Global Warming and The Place Between Mourning and Action

Six Degrees Could Change the WorldLast night, I declared that the thing that breaks open my heart, the thing that wakes me at three a.m. and turns my sweetly oblivious sleep toward the direction of nightmare is the spectre of global warming. A person who I love has lived his day under a bleak cloud after watching the same program on the National Geographic channel that I did last night, Six Degrees Could Change the World. I was able to tell him that such information galvanizes me at this point; I have done my mourning for the devastation that our modern lifestyle has cast upon this earth, now I am ready to act. Of course, I am realizing now that I may have just been trying to comfort him. I know that I will not finish mourning our stifling planet until I can understand what it means when the glacier at the head of the Ganges has melted and the coral reefs around Australia have all died, and how can I ever comprehend the destruction of natural wonders so vast? It is just as difficult as trying to wrap my mind around the forces that created these beauties in the first place.

The decision to really take on this issue, and make it something that I am aware of with each cup of coffee passed to me in a paper cup and with each shampoo bottle I toss into the trash when I see it is not a number 1,2,3, or 5 and the recycling center has no interest in it, will force my everyday life into a new perspective. Am I really ready for that? Can I find a solution to the 37 miles I drive alone each day on my way to and from work rather than just climb into the car guiltily each morning? Can I bear the inconvenience of keeping a plastic mug and silverware in my purse so that I can cut down on at least one cup and one plastic fork everyday? Can I find somewhere other than beneath torrents of hot water that flow from the shower head to do my best thinking?

Situations like these might lead to minor annoyances or changes in behavior; in the end I will probably reap the great immediate gains of feeling virtuous and proactive. The real problem would arise when I begin to imagine how changes I may feel compelled to make in my own life might make those around me uncomfortable or upset. George Monbiot’s 2006 book Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning was the first to introduce me to the idea of “love miles” and how those are a part of the environment’s undoing. Inwardly, I “tsk, tsk” at the perpetual business travelers who circumnavigate the globe several times a year in the pursuit of universal capitalism. Monbiot tells his readers that they must accept that one of the great entitlements of western society, air travel, would need to be a thing of the past if we are to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by the degree he believes necessary: 90% by 2030. How do I deal with not being able to fly to see my friends in Ireland or that I might be contributing to the devastation of the Amazon if I went on an “eco-tour” there. I am still unready to think that it would be better for Galway Bay if I never went to see it again. What is even more difficult to imagine are those “love miles” that don’t seem like a vacation or a luxury but necessity like the two hour drive to see my grandfather or the four hour ride to the Cape to see my folks.

What would it mean to be of a generation that once had the entire world at its feet, but now may only have it at its fingertips, making the Internet into the only responsible way to reach out and experience the world?

Perhaps we could realize that we are actually creatures who can only truly experience the world as far as the visible horizon like David Abram talks about in The Spell of the Sensuous. Maybe his vision of local culture is not just a quaint homage to the indigenous peoples of this world; maybe their way of life is a model for our future.

And I have not even addressed the idea of action. I am certainly not finished mourning yet.

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But let me tell you what I think!: Interactive Readership

Over at The Website of Unknowing this morning Carl McColman wrote about the joyful immediacy of the blog world compared to the less “fun” act of book writing and the way that the conversations that mark this electronic realm force one to constantly think and question in new ways. After just over two months writing in this space, I have come to realize how a new appreciation for immediacy has altered my perspective, even the way I read the still beloved printed page.

Today I started a Christmas gift, Andrew O’Hagan’s novel Be Near Me. I have been in a pitiable fiction rut lately, but after only 35 pages, this book reminded what it is I love about literature. The flow of language, the cleverness of the author’s connections, my immediate yearning to understand the “why” of everything that unfolds in this depressed Scottish town that so seem to hate its Catholic priest. All I wanted was to stop and thank O’Hagan for transporting me, for inspiring me again. While I have always been moved by storytelling, this new impulse to drop a book so that I could celebrate how it has touched me is quite new. I am left to wonder how it enhances my ability to interact with a text – to articulate exactly what it is I love (or despise); I also must consider how it might detract from what has always been a meditative, solitary pursuit – breaking the flow of reading another’s work with the need to interject.

Again I am thinking of David Abram’s Spell of the Sensuous that I mentioned yesterday: it’s about the way our global culture, which has been created in part through the propagation of the written word, has detracted from our true connection to nature. At the risk of pulling his argument too far from its original course, I believe in some ways it is this new medium that actually can return us, if not to the direct experience of nature itself, then at least to a new ability to be present and responsive to experience.

Perhaps I am bending logic to make sense of this new blog habit that drinks up so much of my time. Certainly I am not considering all that we lose in face-to-face interpersonal experiences by constantly interacting with “virtual” folk. Responding to what we read used to be the stuff of coffee shops and book clubs after all. Maybe I just feel the need to draw connections between narratives that flow through ink on paper with this new form so that I can believe there will be such a think as the spine of a book upon which my name might appear some day. It just might be that the rules really are not written yet and we still have to negotiate what reading and responding will mean in the future. We risk such fragmentation as skip between mediums, always looking to speak rather than listen and contemplate. At the same time, there is beauty in this alternative to reading in a vacuum in which reactions might simply settle to create a thicker mental hummus of vicarious experiences, largely inaccessible and unexamined.

