Standing On Our Own Two Feet
Looking up at the night sky, I reflected back on why I was here, punishing my body in the mountains and canyons of the desert Southwest. It was because of Thomas Merton, the late, intrepid Trappist monk. A few months ago, my spiritual director relayed a quote from Merton’s last lecture, just hours before he died in Thailand. Speaking to a conference crowd in Bangkok, he quotes Tibetan abbot Trungpa Rimpoche, whose advice to a younger monk in the face of advancing Chinese army was, ‘from now on, brother, everybody stands on his own feet.’ Merton went on to apply this sentiment to the inner transformation required of the monastic life:
We can no longer rely on being supported by structures that may be destroyed at any moment by a political power or a political force. You cannot rely on structures. The time for relying on structures has disappeared. They are good and they should help us, and we should do the best we can with them. But they may be taken away, and if everything is taken away, what do you do next?
When I heard this word from Merton, I was intrigued and inspired. Merton was talking about the monastery and monastic orders, but by the same token, the global systems that underlie everyday life are similarly fragile. The economic collapse of financial markets in 2008 revealed the fragility of the market economy; the devastating hurricane that hit Houston in 2017 exposed the weakness of urban life in the face of climate; the 2012 drought broadcast the brittleness of the food system I had experienced while farming in the Midwest. If Merton took standing on one’s’ own two feet to be a metaphor for the spiritual life, my hypothesis was that this two-footed standing must be at the same time physical. Furthermore, if I was to truly critique the system of domination that bell hooks calls white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy, I had better strive for independence from it.
Faced with Merton’s words, I decided to enrol in an outdoor survival course, to practice non-reliance upon empire, and to learn, as Merton suggested, to stand on my own two feet. So here I was under the dark desert sky of the American Southwest, thirsty, exhausted, and lying on a pile of dried-out cow manure. I silently cursed at Merton while my groupmates around me rested, oblivious to my musings.
Over the course of the next two weeks, I learned with a group of students how to navigate desert canyons and mountains, how to find water, the basics of trapping small game, and plant-based food sources available in the area. The calls of birds became familiar. Mosquitoes were just a mild nuisance. Further, I acquired skill in building simple shelters, and began to feel comfortable sleeping under the night sky without tent or sleeping bag. I welcomed the dark of night rather than dreading the oblique shadows and unknown noises. I learned to ‘see with my feet’, walking carefully but confidently in the dark.
In short, what was once only wilderness to me became, for two weeks, home. And this should have been no surprise. The desert is littered with archaeological remains – pottery shards, knapped flint rock, and petroglyphs can be found in almost every cave and rocky overhang. These sandstone canyons and lush desert springs mark the contours of home for the Zuni, Hopi, and Dine. And their livelihood seems to have consisted mostly of the same pursuits as mine; the water sources I sought out were the same places where I saw evidence of these ancestral people because they needed water too. Moreover, petroglyphs etched into the rock showed their appreciation for art, and pottery and flint in small caves made evident their need for food and shelter.
What I learned in the desert is that there is no wilderness, there are only people without the knowledge and skills to live in certain places. After all, what was to me dry and desolate landscape was and is home to many indigenous people, and has been so for thousands of years. Indigenous people inhabit numerous places that civilisation calls wilderness, from the frozen northern tundra to the barren Sahara to the dense and crawling rainforests.
When European empires began to colonise the Americas, they did so under the narrative framework that this ‘new world’ was mostly uninhabited, a vast expanse of land ready for the taking. This, of course, was not true – indigenous civilisations have been inhabiting the Americas for millennia, moulding and shaping the land and its ecosystems. So for instance, Captain John Smith marvelled that he could gallop a horse through the Eastern deciduous forest, a possibility only because of the way the forest had been carefully managed with fire to clear the understory (Charles Mann: ‘America, found and lost’). When John Muir hiked through the beautiful landscape of California, what he saw as untouched ecosystems were in fact carefully tended by the indigenous civilisation (Hogue, ‘What John Muir Missed’; Anderson, Tending the Wild).
William Cronon argues that wilderness remained fixed in American mythology as settler ideology. American Indians had to be removed from their ancestral lands in order to maintain the lie of an uninhabited landscape that frontier people could tame. Likewise, national parks were created, bereft of their original inhabitants, in order to perpetuate the dogma of the unpeopled wilderness. He names the predicament of this logic succinctly: ‘wilderness embodies a dualistic vision in which the human is entirely outside the natural. If we allow ourselves to believe that nature, to be true, must also be wild, then our very presence in nature represents its fall. The place where we are is the place where nature is not.’
What Kind of World?
This dichotomy between nature and civilisation is an old story. Ancient Near East scholar Marc Van De Mieroop describes a yearly Babylonian ritual in which Marduk, deity of the city, is led in procession outside the city gates to the uncultivated steppe, symbolising the power of civilisational order over untamed chaos. Elsewhere, David Wengrow discusses how the architecture of the Ancient Near East emphasises the royal programme to turn violence into order. For instance, palace scenes from Sennacherib’s reign depict, in the outer arena, military aggression into distant lands, while inner sanctums show enslaved peoples constructing the city. This communicates an imperial politic of external violence legitimised by internal order, applied to both people and nature. Similarly, the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser I documents his extraction of trees as symbol of his dominion over conquered landscapes: ‘I took cedar, box-tree, Kanish oak from the lands over which I had gained dominion – such trees which none among previous kings, my forefathers, had ever planted – and I planted (them) in the orchards of my land.’ The ruler’s exotic garden became synecdoche for military supremacy.
