the first steps of our U'mista:
believing we are native to creation
He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things. (Eph. 4:10)
On an ordinary day in the mid-summer, I take a walk down to the sea. A long dirt path starts at the foot of Mt. Tamalpais, then winds through a typical Northern California coastal gulch. From the trailhead I descend into a valley, its hillsides covered with golden and silver-green grasses that move with the wind in a soft, undulating choreography. The gentle slopes gradually give way to sharper inclines, and an entwining tango of manzanita and chaparral. About a half-mile inland, the throat of gulch narrows and compresses the sea breeze into a velocity that unexpectedly sweeps the ocean smells over me. The sea’s reaching presence envelopes my body long before I actually see the shore. At last, I round a final bend and notice a faint but discernible change in the tone of the light above the bordering bluffs. Directly ahead is the shallow bowl of a turquoise inlet framed by cliffs of jumbled rock. I walk down a sandbank littered with tiny pearlescent shell fragments onto a small beach of coarse sand and tiny jadestones. I find a spot against some rough and striated rock and settle in.
For a long time I do nothing but watch and listen. Resting in the sedulous loyalty of the warming sun, I am able to relax the darting movements of my thoughts into the steady calm of wind, ocean and rock. The rhythmic hum and growl of the waves reveal ever more complex sonorities. Gulls and pelicans weave in and out of formations, chart the wind currents, dive for fish, and move on.
Eventually I come to a quietness from which I can actually experience my surroundings. That’s when I remember: what is constant in the world and what is temporary; what is merely simulated in my experience and what moves within me with the deepest resonance. What, at bottom, this life is all about.
The sea resounds like a breathing lover. The cool opacity of the rock where I sit shapes the flesh at every touch, its intransigent surface requiring that my tissue and bone conform to its contour. Similarly, the rough sand underfoot, the heat of the sun, the cool play of wind through the small hairs on my arm become the location for a multi-sensual interplay of the world and my presence in it. I feel connected to the air by the edges of my skin; to what I see by the field of my sight. And I am free to either embrace or ignore this sensation of embeddedness. Indeed, the feeling arrives and disappears within the course of seconds, like the cliff swallows that come out to run their slot car races in the air and then, just as quickly, are gone.
It doesn’t matter. I feel that I’ve come back to a more primary, and nourishing, way of knowing and being. My body has found its place in this tactile environment, and is glad. When I retreat, as I must, to the blunted climates of rooms and cars and cities, one thing will remain: for a time I’ve come back to my most basic joy as a human on the earth. I’ve been reminded that I am a sensual transformer, ingesting the broadcast presence of whatever territory surrounds me and aesthetically metabolizing it into my felt sense of being in the world. And I’ve remembered that even the vast scope of our sometimes viral civilization is relative and bounded. Underneath the highways and skyscrapers and runways and parking lots, the muted voice of the earth still sings.
As I write this on my computer in my house in the city, it feels like a deja vu as I struggle to recapture the memory of that awareness of being tenderly held in place by the surfaces of my senses; of being touched by the beauty at the heart of every thing. And while I suspect that this process of having our sense of "placedness" formed by the sensual impact of our environments goes on whether we are aware of it or not, the probable truth is that most of the time we are not. Occasionally reality itches, like a cheap wool sweater. Sometimes its silken caresses are noticed, and we are reminded of the wealth of our senses. But, by and large, I find that being constantly surrounded by artificial environments creates a tremendous ability not only to adapt to them, but to crave them, and to go on in the cubicles of my existence entirely unaware of how they are shaping me. I realize how easily I forget the deep joy of knowing my place on earth, so small and fragile and infinitely dependent. Even on that luminous day at the beach, the feeling didn’t last. Eventually, the air chilled and I made tracks for the only shelter I know.
At the end of that day, I followed my lengthening shadow back to my car. Once inside, I shut its metal door against the possibility of connection within the world’s felt graces, and rejoined my culture of technophiles—we who have come more and more to love and surround ourselves with the engineered experience. I returned to what modern Americans like to refer to as (with full appreciation of and acquiescence to the irony) "the real world." This is, of course, the world where we sit for years in our workplaces and offices, struggling with the computers and machines we fear and desire, then drive home ant-like in the stolid swarm of traffic. At our leisure, we are taught the commodity myths of our culture at the slow fire of the TV, or watch helplessly the escalating madness of violence and war. With the internet now ubiquitous, we participate in the talismanic rite of Web-surfing, where we may download some fetish seized from the Information Loka. As we go forth to hunt and gather, we are certainly more at home in the endless replications of the shopping mall than in any wild place. In short, our connection to the world is thoroughly virtualized. We may know the world second-hand through picture postcard representations of it, through the spread veneer of concrete and electronics, but we have largely forgotten how to know as earth-dwellers know. For us, the earth has no clear voice, no compelling wisdom.
