Saturday, March 8, 2014

A Walk in the Future

I will begin this post with apologies to my regular readers for taking a mid-winter writing hiatus this year. The truth is, in early January, my wife and youngest daughter and I moved out of the city and back to rural Colorado where we are home. After ten years of urban homesteading—creating a half-acre farm on an unused church lot, putting chickens, bunnies, bees and goats in our backyard (in violation of local ordinances but not against the wishes of the neighbors), community-building wherever possible, and, most important of all, raising teenagers who participated in all of the above—we pulled up stakes and returned to our small-town roots in the mountains.

Here we have a ready-made community of old friends and ample opportunity to make new ones. I’ve gone back to writing for the local newspaper about issues that really matter to the locals, but rarely make it onto anyone’s radar farther than a day’s walk from here. Above all, since my return, the living landscape of snowy mountain trails and sleepy, icebound rivers has sent me hourly invitations to walk and get reacquainted. I’ve spent a lot of time catching up on the news from the year-round neighbors: fox, rabbit, mouse, muskrat, magpie, bald eagle, coyote, red-tailed hawk, willow, wild rose, cottonwood, deer, elk, raccoon—just to name a few.

The net result has been an onset of severe attention deficit anytime I picture sitting in front of the computer for longer than absolutely necessary. The creek nearby is never the same at sunset as it was in the morning, a fact I feel compelled to personally verify. Many of the itinerant citizens are beginning to return or awaken—robin, geese, skunk, beaver, red-winged blackbirds—and I hate to miss the opportunity to be the first to greet them. The Milky Way is vivid in the sky most nights, and the moon is a lazy and companionable town crier marking the time of the month.

In this setting, a brisk walk feels too fast, and in any case is only possible on manmade roads. Trails are made for stopping and looking—one continuous scenic turnout. Straight lines are an abstraction. If it weren’t for power poles and the angular walls and roof of my house I might stop believing in them altogether. Even the bare willow branches reach sideways in arching yoga poses that seem to deny the very existence of rectitude. It is a meandering, curvaceous, flibbertigibbet world—a state that is highly contagious to wanderers. Old stories tell of travelers who stumble into enchanted groves and fall out of time, forgetting who they are (or at least who they are expected to be by others). Storytellers lay the blame on mischievous fairy folk, but I begin to believe in a less exotic explanation. Up and down, east and west, in summer and winter, the whole world is timeless already and quite content to simply be. This gives off a thoroughly intoxicating fragrance.

But please don’t think I am only talking about this particular style of living in this particular place. I know that most people have no choice but to live in the city. And let’s be honest, most of those would stay where they are in any case. Many of my urban friends think I’m bonkers for preferring starlight to the late-night neon excitement of metropolitan life.

I’m talking about what happens to anyone, anywhere on the planet when you become available and open to having a relationship with the world and with the ground-level facts of your life. Pigeons and potted plants are just as rooted in the timeless now as pine trees and beaver ponds. A tomato vine on an apartment patio can connect you with the living community that provides your food. Running barefoot through soccer field grass will heighten your sense of belonging on the earth and remind you that putting one foot in front of the other—literally—is something you have in common with every other person who has ever lived. I’m talking about a universal way to experience time, people, nature, walking and breathing that is more in synch with true human nature than living at a machine’s pace.

It is also in synch with the future. The fact is, most of the complex systems which isolate us from the earth and alienate us from each other in today’s frantic world are already in steep decline (even if your iPhone still functions for a while). It isn’t hard to justify that claim. We need only consider the fact that the era of cheap oil over for good, clearly evident in the present, prolonged economic crisis and associated geopolitical seizures. Add in the combined stresses of a number of social and environmental emergencies and it becomes implausible—if not impossible—to believe in a future where prosperity continues to be defined as endless economic growth and financial profit. That model is mortally wounded.

If human history is a novel, then we’ve reached the climax, the final turning point in which the protagonists (us) either change or die. We now must grow or suffer unspeakable consequences. This is the moment when we find out if the burning question raised in act one can be resolved in act three: “Will we cease our juvenile infatuation with ourselves and visions of our own splendor and return to balanced relationship with the rest of creation in time to avoid a really unhappy ending?”

This morning, as I walked along a snow-free ridgeline formed by south facing outcroppings of schist and gneiss more than 2 billion years old, I thought, “Of course we can. We possess everything we need to succeed.”

Then I remembered the question wasn’t can we evolve our way into a better future; it was will we. That’s up to each of us right where we are. I recommend you begin by slowing down and paying attention to things that have always been.

Breathe. See. Love. Give.

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