That debate will rage on, but for now I suppose I will have to fall back on that line from Yeats: “Words alone are certain good.” Well, words may not be the only source of good, but they are an excellent rock to cling to.

Pacing the Earth With Humility and Grace

“In order to obtain the astonishing and unifying image of the whole earth whirling in the darkness of space, humans, it would seem, have had to relinquish something just as valuable – the humility and grace that comes from being fully a part of this whirling world.”

– David Abram, Spell of the Sensuous

Apollo 17 Crew, NASA

In his remarkable book, Abram looks at the way written language (and all of the technology that resulted in perfecting that particular form of magic) has altered our relationship with nature. We are almost completely wrapped up in the power of our own minds to the degree that we no longer recognize that living on this planet is to coexist in an infinite partnership. He describes the ability of people of oral cultures to live in harmony with the land and every entity; he makes it clear that we “moderns” have alienated ourselves almost completely from such a symbiotic dance.

I wanted to celebrate the chirp of every cricket right along with him and know what it would be like to see the earth not as an inanimate setting upon which I enact the drama of my life, but to recognize the landscape as a main character. I was able to lose myself in the text. At the same time, the unforgettable element that reverberates through this work is that such a well-crafted narrative can only exist thanks to the innovations that have pulled us away from this original sensibility. And though his story is captivating, I think I would be looking for a little more excitement than the local moss and soaring birds might be able to offer after a little while. He offers a very brief solution to this separation from nature, and that is to return to a localized culture that truly focuses on what is immediately outside your back door rather than on the global vision that entrances us now. I am not sure that his answer is immediately practicable or even attractive, but I gained much simply from Abram’s description of an idealized unity of humans and their environment.

I chose the quote above both because it creates a startling perspective on the consequences of “progress” and because Abram employs the terms “humility” and “grace.” During this period of soul searching I am trying to take a break from my current dilemma that revolves around asking “what’s next?” to move further within to ask “where am I now?” Caroline Myss’s Entering the Castle has been my guide, and in working with this book I have encountered these two words that I have thrown around before but certainly did not fully understand. These words are an interesting choice for Abram because one thing I missed in his book was any direct discussion of God. That is not a failing of this book necessarily – the natural world is the mightiest manifestation of the divine and it is easy to read into this text the sense that removing ourselves from nature is also to separate ourselves from the most beautiful and immediate expressions of the sacred. It is just something that I noticed was absent since so much of what I am reading these days is so overtly laced with “God talk.”

But what does it mean to live with humility and grace? This question is enough to fill endless entries, but it is one that I must begin to pose. At this moment I would consider grace to be the ability to walk through my day knowing that I am a channel of divine energy, conscious of the unity of all creation and of my own powerful place in that continuum. Humility is a concept I am just beginning to get my head around – to understand on a personal level that it is not about fading into the woodwork and sacrificing my personality in an effort to be blandly and angelically good. It is about settling into my truest self so that I am secure enough and grounded enough not to need to be first, not to demand constant attention and praise, not driven to denigrate others in order to improve my own position. It is about honesty and authenticity.

Both of these terms apply so perfectly to the way in which we must be bound to behave on this planet. To act with grace is to recognize our position in this web of life both by refusing to exploit it and by making positive contributions that better this world. And to move from a place of humility is to give up the idea that we are supreme creatures entitled to trample every other species and resource in a mad dash to have more and more and more. It is to recognize our own impermanence and look upon this planet with respect rather than as another foe to be conquered, another force to be controlled.

Dreaming the Present Moment

I spent a few quiet moments during the boisterous Thanksgiving holiday reading David Abram’s Spell of the Sensuous by my parents’ fireplace, completely captivated by his description of the Aboriginal people’s concept of Dreamtime. The landscape is fully mapped by the trail of the ancestors, each hill and valley associated with Kangaroo Dreaming Man, or Tortoise Woman, or one of the many other animal spirit beings that are thought to have preceded the natives of Australia. Individuals come to be connected with an ancestor and they learn the stories and songs associated with the “songline” of that being. The songline is one of many trails that cross the country, taking a route through areas most rich in resources. It seems that the ancestors marked the paths that could sustain the people in times of scarcity as these trails would lead the singers of the songline to ample food, water, and shelter.

How interesting that I read part of this chapter on a bus full of college students all plugged into more electronic equipment per square foot than the average Best Buy. No one spoke as screens flickered in nearly every seat and we crawled through towns that couldn’t imagine scarcity. Now I write this back in the mountains of New York, thinking about a book I read not far from the waters of Cape Cod. I have traveled much in the last few days, but I never gave the act of moving across the land a thought (beyond taking a bus instead of renting a car). What is it to move not because the journey was informed by traditions deeper than memory, but simply because of the cut of the highways and a holiday dictated by calendar and national decree? (It is not as if we were all hiking home because the full moon indicated it was time for the harvest, after all.)

