The Importance of PLACE, and a “Sense of Place”

Jon Quitslund

T. S. Eliot, the ‘old possum,’ was being ironic and provocative when he called April “the cruellest month,” but that remark, along with Chaucer’s accolades to April in the opening lines of his Canterbury Tales, must have something to do with the designation of April as National Poetry Month.

In the spirit of this time of year (for me a time of return and renewal, of discovery and new beginnings), I’ve composed a review of a fine book of poems: Jorie Graham’s Place; New Poems (New York: HarperCollins / Ecco, 2012).  I’ve had my eye out for this book since I first saw it reviewed almost a year ago, and a few days ago I happened upon a copy at Powell’s Books in Portland.

I know from experience that contemporary poetry is of interest to a good number of people here on Bainbridge.  In my book group, for example, we set aside dreary nonfiction for a month and devote a long summer day to a ‘retreat’ at the home of Marie and John Marrs on Lake Sutherland.  Each member of the group reads one or two poems, sometimes of their own composition.

In addition to our meeting at the lake, this year’s readings, all addressing the theme of ‘Sense of Place,’ will include a small, seminal volume of poems, Gary Snyder’s Turtle Island, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975.  (It’s a prescient, even a prophetic book, more true and beautiful today than when it was first published.)

Jorie Graham has her own Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, awarded in 1996 for The Dream of the Unified Field.  Her excellence has been recognized with many other prizes and awards.  As a poet she is not as accessible as Billy Collins, or Wendell Berry or Mary Oliver.  She’s ‘brainy,’ and ambitious; she has a distinctive voice, and it’s unpredictable, always pushing against the limits of language and form.  I think she’s brilliant, and not with the common brilliance of a self-absorbed mind or a dazzling vocabulary.

Graham’s poems aren’t short, and they don’t lend themselves to quick appreciation or tweet-length quotation.  They are meant to be lived with, visited time and again.  The stretched-out sentences, lightly punctuated and spread on the page in sequences of long and short lines, make startling moves like birds or fish: they develop a narrative, then drop back in time, move to another place, or stop with an arresting image.

The first sentence in “The Bird on My Railing” goes like this: “From the still wet iron of my fire escape’s top railing a truth is making this instant on our clock open with a taut unchirping unbreaking note – a perfectly released vowel traveling the high branches across the way, between us and the others, in their apartments, and fog lifting for sun before evaporation begins.”

On the page, that sinuous quicksilver sentence, loaded with images but weightless in its movement out and upward from a bedroom window, is distributed through fourteen lines.  Some contain only a few syllables (“From” and “my fire,” for example); others (“lifting for sun before evaporation”) are like several steps in an intricate dance.

The next sentence changes the pace and the focus: “Someone is born somewhere now.”  And the poem expands, over several pages, into a delicate meditation on mortality, and the disembodied song of “the breath-bird / free to / rise away into the young day and / not be—“

So what, or where, is the place to which Jorie Graham directs our attention?  It varies from poem to poem, and within each poem.  Ms. Graham doesn’t write, as Wendell Berry does, out of a sense of ownership or ‘membership’ in a certain locale.  She’s a traveler, her eye is restless, her mind captures things as they happen and are gone.

Several poems are set in specific places.  The first, “Sundown,” occurs on Omaha beach in Normandy, on a specific date, June 5, 2009, which another reviewer noted is an anniversary of the day before the D-Day landings.  The line where waves meet the sand is “a place where no one / again is suddenly / killed”; rather, it’s the scene of a casual, momentary encounter, as a man on a galloping horse comes from behind the poet and passes her with a smile, leaving her with a heightened awareness of herself, “putting her feet down / one at a time / on the earth.”

Another poem, “Treadmill,” involves a bleak and generic setting: “The road keeps accepting us. It wants us to learn ‘nowhere,’ its shiny / emptiness, its smile of wide days.”  This road, I think, is the nightmare traveled in Cormac McCarthy’s best-known novel, and Graham’s poem is a passionate protest against all the forces in our distressed culture and a degraded environment that herd us together toward a dance with death.

If this review piques your interest, you may want to learn more about Jorie Graham and the convictions that motivate her imaginative writing.  Visit her personal website, which contains links to interviews and reviews of her work.  I strongly recommend the interview with Sharon Blackie in the online journal EarthLines, published in August 2012 (www.joriegraham.com/earthlines-interview).

In her exchanges with Sharon Blackie, Ms. Graham offers deep insights on the subject of ‘ecopoetry,’ having been asked, “How do you feel about the term? Do you think it really does represent new possibilities in poetry, or is it just another term for what we used to call ‘nature poetry’?”

From the discussion it becomes clear that there’s a movement, among poets and their readers, worthy of the label ‘ecopoetry,’ and Jorie Graham is among its most passionate and intelligent participants.  It’s a movement of conscience, committed to awakening and empowering imagination, in cultural and environmental conditions that endanger its survival – our survival.

“We really need to imagine the as-yet-unimaginable racing towards us, in order to have a prayer of survival. And right now, the imagination, on that front, shuts down into denial. It has grown weak, and we have a generation or two of humans who cannot see, or feel trust or desire, beyond the world their screen provides.”  Poetry as subtle and ambitious as Graham’s turns us toward the larger world, and the ‘real work’ we have to do in it.

Early in the interview, Graham mentions Richard Louv’s book, The Last Child in the Woods, and its account of ‘nature-deficit disorder.’  It struck a deep chord with me when she said that it’s no longer common for children to play outdoors until nightfall – something I remember fondly from my childhood here, through seasons of short days and long.

“What neurologists call ‘unstructured outdoor play’ – hide-and-seek, catch – all the play that moves towards dusk, which activates a more ancient part of the brain, a different memory storage and retrieval, a capacity for imagination, intuition and empathy – has almost disappeared from our world.”

So ‘place,’ and an emotion-laden ‘sense of place,’ are not ready-made but hidden, and must be sought out.  The obscurities of hinted meaning and the difficult, fractured sentences of Jorie Graham’s poems serve a purpose: they invite us into a “play that moves towards dusk.”

It’s no accident that the first poem in Place is “Sundown.”  And the collection ends with two poems, specific in time and place.  “Lapse,” set in Iowa City, 1983, in the evening at the summer solstice, is addressed to her daughter (Emily, to whom the book is dedicated), then nine months old.  It’s a retrospective stream of consciousness as, for the first time, she puts her baby in the bucket of a swing set, pushing it higher and higher.

The last poem, “Message from Armagh Cathedral 2011,” also moves towards dusk.  It carries a double message.  As a tourist, the poet’s attention is focused on a Bronze Age stone carving displayed in a corner of the cathedral, thought to represent the legendary Irish king Nuadha, who lost his arm in battle and, no longer ‘whole in body,’ was forced to quit his kingship.  Then, fitted with a new arm made of silver, he replaced the bad king who had succeeded him.  (Google ‘Tandragee man’ for an arresting image of the king, holding his prosthetic arm in place.)

The poet’s responses to this “piece of / stone, large as an infant, / hundreds of / pounds,” are interrupted by awareness of a wedding rehearsal nearby in the nave of the church, and again by thoughts of many limbs lost, and the borders of nations redrawn, in modern wars: violence and loss, no other future.  But the poem ends with an exchange between the poet and the bride-to-be: “May your wishes / come true I say, / guidebook in hand. Tomorrow, she says. I can’t wait until tomorrow.”

