Chapter 15: Harvest

Notes on the Afterlife

Not related to Pumpkins? Go pick your own family.
Image (c) Dave Rosane

"A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature . . ."

- Albert Einstein.

“You must have a very interesting ecology.”
First time I’d ever heard any body say that to me before. Been a naturalist all my life, worked with professional academics for decades. I choked on my coffee and some came squirting back out my nose.
“Excuse me. Your name again?” I asked, a tad embarrassed.
“Marcel…Y tu?”
Un placer, David.”
The guy was in his fifties. Stocky, standard issue mustache, jeans and a short-sleeved checkered shirt. We’d converged on a Sunday brunch hosted by our mutual friend Lucas and found ourselves sitting next to each other, throwing back mushroom-stuffed wonton and Caribbean fish balls topped with chili sauce. Our table was wedged between two large manioc plants in a corner of Lucas’s small overgrown apartment. Marcel had asked me one simple question: Where are you from?
It’s never been an easy one to answer.
“I don’t know,” I quipped, at first.
“You don’t know? Where’s that?”
He wiped the sweat off his brow with a napkin, swallowed a fish ball. Outside, Harlem was steaming. August in New York City, life in the machine; take 350 square miles of impervious cover, throw in the exhaust from 1,2 million cars, smother it with heat generated by 8 million so called air conditioners et voila, you get the ‘urban heat-island effect’, euphemism for Hell.
“To make a long story short I am from the US, I said, except I was born in Guyana, then my folks moved to Montreal when I was 5, then to France when I was 10. I went to school there and worked in Paris as a writer, then I did some research on chemical ecology in the rainforests of Venezuela, where I was adopted by a native tribe, and in Peru and the Dominican Republic for ten years working with Cornell University. Then I moved here to New York, 4 years ago, my first time living in my own country - my whole life. MY wife and I just moved to Vermont.”
“I tell you, you have a very interesting ecology.”
Marcel was a tropical ecologist, from Peru. I had actually heard of his work, had even perused some of his publications. He’d spent years with the Mestizo up and down the Amazon, looking at slash and burn dynamics, life in the flooded forest. He was now in the US, teaching. Like most Latino intellectuals, his English was perfect, better than mine, except his accent was riper than goat cheese and he’d pepper it with the odd Spanish idiom. For the sake of identity, I assumed.
“Thank you” I said, after a moment’s hesitation.
“For what?” Marcel swept his teeth with his tongue then went for another greasy wad of fish.
“Well I’m assuming that by ‘interesting ecology’, you’re referring to the sum of all my relationships to the world. I’m not used to someone qualifying my life history like I was some migratory bird.”
Si senor. Ecology, from the Greek Oikos, meaning household – or home. Mi casa es tu casa. Are you not from planet earth?”
(Marcel spoke with the calm authority and wit of the alpha male. Most academics have this uncanny ability to turn any first conversation into either something like a job interview, a cock fight or the archetypal relationship between mentor-to-mentee. They sense rank very quickly, then set up a hierarchy – like trying to talk to a wolf. Or a Rabbi. Marcel had graciously opted for the mentor-to-mentee.)
“So go on, di me, why do you thank me? Are you really a migratory bird?”
I responded rather emotionally:
“Because my whole life I’ve been trying to describe myself as other do, in terms of nationality, by cultural affiliation, or socio-economic cast, but to no avail. It gets frustrating. I’m like some freaking quantum particle, from no place in particular. Always different, always the stranger - the eternal flatlander. Now, thanks to you, your affirmation, I can simply assert that I’m from planet earth, an ecological entity.”
Te jodistes!
We laughed.
“You said you’re married, David?”
“French woman. Her name is Valerie. She’s an actress.”
“Any muchachitos?”
“ We just adopted a boy last year, our first, he’s going on one.”
“ Well, you shouldn’t have to worry here.”
“You mean here in New York?”
“No, I mean here, in Lucas’s apartment.”
Marcel winked, he was referring to all the guests in the room: Latinos, Pakistanis, Blacks, Jews, dancers, scientists, gays, artists, a peppering of French. All of them activists too, in one form or another. Love mongerers. Gardeners. Grass roots dudes. Think, ‘global rhizome’.
“In this country you call them minorities, David, in the rest of the world we call ourselves the majority.”
I realized I was the only straight, white American male in the room.
“Consider me in, Marcel!”
I asked my friend if he’d ever heard of Paul Hawken. He hadn’t. I relayed Hawken’s idea that us modern day eco-freako oddballs & peace-and-justice wonks constitute the biggest movement in the history of humanity, except this time we don’t follow just one ideology - we’re more like an alliance of creeds, a non zero-sum smorgasbord of different philosophies.
“In ecology we call that a symbioses. Escuchame bien, David. Humanity is growing up. Developmental psychologists say we have the capacity to reach a sort of pan-cultural conscience, to see the world as one, as family. We can transcend the exclusiveness of the conventional group, learn to be of service to the whole. This is a radical idea, but just listen to people like Desmond Tutu, they’re saying the same thing. Bush, Bin Laden, you, me, same family. Besides, geneticists have found that we’re a very young species. We descend from an evolutionary bottleneck of a few thousand individuals, 120 thousand years ago.”
The room around us was full of beans. A raunchy joke here, an explosion of laughter there and Terry, our host’s partner, a human rights watchdog-turned law student was now pounding out some Chopin Mazurka on the piano. The whole place sounded like the roaring 1920’s – only with brains attached. I noticed a small, stingless bee entering the room through the open window. It found one of Lucas’s mint plants and started pollinating.
Marcel spotted the bee at once:
Epa, que interesante… you know I’ve been looking at stingless bees and harvesting of medicinal honey in Peru… que chula, mira la alli
Marcel was obviously in love, with the bee.
“You know there’s honey bees all over this City, I pointed out. I’ve heard they’re hundreds of those stingless bee species here in the states, too, but most have never even been studied. Some of them never even been named. I was with New York Park’s chief naturalist a few years ago, Mike Fellar, he was doing a nature walk through Inwood park in northern Manhattan (I pointed westward, towards Inwood). Mike’s this sort of uncanny Zen Taoist scientist guy, probably the wisest dude in the City, and we saw a stingless bee just like this one and he simply pointed out to the people in attendance that the animal was probably new to science. Everybody went “ooh” and “ah” . He added that places like the Amazon or the human genome or the other side of the universe usually get all the publicity for being the ‘last frontier’, when in fact the last frontier was right in front of us, all around us, in among us, like this bee pollinating a flower in the woods of northern Manhattan, and that we took it entirely for granted.”
“You know.. you have to be careful, David.”
Marcel shifted his tone entirely and looked straight back at me, grabbing another napkin:
“These are dangerous times, muchacho. The Cheney’s and the Clintons of this world, it’s not that they don’t care about stingless bees, it’s that they know precisely how much people like you do. And it frightens them.”
I realized who Marcel reminded me of. Anthony Quinn, in Zorba the Greek.
“What do you mean?” I asked, timidly.
Marcel wiped some more Manhattan sweat of his brow, then pointed an oratorical index in my general direction:
“David, these so-called world leaders, they see the wave we represent better than we can see ourselves. That’s their biggest advantage – perspective. This is why they’re running around trying to occupy stuff like Iraq. Es que tienen miedo. Right now they’re building fortifications, hoarding what’s left… Believe me, they know all about Peak Oil, and a lot more about everything than you think they do. The word in this country is that Bush es un cabron, un idiota. This is false. These are business men, and women, executives, and they are making smart business decisions, from their point of view – this is the nature of power, David.”
Lessons in world ecology. Marcel’s exposé reminded me of the Chomsky line ‘Don’t speak truth to Power because power already knows the truth – how else could it be in power? Speak truth to the people! No doubt he was also hinting at a simple law of nature - the law of diminishing marginal returns. It explains how the bigger the empire or company or country, the bigger the power structure, the more and more complex it gets, the more and more difficult and expensive it becomes for it to sustain its own growth, until it bottom outs. History? A 15000 year old Domino of consecutive implosions, since the first city states of Mesopotamia. Pouf, pouf, pouf.
“So, di me David, what is it your parents did?”
Marcel leaned back in his chair. Started working his teeth with a toothpick.
“My dad worked for a Canadian transnational, they were called multinationals at the time. ALCAN, the Aluminum Company of Canada.”
“Extracting Bauxite, selling Aluminum?”
“I guess. Worked all over the globe. Japan, Africa, you name it. We moved around as a family a lot, my folks took me to Botswana on safari as a kid. They’re originally from New Jersey and Connecticut, respectively.”
“You have a lot to be grateful for, David. Tu papa, did he fight in world war 2?”
“Yes, Europe.”
A seagull flew passed the window, heading south, probably towards the reservoir, in Central Park.
I pointed it out: “Larus marinus - Great Black-backed Gull.”
Marcel wanted to know how I got so interested in nature.
“Well, I figured, being born in the rainforest of Guyana probably helped. We were basically living in a mining town on the banks of the Demerara river that had been carved out of the jungle. You know, parrots squawking overhead, hummingbirds on the Veranda, toucans and howler monkeys, snakes in our cribs, that sort of thing. Throw in a Victorian interest in creation on my mother’s side, a Peterson bird book handed down to me from a grandfather, some ominous volumes of Audubon towering in the bookshelf above, then reading Gerald Durrell obsessively in my youth. Family legend has it that my first grammatically correct sentence as a toddler was ‘Shut up little birdies..’”
“Sounds to me like they never did!”
“It’s unnerving.”
“I’m still thinking about what you said - An interesting ecology. Brilliant. I’ve been outdoors all my life, working on three continents, I used to teach urban ecology here in the city, and I’ve never heard anybody describe another person’s life that way.”
“You gringos can’t help it, it’s the weight of your culture”
“What do you mean?”
