The Path to Odin’s Lake

Does it ever feel as if the only news you ever hear is bad news? That all the bad aspects of human nature are in charge and there’s nothing you can do about it apart from suffer in silence and pray for some kind of miracle? If so, you’re not alone. Depression and chronic anxiety are now so much a part of modern life that they have come to be regarded as almost inevitable. Poor physical and mental health stalks much of the world in much the same way that the world’s ecosystems are showing signs of depression and ill health
.

And it’s about to get much worse.

It seems the climatic and biophysical systems that sustain human life may now be entering into a period of rapid change that is likely to surprise us with its velocity. Recent reports of sudden spikes in average surface temperatures have stunned climate scientists, and only a couple of weeks ago the temperature in parts of Greenland was over 35 degrees higher than it should have been for early spring. Last year great fires spread across Indonesia and the boreal forest biome, turning the air grey with ash and smoke for hundreds of miles and even attracting the attention of mainstream media organisations. Closer to home sperm whales have been washing up dead on the beaches of England, their stomachs filled with plastic, and our government is rushing to allow fracking to take place at any cost, and damn the consequences. Did I mention ocean acidification, the nuclear pollution and mass die-offs in the Pacific, or the melting Himalayan glaciers?

One could go on and on in the same vein – perhaps mentioning that around half of all wildlife has been wiped out in the last four decades – but what good would it do? Facing up to the awfulness of our predicament is simply too painful for most people to contemplate, and so is it any wonder they choose instead to zone out and numb themselves with alcohol and TV box sets? Such a strategy ensures a kind of personal mental safe space, even if it dooms the biosphere in the process. But it’s certainly preferable to looking the beast in the eye, which can lead to depression or feelings of nihilism and hopelessness. Yet what’s a sensitive person to do as everything they hold dear about life on this precious blue marble spinning in space is senselessly destroyed around them?

That was a question that had been going round in my head for some time and was answered, in a roundabout way, by a dream. In it I found myself looking down from some lofty pinnacle on a town or city spread across the landscape below. From this vantage point I could see a kind of toxic miasma from which I felt a strong urge to walk away. There was an urgent feeling, too, as if the very mountains wanted to speak to speak to me about some important matter, and that I had better listen up. When I awoke I was puzzled and unsettled by this dream. All day long I felt a strong urge to head off to those mountains, knowing full well that doing so was impossible. Not only did I have no money for such an
adventure, I also had the weight of commitments tying me down. And so I placed this strange yearning on the pile of other such unfulfilled wants and got on with my life.

And then, as if by complete fluke, an email arrived. I was to travel to Denmark a few weeks later and would then have two full weeks to kick my heels before my paid-for ticket brought me back home again to Cornwall. All of a sudden it was as if a path had opened up before me and I gazed at my map of Scandinavia, trying to calculate how long it would take to reach those snowy white mountains in the frozen north. And that’s how I found myself standing in Copenhagen’s main city plaza one day in early summer. I had on a backpack, a pair of walking boots and no idea what I was doing. There was a vague plan to walk into Sweden and to somehow get up to the Arctic Circle, where I felt sure my conversation with the mountains could continue, but other than that the only other thing I had was a gnawing sense of unease bordering on fear.

The fear was real and palpable. Forty-something dads are not supposed to grow beards and disappear off into the wilderness in search of talking mountains. A sense of disapproval followed me around. ‘Are you, er, all right?’ asked a concerned friend. The breaking of petty taboos aside, I wanted to find out for myself if there was some talisman to banish the despair that crawls around the basement of the aware mind and I considered the best way to do this was to simply set out in search of it. That the culture of our modern technological and materialistic civilisation was both suicidal and insane was a given, but intuition suggested the tantalising prospect of a connection to something more intelligent if you looked in the right place. And perhaps something more intelligent than us would have an answer.

But just where was the right place? Most religions would say that it’s either inside you, or else in some numinous realm, such as heaven. Well, wherever it was, I felt that immersing myself in Nature might do the trick of coaxing it out of hiding. This raised a wider question, namely: why are we so afraid to break free of the norms imposed on us by society? It has been said that we each live our lives within a gilded cage, but the only way to see the invisible bars of this cage is to reach out and touch them. And then there’s cultural opprobrium to deal with: setting out on foot for two weeks with no plan and mobile phone is most people’s definition of insanity.

I had a few rules for my adventure. The first rule was that there were to be no electronic gadgets other than my SLR camera. Being constantly distracted by pointless messages and flashes of heavily masticated information, I reasoned, would not be conducive to focusing on communications from the non-human world. And so I left my phone at home. Secondly, I was to set out with an open mind. Having been raised a non-theist, like most people from my class and background I had always considered the scientific objective reality explanation of the universe to be the most logical. However, a dawning – if somewhat fuzzy – sense of a wider reality had suggested itself in recent years and I felt as ready as I ever would to engage with it. Lastly, I was to go wherever fate seemed to be suggesting I go, and wild camp wherever possible.

My journey started badly. On the first day I was thrown out of a shopping centre – ostensibly for looking like a tramp – and then my first night camping in a small forest beneath the flight path of planes landing at Copenhagen Airport almost saw me arrested for vagrancy by an aggressive park ranger. Being a hermit in suburbia is not easy, I discovered, even if I was only a part-time hermit. For company and stimulation I had brought with me two books. The first was Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. Aurelius, a late-stage Roman emperor, was know as a Stoic philosopher and, as such, seemed to be the perfect companion for my doomer-ish quest. The second book, Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche, was written by the American author Bill Plotkin. This book had been recommended to me and it was tossed into my backpack almost as an afterthought or in case I finished Meditations too quickly. As it turned out, both books influenced and shaped my journey more than I could possibly have imagined, and at times it felt as if I had these two wise souls skipping along beside me and egging me on with words of encouragement as I walked the soggy trails of Denmark and Sweden.

In the case of Soulcraft, the magical effect was immediate. Strange things began to happen. On my first evening, feeling somewhat despondent and wondering whether I should call the whole thing quits, I sat on a log and began to read. The book, it turned out, was about Plotkin’s own journey into the mysteries of Nature and how its radical message transformed him. As I read in rapt attention he finished the first section of the book explaining how his first soul quest vision had been of a caterpillar building itself a chrysalis. The meaning of this was clear, he stated; it represented a transformation from one form of being to another. Look out for your own caterpillar, was his message. I put the book down to reflect on the uncanny similarity of how he had felt at the time to how I now felt and was immediately confronted – to my complete astonishment – by a very large caterpillar staring right at me. It was on a long stalk of grass and illuminated in a shaft of evening sunlight. It was huge – almost six inches long – and it seemed to be waving its legs at me as if to say ‘Hello – over here!’ To say that I almost fell off my log in surprise would be an understatement, and yet this was just the first of several freakish happenings involving living creatures to occur on my journey. When I had recovered sufficiently to be able to reflect on it I took the caterpillar to be a harbinger for my descent into the realm of uncivilisation. ‘Walk this way,’ he seemed to be saying. ‘If you dare.’

Later, I travelled to a small national park, enduring the wettest spell of weather in recent Swedish history. Large parts of the country became flooded, and I myself became completely sodden – only my books, which I kept in a plastic bag – remained dry. By day I would hike the forest trails, sometimes meditating or sleeping beneath the trees, and in the evening I would return to my tiny waterlogged tent and read Plotkin and Aurelius until I fell asleep. With the passing of each day I felt as if I were falling deeper into a profound mystery, and that these two writers – one alive and one long dead – were my guides. I began to be afraid. But then, as Marcus Aurelius pointed out, ‘It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.’

Bill Plotkin talked of spirit animals and of plants that could communicate with you, if you knew how to listen. In one section of his book he gives a detailed explanation of how to talk with trees. Talk with trees? Surely this is some form of madness, I tutted inwardly, before reminding myself once again that madness already reigns in the world and that we sorely need to find new ways to relate if we are to wriggle out of our Faustian pact. And so I tried his approach. In The Path to Odin’s Lake I wrote:

I walked out along the plateau on the southern side of the gorge and stepped off the path into an area I had not explored before. I wanted to get lost. Not seriously lost, but lost enough that I could not find my bearings. I figured that this mental state of low-level anxiety would help suppress the controlling ego part of my mind which is said to be inconducive to the reception of messages from the plant world in a similar way that sitting beside a screaming toddler is inconducive to focusing on hushed Gregorian chanting. To further heighten the senses I abstained from eating anything for the day and headed out at dusk.

When I considered myself sufficiently lost I began to look around for a likely tree to communicate with. Beech trees may all look fairly alike when seen in the aggregate, but when you are up close to them and trying to decide which one might look friendly enough to talk with then they all begin to look very different. Some of them seemed to have faces. There were long, grimacing faces with bulging features, Pinocchio noses, Picasso eyes and ghastly mouths like something from an Edvard Munch painting; and there were faces that looked altogether more benign, if somewhat misshapen and ugly. I tried to put prejudices aside – after all, I reasoned, perhaps I seemed equally gruesome to them.

Nevertheless, as I moved between the trees I attempted to get a feeling for each of, gauging whether any caused a particular sensation within me. I didn’t want to talk to an unfriendly tree – after all, if one is truly open-minded about the possibility that they may be as intelligent as we are, that they possess characters traits, talents and foibles, then one must not discount the possibility that some of them may be bastards.

