Reflection

Dear Readers,

This is the last post of my Watson year. It comes as the first drop in a river that will grow and meander from here forward. Before we dive in, I want to thank you for reading – writing is solitary only in action, but in larger scope, it is shared and made possible by all who inspire and all who read and pass it forward.

Israeli writer and historian Yuval Noah Harari, in his book Sapiens, questions how a species of big headed, relatively weak apes could take over as the dominant species on the planet in a fairly short period of time. Harari credits our immense success to our ability to organize ourselves in masses around particular intersubjective fictions – money, myth, and law to name a few. Homo sapiens means “wise humans” in latin, and I am humored to think that maybe we should call ourselves Homo fictas, “humans of fiction.”

As a writer, storyteller, and student of language, I am concerned with words – their purpose and manipulation to form interpretations of the world, to compel action and incite emotion, to unify, to uplift, and to protest, to tear down. Language and writing are the fertile ground on which the great narratives of humanity are built and stratified, fortified with time and power.

Part of the work for survival is to compete, to make it in a harsh world, and there is only so much room for one species before others begin to disappear; we are seeing extinction at a rate unprecedented by any other blossoming of a single species ever. The planetary impact of humanity is staggering, and we must honestly weigh the components of life.

Because of our ability to tell stories, we are not only prone to biological evolution, but to the evolution of consciousness. In just 20 years, the internet shifted the paradigm, becoming a global phenomena and bursting culture at the seams. Can we cocreate a story about sustainability as compelling as that of technology? As common vocabulary loses terms from nature and expands into digital reality, is it possible to entwine strands of our ancient reliance on land, water, flora, and fauna into the sphere of binary code and complex computation?

One metaphor of the river has to do with the movement of time: a child growing up along a certain stretch of river cannot perceive the full scale of the river or the time it takes to reach the sea, but a pilgrim who has walked the river’s length many times will have a longview and will see the interconnection of said river with the ocean. We must work for the longview.

With science & technology making great contributions to civilization, there is potential to overlook the catastrophic consequences of over-consuming and polluting the earth, and we cannot do this. We must use the tools of science and technology as well as our body of knowledge about nature and its dynamic systems to strive for a sustainable future. This includes building institutions around these tenets and working to transform certain norms.

I think in the shadow of Buckminster Fuller, a human of extraordinary courage who worked during World War II as a naval engineer. Post-war, depressed and losing capacity to live well, Fuller decided to take his own life. Standing on the shore of Lake Michigan pointing a gun at his own head, he had a revelation. He thought, why take my own life and cause suffering to those around me, when I could similarly sacrifice myself but for the good of others? From that moment on, Fuller dedicated himself to a 50 year experiment – how much good could he do for the rest of humanity and the earth in his life?

Fuller’s experiment lasted 56 years until he passed away and left the foundation of nanotech, the language of synergetics, a plea to prevent buildup of greenhouse gases in the 1970s – an inspiring legacy as ripe fruit for the world to pick and carry forward. Cultivating a positive future, like growing a garden, requires time, discipline, revitalization, and effort.

Presently I am working as a farm hand, with soil, water, and plants. The act of growing food is one I wish everyone could experience, for the dynamic process and the work required to farm will make every bite of life more flavorful. Perhaps next year I will be a student of law, exploring one of the great stories that shape our actions in the world. Angela Davis, wrote that “Radical simply means ‘grasping things at the root.’” Whether in a story or in the soil, roots connect to the substance that makes life possible, to grasp for that is a wonderful life’s work.

Jumbled as all of this may sound, it is a document of my life view from the age of 22 as I land on homeground with a rich year abroad steady on the mind. The urgency and difficulty of many situations we face on earth give powerful motivation to carry on downstream seeking solutions.

Thank you,
Galen

Welcome Home

Walking on the green grass

A buzz overhead

A plane flying by

With a large banner.

I read it:

$3000 Dollar Breast Implants

But no phone number

What if I want breast implants?

I remember another sign

That I saw in the morning:

Welcome to the United States

Welcome Home.

