The People’s Green

“Actionable” “Intelligence”
April 23, 2009, 9:46 pm
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Listening to Dick Cheney whine about the oft-neglected sunny side of torture this week has left me musing about the theme of “actionable intelligence” and, strangely enough, ecology.

“They didn’t put out the memos that showed the success of the effort,” Cheney pouted to his friends at Fox News about the newly released torture memos.  What, for instance, of all the information wrought from U.S. torture that, with just a little help from Jack Bauer, has saved hundreds of thousands of American lives from face-eating virus bombs?

Poor Cheney.  Poor me.  We are brothers, he and I — foreigners in a strange land, seeking the same lost treasure.  Of an evening, there is little to distinguish us.  I reclining in my easy chair, and he, hanging in his cave, we both long for what is deep, hidden, cryptic.  Perhaps even (tantalizingly!) nonexistent.

“Actionable intelligence.”  What is the stuff?  Cheney and I both talk a good talk, but at the end of the day I’m not sure either of us would know it if we saw it.

Yesterday, back at my new-found healing spot again (for the first time in a week — work has all but swallowed me), I basked a moment of sheer inactionability.  Lounged out in wild grass now ten inches high, I took a good, four-hour Earth Day break under a canopy of trees I still don’t know.  For a good while I did “nothing” — that is, none of the “somethings” to which I usually default: no work; no emails; no infernal cell phone.  No finding a triple-letter square for my Q.

More to the point, no reading or writing, either.  None of the things I feel so compulsed to “do” even in sacred places, so that the time is not “wasted” or “lost.”

But when it comes to world-changing, what would my doing have actually done anyway?   Would I have “done” any more if I’d spent the time packing my cheeks with another article, another page of scrawled notes, another hour of idle ecotainment?

Is the act of reading go-get-’em social and eco-justice harangues really any more actionable — action packing — than leaning on a tree, joining its undergrowth, and trying to remember the name of the green metallic beetle that just landed on one’s shoe?  (I know, Dad.  Tiger beetle.  And I only got a little help.)

And before I go scrounging around for answers, more important questions still need asking.  When is actionable the right standard to go by, anyway?  To what degree?  And at what cost?


April 16, 2009, 9:55 pm
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Weeks like this, I never want to go to bed. Even as I write this, I can sense Jen wondering what’s keeping me.

I wonder myself.  This is prime sleeping time, and I’m exhausted.  Bone tired.  I can’t come up with one good excuse to still be here at the kitchen table, sipping a drink, listening to the clocks.

Whatever it is that keeps me here — whatever force or substance you might call it — I wonder if it’s not the same source that drives all meatball eating contest winners, bargain basement nick-nack collectors, artists and false prophets.  “Meaning” is a catch-all word that comes close.

Meaning, or its unnamed neighbor, is certainly what compels me to sustainability.  I’d be dishonest, in fact, to say that my first love — even within the “environmental” realm itself — is the sacred earth, though, thank God, it’s no less sacred for that.

I think, instead, that I ache for meaning’s unnamed neighbor, and this ache has led me to the earth, to religion, to other achers.   It’s the best stab I’ve found at the Best Way to Live.

But how do I live that life from here in this late-night, ticking kitchen?  Like a dragon eating her own tail, I squander sleep and annoy my sweet wife, and for what?  What answers do I expect to find between now and midnight?

As alwasy, I finally succumb to the first and best: Go to bed.

Holy Saturday
April 13, 2009, 9:37 pm
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This last Saturday I spent a few hours in a secret spot I recently found, a Healing Spot, where a trail spurs off the MKT, quickly loses confidence, and peters off into wild grass.   A muddy creek ambles, Mississippi-like, along the far left perimeter of the top photo here.  In the creek, fish make habitats in discarded tires; beside the creek, thick vines wrap around forgotten farm machinery; high above the creek, on a steep ridge older than the alphabet, stands a sparse herd of massive, grazing condominiums.   Someone’s leaf-blower blares, and then is quiet again.  Soon after I hear the lone eagle-whistle of a hawk.  Three hours in, a pair of geese amble along the undergrowth on the opposite bank from where I read, write and encourage myself to enjoy a grapefruit that is far too sour.  The geese stumble down the bank, cautious, squat and clumsy, before regaining their grace in the water and mud.  It all seems a fitting place to spend some time between Good Friday and Easter.

