Help Wanted: Willing Ring Bearer Seeks Quest

All week the energy of the summer solstice seemed to build in me. After a week of rain, the sun burst through and we had a whole week of clear, low-humidity days in which it appeared that you could see the plants growing happily, stretching their roots down into the soil and their leaves up towards the bright sky.

My peaceful backyard in the Shire

My peaceful backyard in the Shire

In anticipation of several weeks away (I’ll be making my annual pilgrimage to Nova Scotia soon) I spent a lot of time out in the garden, planting vegetables and annuals, weeding flower beds, mulching and staking and tending.

morning lettuce

morning lettuce

pumpkins

pumpkins

Garlic; note the gas tank in the background

Garlic; note the gas tank in the background

It’s always hard to leave a garden in the summer, when you know the minute your back is turned the invasive weeds will grow with vindictive vigor, the slugs will multiply and munch away at the lettuce, and the Japanese beetles will arrive to decimate the roses.

However, I must get away from the confines of my little corner of the world to clear my head and ready myself for another year—for me, as a lifelong academic, the year always starts with the fall semester of school.

Last night, in honor of the longest day of the year, my son and I took an evening hike up a local mountain, and sat on a rock ledge facing west as the sun slowly and majestically dropped towards the horizon.

Eric in woods

We were happy to find some friends up there—a caterpillar with beautiful markings, making its way up an oak sapling, and a pair of orange-and-black butterflies, sunning themselves just like we were.

caterpillar

butterfly

solstice sunset

As we walked down again in the last rays of sunshine, I couldn’t help thinking about the strong contrast between the peaceful, lovely landscape of my home ground, where for many of us the most urgent question of the day is “what shall we have for dinner?” or “what movie shall we watch tonight?” and the social landscapes that cry out to me every day when I read the news headlines—arid, violent, rigid, harsh.

Reuters photo taken June 11, 2014 in Mosul, Iraq

Reuters photo taken June 11, 2014 in Mosul, Iraq

 

This summer solstice, as I sit in my peaceful green American haven, Iraq is again descending into crazed sectarian violence. The news reports that “militias are organizing” or “Mosul was taken” focus on the politicians playing the mad chess game of war, and the young men drawn into the armies as battlefield pawns. There is no mention of the mothers, sisters and grandmothers of those politicians and young men. The women rarely surface in the headlines, and when they do, the news is not good: a woman who dared to go out to a rally stripped and gang-raped, for example.

We hear about women obliquely in the reporting about the incredible surge of refugees living in camps this year: of the 51 million people living in refugee camps under U.N. supervision, half are children—which means that a high percentage of the other half are probably mothers and grandmothers. But that is in inference I am making by reading between the lines; those women are invisible in the official story.

Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, now Jordan's fifth largest city

Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, now Jordan’s fifth largest city

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I have to recognize the incredible privilege I have as an American woman, living in the heart of the heavily guarded gated community that this country has become.

Other people around the world are paying the price for the peace and plenty I have here in my home. And not just people—the animals and insects and birds and forests are paying the hugest price of all to maintain my privileged lifestyle.

How long can I continue to live comfortably with this knowledge?

The more time goes on, the more I see how prescient J.R.R. Tolkien was with his Lord of the Rings series. Berkshire County, where I live, is indeed “the Shire” of legend—peaceful, productive, green and jolly. Outside our borders, far, far away, the armies of Mordor are mobilizing in the midst of lands laid waste by the industries of the Dark Lord. Few in the Shire are worried; the chance of those nasty people and industries actually coming here seem remote indeed.

JRR Tolkien

JRR Tolkien

In Lord of the Rings, it is Gandalf the wizard who serves as the bridge between these two very different landscapes. He gives Bilbo, and later Frodo, the charge of becoming the change agents who can make all the difference. The fight against the Dark Lord is fought on many fronts, but the quest to destroy the Ring of Power is paramount, and in order to destroy the ring Frodo must journey to the heart of the dark Empire itself.

I can’t escape the feeling that here in the quiet Shire where I live, ordinary people like me are being called upon, as Bilbo and Frodo were, to step up to the immense and dangerous challenge of resisting the darkness that is brewing on our borders.

But in our case there does not seem to be a Gandalf who can give us a mission and guide us as we set off on the quest. Not even the wisest leaders of the environmental and peace movements seem to be able to provide that kind of leadership. Worldwide, those leaders who claim to know with absolute certainty what is right and what to do are precisely the ones who are fomenting war and leading us down the path to environmental, civilizational suicide.

That must be why I am drawn to study with those who are exploring other epistemologies, outside of the normative range of politics, science, philosophy and religion.

Right now my bedside reading includes Anne Baring, Pam Montgomery and Pamela Eakins, along with Brian SwimmeMartin Prechtel, Bill Plotkin,  and Daniel Pinchbeck.

spring meadowWhen I look out into the green world stretching up towards our beneficent Sun, or glowing brightly under our sweet white Moon, I can see and hear the harmony that life on Earth evolved to sing. Put water and sunlight together, wait a few billion years, and you get this incredible lush planet, pulsating with life.

