Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Looking for Some Answers



To buy the book that this post details, please click on one of the links on the right.

A few months back John Michael Greer, over at the Archdruid Report, wrote an essay about how we might begin to tackle the huge mental and emotional burden of dealing with collapse. It was noted that, for the most part, the majority of people simply don't want to think about or discuss the way in which we humans are accelerating towards an ecological brick wall and would instead prefer to either lose themselves in fantasy worlds of their own or others' making. Thus, many people like to lose themselves in video games, TV series and dreams of cornucopian splendour where we will all shortly be living the good life, just as British PM David Cameron announced yesterday (if we vote for him). Surrounding yourself with people who think just like you do and only exposing yourself to information sources that bolster your hoped-for belief that 'things are going okay' and 'the experts are in charge' adds some comforting texture to this fantasy.

Since I stopped playing Dungeons and Dragons when I was about 13 I've not been particularly interested in fantasy worlds. For me, reality is where it's at. But reality sometimes hurts, and so when reality does actually bite, there are two ways of dealing with it. The first is to anaesthetise yourself so that it doesn't hurt as much - either by way of the above-mentioned mental escape avenues, or by literally anaesthetising your brain and nervous system with alcohol and drugs. Unfortunately for society as a whole, most people end up choosing the latter option, and we see spiralling problems of addiction, domestic violence, depression and many other ills as a result.

There is, however, another way of dealing with the unpleasant feeling that things are getting worse, and this involves engaging with the problem at root. It's the least popular approach, and you won't make many friends in doing so, but at least it is an honest attempt at grappling with the mighty mess we have got ourselves into. Let's remind ourselves of some dimensions of that mess:

- A peak in conventional oil production that's now about nine years in the rearview mirror and retreating fast
- Growing climate instability that threatens to wipe out our coastal cities, kill off all vertebrate life, or somewhere between these two poles depending on who you believe
- Rampant corporatism and consumerism threatening to undermine whole societies and render the concept of being human as outdated
- A steadily loudening drumbeat for war being banged out by senile elites who need the ensuing chaos to earn their money and keep their power, and a ventriloquist's dummy of a press which simply parrots whatever propaganda is put on its lips
- Half of all vertebrate wildlife wiped out by humans in the last four decades
- Ecological catastrophe wherever you look, including oceans filled with plastic, rainforest destruction, fisheries collapse, ocean acidification, genetic pollution, mass die offs, mega droughts etc.

So, simply trying to ignore these problems and hoping they go away isn't going to achieve much. But then there's also a danger of NOT ignoring these problems - of focusing on them too much. The advent of social media has meant that everyone gets to see a stream of information that interests them the most, creating positive feedback loops. Thus, for some people it's amusing videos of kittens and gold/blue dresses that fill their screens and heads (with the distinction between the two becoming ever more blurred) while for others it's an endless stream of news about catastrophes, corruption, abuse, violence and despair. I'm guessing that most people reading this would identify themselves somewhat with the latter category - myself included. This kind of focus can eventually lead to a kind of soul rot. "Everything's ruined!" you might say. "So why bother?" might be your next statement.

This is a paradox, because if we allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by gloomy feelings and thoughts then our ability to react in a meaningful way is impaired, thus reinforcing the problems that are depressing us. How are we to think and act? It's all very well for preppers and others contemplating collapse - be it sudden or slow - to fill their cupboards with canned food, live in a bunker in the woods and learn how to garrotte intruders with their shoelaces - but what effect does this have on the mind and soul? You might live to be 100, but if the last 50 years of your life are spent living in a state of perpetual fear and anguish then what's the point?

At the other end of the scale I've heard anecdotes and seen some evidence that those people who find themselves sliding out of the rear end of the industrial system and ending up permanently unemployed are generally not, as it might be hoped, planting up gardens and getting backyard chickens in an effort to better their lot. Instead they are buying increasingly large television screens to sit in front of as they slowly drink themselves into oblivion each day with the aid of a ready supply of Carlsberg's Special Brew and/or crystal meth made in their friends' garden shed.

To me at least, neither of the above options seems like a decent way to end ones days.

And so that's why last summer I set off on a journey in an attempt to find out some kind of answer to this conundrum. I myself was feeling tired and low from contemplating too much and not really having any way of addressing the innate despair that can sometimes feel like Chinese water torture. I was lucky in that a relative paid for me to fly over to Scandinavia on an errand, giving me a couple of weeks on my own to conduct my experiment.