Posted in Books, Creativity, Cultural Change, Environment, Reviews | Tagged | 1 Comment

Stewardship and Regulations

Jon Quitslund

                                                      The land was ours before we were the land’s.

She was our land more than a hundred years

Before we were her people.

– Robert Frost, ‘The Gift Outright’

We are near the end of the tedious road leading to an updated Shoreline Management Program – a complicated regulatory regime governing new and existing development of properties all along our island community’s interface with Puget Sound.

If the management of development (‘uses’ and ‘structures’ in municipal code language) were all that the SMP had to deal with, it would be a tall order, but there is more: the omnibus ordinance also deals with the public’s interest in visual and physical access to the waters surrounding us, and with a host of environmental concerns and natural processes that may be impacted by development.

As the City Council completes its review of the draft SMP, some of my thoughts turn upon stewardship.  When you come to think about it, stewardship is, ultimately, what land use regulations are all about.  And in a place such as ours, stewardship – a caretaking attitude toward our place in Puget Sound – is  a large part of citizenship.

The attitude I’m concerned with here isn’t applicable only to our surroundings – the land, waters, air, vegetation and wildlife that nobody owns.  As I see it, we are stewards of our private property too, especially in the many parts of the Island where property lines are indistinct.

Ideally, stewardship is the spirit animating the body of land use ordinances, but in practice, regulatory language often obfuscates its own purposes, and since human nature tends to resist regulation, even believers in good government may end up wondering “What’s the use?”  A generous exercise of imagination is called for if, as a community, we are pro-actively committed to stewardship of our natural resources and the sense of place that is so much a part of our local culture.

Everything pertaining to the common good depends, crucially, on a multitude of individual actions, some of them habitual and some the result of deliberate choices, effort, and the investment of time and money.  Our community is blessed with great wealth in the natural resources that surround us, but only a fraction of those resources are publicly owned.  The beauty and health of our community, for present-day and future generations, depends in large measure on the attitudes and actions of people on their own property.

Fortunately, our local culture favors stewardship rather than selfish and reckless behavior, and most of us see that our own interests are best served by caring for our private property, preserving its value over the long term in a way that serves the public interest.

Still, regulations are necessary, and they need to be revisited from time to time in an open and thorough public process: if they are vague, out of date, inconsistent, or unenforceable, we have no solid basis for community values. Smart and well-intentioned people may do dumb things, and only a few of us are consistently careful of our impacts on all the things of the world that don’t belong to us.  In addition, we all need some protection from the mischief made by knaves and fools.

Who likes regulations?  Don’t we tend to think that it’s other people — ‘those people’ — who need them, not ourselves?  I consider myself law-abiding, but I still resist any nannying voice that tells me, “You must do this – you mustn’t do that!”  Such an attitude is childish, though: I can’t see myself arguing against a regulatory policy as an illegitimate imposition on my freedom or my property.

There’s some tension between stewardship and regulations, but no basic conflict.  One has to know the letter of the law in order to be true to its spirit.  The good steward cares for his or her own property, and perhaps works as a volunteer on public projects, doing the right thing out of love, not because it’s required.  The whole point is not to evade regulations but to go beyond what they require.

As I have tried in this essay to articulate my personal views, believing that they are aligned with basic community values, I have been acutely aware that a fair number of Islanders will vehemently disagree – if not with what I’ve said, then with where I seem to be heading.  This makes me hesitant to speak my mind, but I’ve made my peace with differences of opinion: I wouldn’t be happy in a community where disagreements are hushed up and nonconformists aren’t welcome.

The long process of updating our Shoreline Management Program has accomplished a lot, but it has also stirred up dissatisfaction, deepening divisions that I suppose are inevitable in our diverse and clannish community.  It’s been clear for some time that many owners of shoreline properties are unhappy with several provisions in the new SMP.

I don’t find fault with shoreline property owners as a group: they are not all of one mind, and most of them, I believe, understand as well as anyone else that they are stewards in a tenuous boundary zone, where private property interests must be protected but do not trump local and state interests in protection of the nearshore environment.

I must also say that I find myself at odds with the self-appointed leaders of an organized group of property owners: from the beginning of the SMP update process, they have conducted a stubborn, high-pitched, and sometimes devious campaign of protest, playing on fears and prejudice, ignoring evidence and arguments contrary to their views, misrepresenting the intent of regulations, and condemning decision-makers who disagreed with them.

Bringing this to an end, I’ll quote from a letter that I sent to members of the City Council earlier this month, after a 4 to 3 vote on the contentious issue of ‘nonconforming’ status.

“I want to emphasize that I respect the opinions and the actions of the three Council members who were in the minority in the recent vote, and in other previous votes.  Close votes reflect real divisions in our community, and the difficult choices that have to be made in spite of differences of opinion.

“I hope that in the discussions that remain before final action on the SMP update, one or more members of the Council will point out to the dissatisfied shoreline property owners that many changes were made in the draft SMP to accommodate their rights and their concerns.

“During the Planning Commission’s many meetings devoted to the SMP, property owners’ interests were protected and strenuously advocated, not by citizens alone but within the P C itself, and many changes were made.  Still, the party line is that the Council should fix the wrongs that were done by the Planning Commission.

“Maybe there will be more 4 to 3 votes before the Council completes its work on the SMP.  At the end, however, I fervently hope that the Council will vote unanimously to endorse the whole document, in spite of its inevitable imperfections and what may be deep dissatisfaction with this or that provision. 

“In my view, the final vote will not have as much to do with the ordinance itself, as with the process to which so many people, in their various capacities, have contributed.  As messy and unsatisfying as it may be at times, the process of self-governance here is open and fair, and deserves our long-suffering support.”

 

Posted in Community, Environment, Finite Natural Resources, Place, Property Rights, Shoreline Management Program, Shorelines, Stewardship | Leave a comment

Our National Defense: Sustainable?

Jon Quitslund

While I ate a simple breakfast and drank my coffee yesterday morning, I read an article by Jill Lepore in the New Yorker for January 28: “The Force.”  My breakfast went down easily enough, but the article was unsettling, and I haven’t been able to let go of the emotions it stirred up.

A subheading describes Lepore’s subject with a question: “How much military is enough?”  As we enter protracted negotiations over deficit reduction and the federal budget, the question could not be more timely.  Considering the amount of human effort and sacrifice that goes into our military establishment, and the money and other resources committed to its maintenance while other priorities are given short shrift, the question – just how much military is enough? – should concern us all.

“The United States spends more on defense than all the other nations of the world combined. Between 1998 and 2011, military spending doubled, reaching more than seven hundred billion dollars a year.”  Jill Lepore is a professor of history at Harvard, and she puts these figures in a perspective that reaches back to the early years of our republic, when the presence of a ‘standing army’ in peacetime was regarded as tyranny: instead, a ‘well regulated militia’ was to be desired.

The two World Wars and the long, amorphous Cold War (leading, of course, to hot wars in Korea and Vietnam) transformed Americans’ thinking about the necessity of a military establishment, and transformed our economy as well, with many adverse consequences.

