4. Subject to Distractions
In the morning, I wake up to find a bat flying around the bedroom, which makes me happy. Unlike most people, I’m fond of bats, because I have experience with them up close and personal, stemming from two long-ago years when I was a lab technician back at Moo U. in Columbia, Missouri. I worked there instead of military service, because I was a conscientious objector during Vietnam. Like all healthy bats, this one is impossible to catch, so after a while I give up and later the bat is nowhere to be found. I’m okay with the bat roosting inside the house during the day (though Vaughn definitely is not okay with bat guano), but I don’t want it to get stuck inside and starve.
Keith’s (Vaughn’s dad’s) memorial service is four days away, and the kids are about to start arriving. There will be massive food production, sleeping arrangements, the orchestration of the memorial itself. There will be family complexities. Plus, I have the misfortune to be the president of the homeowners’ association of this little cottage development we live in during the summer, and the annual meeting is tonight, which puts me in a less than sunny mood.
In the middle of the night, while not sleeping, I put two and two together. Worster’s thesis basically is that the aridity of the American West, and the economic development of it through irrigation, led to a particular kind of power structure: “On its environmental base of aridity, it had erected a closely integrated system of power that included both the state and private capitalist enterprise.” Where nature provided plenty of water, as in the East, capitalism resisted attempts by a central authority to regulate it; but in the West, it accepted a powerful state – a Leviathan – as a necessary partner “to provide a constantly expanding resource base upon which private enterprise can build.” The state, the bureaucracy, actively did everything it could to make the rich richer through the domination of nature. Though it regularly justified its irrigation projects as a way to create small family farms and provide opportunities for the downtrodden slum dwellers of the East, that was not the predominant result. The result was land speculation and corporate agribusiness.
That’s two. Plus two is this: the popular science books about the water crisis say that scarcity of water – the natural condition of the American West – is the inevitable future for much of the world. So if two plus two equals four – if Worster’s link between water and power is right – then more and more of the world can look forward to a future in which a Leviathan state and a wealthy power elite work hand in hand to institutionalize inequality, producing the opposite of a truly democratic order. The few will get rich, and an underclass, like the migrant farm workers of California, will do what they have to to survive. And this, at 3 a.m., does not look like all that implausible a picture.
I finish Rivers of Empire around lunchtime. In the last part of the book, about more recent times, some things come up that I’ve been waiting for: salinization of the soil (inevitable under intensive irrigation), water contamination by agricultural runoff, depletion of the Ogallala aquifer, the sheer wastefulness of water use in the West. (In 1975, “the national average for direct personal use was 90 gallons a day, but in Tucson, it was 140 gallons, in Denver, 230, and in Sacramento, 280.” ) There are some predictions of what will happen by the early 21st century; I make notes to myself to try to find recent numbers. Twenty-two years have passed since the publication of Rivers of Empire, which is enough time to find out how some of the book’s predictions have turned out.
In the conclusion of the book, not surprisingly, Worster articulates his alternative vision; the answer to the protagonist question is spelled out.
A river, to be sure, is a means to economic production, but before that it is an entity unto itself, with its own processes, dynamics, and values. In a sense it is a sacred being, something we have not created, and therefore worthy of our respect and understanding. To use a river without violating its intrinsic qualities will require much of us. It will require our learning to think like a river, our trying to become a river-adaptive people. In the past, groups as diverse as the Papago Indians and the Chinese Taoists seem to have met that requirement successfully, and there is much we can learn from them. . . . We would come to agree that henceforth no river should be appropriated in its entirety, nor be constrained to flow against its nature in some rigid, utilitarian straitjacket, nor be abstracted ruthlessly from its dense ecological pattern to become a single abstract commodity having nothing but a cash value. Such a change in thinking, from nature domination to nature accommodation, will be difficult to achieve anywhere in American culture, but nowhere more so than in the parched reaches of the West. Yet without such a shift in perception and valuing, such a freeing of our minds from the tyranny of instrumentalist reasoning about nature, there can be no basis for a more democratic social order. (331-332)
Bingo! Democracy does need to be saved, and saving it both stems from, and enables, a change in our relationship with nature.
. . . In short, the promotion of democracy, defined as the dispersal of power into as many hands as possible, is a direct and necessary, though perhaps not sufficient, means to achieve ecological stability. (332)
In Worster’s vision, a truly democratic social order can be created in the West by people living, supporting themselves, and, to a great extent, governing themselves, in communities defined by watersheds.