It wasn’t too long before I saw a friendly-looking tree. It was a medium sized one, probably about the same age as myself. I had discounted talking with any of the truly immense trees with their huge trunks and their gnarled roots. Perhaps I was intimidated by their size. In any case, I went up to this particular tree and introduced myself. It felt a bit strange talking to a tree, but there were no people around in this off-the-track part of the forest, so why should I feel embarrassed? I was not naive enough to expect a pair of woody eyes to flick open and for the tree to start talking to me like one of Tolkein’s ents, nevertheless I talked in a spirit of openness. I told it who I was, where I came from and what was important to me. Bill Plotkin states that trees are not interested in names or other types of human categorisation, so I outlined myself in terms of the heart. This is not as easy as it sounds, given how used we are to describing ourselves in terms that would look okay on a CV. Trying to describe yourself in terms that you think a non-human plant organism will understand is a useful way of evaluating your place in the biophysical world.

After a while I had run out of things to say so I sat down at the base of the tree and rummaged in my bag. I had brought a gift for it, as was advised by Plotkin – in this case a very large and very red rosehip from a bush near the campsite. There were no rose bushes in the deep forest because of the lack of light, so I figured it might make a reasonable gift. I placed the hip in a bole formed by the tree’s roots that looked a bit like a natural shrine. After I had done this I sat and waited. I waited for about twenty minutes or so and then shifted position so that I sat with my back against the trunk. I meditated for a bit to try and clear my mind of unwanted background noise.

One thing that I was aware of was that trees could be much more leisurely with their communication than we humans. In Soulcraft Bill Plotkin describes one of his wilderness soul questers talking to a desert tree for several days, asking how it managed to survive in such an arid place. The tree had remained silent and seemingly aloof for the whole time. Eventually the seeker became exasperated and started shouting at it, upon which the tree bellowed back ‘Deep roots!’ The inquisitor was bowled over in shock.

But I didn’t have several days to spend waiting, so my hopes of pulling off an inter-species conversation weren’t awfully high. Nevertheless, I persisted and carried on talking. I talked about my own bit of woodland in Cornwall, describing the various trees to be found there and talking about how I was planting many more with each passing year. As I was doing so I felt an almost imperceptible change of something in the air. It felt as if the tree were actually listening to me. ‘Go on,’ it seemed to say when I paused. The hairs on my arms stood on end.

And so I carried on, talking about the land and the trees, and how I had come to be in this forest and that soon I would be leaving it again, probably never to return. I repeated various points several times, trying to tune into the feelings I was getting back from the tree. I had probably been there for about an hour by this stage and was wondering whether I was just imagining things. I wanted to know if this was the case or not and so I asked the tree to give me a sign that it was listening to me. I awaited a response, somewhat fearfully.

Fearfully? Fearfully because if it’s true that plants and trees are sentient beings with an advanced state of intelligence then the terrible things we humans are doing to them in forests around the world just got even more terrible. Indeed, I myself was no stranger to chainsaws, having cut down about two hundred trees the previous winter in my woodland for coppice. So I gulped and waited for a response. And there it was. Thud. I looked down at the ground. There, beside my foot, was a large nut cupule. I picked it and examined it. There were four nuts there, healthy and ripe.

I was astonished. All morning I had been looking for beech seeds to take back with me, but despite the millions of husks lying around on the forest floor they had all been empty, no doubt eaten by birds and rodents. This was the first one I had seen with actual seeds in it. I looked up at the tree and thanked it. I would take the seeds back home and germinate them, and within a couple of years I hoped they would be good strong seedlings growing in my woodland. ‘Good,’ the tree seemed to say. I bade it farewell and walked back to the path, which didn’t take too long to find, clutching the seeds in my hand.

Was I going mad? Quite possibly, I concluded. But perhaps, as the sixth great extinction takes hold, climate chaos picks up pace and people run around cutting off other people’s heads in the name of their god, just perhaps it is the mad ones who are the sane ones in this topsy turvy world.

After I had been in the forest for a week or so I found myself being drawn towards a small but mysterious body of water known locally as Odensjön – or Odin’s Lake. It was there that I experienced a fitting climax to my journey, albeit an unexpected one. I had not intended to write about my journey but I had kept a diary along the way and so when I returned home to England it seemed like the natural thing to write the book I named The Path to Odin’s Lake. When I had finished writing it I realised with some amusement that I had unwittingly set off from beside a statue of my namesake; Bertel Thorvaldsen’s Jason, in Copenhagen City Hall. Jason, of Argonaut fame, is of course well-known for his fearless voyage into the unknown, where he battles monsters and Nature in order to win the Golden Fleece and bring it back to his king. As a myth, it is about mankind’s triumph over Nature, and yet, although I had no such pretensions, here I was some two and a half thousand years later setting out to question the very assumption that man can battle Nature – and win. What if those monsters of the mind were simply Jungian projections; our own fears writ large? What if it was a requirement of civilisation to be haunted by spectres of the psyche; shadowy projections of our own inner demons? That quixotically fighting our hidden demons might one day lead to our own demise…

To even get a feel for the answer to such questions it seems inevitable that we’ll have to plumb the depths of our own darkness. Fear of doing so is an unavoidable element on such a journey, and yet moving forwards is impossible if all we ever do is focus on the light. The process of setting out on that path can have a profound effect on the way one relates to the world, I discovered. It now seems clear to me that as individuals and as a culture we need to advance our level of consciousness and break free of the rotting corpse of industrial civilisation. There can be no techno fixes while we are still governed by a mindset that exploits and dominates and kills. The sad truth is that we have poisoned and disrupted the biosphere to the extent that its life-supporting capabilities are becoming threatened, and maybe – just maybe – we’ve already had the last roll of the dice. If this is true then our final job might simply be to bear witness with good grace to whatever calamites await. Yet to focus on this possibility would be to miss the point and might even make its passing all the more inevitable.

No, our great task now is surely the work of connection and repair. The good news is that in it there is great fulfilment to be had in remediating the damage our industries have done and healing the hurt we have inflicted on ourselves and other life forms. The collective human consciousness may appear to have hit a stumbling block, but at the same time there are many people in many cultures and nations who have already moved on from the old paradigm of individuality and egocentric thinking, and are instead working quietly and using a multitude of different tools and techniques to create a new type of human culture. This reborn culture is deeply ecocentric and recognises implicitly that when we brutalise Nature we brutalise ourselves. It will be impossible for this new paradigm to flourish without the death of the old unfit-for-purpose paradigm, meaning there is much work to be done in making this happen. And yet flourish it will, and every day more and more people hear the call to adventure and take up the challenge in whatever way they feel drawn to. Building a new life-affirming reality is the best way to address the blues caused by the old death-affirming one.

Of course, heading off on a soul-journey isn’t strictly necessary, but if that’s what appeals then the first steps to setting out on such an adventure are relatively easy to do. On my own journey, I simply headed out the door out with an open mind, twinned with a natural born scepticism and enough money to subsist simply for a couple of weeks. I never made it to those fabled mountains I yearned for, and I endured plenty of low-level hardships along the way, but the reward was a deeper connection with the mystical swirling patterns of deep nature in which humanity is embedded. To viscerally realise that everything is intelligent and connected, and that in the greater scheme of things our currently destructive paradigm is a mere ephemeral blip in the evolution of this planet and consciousness in general, is a great thing. After all, we are all consciousness, and consciousness is us. We are all born with the remarkable gift of free will and as such are able to shape our own destinies within the parameters available to us. And being a part of the collective awakening of humanity – free of the shackles of our civilisation’s dogma – is surely the best and most useful way to spend our remaining time on Earth.

odin

The Path to Odin’s Lake: A Scandinavian Soul Journey is published by Createspace. It can be purchased in paperback or on Kindle ebook, or in different ebook formats here

 

The Hungingo Hunters

This is when the sadness of travel hits him hardest. Not when stuck at a desolate bus station, surrounded by others who hate it there as much as he does, or holed up in a cheap room in a dreary, forbidding district devoid of travellers, but at times like this. Crammed in a van like this, surrounded by people like this. He stares out of the window to avoid his fellow travellers, struggling to keep the ever more familiar chagrin from ruining everything. This is supposed to be fun.

‘Mike, how long is the drive?’ A German girl asks the driver. Linda or Linnet or something, she made a big thing about nobody remembering her name right. His name most probably isn’t Mike. It’s just Mike when he drives us. Because we can’t remember the names they have.

‘Only one more hour. Then we visit KangDa village for traditional KangDa village experience tour. Then one more hour. Then we arrive at Boloran camp six o’clock for a traditional meal with drinks and evening traditional entertainment.’

Sentences that sound like they have been practiced and uttered over and over again. With that slight feel to them you’re not sure the speaker understands all the words they use. As opposed to us, who don’t bother to practice anything more than the local ‘thank you’. But really, who says ‘o’clock’? Mike does. ‘Mike’.

‘Will there be a toilet in the village?’ Lenette asks.

‘Yes toilet.’

A ‘traditional’ toilet, no doubt.

One more hour. An hour to lose himself in the landscape some more, the rolling hills that turn into foothills. The ebb and flow of human settlements, strewing their plastic waste along roads and streams like indestructible breadcrumbs leading back home. The rough edges between cultivation and the wilderness you probably don’t love unambiguously once you live right next to it.

‘What a beautiful scenery was that, don’t you think?’ Lanet asks him when they leave the van.

Beautiful… Would he use that word for the raw feelings elicited by driving through this province? Maybe, but it would not be the romantic ‘beauty’ Linet referred to.

‘Yes, very beautiful.’

And now he wonders about the wildlife, curious what still thrives here, what has been hunted to extinction. Curious what the local kids are being scared with in bedtime stories. Their version of Red Riding Hood and the wolf. If that is how it works here. He can’t escape being a western boy.

Or maybe it was the sign they passed when entering the village:

WELCOME TO KANG DA
HUNGINGO HUNTER VILLAGE

An unfamiliar beast was painted under it. Hungingo? What were they trying to draw there? If only his smartphone worked here.