I have had no experience of military service, nor did my father, who was 4-F and a civilian employee of the federal government during World War II.  I was ‘on the left’ and a protester against the war in Vietnam; I didn’t have to evade the draft, but my age and employment helped me avoid it.

Subsequently, I’ve been uninvolved in most of the public protests against American military adventures and the costs of our enormous military establishment.  One groans and grumbles against the vested interests of the ‘military-industrial complex’ and one is shocked by the ordinary cruelties and sensational atrocities that occur in wars, especially when there are no front lines and civilians are exposed to the worst that can happen to them.  But such unhappiness as mine goes nowhere; it accomplishes nothing.

While I paid close attention to the (mis)conduct of retaliatory and preemptive wars during the eight years of the second Bush administration, I regret to say that I’ve given the Obama administration carte blanche.  Much has been accomplished and remarkable changes in policy have been effected, in spite of risks and opposition, but deeper changes are called for.

The hero in Jill Lepore’s article is Colonel Andrew J. Bacevich, whose military career included fighting in Vietnam in 1970 and ’71; after leaving the army he earned a Ph. D. in history and international relations at Princeton.  He is now a professor at Boston University, and the author of several books, including The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War (2005).  Lepore says of him, “A Catholic and a conservative, Bacevich is viscerally pained by Americans’ ‘infatuation with military power’.”

The most poignant and profound passage in Lepore’s article concerns Bacevich’s testimony on April 23, 2009, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, concerning the protracted war in Afghanistan and border areas of Pakistan.  (I dimly remember the stir made by that hearing at the time; I believe it had much to do with the still-controversial decision to withdraw American soldiers from the fighting there by 2014.)

Bacevich made good use of the fact that Senator John Kerry was chairing the meeting.  He recalled that thirty-eight years earlier, the same man, much younger, testified before the same Senate committee “against the then seemingly endless war in Vietnam.”  And he observed that between 1971 and 2009, the predominant American attitude toward involvement in a long war had shifted profoundly.

“When the young John Kerry spoke, many of his contemporaries had angrily turned against their generation’s war. Today, most of the contemporaries of those fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan have simply tuned out the Long War.”  Bacevich observed that there were many reasons for the change in American attitudes toward war, the most important being the end of the “citizen-soldier tradition” after Vietnam and the creation of a “professional” military consisting, in theory at least, of volunteers.

The trouble is, he said, this military “exists at some remove from American society. Americans today profess to ‘support the troops’ but that support is a mile wide and an inch deep. It rarely translates into serious public concern for whether the troops are being used wisely or well” (emphasis added).

Near the end of his testimony, Bacevich again quoted what John Kerry had said as an angry young man: “we are probably angriest about all that we were told about Vietnam and about the mystical war against communism.”  Then Bacevich added: “The mystical war against communism finds its counterpart in the mystical war on terrorism. As in the 1960s so too today: mystification breeds misunderstanding and misjudgment. It prevents us from seeing things as they are.”  To see things as they are is to recognize that the grand goals of the long war on terrorism are unattainable by military means.

(Jill Lepore provides a brief, dramatic account of Bacevich’s testimony and its impact on Senator Kerry.  I have quoted from the complete transcript of it, which is readily available online.)

There are indications that the Obama administration knows very well that current U. S. military expenditures are unsustainable.  The trend in recent years is downward, but still incredibly high.  According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which publishes annually a list of the world’s top 15 military spenders, in 2012 the U. S. accounted for 41% of the world’s total, at $711billion (4.7% of GDP).  Our closest competitor is China, with $143billion, which is 8.2% of the world’s share (2% of China’s GDP).

Apparently, our military leaders regard 4% of GDP as the absolute minimum for their share of the pie.  Let’s see if negotiations get close to that in the coming months, and let’s see what course the Obama administration pursues in foreign affairs with John Kerry as Secretary of State (hopefully with Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense).

We need a strong military, and strong defenses against real enemies at home and abroad, but “power projection,” which preoccupies the adamant defenders of our military establishment, is not the only sign of American strength, and in some circumstances (such as Afghanistan and Pakistan) it may be dangerous and counter-productive.

I’ll end by harking back to some words of Paul Kingsnorth, as quoted in an earlier post, my “Dialogue of Hope with Doubt.”  He said, “It is time to look for new paths and new stories, ones that can lead us through the end of the world as we know it and out the other side.”  On such new paths we will certainly need courage; we will also need a questioning and imaginative approach to old certainties and unfamiliar circumstances.

Such a reorientation will take a long time and a great effort, which is why I’m writing about it now.  To some, I know, I’m sounding like Chicken Little, or perhaps like Don Quixote.  If so, help me find a new story.

Posted in Cultural Change, Military spending, Values | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Future of Freedom

Jon Quitslund

I’ve begun this on the eve of this year’s observation of the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.  At church this morning, the service was dedicated to Dr. King, and a passage from one of his speeches was read.

On March 22nd, 1956, during the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, Dr. King addressed a mass meeting of the Montgomery Improvement Association at the Holt Street Baptist Church.  Here is a passage from his speech that I heard repeated this morning: “Freedom doesn’t come on a silver platter. Whenever there is any great movement toward freedom, there will inevitably be some tension. Somebody will have to have the courage to sacrifice. You don’t get to the promised land without going through the wilderness. Though we may not get to see the promised land, we know it’s coming because God is for it.”

My immediate response to these words was complicated, and in my thoughts about the passsage now I’m trying to unpack some of that complexity.

Today, more than fifty years after Dr. King’s nonviolent struggle for freedom and racial equality, a great deal of progress has been made, and other disadvantaged minorities have also achieved a good portion of the acceptance and respect that they have sought.

Today we live in a multi-cultural society, in which no minority group is invisible or disregarded, except by people who have withdrawn into isolation or exclusive enclaves.  It must be admitted, however, that there is no agreement within the general public that the present stage of our cultural evolution is an achievement to be proud of, and to build upon.  Many people regard the complications that come with our diversity as an awful predicament, and an affront to their own basic principles and sensibilities.

People of color still encounter prejudice, and still struggle for acceptance and respect, and they are not alone in facing huge gaps between the lower rungs on ladders to success.  In the mainstream and even in its elite strata, our culture is acutely status-conscious, protective of the status quo and nostalgic for an imaginary status quo ante.

Our first African-American president has now been elected twice, quite decisively, but a well-organized minority of the powerful and the gullible have been reluctant to acknowledge his legitimacy.

* * *

I am completing this after President Obama’s inauguration, having listened to his second inaugural address, as well as to Senator Schumer’s call for “faith in our future,” and to the fine invocation delivered by Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of Medgar Evers.  I heard what the President said about what “you and I as citizens” can and must do to secure our future, and I feel a renewal of hope – cautious optimism, if you will, although I think that ‘optimism’ and its opposite are worn-out  words, inadequate responses to our many challenges.

One of the thoughts that I started with yesterday was that freedom, as Dr. King conceived of it, has a solid history now in our nation, and it must also have a future, at the center of our discourse and as a motive for our actions.

I also think that now is a good time to reflect on the reasons motivating various individuals and organized groups to rally for freedom.  Those reasons are not all legitimate; some of them rise out of selfishness and resentment, rather than a real grievance.