Human beings have flourished so well that now we have become overpopulated, an invasive species that is destructively taking over every last environmental niche on the planet. In a normal terrestrial cycle, we would go bust, our civilization would collapse, and with time the earth and the sun would gradually rebuild life in endlessly new creative forms.

Is that what is coming? Or will we be able to be the Gandalfs of our own generation, waking ourselves up out of our complacency here in the beautiful American Shire, and conquering the inner and outer Dark Lords that are laying waste to the planet?

What is the quest that is mine to carry out? What is yours? If we at least start asking these questions, with the greater good of the Earth in mind, perhaps the answers will emerge in time to set humanity on a better path.

solstice sunset dark

What should we do with our one wild and precious lifetime?

It is the last Full Moon of 2012, but the sky is overcast here, with snow on the way for tomorrow.

Having the moon obscured feels appropriate, as I am searching for a clarity that continually eludes me.

One thing for sure: this is the new normal, me alone with my dog by my side, sipping a quiet glass of wine by the fire, while my sons are out with their girlfriends.

Get used to it, honey!

After 20 years of hardly ever being alone, now it is coming around again, the long quiet hours I remember from my twenties, when I had seemingly endless time to think and read and write.

It saddens me to think of how I spent those hours, poring over the dry tomes of literary critics and deconstructionists, writing my own oh-so-alienated prose in a weak attempt at mimicry.

I wish I had instead been traveling the world in those years, voyaging and adventuring, meeting interesting people and learning new things.

I went as far as Paris and came home attached to a Mexican.

Married to him, I found myself locked into an endless loop of returning to his home in Mexico City year after year.  There I learned first hand about the power of internal colonization; the subtle and not-so-subtle debasement of women in Mexican society; and how to dance, drink and have a superficially good time.

I spent the past 20 years in what seems in retrospect like hard labor, being the primary caretaker in my home as well as—for nine of those years—working two demanding academic jobs.

Now my second job is gone, eliminated by state budget cuts, and one of my sons is almost launched, having gotten his B.A. last spring and moved to Florida for a job.

I am at the threshold of a new period in my life, and this time, knowing how short and precious a lifetime really is, I want to be more intentional–to make the best use of my time.

That is where I am seeking clarity.  What do I want to be doing with my one wild and precious life?

Where should I be putting my energies? What do I have to give? What do I want to be doing with my time?

In the current issue of Orion Magazine, the environmental writer Paul Kingsnorth asks this question too, and provides some answers that I find useful as pointers for myself.

After discussing how likely it is that we are on the cusp of civilizational and ecological collapse, he asks, “what, at this moment in history, would not be a waste of my time?”

His answers are fivefold: 1) Withdraw; 2) Preserve nonhuman life; 3) Insist that nature has a value beyond human utility, and proclaim this loudly to all and sundry; 4) Build refuges; 5) Get your hands into the earth.

This sounds like tremendously good advice to me.  I am especially glad to be reassured that my current retreat into solitary, meditative reflection is not a cop-out, but a necessary stage in the life-cycle of the bodhisattva for the planet that I want to become.

“Withdraw not with cynicism, but with a questing mind.  Withdraw so that you can allow yourself to sit back quietly and feel, intuit, work out what is right for you and what nature might need from you….Withdraw because action is not always more effective than inaction.  Withdraw to examine your worldview: the cosmology, the paradigm, the assumptions, the direction of travel.  All real change starts with withdrawal,” Kingsnorth says.

Preserving non-human life, and proclaiming its inherent value…well, I can try, within my sphere, but let’s face it, the very fact that I type these words on an Apple laptop with my refrigerator whirring quietly in the background means that I am part of the problem.

As Paul Kingsnorth knows and has expressed eloquently, there is nothing any one of us can do that will change the fate of the 200 species that go extinct every day on our planet.

Even if we come together collectively, it will be very hard, maybe impossible, to stop the juggernaut of climate change now.

That’s why the idea of building refuges and relearning off-the-grid skills makes a lot of sense to me.

UnknownI have a persistent vision of building a kind of hobbit-house in the side of a hill, off the grid and sheltered from the coming storms, in the company of others who share my dream of resilience.

It is not for nothing that JRR Tolkien’s classic The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are more popular than ever in these opening years of the 21st century.

We are engaged in an epic struggle once again, faced with the spread of a Mordor-esque wasteland over the entire planet.

Will those of us who share the ethos of hobbits, elves and dwarfs be able to save the day?

Will enough of our contemporary wizards—scientists, they call themselves now—weigh in on the side of life and health rather than the oppressive bondage of the capitalist technocracy?

In Tolkien’s novel, Evil comes even to the sheltered little Shire, but is vanquished in the end by the forces of Good.

That is how the stories we like to tell each other go.  It remains to be seen whether reality, this time, will follow this “happily-ever-after” fairytale motif.

I don’t know how it will all end. But I do know that in these dark months of winter, when even the bright full moon is obscured, it feels right to be retreating within to reflect on how best to pursue the struggle in the coming years.

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