanctuary or advocate for the bottling of water because we believe recycling is good).

This landscaping style is also adopted in the context of people’s personal homes and neighborhoods, even when they don’t have the resources to buy replacement plants. A biology professor active in Brazil’s South East region told me that people ask her to sign off on urban planning permits that seek to chop down trees for the most ridiculous reasons: birds poop on cars, fruit falling damages cars, fear and/or distaste for the animals the fruits attract, youngsters go under that tree to make out (!), and so on. Showing an even more disturbing aspect of this government-issued urban planing strategy, she told me that it turns out that while these officials take down trees, they also issue grossly overpriced seedling reports where they most certainly keep the difference as hidden personal assets. For me, the most tragic aspect of this type of corruption is that, in the end, Indigenous people are the ones who earn the reputation of being opportunist (as I’ll discuss in the following section).

Rescuing Indigenous Heritage

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The Rock of the Indian in Icaraí beach, Niterói, Brazil (Photo by Douglas Barros).

Itaipú (the neighborhood of my childhood home) is also a site of Indigenous heritage. It’s located around the Itaipú lake, which unites Itaipú beach, and Camboinhas beach. An upper class wave of Rio de Janeiro’s real estate developers decided to turn some land around the lake (Dunes and such) into a fancy beach condo complex. The problem is that there was an Indigenous tribe living there, and it’s a Sambaqui, meaning- a sort of sacred Indigenous burial ground where no people are buried, but are massive piles of molluscs and shells on which ancient humans lived. These Sambaquis exist all across the coast of Brazil, and they are evidence of human life in the region way before colonial occupation, because these clustered artifacts were the leftovers of what people were eating. This Sambaqui in Camboinhas in particular is the oldest of the state of Rio de Janeiro, dating back over 7 thousand years.

Exactly 10 years ago, in 2008, the Indigenous settlement was set on fire, literally, in the sort of slash-and-burn technique we’ve seen be used before. No one was hurt, but they were forced to move. Now they are in Maricá, the next small town on the coast, after Niterói. I’ve been there this year, they are happy to deal with less harassment at this location, although Maricá’s politicians still argue fiercely about how much financial aid to provide them with (if any). Activists still struggle to save the lagoon, which is a sort of swamp rich in bio-diversity with crabs, frogs, and birds. Some say that the land on which my childhood home was built was once lake, that’s why there were crabs around sometimes (and why I have a crab tattoo).

Unfortunately, the resistance is well organized but at a disadvantage. In the past 10 years the government has made a tunnel through a giant rock, established a special (and expensive) ferry boat network, and is in the process of making an express bus lane to enable a much faster connection between the Itaipú/Camboinhas neighborhoods and Rio de Janeiro. It’s a matter of time until the condos are built. Furthermore, much of the public opinion in the area is that the Indigenous tribe was only in Camboinhas because they were interested in the high value real estate which they were occupying, as if they had some type of financial interest in being there. These are also people who claim that the arson case was a hoax to earn sympathy. Most people don’t even know there ever was an Indigenous tribe in the area, much less that arson happened, they just think that the tunnel is convenient.

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A grassroots action to Save the Lake.

Lies, Lies, and more Lies

The ability to manipulate public opinion is a technique Europeans mastered during colonialism, and, as you can see, still use today in the form of capitalist interests and corruption. In a previous article, I mentioned that my great-great-grandmother was an Indigenous woman that was “caught by lasso” to marry my great-great-grandfather. Though maybe not literally by lasso, consent between a white man and a woman of color was far from a worshiped value.

She was Caeté, a notorious tribe for forming an alliance with the French and becoming enemies of the Portuguese. More notorious was the story that the Caetés practiced cannibalism (this part is true), and ate a Portuguese Bishop called Sardinha (which means Sardine!). After the Portuguese won against the French, the Caetés were enslaved, and fantastic stories of the savagery of these people traveled throughout Europe, to even be illustrated by the Dutch artist Theodor de Bry.

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Theodor de Bry, 1592.

It was only recently that the truthfulness of this story has been called into question. Bishop Sardinha was definitely killed, but apparently not by the Caetés. He might have been murdered by the Governor-General and his son, because he was not happy about how the colony was being run, and was planning to return to Portugal to share his criticisms with the Portuguese King (the bishop was much more religiously strict than other Jesuits; he opposed smoking and inter-racial sex, for instance).

The Governor-General, and especially his son, were certainly engaging in spiritually dubious behavior and did not want the gossip traveling back to the Portuguese royalty. So, they killed the bishop before he could return to Portugal, and framed the Caetés. For the Governor and his family, this was a win-win situation. The King wouldn’t find out what they were up to, and public opinion was shifted towards supporting the enslavement of the Caetés. The simple reason why it’s so difficult to find out what actually happened is because, with the Bishop dead and the Caetés extinct, the only people left to tell the story were the ones who had an interest in lying.

If we look back at 2017, particularly the frantic shift in public opinion over the world stage of politics, we can see this is very much still happening. From a reality show star being in charge of the biggest army in the world, and calling everything ‘fake news’ while giving fake information to journalists, to social media undeniably participating in extremely influential and politically relevant misinformation and censorshipit is evident that they are the ones with an interest in lying.

We’ve only got each other, and I believe the best way to make 2018 as good as it can be is by sticking together and listening to the voices that have an interest in uncovering the truth, as opposed to obscuring it. My article next month will expand on this topic by discussing the modern-day genocide and State terrorism the media enables by evading truth.


Mirna Wabi-Sabi

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Mirna is an intersectional feminist and decolonial activist from Brazil currently investigating Indigenous heritage. She publishes zines (Something Printed for Reading), and organizes educational events (DIY Workshop).


The Pre-Sale for Anthony Rella’s Circling The Star is here.


TRADUÇÃO

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Lamentar uma Árvore e Denunciar um Sistema

Depois de 15 anos morando no exterior, voltei para minha casa de infância para encontrar o jardim sem árvores. A casa não era grande; um andar, 2 quartos e um jardim de 30 por 15 metros quadrados; em Itaipú, Niterói. O quintal tinha muitas árvores: manga, jamelão, cajá, acerola, banana e vários tipos de arbustos. Tinha. Primeiro, os arbustos foram embora para dar lugar pra pavimento. Depois, um quarto extra substituiu a bananeira e a aceroleira. Agora, uma mangueira existe só, engaiolada em concreto. Chorei. Não chorei porque sou apegada à coisas em geral. Depois de viver em 3 continentes diferentes e eu-não-sei-quantas cidades, me acostumei a deixar coisas pelas quais tenho carinho pra atrás: casas, discos, animais de estimação, livros, rotinas, pessoas queridas, línguas familiares, culturas, e etc. Então, se a perda de algo verdadeiramente quebra meu coração, é porque ha um significado extremamente profundo.

As árvores de manga, cajá e jamelão eram enormes. Imagine essas árvores de 40 anos de idade (pelo menos) formando um triângulo e entrelaçando ramos como companheiras em resistência pacífica e épica. Costumávamos colocar 2 redes entre os 3 troncos e sentar o dia inteiro conversando e bebendo suco de manga. Quando criança, eu pensava que era atleta radical quando escalava nos ramos espessos para apanhar mangas antes que elas caíssem no chão (e se machucavam ou rachavam). Isso foi até que eu encontrei uma já rachada ainda pendurada, com suco escorrendo e uma pequena aranha com pernas gigantes e coloridas sugando. Foi assustador e confuso. Como uma aranha pode cortar a casca grossa de uma manga? Quer dizer, a rachadura era maior que a própria aranha. Deve ter sido o Chupacabra. Toda noite, eu via as rápidas sombras pretas de morcegos de frutas, e me convencia de que era o monstro alienígena chupador de sangue de cabra nas notícias. Claro, era a década de 90; nós tínhamos o X-Files e shows sensacionalistas de “notícias” brasileiras com testemunhos de pessoas reais (você provavelmente pode ver que eu ainda quero acreditar). Quando perguntei aos novos moradores da casa por que cortaram todas aquelas árvores, me disseram que era porque tinham medo dos morcegos (eu também tive medo – quando criança, isso não significa – matar).

Se as pessoas podem se identificar com a minha tristeza no microcosmo de um jardim pessoal, espero que possam imaginar essa tristeza no contexto do país com maior biodiversidade do mundo, também como o país com maior índice de desmatamento. O que leva as pessoas a querer cortar árvores? As técnicas de corte-e-queima utilizadas para fazer ranchos de gado, com a ajuda de plantações de soja, foram responsáveis ​​pela obliteração de 13% da maior floresta tropical do mundo, simplesmente assim. Tudo isso por causa de bife? Tem que te fazer querer chorar, ou falar palavrão, ou os dois.