Already there is change — growth — since last time I was here.  The trees were just budding on Wednesday; now their tiny leaves make promise of a canopy.  The creek, after two days of rain, is up and muddy now, more Southern looking.  It aches for a rope swing, pecan trees, a raft.  I realize that for the first time in a good while, I see relationship here: if not permanence, longevity.

I’m not used to seeing this in the Healing Spots I find.  Often enough I find Truth and Beauty in these places — Sublimity, even.  but never longevity.  Moving as much as I have, with my eye as fixated as it’s been on the Future (always elsewhere), my Healing Spots were places to be, but not to settle.

Wendell Berry would have a thing or two to say to me.  I have no doubt he would have some stern, fatherly words to share about my promiscuity of place these last twenty years — how quick I’ve been to say I “loved” the far-away nooks to which I’ve traveled or the communities I’ve dabbled in for a month or two, a year or two, at a time.   Like Bonhoeffer’s distaste for cheap grace, Berry has suffered little patience for cheap place or its shareholders.  He won’t allow me any easy assurance that I “live” somewhere, that I “love” “my” “home.”  For him, we’ll never deserve to claim a place as “ours” that we will not defend, keep and serve.  We’ll never defend, keep and serve a place we do not love.  And, whatever we say, we’ll never love a place we have not married, complete with vows.  So what if I, in my travels, drank a place in deeply now and then?  Don’t adulturers do the same?

Have I loved places (can one love places, plural? How many? How truly?) or have I instead enjoyed sceneries, scenes?

It would be uncharitable, wrong-headed, to take this line of argument too far.  I have loved — do love — places, plural.  I love the rocky coastland of British Columbia.  I love the Blue Ridge Mountains where, from time to time, I was raised.  And I even love my new Healing Spot, three miles from here, along a creek whose name I don’t even know. But there are wildly different depths of love, so much so that each deserves a different name.

Do you love me? Jesus asked Peter, soon before he was betrayed. “Yes, Lord”, we answered, “You know that I do.”

Watch your child grow up here; feel my mud between your toes.

Not an environmentalist
April 1, 2009, 8:20 pm
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No, an everythingist.

I want to save the whales because I want to save everything.  I want to save the plankton.  The drifting coke bottle.

I want to see things work out for the planet because the planet, to this point, has extended the same decency to me.

I want to see things work out for the planet because I want my grandchild to hear — and maybe play — Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A.  I don’t even know which one that is — I googled it.  But I want my grandchild to do better.  Go farther.  Google it on a mountaintop.  At sunset.

I want to see things work out for the planet because the story just comes out better that way, without all the suffering.  At least without so much.

I want to see things work out for the planet because Grandma had such hope for us.  I want to show her that we’re okay.  That we’re not as dumb as we look.

I want to see things work out for the planet because I’ve spent more time than I’d like to admit adrift in space, admiring new constellations and space-seas of dust, resting a while on this earth or that moon.  I tried to tell myself each new planet was a fit.  But you always wind up weary in another atmosphere.   There’s none like home.

I want to see things work out for the planet because without saving something, I don’t know what to do with myself.  Left alone with my neuroses, I would spend all day at my screen, helplessly googling the prayer.  Save it.  save it.  save it.

confessions of a repentant careerist
March 29, 2009, 12:27 pm
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. . . his education had had the curious effect of making things that he read and wrote more real to him than things he saw.  Statistics about agricultural labourers were the substance; any real ditcher, ploughman, or farmer’s boy, was the shadow.  Though he had never noticed it himself, he had a great reluctance, in his work, ever to use such words as ‘man’ or ‘woman.’  He preferred to write about ‘vocational groups,’ ‘elements,’ ‘classes’ and ‘populations’: for, in his own way, he believed as firmly as any mystic in the superior reality of the things that are not seen.

