5. Time to Buckle Down
I get the word from Vaughn that we’re leaving in a week. She’s got to get back to her department chair duties. I’d better get out to the shed and try to make something of my thoughts, before I have to go into town to the muffler shop. All trips to town take a minimum of three hours.
I have this start on an idea: this water stuff connects directly to the American dream, the original one, the agrarian one. The family making a decent living on its own land, a respectable, self-reliant life close to the rhythms of nature. The rationale for the massive irrigation projects in the West was the proverbial 160-acre farm, sufficient to support a family, where supposedly the wretched slum dwellers of the East would be able to find a new life. Reisner quotes a Reclamation commissioner as saying, “We weren’t even supposed to give them 160 acres if they could make a living on less. And in warm states like California you could make a living on a lot less. We were talking about subsistence – nothing more.” (337) Whether or not the upshot was an irrigated utopia for the family farmer – it mostly wasn’t – the interesting point is that this dream successfully sold gargantuan water projects for decades. Regardless of the fact that those projects principally benefitted the likes of Standard Oil, Getty, Shell, Prudential, and the Southern Pacific Railroad.
John Stilgoe, in Outside Lies Magic, writes that the typical suburban yard is
. . . a miniature farm, a sort of living mausoleum of 1840’s-style farming. A fruit tree or two recalls the orchard. The patch of vegetable garden reminds everyone of great fields once planted to tomatoes, cabbage, peppers, potatoes. The backyard, usually more or less fenced, is vestigial pasture, roamed by the substitute livestock, a dog and a cat. And the front yard . . . recalls the meadow, the source of hay. (126-127)
In not-suburban Cambridge, Vaughn proved that Stilgoe was right by waging a domestic campaign to convince me we could keep chickens in our yard, whether it was allowed by the city or not (Vaughn wasn’t interested in finding out). I finally gave in, built a coop with no one’s permission, fenced off part of the yard, and we had a couple of hens living there, diligently scratching for bugs, denuding their area of plant life, and laying damn good eggs. Nearly everyone who saw the hens was charmed by them at once. The mailman brought them treats. Friends who heard about them wanted to come visit them. The only exceptions were people who got pecked by chickens as kids. Plenty of neighbors must have heard them squawk, but no one ever complained. Then the hens got killed by a raccoon – speaking of relationship with nature – but again, all this was more evidence of the persistence of the agrarian dream, among Americans who never lived it firsthand.
Back in grad school I read a book called I’ll Take My Stand, a wouldbe-manifesto from 1930 by a bunch of Southern writers who called themselves Agrarians, and was totally unimpressed by it. I couldn’t figure out why it was anything but proof that some people in 1930 were busy looking forward to the past. Now I’m beginning to think again. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan talks about “supermarket pastoral,” the prose surrounding the produce at Whole Foods. Family farm, in harmony with the land, free range, organic, sustainable . . . we all know the drill. It sells; we’re buying. Damned if it isn’t the agrarian dream alive and well.
In 1999, I was finally finishing a novel called For Adam, the most difficult one I ever wrote, after four years of work. When I got to the end I somehow landed on the word “artisanal” as a kind of justification for the effort, a rationale for the four years spent writing what turned out to be quite a short book. Now it seems to me that “artisanal” is just supermarket pastoral. “Artisanal” is sausage: stick that word on it and you can raise the price twenty percent. As soon as you think of an artisan, you think of an older, now lost (to us) way of life, a traditional way, a way that takes its time, a way that still respects the individual worker and the quality and individuality of that person’s work, a way that’s close to the earth, a way that still preserves all that our civilization does not. So eat this sausage, and the old way will be part of you, in you. It’s the Whole Foods Eucharist. If you’re a believing Christian, when you take communion, you eat the body and blood of Christ. Now the Kingdom of God is within you, in the most literal sense. You’re cleansed, you’re closer to the divine. Upscale boutique food offers you the same deal minus religion: for a price, you can eat the agrarian dream. You don’t have the time, or the skills, to do something close to the earth and time-consuming, but you do have time to eat this and then magically, if you’re a believer – and the mad success of Whole Foods says there are plenty of believers – after eating this you are the dream; the blessed life is within you; you’re cleansed of the sin of artificial urban life.
We’re nuts if we think this works. I remember what Worster said, paraphrasing Horkheimer: “The private interior is invaded by hucksters and planners. Material life alone flourishes . . .”
Inadvertently, I seem to have gotten somewhere on the question of man’s relationship to nature. We 21st century Americans, like Americans long before us (and probably plenty of people elsewhere), like to imagine that relationship in the form of a self-sustaining family farm. A farm isn’t exactly nature but it sure is a relationship to it. In a sense my “grotto” is the same idea: collaboration with the natural world. And that presumably is close enough to what Worster had in mind when he said we needed to “become a river-adaptive people.”
All of which, by the way, turns out to be totally different from the Sierra Club version of nature, which is wilderness. That’s nature as the Other with a capital O; the agrarian nature is the other-but-not that we work with hand in glove. My sympathies lie with the latter, but then, this is no surprise considering I writes novels about who loves who. I’m all about relationships where the self and the other try to become one – if that’s even possible for more than an instant . . . but we’re not going to go there, because this is not one of my novels.
