a perfect ratio

There is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount, a perfect ratio of water to rock, of water to sand, insuring that wide, free, open, generous spacing among plants and animals, homes and towns and cities, which makes the arid West so different from any other part of the nation. There is no lack of water here, unless you try to establish a city where no city should be….

Time and the winds will sooner or later bury the Seven Cities of Cibola — Phoenix, Tucson, Albuquerque, all of them — under dunes of glowing sand, over which blue-eyed Navajo bedouin will herd their sheep and horses, following the river in winter, the mountains in summer, and sometimes striking off across the desert toward the red canyons of Utah where great waterfalls plunge over silt-filled, ancient, mysterious dams.

— Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire (1968)

loss and grief

To go from Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines to the Dark Mountain Manifesto is to take a 180° turn — a turn downward. If Kurzweil reached up towards the stars, the authors of the Manifesto tell us to walk down that dark mountain to re-enter the world of “nature” which we had thought to have conquered, to have risen above, to have mastered, to have become capable of disregarding. “We believe it is time to look down.” But what might it mean to “look down”?

In my class we try to get at that question by reading Helen McDonald’s magnificent book H Is For Hawk. Because, partly intentionally and partly unintentionally, this is the story of how a woman looked down into the world that we call “nature” — and became a hawk. 

For years I’d scoffed at [T. H.] White’s notion of hawk-training as a rite of passage. Overblown, I’d thought. Loopy. Because it wasn’t like that. I knew it wasn’t. I’d flown scores of hawks, and every step of their training was familiar to me. But while the steps were familiar, the person taking them was not. I was in ruins. Some deep part of me was trying to rebuild itself, and its model was right there on my fist. The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life. I was turning into a hawk. 

The really fascinating thing here is that the same thing prompts McDonald’s immersion in the training of her goshawk Mabel as prompts Ray Kurzweil’s frantic experiments with life extension and ultimately immortality: the loss of a father. It is the death of Ray Kurzweil’s father that he continually grieves, it is the hope of somehow being reunited with his father which drives much of his work. And so too, in a strange inverted sort of correspondence, Helen McDonald deals with the death of her beloved father by turning to the world of nature. To learn to think as a hawk thinks or, rather, and more to the point, to not think as a hawk doesn’t think. (“Goshawks are nervous because they live life ten times faster than we do, and they react to stimuli literally without thinking.”) 

Perhaps the ocsillations I have been describing between a quest for an enchanted world and the acceptance of a disenchanted one are motivated by the same fundamental experience: Death, and grief.

nature and freedom

The notion that we “have a nature,” far from threatening the concept of freedom, is absolutely essential to it. If we were genuinely plastic and indeterminate at birth, there could be no reason why society should not stamp us into any shape that might suit it. The reason people view suggestions about inborn tendencies with such indiscriminate horror seems to be that they think exclusively in one particular way in which the idea of such tendencies has been misused, namely, that where conservative theorists invoke them uncritically to resist reform. But liberal theorists who combat such resistance need them just as much, and indeed, usually more. The early architects of our current notion of freedom made human nature their cornerstone. Rousseau’s trumpet call “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains,” makes sense only as description of our innate constitution as something positive, already determined, and conflicting with what society does to us. 

— Mary Midgley, Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature (1979) 

British eco-fascism

The website for the 2017 documentary film Arcadia says that it’s “a sensory journey into the beauty and brutality, magic and madness of our changing relationship with land and each other. The film combines over 100 years of archive film with a grand, expressive new score by Adrian Utley of Portishead and Will Gregory of Goldfrapp.” It’s a kind of nonlinear survey of the various survivals of paganism — sometimes scary forms of paganism — in modern Britain.

