Light and harbors
“From the standpoint of the theory of justice, the most important natural duty is that to support and further just institutions.” —A Theory of Justice, John Rawls
I keep meaning to write about light, about sunlight and darkness and what it feels like to watch the sky slowly lighten as the planet turns for a couple of hours, to watch Sirius move from high in the sky to behind a neighbor’s larch tree until the sky is day-bright, and to watch it slowly darken long after the sun has set. It’s something that changes between when I’m here in this mountain valley home where we never see a “true” sunrise or sunset, versus when I head over to eastern Montana and its sky and landscape that seem to go on forever.
The shifting light keeps me tethered, especially if I wake up too early and can’t sleep but also can’t work, and binds the evenings to a delicious slowness. Reminds me that life is moving and revolving at a pace that is even more incremental than geological time. The planet turns, the sky above me darkens, stars are slowly revealed. And even then, on a summer night, it takes so long to get fully dark that when we’re out camping away from light pollution, we still don’t see the full dazzle of the Milky Way until something like two in the morning. It’s stunning, every time, surreal.
I’ve been reading David Graeber’s and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. It’s written in an easy style and right away they go for the problems that I think about all the time, like how we got fixed hierarchies imposed on people, and what happened to make any human society think some people deserved more right to needed resources (food, water, etc.) than others.
I’m only partway through the book (and currently stuck on the concept of slaves-as-prey-then-near-pets being an extension of land ownership and responsibility/caregiving in parts of pre-colonial North America) but very early on, in the chapter on 17th-century Wendat philosopher and strategist Kandiaronk and his arguments about freedom, I wondered if what the authors were getting at was the fundamental question that all societies must grapple with, “freedom from” versus “freedom to.” What structure of society and polity allows people the most freedom while giving them the most protection? Freedom from hunger, for example, over freedom to commodify seeds or corn or elk or land. Wendat culture, Kandiaronk maintained, had extensive personal freedom because its people never went hungry or unhoused, unlike in France where “freedom” meant very little when most people spent their days striving for the most basic necessities of life.
I’ve been having a lot of conversations recently about public health and personal responsibility, conversations that have no real answer but in which I keep commenting that, even though “individual versus society” has been in my head ever since I competed in high school debate around thirty years ago, until recently I hadn’t fully comprehended how completely “personal responsibility” had morphed into “I have a right to do whatever I feel like and everyone else just has to deal with the consequences.” How fundamentally “freedom to do what I feel like” and “freedom from restriction and obligation” had colonized so many minds. Not just with regards to public policy but often in our personal relationships as well.
When brainstorming a few years ago, I’d written down that at some point the desire to damage the commons for profit or other kind of personal gain—or just because you feel like doing something and don’t want to be restricted—at some point requires science denial. You can pollute water or air for a long time if you persuade people that the harms inherent in your activities are worth the jobs they bring, but even longer if you persuade them the harms don’t exist at all.
In debate, the popular saying was “My right to throw my fist stops where your nose begins,” but it’s hard to employ that technique when you can’t see where the blow is coming from or what its effects are. When its damage is real but almost impossible to trace and accountability is a mirage.
Every question of the commons has this struggle at its heart.
I love watching the light change. Sometimes—maybe most of the time—I forget to. The trips out camping or to cabins, with their lack of artificial light, remind me what my attention doesn’t get when I’m feeding it light from my phone, or even from my kitchen. And even so, when lamenting all the artificial light that blots out the miracle of a sky, I’m reminded of Libby Purves’s lines in her 1989 book One Summer’s Grace, about her family sailing around Britain:
“You do not appreciate a harbour until you use it seriously. People say, ‘Oh, Devon, simply ruined, tourist traps, coaches everywhere’; but the sailor coming in never sees the cream teas and car parks until he has given thanks for the shelter, the clear leading lights and the calm water. A harbour is eternal, and offers the same solace to a plastic yacht as to a trawler, smack, or galleon.”
The daylight as it grows and fades in response to this planet’s orbit in vast space is its own kind of eternal harbour.
Bonus photo: We’v been doing some night skiing, and the sunsets are mind-blowingly beautiful. The photo up top is from a nearby location. The sun through icy fog was an incredible sight, but I was disappointed to see it looks a lot like wildfire smoke in the photo.
Some stuff to read or listen to:
In Forge, I published “Cultivating the Wild Inside,” an essay on how spending time in nature (skiing, specifically) can reconnect us to wildness inside ourselves; and the struggle between protecting the wild without and cultivating the wild within. (Some of this grew out of a section I cut out of my book on walking. My editor and I both liked it but agreed it was unnecessary. It took me a long time to learn that “kill your darlings” can instead mean maybe you just carefully put your darlings back in holding because they’ll eventually lead you somewhere new.)
Speaking of the commons and freedom, the Subverse podcast has had some excellent episodes recently: what we really mean by a “just” or “green” energy transition with Uttara Narayan in “Renewable Energy: clean, green, or mean?” and a fascinating interview with author of Brutal Beauty Jisha Menon on “neoliberalism as an aesthetic project”: “Trash is just the other side of commodity capitalism.” (I can’t find a way to link to specific episodes, so just look for the titles.)