– C.S. LEWIS, That Hideous Strength

This morning I pull the quote above, not from Lewis’s fantastic sci-fi trilogy, but from the epigraph of Wendell Berry’s essay, “Jefferson, Morrill, and the Upper Crust” (The Unsettling of America).

The quote — the whole article — leaves me in a much better mood than ought to be the case.  I’m a little puzzled myself at the dumb grin I’ve been savoring for the last half hour.  You’d think, to look at me, that I’d just read some obscure passage in which Berry praised (at long last!) the drifting, bathrobed and disheveled squanderer of a gorgeous Sunday morning.

What I read this morning, instead, was a full-on assault on one of my deepest seated aspirations: a musty old office and patched-sleeved tweed.  You got it: professordom.

Take this cheery description — fairly representative of the whole chapter:

“The professor,” says Berry, “lives in his career, in a ghetto of career-oriented fellow professors.  Where he may be geographically is of little interest to him.  One’s career is a vehicle, not a dwelling; one is concerned less for where it is than for where it will go.”  Such a professor, moreover, “would rather be professionally reputable than locally effective.”

Again, I’m lost as to why this lambasting would make me smile.  I’m certainly not grinning from some loophole I think I’ve found — Berry’s talking about me here.  If I’m not careful, twenty years from now I’ll look back on Berry’s words and pour myself a very tall medicinal scotch.

What gives me joy, I think, is that I can actually feel my ambition ebbing out of me.  For the last three years or so the sensation has continued — a slow leak, not unpleasant, like urination.  Oh, the grace of this!  After three years or so of considering non-academic life, I’ve returned to it without really giving a damn about school reputations or tenure-track hoops.  I don’t care, halalujah!  I don’t care!

And I’ve always loved and most amired those professors and classmates who’ve proven exceptions to Berry’s rule — the ones who’ve fully derailed from the tenure track (or not even!) to set up safe-havens for heroine addicts, to lead at-risk youth programs, to build gardens where there used to be weeds and swirling eddies of Cheetos bags.

And these were theology professors.  Ancient language professors.  If they can do it, Mr. Berry, I know there’s hope for the social work professor or rural sociologist, whose subject matter is — at least arguably — a shade closer to the actual “man” or “woman” who often gets left behind.

Whatever the “discipline,” though, the risk always remains to get lost in the “superior reality of the things that are not seen.”  Which is why,  if I do head that way, I’m gonna post a photo of Wendel Berry on my desk.  Underneath, he’ll remind me of the stakes in the game: “The professor … would rather be professionally reputable than locally effective.”

Preachy Green and idiot dreams
March 25, 2009, 8:59 am
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Here I go blog-hopping again.

This ain’t the first time.

As goes the routine, I’ll hack at the new blog for a while (here, for example), and then finally back off because I don’t see … myself … in what I’ve written.  Or maybe, more to the point, I see a side of myself I don’t much care for: the preachy, whiny, stuffy self.  Trying-too-hard self.  What’s worse, I see a self I feel estranged from: display-case-only Nate.  Fake Nate.  I’m not sure why.

It’s not that I’m being dishonest when I turn “activist blogger” — I mean every word of what I say.  If anything, I mean it too much — I’m overly sincere.  Sky is falling sincere.  To pare back, then, I mince my words.

Sheesh.  After a while, the activist blog-o-the month begins to feels like the site of a love affair — codependent as all get out — between passion and obligation.  Something just feels wrong. It’s so high school, all the insecurity.