Arcadia excited the writer Paul Kingsnorth (author of, among other things, Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist) very much. In an essay written to accompany the film — an essay he later withdrew; more about that in a moment — he wrote,

The guardians of our civilisation tell us that attachment to place and tradition is reactionary, backward, dangerous. Like magic and mystery, attachment to land and history are things which belong to a dark and grim past, and should stay there. We are all progressives now. You are romanticising a past that never existed, they tell us. But it did exist, and not long ago. You can see it here, flickering in black and white. I defy any Briton to watch Arcadia and not feel a surge of patriotism; the real kind, the old kind. Not an attachment to monarchy or church, institution or government, idea or ideal, but the old pull of the land you walk on. The ground beneath your feet.

For Kingsnorth, the film Arcadia reminds us that the old “magic and mystery” of the land are not dead. The land still calls to its inhabitants, though faintly. Kingsnorth wants us to watch the film and have our attention to that call renewed.

What happened to our Arcadia? We stopped listening to it. We stopped dancing, we moved away, we started listening to the chant of the Machine instead. It is debt we chase now, not the moon. We are individuals, not parts in a wider whole. In a broken time, it is taboo to remember what was lost, and that fact alone makes Arcadia a revolutionary document. Look, it says. This is how it was. This is what was broken. At night, when you lie awake with your phone flashing under your pillow – do you miss it?

Thus Kingsnorth. Now, Warren Ellis, the great comics writer, in response:

That creepy Heideggerian dasein that fronts as meaning being-in-the-world but actually means being in a familiar landscape surrounded by lovely white people with no connection to the wider culture, preferring localism over multiculturalism and not being disturbed in your eternal idyll in the black forest (or on the dark mountain) by any of those nasty foreign types. This is where landscape writing sheds its leafy cloak and lets you glimpse its colder face – sounding like Steve Bannon, quoting Steve Bannon, black notebooks in hand, gazing from its bench at the little woodland of little England and trying to decide if “benevolent green nationalism” sounds too much like “… well, a nice kind of Hitler.”

We see you for what you are.

So: just as Heidegger wove together the experience of dwelling in his little hut in the Black Forest with his support for the Nazi regime, his black notebooks full of antisemitism, so too Kingsnorth with his racist Arcadia, his Brexit Arcadia, his doors-closed-to-colored-immigrants Arcadia?

This seems … a bit of a stretch to me. But Ellis is not the only one who reads Kingsnorth that way. Richard Smyth digs up nature writing’s fascist roots; “London Permaculture” teases out the fascist, racist snake lurking in the grass of England’s green and pleasant land. And this outcry led to Kingsnorth withdrawing his essay and then posting an explanation — which he also deleted.

I think what prompts these fierce denunciations is this: When we look back on the old ways of English culture — and this would apply to England’s Christian history almost as completely as its pagan one — we see white people, and only white people, enacting them. So how can those ways be praised without also praising exclusive whiteness?

Which raises for me another question: For these critics of Kingsnorth, is there any legitimate way to praise, and to seek to conserve, old rituals and practices? Can you love harvest festivals or Morris dancing or Druidic rites or for that matter Ember Days without being a racist, a fascist, a Nazi? Or is urban cosmopolitanism the only ethically acceptable ideal of human life?

And if you can love and practice those old ways without being a racist — How? What would distinguish morally legitimate attitudes from the ones that Kingsnorth is being pilloried for?

This inquiring mind would really like to know.

Sincerely, Edward Abbey

Edward Abbey to a correspondent:

The ideal off-road journey? I’ll tell you: under water. I would like to see every four-by-four on earth, every three-wheeler, every dirt bike, trail bike and Big Foot truck driven straight into the Marianas Trench, three thousand feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, and parked there — left there — for the duration.

For the duration of what? For the duration of this techno-industrial-commercial slime-mold that is transforming our planet into one vast battleground of Cretins against Nature. With the Cretins winning.

What’s wrong with the horse? Or the burro? Or the bicycle? Or even, God help us, the human foot? Why should not Americans especially learn to walk again? There is this to be said for walking: it is the one method of human locomotion by which a man or woman proceeds erect, upright, proud and independent, not squatting on the haunches like a frog.