|A Camellia, in Charleston, South Carolina
Against the ruin of the world, there is only one defense - the creative act.
~ Kenneth Rexroth, World Outside the Window
I found that quote in an essay written by Christy Rodgers which, thanks to the creative commons license, I am able to re-post (with deep gratitude) in its entirety, unmodified, other than to add some photographs. But let’s first start with an update of the last couple of weeks, since I’ve been very busy and unable to post here at Wit’s End. Does a road trip qualify as a creative act - performance art, perhaps?
First daughter has been bringing her horses to Florida in the winter because it’s impossible to keep them fit and trained in New Jersey, as she is rising in the competitive circles of dressage. For that reason, she and her husband bought a home in Palm Beach (although it is modest by local standards, I now call it The Winter Palace)... a farm out in Loxahatchee for the horses, which has a barn with a dozen stalls, its stucco walls and high ceiling keeping them comfortably cool.
Since she had to bring the horses with the monster truck in the monster trailer, it fell upon me to deliver her car (much to my guilty delight!) Upon arrival, I was tasked with various projects, chief among them to furnish the apartment on the farm property, and landscape along the fences.
Yes, you read that right...I am spending all my waking hours designing and arranging for the purchase and planting of dozens and dozens of trees which in my opinion, are going to die (actually, are already half dead) from air pollution. These are the very first leaves I encountered, at the very first nursery I went to visit in Florida. And they are far from unusual.
Does life get any more bizarre than that?
I always wanted to be a gypsy and I have discovered my inner vagabond - but even so, cognitive dissonance reigns supreme during this trip south. I have found myself in turns dazzled, rattled, mesmerized and terrified by one thousand miles of graveyard landscapes hurtling past the car window.
I have come to think of the dismal rust and greys and browns, punctuated with slimy green water, as the new pallette of earth, acidified.
The Audubon Swamp garden outside of Charleston, in the rain: I was there around fifteen years ago, and there were so many egrets you could hardly see the trees or the water, it was truly astounding. It is hard to imagine a scene uglier than this.
Plus, here am I - a doomer with a goodly stash back home of freeze-dried food from Survival Acres, plus a reliable German weapon to deter the zombie hordes from stealing it - hurtling on my way to a mecca of rampant consumerism...well, the yachts and jewelry and plastic faces that characterize Palm Beach can’t be considered merely excessive wealth, there must be another name for it. LuxuryHyperOverindulgence? This is the view from the end of the cul-de-sac.
Turn the corner and this trail follows the Intercoastal without any vehicular traffic.
Along the way I delivered my houseguest Craig Dilworth (author of Too Smart For Our Own Good: The Ecological Predicament of Humankind) to Baltimore, where we stayed with his hosts in their lovely brick home. He was visiting from Sweden, touring the US giving talks about his latest work of philosophy - Simplicity: A Meta-Metaphysics.
Vrooooooom!!! For the rest of the trip I meandered in no hurry to myriad points of interest, but even so I discovered, excruciatingly aware of the irony of course, the seductive feeling of invincibility and omnipotence that derives from screaming down a freeway at ferocious speeds in a sapphire Porsche, without even noticing the needle creeping up towards [redacted speed]. Other cars parted for me as though I were royalty. OKAY, I admit I got a ticket - but it was a speed trap in Virginia and SO unfair. 83 in a 70 mph zone on route 95, is barely keeping up with the flow of traffic.
Here is a summary orientation of the journey starting from South Carolina, where I stopped to take pictures of this old relic:
This abandoned cottage is a brilliant metaphor for the accelerating decay of our world.
Around the back, a broken tree trunk.
Here and elsewhere, I took close up photos of leaves which are uniformly damaged from absorbing tropospheric ozone.
My main motivation for making the trip was to visit the Angel Oak, so named after the former owners of the land where it lives back in Colonial days. Based on this photograph of it I found on the web, I rather expected to commune with its solitary splendor, alone in the woods.
As it happened, that was not to be - there were many signs placed beneath its branches warning against climbing and carving, and quite a few people. It was a grey day too, so at first I was disappointed, but then I came to appreciate not just that so many others care enough to seek out this wondrous ancient tree, but that having people around gives a better sense of the incredible size of it.
I am so glad I finally had the chance to see this rarity, still miraculously alive. I can only dream of what it would be like to be in a virgin forest where this is more common than not...how I envy the first people to find such a place!
People tall and small pose for their picture taken next to the tree.
Others touch it reverently.
Despite all the visitors the expanse is so huge it was possible to get a picture without any signs or people.