Freedom is enjoyed by individuals just as oppression is suffered by individuals, but when freedom is guaranteed by law, as it is in our Constitution and Bill of Rights, it is extended to groups of people without regard for individual needs and interests, but rather in the interest of fairness and the common good.

There are, however, demands for freedom that have nothing to do with the guarantees of the Bill of Rights.  Some forms of freedom are privileges accorded to the fortunate few through the machinery of free market capitalism.  I can understand the need for government support of industry, businesses both big and small, investment, innovation, risk-taking, and insurance against losses, but that support should not include freedom from appropriate regulation and a fair share of the taxes levied on property, profits, and income.

During the so-called debate on health care reform, many people complained that their freedom as individuals was being violated by an overbearing government.  Some opposition came from special interest groups that thought they had something to lose from the changes being proposed (some of which had little chance of passing).  Opposition also arose from misunderstandings, and from crafty distortions of provisions in the legislation, designed to play upon the fears and biases of vulnerable people.

We hear a lot about freedom these days, not so much from people who are oppressed or neglected, but from those in power who are used to having things their way.  Will they always have the upper hand?

Martin Luther King spoke not only of freedom and fairness, but of suffering, courage, and sacrifice, all of which were essential to achievement of the understanding, reconciliation, and equality of opportunity that were his ultimate goals.  The freedom to do as one likes, regardless of the consequences, was not what Dr. King had in mind.

To reach my conclusion, I need to shift the focus from individuals to communities, and to a problem more deep-rooted and harder to handle than racial prejudice and discrimination.  What follows is the opening paragraph in “The Future of Agriculture,” a short speech by Wendell Berry that appears in It All Turns on Affection (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2012):

Our fundamental problem is world-destruction, caused by an irreconcilable contradiction between the natural world and the engineered world of industrialism. This conflict between nature and human interest may have begun with the first tools and weapons, but only with the triumph of industrialism has it become absolute. By now the creaturely world is absolutely at the mercy of industrial processes, which are doing massive ecological damage. How much of this damage may be repairable by economic and cultural changes remains to be seen.

Mr. Berry goes on say that industrialism “is our disease. Most of our most popular worries – climate change, fossil fuel addiction, pollution, poverty, hunger, and the various forms of legitimated violence – are symptoms.”  I would add to Berry’s mention of poverty and hunger that the widening gap between the extremely wealthy and powerful few, and the many who aren’t impoverished but find themselves and their children vulnerable, unsure of their future, is another symptom of the disease that has thrown our “engineered world” off kilter.

Perhaps reactionary defenses of individual rights and contempt for the rights of others are further symptoms.

Our health – the health of individuals and communities together – can still be found through strong connections with Berry’s “creaturely world,” which is not entirely a thing of the past.  Though in need of stewardship and repair, it is all around us – out the door, in the woods, on the beach.  We need to be part of that world, and it’s just possible that with a concerted effort, we can improve it.

President Obama spoke of taking action together, now, with the future in mind, four years from now, and 40, and even 400.  My highest hopes for the world as we know it don’t extend 400 years out, and I myself don’t expect to live 40 more years, but our sons may, and our granddaughter, so that future concerns me personally.  And the next four years will make a big difference, one way or the other.

Posted in Activism, Community, Cultural Change, Economy, Environment, income inequality, Individuality, Place, Values | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Dialogue of Hope with Doubt

Jon Quitslund

I’ve been casting about for a proper topic: how can I greet 2013 aptly, usefully?  My thoughts on several subjects are inept – some of them stale, others less than half-baked.  I’ve been confronting my lack of resolve, hoping to overcome it.

Rebecca Solnit, who is near the top of my list of writers I most admire, has contributed a year-end post to the website TomDispatch.com, in which she identifies 2013 as “Year Zero for Us – and Our Planet.”  What’s uppermost in her mind is “the battle over climate change,” and this is the year “in which we are going to have to win big, or lose bigger.”  Solnit links arms with Bill McKibben and the Sierra Club in their confrontations with Big Oil and the producers and consumers of coal.

Continuing on the path she charted in Hope in the Dark, a small compendium of ‘untold histories, wild possibilities’ published in 2004, Solnit applauds the ongoing efforts of progressives around the world, and helps me to see the possibility of positive changes on many fronts.

So why, after feeling uplifted and engaged, do I lose heart, and wonder, ‘What’s the use?’  I’ve concluded that my temperament thrives on an inner dialogue of hope with deep uncertainty about the future.

Hope motivates me day by day, and I can play a part in things worth doing – things that are meaningful and practical, where there’s an obvious difference between what’s done and what’s neglected in the community I’m part of.

I’m also compelled, though, to care about the bigger picture, ‘the course of human events’ within my lifetime and beyond.  When I consider local and larger concerns in that light, my vision of the not-too-distant future is quite bleak.  My mood verges on despair, but ‘doubt’ describes it better – doubt that the world as I’ve known it will be recognizable fifty years from now, and doubt that anyone knows what will prosper and prevail.

Strange as it may seem, these contradictory attitudes aren’t in conflict.  They may hold each other at arms’ length, but each brings the other down to earth.  In the tension between them, I find energy and purpose.

In all my recent reading, the writer who has most captured my attention is Paul Kingsnorth, writing in the January/February issue of Orion (available at Eagle Harbor Books, and also at www.orionmagazine.org).  His perspective on local and global issues has challenged and deepened my own thinking.

Mr. Kingsnorth is an impassioned man with an activist’s experience in several parts of the world; he also has deep roots in the English countryside and expert knowledge of traditional arts and crafts.  He’s a writer with a strong voice, and a strong belief in the power of words to pierce illusions.

Dark Ecology: Searching for truth in a post-green world” starts its search for truth with a snath and scythe and a train of thoughts about ‘appropriate’ and ‘convivial’ technology.  Several provocative pages later, Kingsnorth declares, “I’ve had enough of writing,” and he ends his essay with an evocation of old-fashioned, patient, full-body exercise, mowing a hayfield, then turning to admire “a beautiful sight which would have been familiar to every medieval citizen of this old, old continent.”

I want to write about ideas developed in the mid-section of Kingsnorth’s Orion essay, but first, some background.  Digress, if you like, to a couple of online sites that helped me to understand where Kingsnorth is coming from.  The climate activist Wen Stephenson published an informative exchange of emails with with Kingsnorth in Grist.org, datelined 11 April 2012 and titled “’I withdraw’: A talk with climate defeatist Paul Kingsnorth.”  It’s worth reading, and even more worthwhile is a ‘manifesto’ that Kingsnorth published in 2009 when he and Dougald Hine established their Dark Mountain Project.

Google ‘dark mountain manifesto’ and you’ll be led to an extraordinary cri de coeur titled Uncivilisation.  Here’s a piece of it: “This is a moment to ask deep questions and to ask them urgently. All around us, shifts are under way which suggest that our whole way of living is already passing into history. It is time to look for new paths and new stories, ones that can lead us through the end of the world as we know it and out the other side. We suspect that by questioning the foundations of civilisation, the myth of human centrality, our imagined isolation, we may find the beginning of such paths.”

These words ask us to think back to the way things were in 2009, both in world capitals and in the provinces, and then to think about how little has been done since, apart from ‘business as usual,’ to deal with either the global consequences of climate change, or with its root causes in human nature and a rapacious ‘civilisation.’  The U. S. economy has been brought back from the brink, but its fundamentals are still iffy, and the people in charge of it can’t bring themselves to make any fundamental changes.

