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Excerpt from Endgame

Aquariums and Ocean (p. 519)

From chapter "We Shall Destroy All of Them"

My childhood home had picture windows all along its west side, facing the mountains perhaps five miles away. In the kitchen, a sort of breakfast nook extended a few feet from the straight line of that western contour. When the winds would come, often for days at a time, I would sit, only briefly, because I could not bear it, and watch the entire west wall of that breakfast nook suck in and out a couple of inches with every gust. The plate glass windows along the rest of that side would bend and bow, and I would picture them shattering, first one alone, and then all at once. I would hurry downstairs to my room, get into bed, pull the covers high, and listen to the wind roar and the house moan.

Two nights ago I dreamt I was back in that house. I was upstairs. It was night. I could hear the wind. I saw a few aquariums that everyone had forgotten for months or years or longer, and I hurried to feed the fish in case they were still alive. Some were. That made me happy. Just as I closed the lid on the final tank I heard the wind rise to its fiercest pitch. I began to rush to that side of the house to try to hold the structure in place, but before I got there the house imploded, and I was thrown back against what had been the other wall.

I live now near the ocean, and sometimes I walk to the end of a long rocky peninsula, to watch waves crash onto tumbled boulders at water’s edge, maybe thirty feet away and twenty feet below me. I do this when the waves are neither so low that they lap against this meeting place of sea and land, liquid and solid, nor so high that they could roll over me and carry me away. I make sure to stand behind row after row of rocks so if I get surprised I will not die. And then I watch, with eyes that grow wider as each wave comes in higher and higher against the horizon then smashes and scatters against the rocks below. Sometimes a slight mist makes it up to me. A couple of times, though, the ocean has reminded me that it is not there for my entertainment, that it has power and purposes all its own. Once I misjudged the height of a wave till the very last moment, then crouched behind the rock I used as a shield. I felt a heavy spray wash over me, and thought I’d made it, until suddenly I felt the entire weight of the ocean fall upon my back and throw me to the ground. Another time I saw a wave even larger than this approaching from a fair ways off. I turned to run, but in the maze of boulders made it only a few steps before the wave washed over the end of the whole peninsula and threw me hard against a rock on the far side of the little basin where I’d stood.

The same night I dreamt about my childhood home imploding I dreamt of the ocean. I was in my childhood home, in my childhood bedroom, only now the house was high on a hill overlooking the sea. I looked out the window at the waves below. On the horizon I saw a wave far larger than any I had seen before. It seemed to pick up speed as it got closer. I stood, transfixed, as it climbed the hill toward the home of my childhood, and as it smashed into the house, shattered and scattered windows, tore apart walls, ripped the house from its foundation, and carried it all away. I was left standing alone on the hill. I saw a car. I got in, and drove to the ocean’s edge.I saw a wave far larger than the one before and tried to drive away. The car got stuck in the sand. I got out and began to run, but I knew it did not matter how far or how fast I ran, for the wave would keep coming and would cover the entire world.

I used to think that Thomas Jefferson’s statement—“In war, they will kill some of us; we shall destroy all of them”—was simply appalling, and revealed the abusive and genocidal mindset behind civilization’s destruction of everyone and everything it touches. Beyond that, my mind would shut down: I was so disturbed by his statement and the reality behind it that I wasn’t able to think clearly. I recognized its accuracy, but then before allowing myself to fully internalize the implications I put it in a box and went about my business. A couple of years later his statement climbed out of the box, now grown into the realization that not only is the statement appalling, disturbing, accurate, and all that, but that if we are to survive we need to be able to match it in its single-minded attention to winning. But the implications of this realization once again scared me too much, and so I put this understanding back into the box. There it remained again for a couple of years, until it has come out again more recently, now even more grown. Yes, Jefferson’s statement is still appalling, disturbing, accurate, and so on, and yes, if we are to survive we must combat it by an equal or even greater determination, but now I understand that Jefferson’s statement has meanings I feel certain he could never have understood, meanings that reveal the endpoint of civilization, for Jefferson’s statement is—in a way he never intended—in at least one sense a simple statement of natural fact.

Before we talk about that we have to return for a moment to the Jews who participated in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. When I wrote earlier about those Jews who resisted having a higher rate of survival than those who went along, and then at least implied that if we resist the ongoing holocaust around us we also may ultimately have a higher rate of survival than those who do not resist, I was in one sense cheating. There was a major difference between them and us. The Jews weren’t attempting to take on the Nazis by themselves. By the time they rebelled, the Germans were losing ground in the East. Those Jews who were able to escape the Ghetto into the forests would have had to hang on for maybe fifteen months until the Soviets arrived to take the region from the already overextended and demoralized Germans. Never mind that the Soviets were as bad in their own way as the Nazis. Those in the resistance still had some hope of ultimate rescue, and the Soviets really were by this time crushing the Germans. We, on the other hand, don’t have a huge army of Russians or anyone else to liberate us and the planet from the modern global empire. We’ve got to liberate our- selves and the planet on our own.


Maybe not.

Maybe the difference is not so great as it seems, and this is where my newfound understanding of Jefferson’s statement comes in. Jefferson said his statement about the civilized destroying Indians, but if instead we invert his meaning so the statement describes the natural world destroying civilization, the statement becomes even more true than Jefferson ever intended: “In war, they will kill some of us; we shall destroy all of them.” If you wage war on the natural world, you may be able to kill the passenger pigeons, the tigers, the salmon, the frogs, but the natural world shall surely destroy all of you. Every last one. Civilization may have the power to destroy much of the natural world and many tribes of wild nonhumans and humans, but the wild earth will ultimately destroy every last tank and gun and airplane, every last electrical wire, every last cell phone tower, every last rail line, every last factory trawler, every last logging truck, every last skyscraper, every last dam, every last civilized human being who opposes it.

Don’t bet against it.

Thus the dreams. Both dreams share a central image of the natural world destroying my childhood home, which is not only the abusive family in which I was reared, but also the abusive culture that housed me. In the dream of wind, the fish still surviving in forgotten aquariums tells me that despite civilized efforts to manage and imprison wild creatures, and more broadly the wild, and despite all of us forgetting that these creatures and the wild even exist, and despite our consequent starving of wild creatures and the wild,some of the wild sustains. Some of the wild will survive. In the dream of the ocean, me getting into a car and driving to the water’s edge immediately after the structure in which I was reared was torn from its foundations tells me that many of us will not give up on the technologies of civilization even after the fundamental power of the natural world rips our cultural home to shreds. Many of us will ride our technology into even further danger, as I rode it right down to the beach, and then when it is far too late many of us will try to ride our technology to safety, even as huge waves loom over us,huge waves that will engulf the entire world, and leave no place of safety for those who have declared war on the wild. In the end, the world will do whatever is necessary to destroy those who are trying to kill it.