Tag Archive 'the human condition'

Jan 27 2017

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The Forest Makes Sense

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Coaxed by my canine companion, I head for the woods in the middle of the day to tramp around for an hour or so. I’m in dire need of it. I work too much, think too much, and pay too close attention to breaking news. The madness of civilization is closing in on me. I need a time out. And the forest always makes sense.

Snow crunches underfoot. A crow calls in the distance. The chilling air and woody silence draws me out of my head and into the here/now. I lay a set of tracks towards nowhere, nowhere in particular. And that’s exactly where I need to be.

The Righteous spill blood in the name of God. Others think torture is a better way to go. Intelligent people tout the wonders of modern medicine that no one can afford. Fools build nuclear weapons when they can’t even feed themselves. The cagy build island fortresses to claim the sea as their own. The naive watch glaciers melt and break out the suntan lotion. Billionaires scramble for ways to make more money. The desperate seek refuge in deadly drugs. The fearful put up walls to keep strangers out, unaware that they are building their own prisons. Everyone acts surprised when computers are hacked and valuable information is stolen. A few devise excursions to other planets, as if that will solve everything. Meanwhile, motorists race to their deaths while more sedentary folk sit before televisions believing everything they see. And people say I’m crazy for hiking alone in the woods.

Snow crunches underfoot. After laying tracks for a while, the heaviness I felt earlier in the day begins to lift. I find woodpecker holes in a dead tree and start considering possibilities that I hadn’t considered before – the endless possibilities of the wild. The forest makes sense. Nature makes sense. And my dog is happier sniffing around than I will ever be. That doesn’t seem right. I’m the sapient creature, aren’t I? Why can’t I be happy all the time? Why isn’t my kind happy all the time?

Returning home, I consider my options. Should I start my own holy war? Or should I ignore the world and seek solace elsewhere? I turn my computer back on instead. There’s work to be done.

 

 

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Jan 17 2017

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Divisiveness

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On the eve of a major shift of power in these dis-United States, I feel the urge to speak out for sanity even though I don’t know much about such things. My own grasp of reality is tenuous, and I struggle daily to maintain it. All the same, I see madness breaking out all around me – exceptional even by the standards of our time.

It is not just a matter of liberal versus conservative. That’s an old argument, as common as the sun rising. No, it goes much deeper than that. When liberals fight with liberals and conservatives fight with conservatives, you know there is big trouble afoot. As Westerners, we watch Arabs fighting with Arabs then shake our heads at the absurdity of their divisiveness, wondering why they don’t see it. Well, now we know. Now we are the same way.

On a bookshelf in my study sits a ceramic log cabin. It’s a recently acquired family heirloom that reminds me of a fantasy I’ve nurtured most of my life: to someday retreat to a cabin deep in the woods. No, not a Thoreauvian experiment in self-sufficiency, but instead an escape from what I call the madness of civilization. Is such an escape even possible in these modern times? How deep would I have to go to escape property taxes, liability insurance, and all the other trappings of civil society? Could it be anything short of an outlaw existence? Would I still be able to access the Internet?

Whether we like it or not, we are all connected now. The world in the 21st century is truly global. The nationalistic urges cropping up all over the place are only longings for the good ol’ days, when us-versus-them was easy, when our tanks met with their tanks on the battlefield and the winner took all. Hmm… Not so easy nowadays, is it? I know the Chinese are up to no good but I still buy their stuff at Walmart. How about you? Do you really believe that you can live your life these days in any way that isn’t globalized?

Cursed with a tendency to philosophize, I can’t help but see the flaws inherent in any worldview that I or anyone else could possibly devise. Like everyone else, I am only human. My reasoning powers are imperfect no matter how hard I try to make sense of things. That said, just imagine the difficulty I have in the voting booth, thrashing about in the quagmire of good and evil while selecting people to run the government. Oh, the righteous have it so easy by comparison. They know exactly who to pick, and who to shoot at when the war breaks out.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m no peacenik. I know we can’t all just get along, and I know the difference between right and wrong. I know, for example, that rounding up the millions of people that you don’t like and putting them in gas chambers is a really bad idea. And when a True Believer goes down that dark road, there’s only one way to stop them from creating hell on earth. But the problems that humankind creates for itself cannot ultimately be resolved by armed conflict. That’s a fantasy even greater than my cabin in the woods.