The resulting communities, relying on their own capital and their own knowledge, could free themselves from the distant, impersonal structures of power that have made democracy little more than a ritual of ratifying choices already made by others – of acquiescing in what has been done to us. . . . To be free of outside control means not participating to any great extent in the national or world marketplace, concentrating instead on producing food and fiber for local use. (333)
I’m guessing that dream of an agrarian, largely self-sufficient West sounded nostalgic and unlikely when the book was published, and it seems flat-out impossible today. We’re on the globalization train now, and we can’t get off. It’s moving too fast. “Today that sense of being trapped by our own inventions pervades industrial societies everywhere.” (329) Man, I think, if Donald Worster felt that way in 1985, imagine how he’d feel today.
Evening comes and I chair the meeting of the homeowners’ association. A recent addition to the group comes to the annual meeting for the second time and proves himself to be an even more incorrigible pill than the first time. He wrangles loudly with everyone, won’t listen to what anyone’s saying, gets up before the meeting is over, ostentatiously flings down his dues, and stomps out slamming the door behind him. Having spent my career in academia, I’m pretty used to adults throwing temper tantrums, so I don’t take it personally. If only I could approach a few more things that way.
After the meeting, back at the cottage, the bat reappears, flying around the living room trying to get out. We try to catch it and fail again; then we sit for a while with the screen doors open and the lights out, hoping the bat will fly out on its own.
In the morning, the bat is not to be found. So maybe it did make its escape.
To me, Worster’s critique feels irrefutable. As he writes it, the history of the West rests on three fundamental, unexamined and wrong assumptions:
1. Humans can and should absolutely dominate nature.
2. Every problem can be fixed by technical expertise.
3. The ultimate goal is ceaseless and unlimited economic growth.
And it’s not as though those assumptions have gone away twenty-two years later. People are visibly going about their relationship with the planet in exactly the same way. They’re starting to get worried about where this is taking them, but they haven’t changed course. The people at the top of the hierarchy are contemptuous of anyone who dissents from these articles of faith.
Okay, it is a scary situation, but for some reason, this time, thinking about it isn’t just depressing. I want to pursue it; I seem to be getting closer to what I really care about. Maybe, after all, it really is about the West as well as water. The next book to read becomes obvious: Cadillac Desert. Subtitle, the American West and its disappearing water. It was first published the year after Rivers of Empire, 1986, and I’ve got the revised and updated edition of 1993. Interesting: there’s no mention of Worster or his book in the index. Is this, perhaps, a rival version of the same history?
During the night a storm blows up and the wind really starts howling. In the morning, the Strait is wild: actual breakers are rolling in onto the shore, and they’re pinkish-brown with churned-up sand off the shallow inshore bottom, a sure sign of a violent storm. I go down to the shore to take in the scene and find something I’ve never seen before. In front of our place, where the stairs lead down to the shore proper (as opposed to the bank on which I’m standing, at the top of the stairs, eight or ten feet higher), is a ledge of rock, or the sandstone that passes for rock on P.E.I. Keith often told us how lucky we were to have that rock there, keeping our land from eroding as fast as it otherwise would. They say you lose a foot a year that way and it’s easily true. Usually, at the highest tide, the waves reach the base of this rock ledge and splash up onto it. This morning the storm and a high tide have coincided, and the waves are running over the top of the ledge, all the way up to the dirt bank, scouring away the bottom of it. The dirt at the base of the stairs has been sheared back a couple of feet. The land is visibly draining off into the Strait in red-brown backflow after every wave hits. A large dead tree that wasn’t there yesterday has been deposited on the ledge. As I watch, a 2×8 comes in on the waves and with a hard thump, it lodges under the base of the stairs. It’s fresh-looking wood, not weathered and gray, and it has nails sticking out of it, and splintered parts that are paler still. Someone’s newly constructed stairs to the shore, off to the west, have been torn apart and carried away by the storm.
