For Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney
There have been some big ideas every now and again that masquerade as truth, or shortcuts to truth—ideas that find cunning attachment to the lock-and-key architecture of the hemispheric globes of our brains. These artificial truths weigh as heavily upon us, I suppose, as a deep blanket of snow, or even a covering of stones. They try to bury us and, over time, sometimes they succeed. Where I live, in a tiny garden of Eden in northwest Montana, up against the Canadian border—the beleaguered Yaak Valley—we have only 25 grizzly bears remaining, the problem being that the US Forest Service keeps building roads deep into the forest and clearcutting the mountains. I know, I know, there’s a pandemic, but hear me out about these bad ideas—the trouble they get us into, once they’ve attached to our gray-matter and then replicate, first in individuals, then populations, then cultures, then globally.
It’s in winter, I think, that we might have our best opportunity for getting out from under the burden of these bad ideas.
When I think back on our country’s history, part of the national myth is of muscular self-determinism. And maybe that existed, I don’t know—I have my doubts. The great bulk of our affluence and so-called progress came at the expense of the natural world. Our destiny was shaped by the luck of fortuitous geographic location, temperate climate, huge expanses of fertile soil, uncut forests, minerals veining every mountain range—heaven on earth, it must have seemed to those who would see such things as heaven. Even as sometimes I wonder if future generations—if our species remains extant—will look back on this moment with similar envy. I hope not.
Darwin didn’t intend to wreak such havoc, but his observation of evolution and niches had a fatal flaw. The ecosystems he was witnessing in the Galapagos (and he stayed there only a few months) were the newest in the world—Day One in the Garden of Eden. As with our own country, there was an extraordinary abundance, a great bounty formed by the nexus of three equatorial currents and steady solar exposure on the only land around. Fantastic speciation occurred rapidly as each lifeform set about to using that bounty with the enthusiastic focus that is one of the hallmarks of life.
Sure, it was dramatic. It was so easy to see. It was like kindergarten, from an evolutionary biology perspective.
Had he applied similar attentiveness to another ecosystem—one that had been around a great deal longer (the youngest islands in the Galapagos are but 10,000 years young—just barely done smoldering), he might have discerned the extraordinary degree of sophisticated cooperative agreements that are created of necessity once things start to get a little crowded. This might have helped us become more comfortable with notions of “survival of the most cooperative”—over the long run—rather than the easily digestible but extremely limited idea, “survival of the fittest.” Indeed, what Darwin witnessed was not fitness, but luck. The tortoises that landed on those infinitesimal flecks of stone out amidst the great sea were neither powerful nor cunning, just lucky. Sailors returning home to South America didn’t need them for meat any longer and tossed them overboard. They floated until they landed. Life proceeded. But “survival of the luckiest” doesn’t cast so formidable or proud a shadow.Being an environmentalist and therefore long-practiced in the art of worry, I fret that now another terrible idea might infect our brains, like a virus.
Back here on the island of North America—what indigenous people called “Turtle Island”—well, I’ve kind of skipped over slavery. We didn’t invent it but it was there with us at the beginning; it is part of who we were, and therefore, until erosion wears that idea entirely away, part of who we are. And if another human being could be owned and possessed—a spirit—then what else could not? Even time itself—a numismatic abstraction, when severed from what D.H. Lawrence called “the blood root of things—might be available for packaging, bartering, marketing, control. The workplace efficiency metrics of Frederick Taylor and “Taylorism”—wherein workers’ movements were broken down into the smallest of units, and basic equations calculated about how much load could be carried up what percentage of slope in a certain number of hours to create the most “productivity” from labor—unleashed another deadly wisp of thinking, that Time is money. We see this today in Amazon’s warehouses, wherein computers measure employees’ efficiency and even let them go if they do not make their marks: Taylorism enhanced by algorithms.
Ever since Taylor’s infernal idea, our species’ relationship with time—and with our selves, entombed briefly within our bodies—has never been the same. If ever we had the capacity to be at peace and relish doing nothing, even for a little while—to recognize the productivity in doing absolutely nothing, even if for a little while—it was damaged severely, if not destroyed, by the ever-present awareness of the ticking of the clock, and the idea we could barter ever-more time in exchange for ever-more money. A greater recipe for unhappiness would be hard to imagine.