Kingsnorth is not a ‘defeatist,’ as Wen Stephenson calls him, but a believer in radical adaptations, at the local level, to breakdowns and transformations that the world’s great economic and political institutions have failed to face. The fierce tone of his Orion essay stems from a conviction that too many environmentalists, ‘green’ politicians, and believers in the gospel of sustainability are not contributing to appropriate adaptations and cultural changes, because they are too attached to the comforts and promises of the still-dominant ‘neoliberal’ economic and cultural regime.

Like Wendell Berry (and Gary Snyder, whom he might acknowledge as an important predecessor), Kingsnorth admits to being complicit in enjoying the comforts that surround us in the civilized world.  (Let’s face it: we are all complicit, and we should do our best to make things better, according to our lights, for ourselves and others.)  But false promises and illusions should be seen clearly.

Modern technology comes in for Kingsnorth’s heaviest bashing, because he distrusts the profit motive driving the technological vision of progress.  He criticizes several ‘neo-environmentalists’ for their reliance on technological solutions that, in his view, recklessly create larger problems than they solve.  I find his critique persuasive where it is specific, but his brush is too broad: many activists and writers share his doubts about the efficacy of technological solutions and his commitment to ‘relocalizing’ and ‘powering down.’

Kingsnorth takes the illuminating concept of a ‘progress trap’ from Ronald Wright, author of A Short History of Progress (2004): that’s an occasion for another digression, if you like.  Here’s Wright’s point in Kingsnorth’s words: “Each improvement in our knowledge or in our technology will create new problems, which require new improvements. Each of these improvements tends to make society bigger, more complex, less human-scale, more destructive of nonhuman life, and more likely to collapse under its own weight.”

While I tend to think that some forms of progress are not traps but are authentically liberating (do we want to nullify modern medicine, or go back to patriarchal regimes, feudalism, thuggery, and xenophobia?), I accept Kingsnorth’s basic point: “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.”

History is a prison-house, but we can gain some freedom through an understanding of history (including pre-history) and the legacy of myths and legends that have shaped – and distorted – human lives through the ages.

William Blake, writing in the dawn of the industrial age (also the dawn of Romanticism), protested against “mind-forg’d manacles,” and a great British hymn was made of one of his poems, including the line “I will not cease from mental fight.”  Paul Kingsnorth doesn’t mention Blake, preferring to celebrate the lesser-known poets R. S. Thomas and Robinson Jeffers, but he is writing in Blake’s great tradition.

“Dark Ecology” ends with an emphasis on “what you have the power to do and what you don’t.”  I’ll skip over some smart remarks on several ways of wasting your time, and conclude with a few lines from five paragraphs, Kingsnorth’s own alternatives to wasting his time.

One: Withdrawing. . . . All real change starts with withdrawal.

Two: Preserving nonhuman life.

Three: Getting your hands dirty. . . . Ground yourself in things and places, learn or practice human-scale convivial skills.

Four: Insisting that nature has a value beyond utility. And telling everyone.

Five: Building refuges. . . . Ask yourself: what power do you have to preserve what is of value – creatures, skills, things, places?

These are all pathways out of doubt and despair, back to hope and the enjoyment of labor in community.

Posted in Books, Climate Change, Community, Cultural Change, Economy, Environment, Neo-environmentalists, Neoliberalism, Reviews, Traditional Crafts & Skills | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Adapting to Our New Economic Reality

Jon Quitslund

Reviewing Richard Heinberg, The End of Growth; Adapting to Our New Economic Reality (Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 2011), $17.95.

I’ll begin with a quotation: “The only efforts that will aid in the long run are those that contribute, in some tangible way, to the realization of a pattern of human settlement that is culturally and psychologically rewarding, and that supports rather than undermines the integrity of Earth’s living skin, our only home.”

This is the last sentence of The End of Growth.  In context, it describes an adaptive strategy that will be necessary in a future that is profoundly different from the world we know now.

Now read the sentence again: It also describes a practical and satisfying way of living in today’s world.  The pattern of human settlement that will be difficult to achieve and maintain in the future, in the ruins of circumstances that we tend to take for granted, is being embraced by a growing number of people today.  Our future will be brighter if we join those prophets and pioneers to change the world, before the remorseless way of the world changes us for the worse.

I encountered Richard Heinberg’s authoritative voice on environmental and economic issues a few years ago, through earlier books of his on the Environmental Book Group’s reading list.  (See my previous post, “After Aftershock,” for more on the EBG.)

Heinberg is a lucid and engaging writer.  His latest book is well-researched and carefully documented, and never dull, although it’s not an easy read.  Heinberg synthesizes the work of many others, drawing on scientific and economic data and ideas from several disciplines, and his own analytical and clarifying voice carries the reader along through a compelling account of our history, our current predicament, and the breakdowns and transformations that can be anticipated now – hopefully before it’s too late to undertake the challenging process of adaptation.

I’ll begin my consideration of the book’s main points with Heinberg’s conclusion, in a few pages titled Perspective.  He observes, “We are living through the fifth great turning in human history.”  He notes that the phrase ‘great turning’ was used by Joanna Macy, and then by David Korten in a book that many Islanders have read.  Heinberg adds, “The ‘turning’ I am referring to is perhaps less politically and spiritually nuanced than what Macy and Korten describe.”  I would say, on the contrary, that Heinberg’s account of our new economic reality adds much-needed specificity and gravity to the visionary thinking of Macy and Korten.

Heinberg briefly summarizes the four epochal ‘turnings’ preceding our times.  First, early humans harnessed fire, which transformed their diet and refined tool-making; the second turning was development of language, which made possible the formation and transmission of culture and the elaboration of social structures.  “The third turning point was the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago”: domestication of crops and animals went hand in hand with a population explosion, social stratification, development of cities and empires, and the invention of writing and money.

The fourth epochal development, the industrial revolution, has the shortest history – not much more than two centuries – but has been the most transformative, both of the physical and spiritual circumstances of human existence and of the earth we inhabit.  Heinberg observes, “The Industrial Revolution was really the Fossil Fuel Revolution, and the entire phenomenon of continuous economic growth . . . is ultimately based on ever-increasing supplies of cheap energy.”

The many forms of industrial development that have defined modernity and spread it around the world also enabled exploitation of the world’s finite, nonrenewable resources.  And the enormous power that our species gained through industrial technology has meant that we are able – and perhaps doomed, or damned – to exploit every opportunity to impose our will upon the world.

We’ve been burning our candles at both ends, and only lately have an increasing number of people been paying attention to the consequences.

Heinberg’s account of those consequences makes a complex and rather scary picture of our present and the foreseeable future, but when he describes the fifth great turning he holds out hope for renewal: “Now we are participating in the turning from fossil fueled, debt- and growth-based industrial civilization toward a sustainable, renewable, steady-state society.”

It is generally assumed that the economic contraction and dysfunction that we’ve been muddling through lately will be followed, as day follows night, by a return to healthy economic growth.  On the contrary, Heinberg demonstrates quite conclusively that for several decades, growth in the U. S. and other developed nations has not been healthy, but parasitic, or cancerous.  And he doubts that growth will ever return on the scale to which the developed world has been accustomed.