The afternoon sun glares through the village like a nosy neighbour, peeping under the sun roofs of the souvenir stalls, shining through the small windows of the tiny ‘traditional’ wooden huts they are ushered into and out of, like large, white cattle. A flock of kids follows from a distance.

In front of what seems to be a bigger hut, ‘Mike’ starts another set of well-used lines.

‘This is the house of the village hunter. Many village people today also hunt for bird or fish or some small animal like that. But before, village people hunt for hungingo.’

His hands make small and then large gestures. He pauses for effect. Lannet takes a picture with her DSLR. A couple more in the group suddenly decide to take a photograph as well.

‘Today, hungingo have almost disappear. Only very few left. Not many people know where to find hungingo. Here lives the last hunter of hungingo. The hunt only happen one time each year. So now you will hear the traditional story of hunting hungingo.’

Glorified cows? Some kind of big goat? What is he tricked into oohing and aahing over? He’ll admit the mystery alleviates his travel depression. But grudgingly. He should’ve read the leaflet when he signed up for this day trip.

Resigned, he follows ‘Mike’, ducks through the small door, enters the hunter’s house. He looks up into a space that is way, way bigger than he anticipated.

Holy damn. A gigantic skull is suspended along the entire ceiling. Possibly the biggest skull he’s been physically close to. What the hell is a crazy skull like that doing in a village like this? How does he not know about these hungingo things? What are they, dinosaurs?

And then a woman enters. She is mature but not old, short and very muscular. Her face, though covered in tattoos, exudes the calm and confidence characteristic of those who know what they know. She folds her legs on a cushion on the floor as the tourists awkwardly squat down to sit. Her tattooed hands rub her stocky underarms, and she starts her story:

I am the last hungingo hunter.
Like my mother before me was, and her mother before.
I climb the mountain, once a year.
And I find my hungingo once a year.
I find the one that wants to be found.
And when I find her, we dance.
We dance to the death of one of us.
Which is the death of us both.
I will take her name, or I will lose my name.
It can take short or long but time is different when we dance.
You only know after she dies.
Or you will never know at all.

She gets up, her feet carry her around the room like a boy ballet dancer.

Of all my tools along this wall,
I bring none. They are for later.
For when the fur has to become fur.
For when the meat has to become meat.
For when the bones are dead.
And the skull has no face anymore.

Tools glide in and out of her hands, handled with gestures so precise they feel a thousand years old. Then she unhooks a simple, curiously curved knife, hanging alone on the wall at the end.

I only bring this knife.
And a bag of string.
This string I string through the forest.
On my way back, alone, with a new name.
So we can go back together.
Bring back the hungingo together.
The string is longer every year.

She unties the fastening on a leather shoulder bag, a giant coil of handmade thin red rope rolls out on the floor.

But if I die, I die alone
I must die alone and I must not be found
Because I will become hungingo
Like my mother before me
And her mother before
I am the last hungingo hunter
And I will be the last hungingo too.

He is not sure why he didn’t google ‘hungingo’ on the computer afterwards. It would’ve been a better way to spend his time than the ‘traditional’ entertainment night. He is also not sure why he didn’t feel like blogging about it, or posting pictures on Facebook.

Ever since, he thinks about the hunters everywhere that went extinct together with their prey. He hopes they had the kind of closure the hungingo hunter woman will have. He doubts it. He doubts anybody remembers their name. He doesn’t, anyway. Or maybe that’s just him never having cared enough about these things in the first place.

Why does he care now?

At the airport on the way back home, some time later, a familiar face shows up.

‘Hi, how are you? What did you think of this country?’ she asks him. ‘Will you want to come back?’

‘Not really,’ he says.

‘I want to come back here. It is such a magical place.’

She holds up a book from the airport souvenir shop titled ‘Die letzte Jägerin der Hungingo’. The shop that disgusts him, because it is full of stuffed toys and wooden statues shaped like hungingos. It sells infinitely more hungingos than there are still left on that mountain. And it will keep on selling after they’re gone.

‘I love this story. They are really Amazons, it is so inspiring. If I have a daughter, I will read her this story.’

He doesn’t know how to start explaining why he doesn’t agree at all. There are no daughters, don’t you see. It says ‘die letzte’ for a reason.

‘Have a good trip home, Lenetta,’ he says after a while.

‘It’s Lorette,’ she smiles wryly. ‘But that’s OK. Nobody ever remembers it right.’

But at least you will have daughters, he thinks.

Not that far from there, out of his sight, out of everyone’s sight, a little girl follows her mother’s steps through the room, like a ballet dancer. Silently, a giant skull looms over them, listens to the poem they rehearse together, every night. Like she did with her mother, and her mother’s mother before.

‘Mom, what’s a hungingo smell like?’ the little girl asks.

‘I don’t know, sweetheart,’ the woman says. ‘I have never seen one.’

Of Sun, Rain and Anti-Utilitarianism

So the question is not whether capitalism will survive the technological innovations it is spawning. The more interesting question is whether capitalism will be succeeded by something resembling a Matrix dystopia or something much closer to a Star Trek-like society, where machines serve the humans and the humans expend their energies exploring the universe and indulging in long debates about the meaning of life in some ancient-Athenian-like, high-tech agora.

I think we can afford to be optimistic. But what would it take, what would it look like to have this Star Trek-like utopia, instead of the Matrix-like dystopia?

— Yanis Varoufakis, December 2015, TED Global, Geneva 

 The Greek ex-finance minister’s remarks illustrate quite well, I think, why a book like Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era is both timely and necessary — while also, perhaps, giving a clue to its limitations. 

In our public discourse, the future still mostly involves endless economic growth, automation, gadgets, and a better life for all, with humanity spreading its seed to Mars and, in due course, the stars. The cornucopian vision goes almost unchallenged in the public sphere, even by opponents of global capitalism. Whether they are wall-building reactionary nationalists who love capitalism but hate the ‘global’ bit, progressive internationalists like Yanis and his Diem25 movement, or even progressive nationalists, precious few political figures dare admit openly that the sacred cow of GDP needs to be slaughtered as quickly as possible. And little wonder, when the alternatives to ‘growth for the masses’ are almost invariably presented as dark, apocalyptic, and deeply unappealing.

The truth, of course, is that positive and appetising alternatives to a global economy based on the fallacy of exponentially expanding consumption on a finite planet do exist, and always have; and people have been talking and writing about these alternatives for just as long. Yes, it is possible to live better by consuming less; in fact, it’s necessary: economic growth is actually ‘uneconomic because, at least in developed economies, “illth” increases faster than wealth’ (Daly, 1990, cited in Degrowth, introduction, p.6.) Most readers will not need convincing of this, and if they do, they should probably just go for a walk or hang out in the garden.

But Degrowth is the first book I’ve seen that really sets out to synthesise these alternatives to growth into a coherent whole. As the subtitle suggests, it presents a vocabulary of concepts related to degrowth in a series of 52 short essays by different authors on topics ranging from Peak Oil to Environmental Justice, Anti-Utilitarianism to Happiness, Eco-Communities to Unions. Broadly speaking, the first two-thirds of the book are devoted to ideas, the theoretical foundations for a degrowth movement, and the last third to actions.

There are some surprising omissions: the book has no illustrations to speak of (and no index), while topics like Transition, permaculture, and agroecology are mentioned only in passing. Some of this may be a matter of cultural perspective: the editors, and many of the authors, are based in Barcelona, from where I’m sure things look significantly different than they do from the Anglophone world. Some of the essays are pretty dense and theoretical. As someone who has spent ten years at the muddy, neo-rural end of the degrowth movement, my own selection of important vocabulary would have put far more emphasis on words like land, rain, sun, tree, house, work, build, dig or (perhaps ironically) grow. I don’t spend a lot of time chatting about anti-utilitarianism with my neighbours, though on reflection, now I’ve read about it, perhaps I’ve been ‘critiquing the hegemony of the epistemological postulates of economics’ (p. 21) in my daily life all these years without realising it; I call it ‘building a house and planting a garden while having fun with friends’. However, there’s an old joke that defines an economist as ‘someone who lies awake wondering whether what works in practice can possibly work in theory’, and if an elaborate theoretical structure is necessary to convince economists that degrowth can work, then so be it — for the rest of us, there is enough accessible material in the book to make it worth reading even if you skip the social theory.

The reviewer, pictured critiquing the hegemony of the epistemological postulates of economics
The reviewer, critiquing the hegemony of the epistemological postulates of economics

But even so, I think that a book like Degrowth will not have as much impact as it could, and should, on the way we imagine the future. I can picture the editors presenting the case for degrowth in Yanis’ high-tech Athenian agora, engaging in debate and convincing everyone, but only on an intellectual level: the level of the logos — light, left-brain, rational, logical, yang — of which the agora itself is an almost pure representation. And it’s telling that in order to conjure his vision of a future which is almost pure logos, Yanis actually had to employ mythos by presenting a visceral contrast between two opposing stories (Star Trek versus The Matrix) that have entered the collective consciousness.

As Charlotte Du Cann puts it in Dark Mountain Issue 8: Technê (p.107), ‘to walk true in the world is to walk with “one foot in the logos and one in the mythos“.’ And where the mythos is suppressed, it will inevitably erupt in unwelcome forms: thus Donald Trump, who may well be the personification of the Norse trickster god Loki.

If the degrowth movement is going to get traction on the mass level, it’s going to need better stories: visions for a positive future that tap into the mythos. Stories to guide us down the steep slopes of the dark mountain to the shelter of the valleys beyond.

Ted Kaczynski and Why He Matters

The Unabomber Affair

Ted Kaczynski, also known as the ‘Unabomber’, is a US terrorist known for his 17-year bombing campaign as the terror group ‘FC’, which targeted individuals involved in technical fields like computing and genetics.