The rules were simple:

1. I would set off from a point of 'civilisation' (in this case Copenhagen) and head towards a point of 'uncivilisation' in the non-human world.

2. I would live the life of a hobo as much as possible, sleeping in ditches and forests and on pieces of 'waste land'

3. I would not expose myself to any media from the human world in the form of iPhones, music, television, newspapers etc. All I allowed myself were two books, written by wise people

4. I would open up all of my senses to whatever I could perceive, even if it was uncomfortable or frightening

At the forefront of my mind during this experiment was Einstein's meaningful quote:

"We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them." 

That, to me, seems like the real challenge of our age, and I'm not even sure we have the ability to change our thinking. Are we really to be trusted with coming up with new ways of thinking? Past evidence would seem to suggest that we are all too easily corrupted, although in this case our lives depend on it. What if we were offered new ways of thinking by something other than humans? I wanted to find out.

Also in my mind was the 13th century Sufi mystic Rumi's observation that nothing will ever change for the better unless we throw away our reputations and seek the truth (whatever that might be). To be fair, I've already thrown away what little respectable reputation I might once have possessed during my former careers working in the energy industry and being a newspaper editor. Nevertheless, I vowed to:

“Run from what's comfortable. Forget safety. Live where you fear to live. Destroy your reputation. Be notorious. I have tried prudent planning long enough. From now on I'll be mad.”

And perhaps I was going mad. That's certainly what it felt like at times on my journey. For a start I got into trouble with the authorities in Denmark. I was thrown out of a shopping mall for looking like a non-conformist and I was accosted by a park ranger for camping illegally (who, bizarrely, insisted I needed to download a smartphone app to camp in the forest). When I made it over to Sweden I walked mile after mile in torrential rain as my journey coincided with some of the wettest weather in living memory, with areas f Sweden being hit by flooding, and ended up camping in a national park. 

The first of the two books I brought with me was Marcus Aurelius's Meditations. This Roman emperor had little time for pomp and circumstance and instead spent his days pondering what it meant to be alive. His musings, written down, are considered to be one of the core texts of the philosophical school of Stoicism (albeit a later one). I thought that he might have something to teach we who are alive today about how to deal with decline and death. I wasn't wrong. Because being a Stoic doesn't mean gritting your teeth and hanging on for dear life, it means dealing constructively with the certainty that we will all one day die - and living a full and meaningful life because of it.

The second of my 'guides' on this journey was the American author Bill Plotkin (still very much alive). I brought along a copy of his book Soulcraft, which had been recommended to me by a reader of this blog (hat tip to you - sorry, I forgot who it was). I more or less threw this book in my backpack as an afterthought, and yet it was Bill Plotkin's book that furnished most of the experiential aspects of my journey. With all his talk of initiations, vision quests and delving into the darkness I was able to experience a number of profound happenings.

Odd things began to happen to me. And when I say odd, I mean very odd. A series of startling coincidences had me thinking that fate was directing my journey. After a while it seemed as if everything was conspiring to pull me in the direction of a certain lake - known locally as Odin's Lake - in the forest, where it is said that magical things could happen. Let's not forget that the norse god Odin was seen as the god of wisdom, and he sacrificed one of his eyes to attain this.

I should, right here, say that I'm not a religious person. Not in the sense of going to church or believing in God or things like that. But the deeper I got into my journey the more it felt like I was being pulled into a vortex of strange and other-wordly forces that seemed to want to communicate with me. And communicate with me they did. I ended up doing some things which can't even be talked about in polite society (call the nurse!). Which is why I wrote it all down and made it into the book which you can see on the right side bar of this page. 

As for answers to our predicament, well, nothing came to me in a blinding flash of light. Sorry. But that's beside the point. The point is that the universe is a stunningly complex thing, and we are part of it. None of us created it - it created us and we are a part of it - and we shouldn't feel responsible for it. To waste our allotted time wringing our hands and thinking we can 'fix' things is, in one sense, a waste of time. We can certainly alter what is around us in our immediate sphere of influence, and we can be relaxed in knowing that we are doing what we can with what is available. We can 'upload' ourselves to this greater project, and rejoin nature as a prodigal species, if we so choose. We can keep loving ourselves and one-another, acting with compassion and being of service to all of our fellow organisms, or we can isolate ourselves and become bitter and drown in a lake of despair. The choice is ours at an individual level. 

