Walking composition

We

“Misanthropy is not the same thing as having a conscience.”
—Stephen Jenkinson,
Dark Roads

One of the wrinkles I kept tripping up on when writing my book was the word “we”: “We as a society made the choice to do X” or “We were persuaded we wanted Y.” Did we? Is there a “we”? I kept trying to excise it. A search of an electronic version would probably find I failed miserably. And I can’t stop thinking about it every time I write anything now, tripping over it constantly. It reminds me of that step at a New York City subway stop that people stumble over all the time because it’s a teensy bit taller than all the others.

Sometimes I wonder if “we” is the most misleading word in the English language. In any language? In Russian, the word mir means “peace.” It also means “community,” but community is very specific—not a vague sense of neighborhood solidarity, but an ancient system of life in which resources, including tools, were shared and land occasionally redistributed as families grew and shrank. The mir was a robust system of communal living that didn’t erase the individual but neither did it elevate the individual above the health of the community.

In Sand Talk, Tyson Yunkaporta uses the word “us-two.” He calls it “dual first person,” and I can’t tell whether it’s meant to be “we” as in him and the person he’s walking with, or a plural “me.” There is no equivalent in English, he says, which is probably why I don’t understand it.

What does “we” mean anyway?

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The photo above is of a gate leading into state-owned land where I spend a lot of time. Someone spent considerable energy ramming it with a truck. My friend and hunting mentor says it was a truck with double wheels at the back—he came upon the tracks fresh in the snow shortly after it had happened. He guesses it was a drunk kid. He’s more generous than I am, and less triggered by anger and perceived unfairness. All I see is a disregard for shared space, disrespect for land, dislike of being told you can’t drive wherever you please.

Someone really did a number on that gate. But if we related to the planet as we ought, would there be a gate there at all? Would we even need to close off some spaces so we don’t utterly ruin them?

(Here I go with “we” again.)

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One of my chronic irritants these days is that nearly everyone I know is complaining about all the influxes of people moving to Montana. Housing here is cheaper than the Bay Area or Seattle; we don’t get hurricanes like Houston does; teleworking has made living in far-flung and less expensive places easier. Right-wing people talk about how the state will be ruined by all the newcomers from California, somehow equating “California” with “liberal,” though the transplants I meet are almost always conservative Californians tired of living in a state that they have little hope of shifting away from progressive policies. (Given some of the ballot initiatives that failed there recently and the seeming immortality of Prop 13, I question how progressive the state is on a practical level.)

We’re going to be ruined by liberals. We’re going to be ruined by conservatives. We’re going to be ruined by people who don’t understand the value of public lands.

We, we, we. Every single person who’s made this complaint in my hearing is white. I keep trying to find gentle ways to ask: How do you think the Blackfeet felt when my great-great-grandfather built a dugout and claimed his homestead acreage? How do you think the Salish people felt when they were forced to relocate from the Bitterroot Valley to the Flathead Valley, and then later forced to open that land up to white settlement, resulting in private property, ubiquitous fencing, and the loss of a carefully built-up and free-roaming buffalo herd?

We (we who?!) can try to fool and grumble ourselves into thinking otherwise but migration is a human trait. Hominin species have roamed this planet since before Homo sapiens were around and it’ll keep happening whether we like it or not, whether people can telework or not, whether there’s affordable housing or not, whether someone builds a border wall or not. People wander the planet. People will wander the planet. How we treat one another when we arrive or when they arrive is what makes the difference, not the arriving itself (well, the treatment and also any diseases people carry and spread).

I fear losing everything I love, too. I fear the hills covered with houses and forests gated off for wealthy homeowners and Montana’s stream access laws overturned. I fear the erosion of all that I value. I am a “we.” My family has also been a “them,” many branches of it and more than once.

I want to fold all these new people into the land, show them how to respect it, how to let it shape them. I want to do that, though I don’t know how, don’t even know the ways in which it’s shaped me.

We have a lot of history in front of us.

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Some stuff to read or listen to:

  • I’m in the midst of Jane Brox’s book Silence. Although I wish it had less about old penitentiaries (depressing) and more about, say, being alone in nature, I can’t help loving it. Reading her book Brilliant (about the history of artificial light) was an experience I can’t forget, it was so full of things to learn but also poetry. One of those books that takes you by the hand and leads you somewhere beautiful with love and joy. She’s that kind of writer.

  • MIT Technology Review’s podcast In Machines We Trust on how citizens are using facial recognition software to identify police, especially when law enforcement chooses not to wear name tags or other identification.

  • Come the Romans,” an excerpt from Stephen Jenkinson’s new two-part album Dark Roads/Rough Gods (from which I got the quote up top). We’re stuck with the legacy of Rome, and here’s how it started: “We can kill you right now, and you can die as an honorable pagan. . . . Or you can join us. . . . as honorary and immediate Roman citizens, now soldiers, and we’re going to ship you to the edge of the known universe, and beyond, and you will become the Roman Empire.”

  • Amy Westervelt, whose podcast Drilled should probably be required listening for understanding “how we got here” when it comes to fossil fuels and climate change, on the At a Distance podcast talking about language, enabling, manipulation, and the fraught territory between forgiveness and justice.

  • I was unexpectedly hooked by this episode of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers Podcast & Blast with Hal Herring interviewing Betsy Gaines Quammen about her book American Zion and how the genesis of the Mormon Church drives the anti-public lands narrative for people like the Bundy family.

  • The American Scholar’s podcast Smarty Pants on the East German 1970s-80s punk scene and how its role in resistance eventually helped bring down the Berlin Wall. (I’m not a music aficionado but my college roommate introduced me to the Ramones our first week of college and I’ve been hooked on punk ever since. Also this reminded me of my dad’s stories of him and his friends secretly and illegally copying and distributing Beatles and Jimi Hendrix albums in 1960s Soviet Russia.)

  • FUN! Blackish’s second election episode pretty much sums up what’s wrong with the American election process (hint: money). I’m guessing they did an animated episode due to Covid? Not sure.