The place I’ve been spending this week is the habitat of grizzly bears, caribou, and mountain lions, none of which I’ve ever seen here.Two of these species view us as potential, if troublesome, prey.In actuality, even here in the wilderness we’ve made the human presence felt and wildlife sightings are somewhat rare.I saw more deer in New Jersey than I’ve ever seen here.Kind of makes you wonder about the human reputation among other creatures.We like to look at them in zoos, but we don’t see them in their natural surroundings.I like to think that it’s because they have so much space out here to wander—we see plenty of evidence of moose, for example, without an antler or dewlap making an appearance.
The environment, as created in our won image, has become somewhat sterile.Kind of the angry, old white man’s view of government.One color is all you need.Variety is too challenging, and threatening.We’ve driven the wolves to extinction around here, so you won’t see any of those.Won’t hear their plaintive howls on a moonlit night.You’ll see motorboats aplenty, and cars with fancy technology, and airplanes buzzing overhead.This will have to do for wilderness, since other places are fast developing into surveillance states to protect the rich men’s money.Wilderness means nothing to such people, unless it can be exploited for personal gain.The thing is, once it’s gone for them, it’s gone for us all.I found a sardine tin shining like silver in the silt on the bottom of our lake.Our fingerprints are everywhere.
The problem isn’t new.Even some monks in late antiquity found that when they headed into the desert for heroic feats of spirituality, they were followed by the curious.Crowds would sometimes gather to watch them being holy.Would that break a saint’s concentration?Do I even need to ask?The forest service asks us to stay on the trails.The trails are well trod.Out of sight, but never far from mind are the bears and cougars.We’ve driven them out of our path and then congratulate ourselves on becoming the top predators.Once the beasts are gone we turn our instincts on our fellow humans.To flush them out into the open we must tame their wildness. And when it’s all gone the only rule will be, in this distorted vision, that of rich white men. An angry grizzly bear would be far more congenial.
So, I’m packing.Have been, on and off, since January.One of the most dreaded moments of packing is the closets.You know how in horror movies the villain often hides in closets?We have no danger of that.Any monster foolish enough to try it would be suffocated under tons of stuff.Some houses may have walk-in closets, but I am inclined to call a mining company whenever I need to find anything in ours.Our closets have led full lives.It’s almost 100 degrees outside and I’m excavating.We’re at that stage of “absolutely need to keep?” instead of “do we want this?”Then I came upon it.The layer of SBL tote bags.Like a paleontologist of ancient academia.
If you’ve been a member of the Society of Biblical Literature you know what I mean.Every year the Society wants you to realize value for your money, and they give you a tote-bag to help you haul home the books you’re going to buy.Long-time attendees know to pack an empty suitcase inside their regular one just to accommodate the books.(That could also account for about ninety percent of my packing—we have more books than a small town public library.)But it’s not the books that are the problem today, it’s the bags.I’ve been attending SBL since 1991.Do the math.I seem to recall that they didn’t do tote bags back in Kansas City, but soon after they became part of the agenda.And I have an impressive pile of them in my closet.
Too small for groceries—especially in the early editions, back when we could meet in smaller venues—and too impractical for anything other than books, they multiply in our closets.What professor doesn’t have his or her iconic briefcase already?Reduce, reuse, recycle they say.At least half of my totes have never been reused.Zippers?Who thought of that?Pulling handfuls out of the closet, I marvel at their colors.I can’t remember everyone walking around with a red bag—what year was that?(San Francisco, 2011.)The black leather edition—remember that one?(SBL, n.d.)The bags aren’t really useful for packing, on a movers’ scale.You can imagine the burly guys outside their truck scratching their heads at this impractical conveyance.Like so much else in life they’ve become mere souvenirs.From the French word for something like “remembrance,” souvenirs are meant to take us back to the place in vivid detail.I fear that many past meetings have run together into a blend of biblical arcana.I’m sure that’s just me.Still, I’m responsible for this new discovery.I’d I’ll need shortly to decide whether these totes go into the museum or back into the landfill that moving inevitably creates in a throw-away world.