No, that doesn't mean climate change isn't going to stop, that the biosphere will miraculously heal itself or that we'll be able to carry on living as consumers forever. It just means we have a choice of how we dance our dance as the phenomena that dictate our physical existences unfold.

Those, more or less, were the insights I had from my experience. There is no neat intellectual closure here and, of course, it's one thing to know this in an information sense, and quite another to know it in a deep way. That's why I would recommend undertaking a similar journey to anyone who wants some deeper meaning to the pulsating and flashing craziness around us which we call 'reality'. We are, after all, on the same path together, and the more of us who grapple with reality rather than isolating themselves ever more deeply in escapism and fantasy, the better our chances are of making it through this mess with some semblance of sanity intact.  










22 comments:

  1. Thanks Jason, just bought your book, looking forward to it. Good luck with all that you are doing, and thanks for taking the time to write about it as you can.

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    1. You're welcome. Hope you find the book enjoyable.

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  2. Irreducibly complex. The options infinite. Glad to see you are expanding the range of your options. I bought your book too. Blessings.

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    1. Great stuff. I have so far sold eight copies, with one in North America (if that stats are to be believed). So I guess that was you!

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  3. Hi Jason, thanks for this. I find that aspects of resignation or acceptance of both our mortality and the limitations of our individual power to change things in stoicism particularly resonant.

    "To waste our allotted time wringing our hands and thinking we can 'fix' things is, in one sense, a waste of time."

    I do still indulge in social media and have found it educational in the last years as It has made me increasingly aware that the expectations of a lot of people really run against any acceptance of either mortality OR of the limits of humanity. Simple examples like the reactions around a plane disappearing really reveal some deep misalignment between expectations and reality. Just pondering the rationality of these reactions has made me increasingly aware of how little stoicism there is in that world today.

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    1. I find social media to be very useful (well, Facebook), as long as you know how to handle it. It's basically my news aggregator. What's more, it links in with groups of people in the real world (for example, the small woodland group I set up) so is useful in that respect.

      Otherwise it's an unmitigated disaster!

      Funny you should mention the plane disappearing (there's a bit in my book about a recurring dream I have of being in a plane crash) - so whenever I step aboard a plane - which is not very often - I always take a moment to visualise myself ending up a scattered chunks of roast meat on some distant mountain side. I don't think many of the other passengers do that.

      Stoicism in practice!

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    2. I'm look forward to reading your book. I picked up the social media habit (also FB) when living abroad, initially as with the internet I was quite enthusiastic but I'm less so now and try to dip in and use it rather than add to the noise. I was an early adopter of the internet and the web, it offered amazing possibilities and around the edges still does we just need to make sure we can keep those edges.

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  4. Good post and thinking. I dropped out on a bicycle trip myself for four and a half month once, doing similar soul searching. And well, I wrote a book (but not of the trip) and I got some insights which I still digest, and they were no catchy one-liners either...Make it up to my place next time you walk in Sweden. Next to a lake it is.

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    1. Thanks Gunnar. I did have a plan to visit to you pencilled in but events conspired agains (or for) me and I ended up somewhere completely different. Maybe next time ...

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  5. There is another way to handle all the Doom.

    Find the humor in it!

    Your favorite future Quadraplegic Blogger,

    RE

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    1. There's plenty of humour in my book! At least I hope there is ...

      I'm really sorry to hear about your neck injury. I hope they can do something to fix you up without bankrupting you, really. If I was a lawyer I'd be straight over there and on your case. Alas, I'm not - if I was I wouldn't be tramping around Sweden, talking to trees and writing these blog posts. They don't allow lawyers to do that sort of thing.

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  6. It is good to see you got the book published.
    I live in NE England - what is the best (for you) route for me to buy paperback? JMG says for him its best to order from an independent bookshop, and they might order 2, and that not ordering via Amazon gives a better return for the author.

    I used to do some fly-camping - it was easier in Scotland back in the day. In my very young days I spent some surreal time occasionally to good effect. I remember once in Hampshire walking to keep warm to the sound of nightingales (I woke them up one after another along the margin of a parallel wood.)