So there are at least two natures: the Other-elsewhere, and the nature we live with (or wish we lived with) right here where we are. So if we remember to distinguish between the two, then maybe this project becomes more understandable?
It appears that in a sense, Worster and Reisner are saying we – at least those of us who inhabit large parts of the American West – live in a world beyond nature, after nature, that in engineering a vast, mind-boggling landscape to get water where it isn’t, we have created a simulated nature. What happens to the human spirit in a simulated nature? Something dries up. Hence the attraction of the supermarket pastoral. We know something’s wrong with this picture, but we don’t know how to get outside the frame. So we resort to magical solutions, e.g., the secular Eucharist.
And all the while, burning diesel and jet fuel to get the “sustainable” produce to our local market is almost certainly causing the climate to warm and making the need for that engineered water ever greater.
I ride my bike over to the other house to set a squirrel trap for my mother-in-law, because a squirrel (unwanted nature) keeps getting into her cottage. On the way I suddenly think wait a minute, this notion that we’ve gone beyond nature – doesn’t global warming disprove that? There’s an enormous amount left that we don’t understand; nature is capable of things we can’t control or anticipate. So what’s more like it is that we tried to go beyond nature and now we’re getting our comeuppance.
This means there are two different kinds of danger in the attempt to dominate nature totally. One is the danger that when we succeed too well in creating “the world of the administered life” (Horkheimer & Adorno), our spirit is in danger of desiccation. The other is the danger of the unintended, unanticipated (or just plain wilfully ignored) consequences of our not knowing what we’re doing when we mess around with nature. That creates physical, survival-type danger. We’re facing them both, I think. We’ve engineered our way out onto a limb that’s about to break under the weight of our numbers, and made ourselves spiritually poorer in the process.
Another distinction. It makes me feel I’m getting someplace. I’m at a fork in the road. Or to put it another way, I can imagine two big stacks of books I might read. One would be about all the ways we’ve messed up by not knowing what we’re doing in a technical, scientific way, or by ignoring what we did know and going full steam ahead, damn the consequences. This would be the very tall stack of books like the de Villiers one (Water: the fate of our most precious resource), and The World’s Water 2006-2007, and Cadillac Desert, and the collection of newspaper clippings. The books about water shortages, water wars, water politics, water economics, geology, hydrology. The other stack is perhaps not so tall, not so factual or scientific. This stack of books is about values, ultimate goals, the well-being or sickness of the human spirit – somehow connected to water. What’s on that pile? Those sound like the books I really want to read.
Well, Worster is there, for one, and that’s why Rivers of Empire is far and away the best thing I’ve read yet. There must be other books, basically ecological, in which history, science and contemplative thought converge.
I look again at the beginning of Worster’s book, the philosophical underpinnings, and certain words and phrases jump out at me.
“Water in the capitalist state has no intrinsic value, no integrity that must be respected. Water is no longer valued as a divinely appointed means for survival, for producing and reproducing human life, as it was in local subsistence communities. Nor is water an awe-inspiring, animistic ally in a quest for political empire, as it was in the agrarian states. It has now become a commodity . . . All mystery disappears from its depths, all gods depart, all contemplation of its flow ceases.” (52, emphasis added)
“ . . . the peculiarity of instrumental thought is that it destroys traditional religion and value, denigrates all genuine philosophy, recognizes no transcending purpose, and consequently leaves a deep void in our relationship with nature.” (54, emphasis added)
“In an age ruled by instrumentalism, nature ceases to have any value in itself. It is no longer seen as the handiwork of God to be admired more than used, nor is it an organic being we are bound to woo and respect.” (55, emphasis added)
“When a man clears a field of trees and plows it up for crops, he has not embarked on a career of technological domination, though he may have given the land a new appearance. Domination, as Horkheimer and Adorno used the term, is a repressive act that is total in intention. It springs from a hostility and an alienation that cannot tolerate the otherness of nature, that can see no worth there or respect any right to exist separate from humans.” (56, emphasis added)
There you go. This is the bird I want to watch. Nature having a right to exist separate from us. Water that is what it is, not what we make it, having its own integrity. Nature as an other with which we have a relationship of contemplation, awe, admiration, respect. Water harboring a mystery in its depths. As Worster said in his conclusion, “In a sense [a river] is a sacred being, something we have not created, and therefore worthy of our respect and understanding.” (331, emphasis added) The “therefore” is crucial: the fact that the river is not our creation, but rather its own or that of a Creator, is what makes it worthy of respect and understanding. Nature as Other and nature as our collaborator come together: we can only collaborate with nature by always remembering to respect its integrity and its intrinsic value. Even its sacred being. By engineering too much of the world, we suck out too much of its otherness and then we have nothing to be in a relationship with, nothing to respect and understand, because we’re facing our own creation. We find ourselves alone in a hall of mirrors. Either we’re so narcissistic that we like this, or we start suffering from loneliness, or worse, find ourselves standing on the brink of a void. Perhaps in such a case we are what is left of nature for each other, we humans must look to another of our own kind to be our newfound land. Which is what I’ve spent thirty years writing novels about, so maybe it connects after all.
This begins to sound like a point of view.