As I mentioned a few posts back, I have been out of the country for two months, and have only recently returned – to the winter, to the fug of viruses and mist – and begun to settle in. I don’t do this kind of trip very often, for all kinds of reasons, but this year my family and I decided to make the most of a proffered opportunity and flee the nest for eight weeks. We went to Chile – to Patagonia, mostly. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to talk a bit more about various aspects of this journey, in a few separate blog posts – the last of which will engage with the question of whether a trip like this is ever justifiable in the first place. After that, in the new year, I hope to be able to launch a series of guest blogs from various writers. We are still open to offers from anyone who has an idea for such a post, by the way – get in touch if that’s you.
So: Patagonia. The ends, as they used to say, of the Earth. I went partly in response to an invitation, partly because there was some work I wanted to do there, for Dark Mountain and for other outlets, and partly – primarily, in fact – because for as long time I have wanted to escape. In fact, I might go so far as to say that the notion of escape has dominated my life for at least the last year, and probably for much longer.
Escape from what? From civilisation? Not really. I don’t believe that’s possible, for someone like me – perhaps not, really, for anyone now. Even wearing clothes with zips is civilisation. Civilisation is in my head. I am civilisation. I carry it with me wherever I go. There’s no escaping that. It’s silly to even try. It’s like trying to escape from a metaphor.
Still, I wanted to escape something. My own country, my own expectations, others’ of me? Perhaps. Noise, pollution, overcrowding, the internet? For sure – though living in Cumbria, only the latter is usually a problem; and even the smallest town in Patagonia has internet cafes now. People? Not really. After all, I took my family with me – and in my two months away I met some of the best people I’ve met in years – grounded, real, doing the right thing, smiling as they did it, never making a show.
What then? Well, for a long time – perhaps for a lifetime, if I really think back, or an adult lifetime at any rate – I have had an itch. This itch tells me that I am missing something. It tells me that Out There somewhere, the world is wilder, greener, less denuded of life. It tells me that Out There somewhere are people living freer lives, in freer societies; that nature teems with life, that there are things that make this country and this life seem as small and tame and controlled as they are, when seen in perspective.
Part of this, I’m sure, is my Romantic nature. But only part. Because all of this turns out to be true. I have seen it before in my life, and I saw it again this year in South America. Only this time, with the time to think and the time to write, I realised, almost with the force of a revelation, what it was: that itch. I realised what I was chomping at, and trying to run from.
I realised, very simply, that I am an animal and that I have lived most of my life in captivity.
I feel this, forcefully, whenever I am released back into the wilds again, but it’s never been so clear to me before – so obvious that i could put it into words. I feel it in a small way when I go running across the lakeland fells, or walking the banks of Scottish lochs. And I felt it in Patagonia, when I was fortunate enough to be able to immerse myself for weeks in landscapes like this:
Something begins to uncoil inside you in these situations. Something begins to die – some old skin, some carapace – and something else begins to come alive. You realise what air and water are meant to taste like. You see the galaxies again and remember what the night sky is. You see tree trunks hung with mosses and lichens, and remember that all trees looked like that before the industrial revolution acidified the air. You know the meaning – the physical meaning – of being part of a world which is bigger than mere humans, and that this feeling is what it means to be truly human. You see great flocks of birds in the skies, and wild creatures – sea lions, otters, dolphins – in the ocean inlets, hear the cacophonies in the forests and you feel a tugging, a real physical kneading of the limbs – a loss. Because you know that where you live now, in the overdeveloped world, inside the human bubble, everything was once like this.
This was brought home more clearly in the last half of my journey, when I spent some time in Parque Pumalin – of which more here soon, and in Dark Mountain book 3 later this year. Pumalin is one of the world’s last intact temperate rainforest ecosystems. Coming from a temperate country, the place is hauntingly familiar. The temperature, the moisture in the air, even many of the plants – they look like some magically preserved film taken in Europe at the end of the last ice age, before the humans really got going.
Well, that was then and this is now. Now, we humans are captives of our own cleverness and lack of wisdom. Now we live in – and are part of – what can be best described, I think, simply as the Machine. The Machine is a civilisation that has become so complex that it must continue to grow in order to survive. It is a techno-culture that makes cogs of its human population as it has made a factory floor of the non-human world. It is a civilisation whose panoply of shiny things is failing, more and more clearly, to mask the hole in its heart and in the heart of the world. Living in the Machine, we become the parts that make it move and progress, and as we do we rely on it more and more. As people, as a culture, I think we are dimly, slowly, beginning to wake up to the magnitude of this.
