Breezes and Unseeing
“Every one of us is an experiment, and we don’t even know what the experiment is testing.”
—Bewilderment, Richard Powers
There’s a word I’ve been wondering about. In the mornings before the sun is up, before anyone in my house is up, including the dog, I try to step outside and just breathe. Bare feet on the frost, and if I’m lucky the stars are visible. Sirius most often, though not I think at this time of year (I could be looking in the wrong place or the wrong time; my astronomy knowledge is pretty scanty*).
Many mornings there’s the slightest movement in the air, too subtle to be called a breeze but not motionless. Detectable against the skin yet it doesn’t ruffle the hair.
I’m sure there’s a word somewhere for this non-wind, this infant-breeze. I looked up all kinds of wind once when writing a piece about taking my in-laws on a whale watching tour and how the wind battered us and all the seasickness that ensued, but I don’t remember reading of something this slight.
This air feels like the earth is whispering a greeting. Like the word I’m looking for is the kind of sleepy, smiling, mumbled “g’morning” I get from one of my kids on a summer day.
I finally picked up China Miéville’s The City & the City over the weekend (thanks for nudging me, Mike!), which I thoroughly enjoyed. In The American Scholar last month, Cullen Murphy wrote about the book in the context of what happens when social fabric collapses, when societies fall apart, but as I read I felt it was the opposite: it’s a parable of the lengths to which we’ll go to maintain our sense of reality even as what is actually in front of us contradicts every aspect of our beliefs about who we are and what that means.
It was impossible not to think of the kind of doublethink my father has described growing up in the Soviet Union, habits of belief, resignation, and the most cautious of trust in precious few relationships, or of how many of those habits have snapped back into place for people in Russia now, especially for those who’ve been through repression of thought and speech and art and expression before. (And also, for those in Ukraine, a visceral knowledge and memory of what they are fighting against.)
It becomes a survival mechanism to begin believing the reality that you’re told is the only acceptable one, the one that rejecting could land you in prison, just as, in The City & the City, the residents of Besźel and Ul Qoma are trained from a young age to unsee, unheard, and unsmell the other city, even as they spend their lives inhabiting the same space. Their ability to unsee the other city and identify only with their own becomes who they are, no matter how much to outsiders it’s obvious that they’re the same place.
There are lessons for us here, about the limits of facts and data, even the limits of reality itself, to compete with humans’ sense of identity, our most fiercely protected trait.
I wonder, as always, what will be lost in a data-filled and digitized future. What nuances and subtleties. Will our identities become hardened and firmed, even less capable of shifting than they are now? Will we forget the self-ordering complexity of the living planet and what it expects of us denizens?
A friend came over weekend before last with a couple of gooseberry bushes and we planted them in a snowstorm, digging into my garden’s heavy clay soil mixed with endless thistle roots and the blue-tinted sand that had been spit up when our well was drilled hundreds of feet underground. I watered everything throughly and then freezing weather settled in again for the week, culminating in a day that started with heavy snow, shifted later to hail, back to snow, then to sleet, and then back to soft snowflakes under a cleared-up sky with puffy clouds hit with the kind of gold-shook foil light that makes me think of Gerard Manley Hopkins poems.
Maybe there will be new iterations of life, some digitized version of the not-breeze I’ve come to look forward to in the mornings. But will there be friends bringing over gooseberry bushes, or gooseberries themselves? Will there be those morning moments when I can pretend the earth is saying hello with the tiniest shift of air?
I hope, whichever is the case or whatever iterations and variations show up, we’ll remember—or maybe learn for the first time—what it means to see the world as it is, not as we wish it.
*Which reminds me, if anyone knows how to interpret the information on the Aurora Alerts app, I’d be grateful. It gives all sorts of cool information about Kp values and solar winds but what I really need is to know when those numbers translate into: “Tonight would be a good bet for waking your kid up, driving an hour or so toward Polebridge, and letting her stay home from school the next day on the chance she’ll see the Northern Lights.”
There are quite a few new subscribers here thanks, I am guessing, to the kindness of Ed Roberson—host of Mountain & Prairie, one of my regular podcast listens—in mentioning this newsletter on his “Good News from the American West” updates. Thanks, Ed!
Welcome. The main focus of this newsletter is the commons—that is, the shared world we live in and how we manage to do that living together. Not an easy task most of the time, and often involving intense conflict between private property rights and shared resources. The overarching themes of this newsletter—which includes these triptych walking compositions as well as full-length essays—can be found in this first essay reflecting on misinformation and the invasion of Iraq, an essay on commodification, and one on white nationalism, the West, and the failures of large journalism narratives. Most published writing (as in published and edited in real places) can be found through my website, and my book on walking is available in all formats. I sometimes write on Medium but have no other social media.
I also talk about car supremacy and car-centric infrastructure, books I’m reading, embodied learning, and, most of all, my despair over knapweed and thistles. Please send help.
