Chapter Ten – Reclaiming Ourselves
There is one more thing to deal with. Over the last decade I have encountered many damaged souls – people who have suffered the ravages of too much knowledge and, in many cases, huge mental capacity for processing this knowledge. A head full of worry without an escape route invariably leads to breakdown.
Through this book I have sought to provide many escape routes in the form of tangible, productive actions. The reason I stay sane, despite realising we are hellbound on our current trajectory, is because I have managed to compartmentalise the things that terrify me and deal with them in a practical manner. For every new ice shelf that slips into the ocean we must do something that will reduce the burden on the burning sky; for every indigenous tribe sucked into the vacuum of civilized life we must do something that rescues civil society from the machine; for every habitat razed by industry we must do something that rewilds lands that sit on the precipice. Only by taking positive steps to undermine the system can we remove the torment of knowing the truth.
Impotence creates despair, which leads to denial, which leads to acceptance, the most dangerous state of all. In the civilized world the Kübler-Ross model of bereavement is powerfully analogous to how we deal with all sorts of stressful events. The way to break out of it is not to grieve for what may be lost, but to leave this linear pathway and create something that has numerous outcomes. You decide your fate, not the system.
Paul Kingsnorth, former road protestor, and now a working writer and social organiser, has chosen a pathway that seems to belie what many would consider constructive action, but which a true Underminer will recognise as just another form of resistance:
“I withdraw from the campaigning and the marching, I withdraw from the arguing and the talked-up necessity and all of the false assumptions. I withdraw from the words. I am leaving. I am going to go out walking.
“I am leaving on a pilgrimage to find what I left behind in the jungles and by the cold campfires and in the parts of my head and my heart that I have been skirting around because I have been busy fragmenting the world in order to save it; busy believing it is mine to save. I am going to listen to the wind and see what it tells me, or whether it tells me anything at all. You see, it turns out that I have more time than I thought. I will follow the songlines and see what they sing to me and maybe, one day, I might even come back. And if I am very lucky I might bring with me a harvest of fresh tales, which I can scatter like apple seeds across this tired and angry land.”1
This encompasses many valuable lessons, including the need to find our own time and space away from the pressure of civilization, the caustic elements that erode our sense of what is important. Of course, Paul speaks in metaphor as well as the physical. Just having the strength to say “Enough!” and thus reclaiming a little bit of ourselves from the rush of civilized life is a small victory, and one that can pay huge dividends if the outcome is renewed strength to work for what is right.
The following tasks take three aspects of what we have lost by living in the civilized world – personal time, personal space and our sense of belonging – and suggest a smattering of ways in which we can reclaim that which we have lost, and which we may not even know is ours to find. By no means do these tasks alone fulfil the deep need for personal liberation we all have, but I think that by at least engaging with the challenges at hand we can begin to see chinks of light beyond the cloying dark of the industrial world.
Task 1: Give Yourself Time
The number of phrases and words that are related to time is simply astonishing. The number of lives damaged and limited by the artificial constraints set on our use of time even more so. There is a divisiveness that illuminates the gulf between our natural sense of time as related to the pulses and rhythms of celestial bodies, and the civilized use of timing devices that create synthetic order in our lives. We feel sleepy as the sun sets, whatever the time of year, yet the demands of the civilized world and in particular the clash between the natural darkness and artificial light take us through that barrier and into a world we never evolved to occupy in a fully awakened state. A. Roger Ekirch describes a fascinating corollary to this in his magnificent book At Day’s Close:
Until the close of the early modern era, Western Europeans on most evenings experienced two major intervals of sleep bridged by up to an hour or more of quiet wakefulness. The initial interval of slumber was usually referred to as “first sleep” or, less often “first nap” or “dead sleep” [in many languages]. The succeeding interval of sleep was called “second” or “morning” sleep, whereas the intervening period of wakefulness bore no name, other than the generic term “watch” or “watching”.
Although in some descriptions a neighbor’s quarrel or a barking dog woke people prematurely from their initial sleep, the vast weight of surviving evidence indicates that awakening naturally was routine, not the consequence of disturbed or fitful slumber. There is every reason to believe that segmented sleep, such as many wild animals exhibit, had long been the natural pattern of our slumber before the modern age, with a provenance as old as humankind.2
It is a curse of the modern age that most of us have to be told, sometimes by other people, but more usually by machines, when to wake up. If we sleep when our bodies tell us to then we will wake early, in plenty of time to see the sun rise. We may even wake in the night to experience a half-consciousness that bears more resemblance to a meditative state than full wakefulness. Sadly for the commercial world we will have to miss the many things that late nights offer such as television, 24 hour shopping or endless periods browsing the internet. Fortunately for us we will then have early mornings in which to use the incredible energy that seems to accompany those who listen to their internal rhythms.
