I Wonder

August 17, 2003

By Michael Jessen

I have been blessed by an abundance of reading time this summer. As usual, my choices have been eclectic: a novel, a memoir, and a magazine. Oh yes, also the daily newspaper.

This column will be a ramble through the pages of my readings combined with some thoughts about some events occurring the West Kootenay this summer.

When I began reading The Bone House by former Kootenay writer Luanne Armstrong in May, the weather had not yet heated up. However, by the time I finished her novel in July, we were deep into an unusually arid summer that bore a stark resemblance to that depicted in Armstrong's book.

Her chilling, yet ultimately believable descriptions of a 21st century British Columbia beset by snowless winters, waterless summers and smoke started to feel almost too realistic. If that is not enough, the book depicts a world run by giant corporations who have privatized all services such as schools and hospitals and have cut off small communities from most of these essentials of life.

When I met Luanne Armstrong at the Proctor Storytelling Festival in July, we spoke briefly about her book and it's common theme with Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake. "Ah yes, but mine came out first," she said. "And mine ends on a hopeful note."

Yet I cannot help but wonder what Armstrong would think about all the smoke currently blanketing much of the East and West Kootenay.

My most enjoyable summer read is My Story as Told by Water by David James Duncan. I'm only halfway through, yet many passages are underlined for future perusal. Duncan is one of my favourite authors -- a funny, family-oriented, fly-fishing fanatic who also happens to adore baseball. His two novels The River Why and The Brothers K are must-reads for anyone who enjoys good literature combined with a love of the outdoors. His other book River Teeth is a masterful blend of memoir and short stories.

My Story as Told by Water is subtitled: confessions, Druidic rants, reflections, bird-watchings, fish-stalkings, visions, songs and prayers refracting light, from living rivers, in the age of the industrial dark. Duncan's sense of humour disguises only slightly his deep passion for the environment.

In the opening pages he writes about his four foot eleven maternal grandmother, a rabid Seventh Day Adventist real-estate saleslady who believes her grandson should follow her example in order to get to Heaven. Rather than pursue her plan for his life, Duncan writes: "Capitalist fundamentalism, I still believe, is the perfect Techno-Industrial religion, its goal being a planet upon which we've nothing left to worship, worry about, read, eat, or love but dollar bills and Bibles."

Duncan muses that maybe God made the world natural and then writes: "And if the world is natural, I'd fret, if it was the natural world God loved enough to send His son to die for it, then it might not be such a God-pleasing thing to spend my life converting that world into industrial waste products, dollar bills, and Bibles."

Creeks were Duncan's boyhood mentors and he spent hours fishing them and watching them disappear at the hands of developers. By the 1960's and in high school, Duncan says: "On TV and in the papers I watched businessmen, economists, politicians place a dollar value on everything on Earth and discount anything that lacked such a value. I knew this was wrong -- knew that if everything was material, then everything was negotiable and one's body, home, friendships, honesty, honor, could all be bought or sold."

It was while reading the section of Duncan's book where he recounts his encounters with Henry Bugbee, a professor of philosophy at the University of Montana in Missoula, that I picked up the August 8th edition of the Nelson Daily News.

There in his regular Friday column was Dave Cherry, gleefully "speaking realistically" and putting an end for all time to the global warming debate. David Suzuki is full of hot air, Cherry suggests, because two professors trained in geology and astro-physics have determined that global warming is caused by "the sun and cosmic rays from the cataclysmic explosion of supernovas."

Cherry's column (funny how each time I go to type his name I type Cheery) is nothing but a slap at all Canadian environmentalists (with Suzuki taking the main heat) and the Kyoto Accord. Moreover, it is certainly not cheery, but only another example of Cherry's long-standing (we're into our eighth month of Cherry columns already) mission to find fault with someone or something and then proclaim the Cherry prescription for remedy. Too bad the pill we're asked to swallow couldn't be Cheery.

Bugbee died in 1999 at the age of 84, but I really wish he could have met Dave Cherry. I wonder if Bugbee would have been able to knock some sense into the local columnist. As related by Duncan, Bugbee wrote: "The readiness to receive is all. Without that, what can be given?"

Just as author Barry Lopez sees a creek not as a thing but an expression of nature in dynamic relation to everything around it, so Bugbee looks at life as a constant mystery. "The world does not become less 'unknown' in proportion to the increase of our knowledge about it. Our experience of the world involves us in a mystery which can be intelligible to us only as mystery."

I wonder if there is anything that Dave Cherry doesn't know with absolute certainty. In eight months worth of bombastic columns, he hasn't admitted there is something he doesn't have an answer for. The correct answer to boot.