Here’s a sketchy summary of the book’s seven chapters. One: how and why economies have relied on growth and ignored environmental limits. Two: how, in our time, the world’s monetary and financial systems have failed to manage growth. Three: how depletion of fossil fuels, minerals, and other natural resources will stall growth in a world more prone to disasters. Four describes the limits of growth gained through innovation, efficiency, and new sources of materials and energy. Five: how competition and geopolitical rivalries will offer only local and temporary benefits. Six: how the transition from growth-dependent to steady-state economies might be managed. Seven: what individuals and communities are doing to prepare for a post-growth, post-hydrocarbon way of life.

We can’t know what the future will hold, but it’s safe to say that we – and even more, our children, and their children – will have to make do with less of many things we hold dear today.  (It may help to realize that some things we hold dear are illusory, and others are unnecessary.)  The future, as Heinberg says, “will require us to question what we think we know, to leave our comfort zones far behind, and to engage in hard, challenging work.”

In Heinberg’s account of the industrial revolution and the many kinds of progress that it brought about over the past two centuries, the central fact of the modern industrial economy is its total dependence on cheap and efficient sources of energy – coal at first, and then oil in various refined forms.

Far beyond their value as energy, carbon-based fossil fuels have provided crucial ingredients for the huge cornucopia of industrial products that support and enhance our daily lives: plastics of all sorts, fertilizers (and therefore much of the world’s food), medicines, dyes, explosives, roadways and pothole patches, building materials, on and on – not to mention a host of toxic chemicals and much of the world’s waste stream.

Heinberg cites a great deal of evidence that the world’s supply of readily accessible fossil fuels has peaked; cheap energy from those sources (oil especially) is a thing of the past.  And if Bill McKibben is right (as I think he is), we run the risk of runaway climate change if we burn more than a fraction of the carbon-based fuels available.  Dire straits, here we come!

We tend to think of the industrial revolution in positive terms, and rightly so: What’s wrong with scientific and technological progress?  That progress, in the two centuries preceding the present, was astonishing. Our progress hasn’t been able to conquer ignorance and eradicate poverty, but from the nineteenth century to our time we have seen the boundaries of technical knowledge expanded exponentially in every direction.  Modern science and industry have created wealth on a grand scale, for generation after generation, in many nations around the globe, and the quality of life has been improved for untold millions of people.

There is, however, a dark side: any form of progress, no matter how many people benefit, produces victims and hostages.  And progress can be seen as no more than a rationale for, or a by-product of, the reckless pursuit of wealth and power by a few, with the costs borne by many, in present and future generations.

The Environmental Book Group came to The End of Growth at the end of its tenth year of readings, and we saw in the book a kind of climax.  Our discussion of Heinberg’s book was more serious and intense than usual.

That’s not to say that we agreed with Heinberg on every point.  Within the meeting, and in email traffic afterwards, there was general agreement that although we shouldn’t plan on a return of the good old days, growth is not about to end any time soon.  Neither corporations, nor consumers, nor politicians are likely to embrace radical solutions to our large-scale problems.  There will be plenty of the “creative destruction” associated with capitalism and plutocracy (and with such autocratic regimes as China and Iran).  Old-style economic activity is likely to speed us toward crises, while at the same time innovation and adaptations seek to correct our course.

There’s a full menu of food for thought in Heinberg’s Chapter 6, “Managing Contraction, Redefining Progress.”  It offers some bold and large-scale proposals, while acknowledging that they may not be adopted in time to avert breakdowns in our flawed assumptions and institutions.

The last chapter, “Life After Growth,” is the shortest and the sweetest.  It focuses not on large-scale radical changes, such as a global reform of money and banking, but on what can be done – and is already being done – locally, and voluntarily.  Time will tell whether these innovations, in what the British economist Tim Jackson has called the “Cinderella economy,” will continue to flourish and enlarge their influence.  Sustainable Bainbridge, and similar collaborative efforts around the world, exist in the belief that that flourishing is not only possible, but full of potential.

 

Posted in Books, Community, Cooperation, Creativity, Cultural Change, Economy, Emergency management, Environment, Finite Natural Resources, Money and Banking, Reviews, Values | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

After “Aftershock”: Responding to Robert Reich

Jon Quitslund

Robert Reich’s Aftershock; The Next Economy and America’s Future (2010; updated for the Vintage Books paperback, 2011) is one among many books published by economists and public policy experts since the devastating collapses of financial institutions and the global economy hit us in 2007 and 2008.

I took part recently in a lively book group discussion of Reich’s book, and one member of the group mentioned that her husband has enjoyed a friendship with Mr. Reich since their college years together.  She said that if anyone had comments and questions for the author, she would pass them along to him.

Emboldened by this invitation, I have composed this essay as an ‘open letter’ to Robert Reich.  I’m publishing it on the Sustainable Bainbridge blog because I think the issues addressed in Aftershock are important to all American citizens, and a focus on specific local opportunities for rebuilding a sound economy may emerge from considering Reich’s analysis and policy prescriptions.

For our book group, Aftershock stands in a context provided by other readings.  Two or three years before I joined it, the group’s charter members resolved to deepen their understanding of a range of environmental issues, and the Environmental Book Group (EBG) was born.  Our group is unusual in that the book choices are mostly serious non-fiction, plus a few novels and some poetry.

EBG readings have dealt sometimes with the value of wilderness per se, and of direct experience in nature, and sometimes with the dangers presented by an advancing industrial civilization that is heedless of the destruction that accompanies development.  From the beginning, some readings have dealt with economic and political issues: David Korten’s prophetic When Corporations Rule the World (1995), for example – David and Fran Korten being eminent members of our community.  And the group has been very interested in the history and the future of American agriculture, believing that locally grown food is essential to wellbeing in the “durable future” of which Bill McKibben and others have written so eloquently.

In recent years, several of our readings have dealt with the modern world’s dependence on fossil fuels, and the global impact of that dependency on climate and pollution.  An engagement with the long-term consequences of resource depletion, environmental pollution, and global warming has led us to books about the American economy – past, present, and future.

Robert Reich is on the progressive side of mainstream public policy thinking.  As an economist, his interests are aligned with those of working people and the middle classes, which made him an excellent choice to head the Department of Labor during the Clinton administration (1993-97).

The subtitle of Aftershock promises a focus on “the next economy and America’s future.”  Reich begins with a clear and fascinating historical account, going back to the 1920’s and the Great Depression, of the economic problems that develop when wealth and political power are concentrated in the hands of relatively few (the ‘1 per cent’ and the ‘0.1 per cent’ today), while the vast majority of people find themselves losing buying power and security.

Captains of industry, makers of public policy, and ordinary citizens have failed to take to heart the bitter lessons of our past, and only in hindsight has it become clear how vulnerable the global financial system was to the breakdown that began in 2007.  And yet, to date, little has been done to put the economy and our social order on a better foundation.

Reich follows Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., in his understanding of American history, saying that our culture moves in cycles through periods in which private interests are pursued at the expense of public purposes, and when too many people feel excluded from prosperity, the pendulum swings back in their favor.  In keeping with this grand narrative, the nation’s recovery from the Depression and WW II provides Reich with a template for recovery from the inequalities of income and opportunity that plague us now.