The poets, of course, have always known it:
… The machine appeared
In the distance, singing to itself
Of money. It song was the web
They were caught in, men and women
Together. The villages were as flies
To be sucked empty.
A tear. Enough, enough,
He commanded, but the machine
Looked at him and went on singing.
– R. S Thomas, ‘Other’, 1972
I did a lot of reading while I was away. Some R. S. Thomas for one – a poet I can never get enough of. Also, some Edward Abbey. If you have never read Edward Abbey, do so now. He is wild, funny, dangerous and usually right. In one of the places we stayed I picked up this book, and found the man thinking my thoughts for me, back while I was still a child, on the Machine’s final destination:
… the technological superstate: densely populated, centrally controlled, nuclear-powered, computer-directed, firmly and thoroughly policed. Call it the Anthill State, the Beehive Society, a technocratic despotism – perhaps benevolent, perhaps not, but in either case the enemy of personal liberty, family independence and community sovereignty, shutting off for a long time to come the freedom to choose among alternate ways of living. The domination of nature made possible by misapplied science leads to the domination of people; to a dreary and totalitarian uniformity.
Well, that sounds pretty spot on to me. I realise now that I’ve written two books myself, without quite meaning to, which seem to be charting our path towards precisely this place. What Abbey didn’t know back then was that the environmental politics he espoused would become one of the Machine’s crutches, helping it to march across the wildlands and open oceans in a flurry of ‘sustainable’ barrages and turbines. And it’s when you get back to the wilds which still remain, when you free yourself even for a time from the everyday grind of the wheels, that you start to really grasp how the grip is tightening.
Two other books I’ve recently read are Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress and Spencer Well’s Pandora’s Seed. Both, from different areas of specialisation (the latter focuses on archaeology and genetics and puts meat on the bones of the former, which is more of a cultural overview) make the point that the development of civilisation is less a glorious rise from the sludge than a series of accidents, usually prompted by a natural disaster or sudden shift in circumstance. The development of agriculture, for example, almost uniformly leads to a much worse quality of life, in terms of health and longevity, than hunter-gathering provided. So why did people do it? Possibly because of overpopulation, possibly because of climate change, possibly because of war. Either way we then blundered regularly in to what Wright calls a series of ‘progress traps’: each development requires another, which requires another. Overpopulation requires a steady food supply, which leads to agriculture, which leads to settled populations which leads to more overpopulation, which leads to the necessity for social control, which leads to bureaucracy and hierarchy, which leads to … there are better accounts of this process than I can provide, but suffice it to say that the ratchet is still turning. Step outside your door and watch it in action. Click.
Can we step away from it? I don’t think so now, if I ever did. I said at the beginning of this post that I had been thinking – dreaming – of escape for years. It’s quite true. But escape from the Machine now is barely a possibility, and the options narrow every year. In Patagonia, supposedly a remote and hardscrabble place not so long ago, and still one now in places, there’s no escape from the seeping globoculture that mobile phones and the web brings. Controversy rages presently over government plans to dam some of the wildest and most beautiful rivers in the region and run vast powerlines thousands of miles up the country to provide energy for the copper mines of north Chile. The economy must grow. You cannot escape this mantra now in the deepest forests or the coldest ice fields of this once wild Earth.
Funnily enough, R. S. Thomas somehow knew this first too. ‘Stuffy as it may seem’, he wrote in a letter to his son late in life, ‘you can never really escape.’ He spoke from experience. Thomas was an Anglicised Welshman who ached all his life to be ‘Celtic’ but who never felt – as his poems clearly demonstrate – that he had really got there, or ever could. He grasped constantly at something just beyond his reach, culturally and physically (he spent his whole life shifting from one Welsh parish to another, looking for something that evaporated when he came close to it). Ironically, after his death he was virtually canonised as a Welsh national poet. Others see what you never do.
No escape then, from the Machine. Not now. Is this a reason for despair? Curiously, this belated discovery lifted my spirits. I can’t really explain this. Perhaps if I had found some paradise I would have wanted to stay and never return. Now I have found – confirmed, really, because I knew it at some level – that the Machine is everywhere, or soon will be, it somehow makes it easier to bear living in its heart. In fact, as I watch that heart stuttering daily – as I watch the tide, I hope, beginning to ebb, and the mess being left on the shoreline – I sometimes feel that I might yet live to see the day when people see this thing for what it is. I don’t know what that will look like, or what they will do when they accept it. But I know it’s going to be an interesting year.