Turning this almost revelatory stance into practical undermining is not easy if you are still the slave of whatever civilized routine has been imposed upon you, whether that be your job of work, another day spent in Mind Prison or having to cater for others who insist you help them deal with the timetable imposed upon them. Can you claw back that time at least to give you moments that are truly yours? The first step is to note everything you have some element of control over and which you can change. The three examples of commercial time theft above are obvious limitations, but there are undoubtedly plenty more where you can decide not to waste your own time doing what you aren’t forced to do.
By doing so you regain valuable time to make constructive use of, and are much more likely to be able to shift your life patterns away from the civilized norm. Try gaining back 150 breaths of stolen time (maybe 10 minutes in the civilized vernacular) and use it in a better way, perhaps taking a short walk, tending to a vegetable patch or talking to a neighbour face-to-face. That can be every day for 7 days, or maybe 5 or 10 if you like – why conform? Then take back another 150 breaths a day and widen your ambitions. Share what you are doing; make it a fun thing to do. If you are a “normal” civilized person then you will rapidly encounter what seems like an immovable obstacle, such as a shift-pattern, commuting time, school lessons or domestic duties. The first three have already been addressed, and they are tough nuts to crack from a personal point of view if you are still living a civilized life among other civilized people. But go back to Chapter 7 and you will probably find you are closer to liberation than you think.
On the latter point, there are easy ways of cutting into those tasks we feel are absolutely vital at home. Most obviously, do we really need to do all the things we do? How dusty is “dusty” and how clean is “clean”? It’s all relative, but as aesthetic standards change so do expectations of what level of tidiness and cleanliness is acceptable. Personally I appreciate the work our household spiders carry out so am more than happy to have a few webs around. I also don’t think that cleaning a toilet just once a week, unless it’s absolutely necessary, is evidence of terminal hygiene breakdown. As for keeping a lawn, if you really want to then accept that these things grow and they don’t have to be shorn to within a millimetre of every inhabitant’s life. Less work equals more time. Unless we are talking about the civilized perception of domestic appliances, in which case prepare for this quotation from a very robust study of work in the modern household:
Our overall conclusion is that owning domestic technology rarely reduces unpaid household work. Indeed, in some cases owning appliances marginally increases the time spent on the relevant task. The concept of rising standards implies a greater quantity or quality of domestic production – for example, more or better meals, cleaner clothes and more attractive gardens. In other words, the appliances are used to increase output and not to save labour time.3
But there’s more to the failure of appliances to save time than even that. How do you pay for these appliances that are meant to bring liberty to the domestic god(dess)? By spending time going to work and earning the money, of course.
There is no doubt that the removal of open fires from homes has massively reduced the presence of particulates coating every surface, but that doesn’t mean that vacuum cleaners have by the same principle removed the drudgery from domestic life. Hard floors can be swept with brooms; carpets cannot. The introduction of the vacuum cleaner made fitted carpets a desirable item for every civilized person – you couldn’t hang them out to beat them so you had to have a vacuum cleaner (or at least a carpet sweeper), and because vacuum cleaners were available then people filled their homes with fitted carpets. And animal hair. And dust mites. It’s hardly worth me mentioning the dishwasher, but it is such a classic example of the myth of domestic “liberation” that you really have to marvel over the power of the culture that makes us believe rinsing, then loading, then waiting (with thumping noises) an hour, then unloading and usually hand-drying, and then putting away far more items of crockery and cutlery than we would have ever used had we hand-washed, is actually saving us any time at all.
Simplify your life. With each fewer item of so-called domestic automation you return to a far more self-determined level of work. No washing machine may equal less white whites and a lot of heavy scrubbing, but think of the number of times you wash clothes compared to how much you need to wash them, and as for the size of your wardrobe…It’s not any easy thing, but it is so liberating in a way Hoover and GM never imagined we could be thinking.
