Over there in the corner by the front door sits a big cardboard box. It is full to the brim with things I’ve accumulated over the years, things I don’t understand, but that I continue to lug around. It is mostly full, of course, with the usual stuff that we all lug around: the nature of god and the universe and all the rest of it. Why evil exists. How in the hell did she come up with that? But most of the space in there is taken up with more quirky stuff. Why does the blues make us happy? What does it mean that an octopus apparently needs to be smarter than, say, a red ant? How do fish and birds turn like that, all together? Why don’t we have tails? Don’t zero and infinity sometimes amount to the same thing? Why don’t more people pay attention?
Here in Eugene, some sort of earthly nirvana for the sensitive and the fortunate, all seems to go on pretty much the same as it has since the first trapper wandered down from the north three hundred years ago. In particular ways, nothing much seems to have changed. To be sure, the economy has closed a few businesses and has probably put more people on the streets over the past few years and a great many of the trees are gone, but all is fundamentally the same as it ever was. People still drive to Trader Joe’s for the radicchio and down to the dentist, maybe over to Springfield for a massage. The stadium still gets packed on Fall Sundays. Big trucks lumber by on I-5.
One of the more benign manifestations of America’s past surviving into today is the tradition of naming things — shopping malls, all sorts of developments, trailer parks, those kinds of things — after whatever was destroyed in order to put them there: Willow Vista, Bear Valley, and so on. I bought some wine last night called Covey Run. In a new manifestation of the old practice, just down the street from my front door a couple of bronze river otters installed on the corner a few years ago by the city watch passersby and cars on the streets inscrutably. I’ve seen plastic flowers and a business card from the used-instrument place down the street lodged in the mouth of the one on top. Last week, a crushed Budweiser can.
Even the sudden appearance of spring here in Eugene seems thoroughly usual — the breathtaking baring of thousands of white, hairy legs to the newly-strong sun suggests merely a regular thing, like the Fourth-of-July. Cars come and go, busses run. Sometimes I can hear a train, a lovely echo from way back, and the nearby Catholic bells. Sometimes a plane drones over on approach to McMahon-Sweet Field. To all appearances, nothing has changed.
And yet everything is rapidly becoming different. That old lady (older than me) over there in the Buick at the light is causing the weather to change and consequently condemning creatures to death all across the earth simply because she has an appointment with her chiropractor. The guy in the Prius across the intersection continues to acidify the oceans as he makes his way to pick up some kale and a couple of onions at the farmers’ market over on Oak, although it’s happening more slowly since he traded-in his old GMC. Both are poisoning the Gulf and killing the salmon and doing utterly nothing differently from anything either has ever done. Each is, in his or her separate way and taken all-in-all, a fine and good person. Under the circumstances, the world is arguably better for their presence. It has always, of course, been like this, but we didn’t know. But now…
From one of the stages at the recent Gulf Aid Concert from New Orleans, a Cajun shrimper gruffly compared present experience to your best friend suddenly turning on you and slowly drawing a knife across your throat. An announcer spoke of weeping as he ate fried oysters.
Anyone who’s ever been there knows there’s no place on earth like New Orleans, south Louisiana in general. Excruciatingly, agonizingly, the shrimp fishermen and the accordion players and the men and women who work on the platforms, the cops and the motel maids spend days after agonizing weeks peering down the barrel of a large-bore rifle aimed point-blank at their livelihoods and at their very culture.
As I said at the start, my box in the corner bulges with things I don’t understand, and one of them is why so few seem to care about any of this. Not really.
We — at least most people I know — react to this worst-case-scenario with a range of strong emotions from literal outrage to torporous depression. British Petroleum is the villain for many; British Petroleum is surely repugnant and easy to hate, even for the loving and the peaceful. Halliburton, again. Transocean. The whole thing may just be technology’s fault. A few fault the government for letting it happen in the first place. Greed gets its due, as do political deals and plain ignorance. The whackier among us seem firmly convinced that, somehow, Obama must be guilty. To a few, God is trying to teach us something. Loudly declaimed, the pissed or apocalyptic declarations somehow seem to make us feel good, at least as we say them.