Não há necessidade de ir para a Amazônia para ver esse tipo de horrorosa destruição acontecer. O parque do Flamengo no Rio de Janeiro é um bom exemplo da maneira brutal em que o paisagismo é feito no Brasil. O morro de Santo Antônio foi desmantelado com água de alta pressão para dar lugar a uma estrada, o que descrevem como “evolução urbana”. O estrondo foi usado para o aterro, no qual o Parque do Flamengo foi construído. A flora deste parque foi cuidadosamente selecionada de um catálogo pelo paisagista mais famoso do Brasil, Burle Marx. As únicas coisas que sobreviveram o desmantelamento do morro foram um convento e uma igreja, porque são consideradas “obras de arte excepcionais” da era colonial do Rio. O lago que estava naquele morro, e o local de uma das primeiras favelas do Rio não eram dignos de preservação. Desta forma, Burle Marx foi pioneiro, ou devo dizer, pavimentou o caminho para o estilo de paisagismo modernista do Brasil, onde combinamos o desenvolvimento urbano industrial com uma preocupação superficial com a preservação da biodiversidade da floresta tropical. Em outras palavras, podemos transformar os lagos em aterros, destruir montanhas e construir estradas, assim que também compremos plantas exóticas para colocá-las em exibição para turistas. Isso não só reduz biodiversidade a um ângulo na estratégia de marketing da cidade, mas também causa danos reais aos esforços de preservação porque fornece um remédio fraudulento para a questão do desmatamento (como poderíamos também vender marfim para arrecadar dinheiro para um santuário de elefantes, ou apoiar o engarrafamento de água porque acreditamos que a reciclagem é bom).

Este estilo de paisagismo também é adotado no contexto das casas e bairros das pessoas, mesmo quando as pessoas não tem recursos para comprar novas plantas de um catálogo. Uma professora de biologia que atua na região Sudeste do Brasil me disse que as pessoas pedem para que ela assine licenças de planejamento urbano que procuram cortar árvores pelos motivos mais ridículos: pássaros fazem cocô nos carros, as frutas quando caem danificam carros, medo e/ou a aversão aos animais que os frutos atraem, jovens ficam se beijando em baixo da árvore (!), e assim por diante. Mostrando um aspecto ainda mais perturbador desta estratégia de planejamento urbano emitida pelo governo, ela me disse que enquanto estes funcionários derrubam árvores, eles também emitem relatórios de compra de novas mudas como se fossem mais caras do que realmente são, para poderem ficar com a diferença como bens pessoais. Para mim, o aspecto mais trágico deste tipo de corrupção é que, no final, os povos indígenas são os que ganham a reputação de serem oportunistas (como falo na seção seguinte).

Resgatando Patrimônio Indígena

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Itaipú (o bairro da minha casa de infância) também é uma area de forte herança indígena. Está localizada ao redor da lagoa de Itaipú, que une a praia de Itaipú e a praia de Camboinhas. Uma onda de classe alta de desenvolvedores imobiliários do Rio de Janeiro decidiu transformar algumas terras ao redor da lagoa em elegantes condomínios de praia. O problema é que havia uma tribo indígena que vivia lá, e é um Sambaqui, que significa uma espécie de cemitério indígena sagrado, onde não há pessoas enterradas, mas são enormes pilhas de moluscos e conchas em que viviam indígenas. Esses Sambaquis existem em todo o litoral do Brasil, e são evidências da vida humana na região antes da ocupação colonial, porque esses artefatos agrupados eram os restos do que as pessoas estavam comendo. Este Sambaqui em Camboinhas em particular é o mais antigo do estado do Rio de Janeiro, com mais de 7 mil anos de idade.

Exatamente 10 anos atrás, em 2008, o assentamento indígena foi incendiado, literalmente, no tipo de técnica de corte-e-queima que vimos ser usada antes. Ninguém foi ferido, mas eles foram forçados a se mudar. Agora estão em Maricá, a próxima pequena cidade na costa, depois de Niterói. Estive lá este ano, eles estão felizes em lidar com menos assédio neste local, embora os políticos de Maricá ainda discutam ferozmente sobre quanta ajuda financeira lhes proporcionar (se alguma). Ativistas ainda lutam para salvar a lagoa, que é uma espécie de pântano rico em biodiversidade com caranguejos, sapos e pássaros. Alguns dizem que a terra em que minha casa de infância foi construída era uma vez lagoa, por isso havia caranguejos às vezes (e por que eu tenho uma tatuagem de caranguejo).

Infelizmente, a resistência está bem organizada, mas em desvantagem. Nos últimos 10 anos, o governo fez um túnel, estabeleceu uma rede especial (e cara) de barcas, e está em processo de fazer uma via de ônibus para permitir uma conexão mais rápida entre os bairros de Itaipú/Camboinhas e Rio de Janeiro. É uma questão de tempo até que os condomínios sejam construídos. Além disso, grande parte da opinião pública na área é que a tribo indígena estava apenas em Camboinhas porque estavam interessados ​​no alto valor imobiliário que estavam ocupando, como se tivessem algum tipo de interesse financeiro em estar lá. Estas são também pessoas que afirmam que o caso de incêndio criminoso foi fabricado para ganhar simpatia. A maioria das pessoas nem sabem que já houve uma tribo indígena na área, muito menos que o incêndio aconteceu, apenas pensam que o túnel é conveniente.

Mentiras, Mentiras e mais Mentiras

A capacidade de manipular a opinião pública é uma técnica que os europeus dominaram durante o colonialismo e, como você pode ver, ainda usa hoje em forma de interesses capitalistas e corrupção. Em um artigo anterior, mencionei que minha bisavó era uma mulher indígena que foi “caçada a laço” para se casar com meu bisavô. Embora talvez não tenha sido literalmente a lasso, o consentimento entre um homem branco e uma mulher de cor estava longe de ser uma coisa praticada e valorizada.

Ela era Caeté, uma tribo notória por formar uma aliança com os franceses e se tornar inimiga dos portugueses. Mais notória foi a história de que os Caetés praticavam canibalismo (esta parte é verdade) e comeram um Bispo português chamado Sardinha. Depois que os portugueses ganharam contra os franceses, os Caetés foram escravizados e histórias fantásticas da selvageria desse povo viajaram por toda a Europa, inclusive foram ilustradas pelo artista holandês Theodor de Bry.

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Foi apenas recentemente que a credibilidade desta história foi questionada. O bispo Sardinha foi definitivamente morto, mas aparentemente não pelos Caetés. Ele provavelmente foi assassinado pelo governador-geral e seu filho, porque ele não estava feliz com a forma como a colônia estava sendo executada e estava planejando voltar para Portugal para compartilhar suas críticas com o rei português (o bispo era muito mais religiosamente rigoroso do que outros jesuítas, ele se opôs ao tabagismo e sexo inter racial, por exemplo). O governador-geral, e especialmente o filho dele, certamente estavam envolvidos em comportamentos espiritualmente duvidosos e não queriam que as fofocas chegassem a realeza portuguesa. Então, eles mataram o bispo antes que ele pudesse voltar para Portugal, e escravizou os Caetés. Para o governador e sua família, esta foi uma situação duplamente vitoriosa. O Rei não descobriu o que eles estavam fazendo, e a opinião pública se enclinou em apoiar a escravização dos Caetés. A simples razão pela qual é tão difícil descobrir o que realmente aconteceu é porque, com o bispo morto e os Caetés extintos, as únicas pessoas que sobraram para contar a história eram aquelas que tinham interesse em mentir.

Se olharmos para 2017, particularmente a mudança frenética na opinião pública sobre o palco político mundial, podemos ver que isso ainda está acontecendo. De uma estrela de reality show gerenciando o maior exército do mundo e chamando de tudo “falsas notícias” e ao mesmo tempo fornecendo informações falsas aos jornalistas, as mídias sociais que inegavelmente participam de desinformação e censura extremamente influentes e politicamente relevantes – é evidente que estes são os que tem interesse em mentir. Nós só temos uns aos outros, e acredito que a melhor maneira de tornar o 2018 o melhor possível é se unir e ouvir as vozes que têm interesse em descobrir a verdade, ao invés de obscurecer-la. Meu artigo no próximo mês expandirá este tópico ao discutir o genocídio contemporâneo e o terrorismo de Estado que os meios de comunicação permitem por evadir a verdade.


Mirna Wabi-Sabi

23844610_10155972276622372_5754996345436383112_né co-Editora de Gods and Radicals.

Tales From Trash Country: Let Me Set Up This Incinerator Real Quick

“As I made my way back across the dark parking lot, this thought had solidified in my mind: we need to stop focusing on what to do with the massive mountains of reeking filth that other people dump on us. We need to focus instead on curtailing the creation of that garbage in the first place.”

A report from Joe DiCicco


Seneca Lake (photo by Peter Stergion CC-BY-SA-4.0)

A fire hall at the end of a long drive down dark country road sets the scene. It’s not even 6:30 but already it’s dark. Such is late autumn in Upstate New York. Romulus, New York, to be exact, in the heart of the Finger Lakes. A tiny little hamlet with a school, a couple churches, plenty of open farmland. I don’t think there’s even a convenience store anymore. Unfortunately, the setting is all too familiar. It is this rural location that sticks out like a sore thumb, a bull’s eye, a target, to predatory corporate interests.

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.

As I pull into the parking lot of the Romulus Fire Department, I see it’s nearly full with colossal diesel pick up trucks; another tell-tale sign. As I park my car and make my way inside, I pass by a tall man, perhaps in his fifties, smoking a cigarette and glaring daggers at me. I’m not surprised. I’m known in these parts by some as a sort of speaker of truth who hits all the points. By others as a commie/liberal/un-American writer. A meddlesome writer, with, according to some, some sort of hidden agenda. Whatever that means. This particular gentleman wore a blaze orange hoody, the words printed on which I couldn’t quite make out in the darkness. It would become apparent which of the two opposites this gentleman likely saw me the moment I walked into the bright florescent lights of the fire hall.

A sea of blaze orange. Forty or more men, and a few women, taking up the first three or four rows of metal folding chairs placed in the hall. It wasn’t quite 6:30, and the meeting did not begin until 7. They must have been the first ones to there.