What does any of this have to do with the solstice? Up where I live, it’s typically a time where most life disappears—leaves the valley—while those creatures that remain go underground to sleep. The bears, certainly, but even the salamanders, which, scientists have discovered, have a certain chemical in their blood, despite being cold-blooded, that keeps their blood from freezing. (If it froze, the jagged ice crystals within would shred their delicate cell walls).
How can life be so tenuous and yet durable in the same moment?
(Speaking of myths: salamanders have long been associated with fire, due to their hibernating in rotting logs which, when tossed on a winter’s bonfire, warmed them quickly back to “life,” so that they came wriggling back, as if from out of the flames).
Unless I am missing something, it has been a while since we have had a really wrecking ball wrong-turn in science. We build dangerous little myths every day, at every level—it often seems the entire pre-indigenous culture of the United States is constructed of the frail scaffolding of myth. Being an environmentalist and therefore long-practiced in the art of worry, I fret that now another terrible idea might infect our brains, like a virus.
We know there is a terrible fear and anger amongst us now—a rage, really. There are those who say all anger is but fear—usually the fear of rejection or abandonment—and I can imagine that our long march away from a once-intimate relationship with the four seasons, and the land, may well be part of our growing existential estrangement and isolation. And this biological abandonment is compounded now of course by the understanding that to save ourselves and one another, we must grow even more distant from one another.
As the power of complex cooperatives was overlooked in Darwin’s quick trip to the Galapagos, and as Taylor lassoed the ghost of time and eviscerated time’s essence, so too now in the year of our Lord 2020 has the ancient concept of truth—perhaps another abstraction, like time—been turned upside down and had its nucleus extracted, leaving only the shell, like a fossil, or a dried sheath of myelin. For truth to have become so irrelevant and marginalized by the president-as-entertainer these last four years, and that new relationship with the non-truth was still embraced by some 74 million voters, I worry that this hollowness, this uselessness, when it comes to truth, might become the new normal. That this virus of an idea will preside over the death of truth, and the death of science, and, perhaps saddest of all, the death of art, which is felt most powerfully when it is perceived to be true—irreducibly true.I do not believe that the idea of truth, and truth’s consequences and accountabilities, has been killed stone-dead—only that it has been badly damaged.
(I am not saying Democrats, or indeed all people, don’t lie. I am saying I am not aware of any other human being who has told over 23,000 lies in the last four years. To practice understatement, it’s been a bit of a battering. I envision the smoking black twisted rock badlands of the Galapagos, cooling, forming to stone, and awaiting life, a new garden in the forming—but how long the wait?)
How can we overcome the violence of these virulent ideas? The poet Jim Harrison was fond of quoting another poet, Rimbaud: “I want this hardened arm to stop dragging this tarnished image.”
The stories we tell ourselves, and each other, matter. The savior who on Easter Sunday is gone when the boulder is rolled away from the tomb is little different in my mind from the grizzly that emerges from her own cave on Easter, stepping sleepily back out into a sunlit world of yellow glacier lilies. It does the darkness of the winter solstice a disservice to define winter only by its anticipated end, though it is my experience also that too many northern winters are like too many concussions: each one can cloud the mind further; each can be injurious on its own, and devastating in the cumulative.
We are so new in the world, so lost and clumsy. Already we have moved too far from the earth that made us, that bore us. That bears us, if only just, and still.
There is still time, time to claw back some semblance of a more sane relationship to and with the idea of truth. No ideas but in things, wrote the physician-poet, William Carlos Williams, shortly after the pandemic of 1918. Glacier lilies, caves, boulders; sky, ocean, river, fire, dirt—when a creator creates a world of things, life will flow into it. Cannot be kept out.
I do not believe the world is survival of the fittest, but a twinned braid wrought between strands of the luckiest and the most cooperative. If anything, I believe that brute force is toxic—that too much power corrupts, and that absolute power corrupts absolutely.
I do not believe that time is money—if anything, I believe that relationship between the two is a toxic one.
