Now that we’ve left 2018 behind (and I hear so many sighs of relief), I’m pleased to share something good with that year attached.
My essay Left Over From Eden was selected as a finalist for Adelaide Literary Magazine’s Best Essays of 2018. The anthology has just been released, and you can read it online here. If you prefer print editions, there’s one of those, too. You can also read just my essay below.
For those who’ve read a first draft of this piece (thank you! and) please note that this is a new and (I think) much-improved version.
Left Over From Eden
A loose and floating day, the end of summer-green. Breeze all afternoon, white cumulus on the move. Clouds recall the geese I heard this morning: stroking purpose-filled into the sunrise. Air carries the half-playful hint of chill, like the water in the river down the road.
Where I live, intrusive sound is epidemic. My concrete pad sits 30 feet from the road, poured between tree and townhome. I take a long breath when chance and city planning contrive a break in the growl and shout of friction and the commerce of convenience. For five delicious seconds, the rattle and hiss of maple leaves rises like a prayer.
Which is exactly its nature. More than any of my daydreams, quiet is the desire that resurfaces daily. The natural silence of wind and water, birdcall and humansong. The wind in Ponderosa pines sings too, differently than through the Douglas firs that shade me now. It’s distinctive in redwoods, or in maples of varying leaves. Where I lived so long in Southern California, it clatters in the great fan palms, and rustles the skirts of the silver-glinting queens. I pray to hear the wind.
The image that comes, sometimes when I ask this, is a blasted land, humanity fled and trees dying of thirst. The wind still wanders, touching the broken earth and crying. Shaking it in what seems to me like fury, or maybe grief.
We live in a time of increasing information, and desperate refusal to see. We know that our planet’s climate is destabilizing, our seas rising toward ruin faster than we truly understand. We know our species’ population is crashingly high. Our technology snags between politics and profit, under-harnessed to save our lives and hope. Our philosophies are weak, unpracticed things.
As long as others count the immediate costs, a critical mass of us can shrug off a few more wildfires each year in the mountains, a bit less rain in a gathering drought or a great deal more at once than the land can channel. We can ignore a widening swath of pines in far-distant mountains, dead by the gnawing mouths of beetles who will not die back themselves without a winter cold enough.
The planet will go on, of course. Humans may also live through this. What is already lost, in the meantime, that we refused to see as it fell beside the concrete trail, and died?
It’s a hell of an answer to prayer, this vision. I can’t decide whether to chase it back or stand inside it and allow myself to mourn.
Do I have hope? I have, for the moment, inertia on my side. False comfort, perhaps, in anything but that moment. The moment matters, though: take action, take comfort, take courage. Change is inevitable, and we have survived it before. Will the magnitude of this one, and the fact that we ourselves have caused it suddenly, break that? No one knows the answer, but sooner or later, all of us will. I find myself recalling Pascal’s wager.
This year (this decade, century? this moment), the wind greets me in a green and pleasant land. By the river in my town, a monument to our native poet stands in scattered columns with bits of verse engraved. “Oregon is insanely green. It is the thin light left over from Eden.” I have something like love for this land — though perhaps not yet William Stafford’s long practice of devotion; something to aspire to — and I do not want to watch it shrivel and ungreen. So I hope with active hands: by shaping words; by reading, giving, voting, buying local, driving less.
And in my smug suburban life, I hope the other way as well: by ignoring the rising water bill, for example, and pushing the vision that answers my prayers away.
I imagine, instead, quiet of a less drastic sort, in a less broken future. Quiet stirred by the whir of bicycles passing, by children’s play and families’ backyard laughter. Around all that, I’ll listen in on the squirrels in the afternoon shade and raccoons by night, and the intrigues of the birds who visit the small patch we share. I’ll notice the rain tapping leaves, one by one by one, as it begins.
And the wind. Always, I’ll be listening to the wind.
I don’t know if this is pipe dream. By the bonds of both economy and the heart, imposed and freely woven, I am unlikely soon to leave this home of mine, this small and noisy patio in the beating heart of my town. If I did, I would miss it: my arched and spreading maple tree, heavy with seed in this season, my sheltering Douglas firs, the local ospreys claiming my patch of sunset sky. The river close enough to walk in five minutes, dip my toes and sing praise.
Home is the process of loving a package deal, including the fiddly bits and the awkward corners. Including the traffic roar I pretend without success is a waterfall. Including the reason for the water bills, and the maddening difficulty of concerted right action in a world of stubbornly individual paths.
There’s comfort in this, of a sort that grows from familiarity. You might also say it’s our shifting baseline: our human tendency to adjust to the new normal, and to tell ourselves the necessity is the virtue.
False comfort. In this case, I’ll also name it love. I’ll stay here on my patio, listening for the wind. I’ll write, and converse, and give and read and vote, and pray the river never rises more than we can bear.
If hope is the comfort you take when you have already done all you can, then I don’t have hope.
I have work to do.