In writing about Bugbee, Duncan relates how he once used the word "wonder" from a Bugbee quote to prepare a talk on his personal faith. "Philosophically speaking, wonder is crucial to the discovery of knowledge, yet has everything to do with ignorance," Duncan writes. "By this I mean that only an admission of our ignorance can open us to fresh knowings."

I have many friends in the West Kootenay who have stood up to protect trees from being logged. They've willingly allowed themselves to be arrested and jailed. I admire them greatly. As Duncan writes in another of his book's chapters: "Trees and mountains are holy. Rain and rivers are holy. Salmon are holy. For this reason alone I will fight with all my might to keep them alive."

I wonder who is fighting with all their might to keep the trees in the West Arm Wilderness Park and Kokanee Glacier Park alive? Certainly not the Parks Branch which has a policy of letting fires in parks burn unless they threaten humans or habitation. However, I wonder is such a policy relevant in today's world. As Duncan writes: "our generation is presiding over a biological holocaust -- a third of the native plant and animal species on the planet annihilated in our brief lifetimes."

Why were these fires not quelled from day one when they were small and controllable? Being native to a place, says Duncan, means speaking up for the flora and fauna of that place. Only by giving a voice to the voiceless can we keep democracy alive. If we are willing to let trees burn and animals die, how much reverence do we have for this place we call our home? We are only living with the smoke and ash now, but death is just over the ridgetop. Does our inaction ensure that Armstrong and Atwood's apocalyptic visions of the future will come true?

My search for "fresh knowings" is why I buy each copy of Resurgence magazine (http://resurgence.gn.apc.org/), a bi-monthly published in Britain that describes itself as an "international forum for ecological and spiritual thinking." The July/August 2003 issue entitled A Time to Heal is certainly thought provoking.

Some of the articles are right up Armstrong and Atwood's alleys. Zac Goldsmith describes in Progress to Nowhere a global economy as unrealistic, undesirable, unnecessary and impossible, yet states that just 500 corporations control 70% of world trade. He relates how 900 square miles of China are turning into desert each year and says the global economy is exhausting the planet. Multinational companies, according to Goldsmith, are -- as the head of the Campbell Soup Company says in its annual report -- "moving across the oceans and into new nation-states and blocs. The joy of it is that we can't be fined for speeding…" The global economy will stifle diversity and make us all the same.

David Orr, one of my mentors and Professor of Environmental Studies at Oberlin College, has a passionate article entitled The Case for the Earth urging new strategies to preserve the habitability of the planet. Environmental groups today are operating in failure mode, he writes, because they have been too nice, too reasonable, and too willing to talk the language of those who oppose their policies. Orr writes, "in the mass consumption society we have all become better consumers than citizens, which is to say willing participants in our own undoing."

However, the best article I have read so far is Web of Hope by Rory Spowers. In it, he makes a distinction between optimism and hope that hit home for me. "Optimism is a projection into the future, a conceptualisation about how we would like things to be," Spowers writes. "In a sense, it is a non-acceptance of what is, right now, and a desire for things to be different. Hope is about the present moment, about pure intention, about working for something just because it is good, with no attachments to the result of our actions." The Web of Hope can be contacted at http://www.thewebofhope.com.

A bit more of Spower's article: "I believe that this simple four-letter word now resonates within us more powerfully than at any previous stage in human history, that it has become the human quality most essential to our future as a species because, without Hope, none of us would even believe in the possibility of a different world, let alone work towards it."

Amen. I hope your summer reading has been equally stimulating.

POSTSCRIPT - For anyone wanting follow-up information on the success of the zero waste initiative at the Kaslo Jazz Etc Festival, a sizeable fraction of the waste stream estimated at about 50% by volume and perhaps 65% by weight was sent for composting. Most vendors used compostable cups and plates to serve food and beverages. When all the recycling of cardboard, paper, cans, milk jugs, and the refundable beverage containers is factored in, waste at the jazz festival was reduced by 80%.

Michael Jessen is a Nelson consultant who specializes in helping homes and businesses with waste-free living. He can be reached at 250-229-5632 or e-mailed at zerowaste@netidea.com. His business -- Zero Waste Services -- has an award-winning web site at www.zerowaste.ca.

All columns archived here are copyright © 2000 by Michael Jessen, all rights reserved. If you wish to print an individual column for your own use, please do so. If you wish to publish any of the columns in either print or electronic format, please contact the author at toenail@netidea.com to arrange appropriate payment.