One could argue that globalism is exactly what fuels our divisiveness. When there was plenty of space between the few bands of hominids roaming the earth thousands of years ago, there was a lot less fighting no doubt. With over 7 billion of us crowding the earth now, and technology connecting us, major conflicts are inevitable. We can’t just retreat to our own little corners any more and ignore everyone else. So we must find a way, somehow, to live together. And that begins with tolerance.

Being wild at heart, I still escape to the woods whenever I can, to breathe easy for a while, get a handle on myself, and find my place in the world. But these forays are temporary. I spend most of my days living among my own kind in the developed lowlands where conflicts abound, doing my best to be as civil as possible. And that, I believe, is what all men and women should do: be as civil to each other as possible. The alternative is so ugly that I don’t even want to consider it. That which divides us could easily destroy us all.

 

 

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Oct 27 2011

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Hard Choices

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Critics here in Vermont say that the huge wind turbines atop our beloved Green Mountains are not just an eyesore, they kill birds and disrupt the forest ecology as well. Solar power is viable as long as the sun is shining, but it’s expensive, isn’t it? Biofuels threaten our food supply. Hydro power screws up our streams. Coal and oil are both dirty, of course. Natural gas is clean, as fossil fuels go, but fracking pollutes the ground water. Nuclear power is both clean and cheap… until the plants leak and it’s time to shut them down. Burning wood is great until you run out of trees. So what does that leave? Tidal power? Hydrogen? Cold fusion?

Have to get our power from somewhere. There are seven billion people on the planet and counting. The demand for power is growing much faster in industrializing countries like India and China than it is in the highly consumptive West. In the near future, humanity will need more power, not less. So where are we going to get it?

Climate change is the sword of Damocles hanging over us. The more we mess with Mother Nature, the more she messes with us. It’s just a matter of time before all hell breaks loose. Can we avoid global catastrophe? Collectively we seem to lack the political will to do so. Besides, denial runs strong and deep among those who immediately benefit from the status quo, and they cast just enough doubt on the subject to keep the rest of us complacent.  More to the point, it’s hard for the average person to think beyond what he or she is paying at the gas pump.

So what are we to do? Gnash our teeth and say we’re all doomed? Protest our least favorite energy source? Blame those whose economies are stronger than ours? Simply ignore the situation?

Clearly we have plenty of choices, there’s just no perfect solution. The big question is this: Do we have moral courage enough to make the best possible choices for our great grandchildren? I’ll leave that for you to ponder, dear reader, and keep my cynicism to myself.

 

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Feb 24 2010

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The Madness of Civilization

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Civilization is indoor plumbing, a dependable food supply, health care, waste management and the social contract among other things, not to mention a host of amenities. Civilization is good for so many reasons that I am reluctant to speak ill of it, even when I’m feeling the wildest of urges.  Then comes tax time and suddenly I’m face-to-face with the absolute madness of it.  Those of you who do your own taxes and can’t use the EZ form know exactly what I’m talking about.  There are 101 ways that civil society can drive one to distraction, but none quite as effectively tax preparation.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not against paying income taxes.  I leave that complaint to those who think they can fund a well-oiled government by other means.  I’m against the madness of the tax code in general, that has turned tax preparation into a cottage industry in this country.  But an inordinately complex and downright absurd tax code is exactly what you get when you let a bunch of lawyers and other congressmen fight over the rules of it for a hundred years.  Good thing I studied advanced mathematics back in college.  Unfortunately, I studied logic as well.

The madness of civilization isn’t limited to tax code.  Far from it.  There is also airport security, civil litigation, lobbying, insurance, plea bargaining, internet fraud, financial derivatives, bundled mortgages, gridlock, an emergency-room health care system and the war on terror, whatever that means.  I could go on but there’s no need.  You know what I’m talking about.  The madness of civilization are all those vexing aspects of modern living that we’ve simply come to accept. . . until they affect us personally.  Then we tear our hair out.

Emerson, Thoreau and those other Romantic thinkers of the 19th Century turned to wild nature for escape from the hustle and bustle of industrializing society, but that seems like a rather quaint notion to those of us living today.  We are buried in corporate and governmental bureaucracy, menaced constantly by false advertisements, mind-numbing paperwork, irrational rules, conflicting facts and doublespeak.  Nowadays, we turn to the wild out of sheer desperation.  Without it, there is no way to achieve balance – no way to know what is real and what is not.

When I was on the Appalachian Trail last summer, I noticed a direct correlation between the overall well being of those I encountered and how long they had been in the woods.  The long-distance hikers were the happiest.  What’s wrong with this picture?  What is it about modern living that makes torrential downpours, blood-sucking insects, mud, sweat and the many other miseries of wilderness travel look good?  All nature-lovers marvel at the beauty and wonder of wildness, but it’s what they don’t say that gets my attention.  Clearly, the madness affects us all.

An aerodynamics expert once told me that the best airplane designs are the most elegant ones, meaning that truly advanced technologies are marked by their simple beauty.  Systems grow more and more cumbersome until finally a quantum leap occurs and suddenly they’re user-friendly.  Computer software design in the 80s and 90s is a good example of this.  The same can be said about social systems, I think.  And with this in mind, we ought rightly to turn to wild nature for guidance.  Otherwise humankind is doomed to live out the rest of its days in a rat maze entirely of its own making.

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Dec 23 2009

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A Wish List

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‘Tis the season for giving, so here’s a short list of the things I wish I could give all the children in the world, those living and those not born yet:

  • Sufficient food, clothing and shelter
  • Plenty of clean water
  • A sense of belonging, family and friends
  • A place to call home
  • Basic health care
  • A good education
  • Free thought and free speech
  • A green world in which to live
  • Meaningful work
  • A wild place to roam free

These are all things I currently enjoy that many people don’t.  They are also things that could be in very short supply fifty years from now. Until they are available to everyone, Peace on Earth will only be a pipe dream.  We’d better get on it.

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Sep 30 2009

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Alienation and the Wild

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A month after hiking the 100 Mile Wilderness, I still feel the tug of the wild.  This wouldn’t be a problem if society weren’t pulling me in a different direction.  Oh sure, I have my circle of friends who know and love the wild as much as I do, but society at large seems to be disconnected from it.  And that puts every woods wanderer in a tight spot.

How can one maintain a connection to both society and the wild?  It’s tricky, to say the least.  I didn’t invent this conundrum.  Thoreau wrestled with it a hundred and fifty years ago, as did every other 19th Century woods wanderer.  Entire communities have arisen to address this problem.  Maybe I should join one.  But no, beneath every such community lurks a religious, social or political agenda of some sort.  And the one thing the wild teaches you is to go your own way.

A wild animal is, by definition, one that isn’t caged.  Same goes for a man or woman.  I ran wild for a couple weeks in the Maine Woods.  Now here I am, hustling to make a buck, promoting my so-called literary career, and trying my best to treat others decently in the process.  I get up every morning and read the newspaper.  My wife and I discuss the state of affairs over coffee and breakfast, then we set to work on one thing or another.  I’m rarely bored by society at large.  All the same, I can’t quite relate to it.

The health care fight and other congressional debacles; pirates, scam artists, ad men and drug traffickers; rogue nations with big missiles they call dongs; lawyers and lies; broke desperadoes living in motels; angry demonstrators raising their fists for peace and love – the list goes on.  Homo sapiens is, above all else, a patently absurd creature.  Am I any different?  Of course not, but at least I know what a fool I am.  Most people take themselves way too seriously.

Perhaps the word “alienation” is too strong.  It’s more of an inner tension, really, between conflicting interests and realities.  Don’t get me wrong.  I like being clean, dry and warm.  I like waking up next to my wife in a soft bed, making myself a cup of coffee with the mere push of a button, and eating whatever I feel like eating.  This cushy, utterly civilized life has its amenities, no doubt.  But there are times when my gut reacts violently to it.  There are times when I read something and feel an overwhelming desire to throw up.

Maybe it’s just the printer’s ink.  Maybe it’s those perfumed swatches inserted in newspapers and magazines that are making me sick.  Maybe I should stop reading altogether, go crawl into a hole and stay there.  But no, denial won’t resolve this matter.  Somehow, someway, I’ve got to bring the wild home and keep it there.  Somehow I have to bring society and the wild together.  Good luck with that!  Thoreau couldn’t do it.  What makes me think I can?

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Jun 15 2009

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The Passage of Time

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Last week I hiked up Bamforth Ridge.  Stretching six miles from the Winooski River to the top of Camel’s Hump, this ridge is the longest, hardest base-to-summit climb in Vermont.  I figured it would be a good place to train for my upcoming Maine trek – a good place to test my limits, that is.  On that count I wasn’t disappointed.

I puffed halfway up the ridge before the hike became difficult.  Then I pushed myself another mile uphill, overcoming gravity by sheer force of will until reaching an exposed knob with a nearly 360-degree view.  Good enough.  I broke for lunch with the summit still looming large in front of me.  Then I turned back.

Going uphill was relatively easy – just a matter of will.  Going downhill was another matter.  Knees don’t lie.  With each step they reminded me that my strongest hiking days have passed.  A walking stick helped, but there’s no getting around the physical reality of a half century of wear and tear, as much as a forever-young Baby Boomer like me wants to deny it.

Yesterday I finished reading a book by Lester Brown called Eco-Economy.  It’s a rehash of his somewhat Malthusian notions concerning the limits of growth – concepts that I first encountered back in college in the 70s.  Industrialization and population are outpacing food production and other natural resources.  No big news there.  But what bothered me is just how little progress we’ve made during the past thirty-odd years.  Well into the 21st Century now, we’re still having the same eco-arguments.  Meanwhile, the math worsens and collective human misery keeps rising.  Being that I belong to the sixth of humanity that’s on top of the heap, I probably shouldn’t worry about it.  But I do.

My grandson, Mason, came to me the other day wearing a green bush hat and said with a great big smile:  “I’m just like you, Grandpa!”  I nodded my head, acknowledging that he is.  Mason loves being outdoors.  When he was three, he cried when his Mommy made him go back inside.  At five, he’s ready to plunge deep into the woods, to take on the world.  Soon he’ll be on the trail with me.

I still have work to do.  I don’t know how but somehow I have to help break the deadlock that exists in human affairs.  Old arguments, polarized stances and antiquated worldviews must be abandoned in favor of something that actually works – something that will make the world a better place for all the Masons out there.  The time has come to be pragmatic, meet enemies halfway, and get things done.  Thirty years of the same old eco-arguments, for chrissakes.  Talk is cheap.

Bamforth Ridge kicked my ass, but I’m ready to do it all over again.  I’m ready for another big hike.  I’m still moving despite the passage of time.  Hard to say whether my kind and I will ever get anywhere, but we’re moving all the same.  No sense stopping.  And when we’re done, Mason and his generation will carry on.  Why shouldn’t they?  Time passes, but it’s never too late to take on the world.

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May 20 2009

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Money Matters

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Even though I don’t consider myself a materialist, I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about money.  Who hasn’t?  For most of us living in middle-class America these days, money is more about survival than it is the endless acquisition of goods.  My wife, Judy, and I are concerned about keeping a roof over our heads, food in the cupboards and the other basics of life.  We worry about future prospects for some kind of retirement, health care, and all the rest of it.  These are hard times, certainly – not nearly as bad as the Great Depression, we are told, but worse than anything we’ve ever seen before.  And we keep wondering when it’s all going to turn around.

The other day Judy remarked that springtime seems especially beautiful this year.  I agree, it is.  Why is that?  I suspect that it has something to do with survival, with all the time and energy we’ve devoted to money matters since the economy took a turn for the worse.  After a long pow-wow about cutting back our expenses, just in case, we looked up from our porch chairs and were pleasantly surprised to find the world just as beautiful as it has always been – as if money doesn’t matter at all.  How strange.

Money does matter, and what we are experiencing in America these days is what most of the people on this planet deal with every day.  Many of them are worse off than the average unemployed American – much, much worse off.  I read somewhere recently that a billion people go to bed hungry every night.  That’s almost one in six people.  Simple facts like this keep things in perspective.

How dare I ramble on and on about the wonders of wild nature while a billion bellies are growling, when the future is so uncertain!  Sometimes I am ashamed of my wild thoughts and feel guilty about the long walks in the woods that I enjoy while so many people are suffering.  Then someone else mentions the scent of lilacs in the air, the rat-a-tat of a woodpecker knocking, or the luxuriant feel of a handful of dirt.  Then I nod my head in deep reverence.  These are things that keep us going.  These are things that matter.

What is the point of living if there is no joy in it?  What is easier to enjoy than a colorful sunset, a cool breeze in the morning, a few notes sung by a songbird, or anything green?  When one’s belly is full, of course.  I don’t know how to turn the economy around or how to fix all the world’s woes, but I do know that we’ll be in deep trouble the day we loose our appetite for the simple pleasures of life.  Without it we would be only so many desperados bouncing off each other in search of a quick fix.  So let’s try to enjoy the things commonly found in nature even as we take care of the difficult business at hand.

