‘There’s plenty to write about in this world, if you keep existentially funny and honestly grief-stricken about it’. John Rember’s new book spans his upbringing in the wilderness of Idaho’s Sawtooth Valley, his work as a professor of literature and ski instructor and his return to the valley refuge where he bears witness to a world in fall with a wry wit, sharp observation and a style that meets the urgency of our times. Some of the 100 Pieces found their first form in issues of Dark Mountain In these three extracts, he looks at the survival skills he learned in childhood, wrestles with the philosophies of Jeremy Bentham and Peter Singer in his local supermarket, and in, perhaps in the collection’s most moving and metaphysical essay, engages his students in the realms of the Unconscious – because, as he writes, ‘the best classes always have someone dying in them’.
from The Way We Live Now
Life and love after collapse
I know how to harness a horse to a plow. I know how to do basic blacksmithing and welding, pack a horse, shoe the same horse, and use a crosscut saw and broadaxe. I can fell a big tree in a desired direction, wind permitting. I know how to trap beaver, coyote, and muskrat, build a tight log cabin with hand tools and indigenous materials, kill and skin and cut up elk and deer, trim and adjust kerosene lanterns, irrigate, milk a cow, and take care of chickens. I can stay safe and warm while camping in below-zero temperatures and start fires in wet weather. I know basic wilderness medicine and can treat burns, open wounds, and broken legs.
Except for tree-felling every firewood season—with a gas-powered chainsaw—I haven’t used these skills in forty years. I don’t miss using them. I don’t ever want to use them again. Most of them were obsolete when I was born, and I would never have learned them except that when I was three my father quit his life as a hard-rock miner and moved to a small homestead in Sawtooth Valley in central Idaho to become a fishing and hunting guide and trapper.
Our household economy was mostly preindustrial. We kept chickens and packhorses and ate wild game and wild salmon. We heated with firewood, and, until the electrical grid reached us a few years later, we used oil lamps for light.
By the standards of our neighbors and my grade-school classmates, we were poor. My parents had mortgaged our family’s future to buy our forty acres. I can remember nights when my parents stayed up late with their ledger, trying to figure out how they could make another seventy-five-dollar monthly payment when the clients were few and the expenses many.
We had to use packhorses and hand tools and child labor. Child labor was me.
A decade after we had moved to the valley, when the guiding business faltered because of the dam-caused destruction of Idaho’s salmon runs, my father contracted to build trails in the Sawtooth Primitive Area, where equipment with wheels wasn’t allowed. We had to use packhorses and hand tools and child labor. Child labor was me.
I spent several adolescent summers staring at the back end of a harnessed horse, guiding a one-sided plow, peeling the hillside rocks out and down to make new trail. We were eighteen miles from a road. Our stove was a campfire. Our shower was a five-gallon fire-blackened steel bucket with a showerhead welded to its bottom. We ate fish and canned ham and, after the fresh greens ran out, canned peas, canned beans, and potatoes. Lots of potatoes.
All through those summers, sun-glittering B-52s flew thirty thousand feet above our heads, scattering aluminum chaff that decorated the alpine firs like Christmas tinsel. They reminded us that in a day or less, our tents and kitchen and sleeping cots, our shower bucket and creek-side food cache and even our unfinished trail—these could lose all meaning. The high valley we camped in, full of lakes, waterfalls, mossy meadows, and house-sized blocks of granite, would no longer be home to horse or human. Neither would anyplace else.
from Eating with Peter Singer
How much happinness can one world stand?
I’ve just come back from a trip to the Boise Costco, and from the healthy sizes of the humans in its aisles, it will be a long time before starvation will trump ethics in my neck of the woods. But something is trumping ethics, there in those crowded aisles of leather furniture, foreign cheeses, plastic-wrapped animal parts, Vietnamese sweatshop clothing, cell phones, giant flat TVs, motor oil and tires, patio furniture, five-bladed razor cartridges, vitamin supplements, bulk coffee, southern-hemisphere fruits and vegetables, robot-created oil paintings of blue-eyed, blond Jesuses—the carts carrying this stuff leave every Costco big box in a steady stream.
Stand by the outlet of your nearest Costco, right next to the giant Chevy four-wheel-drive four-door pickup on sale only to Costco members, and you’ll watch the lives of a lot of southern-hemisphere children blotted out each time a fluorescent marker slashes down through a cash-register receipt. Then go across the parking lot to gas up your car for the ride home, because nobody has better prices for fossil fuel.
After reading Peter Singer with my students, I’ve concluded that doing the right thing and using my Costco card require that I not think about them at the same time. If I do, going to Costco becomes an exercise in pain and guilt, things I usually go to Costco to avoid.
Going to Costco becomes an exercise in pain and guilt, things I usually go to Costco to avoid.
I of course know that starving children and bits of once-sentient critters in huge refrigerated bins in the Costco meat department exist in the same world, and that conjunction in itself makes for a painful moral paradox.
Singer doesn’t dwell in gray areas. He indicates that every time I drive the 140 miles to the nearest Costco and come home with the trunk lid squeezing down all that I’ve bought, I’m killing creatures whose only sin is to want to live.
It’s not that I disbelieve Peter Singer. I believe him. So do lots of other people who behave as I do.
Singer’s arguments haven’t convinced most middle-class Americans that they need to alleviate the suffering of animals. He hasn’t convinced lawmakers to require starving children equivalents on wine labels. He hasn’t even convinced me to stop buying wine.
In fact, halfway through a bottle of pinot noir, I stop worrying about Peter Singer’s imperatives and start getting moody about Jeremy Bentham’s head. I start giving imaginary writing assignments to long-graduated students, who must by now be in the middle of raising children and consulting retirement advisors. I doubt that my exposing them to Singer’s ethics has produced notable growth in their charity budgets. I doubt that they’re spending much time writing.
That doesn’t stop me from deciding to tell them, from the memory-lectern of a long-ago classroom, to write down what they’d say to Jeremy Bentham’s head once they’ve got hold of it. And then, since there’s no one around to complete the assignment but me, I do it myself.
“Things have changed a bit since mummification, Jeremy. The amount of easily extracted whale oil has been determined to be limited, and burning coal to power steam engines produces carbon dioxide, which you know as ‘dead air’—which isn’t a bad name for it in its projected concentrations. The atmosphere and the oceans can only absorb so much carbon dioxide before the climate gets lethal.
“But we don’t asphyxiate, not at first. We overheat, or die in weather accidents, or drown in rainstorms due to an out-of-control warming phenomenon discovered decades after you died. As much as you might yearn for a little warmth in your English winters, when it actually happens it comes with nasty side effects.
“Also, too little oil and too much carbon dioxide means two hundred years of growing and thriving, of ever greater happiness and ever greater numbers—everything you said could happen, and did—could slow, stop, or go into reverse. Civilizations have recessions and depressions when they slow down, and when they start shrinking, we start looking, through our own glassy eyes, at the greatest pain for the greatest number.
“Complex distribution and economic systems that have taken all this time to develop can disappear within months. Our scientists say we’ve overshot our resource base, and the shortages that are killing people in the world’s poorest countries will eventually reach all the way to the aisles of Costco. World population could be back to what it was in your time by 2050.”
The head shrugs, or it would shrug if it had shoulders. The population of early nineteenth-century England no doubt seems plenty. What it really wants to know, I think, is what a Costco is.
“You’d like a Costco, Jeremy. It’s a cornucopia, a big one in a cube-shaped cabinet exponentially bigger than the one built for your auto-icon. There’s a lot of them, at least in the northern hemisphere.
“In a Costco, if you’ve got enough money you can have happiness beyond imagination. Anything you can imagine in the material world—and a bunch of things you can’t—you can get at a Costco. Lots of people go to Costco, too, enough to be in the running for a greatest number back when the population was at your level. But theirs is a temporary abundance. Off the record, most of our scientists will say that climate and biosphere tipping points have been reached. Production curves that used to go up and up are plateauing, and some of them are going down. Crops are dying or shrinking as their climate zones move north. People are already leaving seacoasts due to the weather and high tides. When they’re joined by the people they’ve sold their beach houses to, dry land is going to be more crowded and full of conflict than it’s ever been.
“By the way, there seems to be a disjuncture between your hypothetical individual acting in benign self-interest and that same individual sharing a world where he has to compete, on a zero-sum basis, for food and clean water and living space. He still seems to act in self-interest. It’s just not benign self-interest.”
I realize that I’m talking to an imaginary head, one that looks even worse in my imagination than it did in its Internet photos. I’m hoping it doesn’t ask me what a tipping point is, or a biosphere.
It doesn’t seem to want to ask me anything. I decide it needs to go back in its box, and the box needs to go back in its Archaeology Department safe, until I have a first-year composition class again.
from The Unconscious and the Dead
The best classes always have someone dying in them
If, by the end of The Unconscious as Literature, we had little idea of what the unconscious was, my students at least knew how to recognize the signs of it in their lives. They began to look critically at their relationships and to say, to people they once thought they would marry, “I know what you’re really saying when you say that.”
Other students, who previously couldn’t stand each other, fell in love—because they could finally see what the other was really saying when they said what they said, and even if it wasn’t nice, it was true, and once you’re aware of the unconscious, true is always preferable to nice. Not that they don’t sometimes go together.
Students began to do their own laundry rather than face the nuances attendant to taking it home for Mom to wash on weekends. They began to talk to their grandparents about their parents, learning embarrassing family secrets. They began to look critically at their professors, even when I discouraged that sort of thing.
In short, because they gained a perspective on the unconscious, the students began to show the sort of aware maturity that small liberal-arts colleges point to when they try to justify tuition increases. Some of this new perspective was due to me, some of it was due to the readings, but much of it was due to Charley and his mortality-aware ability to say what he really meant at the time he was saying it.
Over my career, most of my good classes did have somebody who was dying in them, whether the class and I knew it or not. Whether it was an actual physical dying or a Lolita-style dying didn’t matter as much as the fact that in each of those classrooms, death was transformed from an abstract idea into something that gave daily life heft and substance.
These days it’s the impending death of our civilization that is endowing what remains of our lives with heft and substance, and the classroom is the Earth. It’s time to play one more game of What Would Charley Say.
“Here’s what I’d say,” says Charley, trying and failing again to pick up his coffee. “It’s the things that humans do know, rather than the things they don’t know, that are determining the fate of the planet.”
“You mean we’re not lemmings, unconsciously diving off a cliff?”
“You’re lemmings diving off a cliff,” he says.
Then he says, “You used to tell us that one way of approaching the unconscious was to realize it was out to get us. But the unconscious is just the world. If you want to make any part of it conscious, take it seriously and look at it honestly. That’s all consciousness is: taking things seriously and not lying to yourself.
“If you think of it that way, consciousness doesn’t come from the self. It comes from outside the self. It always was outside of the self, in plain sight. The self just has to stop defending against it.”
Then he mutters, “I really miss coffee,” and disappears into the underworld.
I’m all alone in the sunshine, and it’s getting warm out here and I’m without sunscreen in a world where the ozone layer is still delicate despite our best efforts. That question I was going to ask Charley—about how consciousness can exist in a place where time doesn’t—will have to wait.
I pick up Charley’s full coffee cup and look up at the mountains. In the past they’ve had snow on them this time of year, but it melted fast this spring. Only small patches of white mark the north-slope gullies. Most of the trees below them are beetle-killed. There’s smoke from seven hundred thousand acres of nearby burning forest in the air, and a layer of wood ash has drifted onto the deck.
It’s not too much to say that we humans have become the Humbert Humbert of species, and the green world we feed on has become our Lolita.
But in my small part of that world, autumn will come, bringing a paradoxical renewal. The air will clear and cool, and if the fire hasn’t made it to the deck and the house, I’ll still look out on a beautiful if blackened horizon.
At that moment I’ll know that gazing out on a burnt-over world brings beauty into being. I’ll know that having Charley in my class made me a better professor. I’ll know that Lucretia, the smiling keeper of Charley’s narcotics supply, is more real when she’s got a patient in pain. I’ll know that Lolita might have become a slattern even without Humbert Humbert in her life, because it’s in the nature of nymphettes to age and thicken, but it still would have been better if he had left her alone.
I’ll know that gazing out on a burnt-over world brings beauty into being.
There is no class for whom to turn these statements into questions, and at this stage of retirement I’m glad of that. Still, there is much to be said for asking questions that can be answered by looking carefully and without prejudice at the world, especially if the answers then look like they were there all along.
We could actively observe as a civilization and discover that we know more about our problems than we think we do. We might even find solutions enough to save ourselves from the future that haunts us.
But we’ve reserved our questions of policy for the unconscious, forgetting that the unconscious is an endless and eternal and infinitely complex set of circumstances that takes things only as seriously as it has to. It doesn’t have to solve our problems. Unlike consciousness, it doesn’t have to care, and it doesn’t have to grieve. Common sense says that it’s stopped taking humanity and its little sparks of consciousness seriously.
Against that indifference I can only sit and talk with Charley on these delicate, orange-lit mornings on my deck, with coffee. I realize we won’t save civilization. But we might save what’s left of Charley until fire season comes around again, and that will be something in the face of nothing, and that is enough for now.
A Hundred Little Pieces on the End of the World will be available from 15th March 2020, at bookstores or directly from the University of New Mexico Press c/o Longleaf Services, Inc. To order, please call 800-848-6224 or visit unmpress.com.