An entry in Encounters
One of the challenges of attempting a life in the margins is the sense of alienation it can, at times, produce. Granted, a life lived within the confines of society’s dominant ways and thoughts can be alienating as well—even more so, in many ways. Still, the simple fact is that in divorcing oneself of the myth of progress, spurning a great deal of material wealth in efforts toward voluntary poverty, believing that society is in the beginning throes of contraction, and limiting your intake of the newest and shiniest technologies, you tend to alienate yourself to some degree from a good many people. If, like me, this is a somewhat new project for you, then it’s likely that you’ll find yourself navigating tricky ground with at least some of your friends and family as you try to live your life in accordance with your beliefs while not becoming completely inscrutable to those you’ve known for years.
I’ve struggled with these challenges, though I’m blessed in that most of my friends and family seem to have taken my odd behavior in good stride. I suspect some of this is due to a sympathy toward my core beliefs, even if the expression of them skews somewhat radical, while some is due to the fact that I’ve always been at least a bit odd and contrary. Whatever kick I’m on at any given time is typically suffered with good nature, and for that I’m grateful.
What I do miss in my attempt to live a life of less is a partner. While I’ve done some dating over the past four-ish years that I’ve been farming, I find it a bit of a challenge to find people who understand the sort of lifestyle I’m trying to live and are either interested in pursuing a similar lifestyle or who simply are sympathetic to it, even if it’s not exactly their ideal. It’s not that I can’t find people who believe we live unsustainably as a society, but that it’s more of a challenge to find people who are interested in or are already taking the next steps of living with much less. I can’t help but feel that the term “voluntary poverty” is a bit scary to a number of people out there, though perhaps this is as much my own sense of self-consciousness as anything else.
It’s within this context that, just shy of two years ago, I found myself hiking the trail up Neahkahnie Mountain, not long after moving out here to the coast for my third farming apprenticeship. I hiked alone, climbing the mountain for the first time, shouldering a backpack with some water and food in it. It was a spring day and the sun shone, though I hiked mostly in the cool shadow of trees. I kept a steady pace with matching breath.
Hiking is something of a meditation for me. I’ve written about this before, in The Rhythm of Contemplation, but as I fall into a steady pace of hiking and breathing, my mind tends to wander and explore various corners within itself, tracing out paths much as my body follows the forest path, though not with such a singular focus. Sometimes I find myself thinking out some new bit of philosophy or insight, while other times I fall into a contemplation of lingering personal issues or frustrations. Hiking up Neahkahnie that day, my mind took the latter path. I focused in on a complex and somewhat unresolved relationship from a year ago, allowing the frustrations that had arisen from the relationship to pull me toward depression, even mild despair. Wandering through the trees, engrossed within my own mind, I felt an intense alienation and loneliness, wondering if I would ever find a settled place and a partner, good and meaningful work, a life which felt right.
I had only recently moved out to the coast, relocating for the third time in two and a half years. I made these moves in service of broader goals: learning to farm, finding meaningful work and a meaningful life. But that didn’t change the fact that each move proved a challenge, further heightening my sense of alienation and divorce from the social world, and further unsettling my life. I wanted desperately to find a place to stay and familiarize myself with, but that place continued to elude me. I wanted a partner, and she also continued to elude me. In that moment, then, out on the trail and surrounded by intense beauty, by an incredible amount of life, I couldn’t help myself from falling into the confines of my own mind, blocking out the abundant world around me and indulging in a great loneliness. I felt I might never have what I wanted. I questioned my decisions, this life I had chosen to lead.
I stared at the ground, at my feet, placing each of my steps carefully but automatically, avoiding rocks and roots and keeping a firm footing. I could see the ground, but not really—I was in my own head, lost in pity and frustration, in the dark paths that the hike’s physical rhythms had opened up to me. I imagined human touch, physical intimacy, and the longing for it clawed at me. I wanted all these things that I didn’t have at the moment, and I couldn’t see all I did have.
At that moment I looked up and ahead, along the shadowed trail beset on each side by high-reaching Douglas Firs and Western Red Cedars. One of those firs towered on my right, moving in close as I continued to walk along the path, its trunk deep and wide and covered in vibrant green moss. I didn’t think about it, made no conscious decision; I simply reached for the tree. In that moment of intense sadness, I turned and reached and hugged the trunk of that tree, pressing against the rough bark and soft moss, and I felt relief flood me. The tree comforted me as well as any human could have and for a startling moment, it was as real and alive to me as any friend would be. It mattered not that the tree was of a different composition than flesh and bone, a different species, in many ways an alien being.
