The eyes of the ranger, when I shook his hand, struck me with a colorless intensity, pale and bright. Out of them, he saw the forest differently: riparian and woodland zones of varying soil composition, giving rise to stands of pin-oak, paw-paw, and sycamore. When we climbed onto his four-wheeler, it seemed impossible that it would be able to navigate through the densely grown trees, yet into them we went, climbing up the side of a ditch, reversing and turning according to an inscrutable pin-ball logic, squeezing through barely navigable gaps, branches bending under tires and whipping against the frame. Flora growing for hundreds of years looked down as we drove over their upstart cousins with alarming destructiveness, and yet the ranger confided later that even this was selective; his path was chosen to roll over trees “we wouldn’t want to keep anyway.” Occasionally he would stop and check a GPS, making notes on a topographical map, telling us things about the plants: honeysuckle, though sweet-smelling, was invasive and should be culled. Grape vines should be cut from valuable trees, but left to grow on those that were dead, to provide food and habitat for birds. The vehicle’s careening through the woodland confirmed an observation that I had made before: benevolent interactions with nature often involved, paradoxically, the noisy application of industrial technologies, violently disturbing with chainsaws, tractors, and other equipment the very habitat you were trying to learn from or restore.
Knowing my interest in ecology, my brother had invited me along while he and his business partner–if anyone needs the legal services of capable, ecologically-minded lawyers, let me know–surveyed land in Vernon County in Southwest Missouri that had been virtually untouched for seventy or eighty years, as part of a growing “land trust.” Their goal was to begin developing a management plan for a property that lies, as my brother put it, “at the intersection where the tallgrass prairie meets the Missouri rolling hills and hardwood forests.” While fire suppression and relatively recent agricultural changes have kept the land from the reaching the most mature and beautiful stages of ecological succession–the kind of old growth reportedly encountered by early settlers, which they could ride through easily on horseback, the lowest branches far above their heads–such a habitat feels far closer to the surface than is common, hiding as a peaceful, shady possibility. It turns out the most effective and pragmatic means of restoring this ancient habitat, which had already been left to its own vegetating devices for decades, is to open it up for selective and sustainable logging. As the ranger talked about the value of the trees not as fixed, but rather constantly shifting with market demands, I realized that there we were really driving through two, overlapping, ecologies: one natural/biological, and one economic. These two landscapes were involved in mutual feed-back loops and adaptations, the key being to find a symbiotic balance between them, where services like carbon sequestration, the filtration of water, and the million breathing bio-chemical processes performed by nature in deep and thankless silence, can be recognized and valued alongside human labor.
I was reminded of this watching the “banned” TED talk by the capitalist Nick Hanauer, who argued that wealthy financiers and speculators were not, widely-accepted propaganda aside, job creators [read this aricle, by the way, on why TED isn’t as great as everyone thinks]. Businesses, he explained, only hired people as a kind of last resort, when quicker, more profitable solutions failed. Instead, employment was created by middle-class consumers in dynamic relationship with service industries, which he explicitly referred to as “ecological feed-back loops” (I would argue that, as controversial as this speech supposedly was, it didn’t go far enough, leaving out the fact that both “middle class consumers” and speculative capitalist are actually both parasitic on the labor of the actual producers: the working class). Anyway, the point I am making, which took more distinct shape as the ranger drove us through the oak, hickory, and walnut trees, is that Ecological Humanism, in order to be a viable philosophy, can’t simply withdraw into romantic notions of untouched, natural beauty–it needs to take into account human ecologies as well, including the economic, symbolic, and political.
WHY I DON’T LIKE GREENPEACE
Let me contrast this sustainable land-trust, which I am proud of my brother for undertaking, with a memory of when I was unemployed in Chicago, after just finishing a Masters degree. Responding to a newspaper classified claiming that we would be “working for Green Peace,” I and other hordes of naive young people discovered that what we would actually be doing was raising money for Green Peace by “canvassing” (which is to say, pan-handling) for some shady company hired by Green Peace to handle their fund-raising. If you know Chicago you have seen these people, pushing their clip-board with fake smiles and jocularity. This is why the Western condemnation of the veil, hijab, or burka is hypocritical: the fawning mask of desperate salesmanship we force most of our citizens to wear is even more stifling, because it also covers the eyes.