    Some time despite it would be good to meet up and buy you a pint - co-incidence can be a surprisingly fine thing. Let me know if you head for West Wales anytime. I am down that way fairly regularly. philsharris2002 at our local yahoo.

    Am looking forward to reading the book and other stories.
    best
    Phil.

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    1. Thanks, Phil. I'm a great fan of paperbacks but on Amazon I, from a £7 list price I see about £1. It's even worse if you let them publish it as an ebook - they can put the price down to a penny and insist on an exclusive contract - which is why I have done the ebook separately on Smashwords. With them I get about 70% of the list price.

      I have some friends in West Wales, so if I ever get to visit them I'll check in to see if you'll be in the area too. They live in Tywyn.

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  7. Anyway I can buy an autographed copy Jason? Do you have any extra copies at home? Maybe I can send you the money directly and then you mail me the copy? I'll pay for postage plus an extra 10 bucks for the autograph. I've got a copy of one book already from you that's autographed so I'd like to add another to the collection. How much in U.S. dollars would you need?

    Either way, I'll buy a copy and I can't wait to read it.

    I was on facebook for under a year and deleted my account in 2010. I agree that it can be useful. My wife makes money managing a fb account, so it's useful for me in attaining money. I know it's also useful for the reasons you said, but I found that I just got pissed off that nobody gave a shit about the real issues I posted about. I was mostly ignored or misunderstood. Being an Aspie I don't need anymore of that shit. I get enough of it in real life. I don't need it virtually as well. I wish that I could manage to be on fb without getting pissed off about all of the mindless drivel that passes as concerns in today's populace. But alas, I can't...I tried and failed.

    The best I can do is post on the Diner from time to time and make comments on blogs...and occasionally blog myself. I've been trying to convince myself to write a blog lately, but I fail to see the point as my readership is around 20 people. I suppose that's not the point however? Maybe just the process is what matters. Writing and then getting it out there. Most of the point of writing is for personal internal gain anyways.

    Let me know about an autographed copy. I'd love to have one. If it can't be arranged I'll understand.

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    1. Sure, I'll send you a copy. I have a few author copies winging their way to me.

      As for FB ... well, I just block people I find annoying. They don't realise that, of course. Instead, I just interact and get updates from people I like or find inspirational. I have to assume they do the same to me.

      I personally don't write for personal internal gain. I'm driven by an urge to communicate. Until recently I considered that this was just some kind of personal weakness, but then recently I had some personal revelations and now it makes more sense. So, in my case, I'm just doing what I'm programmed to do.

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  8. Thanks for writing your book Jason. The first reading suggests that for me it will be one of "those books", to use your words; a waymarker of importance.

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    1. Thanks, John. It was written in the spirit of wanting to do something to help out. It's very hard to get it noticed, though, so if you like it then please tell others, or leave a review on Amazon (can just be giving it some stars).