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Apr 02 2009

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Building Walls to Save Forests

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I read in the newspaper yesterday that the government of the Brazilian state of Rio de Janeiro is going to build ten-foot walls around the slums of that big city in order to protect the nearby urban rainforest from further deforestation.  This is wrong on so many levels that it makes my head spin.  But I can’t think of a better issue to ponder today, as the G20 tackles the world’s economic woes.

Naturally, as a guy who has made woods wandering the central focus of his life, I’m all for preserving forests wherever they may be.  That’s why I get this sick feeling when I read stories like this one.  The Rio government is pandering to the likes of me – to affluent, nature-loving people in Rio de Janeiro and elsewhere, who are deeply concerned about the mass extinction of plants and animals as well as global warming.  Yeah, they know how to package it.

Reality check:  the burgeoning slums in question have destroyed 500 acres of urban rainforest during the last three years.  Since 2000, about 150,000 square kilometers of Amazon rainforest have disappeared.  Quite a difference, I’d say.  Besides that, isn’t the term “urban rainforest” something of an oxymoron?

Using the Internet, I dug deeper into this matter only to learn that the project managers think this wall will significantly reduce the drug-related violence spreading from the slums to the city’s richer quarters.  How convenient.  Two solutions for the price of one.

Yes, Brazil is one of the countries attending the G20 summit.  With the world’s tenth largest economy and a population of nearly 200 million, it’s force to be reckoned with, no doubt.  But when I read about walls being built around slums to save urban forests, I can’t help but wonder who’s in charge there and what their priorities are.  Looking out for their poorest citizens isn’t at the top of their list, obviously.

The world is small and getting smaller.  What happens in a rainforest thousands of miles away affects those of us living here.  What happens to the Brazilian people affects us, as well.  Both the economy and the environment are global, so we should care about what happens in faraway places.  But in the Age of Information, bullshit travels at the speed of light.  We would be wise to keep this in mind the next time the politicos here, at the G20 summit, and elsewhere tell us what they are doing to make things better.

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Mar 10 2009

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Malthusian Economics

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When ecologists speak of the limits of growth, conservative businessmen everywhere cringe.  It’s as if the tree-huggers were uttering blasphemy – as if the very tenets of capitalism were being dragged through the streets then nailed to a cross.  Ecology is just a cover for socialism, these conservatives say, and it will ultimately undermine all economic progress.  This attitude amazes me.  What amazes me even more is that so many ecologists also believe that capitalism and ecology are mutually exclusive belief systems.  Doesn’t anyone read Thomas Malthus anymore?

In 1798, the political economist Thomas Malthus published The First Essay on Population in which he stated quite clearly that population, when unchecked, increases geometrically, while the food subsistence increases only arithmetically.  This line of reasoning is ironclad, and it doesn’t take a math whiz to see where it leads.  Planet Earth is a finite quantity.  Eventually, given enough people gobbling away at it, we’ll use up all the resources here.  It’s only a matter of when.  The key phrase is “when unchecked.”  But that, of course, implies limits to population growth, either man-made or natural.

Malthusian economics isn’t so much a doomsday scenario as it is a way of quantifying human misery.  The prospect of starvation cuts right to the heart of the matter, but human misery can manifest itself in many other ways.  War, disease, famine, wholesale death – when the Four Horsemen ride, there is plenty of human misery to go around.  The real question is: why should the rich care?

Some rich people believe that their property rights are sacrosanct, yet there is nothing written in nature that prevents one life form from seizing the resources held by another. How easily we forget this as we go about our affairs in the complex web of relations that we call civilization.  The struggle for existence dominates all of nature.  In the wild, any anything goes.  It is only when we, as humans, think, plan ahead and make rules that the game changes.  So what will it be then?  What rules best promote the well being of all parties involved?  I think this is the point that Malthus was trying to make.

Green economics are coming hard and fast.  Why?  Because it’s in the best of interest of the vast majority of people on this planet to slow population growth, optimize natural resources, convert to renewable energy, preserve what’s left of wild nature, and create a world where our kind can be happy and healthy for hundreds of years to come, maybe even thousands.  The alternative to this, as Malthus was trying to show us, is wholesale misery and death.

We’re the ones in the driver’s seat.  We’re the ones with the big brains, thinking ahead, making plans, dreaming up new rules and living accordingly.  So what will it be then?  Green economics or Malthusian?  Civilization is a human construct.  The choice is ours.

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