“Americans come from a long biblical tradition of thinking nature and humans are somehow separate (Marcel leaned forward and crossed his arms). Not just evangelists, environmentalists too. Especially environmentalists. You’re trapped by this vision of wilderness on one side, some primeval Eden, this selva virgen place that’s supposed to be devoid of humanity, with a fence around it, then places like New York City on the other side, with all of humanity in it. This is an American dichotomy. It shows up everywhere, even in your political culture. From an ecological perspective, it is baloney. We know this in Peru simply because we are accustomed to living in a jungle. What you call the environment we call home. Besides, there is no such thing as pristine wilderness as you call it because there is no place on earth that has not been affected at one point by the Human footprint in the past 120 000 years. America has to come to terms with this. You have to learn to see the world as a slope, progressing from more ecologically functional places, like the Amazon, all the way down to Times Square or downtown Sao Paolo on the other side, that are totally dysfunctional - but still a part of nature. One gradient, from the sustainable to the industrial.”
“Reminds me of that great Einstein quote.”
“About humans being part of the universe?”
“No, the one where he says you can’t fix a problem by using the same kind of thinking that created it…”
Precisamente. Putting fences up around the wilderness and kicking the poor out won’t solve a thing. We have to change the way we live in nature, work our way back across that gradient, from the industrial back into the sustainable.”
“I know, Arcadia, Jefferson - without the slaves. Sorry for the sarcasm, but I’m writing a book about just that.”
“Then you know exactly what I’m talking about – got a title, yet?”
“Something along the lines of the ‘Nature of New York’.”
“I like it. Arrecho.”
“Yeah, and by extrapolation, the nature of finance, the ecology of greed. I see this place (I point south, for emphasis, through the window and through the brown summer haze, at the shark-tooth profile of Midtown), I see New York like it was some sort of heaving bionic organism, and so I ask the question - where does this ravenous monster get its energy? What’s its effect on the planet, its place in the world ?”
“You should speak to my wife Caroline. She’s been working with some of her Grad students on where and how New York ethnics import all their ethnic food. It comes from all over the globe, apparently, under the radar too.”
“That would be great! You know, I moved here 5 years ago after working in the Amazon for a decade, and so I traveled that same gradient you just described, from sustainable to industrial, and when I got here, at first I looked exclusively at the Nature in New York, the migratory birds in Central park, the insects too – they’re awesome by the way, like that stingless bee. You’ve got dragonflies cruising midtown, a Parks worker told me how the day after 911 he saw hundreds of Monarchs migrating South through the dust over ground zero.”
Senor David, did you know that Thoreau went back every weekend to have his Mom do his Laundry for him on Staten island after one week in the wilderness staring at Walden Pond?”
“Hold on, let me finish about New York. After a year here I slowly began to see the bigger picture. I figured that the Big Apple had more than just some ecological footprint, worse, it had a policy shadow, what with all the political entropy it generated abroad, and the people it displaced across the planet, like it was some giant Nazi cannibal tick, sucking the life blood out of the planet. New Yorkers are so accustomed to thinking the whole world is their tributary.”
“This is because, in ecological terms, industrial civilization is a parasite, David. Did you know that John Muir fled into ‘the wilderness’ because he was trying to dodge the draft?”
“Sounds like half the population of Alaska.”
Epa! You’ve lived in Alaska, too?”
“No I just went there this last summer, to the Yukon too. Met some interesting characters. We were in this town called Inuvik in the North West Territories, in the Mackenzie river Delta. Mostly Gwich’in and Inuvialuit natives, except the cab drivers there are all from Ethiopia. Our first meal in town, we had Chinese take-out prepared by a Palestinian family from Lebanon. In the land of the Midnight sun, high above the Arctic Circle. It was freaky – seemed like all the minorities in the world were up there, gathering before the last battle. You know, I used to teach a course on industrial ecology when I lived here in the City and most of my students were immigrant kids in Brooklyn just off the plane or boat. From everywhere: Baku, Egypt, Guyana even..”
Tu hometown!
“Yeah, teenagers mostly, High School students taking their first college credits, part of a College Now program at Brooklyn Community College. Well, I showed them how, in ecological terms, New York City didn’t produce a thing, other than waste, save for a sprinkling of produce from community gardens. Mostly though, I showed them how the financial practices here in the City contributed indirectly to their presence in New York by first helping to pummel the economies and destroy the ecology of their countries of origin via Wall Street and the WTO. They saw the connect: our planetary elites force emigration from third world countries - then have the gall to complain about immigration at home.”
“Did you tell your students the story of tropical slave ants ?A colony can go out and destroy the adults but it will kidnap the larvae and bring them back and raise them as their own…your students, they must have loved your course.”
“They ate it up. They all passed, too.”
“I bet it helped them put their own frustrations into words.”
“How’s that?”
“Well if you give human beings a language like ecology with which to verbalize their anxieties and articulate their anger and understand and voice their sense of powerlessness, especially a teenager, then they feel a little less alienated. Words do that, they can take the venom right out of us and at the same time empower us. Di me, why did you leave for Vermont?”
“I told you, my wife and I went there to adopt a baby boy…and because we were evicted from our apartment here in New York. Besides, we decided to reorganize our life ecologically, integrate the whole slow food movement, contribute to a local economy, grow our own grub. Which reminds me, harvest is coming up, too. I’ve got about 50 pumpkins waiting to be picked back in my garden – enough food for the winter. I planted way too many. You know Paul Mankiewicz?”
“The guy at the Gaia Institute?”
“Yeah, he has a great line about bioregionalism, he calls it ‘insinuating ourselves back into the processes and flows of nature, if only we had more faith in them.’ He says ecosystems don’t distribute. No FedEx. No oil, no gasoline, no 25 ton trucks. So, barring we change the laws of Thermodynamics we have no choice but to relocalize our economies.”
“So, Alaska...tell me more about Alaska.”
“What do you mean…”
“What were you doing up there? Relocalizing your economy?”
“Yeah, right. Actually, I went to baptize my son. His name is Manny.”
Tu estas loco, David. Your church is in Anchorage or what?”
“No, no, just that my wife and I wanted to see more of the great North American continent before we settled down. You know, you get tired of the contradiction of flying around the planet as the do-gooder environmentalist, working with Indians in the jungle, telling people how we should be living, meanwhile gobbling up jet fuel and living high off the hog while preaching about sustainability. I say: ‘be the change you want to see in the world!’ Except like everybody else my wife and I are completely addicted to fossil fuel, we’re energy junkies. So we joked that before we plugged ourselves back into nature’s processes and I started a farm somewhere, that we’d go for one last fix, one last overdose of unrestrained consumption. Think, ‘Gonzo exploration of the national psyche’. Whole hog on the American Dream.”
Que Paso, David?”
“Listen to this : at 40 we finally got our drivers licenses.”
“You just learned how to drive?”
“Just for this trip. So we rented this beat up RV, a mobile home with this big-ass ecological footprint, replete with CD, AC, Barbecue and DVD, and we gunned the sunofabitch across 3500 miles of immaculate tundra. Caribou, grizzly, wolves walking down the road you name it, all the artic birds I’d ever wanted to see, too. The flowers. The landscape. The wind. I tell you, Beringia, it’s awesome, looks like the last place on earth. There are no words for it. It’s so big it can’t even fit into our language, let alone a camera. We went as far north as Arctic ocean and camped out on the beach and then dipped Manny’s toes in the water and anointed his head and then blogged home that we had baptized our son.”
Marcel grabbed another toothpick.
“You have an editor?”, he queried.
“I’m telling you, you have a very interesting ecology, he sighed. You should share your story. This whole arc of yours, it sort of sums up the story of a whole generation, too. It tells the history of the West, in microcosm. Europe expanded, so did the industrial paradigm. It went multinational. You were born in Guyana, right? You explored part of this industrial empire, you peered over the edge, you climbed down. Te regresastes a Nueva York, to world headquarters, with a message: we can’t go on with business as usual, we have to turn our civilization around, head in another direction.”
Marcel was looking at me, into me. Ever the alpha male. I looked away.
Di me David, how do you like being a father?
“It’s so beautiful I can’t stand it.”
“Are you one of these crazy, zero-population puritans, did you adopt because you didn’t want to add another human being to the planet, for environmental reasons?”
“Not at all. My wife and I couldn’t have kids of our own. We’re sterile. Chlamydia pandemic. The sexual revolution. Millions of people lost their ability to reproduce. So, we adopted, besides, what better way to act out your beliefs than to embrace another human being, especially one totally unrelated to us. Darwinian theory says we should theoretically be caring for our own offspring. Exclusively. Well, that’s not very ‘adaptive’ in today’s world.”
Porque asi?”
“Follow the selfish gene you end up with the atomic bomb. The more we love our own, the more we despise the enemy. Kinship and war correlate. I say we break the cycle, or we’ll all go up in smoke.”
Eso. Adopt the human family.”
“I think even Darwin sensed we should transcend our own biology, for the sake of our own freakin’ survival. Remember, he wrote that part about extending ‘our sympathies to all nations and races’. That’s basically how I see adoption. Pacifism. Plus, I think I needed an afterlife of my own.”
“An afterlife?”
“Yeah, about 10 years ago I was sitting with my friend Freddy in front of his hut, he’s the son of a Ye’kuana chief, this tribe I lived with in the Venezuelan rainforest, and I asked if he believed in an Afterlife. I wanted to know more about Ye’kuana spirituality. So he counted to 5, pointing to the kids playing down by the river. He was counting his 5 kids, like this, “un, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco…” aiming at each one, for emphasis, and smiling. There’s my afterlife David, he said. They’re right in front of you, look, I’ve got 5 of them. Un, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco…”
Mentira…You’re making this up”
“Remember what Mark Twain said, Marcel?”
Si senor. The only difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to be credible.”