In early 1995, the New York Times received a communique from FC in the mail:

This is a message from FC…we are getting tired of making bombs. It’s no fun having to spend all your evenings and weekends preparing dangerous mixtures, filing trigger mechanisms out of scraps of metal or searching the sierras for a place isolated enough to test a bomb. So we offer a bargain.

The ‘bargain’ offered by the group was simple: publish its manifesto, and it will stop sending bombs.

The manifesto, entitled Industrial Society and Its Future, was a 35,000 word polemic detailing the threats that industrial society posed to freedom and wild Nature. At the crux of the document’s analysis was a concept called ‘the power process’, or an innate human need to engage in autonomous goal setting and achievement. Despite this psychological necessity, ‘in modern industrial society, only minimal effort is necessary to satisfy one’s physical needs.’ As a result of the mismatch between human need and industrial conditions, modern life is rife with depression, helplessness, and despair, and although some people can offset these side-effects with ‘surrogate activities’, the manifesto says that these are often undignifying, menial tasks. Interestingly, these concepts have numerous parallels in contemporary psychology, the most notable similar idea being Martin Seligman’s concept of ‘learned helplessness’.

Ultimately, the manifesto extols the autonomy of individuals and small groups from the control of technology and large organisations, and it offers the hunter-gatherer way of life as a vision of what that kind of autonomy might look like. Still, the end of the manifesto only argues for the practical possibility of revolution against industry (rather than a complete return to hunter-gatherer life), and it outlines some steps to form a movement capable of carrying out that revolution.

Up until FC tried to force the publication of the manifesto, the FBI had referred to the group as the work of a single terrorist. But the proposal put the agency in a difficult situation: it had a policy of not negotiating with terrorists, but was in no position to reject this one’s offer. By that time, the FBI had been searching for the Unabomber for 17 years and had little to nothing to show for it. Much of what they did have to work with, such as the profile that pinned him as a blue collar airline worker, turned out to be complete nonsense. Even the famous FBI sketch looked nothing like the man they later captured.

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Worse for the FBI, the Unabomber was determined to strike until they agreed to the offer. Shortly after sending their proposal, FC sent a bomb to a timber industry lobbyist, who became the third death in the bombing campaign. Later, two Nobel Prize winners received letters warning them that ‘it would be beneficial to [their] health to stop [their] research in genetics.’ Finally, to make the offer even more convincing, FC sent a hoax bomb threat that delayed two flights and shut down California’s airmail system for almost the entire day.

Hoping that it would allow someone to identify the perpetrator, the FBI encouraged the New York Times and Washington Post to publish FC’s manifesto. The two newspapers took the advice, and the manifesto was soon published as an eight-page insert to the Washington Post, with publication costs partly funded by the Times. From that point on, the agency officially classified the Unabomber as ‘serial killer rather than a terrorist with a political agenda, as was originally hypothesized.’

The FBI was right about the manifesto: it did help someone identify the author. Shortly after the work’s publication, David Kaczynski contacted a lawyer to share his suspicion that the Unabomber was his brother, Ted. After examining the submitted evidence, the FBI raided the man’s home, finding everything they needed to put him on trial for the crimes of the Unabomber.

When Kaczynski was apprehended, he looked dirty and dishevelled, with an unwashed body and torn clothing and hair that reached in every direction. It was a typical look for Montana men in the winter, but it nevertheless solidified the media image of the man as a lone wingnut. In reality, Kaczynski was very likely a genius. He was accepted into Harvard at the age of 16, later went to the University of Michigan for his Masters degree, and then taught at Berkeley as an assistant professor. His doctoral thesis solved several difficult problems relating to ‘boundary functions’, which even Kaczynski’s maths professor, George Piranian, could not figure out. ‘It’s not enough to say he was smart’, Piranian said.

But Kaczynski decided that university life was not for him, and he soon left Berkeley to build his own cabin in a remote area of Montana, where he lived without running water and electricity. One FBI investigator said to the man upon his arrest, ‘I really envy your way of life up here.’

After a circus of a trial, Kaczynski ended up pleading guilty to the Unabomber crimes, and in turn he was given a life sentence and sent off to the Supermax facility in Florence, Colorado. Today, he diligently responds to letters he receives, and he is working on publishing an upcoming book, Anti-Tech Revolution: Why and How.

The Response to Kaczynski

The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race. They have greatly increased the life expectancy of those of us who live in ‘advanced’ countries, but they have destabilized society, have made life unfulfilling, have subjected human beings to indignities, have led to widespread psychological suffering (in the Third World to physical suffering as well) and have inflicted severe damage on the natural world. The continued development of technology will worsen the situation.

— Industrial Society and Its Future, paragraph 1

Although it is easy to dismiss Kaczynski as crazy, a wingnut, beneath consideration, support for his ideas is not hard to come by. Critiques of technology similar to those outlined in the manifesto have long been available underneath the names of famous thinkers. In 1863, for example, British essayist Samuel Butler wrote in ‘Darwin Among Machines‘:

Day by day, the machines are gaining ground upon us; day by day we are becoming more subservient to them…the time will come when the machines will hold the real supremacy over the world and its inhabitants…Our opinion is that war to the death should be instantly proclaimed against them. Every machine of every sort should be destroyed by the well-wisher of his species.

Consider how eerily close Butler’s statement is to the recent warnings about artificial intelligence made by Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, Steve Wozniak, and Elon Musk (all of whom nonetheless continue to advocate for technical progress).

The response to the manifesto, while certainly not without a fair share of criticism, included many positive comments from well-adapted and successful members of society. One of these people, Bill Joy, was the inventor of the Java programming language and the founder of Sun Microsystems. In other words, he could easily have received a bomb from FC. Yet in 2000 Joy wrote his now-famous essay ‘Why the future doesn’t need us‘, in which he describes his troubled surprise when he read an incisive passage on the threat new technologies pose — only to discover that the passage was pulled from the Unabomber Manifesto. ‘He is clearly a Luddite,’ Joy writes, ‘but simply saying this does not dismiss his argument; as difficult as it is for me to acknowledge, I saw some merit in [his] reasoning…’

Other reactions have been similar. Journalist and science writer Robert Wright famously stated, ‘There’s a little bit of the Unabomber in most of us.’

 And political scientist and UCLA professor James Q. Wilson, the man behind the famous ‘broken windows theory’,  wrote in the New York Times that the manifesto was ‘a carefully reasoned, artfully written paper… If it is the work of a madman, then the writings of many political philosophers — Jean Jacques Rousseau, Tom Paine, Karl Marx — are scarcely more sane.’

billy Perhaps most striking, however, was how much the general public expressed adoration and fascination with the Unabomber. ‘I’ve never seen the likes of this,’ said one criminologist, ‘Millions of people … seem to identify in some way with him.’ Kaczynski was arrested and on trial during the early age of the internet, and fan websites quickly popped up all over, including the famous Usenet group, alt.fan.unabomber. Stickers appeared that said ‘Ted Kaczynski has a posse’; t-shirts appeared that had the famous Unabomber sketch and the word ‘dad’ printed on it; and many organisations contributed to a nationwide ‘Unabomber for President’ campaign. ‘Don’t blame me,’ one campaign ad said, ‘I voted for the Unabomber.’

Even now Kaczynski has his open advocates. For example, David Skrbina, a philosophy of technology professor at the University of Michigan, corresponded with Kaczynski for years, edited a book by him, and has written several essays supporting genuine engagement with Kaczynski’s works. One of the essays is provocatively entitled ‘A Revolutionary for Our Times‘.

Despite all this, Kaczynski’s ideas are some of the least-talked-about aspects of the Unabomber affair. Instead, people tend to focus on the man’s family drama, his early life, or various conspiracy theories, such as the idea that Kaczynski was the Zodiac Killer. When his ideas finally do appear for consideration, they are oftentimes dismissed with inane comments on the ‘academic style’ of the manifesto or the unoriginality of its critiques of technology. Even more often, the ideas are dismissed with a statement on Kaczynski’s mental state: ‘He’s crazy, a wingnut, beneath consideration’. And then, of course, there are the moral arguments, some asserting that the violence was unjustified for the stated or assumed goals, and some asserting that violence is never OK.

All of these arguments are terrible ones. Not only do they fail to address the central points that Kaczynski raises, most of the time they are unfounded or flat out wrong, and at least some of the time the arguments’ logical conclusions would be uncomfortable or appalling to the very people who argue them. Let’s take a closer look.

Was Kaczynski insane?

The industrial-technological system may survive or it may break down. If it survives, it MAY eventually achieve a low level of physical and psychological suffering, but only after passing through a long and very painful period of adjustment and only at the cost of permanently reducing human beings and many other living organisms to engineered products and mere cogs in the social machine. Furthermore, if the system survives, the consequences will be inevitable: There is no way of reforming or modifying the system so as to prevent it from depriving people of dignity and autonomy.

 — Industrial Society and Its Future, paragraph 2

Most of the evidence used to show that Kaczynski is insane comes from his chaotic and pitiful trial. But this idea is has been thoroughly debunked. For one thing, every person I know of has confirmed that Kaczynski is not obviously insane, and most have suggested the opposite, including the journalist William Finnegan, many of his college professors, many individuals who encountered him in Montana, professor David Skrbina, and even the judge during Kaczynski’s trial.

On 7 January 1998, Judge Burrell said:

I find him to be lucid, calm. He presents himself in an intelligent manner. In my opinion, he has a keen understanding of the issues. He has already seemed focused on the issues in his contact with me. His mannerisms and his eye contact have been appropriate. I know there’s a conflict in the medical evidence as to whether his conduct, at least in the past, has been controlled by any or some mental ailment, but I’ve seen nothing during my contact with him that appears to be a manifestation of any such ailment. If anything is present, I cannot detect it.

Indeed, all throughout the Unabomber trial, Kaczynski’s mental health was a recurring point of tension between him and his lawyers. Kaczynski absolutely did not want to be portrayed as insane, even anticipating in his pre-arrest journals that the media would attempt to paint him as ‘a sickie’ if he was ever captured. In true Orwellian fashion, this fear was used as one of the main pieces of evidence that Kaczynski was insane, and the only other primary piece of evidence was his political views and writings. For example, in her psychological report Dr Sally Johnson cites Kaczynski’s ‘clearly organized belief system that he was being harassed and harmed by modern technology’.

Several factors compelled almost all involved parties to declare Kaczynski insane, most of all an ethical one. Kaczynski’s defence team was bound by personal or, at the least, professional ethics that compelled them to avoid the death penalty at all costs. The only sure-fire way to do this, they believed, was to present Kaczynski’s mental health as a mitigating factor. William Finnegan wrote in The New Yorker, ‘There was never any real doubt that Kaczynski was legally sane. But his lawyers believed that the degree of his culpability for his crimes could be made to depend on his psychiatric classification — the more serious the diagnosis, the less his culpability.’

Because of Kaczynski’s aversion to the strategy and his defence team’s repeated dishonesty, Kaczynski requested to be represented by the civil rights lawyer Tony Serra, but Judge Burrell denied his request. When the man then requested to represent himself, Burrell ordered a psychological evaluation to see if he was fit to stand trial. The result was an evaluation conducted by Dr Sally Johnson, who, as was mentioned, cited Kaczynski’s belief system, rejection of being mentally ill, and family troubles all as evidence that the man had a psychological disorder. Johnson concluded with a ‘provisional diagnosis’ of paranoid schizophrenia that was ‘in remission’ at the time, and she declared Kaczynski fit to stand trial. Still, stricken with a sudden case of amnesia regarding the man’s sanity, Burrell denied Kaczynski’s request.

The only other party to assert that Kaczynski was insane was his family, specifically his brother, who turned him in, and his brother’s wife. But they, like the legal defence team, expressed a deep desire to keep Kaczynski from receiving the death penalty. Furthermore, given that the Kaczynski family had rather strained relationships, their testimony is at worst unreliable and at the least insufficient for declaring Kaczynski insane.

Closely related to the idea that Kaczynski was insane is the idea that Kaczynski is a sadist. But the man showed explicit compassion for at least some of the people who were harmed or could have been harmed from the FC bombs. In one letter to the New York Times, FC wrote:

…we will say that we are not insensitive to the pain caused by our bombings.

A bomb package that we mailed to computer scientist Patrick Fischer injured his secretary when she opened it. We certainly regret that. And when we were young and comparatively reckless we were much more careless in selecting targets than we are now. For instance, in one case we attempted unsuccessfully to blow up an airliner. The idea was to kill a lot of business people who we assumed would constitute the majority of the passengers. But of course some of the passengers likely would have been innocent people — maybe kids, or some working stiff going to see his sick grandmother. We’re glad now that that attempt failed.

Similarly, in his journals, one can observe Kaczynski struggling with his feelings toward John Hauser, who opened a bomb left in UC Berkeley’s computer science building. He wrote that he was ‘worried about [the] possibility that some young kid, undergrad, not even computer science major, might get it.’ He also wrote ‘I must admit I feel badly about having crippled this man’s arm. It has been bothering me a good deal.’ Still, he goes on to argue that the bombing was justified, as Hauser was a pilot and aspiring to be an astronaut, ‘a typical member of the technician class’. Later in his journals he mentioned Hauser again to say, ‘I am no longer bothered by this guy partly because I just “got over it” with time, partly because his aspiration was so ignoble.’

In other words, in Kaczynski’s eyes his ideology legitimated his killings, not his personal psychological satisfaction. Thus, in order to understand and face the real implications of the UNABOM case, we need to come to an understanding of the worldview presented or hinted at in Kaczynski’s writings, including the infamous Manifesto.

Was Kaczynski’s ideology opportunistic?

If the system breaks down the consequences will still be very painful. But the bigger the system grows the more disastrous the results of its breakdown will be, so if it is to break down it had best break down sooner rather than later.

— Industrial Society and Its Future, paragraph 3

Two arguments challenge the idea that Kaczynski justified (and continues to justify) his actions in light of his ideology. One, an implicit argument that functions as backup to the ‘Kaczynski was crazy’ thesis, claims that the entire ideology was a ruse, just a way to fulfil the man’s own emotional angst. The other, explicitly argued for most prominently by the journalist Alston Chase, argues that the ideology had two parts: a libertarian one and an environmentalist one. The latter, Chase suggests, was used to draw support for the real source of Kaczynski’s political motivation, a love of freedom.

The first is actually a reasonable argument, given the limited journal excerpts and information the public was given about Kaczynski. The man often made statements in his journals that, standing alone, suggested that his own emotional satisfaction was all that motivated his killings. These statements were a huge part of the case against him.

For example, about Hauser, the aspiring astronaut, Kaczynski wrote, ‘But do not get the idea that I regret what I did. Relief of frustrated anger outweighs uncomfortable conscience. I would do it all over again.’ Pulled from the context of the entire passage, some of it mentioned above, it certainly sounds as if Kaczynski was only interested in emotional relief. But if the context already given was not enough, consider what Kaczynski wrote immediately after:

So many failures with feeble ineffective bombs was driving me desperate with frustration. Have to get revenge for all the wild country being fucked up by the system….Recently I camped in a paradise like glacial cirque. At evening, beautiful singing of birds was ruined by the obscene roar of jet planes. Then I laughed at the idea of having any compunction about crippling an airplane pilot.

Once again, ideology plays a fundamental role in Kaczynski’s justification. This passage should inspire some empathy from anyone who has seen a wild place they loved become torn apart for development, a part of the man’s motivation that is rarely ever talked about. We hear about his bombs and his dirty clothes, but we have not been shown the forests that he loved or the rivers that he drank from. In at least two interviews, both of which have received suspiciously little attention, Kaczynski gives us a glimpse into the kind of life he lead in Montana. One passage in particular stands out:

“This is kind of personal,” he begins by saying, and I ask if he wants me to turn off the tape. He says “no, I can tell you about it. While I was living in the woods I sort of invented some gods for myself” and he laughs. “Not that I believed in these things intellectually, but they were ideas that sort of corresponded with some of the feelings I had. I think the first one I invented was Grandfather Rabbit. You know the snowshoe rabbits were my main source of meat during the winters. I had spent a lot of time learning what they do and following their tracks all around before I could get close enough to shoot them. Sometimes you would track a rabbit around and around and then the tracks disappear. You can’t figure out where that rabbit went and lose the trail. I invented a myth for myself, that this was the Grandfather Rabbit, the grandfather who was responsible for the existence of all other rabbits. He was able to disappear, that is why you couldn’t catch him and why you would never see him… Every time I shot a snowshoe rabbit, I would always say ‘thank you Grandfather Rabbit.'”

In another story, he explains how one of his favourite spots in the Montana forests was developed, leaving him heartbroken — the event that finally pushed him over the edge. The story sounds very similar to the ones that conservationists and environmentalists tell to explain why they fight. Indeed, Kaczynski is really only different from these wilderness-loving men and women because he killed in response to the devastation he saw. This makes all the difference for some people, but, as we will see, this is probably missing the point.

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Nonetheless, Kaczynski does often speak of his actions in terms of ‘revenge’, which is, after all, an emotional justification. But again, most of these entries are still accompanied by ideological justification.

For example, in 1972, six years before the first Unabomber package, Kaczynski wrote ‘About a year and a half ago I planned to murder a scientist — as a means of revenge against organized society in general and the technological establishment in particular…’

Later, after he had sabotaged some motorcycles and logging equipment around where he lived, he wrote that his acts were

particularly satisfying because it was an immediate and precisely directed response to the provocation. Contrast it with the revenge I attempted for the jet noise. I long felt frustrated anger against the planes. After complicated preparation I succeeded in injuring the President of United Air Lines, but he was only one of a vast army of people who directly and indirectly were responsible for the jets. So the revenge was long delayed, vaguely directed and inadequate to the provocation. Thus it felt good to be able, for a change, to strike back immediately and directly.

It seems that a better explanation for Kaczynski’s framework for ‘revenge’ has more to do with hopelessness than anything else. For years before he began his bombings, the man and his brother spoke to each other about the topics in the manifesto. This was, after all, the reason he was captured. Kaczynski also wrote about technological society, freedom, and wild Nature around that time and earlier. When he quit his position at Berkeley, he told his boss, ‘I’m tired of teaching engineers math that is going to be used for destroying the environment.’ And in 1970 he even wrote a letter to the editor of a local newspaper, in which he criticises one man’s suggestion that environmental problems are caused by excessive individual freedoms and could be remedied with collectivism. ‘Actually,’ Kaczynski writes, ‘most of the problems are direct or indirect results of the activities of large organizations — corporations and governments.’

In other words, it’s highly unlikely that Kaczynski did not hold dear at least a significant portion of his ideology, and ‘getting revenge’ was the least he believed he could do in response to the intense devastation that industry was (and is) causing. That he had to justify his actions in emotional terms was not a sign of his emotional instability, but of his perceived isolation, the sense that by himself he could not do much to truly make the difference that was required. This was perhaps the primary reason Kaczynski engaged in isolated acts of sabotage and terrorism — all the more reason to reiterate that Kaczynski is not alone, and neither are those wilderness-loving men and women who feel hopeless now.

If anyone doubts that this was the case, let him read the very last entry in Kaczynski’s journal before he was caught: ‘My opposition to the technological society now is less a matter of a bitter and sullen revenge than formerly’, he wrote. ‘I now have more of a sense of mission.’

Chase suggests that Kaczynski was indeed passionate about a portion of his ideology — but the environmentalist part, he says, was just pure opportunism. However, among other things, this assertion fails to take into account Kaczynski’s professed love for Nature in his early life and journals, all more than enough to show that Chase was far off the mark. Nonetheless, one quote from his journals stands out as particularly damning:

…I don’t even believe in the cult of nature-worshippers or wilderness-worshippers (I am perfectly ready to litter in parts of the woods that are of no use to me—I often throw cans in logged-over areas or in places much frequented by people; I don’t find wilderness particularly healthy physically; I don’t hesitate to poach).

However, in order to understand this entry, one has to understand the particular strand of environmentalism that Kaczynski was influenced by, which was best embodied by a towering figure in the environmentalist movement, Edward Abbey, and the characters in Abbey’s most famous work, The Monkey Wrench Gang. The Monkey Wrench Gang is a novel about a group of rambunctious, beer-loving rednecks who, frustrated with the industrial development of the American West, began committing acts of sabotage, such as cutting down billboards, pulling up survey stakes, and pouring sugar into the tanks of heavy equipment vehicles. The book inspired several groups, including (probably) the Bolt Weevils, who sabotaged power-line development in Minnesota during the 1970s, and Earth First!, a movement started in the 1980s and known for tactics like those described in Abbey’s novel.

Abbey, who consistently lived up to the ‘rednecks for wilderness’ image, once made a statement very similar to Kaczynski’s: ‘Of course I litter the public highway,’ the man said. ‘Every chance I get. After all, it’s not the beer cans that are ugly; it’s the highway that is ugly.’

The goal of the Ed Abbey kind of environmentalism (if you can call it that) is intimately linked to the notions of wildness and freedom. Further regulations are not the solution, but part of the problem. That industry and complex society require so much restriction on the freedom of individuals and small groups is a good reason to love wilderness and throw out the stuff destroying it.

The sentiment isn’t all that uncommon. In one stand-up routine George Carlin talked (or ranted, as he does) about Earth Day, environmentalism, and ‘saving the planet’:

I’m tired of these self-righteous environmentalists, these white, bourgeois liberals who think the only thing wrong with this country is that there aren’t enough bicycle paths. People trying to make the world safe for their Volvos. Besides, environmentalists don’t give a shit about the planet, they don’t care about the planet… You know what they’re interested in? A clean place to live. Their own habitat. They’re worried that someday in the future they might be personally inconvenienced… Besides, there is nothing wrong with the planet… The planet is fine. The people are fucked. Difference. Difference… The planet is doing fine, been here four and half billion years. Ever think about the arithmetic? Planet has been here four and a half billion years. We’ve been here, what, 100,000, maybe 200,000, and we’ve only been engaged in heavy industry for a little over 200 years. 200 years versus four and a half billion. And we have the conceit to think somehow we’re a threat?… The planet isn’t going anywhere — we are. We’re going away. Pack your shit folks.

Another comedian, Louis C. K., expresses a similar sentiment:

One day I threw a candy wrapper on the street. I didn’t do it [maliciously], like ‘Take that shit, street.’ I did it cuz I was like, you know, shaking, I wanted the candy. Anyway I was with a friend who said to me, ‘You just littered on the street. Don’t you care about the environment?’ And I thought about it and, you know what, I was like, ‘This isn’t the environment. This is New York City. This is not the environment. This is where people live. New York City is not the environment, New York City is a giant piece of litter. It’s like the giantest — next to Mexico City, the shittiest piece of litter… So if you have a piece of litter, what’re you supposed to do with it? You throw it in the pile of litter! Cuz if you don’t, if you put it in a receptacle, then it gets collected, and it gets taken to a dump, and a landfill, and then it goes on a boat, and it goes out and gets dumped in the ocean and some dolphin wears it as a hat on its face — for ten years.

 In other words, Kaczynski’s ideology isn’t the urban environmentalism pushed by liberals and activists. It’s a love of Nature that’s inseparable from a love of freedom, very much the kind of love that non-activist nature-lovers profess already. But this is an uncomfortable fact to recognise, of course, because it makes Kaczynski’s ideology dangerous.

What about the deaths?

We therefore advocate a revolution against the industrial system. This revolution may or may not make use of violence; it may be sudden or it may be a relatively gradual process spanning a few decades. We can’t predict any of that. But we do outline in a very general way the measures that those who hate the industrial system should take in order to prepare the way for a revolution against that form of society. This is not to be a POLITICAL revolution. Its object will be to overthrow not governments but the economic and technological basis of the present society.

— Industrial Society and Its Future, paragraph 4

One argument I have avoided addressing until now is that Kaczynski’s actions were wrong because killing is wrong. This is, most importantly, because the moral status of Kaczynski’s terrorism does not discount his ideas, which can stand or fall on their own. Indeed, many have argued that point exactly, including Bill Joy and Skrbina. Another reason, though, is that anyone who truly believes the argument can’t be persuaded otherwise. If killing is always wrong, of course Kaczynski’s actions are wrong.

But I don’t think many people actually believe that killing is always wrong. In an unpublished text, Kaczynski mentions that only three kinds of people make this argument: conformists, cowards, and saints. ‘The first two,’ he writes, ‘are beneath contempt and we need not say anything more about them.’ But the saints, he says, could be useful to ‘keep alive the ideal of kindness and compassion’, especially since a revolution would likely be a pretty ugly affair. And he’s right. While some certainly do oppose all violence on principle, the majority of people pushing for nonviolence fall into one of the first two categories, and there’s no real way to respond to any of them.

In other words, most people recognise that it is sometimes okay to kill. Self-defence is the most obvious example, but there are arguable justifications for all kinds of wars, assassinations, and other violence. It seems that the problem many people have with Kaczynski isn’t necessarily that he killed, but that his killings were unjustified in some way. And, whether reasonable or not, because Kaczynski’s violence and its legitimacy is one of the most important considerations for people assessing the Unabomber affair, dismissing it as ‘not relevant to the legitimacy of the ideas’ is insufficient. So I will investigate Kaczynski’s violence and various possible justifications for it.

Bear in mind, however, that discussions about the legitimacy of violence depend heavily on inarguable moral principles, so past a certain point, much of the discussion around political violence is beyond consideration to some readers. It is up to them, then, to decide what kind of violence is morally legitimate. Here I only examine whether Kaczynski’s actions were justifiable assuming his arguments are valid.

Finally, note that this discussion is bogged down by an important consideration: the goal of Kaczynski’s terrorism. He states in one FC communique, ‘Don’t think that we are sadists or thrill-seekers or that we have adopted terrorism lightly. Though we are young we are not hot-heads. We have become terrorists only after the most earnest consideration.’ Indeed, anyone who has interacted with Kaczynski knows that the man, meticulous to the utmost degree, was probably well aware of what he was doing. Still, we are left with only two ends. First, of course, is the implicit end of revolution. And second is the explicit statement in several places that FC was interested in ‘propagating anti-industrial ideas’ and getting its message before the public. So we might ask the question: was Kaczynski justified in killing to propagate anti-industrial ideas for the long-term goal of revolution?

Perhaps the FC bombings were unjustified because Kaczynski had other means available: democracy, free speech, the mass media, etc. Anyone who makes this argument, however, should also be prepared to argue that political violence is acceptable if all of the justifiable avenues of political expression are closed. I’m fairly confident that when this fact is brought up, many people would default to the ‘nonviolence’ position described above. But assuming that a person is prepared to accept the implication of his argument, he ought to consider a few facts.

For one thing, Kaczynski was well-aware of these avenues of political expression. The 1971 essay used as evidence against him actually concluded with a programme for legal action. It suggested that people form an organisation that would lobby for the government to defund scientific and technical research, which was the only ‘halfway plausible’ solution Kaczynski could think of at the time. Yet by the end of the essay it is clear that the solution is very plainly implausible, which would no doubt leave anyone concerned with the cited issues feeling rather hopeless. Furthermore, if one accepts the arguments given in the manifesto (especially paragraphs 99-132), revolution, even if extremely improbable, is still the only solution likely to solve the problems in a satisfying manner. According to those arguments, other political avenues are closed. This does not necessarily mean that Kaczynski’s bombings were justified, but it does mean that, assuming he was right, they should be considered justified only insofar as they promote revolution.

And, as uncomfortable as this might make some, the man’s terrorism was profoundly successful at getting his ideas in front of an enormous population. Not only was the manifesto published, in full, by the New York Times and Washington Post, it was also published in numerous smaller publications; it was placed all over the internet, including one of the first internet portals, Time Warner’s Pathfinder; it was stored in government and legal databases and archives that would ensure his ideas lived on indefinitely; and it elicited the insight and commentary of countless intellectuals and public figures, among other things. In all, the manifesto reached an astoundingly large audience, which mostly consisted of everyday Americans, and which ensured that even if no individual or group took the ideas seriously immediately after publication, it would remain stored in countless places, waiting for potential future actors to be inspired. As of yet, no one has suggested a plausible alternative that Kaczynski could have taken to publish his text with the same amount of influence, response, and immortality that he achieved through his terrorism. As Skrbina puts it, ‘In the end, we are appalled by Kaczynski — because he won.’

Still, some say, no revolution has happened yet, so his actions can’t have been that effective. Yet the manifesto was published and Kaczynski caught only 20 years ago. Considering that 69 years separated the publication of The Communist Manifesto and the beginning of the Russian Revolution, it is unreasonable to demand that Kaczynski’s Manifesto already have made as large an impact in a third of the time. Furthermore, there is reason to believe that revolution is in the air. In particular, some of Kaczynski’s political partners in Spain have been fairly active. And although Kaczynski has broken contact with anarcho-primitivists because of ideological disagreements, he’s had a demonstrable impact on many in the anarcho-primitivist and green anarchist movements, who were largely to blame for the 1999 Seattle Riots. He’s also had a demonstrable impact on Derrick Jensen, a co-founder of Deep Green Resistance, and Earth First!, a radical environmentalist organisation known for direct action tactics and ‘monkeywrenching’ (the one based on Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang). Again, Kaczynski and his political associates have strong ideological disagreements with all of these groups, but that he remains so influential within them is a testament to how powerful of a force his ideas are.

Others might argue that even if Kaczynski’s terrorism was successful, it is not necessarily justified. And this is true. But the manifesto argues that if there is no revolution, the consequences of technological development will be absolutely disastrous. If Kaczynski is correct, and if his terrorism was successful at furthering his revolution, then the consequences of his violence might very well have been miniscule compared to the threat. We see this kind of logic at work all the time. The military drops bombs on houses with civilians inside because it’s more important to kill the terrorists in there with them. Grandfather Smith shoots a potentially dangerous dog in the head because it’s more important for his grandchildren to be safe. And so on. Given that Kaczynski believed that what is at stake is our freedom and our wild Earth, it’s not hard to see why he saw his violence as justifiable.

Finally, some people argue that Kaczynski’s specific targets were unjustified. They argue that he was indiscriminate and his targets innocent, and that this was what made his violence illegitimate. But Kaczynski was far from indiscriminate. In fact, he has stated repeatedly that he deplores indiscriminate violence.

More to the point, almost all of his targets were, as he puts it ‘typical member[s] of the technician class’, who include ‘scientists, engineers, corporation executives, politicians, and so forth who consciously and intentionally promote technological progress and economic growth.’ These people are ‘criminals of the worst kind’, and Kaczynski predicts that a revolutionary movement is likely to demand that they be punished.

Again, the idea itself can be challenged, but on his own terms was Kaczynski justified? He was, mostly, except for three instances, and the FC communiques express explicit regret for two of them — see the quote above concerning Patrick Fischer’s secretary and the airliner. The third instance was the bomb placed in the University of Utah’s computer science building. If it would have succeeded at going off, the bomb would have lit an entire hallway on fire and trapped students in their classrooms — certainly the level of indiscriminate violence that Kaczynski deplored. Put shortly, not even Kaczynski could have offered justification for this. He did, however, mention it in passing in one FC communique:

We would not want anyone to think that we have any desire to hurt professors who study archaeology, history, literature or harmless stuff like that. The people we are out to get are the scientists and engineers, especially in critical fields like computers and genetics. As for the bomb planted in the Business School at the U. of Utah, that was a botched operation. We won’t say how or why it was botched because we don’t want to give the FBI any clues. No one was hurt by that bomb.

Other than those three instances, Kaczynski’s targets are not surprising in light of his ideology, how responsible he perceived the technician class as being for ongoing technological problems, and his ideas on retribution. Dr Charles Epstein, for example, was a world famous geneticist, Percy Wood the president of United Airlines, and Diogenes Angelakos an important researcher in the field of micro- and electromagnetic waves. And although nowadays, in the age of smartphones, people may not understand why Kaczynski targeted computer store owners (twice), he did so about four years before the birth of the internet, at a time when personal computers were still the territory of big businesses, universities, and nerds. Computer stores at the time were mostly renting out whole sets of personal computers for businessmen and universities, making them an infrastructural target in line with Kaczynski’s other actions.

There’s also the question of why Kaczynski targeted universities and university professors rather than individuals who had more obvious and tangible impacts on technical development. Part of this, as FC explained in a communique, was strategic. Universities had weaker security and professors less of a reason to be wary of a suspicious package than large businesses and businessmen. But universities are no less responsible for technical development than big businesses, and in many ways they are more so. University research laboratories and university funding are the backbone of much of the research being done in the fields of genetics, artificial intelligence, and biotechnology. As one paper put it, ‘Since the 1970s, research universities have been widely recognized as the core of this nation’s science and technology system.’ Furthermore, according to the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, every university targeted by the Unabomber is classified as as having ‘very high research activity’, the highest classification for a research university. This clearly makes the universities rational targets for the Unabomber.

Final thoughts

All this is not to say that Kaczynski was correct about revolution. As Skrbina says of the manifesto, ‘The logic is sound. However, we are free to challenge any of the premises.’ But a discussion about revolution would require actually engaging with Kaczynski’s ideas, not dismissing them, as has been the dominant response so far. Such engagement ultimately brings us to the final argument: that Kaczynski’s bombings were unjustified because his ideas were wrong.

This argument is the strongest one that can be made against Kaczynski, as it cuts off the strength of his analysis. Those who really want to challenge the ideas presented in the manifesto will have to provide real evidence against his premises, such as the idea that the good of technology cannot be separated from the bad; and they will have to provide an alternative value set that challenges the idea that freedom and wild Nature are primary.

I say ‘have to’ because it truly is no longer optional for anyone who disagrees with Kaczynski. The idea that Kaczynski is crazy simply doesn’t hold, and the ideology presented in the manifesto makes a lot of sense to a lot of people. Furthermore, the issues cited in the manifesto are real and pressing. Artificial intelligence, biotechnology, climate change, antibiotic resistance, mass surveillance, the sixth mass extinction — all are rapidly taking centre stage in world politics, and with them the scientists and engineers, whom the general public is coming to realise have an inordinate amount of control over the circumstances of modern life. It’s very likely that some form of anti-technology populism is going to replace what was once an anti-government populism; whereas the main objects of disdain were once politicians, the new objects of disdain will be scientists and engineers, as well as technology itself.

Already we can see this sentiment in action. In the past few years we’ve seen TV shows about wilderness and outdoor-living, often with a tinge of anti-technological sentiment, skyrocket in popularity: Mountain Men, Naked and Afraid, and Duck Dynasty are just a few of the more popular examples. Books, too, like Wild by Cheryl Strayed or A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, push a similar message of freedom, a search for purpose and meaning, and spiritual renewal in a decadent, materialistic world.

On the other end, complaints about ubiquitous technology are becoming popular as well. TV shows like Black Mirror convey a fundamental scepticism toward the idea of technical progress, and books like A Short History of Progress, Our Final Hour, and so on are all questioning, to various degrees, the technologies that dominate the modern world.

Most notably, it’s pushing into the political arena. Environmentalist sentiments are extremely popular today, and young people feel the need to address problems like climate change and the sixth mass extinction. Furthermore, because of the way the problems are being ignored, sometimes by economic necessity, radicalisation occurs easily among environmentalists. In fact, the FBI lists environmental terrorism, not Islamic terrorism, as the top domestic terrorism threat in the US.

If that isn’t enough, all this is taking place on a stage that is largely being determined and shaped by the environmental problems that take centre stage in Kaczynski’s thought. Much of the instability that is occurring and will occur in the coming years is and will be magnified tenfold by climate change. One headline in the New York Times states ‘Researchers Link Syrian Conflict to a Drought Made Worse by Climate Change’. A headline in the Guardian reads ‘Global warming could create 150 million ‘climate refugees’ by 2050.’ And the WHO has issued increasingly urgent warnings concerning antimicrobial resistance, which could, combined with modern transportation systems and densely populated city living, cause a global pandemic, or at least a very formidable one.

Clearly, Kaczynski was right about a lot, and unless someone offers a good challenge and alternative to his core ideas, the notion of ‘freedom in wild Nature’ is only going to continue attracting adherents. Dismissing the man as crazy, a wingnut, beneath consideration — well, that’s not going to work for much longer.

Incidentally, I agree with Kaczynski. Wild Nature matters, industry is destroying it, and the only real way out is the collapse of industry. For sure, various aspects of the manifesto deserve criticism, especially the parts regarding strategy, but on those three points Kaczynski is on solid ground.

In regards to the man’s actions, I find myself in a tough spot. I absolutely do not condone indiscriminate violence like the kind practised by radical Islamists, and I tend to agree with Lenin that even highly targeted acts of individual violence are a terrible tactic for a revolutionary movement. A primary role of revolutionaries is to spread social values, and terroristic acts of violence are usually a sign of weakness on this front. Furthermore, while those supporting growth and progress are indeed ‘criminals of the worst kind’, I have a hunch that Kaczynski overestimated how responsible some individuals are for our current predicament.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to overstate how successful Kaczynski was, and the man has a tendency to be right about things, mostly because he is (almost overly) meticulous about every detail. No doubt he applied the same attention to detail to his 17-year campaign. So as incompatible as it is with my views generally, it’s hard to say that Kaczynski could have done something else and achieved his goals as successfully. Still, even he is quick to tell those writing him letters that he does not think another Unabomber would be helpful for a revolutionary effort. The primary work to be done now, he says, is building cores of committed individuals who can sustain a revolutionary movement. And as I said already, I agree. In any case, I ultimately still defend my initial statement about Kaczynski’s violence: the ideas stand and fall on their own, and right now they’re still standing.

I am not arguing that everyone will come to the same conclusions. Indeed, those who simply don’t care about wild Nature and the freedom found in it won’t be very moved by the manifesto; neither will those who are convinced that technical development can be controlled by humans. But the piece is worth the read, and with complete conviction I can say that it is not only the best way to engage with the Unabomber affair, but that it is one of the most important ways to engage with the problems of our modern world.