Trees are alive, of course. They have power and spirit. They are creatures of this world, the same as humans are, the same as any animal. And yet, despite my love of them and despite my joy in their presence, I don’t tend to gain a comfort from them the way I do a friend, or a family member, or a lover. I know there are some people out there who feel that intense a connection to trees on a regular basis, but I’m not one of those people. Sometimes I’ll stop to touch a tree, to feel its bark, to rest or lean against it and I’ve even been known, once or twice, to speak to a tree, though I’ve never heard a response. Hell, I’ve hugged trees more than a few times in my life. But never when I felt the way I did that day, in that dark moment, in desperate need of comfort from another creature. I sought that tree out, not even thinking, and I felt as connected to it as I would anyone. Even as it happened, it shocked me.
I stayed against the tree for a few moments, shifting my head to place my forehead against the cool and damp moss, taking deep breaths, self-conscious enough to glance down the trail to see if anyone else was coming into view, able to see me in my arborous embrace. Thankfully, no one appeared. I was left alone with the tree and its comfort.
After a few minutes, I stepped back, placed my hand against its trunk, thanked the tree. I felt infinitely better. I did not feel nearly so alone, nearly so destitute. My loneliness and self-pity dissipated and the incredible community around me came into focus, reminding me that I wasn’t alone, even if it at times felt that way. I continued my hike, buoyed and thankful. Blessed. I stayed alert and aware of the life around me, even as I continued to think and meditate, to allocate a portion of my attention to the inside of my mind.
Since that day, I’ve stayed here on the Oregon coast. I’ve moved a few times, but each time only down the road, not to some other town or region. I’ve been building a life, integrating into the community, meeting people and making friends, establishing myself. I don’t know that I’ll stay here—it’s very possible, but not assured. I have yet to find a partner. I still find myself lonely at times, and I even occasionally question my decisions, wonder if I’m on the right path. But almost every day I’m surrounded by other life, some of it human and much of it not. That’s always a blessing. It’s always a comfort. It’s always a confirmation that I’m on the right path, wherever it may be leading. Yes, there are still human relationships I yearn for and that I hope to eventually cultivate. But they’re not the only source of comfort and connection. They’re just one amongst many.
I don’t know that I’ll ever feel such a striking and intense connection to a tree again. But I love knowing that it’s possible—that in dark moments, a greater number of species than I might otherwise have imagined can provide me deep and true comfort. I love that sense of connection, of being intertwined, of transcending unnecessary and imposed boundaries. Flesh and bone, bark and pith—it’s all the structure of life, all from the same source. It’s all connected. It just sometimes takes a dark moment to realize it.
I’ve been buoyed of late by the Occupy movement. Having joined the kick off march and rally for Occupy Portland, participated in the October 15th global day of protest, and closely followed OWS for months, I saw the movement as the first real possibility in my lifetime of enacting broad social, political and economic change. As a proponent of such change–of radical change–I dared to hope that this may be the beginning of the long sought revolution, unveiling itself before my very eyes, in my lifetime, at what seemed a critical moment of history. I have, in recent years, danced around the sense that a reckoning is coming–an apocalypse of some kind, the collapse of industrial civilization–and I have wanted to see a revolution to help head off that collapse, or at least to try to work within its confines rather than fight it to the bitter end, inevitably to the still-further impoverishment of all.
Occupy slotted itself very nicely into the space in which those dreams resided. There was an intoxicating power to the way it grew and flourished, drawing in thousands and spreading across the globe, linking up with other protests, movements and revolutions, and commanding the attention of political and economic elites. This, finally, seemed to be history unfolding. It was happening.
But then, within the same time frame, I began to question my dreams of apocalypse. Much of this questioning came out of a series of posts written by John Michael Greer over at The Archdruid Report. In writing about magic and thaumaturgy, he brings to account the sort of binary thinking that drives such apocalyptic thinking, as well as its utopian sibling. Greer argues that humans have a tendency toward binary thinking, seeing “polarized relationships between one thing and another, in which the two things are seen as total opposites.” He believes, due to its frequency, that this is “likely hardwired into our brains” and that it stems from “the snap decisions our primate ancestors had to make on the African savannah,” sorting things into “food/nonfood, predator/nonpredator, and so on.” Today, we have the ability to go beyond such binary thinking into more complex thought processes, but a proper amount of stress can trigger our more primitive mind frame, pushing us back into binaries.