Stay tuned for more - xoxo,
Dave, Val, Manny.

Chapter 14: Leaving it to Beaver

Should New Yorkers learn to chill out?

What does the return of Castor Canadensis mean to New York City, really?
Image © Valerie Druguet

To quote Ed Abbey in the first punches of his Desert Solitaire (as much of a book as a beating), every human has a favorite place, a place known to him/her as “the most beautiful place on earth”. Abbey attributes this to there being “no limit to the human capacity for the homing sentiment”. Our “ideal place”, the “one true home” could be anywhere, depending on the individual: “a cabin on the shore of a blue lake in spruce and fir country” or, for “those of a less demanding sensibility […] a comfortable apartment high in the tender, velvety smog of Manhattan…”

We all have a favorite spot in mind. Me, apart from the entire Universe which I consider to be like, totally awesome, or Inwood Park, the best Manhattan can really muster, or the stinking hot Amazon, my ideal place has always been, since childhood, a few square yards of silent understory in the cool and dark – and to me, cozy – embrace of a thick patch of hemlock trees outback of my folk’s place in northern Vermont. Nothing grandiose, no giant waterfalls, sweeping vistas or charismatic beasts involved, just a small fragment of biosphere tucked away within one hundred and fifty acres of maple and ash and beech and butternut with small things like toads and spring peepers and jumping mice that bounce about the grove within the intimacy of their ecological niches. There’s a tiny stream that trickles through the Hemlock and winds and loops around their trunks like some Lilliputian version of a great meandering river, creating a series of small, sensual beaches of pink sand and blue pebbles where the toads hang out. Then there’s the moss, the plump green moss, on the dank fallen logs of ancestral trees where you can spot red eft; the celestial petals of the white and violet trillium; the foamflowers; the generous curves of cinnamon ferns hanging over the stream’s steeper banks; not to mention the unwavering vibe of mystery emanating from conifers in general, the inebriating whiff of resin, as primeval as oxygen, as old as granite or the grin on a dinosaur. Finally, there’s the clear water of the stream itself, like liquid silk, running its course, dribbling away, downhill, through space, through time, one day to reach the sea, the abyss. This is rain water, runoff from the green mountains, it irrigates and inseminates this dot on the map, the world to me.
I used to go out to the grove as a lonely kid and sit on its shores and look for gnomes and fairies and daydream my summer afternoons away. It was my outdoor den, my most beautiful place on earth, and it set the stage for my pre-adolescent visions and fantasies. It taught me to hide out and aim high, like a kitten, to look up and peer through dark canopies - and into the future that lay ahead- for rarity and beauty to pounce on, to possess, things like the fleeting scarlet of tanagers, the fluorescence of Blackburnian warblers – or one day soon, the female of my species. Let me add to Abbey’s observation: the ‘ideal place’ also has the power to define us, it forges our identity, sexual or otherwise, and by ‘identity’ I refer to that thing we recall in the face of adversity. For reassurance. For strength. When we call out for Mommy, or for the team or party or tribe to whom we belong. Some of us rely on the flag, on patriotism, others invoke Jesus or Mohammed, the Founding Fathers, Yoda and Luke Skywalker for all I care, movie stars or brand names even, others still we fall for the workaday version of the Stockholm syndrome, by kissing our employer’s ass and defending it, too. Me, I take Hemlock. Since my childhood in the woods I have pledged allegiance to the memory of this seemingly random spot of Appalachian green and it has since been my own private life raft, my savior, my imaginary friend, my church, my nation-state – my identity. When confronted by adversity in my adult life (like, every day for the past 30 years spent living behind enemy lines, in bars, in foreign countries and crowded places) I simply call up the image of my favorite place on earth. My home in the woods. It’s automatic, compulsive. It allows me to regress to the comfort and safety I felt as a 10 year old, crouching under those trees. I use the memory of this secret outdoor womb, its sweet and uplifting smell of water, sap, chlorophyll and rot, the same way I rush for my morning mug of bean, so I can wake up again and plow ahead, or when I reach for my daily measure of opiates, to regulate my flow of serotonin, to finally calm down. Or when I call in on my buddies Jack Daniels and Jim Beam. Yep, this little place of mine has been my favorite drug of all time. My ultimate addiction. And I have returned to it physically, once every 5 years or so, for a refill, a walloping snort of the Dave identity.
No longer. On a recent visit ‘back home’, last Thanksgiving as a matter of fact, I walked over to my most beautiful place on earth for a fix and it wasn’t there anymore because it was gone. Underwater, submerged, erased both by time and by H20. More precisely, by two f-ing beavers.
(Let it be said that when you leave the blue city and set up camp in the wild red woods, squirrels, mice, raccoons and beaver, like doing your taxes, can turn you into an instant republican).
The two beavers (I later caught them working…) had just recently moved in, judging by the freshness of the cut wood, the tooth marks, the glistening logs of young poplar used to make the damn, the fresh cakes of mud applied to the side of the hut. In a flash, my tiny stream had become a swimming pool for giant rodentia. I searched the water’s surface for signs of my beloved beaches beneath. Nada. My dark green hemlock trees, now standing knee-deep in a small lake, would all die in the few years ahead from aquatic overkill, soon to be giant broken quills sticking out of the brown back of a still-assed beaver pond. I paused to recover. Part of me was gone, forever. Drowned out by beaver. I felt powerless. Then I smiled. Time to move on. I thought of these Hemlock trees in the near future; their hollowed out trunks would soon be homes for nesting Tree Swallows, Wood Duck and maybe even a few Great Blue Herons crouching like gargoyles at their tops. Come to think of it, these trees, they’d stick out like living totem poles. Reincarnation, just around the corner. And the slimy periphery of the new pond would be the breeding ground of red-spotted newts and tree frogs, home to mosquito larvae and baby twelve-spotted dragonflies. And the pond’s shores would have pink lady-slipper orchids growing on it, and in the water’s depths would hide the hideous giant water bug.
All of these new things and more for Thanksgiving. A beaver’s gift. Beware, because the gift of Castor canadensis is always a gift in disguise. It looks like destruction, but it ain’t. Beavers aren’t engineers, they’re horticulturists, they make habitat. They unnerve the hell out of us humans, too. These two not only sowed the seeds of a new community, a new ecosystem, a new place for this forest, this valley, these mountains, this planet and universe, they invited albeit forcefully one bipedal predecessor (me), to withdraw, to let go. To grow up, already. When a beaver slaps the water with its tail it is to alarm its congeners that potential danger is near. These two guys slapped me right in the face. Good, because Kitten now an Alpha wolf. From now on I embrace novelty and loss, catharsis. My new identity? I breath in, one change at a time. And I howl with the earth.
A few notes about beavers. A species of giant beaver was part of the Meg-fauna in North America as recently as the last Ice age, and it was the size of a black bear. Whoa. And what triggers a beaver’s damn building? Water, of course: beavers have been experimentally shown to start amassing sticks and mud in front of speakers that broadcast the sound of water – duh - but also, the lay of the land appears to be equally important, but which topographical cues the discerning beaver actually looks for remains a complete mystery. Is it all touch and go, trial and error? A failed damn here, a successful one there? Experience? In any event, a beaver’s digs can be, have been, ginormous. Consider the one near the present town of Berlin, in New Hampshire. The historic dam measured 4000 feet in length and the ensuing pond – or lake- housed 40 separate beaver lodges and as many families of beaver. It follows quite naturally that for all their construction of ‘dams’ and ‘houses’ Beavers have long been compared to us, of course, because “unlike almost any other animal except human beings, beavers actively modify their environment”. Hmm. Let’s correct this half-witted quote from an aging guide book uncovered in the dustbin of my childhood bookshelf. What about ants? Termites? Beavers are just like everything else out there; not only do they modify their environment, they evolve with that environment. The fact that they build big stuff only makes it more obvious. But their influence amounts qualitatively to no more, no less, than the wing-beat of a butterfly. As part of a self-creating, self-referential system (called life on earth), they and everything else out there are all, simultaneously, responsible for creating all of the other of nature’s ‘components’. They are part of a system, a holon, they’re driving forces within a low entropy, complexity-driven dynamic called life in the universe. Funny, because when us humans do something like build a dam, we achieve the exact opposite. We drain the system, we weaken it. We channel the water and kill a diversity of life forms and amplify the risk of one hundred year floods and aggravate erosion. Whereas beaver dams create habitat, provide flood control, minimize erosion, increase aquifer recharge and improve water quality by reducing silting of streams in addition to providing habitat for marsh plants that do the purifying themselves. Beavers indirectly create great farmland, too, by damming watercourse and allowing nutrient rich silt to accumulate. So, easy on the analogies between beavers and humans, because when all is said and done there is no comparison: we are outclassed by beaver biotechnology, and find ourselves in an incomparably different ecological niche, one of true parasitism, which according to the ecological definition, defines the behavior of those organisms that take all yet return nothing to their host – in our case, the planet we stand on.
Speaking of erroneous or misleading analogies, I say we also refrain as a species from using terms the likes of “busy as a beaver” or “busy bee” or thinking of ants and monkeys and hummingbirds as equally industrious workaholics. They’re not. Nature is indolent. It doesn’t fidget or fuss. Its stays calm either to cool down or to warm up. Beaver’s work 5 hours a day at the most and even then take a number of breaks and retreat to their huts for a doze. As for bees and ants, they spend 20% of their time doing chores, the remainder of their existence unfolds as siesta or just a plain old state of ‘quiet vigilance”. High-strung critters like hummers or shrews rest anywhere from 70 to 80 % of the time (in addition to a good night’s sleep), sitting on a twig or sprawled out in a burrow. Monkeys hang out for ¾ of the day. For most, resting is actually mandatory. Consider the Moose. For every hour of grazing on vegetation, it needs 4 hours to stand still and metabolize its food - no other option but to chill. All in all, in the functional world of Life on earth (when devoid of post-industrial humans), plants and animals are inherently Buddhist, they’re calorie saving and cautious. Humans are 4 times more active (neurotic?) than anything else out there. “Busy as a human” should be the correct usage. Or rather, modern humans of the Western variety (by western I mean anybody born into a civilization centered around organized agriculture). Indigenous hunter-gatherers go to work 3 or 4 hours a day. The rest of the time, where they are still permitted to survive and live according to their own rights and agenda (or absence thereof), they hang out in hammocks and laugh irreverently at our happiness of pursuit. They also believe in the reality of their dreams.
No one is immune to misusing metaphors. The Lenne Lenape, Indigenous hunter-gatherers of the New York city area nick-named New Amsterdam’s earliest European inhabitants…beavers. No joke (although the thought of some chief hailing the arrival of one Peter Stuyvesant with a “Yo Beaver!” sort of splits my side). There is a serious explanation. The Lenape worldview was one couched in totemic thinking, like with a lot of indigenous cultures, whereby people took from nature and/or the enemy what powers were needed for oneself. If you cut off and ate your opponents heads (like, in New Guinea), you usurped his strength. If you took bison like the Lakota, you inherited its qualities. And if you were Lenape and you saw a bunch of booze-ridden Dutch traders running around the lower Hudson killing beavers and shipping their pelts off to a distant unknown land and then building wooden houses and forts all over lower Mannahatta, well then, you’d think they had a totemic relationship to a great big beaver ancestor dude in the netherworld and that the more beaver they consumed, the more beaver power they assimilated. Actually, early Dutch and later, English traders and businessmen the likes of Astor hogged so much beaver the animal went extinct in much of the area.
And now, for those of you itching about the etymology for the slang usage for beaver, I looked this up online:

“Gynecological sense ("female genitals, especially with a display of pubic hair") is 1927 British slang, transferred from earlier meaning "a bearded man" (1910), from the appearance of split beaver pelts.”

If you look back at our history, we never stopped building. Even the Great Depression got us making more crap, then after the War, consuming more and more, converting more and more natural resources into throw-away human capital. New York has been our economic engine room ever since. We are responsible. First we transformed the region, then the country, now our tentacles reach out and wrap around the entire planet. We can’t stop. Even when we have the two front teeth of our all-consuming man-beaver empire removed, we grow a bigger tooth back. And then we cry freedom. When perhaps, we should be, in this city that never sleeps, reverting to the 5 hour workday, a workday replete with multiple breaks and pauses back within the safety of our digs. Let’s be like real beavers for a change. New Yorkers, chill out.
I find it mildly ironic that the real McCoy has now, this past year, returned to New York City for the first time in centuries. José, a male beaver swam into town from up north and staked out some of the Bronx River –the part the flows within the Bronx zoo – for himself. He was named José after Congressman José E. Serrano (D-Bronx) who, according to the papers, “has helped secure $14.5 million in federal grants for the Bronx River's restoration over the past five years. A quote from congressman Serrano: "I've always felt that what's good for the environment is also good for the Bronx and its citizens."
I wish Jose’s return had hit the front pages with a slam-dunk, more specifically and effectively by embodying the message this animal is truly capable of carrying, from the standpoint of its biology, its ecology, its behavior, one of joyous lethargy and sloth, of transformation, of creativity. Beaverhood could signify a new value system, a new paradigm, the realization for us absurdly frenetic humans that “growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of a cancer cell” (to take, once again, from Abbey), and that the built-in logic of industrial capitalism and work for the sake of work (and greed) is to devour the world inside out; in thermodynamic terms, like having an infinite system try to sustain itself within a finite biosphere. Can’t work, won’t happen. We work too much for stuff we don’t even need – to be happy. We are the new meteor, the new extinction. Worse. We are committing suicide, buckling at the knees, collapsing under the weight of our own gluttony. We take everything down with us. Anticipate total ecocide. Expect that we will no longer be able to write, as Abbey did: “this is the most beautiful place on Earth.”
Unless, of course, we leave it to Beaver to slap us in the face.

Howl with the Earth,

Chapter 13: Dirt Day, 2007

In praise of the bogsucker – and other free radicals.