There was even a wedding party which arrived for a photo op, leaving the stretch limousine looking out of place parked on the side of the dirt road.
That night I stayed in beautiful Charleston.
I wished I could have stayed a week and visited the many parks and historical sites.
Here, the Japanese maples are identical to those in New Jersey earlier this fall.
Instead of falling off, the leaves first shrivel up and turn brown while still attached to the branches.
I went to a landmark cemetery, always one of my favorite places, and had it all to myself.
It was a cornucopia of mournful statues with a backdrop of dying trees.
There are still some venerable mature trees, but they all have severe damage.
Others are completely dead, waiting for removal.
Just as in New Jersey by the end of last summer, here in the south there is rarely a leaf to be found that doesn’t exhibit the classic injury from air pollution.
These cannas are blooming, but the leaves are perfect examples for every other specis of plant.
Before I left, I decided to walk to the center of the city’s famous bridge.
This view below is looking backwards towards the onramp. The twin chimneys on the horizon are part of a cigar factory that has been converted to condos, and is adjacent to the parking lot for bridge bikers and hikers, where I left the car.
It was a long walk, noisy with traffic, leading to ever more vertiginous heights.
Nevertheless, it was quite exhilerating.
While I was in Charleston, a young lady suggested I stop in Savannah, which was excellent advice. Savannah is absolutely charming. Every other block is another delightful park in a checkerboard pattern, and I was so sorry I didn't have time to explore the town. It is definitely a place I would love to go back to. This is a typical corner:
I took a long, obscure detour to a wildlife sanctuary where the saltmarsh stretched in every direction as far as the eye could see, with tidal mudflats and brackish channels and shelters for birdwatchers.
It seemed like driving through a dense tunnel of leafy green shade, but actually, it must have been much more enchanting, not so long ago.
The larger trees are dying back the fastest. I would have liked to seen this when it was still healthy, in its prime.
When I got to Cape Romain, I walked down the dock that leads through the saltmarsh to the channel.
It was mudflats and marsh and water as far as the eye could see.
And yet, the only signs of life I saw were five seagulls and this heron - in a place that should be teeming with flocks of all sorts of birds. Nature abhors a vaccum is a saying often thought of by gardeners as they fight weeds in empty spaces, and yet here the sky has become a vacuum. Perhaps because all the shrimp are dying and the birds have nothing to eat?
As documented in two compilations for 2013 here and here, all sorts of wildlife is dying off at spectacular rates, all around the globe. Overwhelming as these signs of collapse are, what is even more devastating is the simple, muted disappearance of birds and fish and animals...not to mention, of course, trees and wildflowers and other plants. The sea grapes, a ubiquitous shrub on Palm Beach that can grow to be an imposing tree, is in appalling condition all over the island.
I felt rather special in my fancy car until I drove over the drawbridge into Palm Beach, where every driveway has a Bentley or a Maserati or what-have-you in it.
This fabulous banyan tree is just a couple of blocks down the intercoastal trail.
The roots look like lizards writhing on the ground, and they are enormous.
The mansions are hidden by massive hedges that are meticulously manicured, plus gates and walls that at first looked pretty to me, but after a week, it feels hostile and secretive. Here is the house across the street, the first day I arrived, as the sun was setting behind it:
As first daughter remarked, it is all as fake as Disneyworld. Every day, the narrow roads are full of landscaper workers frenetically pruning away the dead branches and leaves, and spraying for insects and fungus.
The driver of this rig, parked just outside one morning, told me that the whitefly population has become so virulent that homeowners are getting frantic.
Despite an all-out war against the bugs, the precious palms and sea grape and pines are dying off so fast there are piles of fronds and other detritus left for daily curbside pickup. The problem is so acute that almost all the trunks of the palms are stained from injections of systemic insecticides, a last-ditch effort to save them undertaken in the past year or so, as treatment via the soil has failed.
Once again, climate change is blamed for insect epidemics, this time mites on bananas in Costa Rica. This is so absurd, because most of the increase in temperature is concentrated at the poles, and least in the tropics. Furthermore, the much-discussed “pause” in global warming has been going on for fifteen years - the same timeframe in which tree decline has, paradoxically, accelerated exponentially. Not to mention, it was well known from the 1950’s that air pollution is what weakened the San Bernardino pines, causing the bark beetle population to decimate them.
Following is the wonderful essay by Christy Rodgers, with some more shots from my travels. All the words are hers. I especially like the last paragraph.