As for the minutiae of timekeeping itself, I am indebted to my Scottish friends for introducing me to the phrase “the back of” as in “I’ll be round the back of 10”. Translated this means “some time just past 10 o’clock although it might be later depending on what I have to do before that, but I’m sure you won’t mind because life isn’t about keeping to a rock solid schedule.” My personal goal in my occasional computer / bartering work is to start being vague about when I’ll be round, not for any malicious reason but simply because I am fed up having to rely on an artificial timepiece to tell me when I have to do something. My wife is blessed with a remarkable body-clock so she can tell clock time to within a few minutes. I asked her how she does this and was intrigued to learn that she consciously tunes in to whatever time feels right, rather than seeing a row of digits in her head. We might not all be able to hone in on the exact time – not that we should have to – but we all seem to know when it’s about to rain because that’s a natural ability that has genuine practical use even in the civilized world. Cast off our watches (and phones), like my wife has, and it takes very little time to “tune in” to how far along its diurnal path the Earth has rotated, and what point in our wakefulness cycle we are currently at.
I can’t see such principles being readily accepted in the world of commerce where time is money and money is the meaning of life, but that’s just one more reason why the commercial world is completely incompatible with human beings. We only have a finite time to spend on this world, with the people we love, doing the things that are truly important. Who the fuck gave anyone the right to steal that time away from us?
Task 2: Give Yourself Space
More than half of all human beings on Earth now live in urban areas (cities, towns and other high population density zones).4 In the so-called “developed” world, the furnace of industrial civilization, this figure is around 80 percent. Imagine that. Four-fifths of the people in the parts of the world that are considered to be wealthy and developed living cheek-by-jowl with barely enough room to grow a few carrots, let alone enough room to be self-sufficient or be able to connect with the natural world on which we totally depend.
No wonder we feel hemmed in and controlled. No wonder it is so easy to ensure civilized people live in a pre-determined manner, at a pre-determined pace, casting pre-determined votes and spending pre-determined amounts of money on the things that keep us living our pre-determined lives. We are that tiger, pacing the cage, knowing our place and rarely tempted to escape even when the door is left ajar.
While the end of the city settlement has to be one of the ultimate aims of Undermining, we also need to accept that the vast majority of people aren’t leaving just yet. Bearing also in mind what I said in Chapter 7 about the post-urban landscape being a land of future possibilities, finding ways through which we can feel alive, connected and determined to create change within the limited space we have may be doubly beneficial. Not only can we undermine the urban malaise created by a lack of physical and mental space, we may also find ways to make the most of what remains once the infrastructure has taken its last filthy belch.
The wind is blowing hard, and the trees are bending down low, the air rushing across their branches, dragging leaves and blossom into the sky. The early summer grass, being soaked in the thick drizzle that falls in an urgent slant, ripples and chases with the gusts. A blackbird announces its territory, darting across the patch of green before being pulled askew by a fresh blast of air, still vocalising urgently. A family of humans are scattered throughout their house: one on a laptop, another immersed in a Nintendo game, the third goggling at the television that finds its market, and homes in on the hypnotised viewer. The humans barely hear the wind, let alone feel its embrace, as it caresses the side of the house and cuts around leaving eddies of detritus dancing at the foot of the solid walls.
The trees and the grass and the blackbird feel the warmth of the sun as the wind drops and the clouds fracture like an ancient lace shawl. The atmosphere is thick with post-rain smells that rise from the soil, and the music of nature fills the sky in a celebration of continued life. The humans feel nothing different: they carry on living their civilized, disconnected lives.
This is normal. The walls and windows; the high fences and concrete yards; the inner barriers that lock out the real world and focus upon our latest acquisitions, all of this is symptomatic of the urban existence. Imagine if those barriers could be broken down.
In the glass of the window that shields me from the world outside, I see the image of a tree, blowing in the breeze, and wonder what the air tastes like. I open the window and feel the cool air touch my face as the soft rain patters on the sill and wets the floor in tiny circles of darkness – difference. A sudden gust brings a litter of flora across the threshold that dances in the spaces and falls upon my feet – beauty. The blackbird sits on a swaying branch and tells its story in a burst of sublime avian music that pushes back the noise of the traffic below – joy.
John Muir was fully aware of the power of the outdoors and in particular of wilderness in changing the way we view the world. As one of the earliest and most influential Underminers, his view of civilization resonates even more today than it did more than a century ago:
Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life. Awakening from the stupefying effects of the vice of over-industry and the deadly apathy of luxury, they are trying as best they can to mix and enrich their own little ongoings with those of Nature, and to get rid of rust and disease.5
This quotation is not a naive, hopeful attempt to coax people out into the wild; it actually demonstrates knowledge of the cathartic power of exposure to the real world, the power of connection that only now is being shown as a scientifically demonstrable fact. Of course we don’t need science to tell us that connection is a powerful therapy for good, but it doesn’t do any harm to see what is self-evident backed up by research, especially when it seems to be that you don’t need a vast wilderness to make a difference. A groundbreaking study led by Roger Ulrich in 1991, and since repeated by others, found a close correlation between rates of stress recovery and exposure to natural settings.