A male woodcock, on migration. Injured, downtown Manhattan. Image © Dave Marshall

“The Earth’s green cover with the few inches of soil which holds the rain and makes plant growth possible is the most important factor in our ultimate survival.” - Walter Clark

Nature can show up anywhere. In the heart of our city, as we now know, in the country too, but also every morning in the mirror, or in my case, within the immediacy and intimacy of my young family. Our first son Manny, adopted at birth, just turned 7 months today and he’s at that age (or so we’re discovering with Val) when, in addition to nonstop babbling and smiling and drooling and waving his arms incessantly while delivering salvos of raspberries, likes to yank on his penis and grab his scrotum. Oh boy. Soon we’ll be teaching him all about the marrow of life and how to suck it out. Things like, how the word orchid really originates from the Greek word for testicle. Or how vanilla and vagina share the same etymology. Or how two snails make a foursome (they’re hermaphrodites) and that they copulate upside down and their penis grows out of their head. Then there’s the symbolic value of the male organ, say, in the case of the trouser-toting matriarchal hyena who dons a pseudo-penis (actually, an enlargement of the clitoris – from the Greek kleiein, meaning ‘to shut’ as in ‘key’), not to mention the deep-sea angler fish, a species in which the male atrophies to his own sexual parts and then spends the rest of his life living within the female reproductive duct. So much for the world’s smallest dick head; I can hear you asking already, but dude, who has the largest? Well, it has recently been discovered that in proportion to body size, the biggest male appendage belongs to a species of South-American duck, the Argentine Blue-bill (Oxyura vittata). Apparently the sperm-competition is so intense in this species of ‘stiff-tailed duck’ (I’m not making this up) that males use their body-long schlong not only to deliver on their promise but also to scrub out their predecessors’ jizz (also an unfortunate but popular word among British birders, meaning ‘gestalt’ as in “oh, I identified the Long-tailed Tit by its jizz”).
One bird who carries a definite gestalt in our neck of the woods is the American Woodcock, a.k.a. Bogsucker – so called in certain States for its habit of sticking its long bill deep into muddy soils in search of yummy earthworms. Accordingly, the bird is brownish and sort of looks like leaf-litter (for camouflage) because it spends most of its life on the ground, facing the earth beneath it. How does it see incoming predators? Easy: the ears are located in front of the eyes, meaning the bird can see out the back of its head, meaning it has total peripheral, 360 vision and can see you coming. It also has the heart-stopping habit of flushing at the last second. The anatomical feat of having its ears in front of its eyes is enabled by an even quirkier accomplishment of adaptive radiation (the bird is technically a ‘shorebird’): it’s brain is upside down. Did I mention that the woodcock is also round and plump and holds the world’s record for slowest flying bird, so as to maneuver between the densely packed saplings in the second growth it likes to live in, without constantly slamming into trees? Yes, there are times in life when I wish I had all the attributes of the bogsucker, including its habit of feasting on the adjective-defying earthworm.
A quick digression on the latter. In our culture, the worm – from the Old English wyrm, meaning dragon or serpent - is loathed, feared even, basically ‘ew’d’ at; worse, we use it as bait for what we really want, sacrificing it on the alter of modern-day hunter-gathering. Why the revulsion? Maybe because worms in general symbolize death, for their habit of 1) living underground and 2) decomposing dead things, or should I say, recomposing them, making them available to plants, to Life. Hah! Maybe that’s why we dislike them: because they’re too powerful! Perhaps, on a more psychoanalytical note, worms are reviled because they’re flesh colored and extendable but also gooey and covered in dirt - as potentially pineal a symbol as they are simultaneously scatological, a combination unbearable for the anal puritan and capitalist control-freak alike. Now try imagining, be it for one revolting second, a culture where worms are celebrated, adored, totemized even, to the point of being eaten, for their ‘purity’. I know such a people. Consider the Ye’kuana people in the Venezuelan Amazon (with whom I’ve lived and worked). For them, the earthworm is a delicacy. The Earthworm is sacred. It’s also a meter-long, jumbo-sized pack of protein in their neck of the woods and it is the favored food for young kids, as pure and boneless a source of ‘blood’ and ‘meat’ as you can find in the rainforest. No spine attached, no body parts. Infection free, i.e.: in their world view, devil-free. Accordingly, the Ye’kuana believe that only old people who have passed the trials of time can eat ‘animals with bones’ without risking intoxication or ‘dis-ease’* from the spirit world. In the rainy season especially, women and children hunt for the giant earthworms within the muddy banks of rivers and streams and eat them live or boiled in a stew. Not surprisingly, they also celebrate a bird, the Green Ibis, for its habit of eating earthworms (like a giant version of our north American bogsucker). The Ye’kuana have a yearly ritual named after it, the ‘Corocoro Madi’. It is a dry season festival for completing the village round house. A house made of mud, mud crafted from a pit in the earth, where dirt and clay is mixed with water, kneaded by the whole community, with their bodies, as they stomp and splash around with their bear feet, their hands, smothered head–to-toe in mud. Mud, home of the earthworm, made into a home for people, the ‘So’to’. From underworld to überworld, death into life, thanks to life-forms the likes of a worm. Closet biologists take note: the worm also marks the transition to modernity in evolutionary terms, to complexity; it harks all thing arthropod and vertebrate. It is more closely related to us than to the jellyfish or the coral reef. Earthworm, caviar and crux of our terrestrial family tree.
In New York City, the worm-eating Bogsucker can be found in any borough on migration and in three during mating season. It has a field day in the Big Apple because, like the robin, it can feast on one of urban ecology’s first signs of dysfunctional soils: massive amounts of earthworms without much topsoil to live in. Fast food for birds. Overpopulating monocultures of earthworms. In Central park and all other Parks – European earthworms, to be precise, brought over with potted plants; just remember how all the northeast used to be smothered by glaciers so earthworms did not survive and have since been introduced, along with smallpox, progress and the industrial revolution by the white guy. Don’t believe me? Go to Central Park, bend over and notice how the leaf litter is non-existent (because it’s raked). Notice then how the topsoil is quasi-absent. Notice too the superabundance of worms. Now, were we to let the leaves decompose, let the worms do their jobs of recomposing ‘dead’ stuff into ‘life’, there would be more topsoil and less worms. How to? New York City takes great pride for having just calculated the economic services (price tag) bestowed unto us by our urban trees, claiming that for each dollar we invest in one, the benevolent old geezer gives us 5 dollars back (in clean air, shade, etc…).
Okay, now that we finally have an all-American, half-decent reason to save our trees for their market value and invest in more of them, how say the Apple put a value on its dead leaves, too? Only one problem: when you let Money talk, it can get to talking too loudly in polite society, saying the wrong thing to the wrong people: if New Yorkers understand the ‘yooge’ value of dead leaves then we’d have to leave them there, on the ground, let them wilt into the earth, die and de-, and recompose in peace, instead of raking them up each fall. Imagine that!, the Greensward of Central Park littered with leaf-litter. Ouch. Not going to happen. How could a society who 1) grows lawns just so they can mow them and 2) denies death its intrinsic value, possibly learn to value rotting things like brown decaying leaves, let alone assign a dollar value to them? First, understand that neither trees nor leaves are objects. Let alone consumer goods. They are part of a process. They are the process, in fact; a soil-making process, a life-making process, along with the earth worm, the rabbit and the dandelion. Communities of beings that make soil that then makes more communities, which in turn means more trees, more worms, more rabbits. Value that! I’m drifting, dreaming. In this country, if you want to let leaves fall where they may, first you’d have to get everybody to reconsider their use and definition of the word ‘dirt’, teach them to revere it (it and other nasties, like ‘rot’ or ‘decay’), as well as change the cultural status of the earthworm, soil, dandelions even. In other words, Americans would have to reconsider their relationship to death in its entirety, learn to see it as a potentially fruitful thing here on earth. We’d also have to see ourselves not only at the top, but at the bottom, too, of the food chain, instead of consistently locking death up in a coffin – and a flag, as if it was beyond us. Only then might we have a chance at changing the world at our feet. More to the chase: a society who truly values life wouldn’t even need to put a price tag on death. And vice-versa.
Ultimately (am I still dreaming?), the US of A would have to stop gloating over symptoms and find the roots of its problems, too, and accept so-called radical ideas as intelligent and ethical ones. But speaking of radical (as in root), all of this would require digging, n’est-ce pas? Probing. Re-immersing ourselves in the underworld, the land of the dead, the land of our past, emerging with filth beneath the fingernails of our raw, parched hands.
Back to my woodcocks. The bird nests in various locations in the Bronx, Staten Island and Queens. In Pelham Bay Park in particular you can hear and see the males display in the evening, beginning in March and lasting through April. They start by flying out into their ‘lekking’ ground (from the Finnish word for play), a meadow or clearing in the woods (or a golf course if they have to) where the males compete for female attention. Which involves the following: a bird will hang out on the ground at dusk and make a call that bird books describe as ‘beent’. I prefer the image of an egghead with a very bad cold trying to say the name ‘Pete’. Then quite suddenly, the bogsucker take to the air and flies skyward in spirals, while making his wings twitter, to a couple of hundred feet, then returns slowly twittering (this time with his beak), then lands, then starts to say ‘Pete’ again. Etc. For the female woodcock, quite the knee-weakening spectacle.
The problem with lekking is the following. It usually occurs in bird species where the male has ‘lost’ the war of the sexes. As in all species, females have to invest in eggs and young and that’s expensive. You need a good return on your investment. A good male. The best male. The best genes. In the case of the woodcock, males have had their wings twisted, as it were, into performing this ridiculous routine every night in spring. So the females have the luxury of choosing between competing dorks. Some bird species have it worse, like this other cock, the Cock-of-the-rock, a non-migratory rainforest resident of south America who spends its entire life in these big, all-male disco-like arena setups in the understory dancing their hearts out every time some finicky female shows up. Turns out there’s usually one jock alpha who appropriates most copulations and some birds apparently are left out their whole life. Never chosen. They continue to dance nonetheless (hope, the thing with feathers!). But they never get laid. Zippo offspring.
I don’t think male bogsuckers ever have it that bad – minus one caveat. In the Bronx, one of their lekking grounds is wedged between a giant parking lot, a public beach, a NYPD firing range and located just under the approach to LaGuardia Airport. I’ve been there in late March, with my pal and NYC parks biology dude Dave Kunstler. The woodcocks were spiraling skyward into a low hanging sagging mess of clouds lit up all pink from beneath by urban light pollution as giant, roaring airplane lights descended through the whole thing like something out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The birds’ aerial displays were both invisible and inaudible to any potential on-looking females. Urban bird species like mockingbirds and thrushes can solve the noise pollution problem; they modulate their songs in urban environments, play around with frequencies and send them bouncing over the surrounding wall of white noise, but that’s because their songs are learned, and can be perfected over a life-time. A woodcock on the other hand comes with a genetically, hard-wired repertoire and so these unfortunate Bronx birds don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of being heard. Luckily, LaGuardia shifts its approach around, so some nights, I hope, these woodcocks have an attentive (albeit toffee-nosed) audience of exigent female bogsuckers.
A word about Dave Kunstler. He first brought me to this odious mating ground in the Bronx a few years ago. We spent a few days in the field together, between Van Cortlandt and Pelham Bay Parks. Dave grew up on Long Island. He’s humble. Careful. He’s a naturalist, not a consumer. Sort of embodies the Thoreau idea of integrity, although, unlike the latter, does not return once a month to his Mom’s place have his laundry done. He also sports a classy ‘stache and has sort of a tick where he twitches it, mostly for punctuation, for emphasis. He also likes to uproot (or dig out) invasive plants. He has no other recourse. He works for the NYC Parks Department. He can’t stop world trade. He can’t close the ports and airports of New York through which these castaways hitch a ride into the Americas. So he sacrifices the odd Garlic Mustard, the Japanese Knotweed. They have uncouth tricks whereby they take over entire ecosystems, killing out all other plants. If they’re growing in the midst of a Bronx wildflower meadow he’s been trying to restore fro ten years in Pelham Bay or Van Cortlandt, Dave hastens to yank out the unwanted wort (old word for plant, in English, monophyletic with the word ‘root’, as in liverwort).
Many times when we’d be in the field together, I’d be bending down to identify some Violet or Rue and this arm would appear over my shoulder and with one terse snap of a stem, de-earth a living creature in front of me. I’d turn around: there would be stolid Dave, profiled against the NY sky like out of some spaghetti western, with a twitch of the old ‘stache. Onward we’d proceed, thru the woods of which he is the steward, the caretaker. The lover. He showed me the Spring Peepers and Wood Frogs he’d reintroduced in diminutive ponds near the Park’s Golf courses. In Africa, men fight over elephants and big game. In Yellowstone over wolves. In New York city, characters like Kunstler fight for frogs the size of a finger nail, over rare species of mint that grow in last bastions of fragmented urban Dystopia, surrounded by moats of cement and impervious cover, protected – God forbid- from the onslaught of this thing called wilderness.
Dave showed me the birdhouses he’d put up for swallows and Bluebirds that rim one of the Park’s golf courses. He had his 15 minutes a few years back when the NY times featured the return of the bluebird to NYC, the first breeding pair in years, the state bird of the Empire State no less, that he had ushered back into the Bronx on a red carpet of bird boxes. The bluebirds accepted. They nested. They have not returned since. Bluebirds, bogsuckers and wildflowers. Dave Kunstler, in a nutshell. Not to mention his love for butterflies, for dragonflies. On our first meeting I asked him where is family was from:
“the Name Kunstler have any particular meaning?” I queried.
“My grandfather won a prize in a competition, one of the prizes was a new name, Kunstler, means ‘artist’.”
Used to be the main difference between an ecosystem and a work of art was that the latter could not reproduce, whereas as an ecosystem can. Today, fragmented habitat cannot achieve any sort of perennial status without the intervention of an artist the likes of Kunstler. Or Don Riepe. Or Dave Burg. Or Mike Klemens. Or Mike Fellar.
These are my friends, my community, my ‘men’ – I won’t use the word hero because the cemeteries are full of them. These grassroots New York nature dudes (now that I have left the city), have helped me in my exodus to Vermont. They left me with a legacy of what to do. City or country, same fight: dig. Get grounded. Root cause or bust. Be the change you want to see in the world. What do I do up here? I take the word ‘root’ quite literally, I seek it everywhere, in my language, my psyche, our history, but most of all now, starting with our own food, the one I’ve decide to grow, so I too can root myself
and my family into this ground I tread upon, to reassert my ecology at every level of its calling. It’s my first step towards self-sufficiency – and the new number 40 on Confucius’s 39 steps of escape, the number 1 of which is flight, remember. Because self-sufficiency, when you think about it, is sort of like starting a family. Unlike self-indulging and the protracted teenage life of the contemporary male (and some females), it requires taking care of everything on whom your survival depends. The compost you make, the soil you help replenish, the plants you care for and that eventually take care of you. Being self-sufficient means no longer being the only important guy in the room. Come to think of it, it’s sort of like adoption (from the Latin Adoptare, to choose, to wish).
Another thing with self-sufficiency (that distinguishes it from provincialism and chauvinism and isolationism and racism) is that it imagines and creates a world where everyone is equally important – just like in an ecosystem, just like in the goal of democracy. A world not just for the elders. Not just for the youngsters, either. A life, and hopefully one day an entire human population, decentralized to the point of no longer obeying to one centralized ego – or projection thereof. Funny enough Darwin sort of nailed it a century and a half ago, a feat all the more ethically mature considering his time and the fact that his own theory could have led him into the Hobbesian pits of ‘reciprocal altruism’:

“As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the mean of all nations and races.”

You heard the man, time to adopt the world around us.
Now I make bird houses, too, like Dave Kunstler. I make (from the Indo European Mag, meaning to knead, since the first houses were made of mud, duh) mine with scrap wood I found in my barn attic, because I wouldn’t want to make them from Indonesian hardwood like they have on sale at the ‘local’ Sticks and Stuff. Remember, in today’s Wal-Mart world there is nothing more radical than making your own stuff. Also because the first object you make changes your relationship to all ‘objects’ in general, because when you start to make things with your own time, everywhere things start to have a subject attached. A dimension. A name. A life. You can no longer enter a store and take a carrot or a shirt for granted. Time and context become present, too. Call it color, taste, touch, smell. I call it reality. Because without subject, object becomes abstract. Object no longer real.
I’m removing invasive plants, too, like this giant and stubborn patch of Japanese Knotweed up the road from where I now live.
I also have a lekking ground for bogsuckers nearby – minus the air traffic. I hear them blurt out the odd “Pete’ every night at dusk.
Most of all, I’m into plants. Gardening. Germinating. Tilling. Hoeing. Raking. Composting. Dirt! Ah, life’s sweet brown medium, the essence of autopoiesis - one man’s dump is another guy’s food. Side note, a question really: when we water the earth, our minds sing ‘fertility!’. Then why is it that when we throw dirt in the water our culture screams ‘disease!’. Funny things, these cultural constructs of ours. Seems are minds are the real mud in town. Scientists are now learning (sic!) that muck is good for our kids; that getting dirty can improve the regulation of your serotonin levels, thus helping to prevent depression and that exposure to dirt can also help boost a child’s developing immune system, versus staying indoors with chemical cleaning acids and breeding asthma along with allergies while developing cancer.
Do we not come from the earth?
Our aversion to filth, where is it from? A left over from living in pestilent, cholera-living cities? Is it adaptive? An evolutionary by-product? Likewise, our craving to restore an earthly paradise, a functional, locally grown, organic garden of ‘eatin, be we American environmentalists or evangelicals – is this evolution at work? Will gardener’s inherit the earth? Should it be ‘the survival of the filthiest’ – as in a gardener’s fingernails? Of the greenest thumb? According to some of today’s top-notch ecologists like Lester Brown or William Rees, it’s not that we have to or should – it’s because, when you do the math, we have no choice. There is no decent arable land left. We have to save what little is left, restore what’s gone, and make more at home. Consider the community gardens of New York City. Night Soil. Adam Purple. Bricks and Central Park Horse manure.
Used to be I spent my life looking over the fence, the ocean, looking for Eden in places like the Amazon, in somebody else’s back yard. No more (I ended up in New York). No, today, perhaps because of -or should I say thanks to - New York City, every day on earth, wherever I am, has sort of turned into a kind of ‘Dirt day’, a day for grounding, in praise of gravity, and all things Telluric, especially back home, here in the Green Mountains, in Vermont, perhaps because here we call spring ‘mud season’ and so lately I have been snorting too much of the stuff. The other day, Val and I actually made some dirt. We crafted some starter soil for legions of baby plants by mixing in some peat and local nitrogen-rich soil and some cow manure compost and we spent days kneading a ton of this stuff together with our bare hands in the cellar. Cow shit and top soil. The odd earth worm gently let back outside. Dragons, dirt and manure.
Manure, from the French main d’oeuvre, meaning to work with one’s hands, to mix in some of the old bovine bull’. Again, why the bad rap? Is all manual work and/or labor synonymous with shit? Remember agriculture 12000 years ago had more to do with the centralization of power than with food, guys with power in one corner and a lot of losers with sore backs and bad knees working the fields in the other. If you were low cast, a peasant, not even chosen by God, if you were poor, as in dirt poor (vs. filthy rich?), then it meant you had to work the fields, feed the rest of humanity, get dirt under your nails. And vice-versa. You were a bottom feeder, at the bottom of the food chain. Scum. We used to be a land of farmers. Should I take it we were a land of losers? No. Now we are an empire of consumers. Real shysters. Want homeland security? Then restore or take care of the topsoil beneath us. Don’t let BigAg take out what little is left. Set up a compost in your kitchen, invite some worms in to help with the job (the game!), start a dry-toilet, grow your own potatoes and tomatoes and corn, and carve out your own knife, fork and spoon, too.
I choose not between right or wrong, I chose between life and death, earth and sky. Enough with the heavens already. Paradise is beneath us. Around us. Consider this: good topsoil is organic material that the cold months of winter won’t let decompose and recompose and recycle immediately into something else, like in a tropical rainforest, where no humus has time to accumulate. It accumulates north and south of the equator. At the equator, no winter, no delay in recycling, no soil. Get it? Thus, intensive monoculture (and the empires that accompany it) are deeply rooted in nature’s cycles – including long cold winters, and their propensity to ‘make’ soil, the very dirt our same agriculture has successfully depleted. Now, reconsider climate change and the end of cold months and what will happen to temperate topsoil. Topsoil no longer. Civilization?
Today, every morning I wake up, and after watching my son gleefully manipulate his own genitals and stuff some wooden toy into his mouth, I take five, and go into the woods and pretend I can see plants growing. Think about it, take a tree for example, isn’t it supposed to sink with its own weight, respond to gravity? Nope. Life on earth is inherently pneumatic. It is outward bound. Expanding. It achieves this by creating porosity and interstitial space and volume and surface area like no other force in the universe. A square inch of rich, nutrient rich top soil is bubbling with a gazillion bacteria and equally humungous potential for surface area, for water retention and gaseous exchange. Imagine what happens when it fills with roots - more absorption value still. A few square miles of saltmarsh peat on the coast can stop a hurricane surge. A forest (and its soil) is the world best dam. Think of life as a cake in the oven doped on yeast. The mother of all sponges.
After my spin in the woods watching the Trillium and the Trout lily start to grow, I work my way downstairs into the basement of our Cabin where I have a whole crowd of thirsty seedlings of broccoli and onion and basil and stuff in the boiler room. Wailing for my attention. Val and I have also converted half of our living space into a ‘greenhouse’ – just for the effect. My own contribution to the ‘war on climate change’. My pumpkin plants and tomatoes are doing fine (for a guy without a green thumb, but a green heart). And by the way, my son’s nickname is Pumpkin. Go figure. A shrink might clear his throat and suggest I have still to resolve my fertility issues if I’m so busy growing my own seed alongside my adopted son.
Points of view. Retain many, opposite if possible, and still function. I say we cultivate cognitive dissonance. Inner discord. Your own private democracy. If somebody says you’re contradicting yourself, say “ good”, that you prefer it that way. Like eyesight, two different views come from two different eyeballs, not one is correct but together they somehow give you perspective.
So this is what I’ll share with Manny (i.e.: my point of view), one day, if indeed we get there, apart from the aforementioned sexual literacy. Enough of looking skyward, already, I’ll say, you’re not a freakin tourist, be grounded, face the earth, swim in the stuff, because every day is dirt day, this dirt from which we all grew out of – as in ‘out of this world’, yes, we’re out of this world, Manny, we did not come into it, we came out of it. Know that.
Just don’t yank too hard on your orchid, and show great respect for vanilla.