River

Where the river knows no end

Is in kindling flames of family

It is the poetry of the river

To unite mountain to plain to sea

And in that synchronous flow

Where beginning is never nor end

Is the promise of passing

A promise of time

Which holds us all

Together

The Blue

A distant mountain

Pretending paradise 
Blood in

The rivers of my hands
And looking up

We are everything

Meat

I walk to the corral

Outside Antonio

Clears gravel and sand

From an area the size

Of a sheep

And digs a small hole

On one side

 
I follow him through

The pallet gate

And stand by

While he finds

The one
Roughly he grabs it

Holding its forelegs

Walks it to the gate

Through and onto the ground
Tells me to tie the legs

And I fumble

He gets tense, tenser

I continue to fumble,

Bastante, says he,

Enough
I hold the legs together

Tight
Antonio draws the knife

Clean over the neck

Again and again
Fire ignites in the legs

I can’t hold on

And the movement is wild

Spastic
We step back

And the small hole

Becomes a red puddle

And the bloods seeps in sand

Like water to the aquifer
I feel so grateful

For the life of this sheep

For the meals it gives us

For the cycles that brought

Us to this moment of siege

The taking of life
Then it is still

And we put the fluffy

Thing in the wheel barrow

To bring it over to

The butcher table

And the sweet birds

Sing the funeral song

As the day begins

On Nature, Nation, and Democracy: What to Imagine?

Dear readers, this is apart from the poetry collection I am working on, but an essay that I  felt very compelled to write today. Please respond!

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Having been abroad for the duration of ten months, the unfolding of a new chapter in the government of the United States of America has caused upheaval, and I can assure you, in the hearts and minds of people across the globe. I am assigning myself a challenge: to try, however vain it is, however ignorant I am, to extract my current thoughts about the nation into which I was born in these pages in hopes of a dialogue with anyone who wishes to join in.

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All throughout the campaign season of 2016 in the USA, with Brexit in mind and the ever present concerns about the state of Nature, there was the murmuring of “death of democracy,” a new rise of nationalism, and the uncomfortable rumbling of a particularly vile sort xenophobia. After the election of Trump, the murmurs and rumbles began to shake, and people of a staggering diversity began to take public voice, often shouting, exposing the many hearts behind the stars and stripes, the dissident voices united by an uncanny force of human imagination, the nation.

In his book, Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson writes, “[the nation] is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately, it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willing to die for such limited imaginings.” I want to take that quote for a moment and hold it up with another, produced by John Adams during the foment of the American Revolution, “Democracy… while it lasts is more bloody than either aristocracy or monarchy. Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There is never a democracy that did not commit suicide.”

Democracy has been the battlecry of the United States since its declaration of independence from Britain. Democracy is and has been the cover banner for crusades through much of the world in various fights against communism, fascism, genocide, and most recently terrorism, and has been a cover for manipulation of many peoples and places in various pursuits of the earth’s riches. I have to remind myself what democracy is at a fundamental level in order to consider these many histories and ongoing stories.

Democracy is government by the people. It is an electoral system that is intended to deliver power by way of the people’s voice. Democracy allows the citizenry to have representatives in a united republic, representatives who work for their constituencies. John Adams believed that the representatives’ fundamental role was to govern for the highest wellbeing of the most people within that republic. In its own definition lies the paradox, though a paradox is by no means discountable. By the people, but what people?

Many critiques of American democracy make a strong point that capitalism, and the freedom to join capitalism with democracy via avenues such as Citizen’s United have caused our government to steer far afield the ideal of Adams. With wealth concentrated among a very small class of Americans, there is a parallel concentration of purchase power – power to purchase power. We have seen this time and again in the United States when private interests invade and conquer the will of those elected for public service.

Nation and economy share a profound center: both are imagined. Yuval Noah Hariri in a TED Talk entitled “What explains the rise of humans?” points out that among the most compelling human narratives, those of religion, nationalism, law, and so on, money is by far the most universalized and compelling narrative we share, for better or for worse. I am afraid that in the case of the United States government, the lure of wealth is proving for worse as the working class, the majority of the voting body, the heart of the nation, is marginalized, expended at the enrichment of the few.

There is troubling hypocrisy at the foundation of the republic of the United States. It is clear in the Declaration of Independence, penned by Thomas Jefferson at the persuasion of John Adams. The declaration begins, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that are among these Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” This gallant turn of phrase is stirring, progressive I dare say, and what follows is a wondrous permission to the people to overthrow any government that turns away from the public interest. But later, it goes on discussing the faults of King George III in ruling the colonies, “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions” (emphasis added).

I have to pause there – “the merciless Indian Savages.” That is what it says. And also, there were black slaves at this time, not just in the South, but also in New England. John Adams’ father-in-law was a slave owner. All at once, my attentions are disparaged. If there are slaves (humans presumably half of which were men) and merciless Indian Savages discounted from all then men who are created equal, then who are all the men? And what about women? What about the Americans from the Arctic to Tierra del Fuego? Abigail Adams foresaw a side of this exclusion in a letter to her husband on March 31, 1776:

I long to hear that you have declared an independency — and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation. 

That your Sex are Naturally Tyrannical is a Truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute, but such of you as wish to be happy willingly give up the harsh title of Master for the more tender and endearing one of Friend….

