Storm of Progress

2016 has been a year of turbulence, change and revolt, especially in the West. Starting next week, we’re commissioning some familiar and not-so-familiar voices to reflect on the past twelve months, stepping outside the clamour of angry instant opinion to bring you a series of blog posts from the Dark Mountaintop. Watch this space!

In the meantime we bring you a bird's eye view of progress, by Keith Helmuth.

has had careers in college teaching, library development, bookstore management, farming and non-profit publishing. He is developing a small publishing company focused on the natural history and cultural heritage of the St. John River Valley, New Brunswick.  
 A year ago this past January, under the light of the full moon, I looked from the window of a jetliner over a vast expanse of the Amazon watershed. I saw the large slowly winding main trunk of the great river gradually disappearing into the eastern horizon. Just ahead I saw the confluence of a large tributary that had begun its multi-stream course on the flanks of the northern Andes. Closer at hand, and just below, another major watercourse curled into view from under the body of the plane, and meandered for some distance on a northward course before also merging into the main body of the Amazon River.

I was not prepared for this view. I was transfixed for over an hour, taking in the slow rolling scene of the slow rolling rivers and the vast forest of this still largely intact upper basin region. I knew the route and had followed the flight path monitor closely on the overnight trip to Buenos Aries two weeks earlier. But two weeks earlier there had been cloud cover, no moonlight, and I was sitting on the side facing the Andes.

Looking far to the east I could see clusters of lights at points along the river bank signalling human settlements. Scanning closer as we came directly over the course of the river, I could also see smaller clusters of lights coming further up stream. A few lights were also dotted here and there on small tributaries now visible. These settlements rose up in my mind’s eye: A fishing village here, rubber tappers there, hunters, loggers, mineral prospectors, plant researchers, all with their diesel generators pushing like demons ever deeper into the biotic integrity of the land. Indigenous peoples, resource raiders, and bio-pirates all mixed up on the leading edge of the great storm of progress.

Then, the scene changed. Coming even with the great river, and looking to the land flowing north and east, I began to see rectangular outlines and distinctly different shadings in variegated blocks. Between them and through them ran arrow-straight lines of a much lighter hue: Roads through the forest, and whole tracts of forest gone.

I have seen a lot of clear-cut forestland close-up, but from 36,000 feet the vast scale of this destruction was stunning. When I was earlier looking down on forestland yet intact, I thought about the communities of life that are tucked into every nook and cranny of this region. Those of nocturnal habit would now be out. Later, with the sunrise, another group of residents, adapted differently, would employ their life skills to good effect. With clear cutting, this fabric of life is blasted, smashed to smithereens. With clear cutting, the storm of progress has truly mounted to hurricane force.

Lifting my eyes to gaze one last time over the whole panorama rolling out to the horizon, another story of this land came into view — fire. To the southeast I saw a few smudges of orange flame and hanging smoke. And then due east and to the north, more fires; some small, some very large, considering the distance at which I was seeing them. The refuse of the cleared forestland was being burned, releasing large amounts of carbon from long-term storage into the atmosphere.

Here was another feature of the storm of progress; firestorms burning up the rain forest, preparing the way for the beef industry and the soybean business. I slumped back in my seat and thought about Bruce Cockburn’s classic 1988 song, ‘If a Tree Falls’. Speaking specifically of rain forest clear cutting, he sings:

Green brain facing lobotomy
Climate control centre for the world
Ancient cord of coexistence
Hacked by parasitic greedhead scam –

Take out trees.
Take out wildlife at the rate of a species every single day.
Take out people who have lived with this for 100,000

If a tree falls in the forest does anybody hear?
If a tree falls in the forest does anybody hear?

Does anybody hear the forest fall?


There is a kind of knowledge that comes to us as a fully rounded comprehens
ion of reality, a sense of overarching and underlying relationship that cannot be achieved by understanding an accumulation of details. Formed as we are within spheres of relationship, this knowledge is born of participation. We can call this knowledge the wisdom of the soul. Coming to this knowledge is not a matter of chronological age. It is a matter of a certain kind of experience of the world. And the earlier in life we come to this experience, the greater our chances of living within the order of the soul.

We can come to this kind of experience in delight and wonder. We can come to it in anger and agony. Wherever on this spectrum we come to this defining experience, its signal characteristic is communion – that merging of identity with the forms, presence, and process of the great world beyond the boundary of our skin and the reach of our mind. Cockburn’s song runs the gamut of this experience. Its presentation of vision and pain had long contributed to my image of what is happening to the great rainforest of the Amazon region and to many other forested areas of Earth.

Seeing the Amazon by moonlight has lodged an image in my mind that is among the strongest and most deeply imprinted experiences of my life. It resides in a zone of memory that comes into focus unbidden and with great frequency. It has become one of those constant images that connect.

To be so powerfully imprinted by a landscape from over six miles in the air, and at night, is hard to account for. It is a puzzle, but a puzzle with an answer. And the answer lies in the image, and in all the prior images and the stories they compose about this region of Earth that I have had the good fortune to encounter.

This unanticipated experience of the Amazon landscape by moonlight has enlarged my sense of communion and added to my knowledge of what it is that cannot be fully understood but, nevertheless, in our quest for guidance, must be communicated among us.

Author’s note: The irony of my story does not escape me. My experience of the Amazon was delivered while cradled in the wings of an agent of the storm of progress – an ozone-blasting jetliner. This is not a trip we ever imagined making, but when one of our sons married a woman from Buenos Aries, and a grand celebration with her family and friends was scheduled, we booked our flight. Such are the wonders of the storm of progress. Such is the story I have to offer.

  1. I affirm that progress is indeed a myth, but I don’t fully understand “the wisdom of the soul.” Could you explain it further?

    What is “a fully rounded comprehension of reality…knowledge [that] is born of participation…[known as] the order of the soul.”

    “its signal characteristic is communion – that merging of identity with the forms, presence, and process of the great world beyond the boundary of our skin and the reach of our mind.”

    Is there a particular religious tradition that you’re drawing from?

    1. Further evidence that we are all, to a soul, both the architects and the spectators of our own annihilation. Breathe deeply.


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