It happens every year. What with my commute schedule and personal disposition, I read a lot. This blog and Goodreads are my accounting system for keeping track of the thoughts that arise during all of this. Every year I get stopped by my first really important book that I’ve read since December’s roundup of last year’s titles. Paul Bogard’s The Ground beneath Us is this year’s first such book. Subtitled From the Oldest Cities to the Last Wilderness, What Dirt Tells Us about Who We Are, this tour of several fascinating locations is a wake-up call. Divided into three sections—Paved and Hallowed, Farmed and Wild, Hell and Sacred—Bogard’s book offers a kind of travelogue with the additional reminder that how we’re treating the land is the most terrifying example of what lack of foresight imaginable (why, Prometheus?) looks like. In a world with a rapidly growing population, we’re paving and building at unprecedented rates. World harvests, experts say, will last only another sixty years. Then we starve.
A dilemma I’ve struggle with here before is the fact that nobody owns this world. Nobody but those driven by money. There’s little that can stop them. This is exemplified by his chapter on fracking in my native Appalachia. Companies protected by loopholes—nooses, actually—devised by Dick Cheney can take over a town and destroy its environment. And this was even before Trump. And this is only but one example. Those who look soberly at where we’re going—and the melting permafrost in the northern hemisphere is about to make the globe nearly uninhabitable for our species—are ignored because they stand in the way of profits. Everybody loses. As a species we have neither the will nor the power to prevent it. Epimetheus reigns.
Not just doom and gloom, The Ground beneath Us is a thoughtful reflection on the human spirit. The titles of the subsections reveal that sacred ground—one of my recurring themes on this blog—is very real. Bogard isn’t a religionist, so you can’t accuse him of special pleading. His moving accounts of visiting sites hallowed by any number of factors, whether violence or simple belonging, reveal what home really means. What a dangerous, maybe even sinful, concept ownership can be. With chapters covering areas as diverse as Mexico City sinking under its own weight, to Ames, Iowa where what we’re doing to the soil is studied, to parts of Alaska accessible only by air, Heaven and Hell are daily and plainly played out before us. This is a very important book. We can only hope enough people will read it before it’s too late.
I’m not proud of it. In fact, truth be told, I tear up a little bit when I think about it. It happened so long ago, but it was a casual act of violence that made me feel big at the time. It wracks me with guilt even today. I killed a bee. For no reason. It was a summer’s day and I was following after my step-father, who’d just taken us for a haircut. Step-dad always wore a crew-cut and disliked hair on boys and men. I’ve always hated haircuts and when I saw a honey bee on a clover flower after leaving the barber shop shorn I stomped on it. I was maybe twelve. That act of senseless violence has never left me.
I’d been stung, you see. Many times, in fact. One incident was particularly dramatic. My mother had driven my brothers and me out to the woods to play with our dog. We made up a game, the way kids will, where my brothers would throw a stick and I’d race our dog to try to fetch it first. I was actually in the lead this time and stepped on a rotting stump to keep my marginal edge. The stump was home to a colony of yellow-jackets and they swarmed out, just like in the cartoons I used to watch. Before I realized what was happening I fell to the ground with multiple stingers burrowing into my bare legs. Our dog was covered with bees and we weren’t sure he’d even survive. At home Mom had me soak in a hot bath because there was a prayer meeting that night at church that we couldn’t miss. I was allowed to take a pillow to sit on over the plain wooden pew.
That incident was in my mind as I stepped on the innocent bee, gathering nectar that summer day. Immediately I regretted what I’d done. Its little body lay twitching in the grass. It had no idea who had killed it or why. My reason for doing so was lame, and long gone. All creatures on this planet are interconnected. We are killing off bees at unprecedented rates. Insect populations the world over are falling at truly alarming speed. We need our bees. We’ve tampered with nature to make it more productive and have ended up with killer bees instead. We’re now warming our globe so they can spread even as we kill off their more docile siblings. That summer sun of memory beats down on me as I consider what I’ve done, and I sincerely repent.