During the Pleistocene, a river containing ten times the combined volume of all the rivers on Earth thundered west from its place of origin in a land now called Montana. At speeds upwards of sixty miles per hour, it tore across northwest North America on its way to the Pacific Ocean.
This mightiest of rivers was born from the collapse of the glacial dam that had contained it as an enormous water body known as Lake Missoula. And no sooner had the dam burst than it began to reform again to repeat the cataclysm, likely hundreds of times until the final collapse spilled one last torrent into the warming world of the Holocene.
This terminal river is the one that came to mind as I read Kathleen Dean Moore’s ‘The Rules of the River’ in the September/October 2014 issue of Orion magazine. In Moore’s essay, she equates climate change and the myriad socio-political/economic interests (and disinterests) propelling it with ‘a river rushing toward a hot, stormy, and dangerous planet.’ She goes on to suggest that our work is ‘to make one small deflection in complacency, a small obstruction to profits, a blockage to business-as-usual, then another and another, to change the energy of the flood.’
As I read this I realised, for these countercurrent actions to be as effective as possible, we also need to understand the nature of the river itself. And no real river comes closer to serving as an adequate model for her metaphorical river than the Lake Missoula torrent. By relating her metaphorical river to that ice age river, the reality of our present global predicament becomes clearer as does the full spectrum of our essential work.
The human equivalent of Lake Missoula began to grow ten thousand years ago behind the building ice dam of a new human story that had come to fill and chill the hearts of a swelling agricultural populace. Over the centuries, this story of separation, exceptionalism and control grew and grew, and behind it the human waters rose. Strain built against the relentlessly expanding margins of this story until roughly two centuries ago when the pressure became too great and, with industrial force, the dam burst.
Unleashed, the industrial human flood swept across the Earth, drowning everything in its path that would not or could not join the sweep. And the few generations born of the deluge during its relative geologic instant came to see it as normal. What’s more, they came to depend on it for almost every facet of their existence and derived most of their physical sustenance, self-worth, meaning, purpose, social standing and even identity from their contribution to its continuance. We who have inherited this aberrant normalcy and near-total dependency can now see with unprecedented clarity the compounding and increasingly catastrophic planetary damage our flood has been causing by its very existence. And this vision has produced a heart-wrenching tension too overwhelming for many of us to acknowledge. For those of us like Moore who have the courage to do so, a vital aspect of the work such acknowledgement demands is, as she recognises, deflection, obstruction and blockage of business-as-usual. But such work must be coupled with an awakening to the fact that industrial civilisation is the river. We are the waters. Our story is the flood.
This awareness leads to the other work we must do if deflection, obstruction and blockage are to become anything more than postponements of the total ecological erasure in which we are concurrently engaged in the day to day living of our lives as children of the flood. That other work is the conscious withdrawal of our personal and institutional energy from the torrent and the shifting of that energy into local communities integrated into local ecological cycles, where the fullness of human life may be met without involving the global industrial technological infrastructure with its insatiable demands for the unending and accelerating drawdown of planetary resilience.
It’s as simple (and as difficult) as promoting ways of human living where communication is direct eye to eye and voice to ear, where mobility is accomplished with feet, where the sources of food, water, shelter and all other material necessities can be accessed by those feet, and where the stories, songs and celebrations that matter most are those that directly bind us, our families and communities to the land which gives us our existence at every level: physical, emotional and spiritual.
And the time for this shift is now. Unlike the Toklat where Moore found her inspiration, or the Clark’s Fork, the Columbia, the Mississippi, the Nile, the Yangtze, the Amazon… this flood-formed river of human excess (born from the exploitation — in a mere two centuries — of the energy contained in fossil carbon deposits that took hundreds of millions of years to form) is, and can only be, temporary.
The river will subside. The waters will diminish and settle back into well-worn channels carved by the solar-powered cycle of the seasons spinning their ceaseless rounds. And we will once again live with the trophic integrity that is our deepest birthright, our broadest tradition. Most importantly, our stories will frame this transformation to a steady-state in terms of maturation rather than collapse, stagnation, regression or a devolutionary ‘going back’. Thus we will stop struggling at all costs to preserve a ten thousand year condition of arrested development (ceaseless adolescent growth) and embrace our long-postponed adulthood.
In this effort, we have many examples from whom to learn; those who long ago made the shift the citizens of the now-global monoculture of industrial civilisation must make. The following quote represents just one, offered by Jeanette Armstrong, an Okanagan from a land now called British Columbia:
I do know that people must come to community in the land. The transiency of peoples crisscrossing the land must halt, and people must commune together on the land to protect it and all our future generations. Self-sustaining indigenous people still on the land are already doing this. They present an opportunity to relearn and reinstitute the rights we all have as humans.
As Okanagan, our most essential responsibility is to bond our whole individual and communal selves to the land. Many of our ceremonies have been constructed for this. We join with the larger self and with the land, and rejoice in all that we are.
This is the essence of cultural maturity. And it is our most vital work whether we’re Okanagan or not. Committing to this work and making it the undercurrent of our every act is how the flood can end well.
If the notion of the flood ending well arouses incredulity, recall that many of our most respected experts felt the same way about the prospects for life in the blast zone following the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. Some of them even anticipated a silent, barren gray-scape for centuries to come and they had the science to back them up. Yet frog song and green shoots and purple lupine and the dark loamy scrollwork of gopher tailings erupted from the ashen land almost immediately, shocking and awing the experts (and the rest of us) perhaps even more profoundly than the eruption itself.
Might life’s response to our maturation prove equally shocking and awesome? There’s only one way to find out. And the time of decision is upon us: will we cling to the cresting wave of the familiar industrial story despite ever more undeniable signs that it is about to break or will we engage, with imaginative intention, an opportunity that has not been available in ten thousand years: the opportunity to restore our waters to the long-abandoned channels of our humanity and from there flow on, immersed in stories buoyed by a lasting river?
Over the last 23 years, Tim Fox has worked as an owl researcher, vegetation surveyor, archaeological field crew leader and writer in the fir and hemlock forests of the central Oregon Cascades, where he lives with his wife and son. His work has been published in Orion magazine and on the Yes! magazine website. His journal The Mountain Lion, which chronicles his six day writer’s residency at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest, is posted in the on-line publication The Forest Log. reciproculture.blogspot.co.uk
Image ‘Glacial Lake Missoula’ by kind permission of Byron Pickering