There is a feeling here of being on the periphery of humanity. If the news is to be believed, the masses of humanity are concerned with oil prices, stock markets, elections. Urban concerns brought on by so many people living shoulder to shoulder. Unions, parties. Nations, borders, waves of migration and the blocks against that tide.
Those things don’t touch us except in a few ways – the price of propane and gas, worries about Trump and the tenor of political debate.
We are concerned about the human sphere, but we are peripheral to it. Perhaps I should say the ‘civilized’ sphere. We enter it when we go to town, when we buy groceries and gas. We enter it when we use Facebook and Google. We are steadily working out of that frame of reference here, where life is centered on soil, vegetables, chickens, dogs, hawks, herons and turkeys, mountains, pines and firs, snow, rain and sun, rivers and ponds, frogs and skunks. The personal, individual relationships, human and non.
It’s a matter of recognition, that we were always in this greater sphere of the Earth, of living matter. There is no way to leave it. The civilized sphere (human culture centered on cities) in that frame seems impossibly small, both in space and time. In this Venn diagram, the sphere of living matter is huge, the civilized sphere is somewhere inside it, no part of it outside the larger circle, and so small as to be invisible. In fact, if we want to examine it closely, we have to zoom in so far that the borders of the outer sphere are invisible. Then the civilized circle seems to be the only one.
Simple by discussing the fact that civilization has borders, that life is viable outside it, puts one on its periphery, relating to it, but with one foot outside it. Working to grow food on a personal scale, small enough to have some measure of a relationship with each plant, each patch of ground, puts one on the periphery.
I am in my mid-thirties now – that age by which younger people always seem to imagine one has reached true adulthood. I suffer the same feeling that seems to pervade my generation – the sense of never arriving at that adulthood, never being confident in one’s choices, one’s path in life.
My parents contended with the same thing, it seems, the pressing of societal expectations for each individual, the sense that they hadn’t met those expectations. I will say, I think it was somewhat easier for them in the sense that so many of those expectations were economic, and those years they lived through their 20s, 30s, 40s, were a time when this country ramped up its use of resources to the extreme. That allowed for material prosperity for most in America, and in this closed loop, was also the yardstick of a successful life.
What other measures can we use? Not taking more than you need. Being happy most of the time. Adding as little as possible to the quickening tide of destruction.
In the face of insane civilized machinery, those goals seem tenuous and extremely difficult. One problem is the lip-service paid to the idea of freedom. We can read its true meaning: freedom to buy whatever, whenever. The freedom to earn as much as you can by whatever means, and once earned, the freedom to ride over those with less. The unequivocal metric of the dollar.
These are the adults in our society: those who can pay to be one. From bachelor’s degrees to building codes, it is demanded that we buy in.
We consider buying land, caring for it and farming it, building a home there. In our way stand building codes and planning departments, extreme regulations of the individual. Meanwhile, a house built of incredibly taxing materials, transported from far away, toxic to the place it was produced and the people living within it, requiring maintenance using all these same materials – a house like this is the standard, the acceptable thing. To not buy into land-rape is to live on the periphery, of both law and the society that gives rise to that law.
To the feeling, aware person, our predicament can appear as nothing less than Armageddon. We need not list the horrors of the modern age. Meanwhile, everything in America continues as normal. We place our hopes in, or our derision upon, political candidates. We drink heavily and buy things from Amazon. Some of us worry about ‘alternative energy’ or ‘reducing our carbon footprint’. Unable to truly address the root of our anxieties, we post and tweet about peripheral problems and solutions. We hope everyone else will take care of it. That nebulous everyone. We feel connected to them through a vague humanity – lacking a village, the distant chatter of social media will stand in, if not totally satisfy. We feel there is nowhere else to go for remediation of these world-wide wrongs.
As a young man I went to the protests, watched the films, rode my bicycle, voted green. Angry and frustrated, I held my head in my hands when the right wing blocked a project for alternative energy or transportation. Looking back on it, I felt in myself, in some unacknowledged place, that it was all very petty, and quite beside the point. In many ways my anger was carefully channeled, with that of everyone else, into meaningless debate over trivialities, within the echo chamber of the political-economic sphere, an imagined place. That place is enclosed within another imaginary construction, the ideology of civilization. Civilization would like us to believe it encompasses all the world. In reality it is a dark, empty place in our minds, like a vast cave, where all we see are human faces, all we hear are human voices. We spend the vast majority of our time in this cave-like space. So if someone were to ask me that cliched question – Do you want to go back to living in caves? – were I to suggest living a more pre-industrial existence, I could reply, We already do.