Another anniversary approaches, a collective memory that shaped and shook our understanding of who we are and how we stand in the world. This is no place for global politics, but it bears mention; we have marked the anniversary of so many traumatic events in these posts lately, fire and pandemic and the ongoing specters of climate change and social unrest, that to omit the anniversary of September 11, 2001 seems remiss. Still, what might we say here that seems relevant? Perhaps the way the that the terrorist attacks of 20 years ago forced us to reckon with the fact that the land that we live on was no guarantee of safety or security, despite generations of perceived insulation from the violence that besets so much of the world. Our national identity was shaped primarily by the idea of the frontier, a westward expansion into lands that we perceived as “unsettled”, or “empty”, though in fact they were anything but. The violence of that past cannot be undone, though it can be acknowledged, and mitigated. This is also not the place to delve too deeply into that historical wound, though individuals and institutions may benefit from such an examination. We mention it here only to illustrate the context of a prevailing character common among our citizens, the idea that our national spirit was founded on exploration, expansion, and a spirit of rugged individualism. Always we were moving westward, into uncharted territory. Always there was another frontier, and when the country of the United States of America reached the western shore, we continued our expansion, into space, below the oceans, into the national affairs of other countries. Somehow, despite the infinite vastness of space and the seemingly abundant natural resources of the planet, we have run hard into this realization, that there is nowhere we can now turn that is immune from the effects of a shifting climate. There is no longer any faraway place that we might yet discover, upon which we might found some new dynasty, free of the constraints we now must operate within. Though there remain miles of unexplored territory in our oceans and desserts and yes, even into the starry darkness of outer space, we can no longer look away from the constraints and consequences of our actions, past and present and future. There is no new country to settle, no new, virgin place to escape into, carrying our dreams of freedom and our stories of a manifest destiny. There is nowhere that is truly safe, nowhere that is insulated from the effects of centuries of pollution and exploitation, burning fossil fuels and pumping groundwater faster than it can be replenished. Is this a radical stance? Or a realistic one. We have nowhere left to run to, whether spatially or temporally; we are at last and finally constrained by the limits of our ecosystems. Within these constraints, however, we may find the truest expression of our national character yet.
Somehow, this is all going to tie back to the garden, and the kitchen table. The garden has looked different this year, as the weather shifts, and the soil dries, and the wind and the fog move differently than they have in the past. What choice do we have but to learn, as we have always done, the ways and the cycles of an unfamiliar space? Even/especially those of us who have lived in the same locations for generations, can see the subtle changes and unravellings of the world we have known. In this changing time, on this sorrowful anniversary, may we find the courage to face the hardest truths head-on. May we find the seeds that will thrive in the new world, may we find ways to feed all of the earth’s people within the constraints of what the planet has to offer. May we utilize the creativity and resilience that have always been a part of our identity to forge new ways of being, that finally recognize the beautiful potential that becomes possible when we live within our means and in right relation with each other. A sustainable future is possible, and more urgently necessary than ever.
It ain’t all doom and gloom, though. We have, despite our limitations, the tools and the technology to move beyond our current patterns of consumption, into a more thoughtful and equitable relationship with the earth and with each other. And even as we weigh and measure the difficulties that face us, we are still held and supported by the planet itself. The peppers are still ripening on their green stems; gather some, and pack them into the salty brine called for in this week’s recipe for fermented peppers. Let the time pass. Inside the small world of a clear glass jar, observe and infer the way microbes and plants interact, consuming resources to transform one thing into something more stable, more secure, and longer-lasting than what was initially present.
And consider this, too; the upcoming Labor Day weekend, which we sometimes celebrate as a federal holiday without stopping to appreciate the years of inequity and entrenched exploitation that preceded it. This holiday was brought to us by the Labor movement of the late 19th century, as a celebration born of protest against the unfair working conditions of the 1800’s. Twelve hour work days were common then, as children as well as adult workers were expected to labor for low wages without days off, paid leave, job security, or health care. It was only through the direct actions of workers on strike that the mood and priorities of the country were shifted, away from the seemingly entrenched status quo, toward something more just, equitable, and sustainable. We’ve done it before, and we can do it again. We must reinvent the world, over and over, the work is never done, and it frays if left untended. We are small, but we are many. Like seeds that follow fire, taking root in a turbulent landscape, let us work toward a profound rejuvenation of our relationships to earth, to water, to labor, to all living beings who share this finite space and time with us. Here is Marge Piercy, speaking to us from 1982.
“The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
they seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.
I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.
I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.
The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
And the person for work that is real.”
Let us all find the work that must be done, and let us take time to reflect and rest in appreciation of all those who have labored before us. Happy Labor Day to all.
by Jessica Tunis