With love,

Pete, the wannabe Bogsucker.

Ps: Phallus shares the same Indo-European root as Bull and Whale.

* Thanks, Selena, for letting me steal this brilliant spelling from you.

Chapter 12: Watershed or Waterworld?

Redefining the life aquatic.

In New York City, esthetically mesmerizing Hooded Mergansers grace the waters of Central Park every fall, winter and spring. They also serve as a quaint metaphor for human behavior in our glossy yet fierce, urban environment - as in “duck-paddling”, the habit of sharing a calm and tranquil exterior, when in fact we’re kicking like crazy just to stay afloat. The Suitors, Hooded Mergansers, Central Park NYC © Alan Messer.

“It is a tragedy that we in our western culture have been conditioned by our religion stories to believe that we are fallen sinners incapable of goodness and unworthy of salvation except by divine grace."
- David Korten

“The major problems of our time... are all different facets of one single crisis, which is essentially a crisis of perception.” - Fritjof Capra

A point of similarity: days in the Amazon can be just like days in Manhattan in August, they’re hot and sticky and miserable. You sweat a lot, you dehydrate, except in the Jungle you don’t breathe in carcinogens you just collect sandfly bites the size of pancakes - no need for nose rings here, arthropods will take care of the personal aesthetic.
In both places, the lay of the land is largely a product of water. The jungle is defined by flooded forests and horrendous rainfall. Likewise, the New York landscape, its bridges even, are a gift, directly or indirectly so, of compound aquatic forces. The city’s islands, moraines, sandpits, beaches…all molded in the past and present tense by rivers and waves and riptides and their frozen alter ego of prehistory, the glacier. Water, water everywhere. Not just the 100% humidity and the drip from the dying air-conditioner in the corner of the room or the scorching steam that travels around underground and surges up to heat our apartments in winter. No, our topography, too. As well as our history. Why was New York City founded here, like, in New York City? Because there’s water right here and lots of it, making it a nice place to live, and because the harbor (read ‘enclosed pool of water connecting river inland to Atlantic ocean”) was spacious and calm enough to park a lot of trading boats in the 17th century. Remember, we didn’t have trucks back then. Nor FedEx. Just Iron men and wooden ships. The good ol’ days.
Then there’s our drinking water, our bath water. Come kitchen or clean-up time, where do you think it comes from? In the city you swing open a tap and out flows a steady gurgle of H2O straight from the Cascades or the Delaware or the Croton watershed. Watershed? In our case, a huge chunk of upstate land, 2000 square miles of empty space to be precise, poke-a-dotted with collecting dams and reservoirs, with no one living in it, set aside for the needs and requirements of a relatively small slice of real-estate with 9 million human sardines living on it, who together consume 1,3 billion gallons of water a day. Take out the watershed, no shower. No infrastructure. No New York even.
Today, thanks to 300 miles of tunnels and aqueducts and 6,000 miles of distribution mains, we have good H2O.
We also have gravity, in our case, an extremely influential and ecologically and financially correct bonus. Water pours down to NYC from the Catskills. No electricity is needed to get it here, which saves a lot of cash and a lot of pollution. Yep, we are geographically well endowed (notice, too, how the minute you act with the environment you become sustainable). Experts add that our water is the champagne of tap waters, as well, thanks to the forests of Upstate New York, giant bio-engineered water filters.
I beg to
differ: H2O doesn’t come from Upstate New York, it just lands there, after circulating the globe via the atmosphere. So what if it’s full of mercury and cadmium from coal-powered power plants in the Midwest? Today American drinking water contains traces of everything from caffeine to vitamin C to the Pill to antibiotics to endocrine disruptors and some if not all of the 80 000 compounds we have invented and/or released into the world around us. “Our” watershed means you drink all of that, too. The whole system has been permeated. Water just helps transport the stuff, ship it door to door. True, we live in a world of mass distribution.
If, on the other hand, you’re living in the Venezuelan Amazon, say with the Ye’kuana people, as I did and continue to do so, once a year, there is no shower. Nor faucet. Just a river. A very big and powerful river. Now, you can either bathe in the river with the villagers at dusk, refresh and cleanse and reboot as a collective, and fetch your drinking water with a bucket right next to the soapy kid swimming in the water in front of you, or go it alone, after dark, when a thick canvas of a billions stars come out and the cane toads rev up their engines and the jaguars step gently on leaves that go crack in the night and you lay there, on your back, floating in the brown water of the Ventuari, as the village falls asleep, silhouettes of dark jungle trees around you, like the sides of a cradle, and look straight out into the all-encompassing totality of space-time above you. No drugs needed. I usually go it alone.
Isaias, the 75 year old headman, knows it. He knows of the romantic, frontier fantasies of westerners. All that crap about the noble savage. The quest for paradise and innocence and immortality. Guys like me and you. He wasn’t at all surprised last year when I told him that the US had recently declared ownership of space, for example. He, the descendant of a long line of shamans and chiefs of Carib descent, of oral tradition, has lived among us, the ‘Yaranave’, conducted his own anthropology, and taken note of all our idiosyncrasies and neuroses and all the guns and germs and steel that our writing societies have fathered on their way to heaven. He once lived and worked and married in Caracas ( i.e. civilization), for decades, before returning home to his people to grow his own food and go swimming in his own drinking and cooking water, his own river. So when he sees me at dusk about to walk down to the river’s edge, he repeats the same joke, every night: “Don’t forget to turn the tap off, or we’ll run out of water, ha-ha-ha!”
Seems I’ll have to carry the old man’s petrified face and toothless, face-splitting grin reiterating the same friendly cue to my grave. I have always smiled politely in response, and in time, it seems this bad joke of his has become prophecy, reminding me suddenly of that sappy song from the seventies about some loser who ‘started a joke that started the whole world crying’. Planet earth is running out of water. Someone, it seems, forget to turn off the tap.
Now, when I’m in New York, once a day at least I walk to the water’s edge (harbor, riverside, oceanfront, sink or toilet bowl) and contemplate the tragic and the comic in the fate of H2O. On a rainy day, all I need is to look at my window sill, which always reminds me of what Albert Camus once wrote about a trip to Manhattan, that if you stand downtown, on a narrow street like Wall Street, on a soggy day, it’s like you were standing at the bottom of a well. How could we possibly be running out of water? The fact is there’s still plenty around in the world today, expect it’s spent and polluted. We have oceans full of mercury, lakes full of sulfur, nitrous oxide and acid rain and rivers full of PCB’s and streams full of battery acid and glaciers and snow banks that no longer deliver drinking water to billions of people worldwide because they are disappearing or have disappeared. More atmospheric carbon means more melting means more evaporation means quicker and faster storms means less interglacial quiescence in which to frolic. Whether or not its been this hot before on planet earth is irrelevant, we weren’t around to suffer the consequences. Today, symptoms of aquatic decay include 1) aquifers worldwide are depleted or are being depleted, 2) two dams continue to be built every day on earth and so much water is being diverted in the process for lawns, industry and corn syrup and soon ethanol for cars that most of the planet’s major rivers no longer reach the sea, including the Rio Grande, the Colorado, and most rivers in China; the Yukon is toxic and the Mississippi is so full of shit that the Gulf of Mexico is dying of anoxia. The revolution has been industrialized, indeed. 60 000 acres of wetland (read earth’s water filters) are lost every year, to progress. But when mainstreamers (no pun intended) the likes of National Geographic talk about water scarcity, they hint instead at the effects of overpopulation (mostly brown people like Isaias in the third world) as a menace to the worlds’ remaining drinking and agricultural water. The same mainstream fails to remind us that western Industry is as bloodthirsty for water as it is for oil, if not more. Nowadays, machines dictate that we need water to make everything, including more machines. Examples might include the 2072 gallons of water needed to make four new tires for your car; 25 gallons of water to grow and process one ear of corn; 1300 gallons of water for one hamburger; 44 gallons of water to refine one gallon of crude oil. Worse perhaps, the sick irony of bottled water: 6.74 times more water needed, on average, than in the bottle itself. Take a bottle of Fiji (just don’t buy it). It consumes even more, a total of 26.88 kilograms of water, one liter of oil and emits 562 grams of Greenhouse Gases.
We’ve installed too many taps. Too many pipes and drainages connecting water to too many trivial processes in the workaday world. Take bread, something as simple as bread, the icon of organized agriculture, of wheat and fire, of western civilizations and empire. Say, a simple loaf of wonderbread, some 5,000 years in the making, a project initiated in the killing fields of Mesopotamia, by violent agricultural City States the likes of Babylon, then continued by Rome, then the empires of Europe, then in the Mid-west, with the Dust bowl, then by the Green Revolution and now, full circle, straight back to where it all started, that ravaged land of oases nestled between the Tigris and the Euphrates, Iraq. Why the connection? To import a ton of wheat is to import a thousand tons of water, is to import 10 times as much in oil. Therein lies the hidden foreign policy of wonderbread. Am I oversimplifying? Yes. The culprit is not mechanized, fuel-based and water-depleting agriculture. Nor is it extraction wars for fossil fuel or the strategic and economic control thereof. It is all of the above. It is all of us. Not only is our ecology as a species at fault, but our ecology as a thinking, speaking and story-telling species. In other words, it is also the stories we live by that are to blame, the myths we adhere to, the narratives we act out.
Take, for example, the idea that the past 5000 years of civilization have been an inherently good thing. Well, when you do the math, the cost in war, poverty, genocide and environmental destruction has far outweighed the technological benefits of say, inventing the television, radio or the atom bomb. Or the suburban middle class. Or cheese cake and cheap oil. Admitting this is tough, exactly like dealing with issues of denial, except it’s worse, because it requires that we think and act and heal at a societal level. It demands that we rethink the way we see and organize ourselves as a species, the way we relate to each other, race to race, culture to culture, class to class. The way we relate to the rest of the planet, too, including the 70% of H2O within us. It suggests not only that we finally accept responsibility for the decay and entropy around us, but that we see it for what it is: a direct result of the hierarchal power systems and heavily industrialized, mechanized and weaponized pyramidal societies we build (1st the churches, then the nation-states, state communism, now the neoliberal hegemony of transnational companies) - all versions of empire built on segregation and exploitation, of other people, of the environment. All versions of one initial, monotheistic script, the story of dominion –our belief therein, our acceptance thereof.

For now, we play it safe. We are like children. We buffer reality with conventional one-liners, truisms, pieties, sound-bites, delusions and reflexes. Air-bags. We believe what the teacher taught us. Or what the founding fathers said. In the constitution. The Law. Without question. In good versus evil. In villains and heroes. In Fairy tales. And what the specialists advance. What Oprah says. Without flinching. Not to mention the books we swear by, and the shows we saw, our fundamental ideologies.