The findings from the physiological and verbal measures converge to indicate that different everyday outdoor environments can have quite different influences on stress recovery. The results strongly support the conclusion that recuperation was faster and more complete when subjects were exposed to the natural settings rather than the various urban environments… The quickness of recovery during the nature conditions raises the possibility that these laboratory findings might be found to apply in many real contexts characterized by short-term contacts with nature. In urbanized countries, the great majority of encounters with nature elements probably are short episodes lasting only several seconds or a few minutes. Common types of nature contacts for urbanities may include, for example, viewing trees through a window in a workplace or residence, lunching in a park, or driving through an urban fringe area where roadsides are undeveloped. The findings of the present study justify the speculation that these and other short duration nature exposures might have an important function for many urbanities in facilitating recovery from such stressors as daily hassles or annoyances. The results cannot be generalized directly to longer term nature exposures that involve active participation such as a wilderness back-packing trip. Nonetheless, the findings may have relevance for research that seeks to understand benefits of wilderness recreation, including why most wilderness users report that reduced tension or stress, or tranquility, are very important benefits of their experiences.6
It would be fair to say that stressfulness is the normal state of the civilized urban dweller; certainly urbanisation is far-removed from our natural origins, and the continual “needs” we have imposed upon us by the forces of commerce are nothing if not continual stressors. Thus, it seems that simply by exposing an urban dweller (which you, dear reader, are more likely than not to be) to elements of the real world may be enough to create deep and resonant connections. You can do this for yourself. You need a little time, and of course you now have a little more, but you don’t have to go far. The real world exists not just in wide open skies, mountains, rivers and forests, but in the small spaces between the grotesque and the immovable.
Walk out of the door and keep walking until you find somewhere that belongs to you; places you feel a connection to. They don’t need to be the green, flowing, sun-kissed or rain-washed perfection the explorer seeks – just the brush of a low branch upon your arm or the softness of a patch of ground that has escaped the ravages of urbanisation.
A “sit spot” is a place where you are both in touch with the natural world and also safe enough to feel comfortable remaining there. On the outdoor learning sessions I help out with we encourage people to find their own sit spots so they can take time out from whatever we are doing or just be alone with their thoughts. It can be anywhere they like, so long as it is special to that person – up a tree, in a pile of bracken, on a mossy log, sprawled across a patch of grass. Anywhere.
Exercise: Find your sit spot
You have 30 minutes. Go for a short walk.
Somewhere out there is a place more special to you than anywhere else in the vicinity. You may already know about it, at least in the back of your mind. When you reach it then use it in whatever way helps you to connect with the real world. It might mean closing your eyes or lying down. In my case it means taking off my glasses and using my other senses more acutely. However you connect then don’t force it; just let it happen. Then come back again.
This is your sit spot. For 30 days go back to that place and do the same, or maybe something else that connects you in a different way. The important thing is that you make a connection with that small place that is important to you, and by doing so you take yourself away from the stresses and pressures of whatever ails you.7
It is but a matter of time and energy between finding a sit spot and finding a life elsewhere, tilt-shifted from the horrors of imperialism. Guy McPherson, author of the influential “Nature Bats Last” website, holds the title “Emeritus Professor” at the University of Arizona. For the past 3 years he has achieved something far more tangible than any illustrious academic career. He has become as near to self-sufficient as he dare and, strikingly relevant to this section, he has found a location that provides him with a peace he could never have achieved while in academia.
As I look out the picture windows of the mud hut on an overcast morning during early spring, snow-capped mountains in the nearby wilderness provide a stunning backdrop to the last few sandhill cranes in the small valley I occupy. The cranes are among the last to leave their winter home before heading north for an Idaho summer. They remind me that some things are worth supreme sacrifices. Some things are worth dying for, the living planet included.
It’s not at all clear that my decision to abandon the empire was the right one. I know it will extend my life when the ongoing economic collapse is complete, and I know it is the morally appropriate decision (as if a dozen people in the industrialized world give a damn about morality). But Albert Einstein seems mistaken, at least in this case: “Setting an example is not the main means of influencing others, it is the only means.”