IBEW their sweatshirts read. Made in America.

A local electrician’s union. I nodded. It made sense.

They had, in all likelihood, been instructed by their supervisor to show up in force, to show their support for the project (of which I’ll get to in just a moment), to display how the region needs jobs, and of their willingness to take them. The proposed facility would need electrical run, and these electricians were just the ones to do it.

This is, of course, taken from the corporate playbook. Infiltrating A Community 100: All the Basics. Go to a rural community with a high unemployment rate (in this case, the Finger Lakes region of upstate NY, which is quickly becoming known as trash country) and dangle jobs over people’s heads. Construction jobs. Electrician jobs. Get these hopefuls to show up to these meetings, it all helps the end goal of the outside interest.

You want to put food in your baby’s belly? Well, these local yokels want to take that food right out of your baby’s mouth. You’re going to have to protect your family.

The thought turned my stomach that evening, and it turns my stomach now. The way these moneyed interests manipulate populations is simply perverse.

Seven o’ clock came around and over 200 people had packed into the fire hall (as always, there should have been three times that number). It was about what I had expected. It was meant to be a regular meeting of the Romulus Town Board, but this proposed facility was given the spotlight. A lawyer representing the company, Circular EnerG LLC, began with what was to be expected; a slide show presentation and a picture painted of a facility and industrial jobs package that sounded too good to be true. Plenty of buzzwords. Plenty of promises of “I’ve worked with numerous facilities like these before, folks, and let me tell you, they really are something special!”

The proposal, of course, is to build a garbage incineration facility that would accept refuse from all over the northeastern United States, by truck and by rail, to be burnt on-site and converted to energy. The proposed location for the facility is on a former army storage depot smack dab between the two largest of the Finger Lakes; Seneca and Cayuga. The facility would accept some 2,600 tons of other people’s garbage every single day.

After the lawyer spoke, a couple different environmental engineers, hired by Circular EnerG, took the mic and spoke briefly about the inner-workings of such a facility. I found it just a bit strange that a representative of the company itself was not in attendance; just its lawyer and sub-contracted engineers. Very little is known about the company itself. It’s a young company, having been in existence for only around two years, and apparently has an office in Rochester, about an hour away. I had difficulty finding any information at all about this company. I found sites for a Circular Energy with a ‘Y’, but the presentations, and indeed all the information about this company thus far spell it with only a capitalized ‘G’. In fact, the only information I have been able to locate on this company comes from the local news articles describing the proposed project.

Another neon-red flag.

This proposal is, unfortunately, just the latest in a long line of attacks on the Finger Lakes region of New York, some four hours northwest of the city. A region that for many years worked hard to brand itself as wine country, a land of beautiful rolling hills and numerous freshwater lakes. It would seem, however, that other interests are set on making the region the trash capital of New York State, and possibly even the northeast. The Seneca Meadows privately-owned, for-profit mega-landfill exists a mere fifteen minutes up the road from where this proposed incineration facility would stand. Seneca Meadows is by far the largest landfill in the state, and one of the largest in the northeast. It already accepts 6,000 tons of rotting filth a day, from numerous other northeastern states and even Canada, and stockpiles it just north of the villages of Waterloo and Seneca Falls. Now, if this proposed incineration facility was aiming to shut down the landfill, maybe even begin moving some of the mountains of trash from it to be incinerated, I may be more inclined to consider.

But it’s not.

It is a separate entity from Seneca Meadows, entirely. And it is simply another artery to bring in other people’s filth into the Finger Lakes. And the people here are up to their necks in it already.

I looked up from my notes, sitting roughly in the center of the crowded fire hall. The engineer currently speaking was telling how the facility would use some 450,000 gallons of water from Seneca Lake every single day. This water would be used to cool incinerator machinery before being returned to the lake much warmer than it had previously been. Seneca Lake, the largest and deepest of the ancient glacial lakes that make up the Finger Lakes, is already under far too much stress. Numerous wineries, farms, and at least one power plant all discharge into her waters. Harmful Algae Blooms, or HABs, have become a serious threat in recent years. These are growths of blue-green algae known to be quite harmful to humans and wildlife. They occur due to nutrient loading into the lake, as well as warmer and warmer water being discharged back into the lake, thus promoting the growth.

Simply put, our lake cannot take anymore. She’s at the breaking point.

“Any true environmentalist should support this facility.” The lawyer finished up the presentation with. I scowled. The guy likely didn’t know the first thing about being a true environmentalist.

Indeed, proponents for the facility point out how many Europeans nations and Japan are already incinerating their garbage, as opposed to wholesale dumping it in populated areas. This is true, and in their case, it is a far more efficient and sustainable practice. That’s because they don’t create waste like we, as Americans, do. They practice recycling, composting, and reuse to a far more stringent level. Many companies operating in these nations are required, by law, to buy back the packaging they use in their products, discouraging excess use. Incineration is then the final step to deal with the very minimal bare ones, if you will, of what remains. They do not allow their citizens to simply create as much waste as their hearts desire, and then propose to incinerate it. They are not handling anywhere near the volume we would be at this proposed facility in Romulus, New York.

We filed out of the fire hall at eight o’ clock, about an hour after the presentation began. They do like to keep these things short and sweet. And my mind had been made up. I believed exiting this presentation even more strongly than I did entering it, that garbage is not the answer. As I made my way back across the dark parking lot, this thought had solidified in my mind: we need to stop focusing on what to do with the massive mountains of reeking filth that other people dump on us. We need to focus instead on curtailing the creation of that garbage in the first place. Once we have put into place stringent recycling, reuse and composting initiatives, and in the communities where the waste is coming from, only then can we consider the incineration of the minimal amount remaining. And I know many others in attendance at that fire hall agree. As I reached my car, I overheard an elderly woman exiting the hall behind me speak clearly into the cold early-December air:

“The Finger Lakes wants out of the trash business!”


Joe DiCicco

Joe DiCicco is an author of horror fiction as well as environmental issues. He holds a degree in Environmental Conservation and will choose people and Mother Earth over corporate profits, every time.


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Hedgework: On the Dialectic of Man and Nature

In the Vale of the White Horse, within sight of Uffington Castle, there is a large rectangular field, where until recently members of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids gathered to celebrate Lughnasadh. Every year in late August, under the light of the waxing moon, 200 people, of all ages, would materialise out of the summer heat and the ripening corn. After setting up a wide circle of bender tents and yurts around a central fire, they’d make sure to beat the bounds; processing clockwise around the field, playing instruments and clapping loudly, greeting the directions and the spirits of place. The same thing happened every morning throughout the festival.

This practice highlights an important truth; although any visitor to the camp would easily recognise the importance of the central hearth, those hedges around of the field were every bit as sacred. As if to highlight this fact, at the southern edge of the field, within the hedge itself, stood a hidden grove, with a holy oak at its heart – this venerable being oversaw all the naming ceremonies, initiations, and other secret rites in the community. When I first ventured into that grove, some seven years ago, I felt like I was on a threshold; beyond which, through which, the whole world began.

Hedgerows are perhaps one of the most quintessential features of these islands*. They wend their way between gardens, grass and crops, catching the bounty of the Earth like a net catches the wealth of the sea. Some of my most powerful spiritual experiences, like that mentioned above, have taken place along and within hedges. They are – to borrow a term from Celtic Christianity – “thin places”, locations where the veil between this world and the other is light, and the divine is close at hand.

The state of “in-betweenness”, or liminality as anthropologists call it, carries a great deal of significance in cultures all around the world; boundaries, be they intellectual or physical (and they’re often both), fascinate us and ensnare our imaginations; so we sanctify them, or joke about them, or wrap them up in taboos. Hedges – neither in one field, nor the next – are no exception.

It’s unsurprising then, that we find the hedge playing a major part in the sacred geography of Anglo-Celtic Pagan traditions. The hedge, we are told, is the domain of the hedgewitch – a folk healer-cum-shaman; a cunning man or wise woman, who works in service of their community from its edges. For these workers of craft, the hedge is a medicine cabinet, an altar, and an axis mundi. It gives us herbs for healing, a place to meet the gods, and a means of journeying into the Otherworld. It is from this latter use that we get the name “Hedge-rider”.

In ancient times, we are told, every village would have been surrounded by a hedge that protected it from the wilds beyond – the village witch would have negotiated this barrier; mediating between the spirits of the forest and the human folk of the village.

The trifecta of wilderness, hedge and village never sat quite right with me. For one thing, you simply didn’t see this feature anywhere in the British landscape in which I grew up. No village I know is surrounded on every side by hedges, nor are woodlands pushed to the rim of each parish like the scum on a bath. Lots of villages – including the one in which I grew up – have a dispersed, not nucleated, pattern. The houses are spread out, not clustered together.

For most of its history, my village was a string of homesteads, scattered around a large area of common land – land that was only built on in the 20th century. Commons – often in the form of pasture, woods, reed beds, and heathland areas, frequently imagined as “wild” places – are usually carefully managed in Britain and Ireland, and were created in spots that, either due to steep topography or infertile soils, were not suited to agriculture. Instead of a landscape in which humans live apart from nature in little enclosures, what you see in reality is something quite different – a patchwork of different types of land use, according to a mixture of geography and human choice. Hedges, in this landscape, are the needlework; the green thread binding everything together. The hedge, in other words, is not the interchange between the village and the wild; but rather the connective tissue between places of all kinds.

