Weight and History

Walking composition

“How many men are there who fairly earn a million dollars?” —Henry George, Progress & Poverty, 1879

I was sifting through a big pile of index cards recently that contain research notes from my book. Quotes from books, articles, and interviews; attempts to categorize the subject of walking into enough discrete subjects that they could be broken up into chapters; color-coded observations of mine and others’ walking experiences. It was weird to remember how intensively I read for about three years, and what a relief it was when it was all over. I remember picking up Harry Potter at bedtime and saying to myself, “I forgot I like reading!” Not that I dislike the research reading. Tons of it is really interesting or I wouldn’t bother. But there are a lot of books and articles that are painful slogs for me, and I’d never finish them if I weren’t learning from them.

One index card quote was from a documentary titled Almost Sunrise that I’d almost forgotten about. It follows two veterans from the most recent war in Iraq as they walk 2700 miles from Wisconsin to California in an attempt to find some way to climb their way out of depression and PTSD. The trailer presents the story as having a predictable redemptive arc, but I don’t remember the movie that way. The two veterans’ experiences were far closer to what I heard from the Marine sniper veterans who run the Montana Vet Program, about PTSD, grief, and guilt, and what it takes to stop hiding from them. About facing the reality of living with it. The weight that people carry.

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People who did pilgrimages (usually the Camino de Santiago, but there are countless versions) talked about this weight, too. About walking and walking and walking hundreds of kilometers and somehow during that process finding that the layers of protection they’ve built up around grief have worn away, and they’re face with the immensity of it.

It sounds scary and absolutely necessary, especially for anyone dealing with grief or trauma, which is probably just about everyone. Coming across that index card made me think about the current panic about teaching the full, messy spectrum of history in American classrooms. How painful many people find the reality of the past, how much they are willing to sacrifice to hide from it, usually at the expense of others’ suffering. I took strength from a couple of posts that Patrick Wyman (host of the Tides of History podcast, which I enjoy specifically for the efforts he puts into excavating the history of real, everyday people out of our usual narratives of “history,” like European peasants’ rebellions) wrote on his Twitter feed:

“Lots of folks out there confuse ‘history’ with ‘stories from the past that make me feel good about who I am in the present.’ . . . History should make you feel uncomfortable. Lots of bad things happened. The past doesn’t exist to validate your sense of who you are in the present.”

We can apply this to just about anything in our lives, both individual and societal. Versions of the past we cling to to make ourselves feel safe and validated in the present.

I recently finished Riane Eisler’s new book Nurturing Our Humanity: How Domination and Partnership Shape Our Brains, Lives and Future, cowritten with Douglas P. Frye. They make a compelling case for the idea that humanity has lived within a partnership paradigm before, and could do so again. It was mind-opening to read their links between research on the brains of children who grow up in abusive or authoritarian households, and how that translates into adults who feel safer under authoritarian leadership; but I was particularly taken with their repeated point that Darwin only mentioned selfishness 12 times in his slightly lesser-known book Descent of Man. He wrote of love, however, 95 times, and moral sensitivity 92 times, because he wanted people to understand the importance of connection and caring to our evolution.

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Henry George, the economist whom early readers of this newsletter will know I’m a big fan of, attacked some of the most cherished history in the world when he published Progress & Poverty in 1879: private land ownership. All forms of it, but in certain sections he was particularly eloquent on the subject of inherited land ownership. England was his example—the titled and landowning classes whose inheritance was gained via frank theft in centuries past. Whose theft eventually gained the lustre of right simply by the passage of time. “It was not nobility that gave land,” he wrote, “but the possession of land that gained nobility.”

“It is not merely robbery in the past; it is robbery in the present—a robbery that deprives of their birthright infants that are now coming into the world! Why should I not hesitate about making short work of such a system?”

Injustices, too, can gain lustre simply by hanging around long enough and being accepted and lauded by those with platforms and the affirmation of the powerful. They become an invisible weight that all of society carries, an acceptance of “the way things are” that does not explain away why it all has to be so hard. A weight we are going to need some long walks to be able to face.

Running across the Almost Sunrise quote gave me pause and space, which was then flooded again with all the things that need to change about what we accept in our current reality. I’ll leave you with it:

“Every time we move West, we’re moving towards the ocean, we’re moving towards the setting sun. We’re trying to end things that haven’t been working for us. We’re trying to get to a point where we can turn around.”

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Some stuff to read, listen to, or watch:

  • An interview with Nityanand Jayaraman on the Subverse podcast about the Poromboke commons in India got right to the heart of what matters about the commons and how much is destroyed when we privatize them and then sacrifice their long-term health in the name of profit: “The only kind of infrastructure going right now is the infrastructure of commerce that is seeking to replace the infrastructure of survival, of sustenance, of local communities. My state government, my national government, is beholden to the large banks. . . . But for the local people, the people of India, the government meets us with water cannons and batons. You have a democratic system that is preoccupied with making bankers happy.” (Sounds familiar.) I also loved Jayaraman’s descriptions of the Poromboke itself, which was so lovely and evocative I want to visit.

  • I’ve been following Jeremy Lent’s work for a while, though his book The Patterning Instinct is still on my TBR pile. This conversation between him and Douglass Rushkoff on Team Human might make me bump it up, though as Rushkoff mentions it’s a huge brick of a book. I took an online course Lent hosted last winter on development ecological civilizations, but in a way got more from this shorter conversation, especially when he talked about the connective tissue of humanity and its unrealized power, and a differentiation I hadn’t thought about before, between “consciousness” and “life.” “What evolutionary biologists have now really shown quite clearly is that, rather than this whole [Richard] Dawkins notion of the selfish gene outcompeting each other in this marketplace, actually life evolved its complexity through working out how to cooperate better with other species.”

  • Annoyingly, the article from the winter 2020 issue of Montana Quarterly that I wanted to share isn’t even mentioned online anywhere. It’s by Carrie La Seur, with photographs by the incomparable Alexis Bonogofsky, and is titled “Disentangling the Law in Indian Country.” There aren’t a lot of people who do reporting on the madness of competing jurisdictions that allow so many (mostly white) people to get away with crimes simply because tribal police can’t pursue them, or how racist stereotypes exacerbate the problems of searching for missing persons, and this article was well written, so if you can find it it’s worth reading. Heck, I’ll send you my copy. Also, if you’ve never reading Debra Magpie Earling’s novel Perma Red, I highly recommend it. Be ready to downshift with it.

  • Does science fiction reflect how we perceive our environment, or does it create perception? Interesting points about science fiction’s imaginative power posed by Sherryl Vint in MIT Press Reader. I probably would have given Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower more attention because it’s the most terrifyingly accurate depiction of the societal collapse and governmental decay accompanying climate change that I’ve ever read. I love that book. It also scares the bejesus out of me.

  • Fascinating piece on the architecture of Soviet monotowns in former Eastern Bloc areas in ArchDaily. These photos literally made me snap my head back, smelling that peculiar mix of concrete decay, traffic exhaust, nostril-freezing cold, and something I’ve never been able to identify that nevertheless lands me instantly in Russia, no matter where I am.

  • A 9-minute video from Aeon following a master pencil sharpener. Yup, an artisanal craftsman of sharpening pencils.