My own example has generated plenty of scorn, but essentially no influence. On the other hand, the imperialism of living in the city and teaching at a university has rewards that extend well beyond the monetary realm. I miss working with young people every hour of every day. I miss comforting the downtrodden, notably in facilities of incarceration where I taught for several years, every day. And I miss afflicting the comfortable, notably hard-hearted university administrators, at least weekly.
So I sit in my rural home, alternately staring at the screen of empire and staring out the window into timeless beauty. I contemplate the timing of imperial collapse and the implications for the tattered remains of the living planet. Half a century into an insignificant life seesawing between service and self-absorption, I wonder, as always, what to do. My heart, heavy as the unbroken clouds overhead, threatens to break when I think about what we’ve done in pursuit of progress.
Spring’s resplendence lies ahead, with its promise of renewal. Is there world enough, and time? Will we yet find a way to destroy a lineage 45 million years old, or will the haunting call of the sandhill crane make it through the bottleneck of human industry?
Now that I’m retired from the academic life — or rather, now that I’ve departed the academy in disgust and despair — I no longer spend time in my swivel chair, dispensing information on the telephone or tending to the tender young psyche of an overwrought twenty-something. But there is no “typical” day, just as no two days were alike before I abandoned the hallowed halls. Nonetheless, my days are entertaining, if only to me, and therefore worth sharing with others.
After a fitful night filled with five hours of oft-interrupted sleep, I give up the painful prone position for the slightly less painful standing one. The sun is still behind the mountains, the sky gunmetal gray on a 37-degree spring morning. I flex my fingers, marveling at their one-year transformation from thin and nimble to swollen and brittle, bend my back and neck as they compete for loudest and most frequent popping noises, and gobble a handful of aspirin to start the day.
After putting on my cleanest dirty shirt — one never knows when a neighbor might drop by, after all — I fire up the laptop, respond to a half-dozen email messages, and ignore the list of back-stretching and -strengthening exercises on the table. Maybe tomorrow, when I have more time. No, that won’t work: I have visitors tomorrow and the next day, taking a quick tour of the property to view the arrangements we’ve made. The tea has been steeping while I read and respond, and now I drink it while plowing through a breakfast of cold cereal and piece of fresh fruit as I skim the morning’s counterculture news and commentary. I peek over the computer screen as the sky turns pink, then azure, in the span of a few minutes.
Walking slowly to pick up the hay, I am reminded how pathetic was my attempt at construction on my first-ever awning. It keeps the hay dry, for now, but insufficient pitch and long-abused tin cause the roof to leak, thus prematurely rotting the boards. I carry the flake of alfalfa across the gravel driveway in a plastic “Tucson Recycles” bin, a reminder of my home city of twenty years.
I chuckle as I open the door to the goat pen, an old bed frame I found on the property. After placing the hay into the hand-made manger and filling the water buckets, I release Lillian and Ellie from the insulated goat shed I constructed. Lillian bleats anxiously, knowing she is about to get a quart of grain and relief from her full udder. Ellie, the barrel-shaped three-month-old kid, runs between and then jumps onto the straw bales in the small paddock.
Crossing the driveway, I step into the 15-year-old mobile home and check the temperature in the kitchen: 42 F, a few degrees warmer than outside. I arrange the quart jars, durable coffee filter, and funnel for easy pouring when I have a full bucket of milk, then grab the milking pail and wander back to Lillian. The aches and pains are giving way to an easy gait and appreciation for another beautifully verdant day.
I recall last week’s visitors, a gaggle of university students. After talking for hours about economic collapse, including light’s out in the empire and no water coming through the taps, I was extolling the virtues of living in a “third-world” country with rainwater harvesting and hand-dug wells. A very fit, 20-year-old woman asked for clarification about the wells: “They really dig them by hand?”
I explained that I move as much dirt in an average weekend as required to dig a 20-foot well. Tears welled up, and she turned away.
Economic collapse is fun to talk about, until it becomes personal. And for most people, the personal nature of physical labor is no fun at all.
In the goat shed, I marvel at Lillian’s calm disposition and take quick note of her condition. Her toenails need trimmed, so I’ll get Carol to help with that when she comes back from a week-long visit to the northern half of the state. I marvel, too, at my ability and willingness to tend barnyard animals. I’m feeling good about my new skills despite the criticism from beyond the property. When my parents visited a few months ago, my dad — a product of his culture, steeped in societal economic growth and individual financial success — made a point to watch and comment: “I never thought one of my kids would be reduced to milking a goat.”