We have two kayaks tied to a tree stump about fifty yards from the foot of the stairs, in a place where normally the highest of tides will barely reach. But the storm is driving the water in, and waves are picking up the kayaks, slamming them together, beating them on the rocks they normally lie on in peace. I’m duly grateful to bowline knots that the kayaks haven’t gotten loose and been carried off, never to be seen again, but after watching them slam around for a minute I realize I’ll have to do better than just watch. There’s no way I can get to them by going along the shore, so I make my way over to the bank above where they’re tied, and climb down. After a great deal of muddy struggle to untangle their lines from branches and to wrestle them upwards, I manage to shove one up the bank and over the top, onto level ground; the other one I leave perched above the dead tree it’s tied to, out of reach of the waves. Then I manage to get myself up the bank again and go inside to change my soaked clothing. In a way, I like this sort of thing as much as actual kayaking. It’s why I keep wanting to come to P.E.I. The natural world up here is undeniable. It’s like the river undisturbed: it is what it is, not what we make it. If some of our puny little constructions can’t stand up to it, well, tough. Build them over again, stronger. Not that I’m thrilled with all the maintenance we have to do on the cottage, but it’s the price of living with what can actually, in many ways if not all, be called nature.
Whatever that is.
This is one of the harder conundrums, as far as I’m concerned. What is this thing we call “nature”? Is it something separate from us, completely other than us? Is it the world without us, as in the title of a recently published book? Are we, and what we do, also part of “nature,” or not? We came from it, hence . . . what? There’s got to be some place to draw the line. A concrete-lined canal is not nature. What about this piece of land on which my shed sits? It used to be a farmer’s field, maybe 25 years ago. That wasn’t exactly nature, either. When Vaughn bought it, 22 years ago, it had no trees on it except along the edge of the bank over the shore, where the farmer had never cut them down. Presumably he left the spruces growing there to provide protection from the ferocious winds P.E.I. is subject to, and maybe he also liked the way they looked, and maybe he hoped their roots would help hold the bank together against the sea’s erosion. (Everyone hopes that, but the roots make no difference. Big trees are undermined and topple over on a regular basis.) In the past fifteen years I’ve cut down many trees myself, and we’ve paid to have far more trees cut by the pros. On one lot we own but have left alone, spruce trees and undergrowth have grown in to create an almost impenetrable thicket from edge to edge. On the land around the shed that has been cleared of trees there are tall grasses, goldenrod, lupines (they grew, originally, from some seeds thrown out by Vaughn and her mum, which came from lupines found growing in a roadside ditch), bayberry, blueberry, raspberry, bunchberry, Queen Anne’s lace, wild cucumber, vetch, morning glory, cinquefoil, fireweed, yarrow, and no doubt dozens of other plants I can’t name. Closer to the shore, but not absolutely on the edge, is a stand of poplars (waving gorgeously in the wind at the moment), which must have been growing on the edge of the farmer’s field when it was one. They are slowly propagating themselves out into the open space. A couple of mountain ash are growing near the shed, and so are two small maples, presumably seeded by the much bigger maple growing near the cottage, which was planted by Vaughn. What about those maple saplings? Are they nature? Are the lupines that have spread everywhere nature? They exist on their own. As Worster would say of a river, they have their own integrity. But they’re here, arguably, because of Vaughn’s intervention in the first place, because of chain saws cutting down spruce trees, because John Jurkowski went through the area with a bush hog a few years ago to keep it from getting too overgrown. I don’t want to say they’re not nature, but human beings have played a major role in this “nature.” Unlike this morning’s storm that washed out the dirt at the foot of the bank. There’s nothing human about that.
Several full and intense days pass. The family, and some neighbors, have a memorial service for Keith, twenty-six chairs in a circle on the lawn, overlooking the shore. The next day, at low tide, we scatter his ashes on the sandbars which he always loved, from the time he was a child. Now he is part of that vastness, the land, the sea, and the sky. The shore belongs to no one; and now Keith no longer belongs to his family. Only his memory does.
Surrounding these events is an enormous amount of food production, cleaning up, trips to town for supplies, phone calls between Vaughn’s cottage and her mother’s, laughter, annoyance, distractions, energy and tiredness. My back is hurting for a day or so during this, because of the struggle to haul up the kayaks.
I say goodbye to my stepsons at 4:25 in the morning; Vaughn drives them to the airport in Charlottetown. Their flight leaves at 6 a.m. This is a recurring P.E.I. experience.
Quiet descends. It’s a cloudy day. My son Matthew and my nephew Eli are still in the house; Matthew builds a fire in the woodstove and everyone watches it meditatively.
I return to my shed.
Throughout all this, the question about a relationship with nature has stayed on my mind, surfacing on the rare occasions when I’m alone, like in the bathroom brushing my teeth. I look out the window at the maple that Vaughn planted, at its countless leaves and at the way it branches, and think, there’s no way you can call that anything but nature. She made the decision to put it there, but those leaves are more complicated than anyone’s decisions. There’s definitely an other there, the tree itself. First I think that in order to have what you can call a relationship, there has to be an other; then I think no, you can talk about your relationship to yourself and that isn’t meaningless. But you can’t think of nature as yourself, can you? Hmm. Leaves of Grass. Whitman could. I don’t have time to pursue this thought. I have to get back to trying to help the occasion come off as planned.
