Space and time
“Movement is humankind’s oldest survival strategy.” — Paul Salopek, Out of Eden Walk
My media consumption this week had a collision of observations about space. In National Geographic, Paul Salopek published an essay on the slowness of his multi-year walking journey compared to the increasing change of the world. Salopek is following humans’ ancient migration from Ethiopia’s Rift Valley to Tierra del Fuego in Chile. He started in 2013 and is currently in Myanmar. The quote above is taken from his recent essay, and reading it made me sit back because it’s such a lovely distillation of what I spent a lot of words saying in the introduction to my book.
The question he poses afterwards has become even more important since he began his journey: what happens to us sedentary moderns who don’t have the capacity, money or legal room to move elsewhere when climate change brings big shifts?
This is something we’re all going to have to reckon with at some point or another and it’s one I think about a lot as I wander around our neighborhood trying not to slip and crack my head on the ice. We built our house and moved in about four years ago. I really love it here in my hometown. I love my community, my family being nearby, my friends. Even deeper, I love the mountains and the lodgepole pines and larch trees, the rivers and tucked-away lakes. I don’t know that I love the fact that those high mountain lakes get stocked with fish every year (why???) but to roam around a mountainside in August and jump into an ice-cold lake accessible only by foot (or fish-stocking plane) is something I don’t ever want to have to give up. Might we have to, someday?
There’s a quote in the beginning of my book from BBC journalist (and a personal friend) Bethany Bell, whom I interviewed about what she saw covering the Syrian refugee crisis as thousands of people walked from Hungary to Austria several years ago. With the lives we build for ourselves, the things we love, she said, “sometimes we just have to walk away.”
Are we prepared for what might come, and what it might ask of us?
I finally finished Nick Estes’s book Our History Is the Future: Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance. (Thank you, Chris La Tray, for prompting me to move it to the top of the TBR pile!) This is a must-read of American history and an incredible narrative of injustices inflicted paired with matching resistance. It’s an answer to so many issues that plague America today, stemming from colonialism and racism and perpetuated because we’ve been too scared or too weak to admit and deal with the realities of our history. “By following its own legal traditions,” wrote Estes, “the arc of the Western moral universe never bends towards Indigenous justice. At best, it ignores it. At worst, it annihilates it.” Private property law, repeatedly, forms a lynchpin for what has been stolen and how it is justified.
And then on the Team Human podcast Douglas Rushkoff had a long conversation with Mark Pesce about his book Augmented Reality and how realities that play out online, like Pokemon Go, are increasingly affecting our real-life physical spaces. “Property law may be the very problem that AR could break,” Rushkoff said when talking about people in Los Angeles jumping over fences and onto private lawns to find their Pokemons. But, countered Pesce, “do you want it broken by Mark Zuckerberg?”
Well, no, though I don’t think Zuckerberg is among those who want to break property law so much as he is among those who knowingly use its power to hoard property and wealth for themselves. But the question did make me pause.
Property law, or at least its application, is far more likely to be broken by the physical realities of climate change—the hurricanes and floods that sweep away cities, the wildfires that repeatedly burn down towns, the droughts that make staying untenable. How many times will people be willing to survey and document wrecked land in order to establish their property ownership?
Sometimes we’ll just have to walk away. And I don’t think enough of us are even close to being able to face that reality.
Some stuff to read or listen to:
Paul Salopek also published an incredible op-ed this week reflecting on the decline of the once-thriving multicultural and highly advanced Silk Road and its links to America’s modern decline as the U.S. chooses fear, ignorance, and isolationism.
I enjoyed philosophy and religion professor Alan Jay Levinovitz’s essay in Aeon on natural medicine and the way he broke down the two questions that “natural” medicine claims to answer—Why me? and What can be done?—that “modern” medicine fails to address. As someone with chronic pain issues that will likely never be resolved (I wrote this post on one of the many days that I woke up feeling like all my joints were on fire), I’ve had more than one friend claim certain supplements or that one chiropractor across town or some kind of ionized water sold under a pyramid scheme would cure me. (Spoiler alert: No. Neither has anything else, ever, except walking. And Vicodin did once but its addiction potential scared me.) I appreciated Levinovitz’s points that there are answers we crave from medical professionals that if they can’t answer—which usually they can’t—they can at least address instead of ignore.
Istanbul might have barely a month’s worth of potable water left, as Turkey faces a severe water shortage. The religious affairs directorate has instructed imams to pray for rain, which never hurts, but that won’t do a whole lot if the government refuses to acknowledge that reaching for more capacity isn’t going to solve a problem wrought by sprawl, population growth, and climate change. Science denial and lack of political will strike again. Turkey is one of the countries I most loved visiting, and this makes me very sad.
If you need a little escapism this week, this episode of Scotland Outdoors was lovely. The wonders of ice (including in recorded sound), the importance of play, and the worldwide lore of ravens. Did you know that ravens imitate wolf calls? You can hear it at about 1:19 (one hour nineteen minutes). So eerie.
Wonderful column, much to ponder. I don't think you or your children or their children will have to give up those activities, unless of course there is a very rapid tipping/acceleration of climate change (which there could be). If for some unforeseen reason we do have a tipping point, I would think we are going to have very large impacts. We are not prepared for what might come, our span of attention is short and our arrogance is very high.
On one hand people hate to walk away, and on the other hand places like where I live are absorbing large amounts of new people who are walking away from their lives in previous places.
I too wondered about fish stocking - I think it's only for us humans. Finis Mitchell did that early on in the Wind River range in WY, and I always wondered why. Just so we can catch them? All about us I think :-(. But maybe I am wrong.
Thanks for the link to Paul's op-ed! I had not been following his last Chapter and will read his essay and catch up on his travels.
I always wanted to go on a big walking venture, continental-wide, you know? I've had to come to accept that it probably isn't going to happen. In one of the interviews I read with Barry Lopez after he passed, he talked about wanting to do a big continental-wide driving adventure, like across Africa, or North America. I have hope that I might be able to do at least that, but how? It weighs on me. In learning about my Métis ancestors, it's clear this need to constantly move about, be here for a while, there for a while, then back to the first here, maybe take a peek up over those ridgelines in the distance just for the hell of it, is part of my genetic makeup, heh. And for so many other people. Yet I feel the constant pull to settle in, to acquire, to double down on consumption. It's hard. It'll be even harder for people who never imagined they would just have to pick up and leave. The only thing I don't feel I could walk away from right now and live with myself is people and pets. Other than that, fuck it. But even that is getting more and more difficult.