Naturalised species don’t live forever, and neither do survivalists. But the species that have found ways to live among others do have a home in which to live and to die.
Despite this binary language privileging civilisation through the rhetoric of progress, historical evidence shows that people often left empires for more freedom. Anthropologist David Graeber notes that the first documented word for freedom was the Sumerian amargi, meaning literally, ‘return to mother’. Old Babylonian codes contain numerous laws concerned with the problem of runaways and how to return them to their work. James Scott observes that even the earliest Mesopotamian city-states erected walls to keep subjects contained just as much as for keeping enemies out. Similarly, in colonial America, the English settlers reported difficulty in convincing liberated European captives to leave the indigenous villages and way of life they had experienced.
No argument, no entreaties, no tears … could persuade many of them to leave their Indian friends. On the other hand, Indian children have been carefully educated among the English, clothed and taught, yet there is not one instance that any of these would remain, but returned to their own nations.
In the midst of this ancient dichotomy perpetuated by empires, hill-dwellers long ago in the region of Palestine told a different story, passed down into written form in the book of Genesis. For these people, the entire creation is viewed as home. Biblical scholars note that the structure of creation manifests this idea. The first three days set up niches – light/dark, sea/sky, and land – which in the subsequent days swarm with beings inhabiting them. This lays the groundwork for a theology of inhabitation. This pattern of habitat formation and then indwelling sets the context for the rest of the book. One need not be Jewish or Christian believe in the fundamental premise of this story: the good earth is a place in which creatures can find a home that offers what they need to thrive.
More recently, scientists have proposed niche construction as a theory by which to understand the relationships between individual species and ecosystems (a relationship long known by indigenous wisdom and merely lost to European-Americans). Niche construction asserts that species often create the environment most suitable for them. For instance, chaparral ecologies set conditions amenable to wildfire, since many of these species benefit from natural fires sweeping across the landscape bringing nutrients into the soil and eliminating competitor species. Lemon ants in the Amazon use formic acid as an herbicide to remove plants unsuitable for their habitation. Beavers create dams producing larger wetlands, which in turn lead to more riparian trees beavers can utilise for food and habitat.
So too, with humans. The Jewish creation story places humans in this same matrix of niche construction and inhabitation so crucial for thriving. An indigenous group in India called the Chenchu, threatened with removal from their homeland, described this relationship beautifully: ‘without us, the forest won’t survive, and without the forest, we won’t survive.’ The liberation of humans and their ecologies are bound together.
Britons resisting the Roman Empire understood this concept well. The woman warrior Boudicca, who led a revolt against the occupying Roman army, understood place as accomplice. Before she led her warriors into battle, she reminded them that by virtue of their relationship to their landscape, they had more security than the Romans:
They require shade and covering, they require kneaded bread and wine and oil, and if any of these things fails them, they perish; for us, on the other hand, any grass or root serves as bread, the juice of any plant as oil, any water as wine, any tree as a house. Furthermore, this region is familiar to us and is our ally, but to them it is unknown and hostile. As for the rivers, we swim them naked, whereas they do not across them easily even with boats. Let us, therefore, go against them trusting boldly to good fortune. Let us show them that they are hares and foxes trying to rule over dogs and wolves.
This is a glimpse of a liberating ecology, sustained by an intimate knowledge of landscape as home.
Ten days into my survival experience, I spent three days alone at the edge of a small creek winding its way along the base of a white sandstone feature. Despite having successfully made a bow-drill fire multiple times the week prior, my newly-honed skill failed me – I could not start a fire. I made many embers, pressing the spindle into a carefully carved base of sage wood as I drilled it methodically with a bow made of willow. But multiple attempts to enchant that smoking cinder into a flame with subtly splayed fibre and blown wisps of air were all met with defeat. I cursed the sage board when it finally broke, and hurled the spindle across the stream. The truth is that I am much more like the Romans in Boudicca’s speech than I would like to admit. I need the apparatus of civilisation to stay alive. I need, at the very least, community, both human and other. My two footed-standing in life is bookended by a toddler’s crawl and, I imagine, a weak-kneed old man’s frailty. My very digestion depends upon the metabolic activity of the microbiome in my gut.
How might we survive the Anthropocene? Not as individuals surviving wilderness, but rather by communities learning to live again in the contours of landscape and relationship ingrained in creation. Indigenous people and nations still inhabit these landscapes; any attempts to find a way forward must listen to their voices, and learn from their ancestral stories and life-ways. There might be a possibility for Western civilisation to find its way home, to reclaim earth as habitat. To do so we must become, as Potawatomi scientist Robin Wall Kimmerer put it, naturalised, living ‘as if this is the land that feeds you, as if these are the streams from which you drink, that build your body and fill your spirit.’
Naturalised species don’t live forever, and neither do survivalists. But the species that have found ways to live among others – those that have entwined their tendrils with other plants, or seduced mycelium into relationship with their roots – do have a home in which to live and to die. But this is not an individual endeavour. It is not enough to merely stand on our own two feet. But perhaps we can, with our human neighbours and the aid of our ecological allies, find a way to freedom – a return to mother, our earth, our home. And perhaps that is the answer. Perhaps if humans, too, found our way home again, we would stop visiting violence upon the external world in our search for internal harmony, replaying that old imperial story.