Meanwhile, everybody keeps driving. Most folks think nothing of packing the kids in the back of the Honda and taking off to San Francisco for the weekend, maybe the eighty miles to Eureka to catch Costco and a movie, now and then over to the coast just because it’s so lovely there — down to the grocery for laundry soap and beer — somewhere nearly every day. Multiply this by 250,000,000 cars and 10,000 commercial aircraft, and a couple hundred-thousand big trucks. Especially in the East, but largely in the Midwest, too, oil is used for electricity as well as for transportation. Out here in the West, electrical generation is mostly, for the time, hydro and nuclear, so most petroleum is what gets either us or our stuff moved around. Out here, petroleum goes mostly for transportation.
I lived way off the highway twenty-minutes up Bell Springs Road for five years and near Leggett for decades before that. It is almost impossible to imagine a rural West without relatively cheap gas. Returning to a time when everybody owned horses is no longer an option for most, even in the boonies anymore. These days, horses are far too slow and they eat too much. There are simply too many people. Besides, it sounds like the setup for a joke. But the fact that this just won’t work does not belie the plain fact that — in a manner of speaking — talking a good game is part of what got us to where we so inescapably are, and people quickly need to recognize the self-serving hypocrisy of bitching about the oil giants while driving to WalMart, no matter that they may be listening to Sinead O’Connor and munching organic popcorn as they drive.
To continue to carry on as we always have is to act as though we think that none of this will ever end, that magically, our actions will have no consequences. I have had good friends, people who should know better, wonder aloud why we need to care about the havoc we’re causing because we will be long-dead by the time the worst effects descend, and anyway, who cares? Well…
As I write, the ooze from British Petroleum’s underwater blowout is beginning to saturate the marshlands along the ragged southern edge of Terrebonne Parish, where Louisiana meets the Gulf of Mexico. Three weeks after Hurricane Katrina, my boot heels were inches above sea level at Grande Isle, where I snapped pictures a few miles to the southeast from where a handful of us were building a radio station beside the headquarters of the Houma Indians. This is where the goo finally hit first. The crying around the bayous right now has mostly a Cajun lilt, but there is little doubt that people still drive down to the Daiquiri stand by the bridge for a little legal anesthetic.
People in Leggett as well as people in Grande Isle need to stop driving so much, need to curb their incessant desire for more of this stuff, ever more. Buying some new electric car just so we can keep driving with a clear conscience is unlikely to help. Recycling the crap we have so we can make more of it is unlikely to help much. Boycotting BP so we can spend more at Exxon/Mobil won’t help at all.
One of the many pleasures of watching old movies lies in watching the backgrounds: the real texture there, the way things used to look. It is no less interesting to watch and listen between the lines as people everywhere react to the present disaster: few seem even able, for example, to imagine a world without ready travel. Anything from a quick trip to the coast for a movie to a flight to Costa Rica for the winter requires nothing more than the means to write a check that won’t bounce. A depressing percentage of us — mainly adolescent boys and middle-aged men — seem wrapped so intimately to the internal combustion engine as to suggest some really weird kind of cloning, something strangely pornographic. Our wants and our perceived needs, thank you, will determine our every move, and if a whale or a wolf or a paramecium is somehow challenged by that, well so be it. Let somebody else worry about it. I need more brown rice. To understate the situation wildly, this does not bode well.
A reasonably strong argument can be mounted that our ancestors invented government to deal with this sort of thing so that the rest of us don’t have to. Palpably — agonizingly — the folks we’ve placed to deal with things are not dealing with things. Watching the progressive uncovering of the reality of corporatism is like passing an especially ugly and gruesome traffic accident: you just have to look. As Studs Terkel once observed, mildly, “These people are not that smart.” In fact, their appalling carelessness risks all the world, and the rest of us simply cannot continue to allow ourselves to settle for whining about it as we drive to the herbalist’s. Inescapably, no one and nothing looks likely to help us here, so we’d all better figure out how to do it ourselves, and we’d better do it now.
Nobody I know has the slightest interest in fucking the world up further, but on things clearly go. It is simply not OK any more to use others’ inaction as some sort of righteous excuse. Today — right now — figure out how to drive at least fifty per-cent less than you already do. Stop taking so many trips. Don’t buy so many new clothes. Cook your own food and buy local whenever you can. Generations ago, Henry Thoreau pointed out that one of the ways to be rich is to need less. Period.
It is hard, maybe impossible, to avoid the math here, and even harder to ignore the plain moral choice. Life can’t force us to be hypocrites, only we can do that by continuing to act as though there is literally no tomorrow. Again, I look over at the box in the corner. Knowing what we know, who would want to live like that? ¥¥