We find this pattern reaching far back into the history of the landscape here. While the Celts or Anglo-Saxons would have surrounded their villages with fences made from wooden palisades if they chose, they would head out into the woods to clear patches for agriculture, wherever the soil, aspect, and water supply was preferable. Richard Mabey, one of Britain’s most renowned naturalists, tells us that rather than surround villages, the first hedges delimited these clearings. The edges of these clearings, enclosed by bushes and trees, were called haga – the root word for “hedge” today.

It is not hard to imagine how, perhaps while working on until dusk, these first farmers would have spotted haegtessa at the edge of the forest – ephemeral figures of women, skulking between the trees. Sometimes, it might have turned out that what they’d seen was one of their own wives or grandmothers, gathering herbs or praying to the gods. At others, no human visitor to the haga could be identified – and the apparitions would have been attributed to ghosts, fairies, or other beings.

The association between mortal wise women, the haga, and ephemeral spirits stuck. As these early farmers hollowed out more of the wildwood, they left threads of trees and bushes standing, to mark out one field from another. Over time, they trained these plants into a barrier against livestock – the first true hedges of the kind we know today. The shadowy haetessa would live on, as the word “hag”. In a very real sense, then, the hedge represents the essence of the wildwood, living on in the cracks of the British landscape.

But the ancient origins of the hedge are not the whole story; the recent past of these green walls is an altogether more chequered affair. Throughout the Medieval period, the ancient hedges retreated – being cut away to make more space for farming. Across much of England in particular, it ceased to be as important to set apart different fields. In many parishes, agrarable fields and pasture was held in common, as part of the open field system – managed centrally by the entire community through manorial courts. Under such economic conditions, hedges served little purpose.

But this situation did not last. Enclosure – the process by which common land was sold off to private individuals – was carried out steadily throughout the late medieval and early modern periods, before dramatically accelerating, with the assistance of several acts of Parliament, over the course of the 18th century. As environmental historians such as Nick Blomley and John Wright have documented, one of the first acts taken by new owners was often to plant hedges; hedges being a means of excluding commoners from the land that had been taken from them. Prior to enclosure, the rural poor relied on common land – especially pasture – to supplement their diet and obtain fuel. Once deprived of these resources, they had little alternative but to move to the industrialising cities or emigrate.

The rage felt by former commoners was considerable, and riots resisting enclosure were common – with hedges often being crossed through acts of mass trespass and grubbed up as criminal damage in the process. The old saying – Horne and Thorne Shall Make England Forlorne – encapsulates the feeling of the time; with both profit-oriented sheep farming (horne) and enclosure through hedge-laying (thorne) being identified as key instruments through which the poor were immiserated. Under such circumstances, we encounter another incarnation of the “hedge-rider” – the impoverished commoner who leaps across a newly planted line of thorns, to reclaim his birthright.

The hedge, then, emerges from the history of the British landscape in particular as a deeply ambiguous, yet highly potent force from my point of view. The hedge’s origins as the mysterious barrier between cultivated and uncultivated space, as the ubiquitous remnants of primordial woodland, retains much of the power of the original image of the hedge as the border between village and wild, while correcting that image’s flaws. If we imagine the hedge as a barrier between the human and the non-human, this can reinforce the problematic divide between nature and culture; a divide that so bedevils our attempts to live and think sustainably. The hedge’s more recent history as an instrument of enclosure; that kept people off the land, and eventually forced them off it for good; shows precisely the damage this sort of rhetoric can do. We cannot allow hedges to shut us out of nature.

If, on the other hand, we think of hedges as stitching that connects up landscapes of which humans are already a fundamental, and numinous part, then they become a constant reminder of the presence of the other natures in all our lives. Hedge-riding becomes as much a matter of crossing boundaries in defence of the commons, as it is a case of journeying along green roads into the Woods From Which We Come.


Notes

*The islands of Britain and Ireland. The term “British Isles” can imply continued overlordship of the Republic of Ireland by the British crown, and so it is not used here.

Image by Christine Johnstone and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.


Jonathan Woolley

1b&w copyJonathan is a social anthropologist and human ecologist, based at the University of Cambridge. He is a specialist in the political economy of the British landscape, and in the relationship between spirituality, the environment, and climate change. A member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, and an eco-animist, Jonathan maintains a blog about his academic fieldwork called BROAD PATHWAYS.


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Something Is Happening

SOMETHING IS HAPPENING HERE, but you don’t know what it is: Do you? No one knows, really, as this something is still evolving. As we look back to 2016, though, it is abundantly clear that history has awoken from its slumber. We’ve had a couple events in the West last year: Brexit and Trump.

Politically-charged, dynamic events (as Alain Badiou might define them) have been rare in the West since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the USSR. Capitalism made it seem as if neoliberalism was winning in the 1990s, even as the US wantonly murdered in Iraq and took perverse pleasure in helping to dismember Yugoslavia, among other things.

In fact, one could argue there have only been four notable Western political events in the post-Cold War era: the 9/11 attacks, the 2003 protests against the Iraq War, the 2008 banking crisis and following protest movements of 2011 (Occupy and 15-M Movement), and the populist, anger-driven aforementioned events of 2016.

You see, authentic, spontaneous political events (in the form of uprisings or popular revolts against the elite) are a no-no in the West. History is supposed to have ended, remember? Max Weber called this the Iron Cage, and for good reason.

Now, though, the meaninglessness and rootlessness of our lives trapped inside the cage have become too obvious to ignore, for most of us. As each day passes, our political discourse glosses over how lazy, ignorant, mean-spirited, and numb our society has become. We import luxuries from all over the globe, but can’t be bothered to cook or grow our own food, assemble our own electronics, expand renewable energy projects, provide clean water to inner cities, organize high-speed transport, or educate our youth without drowning them in debt, etc.

So, many have lashed out against the system, and our more vulnerable members of society, in anger, defiance, out of sheer ignorance. Could it be because, deep down, we know how helpless, sheltered, and out-of-touch our society is, compared to the rest of the world? What are the root causes of this disintegration of public discourse?

One cause is our utter dependency on the capitalist system to clothe, feed, and shelter us. What we used to inherit from our mothers and fathers, important agricultural knowledge, artisanal and cultural wisdom, a sense of place and belonging, have all been traded in for money, the privilege to be exploited by capitalism, toiling in jobs that alienate us from ourselves, families, the Earth. Paper bills and electronic bank accounts are a pitiful substitute for self-reliance. This loss, this grief, isn’t allowed to be expressed in public. Logical positivism tells us that progress will prevail, the future will be better than the past, and anyone who thinks otherwise must be some sort of Luddite.

Since real income has fallen and social services have been slashed in the last 40-plus years, many have seen their loved ones’ lives cut short (lack of access to health care and quality food and produce, air and water pollution), their dreams defiled (steady jobs gone, factories shuttered), their entertainment homogenized and dangerous (sports mania has become normalized, “Go Team!”, alcohol, painkiller, and opiate addiction is rampant), their hopes for the future shattered (community and public space swallowed by corporations).

There are those, as well, still too plugged into the system (both Trump and Clinton voters), too attached to their gadgets, to the hum of their slave-labor appliances, to the glow emanating from their screens. They will cry incessantly about the turning away of Muslims from flights, but there is only silence for the millions killed abroad by the US war machine. Mainstream liberals are just as likely as the meanest, most selfish conservatives to fall prey to emotional pleas, demagoguery, and pathetic attempts to see themselves as victims in this Age of Anger.

The urge to resort to the myth of a righteous, homogenous, “pure” social group, to denigrate the other, is strong in such dire, despondent situations. In America, though, material poverty cannot be said to be the only, or even the main causal factor, behind this return of nativism and tribalism. Rather, it is undoubtedly a spiritual malaise that has swept over the West. Ever since the rise of the Industrial Revolution, it has been technology which has provided the underlying weltanschauung for our culture. Sprouting from this, an inhuman and Earth-destroying morality has formed. Jacques Ellul explains:

“A principal characteristic of technique … is its refusal to tolerate moral judgments. It is absolutely independent of them and eliminates them from its domain. Technique never observes the distinction between moral and immoral use. It tends on the contrary, to create a completely independent technical morality.” (1)

Thus, Western society, through the use of mass-produced electronics and disseminated in what some call our “Information Age”, has now seemingly accelerated the pace of change and ecological destruction beyond the scope of any group or nation which could possibly control it. We are then confronted with the thought that only an economic collapse or series of natural disasters could possibly provide the impetus for revolutionary change to occur. This only leaves us feeling helpless, depressed, and passive in the face of government oppression and capitalist exploitation.

Not only that, but capitalism has quite literally dulled our senses and disconnected us from our source of being, planet Earth. Don’t believe me? Read this amazing paper on how Polynesian wayfinders discovered islands thousands of miles apart without any modern technology. This is part of what Morris Berman means by Coming to our Senses. To re-establish our unity with nature, the Western notion of an ego-driven, domineering and reductionist search for truth, meaning, and creativity must be thrown out. Here, Berman invokes Simone Weil:

“‘decreate’ yourself in order to create the work, as God (Weil says) diminished Himself in order to create the world. It would be more accurate to say that you don’t create the work, but rather you step out of the way and let it happen.” (2)

This isn’t really discussed among wide swaths of leftists, the social-justice crowd, or with mainstream liberals. It’s anathema to a materialistic, dead world where freedom has been traded for comforting lies, money has been substituted for the ability to provide for ourselves and our communities, and the abundance and resiliency (truly a miracle!) of the Earth is taken for granted as we chase our next fix for consumer goods, our next chance for drugs or gadgets to dim our perception.