I do not believe that the idea of truth, and truth’s consequences and accountabilities, has been killed stone-dead—only that it has been badly damaged. That in this coming hard winter it will sleep, wounded, beneath the snow, and that the dreams it dreams—the possibilities—will be vibrant, and fantastic. That it—truth—will be back, and when it is, we must and will celebrate it. Deify it.To breathe oxygen back into the beast of numbness—to breathe oxygen back into the lifeless—can best be done by the solace of beauty, and art. Beauty, like warmth and light, can dissolve the tenacious outer sheaths.
Other than wild nature itself—places still vast enough to rekindle in us what Wallace Stegner called “the birth of awe”—the thing I think we must guard most carefully within the frail vessels of our bodies is the abstraction of hope. What we need now is a hope enucleated with the germ, the thread, of grit. (I love that Stegner called the landscape of his beloved American West “the geography of hope.”)
We have not seen the worst. I do believe anger is fear, and that more fear is coming. How we behave in the face of it is a curious opportunity for us as individuals as well as a culture. In this coming darkest of dreamtimes, how does one go about healing the damage of those false myths—centuries’ worth—upon which we slumber? What do they have in common, so that in seeking to vanquish that enemy, we might focus most efficiently on the task at hand, which surely is more than mere survival?
I think at their root each of these virus-like myths contains what we can term a great ugliness: that which creates a repulsion, a repellence so great we can almost confuse it with an attraction. The ugliness that people, and time, can be owned; the ugliness that brute force—so fragile and temporary a condition, in any event—makes right, and that cooperation is for weaklings. And the idea—most sinister of all—that there is no truth; that the truth can be beaten down by repetition of the lie; that truth’s essence, its DNA, can be captured and converted to that of the lie.
These are all ugly. A necessary antidote then is beauty: a beauty that is the match or superior to that ugliness.
As we will be relying upon our scientists, in this darkest dream, so too will we be relying on our artists: now, as well as afterward. There is a great need for the small, the gentle, the delicate; for the balm of finesse, craft, care, attention. For the little fires of passion. We have had enough roaring, for a while.I go days at this time of year without speaking a word even to my dogs. I dream without sleeping.
Even the great bears themselves, sleeping like astronauts beneath us in winter, slow their heartbeats at the solstice to almost zero: only a very few beats per minute. But in that rarity, power, waiting, power, building.
I believe they dream of beauty: of the yellow lilies of Easter, and the wild violets and rank mushrooms and pink flesh of trout; of berries, of stones, of antlers, feathers, moss, fire. And fire’s warmth.
I go days at this time of year without speaking a word even to my dogs. I dream without sleeping. I march downward, back down into the earth that is real, if nothing else is. I scratch at the paper. A long time ago another physician-poet told us that men die every day from not reading poetry.
We’re in the midst of a winter genocide—the aged, the poor, the people of non-white color—that runs parallel to a concurrent and frenzied ecocide. How did you like the play, Mrs. Lincoln? We exist as if between layers, strata, of great and nearly continuous wrongs, like the sheaths that encases the heartless, lifeless, nearly-mechanical assemblage of the protein-alphabet, the protein lock-and-key, that is a virus.
To breathe oxygen back into the beast of numbness—to breathe oxygen back into the lifeless—can best be done by the solace of beauty, and art. Beauty, like warmth and light, can dissolve the tenacious outer sheaths.
All anger is fear. But there is a world of difference between fear and courage. Fear is not acting. Courage however is when you are afraid but act anyway. It is the yellow spark, the yellow lily.
Stories are but dreams extended, dreams initiated, dreams attenuated toward the light and the waking—toward action.
I am thinking of the trapper’s fire—a custom in the north country where, upon leaving a cabin to be vacant for some time, the one departing lays but does not light a fire of the best tinder and kindling, so that if another traveler, lost and cold, should stumble upon the cabin, clumsy and freezing and deep in need, a fire can be lit with but a single match, and the traveler saved.
Manners, and consideration; the things that makes us human, flawed though we are, yet with such extraordinary hearts. Hearts so capable of grief, and of grief’s opposite.