~ Christie Rodgers
When I read the diagnosis, and fully believed it for the first time, I felt the emotional shock, as you do with cancer, that even as you look at yourself and nothing seems wrong, your mind is forced to realize that your body will die – a disease of which you see only the faintest initial signs at this moment is going to ravage and kill you in the future.
But that was just it – even though the numbers were there, and test after test had come back positive, I couldn’t see what they were talking about. Around me everything still worked as it always had. People worked and machines worked. Nothing I needed for my survival was lacking: air, water, food, shelter. What was happening to the earth’s climate and its multiplicity of species was a backdrop, the way foreign wars or famines (and they’d always been foreign, my whole life) were. I felt vaguely depressed at the idea that my habitat, the body in which my species lived, was facing a terminal illness, but this phenomenon was more abstract and less of a disturbance to my everyday life than a bus breaking down or my computer crashing.
Almost immediately I began to make those calculations, just like you do with cancer: with luck and some help from the latest technology, I was a good candidate to live out a normal lifespan, to die of something else before the habitat-sickness got me. I wasn’t living on a sinking island surrounded by a storm-whipped sea, or at the edge of an expanding desert. I wasn’t too young or too old. I wasn’t poor, and it was the poor who were always hit first and worst, in obscenely anonymous numbers, by any disaster, and sickened, died, or were uprooted and had to flee for their lives. I wasn’t a bellwether, an early victim, like those tragic men in the first years of the AIDS epidemic who wasted away while the world shunned or ignored them, and their friends went on partying like the guests in the castle in “The Masque of the Red Death.”
But at the same time, and more and more, I began to feel an odd sense of ghostliness, as if somehow, strangely, I had already died. Perhaps this was a consequence of the realization that I wasn’t at risk of losing something that I had ever truly possessed. I had never known what it was like to be connected to my natural environment to the extent that I sensed changes in its rhythms without being told. Nor had I ever had to wrest my food from my surroundings every day, and thus experience in my own body my success or failure at understanding what my habitat could provide. I had never felt for sunlight, air, water, and soil that immersive, wholly dependent love a child feels for its mother. What consciousness of nature I had possessed was almost entirely aesthetic. It was landscapes; it was “pleasing to the eye.” This was not a trivial feeling – but neither was it enough to give me a sense of vitality. A non-living object can also be intensely beautiful, and many were, to me.
But without any fundamental connection to an enveloping vitality, living in a technologically mediated world that didn’t require much intimate engagement even with other humans, I felt more and more like something that simply kept moving through space in isolation without any clear purpose except self-perpetuation. That is, like a ghost.
What can a ghost do? Ghosts, our legends tell us, are incapable of acting to alter the physical world. I looked around and realized that I was surrounded every day by legions of similarly ghostly beings, all moving through their lives with the same abstraction, floating above the natural world in layers and layers of artificiality that grew deeper as our technology grew more sophisticated. And only our clumsy, lumpy, defective bodies still tied us to the receding natural world, but more as a dog’s chain, not a life-giving umbilical cord. Those who had the money set about intervening in all sorts of ways to try to make their bodies more to their liking, to resist their imperfections, fight their decline. The rest mostly cursed, ignored, or feared them.
We had moved into a new phase in our collective experience of the world: for all of our previous history, the survival of the group had been paramount, but we were now surrounded by a culture of which the individual was said to be the highest expression. The ghosts kept speaking about our “freedom,” and what was freedom? The ability to pursue your dreams, they said. Just think about that phrase for a minute. What they really meant was a world where nothing was real but oneself, one’s fantasies, floating free of the body, tied as little as possible to the imperfect, hostile world.
Ghosts, vampires, zombies – our freedom meant a kind of permanent Halloween. I began to understand why a new crop of legends of the undead had such wild and extreme popularity. They were a fun-house mirror way of reflecting our fear, not of what we might become, but of what we had become.
On the opposite side of the mythic year, May Day, the celebration of the living world and of human labor, had dwindled to nothing. We didn’t base any blockbuster movies or television series on its figures and legends.
Still, even as we lurched to grab the means to free ourselves from them, our bodies were the bellwethers. What our minds refused to see, our bodies tried to tell us. Most of all they said that for all beings in nature death was inevitable – but collapse was not. You could live in ways that were healthy, and die as all living things did when the body had completed its cycle. Or you could live in a way that would bring about a total breakdown of your body – in its most violent and dramatic form, this was suicide.