Why wasn’t Abigail Adams in the first Congress of the United States of America? Why did John Adams feel so sure that democracy “is more bloody” and “never lasts long?” How did we arrive at this juncture where writers like Naomi Klein openly deem the President of the United States, Donald Trump, an idiot who is really good at being an idiot?

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My grandfather likes to quote Sir Winston Churchill (who in fact was quoting someone else), that “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for the others.” Government is unendingly flawed. As an institution, and a bureaucratic institution, democratic government will always be behind the times. It will always be behind the edge. But the edge is our responsibility. We as citizens of the Earth are a part of the edge, of the everpresent present, and our existence is by virtue of itself political. At least some of us are keen to take responsibility for that and dive into the institutions and bureaucracies in order to surrender ourselves to the social order, the social chaos, and some of us, indeed, do so with strong integrity, honesty, and true service.

Sonia Sotomayor seems to be one. In her book, My Beloved World, she writes, “Quiet pragmatism, of course, lacks the romance of vocal militancy. But I felt myself more a mediator than a crusader. My strengths were reasoning, crafting compromises, finding the good and the good faith on both sides of an argument, and using that to build a bridge. Always, my first question was, what’s the goal? And then, who must be persuaded if it is to be accomplished? A respectful dialogue with one’s opponent almost invariably goes further than a harangue outside his or her window. If you want to change someone’s mind, you must understand what need shapes his or her opinion. To prevail, you must first listen.”

“You must first listen.” This is essential. We have long obsessed about how partisan politics is not functioning, the gears are not turning. During Obama’s presidency, the 112th United States Congress agreed on fewer policies than the 80th congress, that was deemed the “Do Nothing Congress” in the 1940s. The 114th Congress is doing worse than the 112th. And we know that the democrats and republicans, political liberals and political conservatives, are not listening to one another. But why? Well certainly some representatives ears are just stuffed with money, and algorithms are feeding us polarizing views through the internet, but we, the general populace also have responsibility to listen and act with open ears and good conscious, to find middle ground.

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I am currently in Atacama, Chile, spending my days on a farm that is home to sheep, goats, llamas, and rabbits, all fed from alfalfa growing in sandy plots west of the house. There are potatoes growing and carrots, and the place is run by marvelous 82 year old Doña Maria Berna and her son Antonio Panire Berna.

Chile lived through a dictatorship, that of Augusto Pinochet, and one that cannot be forgotten. It often feels that this is a country where memory is pain, and many of those killed by the militant dictatorship were anonymously buried here, in the Atacama Desert. Being on a farm and learning about such brutal politics,bring George Orwell and his Animal Farm directly to mind. “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Why were some Chileans killed and disappeared and not others? Why was their dissent worthy of death?

Spending my days working in soil, and with the satisfaction of manual labor , I am privileged by thought and confronted with the realities of a life to live. Today was Don Antonio’s birthday, and we ate rabbit. So good was the rabbit stew. But I had become fond of that rabbit, feeding it every morning. It was a quiet and shy rabbit, big and very adorable. No matter how tasty, that was a life, a valuable life! And it must be thanked. The potatoes are invested in with long hours of attention, as are the carrots, and the cheese that comes from the goats’ milk, not to mention the wool blankets we sleep with that are made of wool given by the sheep and llamas. They must be thanked! But there is a conflict of interests here that yet I don’t know how to evaluate.

At dinnertime we are in good humor and health, and united by work, wonderful work caring for living things that in turn care for us. But at times it is bloody, like the killing of the rabbit. It is not always easy or fun work, but I feel fortunate to value the labour, to value the land and the water, and what we can produce.

Nature has a way of setting up violence. I am not saying this as a justification of action, but as an observation. We are humans, and we have our technology, but we are still part of Nature. Nature is dynamic, and darkness and light visit unequivocally, often appearing in the same place, in the Declaration of Independence for one.

This delicate balance is the image of Lady Justice holding her scale. Law and Order as documented in the film “13th” by Ava DuVernay, have created a Prison-Industrial Complex in the United States, creating a horrifyingly unbalanced “justice” system that uses racism to its advantage putting millions of black men into prisons for unworthy crimes, abusing their labor, and excluding them from their rightful roles as citizens including the right to vote. We must ask, who made lady justice’s scale?

I’d like to share two quotes from Angela Davis of Birmingham, Alabama, an unrelenting figure of Civil Rights movements in the United States. She says, “As a black woman, my politics and political affiliation are bound up in and flow from my participation in my people’s struggle for liberation, and with the fight of oppressed people all over the world against American imperialism.” And, “Radical simply means ‘grasping things at the root.’”