Thanks for joining! If it turns out not to be your jam, no hard feelings. This post from January explains why this newsletter is currently free, and when and why it’s shifting to a paid version. Just remember the code word is “tribble.”
Some stuff to read, listen to, or watch:
Jessica Camille Aguirre writing in Nautilus on the oceans’ decreasing levels of oxygen: “The changes observed in the field are twice as dramatic as scientific predictions. In other words, the oceans may be suffocating twice as fast as scientists expect. ‘A lot of ecosystems in the ocean depend on oxygen, and if you cannot breathe, nothing else matters,’ Oschlies said.”
A great longread in the Montana Free Press by Emily Stifler Wolfe on the history of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and how it’s helping Montana farmers and ranchers—including a five-year Grazing for Soil Health project through the Blackfeet nonprofit Piikani Lodge Health Institute—shift to no-till and/or regenerative agriculture.
I found this piece on hopeful living by Zan Romanoff and what we might be misunderstanding about utopian movements to be really thoughtful: “It should not have existed. It should not have had to exist. In a just world, food waste would be redistributed by something other than a network of unpaid and untrained volunteers; in a just world, there wouldn’t be so many hungry people in need in the first place. But and also, in those moments, as we pushed together past the world as it was to the world we wanted to live in, we found ourselves in a kind of heaven.”
For anyone wanting to read more about the absurdities of the textbook industry (after my mini-rant about them in my last essay), I dug up a perennial favorite, physicist Richard Feynman’s essay about his stint on California’s Curriculum Commission. “The books were so lousy. They were false. They were hurried. . . . The definitions weren’t accurate. Everything was a little bit ambiguous – they weren’t smart enough to understand what was meant by ‘rigor.’ They were faking it. They were teaching something they didn't understand, and which was, in fact, useless, at that time, for the child.” Feynman rarely disappoints.
Erik T. Freyfogle (author of The Land We Share, which details the shifts in private property law in the U.S. over the centuries) with a lecture about how a culture of ownership damages our relationship to our ecosystems, especially with water: “Water is a communal asset, communal property. How it is used is inherently public business. Water law needs to be brought up to date by reforming it to reflect the new cultural values.”
There’s a lot of historical detail packed into Land Grab’s first five episodes—particularly about the corruption and timber and land thefts in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley’s early years of settler-colonialism—but Episode 2 packs one particular punch: The “agreement” that the U.S. government used for decades to insist on the Salish people moving away from their home in the Bitterroot Valley was in fact forged by future president James Garfield.
The first in a three-part series from Planetizen about traffic congestion, its causes, myths, and what, if anything, planners can do about it (chalk up another one for induced demand): “According to the study, driving, as measured in the study as the number of vehicle-kilometers traveled (VKT), increases in direct proportion to the available lane-kilometers of roadways. Counter-intuitive as it might seem that building road capacity creates traffic, rather than functioning as an effective response to congestion, the researchers referred to their calculation of induced demand as ‘the fundamental law of congestion.’” (Emphasis added.)
Episode 6 of Vaccine: The Human Story details the last decades in the fight against smallpox and the doctors who sought to vaccinate the world and eradicate the disease. I’ve found the long history of smallpox and efforts to inoculate and vaccinate in this podcast series fascinating—and only just realized that there are video versions including a lot of the source material that’s only on audio in podcast form.
I had to sit for a long time with Lee Nellis’s piece about the limits of collaborative conservation in Mountain Journal. It’s not that I disagreed with him—I agreed maybe too quickly—but it took me a while to come to the personal thought that maybe collaborative conservation efforts are actually a tentative foray into flexing the atrophied, nearly forgotten muscles that made (and continue to make, where they still exist) commons systems of land and water relationship and use so robust. That maybe collaborative conservation is only a beginning of something better: “If we cannot give people a compelling alternative story, the narrative of domination—the story in which all values are reduced to dollars—will continue to define the space within which efforts to protect our landscapes and nurture sustainable communities succeed or fail.”
Nityanand Jayaraman’s latest installment of his education in a fisher’s way of coming to know the world—with retired fisher Palayam—has, like all his entries, reminded me to look around at the world I live among and find ways to know it better, if it will let me: “For many years on end, summer storms have given Chennai a miss. ‘Before tsunami, not a year passed without a storm either in Chithirai or Vaikaasi (May-June). But now everything is topsy turvy,’ Palayam says, repeating a lament that can be heard across Tamil Nadu’s coast.” (I love this way of learning to see and hear and smell the world, the opposite of unseeing. There is no subscribe button for these, but interested readers can email Jayaraman directly and receive the posts: firstname.lastname@example.org) From the overview: “‘Science of the Seas’ is a deep dive into the knowledge systems of the seas as seen from the perspective of artisanal fishers.”