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  9. I clicked the buy button on the Amazon site yesterday. Your book will be delivered to me in 5 to 8 business days. What business days mean these days is no longer clear as Amazon now has contracted with the postal service to deliver goods on Sundays. I am looking forward to reading your book, curious to compare your experiences of immersion in nature with my own.
    Most recently my wife and I spent seventeen days in the Mojave National Preserve. We had been there over the new year and been told by a ranger that the blooming of the Joshua trees is a sight to see. So we returned, near the end of March to see what we could see. We were not disappointed. We got to see some Joshua trees in bloom and any number of other species of desert flowers.
    But perhaps more significantly, we stayed in one place long enough to enter the rhythm of the desert. We pitched our camping yurt at the edge of a dune field in an area where the park permits what is called off-road camping - you can camp where people have traditionally camped before the land was made into a national preserve. Off road camping means no water, no toilets, no garbage disposal and perhaps most trying for Americans, no shower facilities. We restricted ourselves to three gallons of water a day, two and a half for drinking and cooking and half a gallon for washing. Near the end of the trip we even stopped washing dishes, we simply wiped them with a rag and set them out in the sun which would dry and sterilize them with its powerful radiation. But these are mere administrative details. Perhaps more significant was the gradual slowing of our pace to match it with the rhythms of the desert. We would occasionally stay up beyond the disappearance of the light, using our headlamps to prepare a late supper, but gradually we gave in to the rhythm of the sun and started preparing our meals early enough to be eating them by daylight.
    Nights were cold and days were hot. Often we would drag a blanket into the shade of the creosote bush that we camped next to. My wife would sew and I would read. The creosote bush was in bloom, covered by thousands of yellow flowers which attracted bees who serenaded us with their buzzing. Flies would also come out and pester us, our attempts at swatting them giving us a diversion. Sometimes we would take long half-day walks but eventually we settled into mostly doing nothing, laying about, simply being as against doing, going native as it were. This laying about is often written about by early observers of the American west. They found it reprehensible that the Indians simply lay about in the heat of the day and wasted their time doing nothing. The lack of industriousness drove white men absolutely batty. Nobody bothered to ask the Indians about the matter. White men used the Indians' failure to "improve" the land, to extract its resources, to cut its trees, to plow its soil as justification for taking claim to the land for themselves.
    In any case, we did as the Indians once did and lay about in the heat of the day and day by day started feeling better, less harried, more calm, more content.
    Our walking about when we did it was more for the purpose of exploration than for covering ground. We looked at plants, we looked at rock paintings, we looked at tracks in the sand, we looked at coyote scat, we looked at the ugly tracks that our corrugated shoe soles made in the sand. I vowed to get a pair of shoes with plain soles, devoid of pattern that would not defile the landscape.
    We will be returning to the desert, perhaps for 40 days as Jesus was said to have done. Not sure if we will start a new religion or not, but you never know.

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    1. Thanks for buying it. I got some author copies only yesterday (two weeks after ordering - they said it would take one). I'm happy with the result but was sad to see a number of errors in the first couple of chapters. I will hasten to rush out a second edition ...

      Your desert experiences sound truly amazing. We have nothing like that in Europe, although there are parts of Spain where it can feel bit like it (my favourite is Cabo de Gata). I once did a similar thing in Baja California, although it was on a campsite near a truck stop rather than being truly remote.

      Last week I met up with an old friend I hadn't seen for years. We were best buddies until we moved apart aged 12, and haven't seen each other since. He has a job working as a conservation worker in (I think) Bryce National Park (he's English but has a US passport, so he can do that) and was telling me that he sometimes did what you describe doing - just heading out for days/weeks on end with some supplies. He was completely lit up about it, saying it was an incredible thing to do.

      I think deserts are magical places. Of course, so are forests, but deserts have a special ethereal quality to them. Just thinking about being in them gives me the shivers.

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  10. Just want to mention that I just finished reading The Path to Odin's Lake. I consume a good deal of Nature writing both of the scientific and philosophical musings type, often from used bookstores and often twenty, thirty or more years old and I find it striking how most of the older books have a sort of hopefulness or sometimes despair to them, hopeful that we might be able to save some natural places from the ravages of industrial civilization, or despairing that we might not. In any case, runaway global warming is not yet being contemplated in these books nor has the notion of the sixth great extinction gotten popular press yet. That has changed of course. I first encountered the notion of peak oil about a decade ago and that has gradually shifted my outlook on our current world to the point where I find it hard to consume much of the stuff that is being delivered by the white media as Paul Craig Roberts likes to call them.
    Your book is of course cognizant of peak oil, global warming and the inevitable decline of our current attempt at civilization and so is of the sort that I can read without thinking, isn't it time to give up on eternal progress?
    In any case, thank you for taking the time to put many of the ideas in this blog into book form and putting it out to reach perhaps a few people.
    I imagine grand scale confrontation with reality on a society wide basis will have to wait until we can no longer pay the bill for the smartphone and our primary preoccupation is where or next meal will come from.
    side note: Even though you don't post all that often, I come here frequently to check your blog roll to see who has posted new stuff.

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  12. I did read your book on Kindle. For me, it kind of ended just when it got interesting. I may be too old and jaded to be impressed. Also, having lived surrounded by Canadian wilderness for decades, with truly powerful and potentially dangerous wildlife, it is hard to get too excited over the Swedish equivalent. However, you are an interesting person to follow. After some six decades of consciously reflecting on matters social, spiritual, and political I keep coming back to these borrowed phrases. Be Here Now. Cultivate the Garden. Just be Kind. Good luck with the permaculture! Whenever I despair of the world I google Permaculture and am restored.

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I'll try to reply to comments as time permits.