The tendency to project our timeline out into apocalyptic or utopian fantasies, then, stems from that binary thinking. Some see history moving us toward an ever-more-perfect society while still others believe that we are heading for a complete collapse–the end of civilization or, more colloquially, the zombie apocalypse. I’ve tended toward this latter mind frame, spurred on by signs of ecological catastrophe, a rapidly changing climate, the plateauing of oil production and the exhaustion of physical resources. And I do still think that we’re in for a reckoning on a global scale. Yet the idea that it’s going to collapse all at once, in some kind of fiery apocalypse–or more specifically, in some kind of sudden and complete withdrawal of governmental authority, industrial economic activity and legal and social structures–no longer holds as much sway with me.
My new found hesitancy to embrace such a concept stems, again, from recently-read writings of Greer’s. He notes that past civilizations that have collapsed have all followed a similar model, though the details of course vary wildly. However, the similarity tends to manifest itself, in Greer’s words, as a “stairstep sequence of decline that’s traced by the history of so many declining civilizations—half a century of crisis and disintegration, say, followed by several decades of relative stability and partial recovery, and then a return to crisis; rinse and repeat, and you’ve got the process that turned the Forum of imperial Rome into an early medieval sheep pasture.” Furthermore, in his book The Ecotechnic Future, Greer argues for a long perspective view of societies that casts them in evolutionary terms, with our current industrial civilization being, essentially, a less-evolved mutation of a technic society. In his frame, our use of technology was the evolutionary leap and our current use of it is just one early and not particularly resilient manifestation of that leap. As we deplete the fossil fuels and other physical resources that power our current evolutionary branch of society, we’ll be forced into new branchings. However, he foresees (far) future societies likely still using technology, just in more appropriate and sustainable manners.
Looking out on Cape Falcon from the beginning of the trail.
These new-to-me perspectives–of stairstep collapse and an evolutionary model overlaid on our society–has evolved my own thinking about what our future may entail. While, as I mentioned above, I still see that reckoning on its way, I see it less likely as playing out in complete and catastrophic collapse. Rather, I’m swayed by Greer’s argument that we’ll see more of a stairstep collapse and future transitional phases–though they’ll likely be trying affairs, to say the least. This shift in perspective on collapse, meanwhile, has also shifted my perspective on the Occupy movement. Simply put, I no longer think it can or will lead to the revolution I previously hoped for. More specifically, I don’t think that revolution is even possible.
If we are heading for a stairstep collapse rooted more in the increasing scarcity of fossil fuels and their incredibly-concentrated sources of energy, as well as the inability of America to continue to control a share of the world’s resources far beyond its population share, then we are facing a future with no grand solution. Our course is untenable; there’s no solution to make it tenable. If there’s no grand solution, then there’s no revolutionary moment that can save us from collapse, from a series of harsh changes that we don’t want to and are unprepared to make. There are only small moments of adjustment. There are only high levels of persistence. There is only a long process of muddling through, of taking the next step not in accordance with a long-established plan, but with a deft adjustment to recently-arisen circumstances. There is only a series of moves made in conjunction with local realities, not one grand saving grace rooted in a globalized reality. There is only you, and your family, your household and your neighbor’s, the small community around you, a watershed, a localized climate and geography that is asserting itself every day as a greater and greater percentage of your total reality. That’s the only solution, and there’s nothing particularly grand about it.
My experiences with the Occupy movement have been intoxicating. They’ve been empowering. And I don’t think there’s anything surprising or unique about this. In the context of a political and economic system that has rendered the vast majority of people powerless, that voice and sense of impact that the Occupy movement has provided can be addicting. Finally, we think, politicians are responding! Finally, the media is acknowledging us, even if it’s half the time an acknowledgement made up of nothing more than spite and degradation. The Occupy movement isn’t an online petition destined to be ignored. Nor is it dispiriting, as such petitions tend to be. It, rather, engages you in a way that such easy actions do not. Instead of clicking mindlessly, you come together with like minded people and you voice your displeasure, your anger, your frustration and outrage. My experience with that was addictive–I wanted more of it! Based on the growth of OWS, I don’t think my reaction was an isolated one.