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We are alive at a time where democracy is threatened, deeply, and the greatest threats are its own shortcomings, our own shortcomings. I do not have answers, in fact I have an overwhelming number of questions. First, how do we involve ourselves in such things that are so much bigger than the sum of their parts?

What do I imagine for the future? That is the question I want to ask you.

As this is only the beginning of my life, I’d like to end this piece with the words of someone much older than myself, with more experience in so many ways who has spent ample time observing the to and fro of nature, who, I think, shares a similar struggle for understanding as myself and an eagerness to seek out truth and justice.

“A dangerous bit of American folklore is that our social, environmental, and political problems, which grow more ominous by the day, call for the healing touch of a genius. They do, but if we’re intent on waiting for some such remarkable individual to show up we can count on disappointment. The solution to what threatens us, however, is already here, in another form. It’s in our diverse communities. Most often we recognize the quality of genius in an individual man or woman; but the source of that genius lies with the complicated network of carefully tended relationships that sets a vibrant human community apart from a solely political community.” Barry Lopez

Paradise

Paradise is moonlight

Lighting fire to the canyon

In the darkness

Coming from so far away

That light

Just to remind us

Every 28 days

Where we are

Snow

Here on the farm it is snowing

In the desert this is no dime-a-dozen day

Where the speckled earth shows its curves to the sky

Seducing the high blue until it lets go

Preface and Potatos

Excavando Papas
In the sand 

I am searching

In hand, a bone

I think it’s pelvic

Perfect for sand

Fits like a 

Familiar spoon
I am looking for Papas

Pulling rosy cheeked 

Eye bearing

Hearts of starch

And sunshine

Excavating

Sunshine from sand
The potato

Sweet dumpling

Of the soil

Plopping its weight

Into my waiting hand

I am here, and here comes a poem. Excavating potatoes, and excavating poems. These are not so different in fact. Both, for me, are currently the fruit of living. Finding poetry in sentience, finding papas in sand. 
Last year, about this time, my dear friend Haleigh Paquette and I went on a walk in the woods. We wandered about in the lowlands, looking at beech and oak and spruce forests, ferns for minutes. Then we climbed up a gorge between familiar mountains, seeking views from the heights. At the notch, in the quiet spruce stand, the path no longer led on as one, but formed an intersection. Left up – right up – straight ahead the belly of the beast. We wandered straight, and encountering nobody but ourselves as we shared a world of a conversation.
Haleigh and I, when we get to talking, there is no evading the substance of mind, and so, this particular day, with no distraction but the sunshine and the forest, the wonderful spring of coastal mountain, we talked. As we wandered and wondered, and time passed as only time can when nobody is there to talk about it, Haleigh asked me questions, and I asked Haleigh questions. I started to feel something quite powerful during this talk. I was finishing school at the time, nearly graduated, and heading into the unknown. But I knew something. I knew something in the way that truth leaps up like a fire stoked.
It was poetry.
Not a poem. But rather a call. Like a spring wind beckoning to the fisherman, lapping the shore and stirring the fish to begin their festivities of summer. It was in the most wonderful way a natural sensation, a reciprocity. 

Now, after a year of time, in the confusion of austral winter, and the staggering yet wonderful realization that we indeed live on a flying globe, I am harvesting potatoes, cutting alfalfa, walking with sheep and goats, feeding rabbits, and laughing at llamas. I am becoming friends with Doña Maria, an 82 year old woman who has lived here all her life, a cultivator of the soil and a pastora of animals, a hiladora who spins wool and weaves and knits. Also with Don Antonio, son of Doña Maria, a man of steady humor and grin who relinquished the life of the city to work the earth with his mother. 
We three are living in a valley ringed by volcanoes to the north and east, a fractured canyonland of springs that arise from a series of geysers to the southeast, the canyon of the Rio Salado to the south, and the open desert to the west where in the night one can see the lights of the Chuquicamata Mine envying the scale of the stars above–Southern Cross, Orion, Scorpio, Taurus.
Turi, where we are, is a hermitage of sorts, home to a few that cultivate the land and run animals. There is a geothermal bath in the town, that leads to a canal which brings water to the house here, and to the east, just across the road is an enormous series of small hills covered by a lost city, a stone lattice of massive extent called la Pucará de Turi, the largest of the settlements left by the Atacameño culture. 

While I am here, I am going to experiment in poetry. These poems will come spontaneously, and may not come with narrative such as this. But please, dear readers, let this be a turn of chapter as I enter the final months of this riparian journey.

Where there is water

The underbelly of earth

Is laughing so hard

It’s wet itself

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