Discover more from LivingSmall: The Subversive Power of Scaling Down
I know, it’s been a minute.
In part it’s because I got headhunted for a new job — I’m back in the corporate fold, with nice people and a real salary and actual benefits again. But it’s also Been A Lot. Learning new things, meeting new people, getting my feet underneath me. So here we are. There was a lull.
The other thing that happened is that we went on a small exploratory trip to the West Coast. It was so hot and dry all summer that I was jonesing for the ocean. Which is amusing since I am terrified of the ocean and all its inhabitants. But I do love big crashing waves, and cold rain and moody grey skies. All of which we got. We arrived just in time for the first “atmospheric river” storm, and it was very dramatic. There were waves sending spray 30 feet into the air, vistas where all you could see was miles of giant white swells heading toward shore, and rain. Lots of rain. Soft rain. Driving rain. Everything in between.
I drove out first and had a little visit with my stepmother in Seattle and then Himself flew out to meet me. We took the ferry over to Bainbridge, then drove the Olympic peninsula. We stopped for a minute in Port Townsend, and had a nice walk at Ft. Worden, but we weren’t that interested in a bougie arty town full of retirees. That’s what Livingston is turning into, much to our sorrow, and one of the reasons we were on this trip was to see if there’s anyplace out there that seems promising. We spent the night in Port Angeles which was more our speed — slightly run down, with pretty buildings, but once you get out of the historic district it gets bleak pretty fast. It reminded me of the minor Rust Belt towns where I went to college in the 80s. It was one thing in town, but there was another kind of bleak out in the strange countryside of the Olympic peninsula. It’s slash and burn country out there. Anything that isn’t explicitly protected by the National Park has been logged hard, then replanted as monoculture plantation. We’d pass an unnecessarily brutal clear cut, where the mountainside was just a mess of slash piles left behind, only to turn a corner and drive down corridors of uniform plantation pine for miles.
And then you’d come around a bend, or drop down into a river valley and the whole forest would open up. “The real forest” we took to calling it. It’s open, and while there are giant trees, they’re not all the same, and there are epiphytes growing up in the canopy and tree ferns bigger than we are growing on the forest floor. It’s breathtakingly beautiful, and heartbreaking in that it only exists in these scattered pieces, pieces in which you can feel the pressure from out there, the pressure from those who are jonesing to cut it, to cut the last bits of it, to cut it all. The drumbeat of rapacious, extractive capitalism is strong on western coast of Washington state.
And then there’s the Trumpism. You’d come out of the Real Forest, into a stretch of plantation pine, you’d come around a bend and there would be a little settlement, homesteads with trailers and old vehicles and junk that had just exploded across the property. There’s nothing wrong with living in a trailer, and Himself is famous for collecting Useful Bits and Old Things. That wasn’t what we were seeing. We were seeing the fury of failure out there. Trailers with a leaking roof no one had bothered to fix, that had a tarp thrown up on top, and no one even had the energy or drive to keep the tarp on the leaking part of the roof. And all of it, festooned with Trump signs and flags and messaging. In that really manic, crazy way that it seems the worst, least competent, most angry white people in America are currently manifesting. It was not good.
Since we’ve been back I’ve been reading Amitav Ghosh’s new book, The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis. I’ve been banging on about The Great Derangement since it came out in 2016. When I was in grad school at Davis, Elizabeth Tallent was telling us about a story the New Yorker had rejected, a story that had a miscarriage at it’s heart, but one that happened off stage. The male editor had returned the story because “nothing happened.” He’d been blind to the nothing that had happened. “Who decides what a story is,” Elizabeth challenged us. “Who decides what stories matter?” One of the things I struggled with for years in fiction was trying to figure out how to tell the collective story, the story of a group or community. I think of To the Lighthouse when I think of this kind of story, a story where the actions and perceptions and feelings of the entire group are really the subject. Where every perception pings off another character and changes things, even slightly, for everyone. What I loved about The Great Derangement was how Ghosh took on the core trope of the Western novel, the Hero’s journey, the story of a single protagonist, and demonstrated how this is an explicitly Western trope. And that it’s part of the same story of the white man triumphing over “brute nature” that lies at the heart of the extractive capitalist mindset that has led us to our current fix. He’s written several wonderful novels about how capitalism played out in Asia, how it impacted those communities, how some people got rich and some got run over. I love those books in part because the perspective is so different.
The Nutmeg’s Curse feels like a natural extension to The Great Derangement. Ghosh begins with the disaster that befell the Banda Islands when the Dutch East India Company discovered they were where nutmegs came from — nutmeg, a spice that until then was rare, and expensive, and traded through a number of hands, traveling by sea and by land from Banda through Asia and finally to Venice, where spice traders had controlled it’s high price for centuries. It was not yet a commodity. It was a lot of things, a spice, a rarity, a fetish object to show off your wealth. It was also not controlled by any single entity. It was a trade good.
