Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Our Living Ancestor, the Earth

We live in a world we want to believe will never fall. We want to imagine that our society will grow and rise in prosperity and technology like every good science-fiction novel or film would have us see in our future. At best, we see a future like Gene Roddenberry created in his Star Trek universe, where no one wants for any of the basic needs. That is a beautiful world he created. Unfortunately, I see it more like E.M. Forster wrote in his 1909 short story, “The Machine Stops,” where everyone is living underground in automated bunkers, reliant upon their technology for everything, and the chaos that ensues when it dies. Just imagine what would happen if every internet browser crashed for one hour- chaos! We hide the true intention of these cautionary tales behind the moniker of science fiction. We live in a world we want to believe will never fall, but our own history tells us a different story.
Our planet’s surface is littered with the ruins of civilizations, big and small, that rose and fell into legend through acts of nature, lack of resources, and warfare; civilizations like the Sumerians, Minoans, Ancient Egyptians, Mayans, Phoenicians, Babylonians, Toltecs, Aztecs, Mauryans, Incans, and the Rapanui. Could any of them have foreseen their own eventual demise? I wonder this as prices for natural resources skyrocket and scientists stop debating the reality of global warming and start talking about the eventual end of the Midwest Aquifer. I’m not trying to be a downer but I try to look at the world with my eyes open. As we spill out into the future, it’s important that we remember the ones who will come after us. We have to be aware that we are not more important or entitled to life than any other man, than any other animal. We all share this world together. As a species with higher brain function, we cannot afford to be selfish creatures.
Western Civilization once referred to the African peoples living in tribal villages as savages and primitives, thinking of them as little more than animals, judging them on the way they lived. After all, who would choose to live that simply if they could evolve and become more civilized? It’s what those who traveled to the New World thought of the Native peoples. Except when I think of how long any of those indigenous populations existed in their way, on their lands, adapting their lives to the available resources and living gently, it gives me pause. My own city is littered with empty and decaying industrial buildings, giant monstrosities paved over the earth, over sacred land, for all that is green and brown and wild is sacred to me. There are days when I desperately despise concrete more than I am grateful for the ease of travel because of it.
How long did the Native people of America live softly upon the earth? And how quickly did colonists ravage it of resources? According to their own Edward Winslow, it only took one year for them to make a visible and landscape altering change. And my ancestors were among that group, and more among the ones to come soon after. We came here, from an industrious world, with industry in mind, not simple living.
Philosopher and writer Derrick Jensen lives on Tolowa land, a Native people who originated in what we know as northwestern California and southern Oregon. He says that before conquest, they lived there for 12,500 years, without materially damaging the land. He argues, for sustainability sake, that while they were able to take trees from the rainforest for their homes during the course of that time without damaging the environment, that is no reason to believe that any forest can survive industrial forestry, because that becomes, by its nature, deforestation. What damage have we already wrought seeking resources for profit rather than need? Jensen talks about the Summitville Mine in Colorado, two square miles of toxic land in the mountains, in his article “What We Leave Behind” written with Aric McBay in 2009. He says “the total value of gold and silver taken from this mine is less than half of what the cleanup has cost so far.
That has to mean something now. Our resources are finite. They will have an end and we know that. We have to know that. Taking resources from elsewhere isn’t the answer. We are not schoolyard children. Just because someone else has something we want doesn’t mean we can take it. Jensen says, “Any solution that springs from the (most often entirely unconscious) belief that the culture is more important than the world (or that the culture is real and the real world exists only as a backdrop and a source of raw materials) will not solve the problem.” Living more simply and walking softly is the answer, but it’s not enough if just a few of us do it. As a culture, we have to move away from industry. Can we, or is it already too late? I mean, we can do it. But will we?
And still, we do what we can to live more simply, because it’s something we can and should learn to do. Years ago, we turned to seriously look at the waste our house was producing. We switched from putting out one large garbage bag a week, to one smaller bag every two to three weeks. It makes us feel better, but it’s still not enough. That my family is living simpler is not enough. It helps us maintain our empathy for all living beings but having empathy for dying breeds, starving and enslaved people, and toxic landscapes will not make a global difference. I can no longer fool myself that it’s enough that I feel for the world. We need to stop industrial progression that surpasses our ability to dispose of the waste it produces.
When I think about industry, I think about the landfills, and about how much our country manufactures that we hope people will buy. We make products that are not meant to last for more than a few years, specifically because it is more cost effective to make a cheaper product in a country with less stringent labor laws and environmental laws, all in the hopes that we will feel the need to buy another product when it must be replaced. Or that we will buy a better one. How can we be so selfish? How can we, as consumers, allow industry to decide how we should live and what we should buy, what we should want to buy?
My resolution for this new year is to look more deeply at our waste culture. How can we recycle more than we have without needing to create more industrial waste in order to do so? How can we step away from our dependency on plastic everything? Every time we travel on the road and I see plastic bags stuck up in the winter trees, I say that if I could have one wish, it would be that every piece of plastic stuck and tangled in nature would, poof, become grass seed. That every bottle cap and soda can ring snagged in the mouth or belly of a turtle or bird would, poof, disappear, so that no more animals die from our careless lack of disposal of our waste.
How can we move away from a disposable Dollar Store culture and salvage this world for our children and their descendants? I do not have children, but I consider all of yours my responsibility. I am not more important than any of them. My immediate gratifications and comforts are not more important than their future. This society of make more, buy more, spend more, is not a cooperative one, it’s a competitive one.
I think about our ancestors, and how they had hope for progress and growth and were unaware of the potential dangers that would appear down the line. In a world as vast as the new world they could not envision a depletion of its resources, but they were wrong. I want to leave a better world for those still to come. I don’t have any answers, but for this new year, I am choosing to see the world with my eyes wide open, with my heart wide open. I would rather know the truth rather than be sheltered from it.
The earth is not a backdrop we live upon, it is the life source we were birthed from. It is our first great ancestor, and it is still alive beneath us. We have the chance every day, with every breath, with every action, with every dollar, to show our gratitude for the life and sustenance it gives us. We have a living opportunity to honor it. Derrick Jensen asks his reader, when we talk about living in the real world, what do we mean? “...are you talking about wage slave capitalism, or are you talking about a living breathing world of trees and rivers and lakes and deserts and forests and mountains and seas?”

To end, I offer you a moment of inspiration to brighten this week's theme, because there is always hope. Click on the link and the watch the video listed on the page, a gift for you, of people making the most beautiful music out of garbage- enjoy!

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