We were given a crash-course introduction into all the slimy tricks of marketing, how we should hand the clip-board over to our mark, and avoid taking it back, etc. If we didn’t meet our quota, we were fired, and the turn-over was probably something like 95%. The vast majority, myself included, didn’t last a week. Not that it mattered: there was no shortage of desperate twenty-somethings who wanted to “work for Green Peace.” Make no mistake: this is degrading, soul-destroying work, and a fund-raising model spreading to other cities and cash-strapped organizations that have only their integrity to sell. You might be thinking that my horror and disillusionment only show how sheltered my life had been up to that point, and you are probably right. It wasn’t that much worse than other jobs, and after we, our managers, their managers, and the environmentalist bureaucrats took their cut, didn’t some of that money make its way to saving whales or rainforests? Don’t the ends justify the means?
No. They don’t. Think about the core values of the environmental movement: respect for ecologies, and the sustainable use of resources, as opposed to short term profits. Green Peace, by outsourcing their funding mechanism to ruthless capitalists who would use every available technique of deceptive salesmanship to meet their quotas, has used up the finite, irreplaceable resource of their credibility. They made a short-term gain, that summer in Chicago, off of my gullibility and idealism (which ended up being worth less to them than 100 dollars), but at the expense of turning me into their life-long enemy. Even now, a decade later, I will denounce them to anyone who will listen as a corrupt, sold-out, and hypocritical organization. Green Peace’s relationship with myself and the other canvassers it exploited was profitable, but not sustainable.
A heron flew over the river, and looking high up in the tallest sycamore around we saw its rookery. The ranger noted it on his maps, and explained how wide of a circumference around it would have to be preserved, so as not to disturb its habitat. In this instance ecological value, radiating from the heron’s nest, superseded commercial interests. In the same way, trees like the magnificent swamp white oak (Quercus bicolor) that we saw, presiding over prairie-flowers for hundreds of years, provided more in shade and loveliness than it ever could as lumber. E.O. Wilson would call the feeling it engendered “biophilia,” a love of living things that travels through the eyes and down the spinal chord. In the same way, I thought as we walked (the four-wheeler had been left behind, unable to cross the water), these wild woodland acres could stand metaphorically for my mind, the mental ecology, reflecting the real, that I have spent my life so far cultivating. I think of myself as a forester–not a doctor–of philosophy, performing slow sequestrations of intellectual carbon. There are certain ideas and images nesting in my dendrites, that I can never bring myself to sell, but that are keystone species necessary to the whole. Some thoughts are worth more as living things, while some can be milled and made into paper.
I can see literature, or language, in the same way the ranger sees the forest. Like him, I can show you where the wild sorrel grows straight from the ground, and take pleasure in your surprised expression when you see how good it tastes. I know which words are edible, and which sentences should be cut. “Pin Oaks aren’t very valuable as lumber,” the ranger said, “because of how they lose their lower branches, leaving knots in the trunk.” That is perfect, I thought. I am like a Pin Oak, too, or a Pen Oak. My history has left the core or my writing and beliefs filled with dense, eye-like complications, making me unmarketable to most.
Looking up at the heron, or the branches of the wide white oak, I was thinking also of something I read in a book by Elizabeth Grosz (called Chaos, Territory, Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth), who was probably quoting someone else: when we walk in nature–either in admiration or seeing its potential profit–nature is also watching us. Institutions like Green Peace or Universities, which systematically exploit the young and inexperienced as they enter the work force would also do well to remember this: while you selectively cut, burn, and harvest what you see as “human resources,” they are also watching you. Their eyes are bright, intense, and of no particular color.
In the same way that my known interest in ecology may have prompted my brother to let me come along to survey a plot of midwestern wilderness, my professed obsession with evolution was probably responsible for my father, the same week, inviting me to a public lecture at the Linda Hall library by Richard Edward Green on the “Neanderthal Genome Project” and human evolutionary origins.
A paleo-antrhopologist and computational geneticist, he did an excellent job untying the intricacies in the knotted past of co-existing hominids, some of which are barely known to science, existing only as the degraded DNA from, say, a ground up finger-bone. It is easy to forget that for most of human history we co-existed, Green pointed out, with other bipedal specıes, and even inter-bred with Neanderthals during the slow migrations out of Africa.