Until the Dutch East India Company discovered that it originated in the Banda Islands, a small cluster of volcanic islands in Indonesia. They sailed out there, demanded a monopoly over the nutmeg trade, and when the Bandanese objected, they killed them all. 1621, just as the same thing was happening in the Americas. But what’s so compelling for me about Ghosh’s account (and also so compelling about his fiction) is the perspective. It’s an Asian perspective. This is not the story of Europeans “discovering” the world, this is the story of those who were already there, trading their valuable spice in any number of places, including throughout Asia. They weren’t “savages” — they were prosperous, rich even, and they had towns and ships and trade relations, they were embedded in an existing network. Ghosh writes from the perspective of a people who were not treated like trading partners, or even like human beings, but who were brutally subdued by the forces of European capitalism who murdered them, traded them as slaves, and commodified them the way they commodified the nutmeg.
Ghosh uses this story, and the Bandanese attitudes toward their volcanic homeland, to introduce the question of terrestrial sentience. What if the earth itself, is alive? What if the earth is a protagonist? How does that effect the way we think about the climate emergency we’re in, the ways that we’re all complicit in extractive capitalism and colonialism? Part of the thrill of the book for me, was seeing Ghosh pull together work from writers I’ve been reading a lot of the past ten years: Donna Haraway, Anna Tsing, Jason W. Moores, Bruno LaTour, Tim Morton, Robert Macfarlane. Jed Purdy … writers who are doing the work to show that these forces are not “natural” but are social constructions that allowed certain actors to seize power and resources and wealth and to continue to do so for the past five hundred years.
I had a classics professor at Beloit (who I’ve written about before), and John used to look at us, his classroom full of well-off middle class American kids, kids with prospects, and he’d say “You know, for five hundred years Antioch was the center of the known world. It was the trading center. It was the center of power. It seemed as though it had always been there and it would always continue to be there.” He’d pause, write Antioch on the board, then turn to us with that twinkle in his eye and wry smile and say “And now it’s just sand and ruins. It’s gone. Sub specie aeternitatus.”
I also think of Ursula LeGuin’s great last speech when they gave her the National Book Foundation Medal. “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable — but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art.”
One of the things that has been so upsetting these past couple of years about what’s happened to our home, is that it’s been commodified. It’s being wrapped up and packaged and sold as the answer to any number of dreams: the dream of living in a wild place, the dream of living among artists, the dream of living in “small town America” complete with God Guns and Flags. There’s a lady across the street, who seems perfectly nice. She moved in over the pandemic, because her daughter and grandson were also living on this block. The daughter is selling, and I expect she’ll be gone again soon. They didn’t move here, to Livingston. They moved to “an arty western town.” They moved to “Montana.” I’ve spent a lot of the pandemic looking at inexpensive houses in the French countryside, dreaming of living out my final decades in a place without Trumpsters, with good bread and cheap wine, in a language I’m not entirely fluent in so I can’t be as bummed out by the inevitable right-wing prejudices of my neighbors, the ones I’ve displaced by buying a “vacation home.” It’s the same thing, really, the dream that there’s someplace “out there” where everything will be better. It’s the central dream of America, and especially the American West. It’s how I got here in my 20s.
So we both felt a little weird about heading out to see if there might be another place. We actually didn’t really admit to ourselves we were doing that — it’s just a vacation, we told ourselves. And yet, every town we drove through, we kept an eye out. Could this be a place? And as we passed from the hostile degradation of the logging lands of the Olympic peninsula down through the tourist zone of the Oregon coast, a place that was spectacularly beautiful but also warped by the idea that it’s a location whose value lies in scenery and pleasure (see also all the tourist economies I’ve lived in in the West since I came out here in my 20s), it became clear that no, there isn’t another place, at least not there. It was all just different manifestations of the same problem we’re dealing with here.
Which I suppose is why the Ghosh struck me so deeply when I came home. We all keep asking: where would we go? And despite the robber barons who are buying up ranches and building bunkers, the answer is that there really isn’t anyplace to go. We’re in the places we are. Its one thing that’s so unsettling about this emergency we’re in. It’s everywhere. It’s the arctic on fire and tornadoes ripping up the Ohio river valley and a global virus.
And so, we came home. Neither of us grew up here, but after decades, this has become home. We have a community, even if it’s fraying, and our older community members are dying. We have bits of land in which we are deeply invested. Himself has been walking the public lands of the lower Paradise Valley for nearly 30 years now, hunting horns in the spring. Where are we going to go where we have that kind of connection to a place?
And yes, I realize we’re colonizers on this land. Land that belonged to the indigenous peoples and which was absolutely stolen from them. If we’re lucky, we might sneak through to the end of our days without the new rich stealing ours from us via that age-old practice of raising property taxes until holdouts have no choice but to sell. “Freeing up” property, they call it. We may get fucked. I mean, we’re all going to be fucked in the next few decades, especially since it’s now abundantly clear that a very large proportion of the American public has no intention of changing anything in their lives. I don’t have any great hopes for this next transition to go well, nor do I think we’re necessarily safe in our corner, with our friends, and our little patch of land.
But I think that for now, the answer for us is not out there.