Matthew Pei has been reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and he tells me about a farmer in Virginia who’s in the book, a guy who apparently sees farming as orchestrating a network of symbiotic relationships between the animals and plants on his farm. He moves his chickens from place to place in the pasture so they eat the bugs in the cow pies (providing them with protein) and fertilize the ground, but he doesn’t leave them in one place long enough for them to devour all the grass. When the cows spend the winter in the barn, he lets their manure pile up and periodically he shovels some corn onto it, which gets layered in with the cow manure. The corn kernels ferment. In the spring, he lets the pigs into the cow barn to root in the manure; they turn it with great thoroughness because to them, those fermented corn kernels are the ultimate treat. So they do the work of turning the manure, which helps it compost, and once it’s composted it goes on the fields . . . the whole thing is the opposite of industrial agribusiness. I’d like to ask that guy a few questions about what is nature.
But right here and now I seem to be spinning my wheels. Maybe I need a break. Stop thinking about having a relationship with nature, and go relate to that stuff growing out there, whatever it’s called. I take my bow saw and cut off some small spruces, in front of my shed, that are starting to grow up into the view from the screen porch, toward the west and the sunset. I drag them across the many named and unnamed plants growing on the cleared space, re-creating a path I’ve used before, and continue toward the shore, dragging the cut trees through the very first shoreside clearing I created, which I christened “the grotto.” I throw them over the bank into an area that is more scooped out and undermined with every storm. The grotto is slowly falling into the sea. This is neither nature, nor is it not-nature. It’s gardening, or landscaping. Collaboration. What I’m collaborating with, Worster might call God’s handiwork. Definitely God plays God here, not me. Anything that can break off the top half of a dead forty-foot-high spruce and send it flying at least that far from the stump is more than human.
I kneel in the weeds surrounding some small spruces I planted, clipping away at the weeds with shears I borrowed from Keith’s shed. Maybe this is not called borrowing anymore, now that Keith is gone. I ruminate vaguely: death is a relationship with nature . . . where does that thought lead?
A guy comes from P.E.I. Pest Control and sprays toxic stuff around the outside of the house and the sheds, because Vaughn is worried about carpenter ants. No doubt this kills plenty of bugs and perhaps other creatures, and perhaps it isn’t all that good for the inhabitants of the house either. The guy doing the spraying, shown an ant from inside the house, says it isn’t a carpenter ant. This leads to online searching. It turns out the only way to actually get rid of carpenter ants – which may not be in the house anyway – is by luring them with honey, then patiently following them back to their nest, which must be dosed with boric acid powder. The spraying is very likely pointless, as well as expensive and toxic. Today my relationship with nature is called ignorance.
I keep reading Cadillac Desert, in between chats with Matthew and my two nephews, Eli and Josh, but with a creeping sense that this isn’t taking me in a direction I need to go in. Not that it isn’t a good read – it’s entertainingly seasoned with outrage – but I keep thinking, once I finish reading all this, what am I gonna do with it? What can I do with this much information about the Central Arizona Project, or the rivalry between the Bureau of Reclamation and the Corps of Engineers? But maybe that’s part of the point about doing research: some amount of sheer accumulation has to go on before you can figure out what the hell you’re up to. Definitely I’m still in the first grade here. I’m the non-expert par excellence.
I do a Google search for “Tucson + aquifer,” then for “Tucson aquifer recharge CAP canal” (CAP being the Central Arizona Project). Either I’m just procrastinating, or this is worth something because I find out a little about what has happened in Arizona since Cadillac Desert was written. But again, what am I gonna do with it? I find web pages which are apparently online assignments done by students at various universities in various courses about water. Introductory courses. I find these informative and feel stupid. What, exactly, am I up to here – if anything – that I can do well enough to make it worth doing? If some kid who’s just beginning to major in Earth Sciences knows way more than I do, am I just talking through my hat?
Out in my shed, which has been sprayed, I start to feel sleepy and wonder if I’m experiencing toxicity. I have the windows and doors open, but maybe I’d better leave.
Vaughn gets in the car, meaning to go somewhere with her mother, but when she starts it up a loud noise emanates from its exhaust system, which obviously has a hole in it somewhere.
Some days just don’t get off the ground.