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Darkness in the lights
“The world is airtight
yet held together
by what it does not house,
by the vanished. They are everywhere.”
—from “The Vanished” (“Die Verschwundenen”), Hans Magnus Enzenberger
Last week I spent a lot of time being very cold sitting by the North Fork of the Flathead River—pictured above during a freezing sunrise—near a Forest Service cabin I try to rent for myself a couple times a year. It’s only for two or three nights, but every time I get an unexpected amount of work done and still manage to sleep a lot and spend long, long periods by this river and even just be a bit lazy. It’s a miracle of time-luxury, as if the hours spread out far beyond their known limits.
My phone had a handful of saved podcast episodes for the two-hour drive, including an interview on the Subverse with designer Dilip Da Cunha about his book The Invention of Rivers. The line separating land from water, he has written, is “one of the most fundamental and enduring acts in the understanding and design of human habitation.” He also calls this separation “the first colonialism, which took a wetness that is everywhere and turned it into a land and water binary.”
What is a river? How can we find a river’s beginning? Where would you identify that first trickle, the initial hint of flow, the moment water shifts from being rainfall or snowflakes to being river?
To get to the river from the cabin, I had to walk about a few minutes through still-deep snow, sometimes falling through the hard crust well past my knees and nearly dropping my coffee. When I got there, after greeting the sunrise, I (unwisely, considering the temperature), splashed icy river water on myself.
Rivers, I learned some years ago, are ecosystems that can spread for miles underground, unlimited to their visible flow. When I sat on the rocky bank, it seemed that the river was over there, while I was dry over here. But under the rocks, the river extended far beyond what I could see. I had snow in my hair and river water on my face; and the coffee steaming out of my cup was made with, of course, water. Where did the snow end and the river begin? At what point did the river cease being river and become an avenue for risking frostbite on my face? As the coffee steam mingled with the freezing river mist, could anyone have distinguished one from the other?
What is a line, after all, but a mathematical construct, an ideal? Human mathematics, which needs those imaginary lines, is a language for understanding life’s patterns and relationships; it’s not life itself. Yet lines have been employed for millennia to declare and then enforce boundaries that life, including human life, has no relationship with.
I caught up on nearly a year’s worth of Nautilus magazine while I was away, and one of the articles that got my attention was about research on plummeting global populations of insects.
I almost avoided that article because I didn’t want to get more depressed by reading something I already knew too much about, but it turned out to not have that effect. The writer was spending time with scientists whose theory is that insects are evolving to avoid nighttime light, and since entomologists tend to try to attract them using said light, they’re not finding the insects that are there.
It’s an early-stage and hopeful theory that I hadn’t heard before. But what interested me was my own emotional and mental responses to the writer’s approach: dread, hesitation, and worry followed by cautious uplift, curiosity, and hope. An arc that was followed in turn by wondering what effect this kind of research and article would have on other people.
There’s constant debate among science writers and people working in related fields, and scientists themselves, about how to make people care about huge existential problems that don’t always immediately affect them. Like climate change. When David Wallace-Wells wrote his New York magazine piece (followed by his book The Uninhabitable Earth; full disclosure, I haven’t read either of these) about worst-case climate scenarios, there was a lot of heated argument about how he should have presented such dire realities to evoke less fear, along with intense debates over how his approach might be effective, versus the ways in which it could backfire. My science writer friends and I talked about it at length.
Reading this piece about insects made me think about that debate again. The author, Oliver Riskin-Kutz, seemed to maintain a careful balance of informative storytelling that kept me, at least, on a thin edge of wondering, “Do I hope, or do I despair?” It was interesting to try to observe another writer’s skill in refusing to push the presentation of research one emotional way or another, while at the same time not pretending to objectivity.
The question of “Do you scare people to get them to care about things like climate change or water pollution or authoritarianism, or do you give them hope?” which Wallace-Wells’s essay and book poured fuel on, is, I think, the wrong one. The conventional wisdom that humans are incapable of considering long-term consequences of our actions is an extremely narrow-minded view that leads to misguided approaches, but aside from that, there are something like eight billion people on this planet. All of us have different compulsions, worries, hopes, experiences, and identities. Maybe one of you will read that article and find it dull, or misleading, or far more hopeful than I did.
What gives me a rare spark of hope or pushes me into despair is going to be very different from what does the same for you. It’s determined by my own feelings of identity and belonging, not just by what I value and what matters to me and who and what I love, but by my upbringing, the kind of work I’ve done, physical and emotional realities and injuries, the people who’ve affected my life in large and small ways, and countless other factors. Kindness, compassion, and trust, for example, are high values for me less because of their being common in my life than by the many ways I’ve experienced the opposite, or seen others experience the opposite, and have struggled under the effects those experiences have had.
The question of what changes people’s minds, what persuades them to be better, to care more, in the end almost feels like a shallow one while still being essential. It’s essential because, to change the paradigms we live in we need pretty much every tool and strategy—build it up and care for the falling while burning it down, as I wrote a couple weeks ago—but it’s shallow because the question both assumes a nonexistent homogeneity among human experience, and makes poor use of the power of narrative and storytelling.
Writing, and art itself, have capacities to reach into every individual in different ways, to speak to or help articulate identities and values. It can be empowering, for ourselves and for our behavior toward others. Erik Hoffer noted in The True Believer that those with a creative or artistic mindset are the only ones he saw who don’t succumb so easily to propaganda and the lure of authoritarian mass movements. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn talked about the power of art in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech:
“Who could impress upon a sluggish and obstinate human being someone else’s far off sorrows or joys, who could give him an insight into magnitudes of events and into delusions which he has never himself experienced? Propaganda, coercion, and scientific proof are all equally powerless here. But fortunately there does exist a means to this end in the world! It is art. It is literature.
