I rode my horse out through the woods the other day. It was a beautiful Autumn afternoon as golden light filtered through the trees. My horse was keen to graze in an open meadow, so we found a spot where he could forage for some greenery among the late season grasses.
On my ride out, I had been thinking about the widening gulf between the natural world and contemporary civilization. I had recently read Derrick Jensen’s anthology, How Shall I Live My Life: On Liberating the Earth from Civilization. In this collection of interviews, Jensen discusses the destructive dominant culture with various people who have devoted their lives to trying to re-vision it.
In the meadow, it seemed as if I were surrounded by the natural world.
There were birds, rabbits, deer, trees, grasses, insects and even a dried up creek bed. I could hear my horse snorting softly, with satisfaction, as he munched.
But, I also heard the sounds of the dominant culture’s industrialization — the railroad, the highway, chainsaws, lawn mowers, motorcycles, backhoes, leaf blowers, motorized children’s toys. All vestiges of our current civilization.
It didn’t have to go this way. We could have built a civilization that harmonized with our home, the Earth. But we didn’t. Instead, we built a civilization that revolved around money. And, as Marx said, money is dead. So, if we’ve built a culture around something that is dead, we will soon become dead ourselves. And kill the whole planet in the process.
As we begin to notice this, we can challenge the idea that a life motivated by desire for personal gain is either necessary or desirable. We can point to things like the collapse of the environment, suffering of the Third World, alienation, the harried style in which we live and the reductionistic values of most of Western culture.
To be fully human requires experiencing the spectacular formations of the planet: mountains, rivers, rock structures, wooded groves. We no longer do this as a matter of course. We don’t experience, in our day to day lives, the natural world surrounding us. We deny ourselves our deepest delight by not participating in the dawn, the dusk, the solstice, the night sky.
All that is left to most of us these days is the possibility of gaining a kind of romantic fulfillment in going to the lake or to the mountains, or in traversing wilderness areas. In our workaday existence, we no longer see trees as other beings with whom to commune. We live in a world of concrete and steel, of wires and wheels and mechanisms.
This is the tragedy that we pass on to our children. They don’t see the stars because of light pollution, they play on grass poisoned with pesticides, they can’t hear the insects because of noise from machines, they experience the world as circumscribed by so much human-made material.
Before civilization, humans lived in harmony with the natural world — as a part of it, not separate from it. Humans knew that the planet naturally produced, and naturally renewed itself. The planet is still trying to do this — but we are getting in its way. The Earth wants to offer itself to us not only for food, but in the sense of supplying awe and wonder. Yet we’re not willing to accept the gift.
As the sun began to set in the meadow, I experienced the lack of separation of the sacred and the secular in the natural world, as both spiritual and physical well-being were present at the same time.
My horse had eaten his fill and was ready to amble homeward. I left the meadow renewed, but with a question gnawing in my gut: can we ever undo the damage that our civilization has done? And, if not, to quote Derrick Jensen, just how should I live my life?
— Sherry Ackerman, Transition Voice