Cabin and mailbox photographs from www.lib.umich.edu/blogs/beyond-reading-room/ted-kaczynski-papers-fbi-files-and-photographs

Hole Earth

In the fall of 2013 I crawled up Broadway in New York on my hands and knees in a vintage pinstripe suit that once belonged to my father. Crawling Home began at the bottom of the island near Wall Street and ended at my apartment in Washington Heights near the top of the island. Roughly ten miles. The journey took approximately six months and was documented over the course of twenty crawls.

In the fall of 2014 I began the project I call Hole Earth. Wearing my same suit I dug a hole and got down inside, in the foetal position. I did this in Montana, NYC, Tuscany, Germany, Ireland, England, The Catskill Mountains and The Bronx. Sometimes I was alone and sometimes I had an audience.

HOLE #1 CATSKILL MOUNTAINS

I am reminded that I like to dig. I’ve had jobs that required digging, but not for a long time. I used to work landscaping around New York City, planting trees on the sidewalks or on roof gardens and in backyards. I could always shovel for a long time.  I liked the smell of what was unearthed and the sound of the shovelling.  When I worked as a stonemason’s assistant my job was mixing up batches of concrete with a shovel and that was painful work.

Here in the field the going is slow but steady and I start to sweat.  My 20-pound five-foot-long iron spike is doing the needed damage, breaking away things that the shovel can’t handle. It is 55 degrees and sunny and the leaves are still turning colours.  I take a break every five minutes or so and feel my heart beat and muscles start to sing and protest. My back is waking up and wondering what the deal is.  As with the crawling there are phases of warming up, phases of the body asking questions and demanding answers and then finally submitting to the task at hand.

Digging with the knowledge that the hole is literally for me to get into gives the task another dimension. I am not burying treasure, or searching for something once buried in the ground. I am not digging a bunker or a trench or a grave or a place to plant a tree.  I suppose I am planting me, but only for a little while. I will not be covered up and left to hopefully grow. I am not just some man seed in a suit.

The hole is almost ready for me. I imagine this can change me. I imagine that if I listen closely when I am in the hole I might be able to hear all the burials and all the births all at once. Is that what I want? Why am I so excited about getting into this hole?

After about 45 minutes I stand over a round hole that looks to be nearly deep enough. I step down in, sit inside, roll over onto my side and curl up into a foetal ball. My ten-year-old son informs me that my shoulder is sticking out above ground level.  He gets up on a stepladder and takes a picture. I struggle to undo myself and get out of the hole. I dig some more, making the hole wider and deeper and then I get in again. My heart is pounding inside my chest inside the ground. The earth circle is holding me in position. I’m jammed in tight and when I close my eyes all I can hear is my heartbeat and my breathing and the wind blowing across the field.

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HOLE #2  CAPE COD

After one good hole and some pictures we hike up to a high dune ridge to reconnoitre.  In the distance, towards the ocean, we can barely make out dune shack rooftops, but visibility is fast decreasing as a snowstorm blows in.  I spot a deep snowdrift nearby and I go there and attack it with my shovel. I need to find out more about geomancy. Why do some spots just call out and say: Here! Dig here!

This is a deep hole, dug all the way down to the dune grass. Down inside I am out of the wind. It is completely still. The snow around me says nothing. It smells like sky, maybe, but I don’t know. It contains no stories, not like earth does. Not stories that I can comprehend. It just falls and gathers and waits and melts and flows away. The sound of my voice in the hole is different too, as the acoustics of snow are a distant ethereal cousin to rock and dirt. The winter wind is howling across the dunescape and my friend is out there in it waiting for me to come out of my hole. I will come back here in the summer and dig again in the sand.

I leave this fine snow hole open and empty, like a white eye unblinking, waiting for more snow to fill it from above. We head back across the dunes and I feel primitive, like a half-lost hunter, or some exiled shaman, banished from his tribe, still bent on conjuring something with a hole. My friend drags the stepladder and we leave our mysterious tracks on the white face of the Earth.

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HOLE #3 NYC

A voice in my head pesters me as I walk in my suit with shovel and spike alongside the Washington Heights graveyard.  He’s interrogating me: Holes? Really? Wasn’t crawling enough?  Have you no shame? No pride? What does this mean? Why does it matter?  Who do you think you are?

I know this voice. He is the coward who calls me a fool.  I want to hit him on the head with my shovel.  I should try to love him, listen to him, put him at ease.  I remind him that I am the CAPTAIN of this ship and HOLE EARTH is happening.  This voice, this fearful me, doesn’t really want to mutiny, he doesn’t really want to be in charge. He just wants to undermine me. I start to whistle and he goes silent.  But he will be back.

My first urban NYC hole. This is a real spring morning, maybe the first so far after the long grinding winter. 60 degrees. Sparrows frantic.  Even the helicopters sound happy. It feels good to carry my shovel and spike down Broadway. I’ve got my old ratty daypack on my back with kneepads and gloves inside. The same ones I crawled in. I don’t wish I were on my way to crawl.  Now I am burning to dig.

I’m a little concerned about my lower spine. Digging in the dunes a month ago tweaked it somehow. I went to an acupuncturist woman who says my back would be better supported if I had an ass.

HOLE #6 GERMANY

Time to dig. The sky is low and Eastern Bloc grey. It might rain. People have gathered around, maybe twenty or thirty folks.  A couple of children, some press with cameras and notebooks, some young women, some middle-aged couples, a stray weirdo. As I dig I keep my eyes mostly down. I hear cameras click and flash. Birds in the trees overhead sing. I whistle back at them, trying to match their calls as I dig. A back and forth takes place between me and the birds. My audience of humans laughs nervously and talks amongst themselves. They are speaking German. I wonder if anyone will heckle me. I would like to tangle lovingly with a heckler.

This place was bombed relentlessly in World War Two. In fact on this very day 72 years ago, 23rd May 1943, the city was devastated by a bombing raid.  Bombs destroy and make fire and piles of rubble and holes in the ground.  I think a bomb fell on this very spot where I am digging.

The ground is more or less cooperative.  I work up a sweat and whistle ‘Amazing Grace’ for a while. These people also speak English, so I could make jokes, but I stay quiet. I struggle with an urge to entertain the audience. I could start up a conversation. I could take questions, I could rant and rave. But I force myself to stay quiet.  My silence gives the dig a little bit of tension. I don’t want to be a clown right now.

I find new digging positions and I grunt and mutter to myself. ‘Almost there,’ I think I hear myself say, but that’s about it.

As I dig I wonder what, if anything, makes this hole German?  I realise I have flown over a giant hole filled with salt water to be here at another spot on planet Earth. People named this place Germany. People named The Bronx. And Cape Cod. Everywhere on Earth, every town, every street, every object, has been given a name.  A sea of names and language. Tools, like my shovel and my pick.

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HOLE # 10 ITALY/HOME

I count to one hundred, then I count again, and again, down in the hole, hibernating, eyes shut, body letting go. The sun is setting over Tuscany. I hear the soft voices and laughter of people close by. This is a Renaissance garden, the Horti Leoni, in the picturesque little village of San Quirico, Italy. I am leaving this place, flying down into the planet, a spinning foetal ball bound for the core and beyond, to the other side! A child’s voice brings me back. I hear the voice ask if I am dead and another says they can see me breathing.

I am haunted by the holes. Yesterday back home from Europe, I am building a stone wall and wearing threadbare canvas slippers. I accidentally drop a 50-pound stone on my big toe. What a mess. Now I am limping around here in the Catskills with my son in the final weeks of August. It is just the two of us. I sense myself drifting off the road into an existential dog day ditch. The pond is low and blooming green with algae. The hard tomatoes in our ragged little garden are blemished with black spots. The lettuce is tough and bitter.

I keep hearing a sound, a pulsating hum in the distance, but I can’t find the source. I’ve looked in the basement and I’ve stood outside in the field and listened for it. And I hear it! I drove down the road and turned off the truck and listened for it. There it is again!  I ask my son if he can hear it and he tries, but he says I am imagining it. I laugh it off. No need to spook him.  Am I hearing the inside of my head?  This could be a problem.

I lay in bed at dawn listening for songbirds again. Where are they? Dawn should not be silent.  There are many theories about why the songbirds have been declining so drastically. I’ve recently had run-ins with friends about the state of the Earth.  Climate change. We don’t agree on the facts.  Since I began Hole Earth I am especially emotional when it comes to this subject.  And not very articulate.  Why do intelligent people resist and dilute the facts?  When did the truth become subjective?  What is this rash of denial? Is it because the reality of what we’ve created is so overwhelming?

The emotion I feel around the state of the Earth ties directly in to the impulse that brought me to Crawling Home and Hole Earth. This is my protest?  This is my recycling?  I’m not doing enough. Where are the birds? What is that hum?

Here in the mountains my son keeps asking me if I’m OK. I tell him I’m fine. Do I not seem OK?  He keeps telling me he loves me. His voice is so kind.  He looks up from his book as I walk by.  ‘Love you, Dad.’

I step carefully from stone to stone watching him float face down. He is snorkeling down a slow moving, waist-deep river. He explores around boulders, pops up, looks for me, and shows me with his hands the size of the trout he just saw. He’ll be starting sixth grade in a couple weeks. He doesn’t really need me to take him to school this year. I’ve been with him every step of the way. Now it is time to step aside, at least a little bit.  I don’t want to let go. I am watching him grow up, up and away. He is drifting downstream with the current, in another world, and I am here on the riverbank standing guard.

Maybe the only way to cure myself of all this, the only way to shed this melancholy dog day navel-gazing baggage, is to go and dig again. No camera, no audience, no talk. I need an anonymous place in the wilderness where I can dig myself into oblivion, a place where I am the only witness.  Maybe this wants to be a secret communion. Maybe that is all it was ever meant to be. There is another level of stillness waiting.

In the end this is just between the Earth and me.

The film was recorded in Hackney Marshes, London, by Caroline Mary Williams

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