So I return to my other blog, and for a while I feel the comfort and satisfaction that always comes when I’ve found my voice again.  “My voice” — I have to chuckle: completely untrained, bucking all guidance, entirely beyond my control.  I tell “my voice” to cobble a post on local living, and it winds up rifting on a strip of bacon.  Turns out, said voice isn’t mine at all.  That’s what I love about it.  For a while I simply enjoy myself.

Gradually, though, the circle comes back around again.  Always does.  The urge to “speak out” — whatever that means — returns in force.

I begin hearing, ringing in my ears, that old refrain: If all I do is read about inequality, peak oil, green jobs and the rest, isn’t that just another form of entertainment?  Would the world be any worse off if I had spent all that time on a Baywatch marathon?  Sure, Bill McKibben might convince me to ride my bike a little more.  And granted, Wendell Berry might talk me into burying a tomato or two in the spring (sorry — gardening is still new to me).  But I just can’t shake the sense that these little acts aren’t enough.  There’s more “doing” to do here.  Writing is also “doing.”  And without learning to tame my writing — difficult as that may be — to speak on the activist issues I care about, whatever else I’m “doing” is simply not enough.

Lord.  Beginning this post, I thought I’d be here to talk myself out of People’s Green.  It’s not working.

I mean, seriously: Am I a sissy, or am I willing to keep working at this project that I started — hard as it is to get some discipline to my bratty, do-whatever-it-wants-to “voice”?  Time will tell.  Proof’s in the blogging.

Here’s a compromise: I’ll quit pretending I’m Mark Trail.  I’ll try to be a little more “myself” — unleash my natural goofiness, embrace my own ignorance and naivety.  But I’ll keep at it.

Meanwhile, I’ll also take a stab again at occasionally “greening” idiot dreams.  If a couple weeks pass and I’ve added nothing here, that’s likely where I’ll be.

The Happy Chapter
March 20, 2009, 8:24 am
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“More than any time in history mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness.  The other, to total extinction.  Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”

Woody Allen is always good for a deep belly laugh, generally followed by an afternoon gorging on Oreos, trying to stave off a classic post-Woody Allen funk.  The man’s comic genius — as is often the case — is the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down.

What medicine?  In this case, the Medicine of Gloom.  James Howard Kunstler-otussin.  The caster oil-o-calamity: That the polar caps are melting, we’re running out of oil, the poor of the earth are starving and the earth is hurtling into the sun.

I, for one, am on the lookout for new medicine.  After a couple of months of absorbing the stuff, I’ve learned one thing for sure: the side effects for Gloom are a bear.  Perhaps you’ve read Kunstler yourself (I’ve been weaned on The Long Emergency — a great book and a good place to start).  Or maybe you’ve recently watched, as I have, Timothy Bennett’s film, What a Way to Go: Life at the End of Empire.

If so, you’ll know that what Kunstler and Bennett have in common isn’t just their keen insights on peak oil and the State of the World Today.  It’s their proud omission of the “happy chapter” (Bennett) at the end of every proverbial book — their disavowal of the much-despised Silver Lining that might cast some nauseating ray of hope into their rooms.

They could be right.  Indeed, I’m convinced by much — if not most — of what they say.  We earth-dwellers, especially the poorest among us, do indeed have a lot on our plate for the next hundred years.

And before I get to the inevitable “but”, let me say too that I don’t believe Kunstler and Bennett are just peddling snake oil — their conviction that, in Dave Letterman’s recent words, “we’re screwed“, is every bit sincere.  And lest we forget, both have ample evidence to justify their interminable long faces.

“The Dour” — like the Dark Side — is cunning, contagious.  I have to admit its allure, as my occasional doom-and-glooming even here in PG can attest.

But Kunstler, Bennett and their ilk have made an industry of pessimism, and I for one need to take a step away from such confident fatalism.  I need less of The Dour.   More Van Jones, Arjun Mahkijani, Lester Brown.  More “challenge of our lifetimes.”  More Happy Chapter.