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.
What are we looking for Standing on sand or stone Fishing into the waves Getting our feet wet What are we looking for
When we turn our eye To the orange moon The ironbound cliff Fire in the place Where fire burns
When we look at our hands Lined with life Telling stories that nobody writes Our hands are truth Look at your hands
When stars And shadows on the deck Don’t point North or South And a dead reckon Is all we have
When I was so afraid of the water What the burning sun Says to the corn When it decides to grow When grandma opens The canned corn And you take the kernels To go fishing in the river When the river fishes back And pulls you in
What is it in the river That speaks To the soul About moving on About the ocean About no end beginning About loving the dirt About what moves Earth
We begin when the Ganges River descended from Heaven.
When King Sagar wished more power, he decided to sacrifice a great horse. Jealous, Indra, the King of Gods, stole King Sagar’s chosen horse. To find the horse, Sagar sent his 60,000 sons who interrupted the great Sage Kapila in meditation, mistaking Kapila for the horse thief. Infuriated, Kapila incinerated the 60,000 sons. When Sagar found out, he broke down weeping, and Sage Kapila told him that to purify the incident, he must bring River Ganga to earth for salvation. Bhagiratha, the great-grandson of Sagar, convinced Brahma that Ganga must descend to Earth. Insulted to be expelled from heaven, Ganga wreaked havoc, flooding the world. Bhagiratha prayed urgently to Shiva, please entwine Ganga in your hair to hold her back, to save us. Hearing the call, Shiva agreed, and braided the great river as seven streams into his matted locks. Pleased at the union with Shiva, Ganga washed away the ashes of Sagar’s sons and filled the oceans and continues to bring salvation to India to this day.
Here is where she begins.
In June two years ago, I went looking for a book by environmentalist, Edward Abbey. Instead, I found Abbey’s friend Jack Loeffler – his big white beard and blue eyes. Jack Loeffler is a river man who spent his life recording geomythic mapping songs of people all over the world. He urged me as he urges everyone to think like a watershed.
A watershed is a community of life and land unified by water. A watershed is the whole body of a river system, and surely in that there is some soul.
This year, I wanted to find terra incognita and anima incognita, the margins of my map and the margins of humanity only charted with wild creatures and ideas, with water at the center. I wanted to map the unmappable, a sort of anthrocartoraphy to find out what anchors us in place. Of course, mostly I failed, hindered by so many human things. But, like Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, I had the opportunity to listen to the great river when I felt lost.
To think like a river. Like a mountain. Like the wind. First, one must listen.
The youth of India. Do they see Ganga as a goddess? Do they feel salvation in her waters?
In India, it was at times difficult to hear the river, for the fugue of humanity there is a lot to attend to. I do not have images of the garbage and sewage and bodies that Ganga carries, but one can imagine.
A river, a goddess.
There is Ganga and there is Torne.
Mikael rowing on Torne.
And Mikael skiing on Torne.
Mikael is on the river everyday. He rows, swims, iceskates, and skis. Mikael has surely listened a lot to the river; he picks berries and mushrooms to feed his family and knows the forest as a neighbor; he can name the things all about and he knows where the ice will be thin and how to survive in the winter woods. He is a philosopher, a naturalist.
We drank Torne’s water in confidence, without purification, a rare privilege. I think Torne is divine like Ganga, though she has less humanity to carry and no dams to clog her up. I also think that Hinduism is wise to anchor the gods in natural phenomena, for what miracle is more available to all of us than the gangetic river dolphin, mycelium, a blueberry, a pine tree, or a man on skis.
Another miracle, in Atacama one can find towns where no rain fell for 40 years. It’s as surprising to see green and water in Atacama as seeing a sadhu acetic on a cellphone.
Rio Loa, river in the great expanse of Pacific-bound desert serves the needs of a very large hole in the ground.
Chuquicamata, one of the largest open pit mines on earth is Loa’s neighbor, producing copper to electrify the world. Calmly, Loa quenches Chuqui’s thirst, and carries away Chuqui’s toxic detritus.
In Werner Herzog’s film Lo and Behold, about internet and connectivity, Ted Nelson explains the internet as dragging one’s hand through water. The most interesting thing about Chuquicamata is how it physically links water with the web.
These days, as we here testify, humans are globalizing. To think like a watershed leads to the realization that all water is cycling, interconnectivity is. And so seems the path of global civilization.
Ralph Waldo Emerson considers ethics as a system of human duties like religion but without the personality of God.I feel that the imaginings of Gods are but human personalities divined to voice human ethics in the face of Nature which does not observe morality with human eyes but rather offers us eyes and intelligence to observe the universe. Yuval Noah Harari suggests that Silicon Valley is a new sort of Vatican. And I agree, but what will be our book of Proverbs?
Our ethics about technology and our ethics about rivers are part of the same phenomenon; reformation. We are a species overwhelmed by our inventions and we need a philosophy of nature that includes the internet and smartphones and plastic garbage.
My grandmother Irene says this is Planet Life; we are in the terrarium of divinity, and in that, if in anything, we are unified. If the true cost of a thing is the amount of life expended to make it, what is the true cost of life? This is a question we must ask ourselves as rivers are declared dead and black, as the vocabulary of nature is disappearing from mouths and minds into libraries or worse.
My quest to create a linguistic cartography of humans and rivers was futile, alone. It is asking a painter to paint her soul. Such work is a worthy endeavor, but to be a force of nature it must be done together. We are all charting a cartography of place all the time, we are all painting our souls. We are poets of existence. Along with the rest of the universe, we create nature along this rapid of time we happen to be paddling. As messy as it will be, as dissonant as jazz, I want a poetry, a manifesto, to synergize nature and technology.
Let’s be the manifesto, let’s be the poetry to merge nature and technology, lets call on Shiva and Ganga to help braid this flood into a river of salvation.