The period of America’s great prosperity, between 1947 and 1975, was a time when workers earned “enough money to buy what they produced. Mass production and mass consumption proved perfect complements,” while “The wages of lower-income Americans grew faster than those at or near the top.”  The ‘basic bargain’ at the heart of America’s success was being honored: workers’ wages and middle class family incomes were sufficient to drive the economy, keeping prices fair and consumption in balance with production.

And then what happened?  Why did wages flatten out while productivity rose, leaving many members of the middle class anxious about losing their places in the changing economy?  Reich acknowledges that many factors were at work – among them, advances in technology and the globalization of both capital and labor.  He thinks that at many points public policy pushed in the wrong direction, with tax breaks, deregulation, privatization, and shredded safety nets.  Corporations, financiers, entrepreneurs, and elite professionals have prospered at the expense of the middle class and the poor.

Reich is in good company with other analysts, from David Korten to Joseph Stiglitz, in tracing our economic instability to the burgeoning of wealth in the financial sector – big banks and insurance companies and the traders and speculators who have prospered with them.  “The financial economy,” he says, “took over the real economy,” and in spite of the damage done, financiers are still in charge of their casino.

The result, as we see now, has been a widening gap between the ‘have mores’ and the ‘have nots,’ with many in the middle whose respectable incomes didn’t prevent them from accumulating debt in a stuff-laden lifestyle.

So what will be the foundation for “the next economy and America’s future”?  How can the “real economy” be revived, and what will deliver the great American middle class from their wanderings in the desert?

Although Professor Reich now lives in Berkeley, his approach to public policy remains fundamentally inside-the-beltway, vulnerable to criticism as ‘trickle-down government.’  He proposes some valid remedial policies, but I don’t share his faith in social and political benefits delivered by a swinging pendulum.

In Reich’s vision of the next economy, growth – increasing productivity, wages, and consumption – is just as important as it was in the old economy.  I agree with him up to a point, but I wish he had been more specific about the kinds of growth that are both possible and desirable, and also about the kinds of production and consumption that ought to be discouraged, even stigmatized, for the sake of both individual happiness and the general welfare.

As Wendell Berry and many other writers have often reminded us, we have all been complicit for many decades, through fat years and lean, in an economic system that is in many ways unsustainable.  We have lived too long without regard for the limited supply of our non-renewable resources, and the accumulation of our non-renewable wastes.

We must learn to respect The Limits to Growth (to cite the title of a study published in 1972, which was a best-seller at the time but had no lasting impact on public policy).   Some warnings were sounded and steps were taken during Jimmy Carter’s forward-looking presidency, but during the Reagan years and thereafter, free market principles, pursuit of short-term profits, and other corporate imperatives pushed what remained of counter-cultural thinking to the margins.

Until quite recently, the most popular conceptions of ‘the good life’ have involved variations on ‘living large,’ celebrating ownership and selfish pursuit of happiness even when it involves unmanageable indebtedness.

Now, however – I don’t know if it’s part of a pendulum swing, or of the ‘great turning’ that David Korten and others have envisioned – we’re seeing in many places, locally grounded but well publicized in the national media, a shift in values: toward simpler and more prudent economies of scale, toward an emphasis on quality of life over quantity of possessions, toward wellbeing in neighborhoods and communities rather than self-centered hedonism, toward long-term rather than short-term personal goals.  Perhaps we can learn, in Wendell Berry’s words, “to grow like a tree, not like a fire.”

The policies that Reich recommends in his last section, “The Bargain Restored,” have merit to the extent that they would provide the economic foundation for this profound shift in cultural values, happening not uniformly but in ways suited to local conditions and opportunities.

Reich calls for an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, in tandem with higher taxes on the wealthy: this would begin to address inequalities of income and opportunity.  And we should have, Reich says, “a reemployment system rather than an unemployment system”: this wouldn’t be a radical shift in emphasis, but at state and local levels it would require a bigger bureaucracy with a mission much more complex than at present.  These policies would help people through the wrenching adjustments that lie ahead of us, even during a recovery, as the economy shrinks in some sectors and grows in others.

Reich describes several policies to support education, especially for children and young adults from low and moderate income backgrounds: improved educational opportunities are crucial to positive changes in our culture.  And I can’t take exception to his last three propositions – Medicare for all; generous investments in Public goods; and finally, Money out of politics – but it will take persistent efforts over many years to make a real difference in these areas.

We look to the federal government for leadership in defining the longstanding problems that we face and the goals we should aspire to, but when it comes to large-scale programmatic remedies, it seems there is always a deficit: policies and programs lag behind, while the problems they address become harder to handle.

The good news is that at state and local levels, real progress has been and is being made.  Federal funds help at those levels, and just maybe, programs with a nationwide scope can be based on ideas that have been proven to work at the community level – which is, in any case, where real change happens.

Posted in Community, Cultural Change, Economy, Environment, income inequality, Middle class, People, Values | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Mussels Watching Our Waters

Mussels will be watching our waters around the island for the next several months.  As filter feeders, mussels take in whatever is in the water column in which they live, including good things like plankton and bad things like chemicals that have found their way into our nearshore waters.

Bainbridge Island is included in the expanded mussel watch study for the Puget Sound region.  A national program of NOAA, Washington’s mussel watch is coordinated by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.  Previously a small number of sites were included in the study beginning in 2009-10.  In 2012-13, the study is being expanded to 60 sites, including three on Bainbridge Island.  The initial program was not fine-grained enough to provide information that could be used on the local level; the expanded study will enable the identification of sources of regional and local contamination which may provide guidance for adaptive management at the local level.  The study will also provide a baseline against which to measure impacts of possible future oil or chemical spills in the Puget Sound.

The Bainbridge Beach Naturalists are coordinating the placement and retrieval of the mussels for the island sites.  Placement occurs at a low tide in November, the cages are checked in December, and the mussels and cages retrieved in January.  The mussels are transported immediately to a laboratory where they are analyzed for 150 chemicals commonly found in the Puget Sound.

The mussels are adults from Penn Cove on Whidbey Island.  There are 16 mussels in a cage, suspended in bags in the wire cage which is anchored to the substrate or a non-creosoted piling at the selected site.

The long term goal of the study is to establish the status and trends of toxics in Puget Sound nearshore biota.  The program is a managed by a coalition of government agencies, tribal nations, businesses, environmental organizations, agricultural and research interests.

For more information: http://wdfw.wa.gov/conservation/research/projects/marine_toxics/ and http://wdfw.wa.gov/publications/01127/

Posted by Maradel Gale

Posted in Environment, Shorelines | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Climax of the Season

Jon Quitslund

On the eve of our departure for a month-long house-sitting opportunity on the big island of Hawaii, here’s a quick post reviewing some personal pleasures in the last two weeks here on Bainbridge.

The summer, what we’ve had of it, has gone quickly.  Now, for many families, the school year is starting; for some young people that means going off to college.  Several community events are scheduled in September; I’ll mention some at the end of this post.  Let’s hope there’s Indian summer weather stretching into October.