Two quarts this morning, same as usual. It’s stacking up in the fridge, so I’ll have to make cheese tomorrow or the next day. I’m partial to Parmesan, but I’ll check the inventory of hard cheeses in the root cellar to make sure we have similar amounts of Parmesan, cheddar, and Monterey Jack. Chevre, mozzarella, and ricotta need to be eaten quickly, and I won’t take time to cook a decent meal based on either of the latter two during the next week.
The milk goes into the freezer for an hour as I let the ducks and chickens out of their respective houses. They’ll range free all day, the ingenious ducks spending most of their time in the irrigation ditch adjacent to the property they discovered after living here only a year. As I gather the eggs, I take note of the trees and gardens on the east end of the property, including the paw paw trees I planted earlier this week. Back in the mobile home, I wash the nine eggs before storing them in the fridge on the shelf below the milk.
I water the seedlings in the garden. The carrots and peas are just emerging, so they need a light shower twice daily. The citrus trees seem to perk up every time I shower their leaves, so I hit them every time I walk past. Continuing to the west end of the property, I give a quick spray of water to the device I constructed for producing compost tea, open the greenhouse and cold frame, check the honeyberry shrubs I planted yesterday, and briefly inspect the three-dozen fruit and nut trees in the orchard. The milk has been in the freezer for its requisite hour, so I hurry back to move the chilled jars into the fridge.
Today’s big task is construction. The still-tender ribs I broke last month working on a similar project remind me to work deliberately as I attach an awning to the cargo container in the northwest corner of the property. We’ll want to store bales of hay and straw and, when we can no longer obtain bales of either, stacks of hay from the peanuts in two large gardens. In time, peanuts will feed us and the goats, as well as improving the soil.
The frame is finished at 1:00 p.m., but only after I pummel my left thumb with a poorly aimed hammer several hundred times, walk back and forth between the stack of lumber and the new awning too many times to count, and nearly fall off the roof. I guess the ribs aren’t a sufficient reminder. I’m thirsty, hot, and tired, and it’s time for lunch and a telephone call.
As I eat, I visit on the telephone for ninety minutes with somebody who follows my blog and wants advice about where to live. Earlier this week, it was career advice for a freshly minted Ph.D. and tomorrow’s caller wants to discuss a strategy for telling her parents about peak oil. I harbor no illusions of having answers for any of these callers, and I know the customary caller is wise enough to seek advice beyond mine, but I appreciate any opportunity to discuss reality and how we can respond to it. I suspect my advice is overpriced, even at no charge.
A handful of aspirin later I’m back at the awning, misguided hammer in hand. After a surprisingly smooth afternoon characterized by few bruises and no blood, I complete the awning. I’ve covered the frame with plywood, tarpaper, and tin on an afternoon with temperatures in the mid-80s. Sweating and sore, I barely have time to hand-water the large garden behind the mobile home, trying not to notice how badly the beds need weeded, before my evening encounter with Lillian. Were Carol here today, the goats would have been walked a couple times, with special attention to the abundant weeds on the east end of the property.
Distracting Ellie with a little grain in her own bucket, I close the door to the goat shed and Lillian steps up on the stanchion I built to ease the milking operation. I apply bag balm after I finish milking her, give Ellie a pat on the head, and head to the mobile home to strain the milk into two more quart jars.
Supper is the same as lunch: rice and beans left over from last night’s supper. A quick shower removes the first layer of grime before I put the goats into their lion-proof shed, lock the chickens into their skunk-proof coop, and herd the ducks into their raccoon-proof house. The setting sun sets the sky afire before unleashing the Milky Way.
One more round with the imperial screen of death allows me to catch up with a couple dozen email messages while viewing the latest dire news about the ecological collapse we’re bringing to every corner of the globe. A cup of herbal tea to wash down more aspirin, a few pages of Nietzsche in the silence of the straw-bale house, and I tumble into bed. Sleep comes slowly and poorly, as it has since the summer of 1979 when I last logged six consecutive hours of sleep. Even then, my nagging subconscious was trying to tell me something about the empire wasn’t quite right.
Sadly, it took me decades to figure out the problem. More sadly, most imperial Americans are well behind me on the learning curve.
Remember, this chapter is about you. Sharing your experiences for the benefit of others transfers that “you” to someone else, but this undermining has to be a personal endeavour, for only by battling your own demons can you truly be liberated from the civilized mindset. There are many aspects to personal liberation and we have only touched on two of the fundamentals: time and space. So many others such as language, culture, a sense of belonging and the absolutely vital element of being at peace with yourself are tied up in the next task.