Quite apart from the tragedy of our alienation from the earth producing an exploitative psychology toward it (not to mention the ensuing damage), we have also distanced ourselves completely from a primary source of our human soul’s nourishment.
Historically speaking, this is a very new development, despite how much it may feel that this is the only way we can live. I don’t need here to chant again the litany of woes wrought by industrialization and capitalization. The modern angst of alienation is well chronicled from Marx to Baudrillard. Or we can simply read it in the faces of our neighbors. But as we approach the apex of ignorance to which the self-absorbed energy of the information age has brought us; as we complete the lunatic move toward a disembodied electronic existence, the virtualization of our senses, and the resultant objectification/commodification of the body as nothing more than a sensual machine (what some gleefully refer to as "posthuman" interbreeding with the "species life" of machines), it may be high time to look beyond the circumstantially bound historical data, through the social fascia, in order to get an answer to the basic question:
Why do we feel like such strangers here on the home planet? Why do we continually build structures of alienation—ideological and religious, as well as physical—that hold the earth at arm’s length from all our collective histories? What is the root of this virtual urge?
Such an investigation goes far beyond the problem of our "alienation from nature," at least as that is dealt with in popular ecological writing. It must also move past the purely scientific concerns for maintaining the earth system—doing something about the ozone hole, saving the rainforests because therein lies our oxygen supply. These are issues as important as they come. Yet the rationales for preservation that ignore the complex mystery of our very humanity’s connectedness to creation are still founded in the same premise that brought the ecological crisis into existence in the first place: the objectification of the world as nothing more than material resource—albeit, one that must be preserved at all costs. So much of the mainstream rhetoric of preservation, from the White House to those warning of the greenhouse effect, seems to be drawn from this same infested well. It is subtly infused with the hallucinatory idea that we can, through the application of superlative technologies, make us humans finally safe to pursue our accustomed levels of mindless consumption in a clean new world of unending Progress. That is why, as crucial as the scientific approach may be, it is still inadequate to address the crisis in all of its depth.
Unless our strategies of preservation begin to absorb the metaphoric dimension of the mystery of creation, the preservation effort is doomed. That is because ecological exploitation seems, at bottom, to be a failure of empathy, not of science. It is an anti-effort aimed at not finding meaning in creation so that one may make it mean something—and preferably something useful and profitable. We have chosen to carve a path through history based upon this appetite for semantic imperialism—constraining the meanings of things to the agendas of our vast cultural projects. But simply because history has demonstrated that the world can be made to work that way does not imply that that is how the world actually works.
The fact is, the world remains an immense stranger to those who think they can know it by measuring it. They gaze into the opaque ceiling towards the pinpricks of light with their best lenses. But the meaning becomes no clearer. Indeed, despite all the massive advances in human scientific ability to measure the world, to peer back to the proto-material state of creation mere millionths of a second following the Big Bang; despite the astonishing acceleration of the power of computers to put virtually all recorded information at virtually all keyboard tapping fingertips; despite it all, the world remains a mystery to the masters of technology. And, as information proliferates, the imponderability of that mystery increases. The tools we use to measure and manipulate the world become the instruments of our distance from it. We are like the tourists who jam northern California's Avenue of the Giants, pointing tiny digital cameras or stupid smartphones at the immense redwoods, trying to capture an xx-megapixel record of what is completely beyond our ability to really experience. We chatter on about size and age and board feet of lumber, as if such talk will somehow tame their presence to our small wills. If only we'd put down the cameras and shut up; be still with the stillness of the forest. Then maybe we'd see what we can't know, and know what we've actually seen.
But learning to actually see is not an easy matter for us inheritors of the scientistic/mechanistic mentality. With a perceptual predisposition that every one of us wears around town like a pair of bad glasses, what we take for our relationship to the real world around us is almost hopelessly blurred and attenuated. The ways we describe the world and our life in it are distinctly second-order, based in an obsessive bifurcation of the world through habitual patterns of linguistic abstraction—a mode of thought and discourse that is exponentially parasitic on our primary apprehension of the real. Even when we manage to make it to the scenic overlook of descriptive language, the highest compliment many of us are able to pay to “nature” from our distanced vantage point is that it would sure make a great postcard. How can such dis-placed people hope to save the place they don’t even experience as home?
Of course, I’m for the most part referring to the “we” who inhabit the “developed,” industrialized world. Despite the pressures of the global hegemony of technology and money, some indigenous cultures have managed to preserve a fair bit of their ancestral ways of participation in the natural world. By contrast, we first world people live on top of nature, rather than as participants with it. The lifestyle choices that are represented to us as “the only way to live” not only deafen and blind us to the voice and beauty of the world, they render us absent from the world, from our bodies, and from one another. Yet, in an emerging global culture that enforces our absence, any act we take to reestablish our own full presence with creation will be an act of resistance.
(to be continued...)