What you’re not supposed to say in public, of course, is that our world is falling apart, and we are doing nothing to stop it. The reactions are too raw, the reality too grim, even as we know, for example, that 10% or more of the total species on Earth will be gone by 2050.

Yet we can do something: there is an opening now in political discourse which has been previously denied to us. The Republican and Democratic parties have thoroughly delegitimized themselves by offering up Trump and Clinton as their figureheads: these were widely considered the most widely disliked candidates in recent memory, if not the history of our republic. There is room for Libertarians, Greens, and Socialists to gain power: yet only if they avoid their own regrettable sectarianism, organize, and promote an inclusive, broad-based platform.

To do so, citizens will have to gain some perspective on their lives. A slow pace of life needs to be seen as a virtue, not a sin: many on the right and left are quick to denounce the hedonism of the jet-setting, parasitic globalists, the Davos men; yet refuse to see their own lifestyles and actions as smaller examples of such outlandish consumption.

If we are open to life and our environment as part of a greater whole, an unfathomable mystery, we can refuse our culture’s siren songs of death, misery, and destruction. While modern technology can be useful if reined in by an Earth-conscious, responsible morality, some things are better left unknown, undiscovered, if it risks destroying the Earth in order to find the answer. Rather than running a cost/benefit analysis to determine the land’s worth, some aspects of the planet and the universe are better Left Sacred.

Also, acknowledging our mortality, and accepting the basic fact that death could come for you at any moment, can liberate our souls and propel them to unimaginable heights. Joe Crookston explains this quite well:

“And then when I turn dry and brown
I’ll lay me down to rest
I’ll turn myself around again
As part of an eagle’s nest
And when that eagle learns to fly
I’ll flutter from that tree
I’ll turn myself around again
As part of the mystery”

 

Notes:
1.) Ellul, Jacques. The Technological Society. Vintage Books, 1964. p. 97.
2.) Berman, Morris. Coming to Our Senses: Body and Spirit in the Hidden History of the West. Simon & Schuster, 1989. p. 337


William Hawes

William Hawes is a writer specializing in politics and environmental issues. His articles have appeared online at Global Research, Countercurrents, Dissident Voice, The World Financial Review, Gods & Radicals, and Counterpunch. He is author of the ebook Planetary Vision: Essays on Freedom and Empire. You can reach him at wilhawes@gmail.com

The Oil God

A friend of mine once described the 1992 children’s movie Ferngully as the perfect storm of nineties children’s animation and early ecocritical film consciousness. The film, for those of you who never saw it or perhaps have forgotten some of the details, has a relatively strong environmental message for a children’s movie, and an impressive voice actor cast featuring not only Robin Williams, but also a singing Tim Curry in the role of the film’s villain “Hexxus”: a primordial creature of ooze and malice.

In the film, a group of human forestry workers are driving a clear-cutting machine called the “The Leveler” to clearcut a rainforest. I’ve always found it fascinating that in this scene of Ferngully, before Hexxus is released from his prison, the script of the movie specifically has human characters speaking of the labour practices of their employers and fellow employees. Labour and environmental destruction are intrinsically tied to the machine, and the humans driving The Leveller set the stage for Hexxus to arise. The most chilling—or thrilling, depending on your mood and how exciting you find Tim Curry’s singing voice—scene in the film is the musical number after The Leveller destroys Hexxus’ prison, an ancient dead tree where he’d been previously entombed by the magic of the forest, and set him free:

Oil and grime, poison sludge
Diesel clouds and noxious muck
Slime beneath me, slime up above
Ooh, you’ll love my (ah-ah-ah) toxic love
Toxic love

[…]

‘Cause greedy human beings will always lend a hand
With the destruction of this worthless jungle land
And what a beautiful machine they have provided
To slice a path of doom with my foul breath to guide it

Hexxus’ song “Toxic Love” describes his delights in the ingenuity of man-made destruction. Thanks to the fuel and oil in The Leveler, Hexxus is able to regain his former might in record time. With human help, he is then able to go on a rampage of destruction against the forests and all its residents within.

anigif_enhanced-9452-1413399950-1
GIF: Hexxus discovering the innards of The Leveler

Though Ferngully obviously positions oil, power, and ecological and environmental destruction as evils to be vanquished—specifically, by doing away with Hexxus by locking him back in his tomb—what I always found interesting about Hexxus as a villain of greed and destruction is that he is never presented as a human creation, though it is thanks to humanity’s greedy clear-cutting that he is “set free” from his slumber. He is presented as the complete, destructive opposite of ‘nature’ in the world of Ferngully, and anathema in every way to the nature-loving creatures of the forest. But the fact of the matter is that he is, like all the fairies of Ferngully, a creature of the earth. As a creature of the earth, like those fairies, he is supernatural—but born of the natural world. He is a formidable villain, arguably one of the more interesting characters of the film. His character design is inspired directly by death: as his final, iconic form features a human skull and bony rib cage covered in dark, dripping oil. He is not only a force for decay and death within the film, he is also power incarnate. Hexxus relishes power—and he hungers for more, and more, and more…

Representing Hexxus as a combination of a dead human as well as a creature of oil and tar makes perfect sense: this is a children’s film, so the villain must be recognizably frightening and monstrous. Though whether the creators were aware of it or not, Hexxus can also be interpreted as a a layered expression of humanity’s enduring hunt for resources, specifically and most importantly its hunt for oil. Oil has given us humans power beyond all imagination, and has completely changed our world on a fundamental level. The character of Hexxus becomes a hauntingly perfect metaphor for resource-extraction capitalism and imperialism. Like the humans in Ferngully, humans from Europe found the tomb of an ancient and powerful sleeping Oil God in the inky depths of the earth. In our hubris and greed we awoke him, and accepted to glorify him in exchange for immeasurable, cataclysmic, chaotic power.

Explosion of the deepwater horizon tanker
The God of Oil is also a god of warfare and death. Pictured here is the cataclysmic explosion of the tanker Deepwater Horizon in 2010, which caused one of the biggest environmental disasters in USA history. Source: http://grist.org/climate-energy/these-new-high-res-photos-of-deepwater-horizon-will-make-you-go-holy/

Petrocultures—where it becomes impossible to articulate the ubiquitous

Our society is powered by a dark death that pools beneath us and all around us—this is mostly a poetic way of saying that Oil is everywhere. During my childhood, the conversation regarding fossil fuels all around me, at school, at church, with my family, was all about how we were running out of this finite, limited resource. There was a palpable sense of panic that we were going to run out of gas one day. Mainstream conversations have noticeably changed, two decades later, as shale gas, tar sands, and other unconventional methods of extracting fossil fuels are on the rise and heavily promoted as technological “bridges” to “greener” energy here in Canada. Where I live in the province of Québec, we just found conventional oil in Anticosti, in Gaspésie. Reports seem to agree that human demand for fossil fuels are outpacing current production levels—not to mention that climate change seems to be getting in the way of the production of North American tar sands, notably because of global warming-encouraged wildfires in Western Canada. The human thirst for Oil is insatiable—when “conventional oil” is nowhere to be found, we crack open the earth, the tectonic plates of our planet, to find shale gas or exploit tar sands.

Marine pollution...is all plastic. Source is Bo Eide on Flickr.
This marine pollution…is plastic. Photograph by Bo Eide on Flickr.

But I find it interesting how conversations about oil—and oil-derived products such as plastics, solvents, dyes, detergents, soaps, body products, just to name a few—have become sublimated into different kinds of conversations. These oil-derived products have brought many technological advantages with them, but we are now faced with the terrifying prospects of plastic pollution and waste—prospects that this society is completely unequipped to deal with. Why does it seem like we lack the language to speak and reflect thoroughly and deeply on the omnipresence and ethical aspects of oil, oil extraction, and petrochemicals that now occupy our lives, our homes and and our bodies?

Perhaps because any talk, especially criticism, about oil extraction and production becomes unacceptable unless you’re talking in “objectively serious” and “rational” economic terms that do not threaten oil industry interests. In many mainstream political spheres, speaking out against Oil is a serious faux-pas. Recently in Canada, mainstream environmentalists such as David Suzuki and Naomi Klein received harsh criticism from Alberta’s so-called “left of centre” NDP provincial government after the publishing of The Leap Manifesto, calling for Canada’s immediate divestment from fossil fuels:

“The government of Alberta repudiates the sections of that document that address energy infrastructure,” said Notley in a legislature news conference. “These ideas will never form any part of policy. They are naive. They are ill-informed. They are tone deaf.” (The National Post, April 11 2016)

Rachel Notley’s criticism of The Leap Manifesto might be familiar to you, especially when the Premier calls the document “naive”. It has become childish to speak about Oil in a way that challenges global economic party lines. To resist Oil in a manner that also threatens capitalist or imperialist industries and state governments is to allow yourself to be branded as immature, ignorant, and, most important of all, irrelevant. The conversation about Oil, according to the political élite and captains of industry, can only happen in one way: the way that ensures Oil’s continued extraction, production, and consumption. There is a new Church, folks, and its god is Oil.

Photos taken during the Fort McMurray wildfires in Alberta during spring 2016.
Photos taken during the Fort McMurray wildfires in Alberta during spring 2016.