Yet, Greer once again wrote something that impacted the way I thought about this reaction. In an essay entitled “A Choice of Contemplations,” Greer writes that “The vast majority of Americans these days believe that something has gone very wrong with their country, but there’s nothing like a national consensus about what has gone wrong, much less how to fix it. By chance or design, the Occupy movement has capitalized on this by refusing to be pinned down to specific demands or specific critiques, mounting a protest in which protest itself is the central content. Tactically speaking, this is brilliant; it’s created a movement that anyone with a grievance can join.”
A particularly beautiful and calming spot along the trail.
This rings true to me. Since the inception of the movement, I’ve been sympathetic to people who have called for specific demands, but unconvinced. Ultimately, I thought the lack of demands lent the movement a great strength. As soon as demands were introduced, they could be used to split apart the movement, to discredit it, and could become a flash point for a full-fledged attack from the movement’s enemies. All of which, I think, is true. Yet the part I wasn’t seeing as clearly was what Greer wrote. The lack of demands opens the movement to anyone who’s angry, which is damn near everyone. Not all will join, but the potential is there. In that sense, the movement was primed for growth. It seems not a coincidence, then, that it grew very fast from its inception.
But I can’t help but think there’s something more we’re facing here. Yes, we have an exploitative and brutal economic order and a corrupt and ineffective political class. Yes, we have a co-opted and bankrupt media and decaying national infrastructure. Yes, we have a societal and cultural order that is propped up by the underpinnings of domination and brutalization. And God yes, we need movements against these unfair and destructive aspects of our society. But what do we do when these movements get caught up in the same system? It’s a common refrain from the Occupy movement (though by no means a consensus) that we need to rebuild the middle class and create a fair economy that provides everyone an honest opportunity for a well paying job with benefits. But let’s be honest for a moment here. The middle class America that most of us envision when we talk about this is bullshit.
It is, I’ll say it again, bullshit.
This is a class built on the exploitation of the rest of the planet: many of its human occupants as well as all its non-human occupants and damn near everything else found in the earth’s ecosystem. The American way of life consumes vastly more resources on this planet than it has population–and the planet is overpopulated. We’ve been living in a fantasy land of the exploitation of concentrated-energy fossil fuels and the destruction and waste of the planet’s physical resources, and we built multiple classes on that exploitation and waste. One of those is the middle class. It’s not as wasteful and as unsustainable as the upper class here in America, but it sure as hell isn’t sustainable, either.
I don’t see a future in which we don’t have to deal with dramatically lower wealth and standards of living. This doesn’t mean we all have to be miserable, dead or living in squalor–though I will be surprised if we get through this tumultuous next few decades without our share of chaos and suffering–but we sure as hell aren’t going to have processed foods and microwaves, TV and the internet, video games and 401k and guaranteed retirements, a country in which a tiny fraction of the population farms, massive tractors and automobiles and development strategies powered by oil, or an endless supply of cheap technological gadgets to distract us from our ever-more meaningless lives. We’re going to have to reacquaint ourselves with limits and physical realities and the necessity to live with the sustainable levels of energy and resources provided by the planet’s ecosystem. The analogy is simple and has been used numerous times: we’ve run up the credit card bill and now we’re going to have to pay it off–while simultaneously learning how to live without the extra purchasing power of that credit.
The model going forward is impossible to predict in its exact details, though one could sketch some likely outlines. One reality that seems undeniable, though, is that we’re going to move away from globalization and return to localities. In fact, we’re looking at a hyper-localized future, in which we’re going to have to reacquaint ourselves with the idea of making our living from a particular piece of land, rather than just existing on a piece of land that means nothing to us while we import our existence in from the globalized, industrial economy. This is huge. It’s going to be hard and it’s going to be made harder by the fact that, over the last couple generations, we’ve discarded an incredible amount of the knowledge needed to live in such a manner. We’re going to have to resurrect as much of that knowledge that still exists, create new knowledge through lengthy trial and error, and train incredible numbers of people in these forgotten skills. And we’re going to have to do it within a compressed time frame–much quicker than such a process would play out naturally.
A stray root from this tree forms what looks like a little hobbit house door.