For myself and my wife, the first memorable event in the sequence I’m recalling was a visit by our son Gabriel, up from Portland with his daughter Ava.  Our one grandchild, now a little over 3 ½, Ava hadn’t met many members of the extended family here.  The visit was much anticipated and planned-for, and our gathering at the beach off Sunrise Drive came together beautifully.  Ava charmed the members of three generations; she was at ease with everyone.  She was also prepared to meet a horse for the first time in the flesh, and she had face time with four by the end of the day.

That evening, August 16, was also the scheduled time for a book group meeting at my house: I led a discussion of Wendell Berry’s Remembering, a short novel from the middle of Berry’s long career.  Our group has read several of his books over the years, and they always elicit deep responses.

The next evening, if I recall correctly, was the ‘Farms to Table’ dinner, for the benefit of Friends of the Farms.  It was a wonderful event, and I’m guessing it will become an annual thing.  Chefs and staff from local restaurants prepared the food, mostly from local ingredients; the producers of wine, beer, and spirits were also local.  As were the diners: I saw many people I knew, and met several others for the first time.  The music of Pearl Django added impalpably to the legato swing of the evening.

And then the weekend: it was time for an already established annual event – “Bike for Pie,” at Fort Ward on Sunday.  For some bikers, all the pie you want was the incentive for a strenuous morning-long ride.  I just cruised from Winslow, avoiding the hills, and then relaxed to chat with some new friends and listen to the music, slowly making my way through three pieces of delicious peach and berry pie – no two alike.

On Saturday I had been part of the crew rolling out crusts and assembling pies in the kitchen of Lynwood’s Pane d’Amore bakery, so I felt I had a small stake in the event.  It attracted families, and duffers like myself, along with many movers in the Island’s cycling subculture.  And there was excellent music: Stephen Hubbard made that happen, and he chose well.  In addition to a local folksy, bluesy band, all those who didn’t have to be somewhere else heard Latin jazz by a quartet led by Malo Castro, with Susan Pascal featured on vibes.  I asked if they would play Dizzy Gillespie’s ‘Con Alma,’ and between the first and second set, Susan found the chart in the band’s book!  (I’m so sorry I can’t dance – not in broad daylight, anyway.)

# # #

I expect that my readers all have their own lists of late summer pleasures, and their own perspectives on the many occasions we have to feel the pulse of our community.

More occasions are coming up in September, and I’ll miss them all!  On Friday, the 7th, there’s the Art Walk in Winslow, and if you’re interested in electric cars, stop by the charging station in front of the Blackbird Bakery to learn about the feasibility of this alternative to gas guzzling.  On Sunday, the 9th, Darden Burns’s concert series will not be at the Commons (under renovation for several months) but at the Island Music Center in Rolling Bay, featuring a jazz quartet led by John Hansen on piano, with the saxophonist Alexey Nikolaev.

Other events will be described in the e-news and on the Sustainable Bainbridge calendar.  There’s Jill Bamberg, from B. G. I., at the Public Library on the 14th, 5:30 to 7.  On the 23rd, at IslandWood between 1 and 5:30, the annual Environmental Conference takes place: always a bracing and informative event, focusing this year on the predicament of ‘living downstream.’  At month’s end, the 30th, it would be worth while to take in two events, the Harvest Fair at the Johnson Farm, beginning at 11 a. m. (running until 5 p. m.), and the Frog Rock Forum (the second annual) between 3 and 6 p. m. at IslandWood.

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Individuality vs. Individualism

Jon Quitslund

The two terms in my title may look very much alike, but the similarity is only skin deep.  I believe that in our culture today, individuality is best achieved and enjoyed by rejecting the tenets of Individualism as they have evolved in recent decades – since 1980, shall we say?

Individualism has been celebrated in American culture for a long time, to the extent that it may seem inseparable from our national identity.  The problem is that what was once an admirable set of values, emphasizing self-reliance and a ‘live and let live’ attitude to others, has been turned into an ideological stance and put to some dubious uses.

Herbert Hoover fought his losing campaign against F. D. R. as a proponent of “rugged individualism.”  (Millions of Americans qualified as rugged individuals in the Depression years, but it seems that most of them voted for Roosevelt.)  By the end of the 1950’s, Hoover was history, and after an intensive public relations campaign, rugged individualism came to be personified by such icons as John Wayne, Rock Hudson, the ‘Marlboro man,’ and Ayn Rand’s John Galt.

Individualism – authentic in its origins but now reduced to slogans and attitudes – has been marketed like a line of products.  It has been made over to appeal, paradoxically, to people anxious to belong, to conform to a ready-made and backward-looking American ideal.

The cult of individualism lends support to the loneliness that runs deep in our national experience, but does little to promote maturity and a healthy emotional life.  And the impact of individualism on American politics has been devastating: it has promoted a virulent distrust of government, and brought to power politicians whose overriding purpose is to “starve the beast.”

It’s wise to be wary of all “isms.”  In my opinion, doctrinaire individualism is no better than socialism.  If they are taken seriously, both abstractions involve pledging loyalty to an ideology and a set of crude value judgments.  Anything that doesn’t conform to a simple-minded idea becomes suspect; adaptation to changing circumstances and a clear vision of the common good becomes difficult if not impossible.

Can’t we agree that in our uncommonly diverse nation, any workable notion of ‘the common good’ must accommodate the needs and interests of many different groups?

While I deplore the implications of a selfish individualism, I think that the freedom to be oneself is precious – worth working for and even fighting for.  Conscience and creativity are attributes of individuals, not crowds – although sometimes crowds are needed to protect individual interests.

There are admirable individualists in all walks of life.  In our politics, when economic policies are under discussion, entrepreneurs are the exemplary figures: they’re the money-makers and (so we’re told) the job-creators.  Maybe so, but for true prosperity and well-being, we need to foster other expressions of individual initiative.

It’s the individuality of writers, artists, and musicians that interests me most.  Their examples inspire both independence and generous, collaborative efforts.

Take the all-American, and now international, art form of jazz.  Nowhere is it more important to be an individual, to sound like nobody else.  And yet, paradoxically, that creative individual owes his or her existence to a rambunctious procession of elders and contemporaries, and to the intuitive cohesion of motley crews, fluent in the unwritten language of collective improvisation.

Dizzy Gillespie, a rebellious innovator, said of Louis Armstrong (who disliked bebop), “No him, no me.”  And of the innumerable anecdotes about Thelonious Monk, my favorite comes from the soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy.  As I heard the story, Monk said, “Your job, Lacy, is to make the drummer sound good.”

I’ve enjoyed pondering what Monk meant: not, I think, that the drummer needs help, but that listening, and adjusting your pulse to that of the group, is inseparable from saying what you have to say.  In Monk’s music and other jazz, there may be some dissonance and tension in the ensemble sound, but it supports rather than stifling the distinctive individual voices.

I just learned from an online archive – (1heckofaguy.com) – that Steve Lacy kept a notebook and recorded some of the things that Monk said to him when they were working together in 1960.  Here are a few excerpts: “A genius is the one most like himself.”  Also, “What you don’t play can be more important than what you do play.”  And last on the list, “They tried to get me to hate white people, but someone would always come along & spoil it.”

Maybe it’s not obvious what these maxims have to do with sustainability, or with building a more resilient community here on Bainbridge.  If not, let my message be insidious; just pay attention to what’s going on in our community day by day, and find a place where you can make a difference.

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