Take something as trustworthy as ‘saving the world’: it’s a hero myth; we expect us or someone or a new president or any great leader dude (Bono?) to show up and rescue us like a knight rescues a damsel in distress. The same applies to our steadfast belief in agriculture and its envelope, development; we tend to believe that if we rework nature, make it fit the machine, if we “improve” the lives of the animals and savages that inhabit it, that our tide will lift all boats - Katrina style?

Do-gooder organizations? The conscience of the conqueror. The peace-corps? No comment. My work with the Ye'kuana? Guess.

If you actually read the historical literature, the one written by the losers, development creates misery and organized agriculture, since its inception, destroys the land and the health of the people who ‘work’ it. All in all, the blind rule that humans can improve nature, or change the world by assuming power over it, is an aging and sick paradigm bloated with contradiction.

O Socrates, where the hell art thou?
Since what I’m saying here sounds a little unconventional, best I provide more evidence. Let’s start by taking a harder look at our immutable belief in progress. In this country at least, it plays out as a self-destructive gloating over perfection, fitness, achievement and success. Our unending struggle for greatness, for bigness, for largesse. For consumer satisfaction - and in the god-given right to instant gratification. Look at our lust for idealized beauty, our cult of number 1, our slobbering over eternal youth, over fame; our compulsion for good-looking superheroes, superstars, saviors. These are the day-to-day symptoms, the surface acne of a deeper and tacitly shared belief in a higher, overriding purpose. In
ironclad values and immutable dogmas. The “one right way”. Always out of reach, yet somehow attainable. Things like virtue, purity. Wealth. Sustainability, even. Whose, exactly?
Notice how willingly and quickly we submit to
great expansionist causes, how we’re wooed by the rhetoric; things like liberty, our way of life, the American dream (just that, a dream), the home team, the mother company, my side of the aisle, universalism even. My country, right or wrong. Again, without flinching. Why the messianic impulse? The need to convert? The urge to save? It’s that kind of arrogance (or is it desperation?) that got us in this mess in the first place.
If we look carefully, we see that exceptionalism has a necessary corollary, faith in the afterlife - at the expense of this one. And in eternal growth, at the expense of the planet. Keyword: immortality. Collateral: self-hatred. For David Korten, author of the Great Turning, “It is a tragedy that we in our western culture have been conditioned by our religion stories to believe that we are fallen sinners incapable of goodness and unworthy of salvation except by divine grace…” Likewise, we have been conditioned by advertising to believe that we are worthless except by purchasing the latest thing. The product is our savior. At least until the next new item. Remember eternal growth’s prerequisite – eternal, throwaway consumption, i.e.: wealth as waste and affluence as the power to create more of it. Forever, like, in Heaven. Wealth as disparity, too, because disparity is a primordial given, and competition is healthy, and health achieved through competition. Because what’s good for the individual, be it at the expense of the other, is good for society. Notice the contradiction.

These stories are couched in violence and aggression and denial because violence and aggression and denial have become the tacitly accepted method and rules of engagement by which these goals are realized (or so we think). We take violence (and football) for granted; not only the violence perpetrated on our neighbors, foreigners, adversaries (the losing team), but the violence we inflict on ourselves. Notice our glorification of sacrifice. Our cycles of guilt and redemption. Notice, too, how self-loathing and self-righteousness go hand-in-hand: together they compose a self-reinforcing, runaway phenomenon. A feed-back loop. No matter how hard we try, we will never be good enough. So we reach out for more, because more will never be enough. Our arrogance grows stronger, in turn reinforcing our capacity for self-flagellation, and resentment, and ultimately, the resentment of others. It is a sad irony that we should punish each other in public, when it is most often for our own secret shortcomings, our own shameful impulses, that we put the world on trial (look who’s talking, here). Then we punish ourselves in private. Within the secrecy of our heads, or our relationships, our family, by ‘taking it out’ on the ‘other’. Psychologists say we’re nuts. Determinists believe we have it in our genes. Political pundits claim it is our destiny. They all reiterate and reinforce the same biblical fatalism, our common narrative of original sin.

I say we love to play victim.

Additional symptoms include our celebration of treadmills (notice how our work-out machines line up in gyms like machines on an assembly line), our Stakhanovite commitment to hard work; followed by hours of mindless entertainment, because apathy and ignorance and stupidity are phenomenal rewards, because indifference is divine. Maybe we’re fueled by the belief that one day, we too might be the master, the king, the person of property, he who floats above the fray. The head of the plantation, the head of the network. God, he who transcends the world- and all its futile knowledge. If we work hard enough, if we don’t stop to think. If we suffer long enough, if we dream hard enough. If we’re nasty enough. Because life is cruel, and unfair, and nature red in tooth and claw and business as usual is a wondrous combat sport. Don’t know how to pee? Get off the pot!

If we smile enough, too. Because smiling is the ultimate expression of submission. Be nice – it means you agree. But stay competitive, it means you play by the rules. In California they call it duck-paddling; all calm on the surface, frantic legwork below. Worse than a double standard perhaps, a double bind, a cultural straightjacket - if we are thus divided within ourselves, does it mean we have been conquered?

Anthropologists and neurobiologists claim we don’t have much of a choice; ours is a Hobbesian state of nature. We’re ass holes. Chimps, not bonobos. I see a great Orwellian sadness in this die-hard conviction, especially engrained in us gringos, that human beings have no existence rights, no chance at salvation, other than by struggle, gain and conquest. I live by pain, therefore I am.

The aforementioned beliefs are our real addictions, not oil, because these are the stories that drive us to oil in the first place. They must be exposed. They move us to dam rivers in the name of salvation, quite literally, in the name of glory or entitlement or voluntary ignorance or submission to a higher power (same thing) - and we ask ourselves to believe that that is okay!? Yes, to buy a big car or a new cell phone is okay, whatever the consequences, be it the poisoning of rivers in China where they’re made, because China has been deregulated, because we’re worth it, as is our happiness. Our personal comfort. Our wellness. We claim it’s the American dream, or see it as freedom, the freedom to possibly, finally, do what the fuck we want, be it at the expense of community, of the environment. Of planet Earth. Who cares? We have the rapture, End time, the Apocalypse – give or take 70 odd virgins. Call it fundamentalism. Call it meritocracy, narcissism, kleptocracy, call it psycho. Give me historic reasons, excuses. Regardless. We have an attitude and it leads us straight to war for peace. To the idea of moral equivalence. To an eye for an eye. To self-contradiction, to democracy by death, if we have to.

Take something seemingly benign. Seemingly good. Carbon offsets. I.e.: the acquired right to pollute and thereby undermine the existence of others, given the economic means, the wealth of some nations to trade in pollution as if it were a mere commodity; worse, to usurp the wealth of entire countries with the help of the WTO, the World Bank and the IMF on the same premise. Because we deserved it. Worked for it. Beat them to it. Had better genes. Don’t agree? Ready to protest? Want something back? We’ll bomb you. Arrest you. Forget you. Remember, violence and annihilation are our first recourse to solving problems and differences, perhaps because deep down we nurture this morbid conviction that things can only exist by catharsis, by necessary sacrifice – such apparently is the noble trajectory of man, to die for a bloody cause. Maybe the atom bomb made the whole world expendable, and the rest of us feeling truly hopeless. In any event, we continue to operate and co-author a culture of death and disaster. Of nihilism. Who wrote this script? Humans did. More interestingly perhaps, humans can rewrite it.