Over the last month or so, as these ideas have been percolating and coalescing in the back of my mind–spurred on by a variety of Greer’s writings and my own knowledge base and lifestyle–I’ve been struggling to figure out what I think now about the Occupy movement and my place in it. And while I haven’t come to a firm conclusion, I did come to one particular course of action on December 12th. On that day, I had originally planned to travel to Portland from the Oregon coast, where I’m living on a farm, and join in on the attempt to shut down the Port of Portland. As the Occupy encampments had been broken up by authorities and massive displays of force had successfully pushed the movement into a new and quieter phase, I felt the urge to join in on striking back and making clear to the authorities that the movement was not defeated–that it had not been broken under their violent repression. But as the day grew closer on the calendar, my motivations changed. The more I thought about leaving the farm to drive again into Portland, the more I wanted to stay. The more I thought about shutting down the port, the more I wanted to connect to my local landscape.
Therefore, I chose to hike on December 12th. I hiked up Neahkahnie Mountain, which is not the particular land I live on, but is a prominent element of the local geography. It was not a long hike–about four miles round trip, up to the top of the mountain from a midway point and back down to that point. It was a beautiful hike on a glorious day, the sky blue and the sun shining and everything simply far nicer than it typically would be on a mid-December day along the Oregon coast. The air was chilly, but it was no match for the body heat worked up by the physical exertion. I hiked, I observed, I experienced, I worked my body and touched the trees and stood multiple times in awe of the beautiful world around me. I felt calm and relaxed and my mind slowed but became sharper, more perceptive. This, then, was a different kind of exhilaration than the protest and port shutdown would have offered. It was something that struck me as more holistic, more calming . . . more grounding. It was a connection to my local landscape, and it was critical.
If we’re to live in a future with limited access to fossil fuels and the need to live at a truly local level, then we are going to have to rediscover the places we live. We will need to study them, observe them, become intimate and familiar with them. We will need to do our best to understand them, love them, forgive them the challenges they provide us and embrace their peculiarities. This is not a quick process. It is, in fact a lifelong process–a process ideally suited to multiple lives, even. In an ideal reality, culture would provide us the capability of understanding the land over multiple lifetimes in the form of the knowledge passed down to us from previous generations, living on the same land we came to live on. The reality today is far different. Very, very few of us have such a connection. Many of us are nomads.
The port–in its current form, at least–will not last my lifetime. Perhaps my certainty is hubris, yet that certainty remains within me. The land I live on now and in the future (which will hopefully be approximately the same) will be there throughout my lifetime and beyond. And at some point during this life of mine, I will be necessarily more tied to it than I am today. If I want to secure my future, then, and to make that future better, than I best learn the lay of that land. And every day I jet off somewhere else is another day I’m behind in that process. Similarly, every day I exist on this land but spend the day on my computer rather than out on it is another day I’m behind in that process. (Hello, today!) I need to make these days count, and on December 12th I believe I made my day count.
I don’t begrudge the Occupy movement. Rather, in many ways, I cheer it on. We need the activism. We need protest. We need people who are willing to do whatever they can to try to stop this machine as it murders our fellow creatures, human or otherwise. But I also think we have to keep a steady focus on a future beyond that machine. It’s coming down, the machine–that’s inevitable. It’s fuel is running out and its structural integrity is degrading. What replaces it is a question of high importance and whatever the answer is, it’s going to be rooted in a future reality that is smaller and more local and far more connected to the landbase and the ecological sphere within which each individual exists.
I ask people not to lose sight of that. Protest, yes, absolutely, but don’t become too addicted to the intoxicating sense of power and voice. There is a smaller, quieter, but I would argue greater power in learning your land, connecting to the creatures of this world, and figuring out how to live and work well in this world. That is the ultimate struggle of our time. The machine we attempt to stop is simply the result of our failure to do this good work. We have to figure out our own lives and how to live them better–how to live them as properly as we possibly can–if we are to craft a future better than that machine. Otherwise, when it comes to a coughing halt, devoid of fuel and falling to pieces, all of us who spent our time only fighting will no longer have an existence. We’ll be lost, and in that loss will only be chaos–the vacuum where a meaningful and connected life should be, where our new culture is searching for purchase, for the nourishing soil within which it will grow.
The view from the top of Neahkahnie Mountain, looking out over Manzanita, Nehalem and beyond.