Task 3: Find Yourself
We are raised, as citizens within the industrial world, to believe there is a single mode of fulfilment that will hold us in good stead from birth to death. We must never question it; we must never challenge it; we must only identify with it. Carolyn Baker describes this crisis of identity in her book Sacred Demise, in the following way:
Civilization’s toxicity has fostered the illusion that one is, for example, a professional person with money in the bank, a secure mortgage, a good credit rating, a healthy body and mind, raising healthy children who will grow up to become successful like oneself, and that when one retires one will be well taken care of. If that has become our identity, and if we don’t look deeper, we won’t discover who we really are.9
At the root of the loss and agitation every civilized person feels is a question; a question so simple that the answer surely must be self-evident just by its asking. Yet eons of mindtime and reams of pulp-print have been expended by some of the finest minds civilization has vomited from its blandness on this very question, with no usable answer emerging. The reason there is no usable answer is because the wrong person is being asked the question.
You need to ask yourself the question.
“Who am I?”
No one can ask it and certainly no one can answer it, on your behalf. I’m sorry if it seems like I’m imposing on you but really, only you can ever know what you are beyond the basics of being a human of x, y and z dimensions – even gender and biological lifespan are open to interpretation.
But I can give you a hand if you want. In August 2009 I carried out something very similar, at least on a superficial level, because I was feeling rudderless and ungrounded, stuck in a place I didn’t want to be. The key to restoring my sense of self was to find an identity that I could relate to at a very real and personal level. Discovering an identity allowed me to resist whatever label civilization wished to impose upon me, as Baker has alluded to above. More basically, it seems that without identity we are less human. The evidence for this is compelling: identity from the dawn of humanity is written across the ground, the walls and the artefacts of everyone who has ever been part of a tribe or close community. The tongues of countless people have spoken, and still try to speak in myriad different languages, dialects and accents. The way we have dressed; the way we have expressed ourselves; the way we have made our lives different in so many subtle and deliberate ways shouts of the need for an identity, a commonality in our local culture that ensures the survival and enhances the success of each group that shares that identity.
At the time, this is what I wrote in terms of my personal journey:
I was born in England and I have lived here all my life. I love this country as a place, and I am content to root myself in the soil from which its life emerges. I have, very recently, also realised that a large part of what I write and speak about is rooted in Anarchy; the simple and natural concept that there is no place for arbitrary authority nor a self-selected hierarchy – the kind that the political and corporate milieu utilise to ensure we remain good Consumers. In that sense, Anarchist is the antithesis of Consumer, and I know which identity I am more comfortable with.
There are many other pieces for me to find; some of them may shuffle around and some may come and go over time, but at least I am now able to choose my identity for myself. That is a wonderful thing, one that we owe it to ourselves to fight for.10
I had no idea how prescient this would become. Only 4 months after carrying out the work we had made the decision, as a family, to move to the Scottish Borders. The move was initiated by some family members settling in another part of Scotland as well as some unsavoury events where we currently were, but the actual decision to relocate to a specific place with its unique setting and culture was most definitely heartfelt. It just seemed right. Less than 12 months after identifying as an English Anarchist I realised I could comfortably refer to myself as a Borderer (for the benefit of others I sometimes say I am “between nationalities”, but I definitely know where I am now rooted).
Some of the other parts to my identity are also falling into place. I have become more of a listener than a talker; more of a community person than an individual; more tolerant of others’ different views from my own; and even able to walk past a group of teenagers with a sense of collective need rather than urban fear. More viscerally, I can’t listen to “Flower of Scotland” without getting a shiver down my spine and Gaelic mouth music positively brings tears springing from all sorts of places. Of course this doesn’t make me Scottish nor capable of understanding the complexities of Scots Gaelic, but all of these do signify a journey that is still taking place at a very elemental level.
It may be that you are not in a position to identify with anything in the same way; I am certainly lucky to have become settled in such a way that there is something I can attach myself to. But that’s surely not the point. I initially searched for an identity as a way of excising myself from the mentally-draining position I was in, not to reinforce a positive experience. The power of identity in undermining lies in its value as a recuperative force. Even if you can “only” attach yourself to one thread of genuine goodness in your current existence, that is one more thread than civilization permits most people. Surely that, in itself, is worth the effort. And, of course, once you have that single thread, then you can trace it to others with which you can start to weave something that is truly your own.
Where Did Your Soul Go?