But no – our consciousnesses had not expanded but shrunk because of our ghostliness. I remember a radio announcer on a community station, a lonely voice in the wilderness, who used to say with an invisible wink: “when one is wrapped up in self, one makes a very small package,” but he was drowned out by thousands of voices telling us every day how great we were, how much power we had, we the ghosts. “A single person can change the world,” they lied. “Your first responsibility is to yourself.” “You can do anything you set your mind to,” they lied. “Anything you desire can be yours, if you want it enough.” And in the face of this constant clamor, how could we believe that we were subject even to our own body, much less the body politic, or the body of the nature?
Drifting in the world of ideas, while food and water still flowed easily into my body, the parks were green, the distant mountains snow-capped, and lilacs in the dooryards bloomed, I read about what causes civilizations to collapse: The negative feedback loop of destructive trends that, rather than mitigating or reducing, a given society escalates or reinforces until they completely override any positive capabilities that still exist.
I made a mental list: inequalities of wealth, power, and control of resources; repression, warfare; reductions of genetic, cultural, social, and economic systems diversity; consumption of non-renewable resources; commodification of life, speculation; reliance on complex technological intervention – all of these were escalating, some geometrically.
There might be more, but I stopped there. I knew that while I was completely convinced that these behaviors were fatally harmful, they were all presently described by influential people as being either regrettable but necessary to human progress, not actually harmful at all, or else bound to diminish at some future point if current operations were simply allowed to continue. And these conclusions were still accepted by most of the people who, like me, were not facing any imminent threat to their survival. What I believed was solid diagnosis, they denied as petty obstruction.
It seemed obvious that such lists would only become matters of consensus after the fact. And probably not even then – by definition, a civilization’s collapse wasn’t something that could be analyzed as it unfolded. Collapse usually entailed loss of the recordkeeping systems upon which the civilization had relied, so any future historians who emerged would always be speculating about its causes as well.
Obsessing about the exact characteristics of our civilization’s putative collapse, then, was another sign that one was subsumed in the ghost-life: It might be a pastime for those who thought they were too smart for zombie movies, but no more useful to forestalling any potential terminal decline than listing the ways a person might commit suicide would forestall the taking of one’s own life.
As Dorothy Parker, wit and suicide, had demonstrated:
Razors pain you
Rivers are damp
Acids stain you
And poisons cramp
Rivers are damp
Acids stain you
And poisons cramp
Guns aren’t lawful
Gas smells awful
You might as well live
Gas smells awful
You might as well live
But what then should we do? Ghosts cannot come back to life, if they are truly ghosts. They are the condemned for whom there is no reprieve. But I was still a living organism. I would inevitably die, but I was not dead yet, and I still had some latitude within which I could act. Existentialism guided me as neither environmental nor social necessity could, given my situation. Existentialism told me that humans have breached all the sustaining walls, cognitive and physical, that kept us shielded from the absurdity of our condition, and yet there is still a way to live that is not a complete concession to absurdity.
Against the ruin of the world, there is only one defense- the creative act, says the poet. Neither “bad faith” (denial) nor despair offers us release from the ghost world. (Nor can we think ourselves out of it, however much those of us who love to think would like to believe that). But very specific things one does with one’s body, like physical activity for some life sustaining purpose, can, temporarily.
And that is how I began learning to grow a little bit of food, in small leftover spaces, and in ways that tried to mimic rather than manipulate natural processes. And to give my labor to a couple of equally small and contingent projects for building soil, creating habitat, and repairing broken land, in my own city. To watch and learn something of the birds and other creatures of the wild that still interpenetrated my over-built world. And also – don’t laugh – to sing.
These things have made up only a small portion of the hours of my life so far. I still live largely in the ghost world, but now I know it has edges.
And I found others there at the edges: bellwethers not of danger and sickness but of a fuller life. Not of future ill but present good. Not of freedom but responsibility.
We are in an odd position, acting from inside the half-life, not because we are compelled, nor because we believe our individual actions, even heaped one upon another, have the power to change large-scale outcomes or transform reality – which is still the reality of a progression towards death not just for us personally but at the largest earthly scale – but we act as we do because it is a way to be more fully alive, right now. And when you step into a world that is more fully alive, even briefly, you realize that only from that world can any human reality that is not absurd – which is to say, that is different from ours – be born.
Sometimes I stand at my back door in the twilight, with the noise of the television a senile murmur in the background, and wait, and listen. I know I am listening for the faint sound of a distant crash, a kind of final sound reverberating through layers of time, to tell me that a vast and seemingly monolithic absurdity, an old empire of illusion, has collapsed under its own weight and is crumbling back into life. And I know I will never hear it, because that isn’t the way it works, but still, for a little while as the day is ending, I listen, and I wait.