These belief systems have the uncanny ability to change our physical reality. Even our cosmic one. Our drooling over technology, our trust in positivism, in finalism, our boasting of the world's current 45 000 dams, most of which are needed to grow exponential amounts of wheat or rice or corn, or electricity, and land grotesque amounts of wealth in the hands of the few…They’ve shifted so much weight we have slightly altered the speed of the earth's rotation, the tilt of its axis, and the shape of its gravitational field. There’s the history we write, too, one egregious, violent act at a time.
At a more local level, look again at our metropolitan Watershed. It is not entirely for free. It carries a monetary and social cost. Watershed is land and land is money and so the city needs to buy lots of Upstate real-estate to secure its own water supply. Translation: New York needs to prevent upstate communities from developing (from doing what they want). Result: our clean water breeds resentment elsewhere. It is a simple law of physics, the First law of thermodynamics to be precise, that what goes around comes around. Expect blowback. Minor acts of terrorism. Stories are legend of guys Upstate who dump or take dumps into the watershed’s many streams, with a “Drink that New Yorkers! Here’s for your 15 minute showers!”.
Therein lies one aspect of the reality of our ecological deficit and the policy shadow of our city and its effect on the lives of others. Our water. Yet it’s only one small aspect of our shadow, given that the majority of our carrying capacity (food and energy sheds) we export to the entire planet. We measure it as an ecological footprint, the sum of all land and water surfaces needed to feed the beast. The lives that we ultimately displace. The deregulation needed to get things on the cheap. Trust me, we are indebted. Deep in the red. Not only are globalized Free trade and financial free flow (of which NYC is the capital) outrageously expensive in real economic terms, one day (soon?) we will be handed the bill. It is a sad law of ecology that all hegemons collapse. Bacteria is just the exception that confirms the rule.
Collapse or rewrite?
I recently heard Dr. Paul Mankiewicz, who runs the New York Gaia institute, lecture to a class of CUNY students on the future of urban ecology. The question of self-sufficiency arose. Could New York city proper, its 300 square miles of largely impervious cover generate its own water and maybe one day even its own food supply without impacting the lives of others or those of its own citizens? Paul made some simple, ecological observations. There was enough porosity under the city form leftover glacial till to store months, if not years, worth of water supply from rain or storm water. Greenroofs could not only help grow our food but absorb and retain excess storm water, thereby helping to prevent flooding in the streets and sewage overflows. Real, restored soil replete with soil’s inherent sponge-like property for water absorption, be it on a roof or in our parks and our streets, more trees planted, say a mere 1200 foot row could capture 6 inches of rain water; or 4500 thousand gallons, the equivalent of a 10 year storm. Not only would this cool the city through simple evaporation and reduce air-conditioning to a near nil, it would quench our thirst and clean our bodies with one stone. Idem regarding our waste water, Paul says we should use what we have, because its cheaper too, actually it would save the city 18 million dollars a day: 1.5 acres of ribbed mussels in modified marshland would suffice to filter out the 100 million gallons of grey water produced by the city every day. Gratis. The list went on. Nugget after nugget. My favorite example was that New York city could generate enough water to grow a temperate rainforest. Imagine the fruit!
Naturally, the question came from one students as to why we weren’t applying this knowledge? Paul said that the challenge ultimately was to fully re-insinuate ourselves into the energy flows and nutrient cycles of ecosystems, which required admitting that the web of life and its processes can do things better than we can; that “maybe we should have faith in them.”
Faith? Evolutionary psychologists today advance that religiosity has been selected for in our species. Or that it is an evolutionary side-effect, a spandrel of the brain. If indeed we are inescapably religious (for now), then I offer the following ten commandments of ecological literacy . 1) Nature outperforms industry, 2) Nature needs no improvement, 3) Earth is paradise, 4) emulate her, 5) respect her, 6) recycle, 7) waste equals food, 8) ecosystems do not distribute, 9) truly productive and functional ecological life is a highly localized, place-based phenomenon, therefore 10), sustainability does not fly first class, nor economy for that matter. It stays in place.
For authors and actors interested in rewriting our collective narrative, head the following advice: bicycles and sail boats allowed.
First, learn or relearn those stories that we have right in front of us. At our feet, at the tip of our hands. In our water. Consider, once again, the story of H2O. Forgive me, the stories of H2O. Never has an element been so simple and yet so deceivingly complex in its infinity of appearances, and possible ecological outcomes. Most of the water on planet earth, the blue planet, 97.2% of it in fact, slurps around in the oceans (which also explains why we can’t really drink it), not one ocean, but millions of variations on the same theme. Much less (only 0.9%) is found in groundwater, a mere 0.02% in freshwater lakes, inland seas, and rivers and finally, a puny 0.001% is atmospheric water vapor at any given time. Remember last summer’s colossal rain storms? Nada. Insignificant. Most importantly, none of this water sits ‘anywhere’ specifically (except the stuff temporarily locked up at the poles and in glaciers). It’s always on the move, rising, falling, running, flooding, yesterday in the Pacific, today in a lake, tomorrow in your urine. Next year somewhere in France, say in a bottle of Perrier.
It comes as no surprise then to witness the rich and powerful symbolism of water in earth’s diversity of cultures, that of conveyor belt between life and death, of transcendence, of Axis mundi. For the mystic and philosopher and shaman alike, water is a universal harbinger of origin and source and identity and directionality and name (we’ll get back to that).
For the poet, too, water is an obvious reflecting pool for existential mood (remember Camus), or for anyone’s projections of death or sex or both, for that matter. Take the waters of New York City, the broth of Flushing Lake, the translucent stream in the north end of Van Cortlandt Park, the coffee-colored Bronx river, the cocoa colored waters of Eib’s Pond, on Staten Island. To paraphrase my buddy John Waldman, Professor of biology at Queens college and angler supreme, it used to be the City turned its back on H2O. Manhattanites forgot they were on an island, it’s as if Brooklynites forgot they lived by the sea. Now we look outward, we embrace our own water. There is a world out there, after all. 911 improved our vision. People started buying books, reading about the world around them.
(The human species possesses 3 psychological tools that we use abusively: agent detection, causal reasoning, and theory of mind. All three dictate that we need an explanation for everything. No matter what. Feeling attacked? Depressed? Hated? Scared of death? We command ourselves to find out why. For those less easily charmed by rhetoric and Hubris, “They hate us because of our freedoms” became “Yeah, well why do they hate us for our freedom?”).
what you may. Water can be a wonderful mirror. It can be transparent - and therefore shallow, as predictable as a politician; or it can be deep, and blue, and secretive, promising even, as it roils beneath the waves, contorted, ready to pounce. It can also turn green, the likes of stale pea soup, a eutrophic gumbo that reeks of heart disease, bad food, lung mucus and entropy. Some days, water is just plain gray, offering no more than a lonely reflection of you, the one who is searching. Are you paying attention?
To the nerd-ass physicist, water is quirky. Fun. A quasi anomaly. It is theoretically a gas, yet on earth it is primordially liquid, due to its polarity which makes its molecules stick together like pins to a magnet. Its physical and chemical properties enable it to climb vertical walls, float a duck, or a battle ship, or dissolve entire compounds. It can rise as vapor, fall as rain, walk and cover the earth as one glacier, float on itself in the form of a solid (ice) or melt away and swallow us all.
How often do we overlook the obvious, the omnipotence of something as simple as water?
Why, for example, is there so much of it, at least originally? Water is all over the universe because its constituents, namely Hydrogen and Oxygen, are all over the universe. Hydrogen and Oxygen, the fresh produce of stars, of billions and billions of atom-building stars, billions and billions of cosmic water farms! Water delivered to earth, it is believed, by comets, not just big ones that come crashing down intermittently, but smaller ones too, cosmic snow balls as they’re called, raining down day and night on this planet’s atmosphere for the past 4 billion years.
And what does water do when it gets here? For one, it stays here, which in itself is not so obvious a feat. Our planet is just big enough to hold water; any smaller and our gravitational pull would be too weak, our oceans and lakes and rivers would eventually piss away into the cosmos. But since it’s here to stay, water regulates the climate, too: it cools the surface of the earth by the mind-boggling simplicity of evaporation, enough so that life can happen. Kudos to H2o. Without it, the ground beneath us would overheat and fry to a crisp. Remember, we are only the 3rd rock form the sun.
Water is a life-saver, yes. Not only to the cosmologist, physicist and to the ecologist, to the farmer, too. In fact, it’s important to all of us if we chose not to deny it. For reminders, try a day’s hike in the desert or a day at the gym without Gatorade. Or the simple, paradigm-shifting factoid that us humans are also a part of earth’s metabolism, that we are in the environment, of the environment, that Homo sapiens (are you really ready for this?) is a component of earth’s HYDROLIC cycle. Water flows through us, the same as it does through plants, animals, soil and sky, rivers and streams. There is no escaping it. We drink it, we absorb it through our food, then we evacuate it, we sweat it. It evaporates out of us. Think about it, we help make clouds every day. And French Perrier too, remember!
In fact, it is because water is restless and mobile and transcendental and transnational that we are alive at all. Try looking at it this way: we don’t carry water, it carries us, supporting us as it streams through us, stopping only to exert its life-inflating and life-generating qualities. H2O is a central and essential component of the metabolic processes common to all of us, you, me, the polar bear, the desert rat and the rainforest. By removing water, cells make big molecules (anabolism). By adding water, cells carve out smaller ones (catabolism). Without water ripping through us, we wouldn’t function. We wouldn’t grow. We wouldn’t run. Come to think of it, we say WE are 70% water, when in fact 70% of us is always on the move, to be shed, only to be renewed. Hence the sink. Hence the toilet boil. Call it turnover. I call it soul. Water, like solar energy and things like nitrogen and phosphorus, is what animates us and the world from which we emerge. Allow me to infer the existence of water, the liquid God. Like electricity through a bulb. Ding! A common spirit for all biological life, one psyche shared by all. The breath of water.
Thus defined, it appears water is not so much a thing as it is a process, a process connecting every nook and cranny of the biosphere. To answer Vandana Shiva, I believe water to be more than a global commons, I see it as a global common denominator. Imagine a multi-directional support beam. A fluid one, more like a worldwide, all-encompassing and all-penetrating liquid rhizome. The mother of all matrices. Thus the philosophical and ecological absurdity, not to mention the ethical deficiency, of trying to enclose it, own it, privatize it, sell it. Again, by which stories do we chose to live? To privatize water, let alone patent life, is to want to enclose, own, privatize, sell the right to connect to the global lifeblood, and ultimately, the right to live. Owning the existence rights of others. Hmm. I believe we had a war in this country regarding such a theme. I believe a man was shot in this country for upholding the opposite, some 40 years ago. I believe a book entitled Silent Spring was written on the same subject, the subject of the civil right to life; for all life, the right to life.
How far since? Today, water is the single most traded commodity in the world. Before coffee and oil.
Feeling thirsty? Ready for a shower? Try ontogeny soup: water is the simple stew in which, and from which, we were all made. As simple as H2O. Think about it: we are all ocean water, reshuffled. In fact, we still carry the ocean, in our eyeballs, our wombs, our sperm (in fact, to carry the ocean with us, within us, was the prerequisite for ocean life’s adventure onto land). So do not be alarmed that we are blind to our own fate, that our fertility and sperm counts are falling. We have contaminated and emptied the oceans, remember, and that includes the seas that roil within us. As cynical politicians might venture to joke: “we have destroyed our base”.
Water has been with us since earth’s inception. The story of water and life per se starts 4.6 billion years ago, in the world’s primordial seas. How? First, learn to think differently, I mean, systemically, holistically. Before the first species came the first ecology, the first possibility of habitat. This, taken from Biophysicist Harold Morowitz:
“Sustained life is a property of an ecological system rather than a single organism or a species. Traditional biology tends to concentrate attention on individual organisms rather than on the biological continuum The origin of life was thus looked for as a unique event in which an organism arises from the surrounding milieu…
Again, the “stories” we tell ourselves. To look for a single event says more about how we project our own organizational template and culture of vertical power on reality; how we place the individual over community, God over people, heaven over earth, reason over emotion, man over woman. Stop me! Genetic determinism and Newtonian-type physics and linear thinking over the sheer complexity and patterns of probability and uncertainty that shape the universe and the circular causality inherent in life’s capacity for self-creation, for autopoiesis.
Morowitz continues:
"A more ecologically balanced point of view (on the origin of life) would examine the proto-ecological cycles and subsequent chemical systems that must have developed and flourished while objects resembling organisms appeared.”
The chicken ? Or the Egg? Or the possibility of a connection between the two?
Enter the membrane, theorizes Morowitz, a porous ring of oily droplets in earth’s primordial seas, an initial attempt at the semi- permeable integument, the first “layer” to define an outside, and an inside, to separate the ocean without, from a the womb within. Think of it as a house, an Oikos, a roof under which to foment life’s first network of biochemical interconnections, its first proto-genetic and epigenetic processes, the original organizational structure of life, embodying cell-like energy flows and material cycles that communicated, via this semi-porous membrane, with the outdoors, the environment, the world.
Then came self-renewal. Self-transcendence. At one point, theorizes Morowitz, this first proto-cell cloned itself, passing on its entire metabolism.

Isn’t Morowitz still thinking in single events? Not exactly. Here, it is not life’s first ‘DNA’ that started the show (as in object), but life’s primordial network (of relationships), contained in this oceanic proto-habitat, this primordial community of being, this inside world of an aquatic cell. From it, we ultimately all descend, via microbe, via the multi-cellular, via the arthropod, the amphibian, the ichthyosaur. Today we all share the same basic and ancestral biochemical processes, unchanged for the past 4.6 billion years, in the seas as it is on land; the same building and un-building of constituent molecules, the same atomic and molecular exchanges. You, me, the giraffe, the zebra fish, one big happy Family, strung together like pearls in one biological, space-time continuum. We are the environment. There can be no distinction. I repeat: we share the same matter, the same energy, the same water. Not only are our molecules -including our water molecules - part of previous – and future – organisms, so too are the basic principles of organization that we share with the rest of the biosphere, from slime mold to Donald Trump (alas). As humans, our concepts and metaphors and language, even, are embodied in the experience of evolution, in life’s incremental accrual of complexity and cognition. We owe it to our environment, all of it water-based. All of it here, on a blue planet. Some say we are embedded in the web of life. I say we are swimming in it.

Think about it next time you take that shower. Or slip in the bath tub. Or wash the dishes. Or swim in a tropical river, by yourself, after dark. When we bathe, baptize, ablute, submerge or resource (from the Latin resurgere, to rise again), we are doing just that, going back to the source, then rising a new, rebooting, living a virtual renaissance, a rebirth, each skinny-dip a reenactment of our “delivery” and evolution from water. Every pore and cell in our body knows that, because every pore and cell in our body is that. Renewal. Like any earthly organism, we are defined by self-replication; as our cells break down and build structures, our tissues and organs replace our cells in continual cycles. Cycles couched in water. Anabolism and catabolism. When we bathe we immerse ourselves in the medium from which we all emerge and metabolize. Think of it as a home-coming. Followed by a new departure. Just remember to turn off the tap.

Besos con agua,