I used to play in the orange grovesTill they bulldozed all the treesThen I’d stand among those dead stumpsAnd smell the blossoms on the breeze…— Dave Alvin, “Dry River”*
I don’t know why I like to drive ’em like I do
You know it ain’t nothin’ but
A hundred and seventy-five thousand pounds of steel
Could be the money, babe, could be the power
Could be I love the way it feels, could be I love the way it feels
— Guy Clark, “Heavy Metal”**
Our house sits on an acre of land in a forested subdivision about four miles west of Sisters, Oregon. Most of it must be drainfield, because it grows a dense jungle of long, thick-bladed grass. I’m talking grass up to my waist — and I stand 6′4″; grass that grows like it’s on steroids. A couple of times a year, I get after it with a gas-powered weed-whacker and about a mile of line. I hate every second of that chore. Essayist Paul Kingsnorth would probably tell me I would find the work much more congenial if I deployed a good scythe, sweeping the grass down in artful windrows in a personal, connected manner as old as agriculture. I admire Kingsnorth and enjoy his writing a great deal, but I’m unpersuaded.
Far from fantasizing about heroic medieval simplicity, my imagination strays to the sinister eastern tones of Robbie Krieger’s guitar and the whomp-whom-whomp of helicopter gunship rotors. All I want to see is that jungle of grass going up in the hellish orange explosion of a napalm strike.
That would, indeed, smell like victory.
I recently re-read Kingsnorth’s essay Dark Ecology. The Englishman is working in the same territory we are here at Running Iron Report — trying to find a path to a satisfying, meaningful way of life in the face of a great unraveling of environment and culture.
Kingsnorth neatly encapsulates the “progress trap” that has us locked in its jaws — fabulously wealthy yet feeling deeply impoverished.
“…progress is a ratchet, every turn forcing us more tightly into the gears of a machine we were forced to create to solve the problems created by progress. It is far too late to think about dismantling this machine in a rational manner—and in any case who wants to? We can’t deny that it brings benefits to us, even as it chokes us and our world by degrees. Those benefits are what keep us largely quiet and uncomplaining as the machine rolls on…”
He is deeply — and I think rightly — suspicious of “greens” who believe we can bioengineer our way out of the looming crisis of extinction and climate change.
“What does the near future look like? I’d put my bets on a strange and unworldly combination of ongoing collapse, which will continue to fragment both nature and culture, and a new wave of techno-green ‘solutions’ being unveiled in a doomed attempt to prevent it. I don’t believe now that anything can break this cycle, barring some kind of reset: the kind that we have seen many times before in human history. Some kind of fall back down to a lower level of civilizational complexity. Something like the storm that is now visibly brewing all around us.
“If you don’t like any of this, but you know you can’t stop it, where does it leave you? The answer is that it leaves you with an obligation to be honest about where you are in history’s great cycle, and what you have the power to do and what you don’t. If you think you can magic us out of the progress trap with new ideas or new technologies, you are wasting your time. If you think that the usual “campaigning” behavior is going to work today where it didn’t work yesterday, you will be wasting your time. If you think the machine can be reformed, tamed, or defanged, you will be wasting your time. If you draw up a great big plan for a better world based on science and rational argument, you will be wasting your time. If you try to live in the past, you will be wasting your time. If you romanticize hunting and gathering or send bombs to computer store owners, you will be wasting your time.
“And so I ask myself: what, at this moment in history, would not be a waste of my time?”
That’s the fundamental question, isn’t it? It’s the one we wrestle with at RIR. You can read Kingsnorth’s five tentative answers in the essay — I’ll shorthand them here:
• Withdrawing from the fray.
• Preserving nonhuman life.
• Getting your hands dirty.
• Insisting that nature has a value beyond utility.
• Building refuges.
RIR is aligned with all of these tenets. And yet I cannot join Kingsnorth in his personal retreat. I don’t WANT to. Kingsnorth is enamored of a kind of medievalism; his “sweet spot” is in a pre-modern era, in a hayfield with a scythe. And, though he explicitly scorns living in the past, that is obviously the past he seeks to make present.
It’s not mine. For one thing, my brother got the entire DNA set on the whole lawn & garden care thing. He actually enjoys planning and executing a project that makes things look nice and orderly. Me, I’ve always been like the 18th Century Kentucky frontiersman Simon Kenton: Turn your back and I’ll drop the hoe and run for the hills. I’m the guy that never wants to mow the lawn. I like the idea of reverting to medieval level technology out there in the fields, but RIR is about what we do, not about what looks good on the page. A pre-industrial Shire ain’t my natural habitat.
My tradition hit its apogee squarely in the middle of the Industrial Revolution, which created the technological society and growth economy whose contradictions have packed our bags for us and sent us straight into “the storm that is visibly brewing around us.” And it all resonates in me at a deep, primal level. I love the baked pine needle scent of the forest on a summer day — and I also love the hot, wet, greasy stench of a steam train engine.
Rullman said it best in a conversation a few days ago:
“You love the bulldozer AND the tree.”
There are things you can’t unwind. I live in the personal and historical shadow of the particular “progress trap” I call the Frontiersman’s Paradox — the simultaneous love of the wild and the urge to tame it. The tree and the bulldozer. The great American scout and Rhodesian pioneer Frederick Russell Burnham expressed it thus:
“It is the constructive side of frontier life that most appeals to me, the building up of a country. When the place is finally settled I don’t seem to enjoy it very long.”
Sisters, Oregon, where the Running Iron Report is headquartered, illustrates the paradox perfectly. My wife and I came here in 1993 to live in the woods. I edit the local paper and I co-founded a music festival that brings thousands of people to town each September. This is good and satisfying work, but it contributed to Sisters being “discovered.”
Now there’s a great music scene — and traffic is heavy even on weekdays, and the Forest Service is going to launch a permit system for wilderness areas that are being loved to death by hordes of people, a lot of whom think of the wilderness as a playground and have little regard for it other than the amusement it can provide them.
Same shit I left behind in California a quarter-century ago. When I was in my 20s, you could decide on a whim to go climb Mt. Whitney. Now you have to get a permit and might have to wait a long time for an experience that features far too many people to be worthwhile.
I have participated in, contributed to, the same cycle the great A.B. Guthrie sang of in The Big Sky:
“…a band of men, the fur-hunters, killed the life they loved and killed it with a thoughtless prodigality perhaps unmatched.”
And we can’t just pull up stakes and move because the streams are trapped out or we see the smoke of a too-near neighbor’s cabin. Where are we gonna go? Jackson Hole? Hah! Jackson Hole which those prodigal fur hunters found in its primal state, is a rich man’s playground. It’s what Sisters and Bend is fixin’ to become.
I helped in a small way to create this fix, but I can’t do a damn thing, even in a small way, to change it, and it can’t be rolled back short of an economic crash. So…
What, at this moment in history, would not be a waste of my time?
I have no portentous manifesto to offer. I can’t say I’m really all that interested in a simpler way of life — not in the sense that Kingsnorth means anyway. Maybe a simple life in the style of that feisty gentleman Gus McRae , cuz he had it right all along…
“The only healthy way to live life is to learn to like all the little everyday things, like a sip of good whiskey in the evening, a soft bed, a glass of buttermilk, or a feisty gentleman like myself.”
None of that is a waste of time, nor is any of the other shenanigans Gus got up to. It takes a fair amount of what folks call “mindfulness” to stay focused on those everyday things, but there, grasshopper, lies the path of serenity. Still, no matter how mindful a life I lead, I know I’ll never look out on that acre of jungle without hearing gunship rotors and imagining the whiff of napalm in the morning.