The consequences of these social and political realities, however, is that we now live in a culture that refuses to seriously criticize Oil, and has now become unable to articulate in an everyday, mainstream sense just how deeply embedded Oil has become in our lives.

Of cultural consciousness the writer Amitav Gosh once asked, of the United States especially: “in the nation where oil is virtually sacrosanct and where the industry remains a prodigious force, [why have] literary responses to its significance for American life been so scant?” Though in his essay on Oil and World Literature, professor Graeme Macdonald is quick to problematize and challenge Gosh’s assertion that there has been a cultural silence in response to Oil, he raises an interesting points regarding how the ubiquitousness of Oil makes every cultural literary production—perhaps obliquely—a production about Oil: 

All modern writing is premised on both the promise and the hidden costs and benefits of hydrocarbon culture. If this proposition seems unwieldy—preposterous even—it is still worth thinking how oil’s sheer predominance within modernity means that it is everywhere in literature yet nowhere refined enough—yet—to be brought to the surface of every text. But it sits there nevertheless—untapped, bubbling under the surface, ready to be extracted by a new generation of oil-aware petrocritics.

Oil has become the big constant in our lives, to the point where it has taken over the way that we see and interact with each other, and with the world. Though some of us may be able to conceptualize the ways in which the environmental destruction that accompanies fossil fuels extraction upsets or destroys human (and nonhuman) societies and ancient ecologies, most of us cannot conceptualize or articulate many of the other ways in which Oil has upset delicately-balanced ecological systems, of which humans and their cultures are a part. Though Macdonald contends, in the citation above, that there have been cultural productions sub-textually or textually dealing with Oil, there is a marked mainstream or popular cultural silence on the ubiquitousness of our every-day interactions with Oil.

This ubiquitousness has been sublimated to the point where we no longer name it, see it, or recognize it. When trying to describe the quality and quantity of humanity’s interactions with Oil, writer Brett Bloom created the term Petro-subjectivity in order to communicate that all of our individual and collective subjectivities have been permanently altered by our relationship with Oil: 

Petro-subjectivity is something that each of us experiences constantly. It is a sense of self and the world that shapes who we are and how we think. It stems in part from the fact that the use of oil is present in every thing we do. It has shaped the concepts that govern our thinking. Our use of language and the basic concepts that structure our existence are breathed through the logic of oil relationships and form the metaphoric universe we bathe ourselves in when we speak to one another about who we are, what we do and what the world around us consists of.

Oil is a part of our every day lives. It changes the way we think and are, and nothing is left untouched. As the petro-subjectivity map above expresses, Oil affects some of our most intimate and bodily experiences: our sex lives, our personal hygiene, our reproduction, our medication, our health, our food. Almost every small ritual and every day action is mediated through the convenience, power, or benefits of Oil. Some of these benefits are undoubtedly very real, and very important, and cannot be discounted outright. But we have lost our ability to envision a future without Oil, or a future that interacts with Oil in an extremely different manner. We have lost our ability to envision and imagine a world in which humans do not use Oil to interact with the world and each other. Our understanding of the world is firmly rooted in Oil, as Brett Bloom states: “Petro-subjectivity is in place well before you ever self-identify as something else like Christian, atheist, socialist, environmentalist, or other ideological decoration.” 

In return for this petro-subjectivity, for power, for convenience, for more riches for the very rich, the Oil God demands sacrifices—destruction, war, oppression, death—and as a species we acquiesce. We burn into the atmosphere and into our lungs the distilled remains of Earth’s long dead, and in so doing we destroy species after species in order to fulfill capitalist and imperial contradictions and delusions. We go to war with each other and murder each other over Oil’s favour. We oppress and pillage societies less militarized and industrialized than ourselves. We fill our discourse surrounding Oil with platitudes and empty promises. We embrace petro-subjectivity and hydrocarbon culture without reservations and without end, despite the fact that our planet and human biology have some pretty hard limits past which we cannot survive.

And the Oil God? Well, to put it in Hexxus’ own lyrics from the song Toxic Love, the Oil God feels “good—a special kind of horny.”

Works Cited and Further Reading

Magical arts and sacred geographies

A few weeks ago I read an article by Maranda Elizabeth called: How Magic Helps Me Live With Pain And Trauma (read here). The article directly inspired the reflections below, as I want to highlight the importance of magical and artistic geographies when it comes to both magic and creativity.

Before I dive into the magic of geographies, I want to start with the importance of creating meaning, specifically with stories:

The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story. —Ursula K. Le Guin

The aliveness of story is essential to me. Art creates life. Through the magic of stories I learned that, hidden in mundane and ubiquitous objects are infinitesimal possibilities of interpretation. The first time I read the fragments of Sappho, the Anne Carson If Not, Winter interpretation, revealed to me the power of even the most broken and lost relics of literary archeology and antiquity. Sappho, an ancient lyric poet and musician, lived on the isle of Lesbos around 630 B.C. Her fragments, all that remains of her music and poetry not lost to history, “are of two kinds: those preserved on papyrus and those derived from citation in ancient authors.” (Carson xi) Yet those fragments, some extremely brief, evoke powerful insights into the past, the present, and the lives of the poet and her poems’ subjects. No matter how ephemeral, Sappho’s work, translated and untranslated, fragmented and less fragmented, has a life and power that continues to mesmerize authors, historians, poets and readers today:

yes! radiant lyre speak to me
become a voice (118)

messenger of spring
nightingale with a voice of longing (136)

someone will remember us
I say
even in another time (147)

Whether it’s music, writing, and even the most fragmented poetry, art creates powerful evocations, bringing the immaterial into existence through an experience with the material. It’s not only a process defined by reading, viewing, or experiencing the art as a “finished product”, the act of making art, the act of creation, is also infused with aliveness. We might learn to glimpse the making of art or magic in the landscapes around us, with or without obvious “authorship”. For instance, one could see magic in the delicacy of a lone wild iris, hidden away from sight, sheltered and nurtured by the shadows of a nondescript, graffiti-clad toolshed within an urban park.

doodling by Gersande La Flèche on 500px.com

The importance of landscapes to magic and creativity cannot be overstated, where the aliveness of stories meets the magic of place. As Tim Robinson wrote about his literary cartography:

These images I am offering you—the wild-goose chase of the alphabet in the sky, the waves whispering to each other under the currach, the donkey uttering seanchas from the well—are little myths, to tempt you to hear the language as if it were being spoken by the landscape. For me it was so from the beginning, as I shall explain. But is there any more defensible, objective truth in the idea of a deep connection between landscape and its language?

The names, languages and stories we use to describe landscapes around us are intrinsic to those landscapes, or at least our relationships with them. Maranda Elizabeth’s writing on magic as resistance and healing speaks emphatically of the magic of the city and the beings that inhabit them. When I use the word beings I mean those creatures, plants, objects, things, and locations— man-made or not— that end up forming the basis of the geography around us. An important such being in Maranda Elizabeth’s geography is their cane:

My first cane was black like tourmaline, a crystal used as an aid against jealousy, negative thoughts, destructive forces, and internal conflicts; I’d adorned it with Hello Kitty stickers. When I brought it home, I adjusted it to a comfortable height, anointed it with oils and prayers, and welcomed it into my life. It was a live creature come to help me out, lend me a hand, give me access to the spaces and activities that were slipping away. I used to walk for hours at a time, no destination in mind. I’m a city witch, I believe in city magic. I found signs of magic in plants growing through sidewalk cracks, symbols of encouragement in graffiti, charms and rocks found in alleyways, the sound of squirrels scurrying up old trees with fallen acorns, tiny free libraries on quiet streets. —Maranda Elizabeth

Through story, magic, and everyday use, the cane takes on a life of its own. The cane becomes a vehicle for artistic and magical expression. The cane transforms into a sword, a shield and a wand—in Maranda Elizabeth’s own words: a “magical object pressed to my palm, holding my body, giving me strength to move through the world when my bones and muscles are no longer enough.”

By creating stories and relationships, magical and artistic, with the cane, Maranda Elizabeth simultaneously creates or builds upon a relationship with their environment. Art and magic intertwine with place. Maranda Elizabeth’s article is full of magical and artistic cartography: naming and mapping their space and the myriad beings within.

The milk-crate furniture of my bachelor apartment contains jars filled with found objects from the city walks I can no longer take: petals and stones, pinecones, dried leaves. There’s a magic to these objects, too; they are reminders, tangible proof that I felt okay in the world for just a moment. —Maranda Elizabeth

The magical collection and curation that Maranda Elizabeth describes is not only a form of magical and artistic cartography, it’s also an artistic project that consists of creating art and meaning out of place and with place. This is a kind of magical artform that Anne Morris calls the expression of “a rare sacred geography that consists of a complex knowledge of place and sacred terrain”. (175) Maranda Elizabeth describe themselves as a city witch, and their love of city magic. This is extremely important to me, as I feel so many discussions about bioregional animism or relationships with the land prioritize those places that are described as rural or “natural”. The work of creating relationships with sacred geographies through art and magic should not be limited to the realms of the wild woods or faraway mountains, or even the dreamscape. These sacred geographies occur everywhere there is life and decay and being—especially in urban and domestic spaces. The material, mundane details of human life in the city influence art-making and storytelling. Though it is a landscape of a different kind, it’s no less powerful or significant, and comes with its own baggage, history, and terms of engagement.

