Land Marks

I don't understand everything I'm involved in.

- Wendell Berry

Photo by Patrick Baz

Photo by Patrick Baz

Why do we destroy what we love? 

I grew up in a ratty, rural stretch of North Carolina surrounded by farm land, and I did a lot of rambling. One day I set off on a familiar shortcut through the woods but soon discovered my pathway blocked by mounds and mounds of ... trash. Old microwaves and TVs, sofas and mops, bottles of Windex, and the shapeless and neon plastic miscellany that accumulate over a modern lifetime.

As it turns out, our neighbor's old mother had died, and rather than pay the dump fee at the county landfill he emptied the contents of her house into the woods--his woods. 

I've cited this experience in intelligent circles, thinking it underscored a clever point: that people can live close to the land and still destroy it. Trash it, mine it, graze it into dusty and compacted oblivion.

The stereotypes are readily at hand--the "white trash" tendencies of shabby rural abodes to accumulate junk comes to mind. I thought it meant that those people just weren't thinking correctly. Maybe they didn't read enough Wendell Berry.

But maybe I had it wrong. There is an an implicit ethic in rural areas of dealing in tangible materials. Could there be an intimacy to scattering one's belongings across generational land, to be slowly subsumed in the humid forest for generations yet to come? Maybe there's something dear about mining my mountains--about yielding a lifetime of possessions into my forest. 

Recently I've been reckoning with my own rural roots, and have realized the degree to which I've strangely identified as a middle-class suburbanite, despite growing up with marked financial deficits and never living in the suburbs. I grew up relatively isolated, not attending school until college, so I never claimed "country folk" as my people, and subsequent friendships with more urban and well-off peers have no doubt shifted my cultural locus geographically and economically far off its real center of gravity.

Reviewing my upbringing with a native eye, I find I understand a lot more of it than I thought possible. There is a grounded sensibility within rural mindsets that is difficult to describe. 

In contrast to it, the consumer hypocrisy of progressive, educated, urbanites has been fodder for many a hot take. It's not my intention to recapitulate that in full, but there are a few things I've got to say, hopefully without trafficking much in tropes.

The first is that the urbanist mindset--by which I mean the mental state that allows us to navigate urban life without suffering too much cognitive dissonance--is one of NIMBYism-by-design. Generally speaking, cities are hubs of extraordinary abstraction, where the material implications of the ideas and products exchanged in the urban market are not readily apprehended. It's simply not the job of cities to respect natural boundaries, because cities were built by and for the surplus of natural boundaries transgressed.

Dealing with resources in rural areas means we confront our consumption more directly. But much of American society is both obsessed with and made uneasy by consumption. With our national DNA rooted in Englightment thought, it's no surprise that we are uncomfortable with the more atomic and base nature of our being.

We're fabulous consumers of packaged and assembled market goods, yet we're not very accountable to our primary resources--of the blood, the flesh, the oil, the bile, the semen, and the water we depend on to survive. We talk a good game about clean energy while making relatively few personal efforts to achieve such, and view coal companies and their employees with smug disdain. We say we don't want to kill animals to eat them, so we source our protein from remote places whose histories we cannot know, whose extirpated animals we cannot recall, and whose land injustices we remain oblivious to. We all use wood and paper and we rage when our national parks are opened to logging companies.

The hypocrisy is real--so real as to be banal and commonplace--and we all know it. It may not be by design, but it's a byproduct of design: what could be better for a capitalist economy than for people to be able profess their precious moral code publicly, while privately contradicting it without consequence? We can easily achieve secure the cache of being progressive and informed, but without demanding the systems of production to actually change. 

Where can we go, if we maintain that we have already arrived?

This is something that folks living far removed from nature may have trouble reconciling: the sense of accountability that causes us to brazenly spoil the land near to us. Progressive city folk celebrate local food, while some of their poorer and more rural counterparts re-localize their trash.

Yet consider how we get piercings and tattoos on our own volition, but would reject and feel violated by anyone else having such designs upon our flesh. There's a transpersonal identification that happens when you feel you belong to a place. It's hard to explain, and impossible to justify the ugly ways in which it's expressed. But it's there.

I'm not justifying our abuses of land. There's plenty wrong--plenty that is simply dysfunctional. Notions of ownership is a double-edged sword. Yet maybe it's my own feral and rural-raised brain talking, but desecration of a landscape through scattered trash, and anointing it with consecrating objects, seem like two points on a circle.