Ed Roberson’s Good News from the American West missive alerted me to the Reframing Rural podcast. I enjoyed wandering in and around rural Dagmar, Montana, with podcast guests, especially the episode with Eddie Hentges on recentering Indigenous narratives in that part of Montana, and the one with founder of Red Ants Pants Sarah Calhoun—I struggled more with some of the perspective she presented but that’s probably a good thing. Calhoun spoke at the first AERO (Alternative Energy Resource Organization) conference I ever attended and I was impressed with her dedication to community.
Someday I’ll get around to writing more about my first elk hunt, but in the meantime, speaking of Ed Roberson, I enjoyed his Mountain & Prairie episode about his own experience of the same.
Someone sent me this fantastic piece about Galesburg, Indiana, with a breakdown of street maintenance, property taxes, and why the town has no money: “Some will say the government is too bloated, corrupt, and inefficient and has squandered all the money it takes from the citizens. Others will say we need to be comfortable having higher taxes in order to pay for the things that we want/need, that it’s just because we’re greedy and want lower taxes. I say it’s neither of these.”
I have, somewhat to my sorrow because I’d rather be watching stars or even bad television, been stumbling into articles on NFTs and Web3. If you don’t know what these are (I certainly didn’t), Scott Galloway’s article in Marker has a good overview of what it is and why it’s not great, and there’s a very long explainer on a German website (written in English) that toward the end demonstrates why Web3 and NFTs are simply another way for people with enormous resources to gather and control more of them. Serious feudalism vibes here.
However, it did allow me to appreciate this Lord of the Rings-themed NFT joke.
An interesting interview in the LA Review of Books with particle physicist and speculative fiction author Vandana Singh: “Despite the fact that a lot of science fiction does have constraints and can be very short-sighted — it can repeat and not challenge certain types of norms and customs — this literature still has the potential to soar above those constraints to another space, and that is why I love speculative fiction. And the revolutionary part of it is that you can imagine a different way to be.”
On the Futures podcast, a fun interview with biological anthropologist Alice Roberts about ancient DNA: “When you take the long view, you see that nothing stands still. . . . We might want to be socially conservative over a short timeframe, and politically conservative, but actually it’s always changed and there’s always been new people coming, and new ideas, and those ideas have enriched our culture over time.”
Math! I love math. Someday I’ll get around to writing an essay about that. In the meantime, thanks to a friend for sending me this History of Mathematics post about hexagons and apsamikku, squaring the circle, and some of the oldest problems in mathematics.
Stunning piece as always! Your discussion on "individual vs society" made me think about Iris Murdoch's work, which I read recently. In particular your words about seeking individual gain at the cost of the broader environment made me think of this passage from her book:
"What we have never had, of course, is a satisfactory Liberal theory of personality, a theory of man as free and separate and related to a rich and complicated world from which, as a moral being, he has much to learn. We have bought the Liberal theory as it stands, because we have wished to encourage people to think of themselves as free, at the cost of surrendering the background."
I too feel that at some point the notion of freedom will find itself encapsulated in a messy web of contradiction between objective/scientific reality and the individual machine of self-desire. I think we need a globally unified vocabulary to capture that contradiction or paradox that there is no 'real freedom' without a broader appreciation of the complex causal chains our actions have on the world.
>>"I keep meaning to write about light, about sunlight and darkness and what it feels like to watch the sky slowly lighten as the planet turns for a couple of hours, to watch Sirius move from high in the sky to behind a neighbor’s larch tree until the sky is day-bright, and to watch it slowly darken long after the sun has set."
PLEASE DO. MORE OF THIS. PLEASE. TA.
(Kathleen Jamie's essay on the sacred, welcoming darkness of Orkney was one of those "I still want to be writer but I'll never be a writer like THIS" moments for me: https://www.theguardian.com/books/lrb/articles/0,,1124890,00.html)
Also - would you say your creative writing brain is also tethered to the light? If so - how do you manage this? Do you manage it, or does it just kind of happen? If you don't already, could you maybe tether a daily writing routine or prompt to that light? When is the time the light will help you most to write about light?
(A thing I've always liked about the idea of writing to the light: because of changing daylight hours, it's a seasonal creative cycle, building to a crescendo in the summer. Feels a bit like a training routine, with the longest day of summer as the target for bringing it all together.)
Also, I would love to read a long deep dive into "freedom," that word being thrown around so flippantly and self-righteously these last few years, so selfishly. 'Freedom From' vs 'Freedom To' sounds like a brilliant place to start. As you say, somehow freedom now means "the right to do what I feel like" for so many people, and if that's not a complete misreading of the purpose of societal freedoms I don't know what is...
So, I'd love to read it by you, at Aeon.
I know, I know. (I'm just being a pest.)
Regarding NFTs, I share your feelings. I'm trying to keep an open mind on this issue as so many tech-industry friends keep telling me that in *principle* they're amazing for creators of all kinds, even if in *practice* right now they're a sack of...something unpleasant. One question I can't get out of my head: does anyone buy NFTs because they genuinely like and enjoy them as a thing in themselves? Because if the answer is "haha no," isn't that a colossal alarm-bell as to the real worth of them beyond the stock-market-gambling side of things?
I could go on. But for 2022, I promised to limit each of my comments to less than 10,000 words. So, fin.
ps. That top photo is completely gorgeous, and reminds me so hard of my favourite videogame: