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At Work in the Ruins: Excerpt

March 22, 2023

Ed. note: This excerpt from At Work in the Ruins by Dougald Hine is published with permission of Chelsea Green Publishers.

‘It’s very strange, where you come from,’ says Martín Prechtel. ‘It seems to me that where you come from, everybody wakes up every day expecting to live.’

I found these remarks in Stephen Jenkinson’s book Die Wise, where he wonders over what Prechtel is getting at. How else might one wake up? It could sound as though those who don’t wake up with this expectation ‘have been robbed of it by the fatalism of their religion or the squalor of their daily life or the resignation to a basic misery of their high infant mortality rate, or the like’. But this would be a misunderstanding, Jenkinson suggests, and one that cuts to the strangeness of our ways of living. The alternative is not that you wake up expecting to die, it is that you might wake up with a sense of your life as a gift, ‘something mysteriously good’ – not an entitlement or a reward for living right, but a source of wonder and an occasion for gratitude.

Where we come from, there has been no end of expectations. So much was crushed under their weight. We are still trying to take them with us, but they are more than we can bear. The kind of hope worth having now is the kind that lies on the far side of expectations, on the far side of despair.

When I hear someone say, ‘Ours is the last generation that can make the difference!’, I understand where this comes from. I’ve said things like this myself. But something in this way of speaking came to trouble me. To put the whole weight of the future on the shoulders of those of us who happen to be around just now can be paralysing, the weight unbearable. And then, again, in making it all about us now, such statements feed a smuggled desire to be at the centre of the story. There’s a dark hubris lurking below the surface of this language.

As I listen for another way of placing ourselves in time, what comes is a story that reached me like a rumour. I heard it from the British author Sarah Thomas; she heard it from Tyson Yunkaporta. You’d have to ask him where he heard it. Maybe the land itself. In the best of worlds, this story goes, we stand near the beginning of a process that will take a thousand years, because that is how long it will be before the old growth forests have returned, how long it takes for the mother trees to grow back. On days when there is woodsmoke on the wind of a Swedish summer or when friends on the West Coast of the United States are posting eerie images of cities orange with smog, it takes some faith to imagine that there will be places where forests have a chance of growing old in the centuries ahead. As a Bama man from the far north of Queensland, I reckon Tyson knows what an ask this is. Yet I find there is something quieting in the invitation contained in such a story. It is hardly a promise that this will come to pass and it does not deny the urgency of all that we should be doing – or not doing – in our own lifetimes. It asks me to imagine that my kind might be a part of the process by which forests flourish, that this is a part of what we have been and can still be, that making scars is not all we are good for, and that scars can heal.

Modernity has gone around the world making no end of scars. Under its spell, we think the world is trying to kill us, because we have forgotten that dying is part of what we’re here for and have come to treat it as an error in need of correction. And we think that we are here to kill the world, that this is how our species shows up, as a destroyer. But this spell is wearing off.

And listening to Tyson’s story, as I let my imagination lean into the time of forests, there comes a humbling reminder: we live within stories whose ending lies beyond the horizon of our lifetimes. We will never know how all of this turns out.

Dougald Hine

Dougald Hine is a social thinker, writer and speaker. After an early career as a BBC journalist, he co-founded organisations including the Dark Mountain Project and a school called HOME. He has collaborated with scientists, artists and activists, serving as a leader of artistic development at Riksteatern (Sweden’s national theatre) and as an associate of the Centre for Environment and Development Studies at Uppsala University. His latest book is At Work in the Ruins: Finding Our Place in the Time of Science, Climate Change, Pandemics & All the Other Emergencies (2023). He co-hosts The Great Humbling podcast and publishes a Substack called Writing Home.

Tags: cultural stories, storytelling