Coincidentally, at the time when I went to Green’s lecture I was also finishing Jane M. Auel’s The Land of Painted Caves, the sixth, last, and long awaited novel in her Earth’s Children Series, which started with her iconic Clan of the Cave Bear in 1980. I’m not certain why I am so fascinated with human pre-history, but I am sure that reading Auel’s books as a teenager was a contributing factor.
Auel’s fictionalizations of the late paleolithic are a good illustration of an observation I made in my previous post, that literary quality is often beside the point–you can learn a tremendous amount from her epic recreations of prehistory, which are meticulously researched and vividly imagined. I don’t mean learn in the vague sense of insight into the “human spirit” or “universal truths” or other nonsense usually claimed on behalf of literary works–I’m referring to actual scientific conclusions carefully inferred from the paleo-antrhopological record. As she recounts in a a recent talk at the American Museum of natural history, available as a free podcast, nearly all of the objects her characters encounter (clothing, baskets, spear-throwers, cave-paintings) are based on an actual, existing artifact.
Of course, you can also learn a lot about the ideological climate in which the book was written, the habitat of hidden assumptions that informs her interpretation of the (pre)historical record. I gave a presentation, once, comparing Stanely Waterloo’s The Story of AB (1897) and Jack London’s Before Adam (1906), which I argued betrayed Darwinistic and Spencerian world-views, respectively. Concretizing the ambiguities of extinct ages, at such a temporal distance, will inevitably reveal as much about your own society as that which you are attempting to recreate. Auel is guilty, although less obviously, of the same telescoping of unfathomable time into neat, freighted parables as her 19th century predecessors.
She goes too far, perhaps, in trying to counter the prevalent idea of paleolithic human societies as primitive and savage. The tribes of sapiens she describes end up sounding not just as civilized as those of the present day, but more so. Ironically, if Auel was more adept at rendering realistic dialogue, then this effect might have been diminished.
One alarming fact about the fossil record is that some Neanderthals actually had larger skulls, and possibly more intelligence, than modern humans [see here]. In the book Monad to Man (2009), Michael Ruse talks about the common assumption concerning evolution, (inherited from Herbert Spencer), that things naturally progress from the simple to the complex. The frightening possibility, implicit in Auel’s hyper-eloquent and perceptive savages, and the larger brains of Neanderthals, is that intelligence and fluency in communication may have actually been an evolutionary disadvantage. The challenge has always seemed to me (this might just be a feature of the human ecology of the conservative midwest) not to be how to speak, but how to keep from speaking–or how not to write in such a way as to be clearly understood. Why else, after all, would there be so little interesting content on the internet?
Let me break, then, my own rule. Continuity Drift is more speculative than The Land of Painted Caves, and far less based in the plausible past. One of the thought experiments it enacts is this: at some point far back in the evolutionary tree, there were a species of apes that were telepathic. The increase of brain size, the monstrous blooming of the neo-cortex, was not the leap forward in cognitive ability that one might assume. Instead, it was a stop-gap measure, an adaptation to off-set a growing disability: the loss of the capacity to read one another’s minds. Why then, you might ask, did they leave no evidence of advanced technology, or art? Here is my hypothetical answer: the Taboo. What if the aesthetics and ethos of a highly developed proto-human world was to actually embody the environmentalist credo “to leave no trace?” After all, if they could build mental cities, paintings, and epic poems, why bother with making permanent scars on a primeval landscape (Terence McKenna talks about a possible ur-sprach in which proto-human bards could actually transform sounds directly into visual perceptions, where they could see what one another meant)?
Edward Bellamy, the author of the Utopian novel Looking Backward (1888), has a less well-known story called To Whom This May Come (1898), in which a shipwrecked traveler meets a race of humans who have evolved into telepaths. Mind-reading, to me, seems like the natural beginning and end of the human story, with its brief and tragic detour into the physical alteration of environments. I’ve been thinking a lot about telepathy, and one thing that occurred to me, writing this far away from the ecologies with which I am familiar, in a landscape of roman ruins and olive trees, struck me with the force of an epiphany. It was this: how could we possibly be more telepathic than we are now? What else could perception (sight, hearing, touch) possibly be, but reading the thoughts of things? Where does information come from but outside? The world is a constant waterfall of psychic communication–looking at a rock, or a turtle, or a human face, what more could it possibly tell us than it already does?