The ecosystem, urban or rural, that we create relationships with not only directly shape our lives and art practices, but they also influence spiritual or magical workings, as Stuart Inman and Jane Sparks write about in their essay on Traditional Witchcraft: “A Gathering of Light and Shadows”, in the section “The Mythic Landscape”.

[T]he land becomes hallowed through working with it and new relationships, between the practitioner and the land, and its spirits, develops.

Choosing to consciously develop a working relationship with the environment that we inhabit can change our worldview in small but significant ways. We can reject misleading dialectics such as the opposition of “pristine” nature versus urban landscapes in order to hold more nuanced approaches and knowledge. Our artistic and magical practices, hopefully, become part of the landscape themselves and help us build towards more sustainable futures. The relationship-building between artist and earth, between magician and landscape, changes the way we view geography as something outside of ourselves and can bring us to accept that geography is a part of us, and we can accept that we are also a part of the environment we live in. As Becca Tarnas expressed recently with regards to environmental ethics: we are of this earth, and we are meant to be here. In creating relationships with spaces, land, and environments, we start thinking as creatures within an ecosystem rather than as higher-ups on a hierarchical chain of being. We also might, perhaps, move away from individualistic practices and seek to build community practices. It’s up to us, as the community as much as the individual, to find ways of healing, creating art, and practicing magic in a way that is constructive and coherent with the landscapes and geographies that surround us.


References & Further Reading

  • Anne Carson If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho 2002
  • Maranda Elizabeth How Magic Helps Me Live With Pain And Trauma The Establishment 16 April 2016
  • Stuart Inman and Jane Sparks, “A Gathering of Light and Shadows” Serpent Songs 1 May 2013, 40-58
  • Isabelle Stengers “Reclaiming Animism” e-flux journal #36 July 2012
  • Anne Morris “But to Assist the Soul’s Interior Revolution” Serpent Songs 1 May 2013, 173-182
  • Tim Robinson “Listening to the Landscape” Setting Foot on the Shores of Connemara & Other Writings 5 May 1997, 151-164
  • Becca Tarnas Talking Tolkien and Jung on Rune Soup 30 April 2016

Cover image is mine, a photograph of a shrine on a beach on Tancook Island taken in summer 2015.

This essay was originally posted at http://gersande.com/blog/magical-arts-and-sacred-geographies/.

Book Review: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Read for the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge 2016 and the Apocalypse Now Reading Challenge 2016.

Method of the world’s destruction: ecological devastation, corporate greed, and a mad scientist’s bioengineered supervirus.

Oryx and Crake is the second Margaret Atwood book I have read. I am finding that I have mixed feelings about her. I think she’s a brilliant writer. Her prose is magical and her sense of character amazing. I can’t help but feel a little pride in her as a Canadian. But the critics always wax rhetoric about how wonderfully original she is. She’s not, at least not that I’ve seen yet. Obviously these people just don’t read science fiction.

Atwood’s basic scenario here is a weird mating of The Time Machine, The Stand, and Frankenstein. Professional reviewers claim that Atwood has written “an innovative apocalyptic scenario in a world that is at once changed and all-too familiar because corporations have taken us on an uncontrolled genetic engineering ride.” It sells books because of our secret fears of genetic engineering. However, it’s not true, and if that’s what these people think then they weren’t paying attention. Also, one professional reviewer who was quoted on the cover of the edition I read said it was “uproariously funny.” I don’t think it was funny at all, and I think that if this guy thought it was funny he’s probably one of the corporate drones that Atwood was critiquing in the book. Someone in a review also said that it was confusing because she jumps back and forth between different moments in time and changes tenses when she does; and this same reviewer had the audacity to criticize Atwood’s grammar! Her grammar was the professional quality one might expect of such a critically acclaimed writer, and the story started in media res and was told primarily in flashbacks, and if that was confusing, I think you should stick with teen fiction.

What is actually great about this book is the fact that it is a brilliantly-written Greek tragedy that ultimately results in the likely extinction of the human race; along with quite a lot of the animals that we are familiar with. There’s a lot of “for want of a nail” stuff going on here. At several points disaster could have been averted, but it isn’t because of human flaws and human mistakes, and so all hell literally breaks loose. The epicenter of many of those flaws and mistakes is the protagonist, once called Jimmy but now known as Snowman, who found himself uniquely in a position by which he could have saved the world but, like Hamlet, fails to do so because of ignorance, negligence, and his tragic flaw, which is a desperate desire to be loved or even liked by someone, largely stemming from childhood neglect, emotionally distant parents, and a very lonely childhood. I love it because so many people in real life fail to do the right thing because of that flaw, or they overlook things that probably should have triggered alarm bells.

Others have found Snowman to be really unlikable as a result of those tragic flaws, but I didn’t. I found I had a lot of sympathy for him, and I could understand why he did a lot of what he did. Jimmy’s mother reminded me of my own, who was bipolar, undiagnosed and untreated for the length of my childhood. You learn that she and Jimmy’s father were at odds over some morality issue associated with the work that Jimmy’s father did for the Corporation they both used to work for. And in this future vision, Corporations own Compounds and keep their people entirely separated from the rest of the world, which they call the “pleeblands” (which of course was actually “plebelands” at one time, one would guess), and your worth, status and wealth depend entirely on your usefulness to the Corporation. Scientists and mathematicians are valued; artists and writers are considered a waste of oxygen; unless they write advertising for the Corporation, of course. Protesting the Corporations is outlawed and demonstrations are punishable by death. In this, Atwood borrows extensively from the cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction (or, if you believe her and the critics, she reinvents the wheel).

You learn also, mostly as side stories in Jimmy’s personal observations of what goes on around him growing up, that the world is in a desperate state of ecological disaster due to climate change, there are too many people and too little resources, and the work that the genetic engineering companies do is actually important, or at least some of it is, in assuring the human race’s survival; except that they create primarily what makes the CEOs of the Corporations money, rather than what is good for humanity, due to selfishness and an innate sense of their own superiority over the pleebs (the rest of the planet). In this we also see some shades of the overpopulation horrors of the 1970s, such as in Soylent Green (or Make Room! Make Room!, as the book it was based on was called.)

Quickly you learn that Snowman is looking after an artificially-created sentient race that bears some resemblance to humans, and who comes from humans, but who aren’t quite human. They’ll remind science fiction aficionados of H.G. Wells‘ Eloi. They were created by someone named Crake, who is a very important character in the novel, being the mad scientist in question, and who was once a friend of Snowman’s. Also, there was someone named Oryx in his past, a woman he quite clearly loved, who for some reason was believed by the Crakers to be the creatrix of the animals. But since they are guileless, innocent, and somewhat simple like the Eloi, their beliefs seem almost mythological or biblical. You also learn that Crake was somehow responsible for whatever killed humanity, which was clearly a plague, and if Atwood tried to tell me she never read either The Stand or I Am Legend I would call her a liar, because parts of the book were full of eerie scenes of human life stopped dead, just like Stephen King and Richard Matheson wrote about so well. The title of the book is meant to represent both sides of human nature and not just the characters.

Sounds like spoilers? Nope, not a bit, because you find out most of this stuff in the first chapter. The story is more about how it all unfolds than what happened. And in this, Atwood displays a masterful understanding of the dark side of human nature and how the light side of it can be manipulated and twisted to dark purposes. It’s an amazing story and I was reading it with page-turning alacrity because it was gripping and fascinating. Only at the very end does everything become clear.

There are many questions that should concern the modern mind. Have we already gone so far with climate change that it will inevitably destroy the human race? How far is too far to go with genetic engineering? What are we going to do when there are so many of us that we overwhelm the planet’s resources to care for us, which might already have happened? Are we doomed to destroy ourselves out of greed, neglect, indifference?

And yet there are also subtler questions of human morality and the nature of religion. The Buddha’s dilemma comes up; the Buddha abandoned his wife and child to pursue enlightenment. Did he do the right thing? Buddhism is founded on the idea that attachment is sin, but if anyone did this in modern society we would call them a nutbar or a jerk, and certainly they don’t have normal human empathy and are probably something of a sociopath. There’s a Frankenstein-like element too; the Biblical references in the story of the Crakers is quite clear. Did God mean to create us? If so, was S/He aware of the full consequences of that? Were we created imperfectly and almost by accident, to be lesser, or greater, beings than our creator(s)? Was the Creation a total accident, or some madman’s weird plan?

And there’s a subtle human dilemma too, and that is the damage created by neglecting a child and denying them real love. Snowman might have been able to recognize that Crake was a sociopath if he’d had anything resembling normal parental empathy, but he had no basis of comparison. Is Atwood subtly critiquing the fact that since our society demands that both parents work, our children are being raised by babysitters and the internet? I think perhaps she is.

I really wish I could recommend this novel to everyone, because it does what really good science fiction is supposed to do, which is to make you question the world and society we live in, in a setting that is weird enough to make us feel a little safer than confronting it directly in the present, real world. But not too safe, because some of this sounds a little far-fetched; but not enough of it. Not enough of it by far.

View all my reviews

We Are the Dreamers of the Day: Capitalism and the Failure of Imagination

(The collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989)

Vizzini: HE DIDN’T FALL? INCONCEIVABLE!