One of Abram’s central theses is that the alphabet, written language, made it possible for humans to essentially live without concern for the natural world that sustained and informed all aspects of our own ancestors’ experience. Certainly the excess of food on a Thanksgiving table produced in countless forgotten corners of the planet and the massive migration of Americans in their quest to be reunited for family and football is a time in which we generally forget our allegiance to the planet as we contemplate traffic, getting along with relatives, and the shopping season ahead.

But then again, in its own way Thanksgiving itself is a tradition deeper than memory since we celebrate it not because of a children’s tale of Pilgrims and Indians sharing a meal in some remote context, but because the ancestors who inform us of who we know ourselves to be have taught us to feast together at the end of each November. It may be an event less than four hundred years in the making and it may not tell an origin tale that is quite as fundamental as Adam and Eve, but it comes close. In reading Abram’s book I have worried over what we may have lost in the translation of capturing life on a page (or a screen). The indigenous societies he describes all sound idyllic and all of their myths sound pure. But perhaps their stories that we now idealize made some of the tellers cringe because they knew survival of their world came at the cost of other races and species, just as the story of this country often makes me shudder even as I recognize its inherent beauty and revel in its bounty. Perhaps after much happiness enjoyed with my family marking a day that forms the national consciousness, I am able to see beyond the romance of times irretrievably lost to the demons of progress and understand the joy there is to be gained in living right now.

Nature, Ignored, Still Red In Tooth and Claw

Or, black in growl and hiss.

Today I started reading David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous. The first sixty pages are heavy with my underlining and marginalia as I considered phenomenology and allowed myself to sink into his beautiful aesthetic, communing with condors and spinning with spiders. Phenomenology, to my limited understanding was first developed by Edmund Husserl as a “science of experience” rooted in the body’s direct interaction with other entities. The intention is to locate ourselves in the “real world” and realize that we can never be truly unbiased or unaffected because everything we observe is filtered through the experience of our own existence. Husserl feared that modern science was driving the West into crisis as a complete separation from the experience of being human was idealized in the pursuit of objective “truth.”

Others have taken up the thread of this philosophy so that it seems to validate the belief that everything we encounter is another universe in and of itself. We can never truly observe something in its entirety because we can never experience all planes of another’s existence. What I take from it at this point (admittedly without even finishing this particular chapter) is the inherently interconnected nature of all things because, to quote Abram’s rhetorical statement: “Does the human intellect, or ‘reason,’ really spring us free from our inheritance in the depths of this wild proliferation of forms? Or on the contrary, is the human intellect rooted in, and secretly borne by, our forgotten contact with the multiple nonhuman shapes that surround us?” Judging this book by its cover, I am thinking we are building to the recognition that we are an integral part of this world’s ecology obligated to work for its salvation and that observing and empathizing with the living creatures around us is only the beginning.

unhappy kittyBut really, this is a post about my cat(s?). (Just this once, I swear I am not turning to stupid pet tricks.) Our beloved four-year-old former alley cat who only drinks out of pint glasses always seemed desperately lonely when left alone for a weekend or even a workday, so when the opportunity came to adopt a homeless kitten we decided to see if Banshee wanted a pet. It has been a disastrous seven hours that has involved a lot of dueling dust bunnies to reclaim our quaking feline from beneath the bed. She is hissing and groaning and hiding and looking as miserable as any furry black faced mammal could without being caught in a trap or stuck in a well. But, you see, the book said that cats live longer when they have a companion and that if you follow these instructions for introducing a new kitten (not that we actually involved a neutral third party and performed a for-our-pet-only pantomime, but we read the page aloud and considered engaging in such absurdity) all will be assimilated nicely. And well, this is our domain and we are only looking out for Ms. Kitty’s best interest with our massive largely homo sapien cerebral cortices and we really must know best, so what if her first reaction is despair? The book also says we have to ignore the new little soul until alpha kitty tells us it is time to recognize her, so there is a four month old kitten hiding in a closet somewhere wondering who these giants are who seem so generous with the food but so stingy with the affection.

And so it goes that one can spend the morning reading about integrating with the brilliance that is the natural world, but still play dictator at home when it comes to the surrounding non-human life (I gleefully sucked up a bunch of spiders with the vacuum today too) – and play it badly. Because we lack the faculties to understand what it is that either of these quadrupeds is thinking we traumatize them both and inflict a mix of human morality and cat handbook logic (written by a biped, mind you) upon them. You see, I was all set to believe that Abrams really was able to chat with a squirrel, but I have to call this cat woman a lunatic because she contends Banshee can tell if I am even looking at the interloper while in another room. It seems we love nature in its place, safely within the pages of a book; it’s completely different in one’s living room. How can I hearken to the pulse of the planet if I cannot make my own cat purr?

If you’ll excuse me, I have to obsess over whether to try to touch our new pet and marvel at the burden of my sweet minded hypocrisy. They’re just cats, after all.

Right?