Resolving the rift between our accepted notions of the Civilized and the Wild is the theme for this year’s summer poetry service at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation, suggested by Reverend Frances Sink’s reading of The Practice of the Wild (Counterpoint, 2010), an essay collection from poet Gary Snyder.
How we define these concepts, how they might substantiate a schism that needn’t even exist and how the prevailing view (especially in regard to Western industrial life) affect our relations to one another and the world, are just some of the points addressed this Sunday in a reading featuring participants from the UU community and PoemAlley, including Bonnie Klotzko, Joseph De Matteo, Dale Shaw, Marianela Medrano, Enzo Malaglisi, John Sakson, Rowyda Amin, Adriana Rexon, as well as program leader, Ralph Nazareth.
The Receding Orgastic Future
Ralph finds a topical and unsettling allegory for our fast-devolving times in the closing musings of Nick Carraway from Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age classic of opulence, tragic pining and unwarranted privilege, The Great Gatsby, dramatized in this clip from the 2013 Baz Luhrman film:
Instead of rediscovering our original ties with the biosphere, in the face of global economic collapse, terminal nuclear contamination, water/oil depletion, solar flare-induced electrical grid failure (and the perpetual military actions conducted in response or preparation), Civilization instead insanely cries more desperately for fighting Carraway’s inexorable current, not just in pursuit of flattering, or sanitized post-WWII pasts that never existed, but, as recent two-dimensional output from Hollywood demonstrates, of ill-conceived “Jetsonian” futures that could never be, either.
Keeping The Wild at Bay…
Tomorrowland, a sort of Atlas Shrugged for children from Disney, packaged as an upbeat ode to the way the future used to be, makes a hollow attempt to condemn our cultural commitment to social procrastination, passivity and distraction in response to the reality of the previously cited threats, even as the 2015 George Clooney vehicle, itself, proves to be a prime exemplar in defense of the status-quo assumptions sustaining such dysfunctional traits—mainly, the magically, unexamined belief that everything can be remedied with the right application of technology (by the right people, of course).
This fervent Gatsbyesque yen to believe helps sustain real-world delusions that serve energy and financial interests who benefit mightily by the present Civilization/Wild divide. Contrary to Washington and corporate sponsors proclaiming some nuclear or hydrocarbon Renaissance is just around the corner, able to sustain the US for decades to come (one of the newer financial bubbles-in-the-making, fracking, can only last a few years, according to Peak Oil expert Richard Heinberg), or constitute a “bridge technology” toward a renewable energy future, the only reality such ideas represent is so many boats of infinite growth floundering in the currents of an unyieldingly finite planetary system.
Related contemporary definers of the “civilized” or “progress” informing the titular sleek and high-tech metropolis of TL’s alternate world are a conditioned commitment to convenience, safety and material certainty against everything outside the fragile barriers of our built-up surroundings, be it infection, predatory animals, senescence, or the demonized human threat-of-the-month.
While Tomorrowland suggests the interconnectedness of a given natural habitat and its undomesticated denizens should be embraced as no more than decorative accents to a human imposition on the landscape (save for occasional flocks of birds, the only evidence of Nature permitted to exist on its own is in the wild grass prairie surrounding the city), last year’s Interstellar espouses an almost strident hostility to the ecosystem as a whole.
Keeping the Wild Harnessed
Suffering from a global blight of unspecified origin, much of industrial society has reverted to an agrarian state to feed a future dying populace, slowly suffocating from a decline in atmospheric oxygen (somehow connected to the Blight). Cooper, a bitter ex-astronaut-turned-farmer (played by Matthew McConaughey) has the opportunity to find a new home for our species in a planetary system beyond a recently-discovered wormhole, leaving behind his children, but not the hubris that got humanity into the predicament it faces.
Far from even intimating that any facet of industrial civilization’s cumulative assaults on the air, water and land might possibly be responsible, the egotistical rationale for what is happening wavers between the speculation that in some Gaianistic pique, Earth is pushing humanity out of its nest for its own good, or rebelling out of hostility (“caretaking” of the Earth is viewed by Cooper with contempt even as he cluelessly practices the same synthetic pesticide/herbicide-supported monoculture farming that is destroying our agricultural base today).
Other than humans, not another living thing, save for trees and crops, appear in the film (Cooper’s farm doesn’t even have a dog or chickens), as if, once more (though to far less glittering effect) the world is pared down to only what humans can get out of it—a sentiment emphasized where the utilitarianized earthly environment is reproduced with faithful insipidness within the an O'Neill-style orbital habitat that doesn’t even offer the solace of parklands.
|John Adolphus Etzler|
A Dream Not Just Left Behind, But Never There
This is not to say that the problem with the concept of human civilization rests necessarily with its capacity to shape the physical world, but with a contemporary dearth of symbolic thought that used to accompany it. The question is how mindful (and modest) our awareness of this association can influence our attitudes about the Civilized and the Wild.
This is not an inconceivable prospect. In The Forge and the Crucible (University of Chicago Press, 1979), Micea Eliade’s overview of alchemical thought, he observes how early metal-working cultures the world over often maintained a mindful veneration of blacksmiths for their skill in fabricating both hand tools and weaponry—corresponding to the creative and destructive capacities in us all. Agrarian societies in Europe transferred their awareness of natural cycles in reproduction and agriculture to mining activities such that when a vein was exhausted, it was thought to be simply a matter of closing up the site, like a fallow field, to give its ores time to replenish themselves—maybe erroneous, but a belief indicative of a patient and cooperative, rather than exploitive, attitude rarely seen today.
Like Gatsby insisting he can repeat the past, our metaphor-deficient, frantically over-commodified existence proffers hopeless entrancements at every turn promising we can hit some cosmic “reset” button to deal with rising sea levels, virulent superstorms or some other unpredictable disaster, as if such concerns are no more than transitory inconveniences on the road to something always better… always greener.
Ultimately, if Civilization’s adherents are willing to work with and learn from integration with the Wild, the former could not only become more civil (rendering the latter, less frightening in the process), but more flexible, too--a crucial attribute, as Civilization’s survival would depend not on fighting the current, so much as adapting to where it is taking us.
Unitarian Universalist Congregation
20 Forest Street (directly across from the Avon Theatre)
Sunday, August 2, 2015
203-322-5438, Ralph Nazareth