Inigo Montoya: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

The Princess Bride

When the Inconceivable Happens

 

In 2014, we marked the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. To those who were born later, it is hard to convey how earth-shattering this was. The fall of “the Wall” was one of those events that profoundly changed my conception of the world. Growing up, as I did, in the Midwest in the 1980s, there were certain things I knew to be true:

  1. The United States was destined to reach the stars.
  2. The Soviet Union was the Evil Empire, with whom we would forever be locked in a stalemate.
  3. The Republican Party had the best plan for keeping America economically and militarily successful.
  4. I was safe in my home because the continental United States would never be attacked.

Each of these myths was ultimately undermined by an event in my lifetime:

  1. The explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 began to undermine my faith in the myth of technological progress.
  2. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the USSR in 1989, breaking the stalemate between the USSR and the USA, which had previously been inconceivable because it implied nuclear war.
  3. The defeat of incumbent George Bush I in the 1992 election.
  4. The attack on the World Trade Center in 2001.

Of course, each of these seemingly unprecedented events had their precedents. There were many disasters in the history of the U.S. space program, perhaps most notably Apollo 1 in 1967. The fall of the USSR, while apparently a surprise to the CIA, should not have been a surprise to anyone with a modicum of knowledge about the history of empires. My own experience of the peaceful end of the Reagan era hardly compared with the Watergate scandal which my parents lived through. And the attack of the World Trade Center surely was no more shocking to me than Pearl Harbor was to my grandparents.

My parents’ generation experienced similar paradigm shattering experiences, including the U.S. defeat in Vietnam and the assassination of Kennedy. For my grandparents, it was the Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, and the Holocaust. I think we all must grow up thinking that certain things could never happen … until they do. Thinking back, humanity seems to be plagued by events which, at the time, seemed inconceivable.

Many of these events caused people to question the existence of a just God, from the Black Death in the 14th century, which killed a third of Europe’s population and over half of the population in cities like Paris, Florence, and London, to the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, which registered an 8.5-9.0 and killed people as they sat in church on the morning of All Saints’ Day, to the trench warfare of WWI, which created a generation of atheists.

On the flip side, there have been world-shattering changes for the better. For people in the South, living in the first half of the 20th century, the Civil Rights movement was probably inconceivable. My parents joined the Mormon church the same year that the church hierarchy decided to grant priesthood privileges to Black males (1978) … something which some people (including a previous Mormon prophet) had said would never happen. People are saying the same thing about Mormon women and the priesthood now, but “the times are a changing.”  The success of the same-sex marriage rights movement is another recent example. I didn’t think I would live to see that particular historical arc curve toward justice, but I am glad I did.

The Myth That Things Will Always Be This Way

 

It is easy to live under the illusion that things are the way they always have been and they will always be the way they are now. But there really is no excuse for this kind of failure of imagination, at least among adults. This is true on both the personal level, as we contemplate our individual deaths, and on the collective level, as we contemplate the future of our society and our species.

Every adult person should realize that, one day, the United States will no longer exist. No doubt this would be considered unpatriotic heresy by many people, but it seems an inevitable conclusion looking at the political history of the world. What’s more, one day, human beings will no longer exist. … Think about that for a minute. Let it sink in. One day, no matter how much we rage against the dying of the light, we will not be.

This thought struck me as I watched the movie, Interstellar, for the first time. The movie is set in a near-future, where the earth can no longer sustain humanity. The population has been decimated by famine. The good old US of A still exists, but it is no longer what it once was. And a combination of blight and dust storms seems intent on wiping out what remains of a struggling humanity. We’ve seen many such post-apocalyptic cinematic visions in the past, from Road Warrior and Terminator to The Postman and The Book of Eli. But what was disturbing about Interstellar to me was not the changes, but the similarities, of the near-future depicted in the movie to the present day. Many post-apocalyptic stories describe a future that is unrecognizable to present-day Americans. But the future of Interstellar, a future of environmental disaster and only partial social collapse, seems very real.

It occurred to me that humanity’s paralysis over the impending environmental (and corresponding economic) collapse is a function of the psychological strength of the myth that things will always be the same. The sun always rises in the morning, and winter predictably (less predictably now) follows autumn which is followed by spring, and I, here in the U.S. go to work during the week, and rest on the weekend, and go on being a good consumer, largely unperturbed by war and famine and plague. So it’s easy to believe that things have always been this way and always will be …

… but they won’t.

It is likely that my children or grandchildren will live to see a day when our everyday experience, living in the United States today at the beginning of the 21st century, will be entirely foreign to the children being born at that time. This is not apocalyptic catastrophizing. It is simply a recognition that things will not always be as they are. And I think realizing this may be the first step toward making the system-level changes which are needed to address the environmental disaster which is already happening.

Certain things which we take as inevitable … things like capitalism, for example … are not inevitable. As Naomi Kline explains in her book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, our economic system and life on earth are incompatible. Our economic system demands unfettered growth of consumption, but our survival and that of many other species requires a contraction of humanity’s growth and consumption. One of these must give way. Our choice, according to Kline, is to fundamentally change our economic system, or to allow nature to change it for us. The first will be hard, but the second even harder. But it is possible: If “the Wall” can fall, then the “Invisible Hand” can be severed.

One way or another, capitalism — at least capitalism as we know it, built on a model of infinite growth — will no longer be. My hope, is that we humans are around to see that day, and that the demise of this particular economic system does not correspond with the demise of our species. What we need is the courage to imagine a different future — the courage to imagine both a future where we have committed collective suicide through our desecration of the environment and a better future where we have escaped that fate by creating a new kind of society.

Paganism: A Religion of the Imagination

 

Where does Paganism come in? Well, if our problem is really a failure of imagination, then Paganism is uniquely suited to the task. Imagination is at the core of the Neo-Pagan paradigm. Reconstructing an ancient pagan past requires imagination, as much as it does scholarship. And much of the Neo-Pagan revival was inspired by fantasy. Dion Fortune’s fiction was an important influence on British Traditional Wicca, as was Robert Graves’ White Goddess (which is a work of imagination in the guise of philology). The American Neo-Pagan revival was also inspired by works of imagination, like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. 

The early founders of the Neo-Pagan religions drew from myriad sources for inspiration – both ancient and modern – and where gaps existed, they improvised – following Monique Wittig’s injunction to “Make an effort to remember. Or failing that, invent.” Later, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods may have played a role in the growth of deity-centered Polytheism. More recently we have seen the emergence of so-called “pop-culture Paganism,” which includes the worship of comic book and movie characters.

Imagination has been long been denigrated as mere fancy in our post-Enlightenment culture. But imagination is more than fancy. As Sabina Magliocco explains in Witching Culture (2004), imagination refers to “a broad spectrum of thought processes, from memory to creative problem-solving to artistic expression, that rely primarily on internal imaging, rather than on discursive verbal expression or lineal logic.” She argues that rather than being irrational, “the imagination possesses its own internal logic that complements or enhances linear thought.” It is this part of ourselves which is awakened by Pagan ritual and magic. And it is to this part of ourselves which me must look to begin the transformation of our society. As Lawrence of Arabia wrote:

“All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.”

We Pagans are uniquely capable of imagining things being different than they are. After all, we are Pagans in (predominately) Christian America! (or, as the case may be, the increasingly secular English-speaking world) More than any other religious group in the West, perhaps, Pagans can imaginatively “remember” a time when Christianity was not the dominant mode of religious discourse. And we can imagine a future which is not only post-Christian, but post-monotheistic. And to the extent that our pathological relationship with the environment is bound up with a monotheistic paradigm, we are uniquely situated to help imagine a society which has a radically different relationship with the environment.

Indeed, much of Pagan ritual and practice is designed to help us realize just that possibility. Starhawk calls this the “radical imagination,” which she describes as “refusing to accept the dominators’ picture of the world”:

“All war is first waged in the imagination, first conducted to limit our dreams and visions, to make us accept within ourselves its terms, to believe that our only choices are those it lays before us. If we let the terms of force describe the terrain of our battle, we will lose. But if we hold to the power of our visions, our heartbeats, our imagination, we can fight on our own turf, which is the landscape of consciousness. There, the enemy cannot help but transform.”

(The Fifth Sacred Thing)

We can lead the way in effecting this paradigm shift away from from a mode of consciousness which is linear, atomistic and disenchanted — which lies at the root of all of these failed systems — to one that is cyclical, interconnected and re-enchanted. One way we do that is through rituals which connect us to nature, and by creating new myths (like the myth of Gaia).

Imagination gets a bad rap in our contemporary scientistic culture, which fetishizes objectivity and rationality and denigrates subjectivity and non-rational ways of knowing. But imagination has been behind every major revolution in human history, whether technological, social, or religious. The environmental crisis is a result of a failure of imagination — a failure to imagine the disastrous consequences of our current economic system and a failure to imagine that our economic system could be different. What we need is the courage and creative resources to imagine things can be different, and Paganism can help us fight that future by imagining new possibilities … and then creating them.

Come Dreamers of Day, come and act your dreams with open eyes.


John Halstead

John Halstead is Editor-At-Large and a contributor at HumanisticPaganism.com. He blogs about Paganism generally at AllergicPagan.com (which is hosted by Patheos) and about Jungian Neo-Paganism at “Dreaming the Myth Onward” (which is hosted by Witches & Pagans). He is also an occasional contributor to GodsandRadicals.org and The Huffington Post and the administrator of the site Neo-Paganism.com. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment,” which can be found at ecopagan.com. He is a Shaper of the fledgling Earthseed community, which is described at GodisChange.org. John is also the editor of the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans. To speak with John, contact him on Facebook.


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