There is a moment in Joseph Conrad’s incredible novel Heart of Darkness where the story-teller, Marlow, bares his raw soul. A heap of junk, masquerading as a boat, clatters past a group of drumming, crying, wailing forest people on the bank (“Cursing us, praying to us, welcoming us?”) At that moment the story takes a pivotal jerk towards a vivid realisation that maybe the civilized world is just a thin veneer, created to keep us disconnected from the world from which we came and to which our soul still belongs:
We were cut off from the comprehension of our surrounding; we glided past like phantoms, wondering and secretly appalled, as sane men would be before an enthusiastic outbreak in a madhouse. We could not understand because we were too far and could not remember; because we were travelling in the night of first ages, of those ages that are gone, leaving hardly a sign – and no memories.
The earth seemed unearthly. We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there – there you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly, and the men were – No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it – this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one…if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you – you so remote from the night of first ages – could comprehend.11
Religion is not Spirituality, and Spirituality is not a prerequisite for Soulfullness. Oh, and neither is James Brown. Soul is a strange beast. It has been corrupted in its definition by the established organised religions of the West which insist that it is some kind of post-partum entity that ascends to heaven or descends to hell, whatever they are. Soul is both less definable but more accessible than any religious doctrine would have us believe.
However you view the idea of soul, there is no getting away from it that to be connected to the Real World, and thus burn all memory of the Tools of Disconnection, requires something beyond the material. Whether that connection manifests itself in your mind, or even outside of your material self, it is something we have grown increasingly unfamiliar with in the industrial culture. It is no coincidence that materialism is analogous with Industrial Civilization. Soul, on the other hand, requires the opposite of materialism. It is the intangible sense of otherness that fills the space between our physical self and everything else in the Real World. It is the sense of closeness. It is what creates genuine need and beneficence. It is love. It is all of the things for which there is no physical explanation, but which we know exist.
And, as civilized people, it is what we are missing.
Of all the undermining we have encountered, finding your soul is the least tangible yet perhaps the most fundamental of tasks. I cannot tell you how to find it, but it’s there somewhere. When you have found it, you will know, I promise.
We set out on this great project with the aim of undermining the Tools of Disconnection, of removing the things that prevent us from connecting with the Real World. Maybe the act of finding your soul is impossible without first removing that which keeps us disconnected; maybe it is not possible to start undermining the Tools of Disconnection without first making that fundamental step in discovering the true nature of connection. I don’t know.
Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe all of these things just happen when they need to happen. We are all different: some of us can be connected while still wirelessly attached to a broadband router; some of us can help build wonderful communities while still holding down a destructive job; some of us can be dismantling the corporate machine while buying their weekly food at their nearest globe-spanning supermarket. At some point we will need to accept that some of these things will be no more whilst some of them will become commonplace. I suspect you know this and are already preparing for when it will become reality. With your help.
We are the Underminers, and this is our time.
1 Paul Kingsnorth, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist”, Orion Magazine, January / February 2012, http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/6599 (accessed August 2012).
2 A. Roger Ekirch, At Day’s Close: A History of Nighttime, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005.
3 Michael Bittman, James Mahmud Rice and Judy Wajcman, “Appliances and their impact: the ownership of domestic technology and time spent on household work”, The British Journal of Sociology, 55 (3), 2004.
4 United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs/Population Division, World Urbanization Prospects: The 2011 Revision, http://esa.un.org/unup/pdf/WUP2011_Highlights.pdf (accessed August 2012).
5 John Muir, Our National Parks, The Riverside Press, 1901, available at http://www.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/writings/our_national_parks/ (accessed August 2012).
6 Roger S. Ulrich et al, “Stress Recovery During Exposure to Urban and Natural Elements”, J. Env. Psych. 11, 1991.
7 You might find it useful to read the experiences of others who have taken this “30 Day Sit Spot Challenge”, at http://wildernessawareness.ning.com/group/sitspot/forum.
8 This is a specially edited extract from Guy R. McPherson, Walking Away from Empire: A Personal Journey, Publish American, 2011. I highly recommend Guy’s writing as an antidote to those who pretend we can buy our way out of the global crisis and that collapse is just scaremongering.
9 Carolyn Baker, Sacred Demise: Walking the Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilization’s Collapse, 2009, iUniverse.
10 Keith Farnish, “Finding my Identity”, The Earth Blog, 2009, http://earth-blog.bravejournal.com/entry/38498 (accessed August 2012).
11 Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, Penguin Classics, 1985 (orig. 1902).
Version 1.01, published 24 October, 2012