They both hold the key to a miracle: to overcome man’s ruinous habit of learning only from his own experience, so that the experience of others passes him by without profit. Making up for man’s scant time on earth, art transmits between men the entire accumulated load of another being’s life experience, with all its hardships, colors, and juices. It recreates—lifelike—the experience of other men, so that we can assimilate it as our own.”
Reading that piece about insects changed something for me, though I’m not sure what yet. Not anything enormous or significant, just a slight shift. Opened up a new way of looking at the world, maybe, which is one of the beautiful things that narrative can do.
Art, including storytelling, draws lessons from the world all around us, like the sunset alpenglow I got to enjoy for more long, lingering minutes with only the river’s conversation last week. But it also draws from an intuitive sense for how these sights and experiences make us feel. At least, it has the capacity to do so. Considering the varied beauty I got to experience in this one location and how badly I didn’t want to leave it even when completely numb from the cold, that’s a capacity worth exploring.
On the night of the full Moon last week, I got up as I usually do at this cabin around one-thirty in the morning (I do not know why and might write about this more, but I think it has something to do with the almost total lack of artificial light) for a while and spent a little time on the porch gazing up at Her before going back to sleep. Moonlight reflected off of ice clumps on a bare-branched aspen tree next to the porch, so brightly it was like the tree had its own starscape.
I’d watched Her rise from behind the snow-covered Rockies earlier that night just before I went to sleep, enormous and golden, overwhelming. A being to worship, just as the Sun felt coming up from behind those same mountains each morning. I took a video of the full Moonrise from when I first noticed the glint of cold, bright light shining along the edge of one of the peaks, straight out the cabin’s small, warped window panes, and later shared it with my sisters.
It was a miraculous sight that went straight to the core of everything that matters, if that makes sense, even though it’s one I’ve seen versions of many times before, including from behind those same mountains.
Art still has much to learn from experiences like this. For one thing, we need a world where they remain possible, a world where everyone has an opportunity, if they want it, to get away from the noise and demands and unwanted light of electronics, cars, and schedules. But it’s necessary for people to pay more attention to the art, too. To ask more of it, even. To ask it not just to entertain or to challenge, but to remind us of life’s promises and our own potential. To show us how unconfined life is by our boundaries and definitions, like rivers that have little need for the lines drawn on a map. Narrative that breaks down ossified paradigms. There is storytelling that does this, everywhere; it just needs more of us giving more of our attention to it.
Start paying attention, and you can see the subversive power of art articulated in countless ways. Some of them, as with a well-written science article about entomology, without pretending to subversion but only to curiosity—which has its own power of subversion—and what might be called a hope for hope. Showing us what the world can look like when an artificial line is erased. A light in the darkness, even if it’s about searching for darkness among the lights.
Some stuff to read or listen to (note that Nautilus only allows 2 free reads):
Susan Mathews’s short introductory episode (scroll down to Episode 2) to the Subverse’s season on water, “From the stars to the tidepool,” was a beautiful meditation on where Earth’s water came from and what it means to all levels of life: “At some point, star water turns fish water.” (The Subverse links are to their website, but the podcast is anywhere.)
Historian Sunil Abritt also on the Subverse podcast (scroll down to Episode 5) talking about hydrocolonialism, an “ecology of fear,” and his book Unruly Waters: How the Mountain Rivers and Monsoons have Shaped South Asia’s History. (I honestly didn’t know I could be this interested in monsoons.)
Rebecca Davis Gibbons with a short piece about the justice owed to people affected by nuclear testing in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: “My friend said that justice would mean returning home to a safe environment and sufficient medical care. But more important than any of that, for him, is an apology. The United States ‘is a powerful country and can do many things,’ he said. ‘But it cannot apologize.’”
Mary X. Dennis with a difficult and introspective essay in Nautilus on trying to cope with enduring, acute grief after her brother’s sudden death: “Karin didn’t focus on the event of my brother’s death, the way the PTSD therapists had. She focused on him—not on the trauma of his death, but on the relationship I had lost. . . . My favorite version of myself was the person my brother saw me as, and she helped me to realize that even though he’s no longer here, I am still that person.”
Also in Nautilus, Nell Freudenberger wrote a thoughtful essay on the disconnect between foreign research scientists studying coral reefs, and Indigenous Māʻohi people in Tahiti, including the scientists’ lack of local knowledge and insights about coral health remedies due to lack of outreach.
Regan Penaluna writing in Aeon about the scholarly work of 17th-century philosopher Damaris Cudworth Masham and how Masham’s relationship with philosopher John Locke affected her life as well as her philosophy. (It’s a sympathetic essay, but Locke doesn’t come across to me as treating anyone well.)
Thanks to my mom for this one: Frank Jacobs writing in Big Think’s “Strange Maps” on a map of the ancient Paratethys Sea, which once had a surface area of over a million square miles but evaporated between 7 and 10 million years ago, leaving behind remnants like the now equally-disappearing Aral Sea.
And some of you might have heard of the new conspiracy theory surrounding the idea of 15-minute cities. As someone who’s written a book about walking and walkability, I find the whole resistance to changing car-centric culture utterly bizarre. So did someone who wrote a piece for McSweeney’s introducing us to the appeal of the 15-hour city: “The 15-Hour City represents what we think are all the best qualities of a modern city: a lack of social connections, a profound sense of alienation, and a constant stream of being flipped off by drivers from New Jersey.”
(Something that baffles me about this movement is that conspiracy theorists are linking the idea of being able to walk to whatever you need within 15 minutes to—weirdly—Stalinism. In my book I wrote quite a bit about the freedom of walking that my father had growing up in Leningrad under Stalin when other freedoms were out of reach. This was . . . not what I was talking about.)