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Excerpt from Endgame

Thousand Years (p. 577)

From chapter "A Thousand Years"

In Strangely Like War, George Draffan and I cited Ray Rafael, who has written extensively on the concept of wilderness: “Native Americans interacted with their environment on many levels. Fortunately, they did so in a sustainable way. They hunted, gathered, and they fished using methods that would be sustainable over centuries and even millennia.”

So here’s a question I’ve been asking lately: How do I want the land where I live to be in a thousand years? The answers to that question depend of course on answers to: How does the land want to be in a thousand years? And those answers depend on answers to: How was the land prior to the arrival of civilization?  

We can safely say the land itself knows better than we what it wants and what is best for it. The questions then become: How well can we perceive what it wants, and how can we help it get there?

Before all you biocentrists freak out at me putting my own desires into this discussion, let’s first consider: every being affects its surroundings. If I purchase land and set it aside, that has an effect on that land (many effects, actually, on the land and many other things, including my psyche and the economy). If I purchase land and clearcut it, that will have different effects (on the land, my psyche, the economy, and other things). A deer eating foliage affects the land (and many other things). A mountain lion eating deer affects the land (and many other things). Someone blowing up a dam affects the land (and many other things). Someone refusing to blow up a dam affects the land (and many other things). Note that I’m not saying that all effects are equal, I’m merely saying that we’re all part of a web of relationships.

Let’s also consider that we all have preferences. Paving over paradise and putting in a parking lot reveals one set of preferences. Ripping up asphalt reveals another. Doing nothing and letting paradise be paved reveals another. And doing nothing and letting plants rip the pavement back out expresses yet another.

Not only are all writers propagandists, by dint of what they do or don’t include, but we—all of us—actualize preferences through every act we take or don’t take. Further, just as those writers who claim to be “objective” are the least honest and most foolish, any of us who claim to not impose some preference by our every action or inaction are wrong and just plain silly.

But the real reason you biocentrists don’t need to freak out is that when you take a long-term perspective, the dissonance between anthropocentric and biocentric viewpoints disappears, or at least becomes much less. I am excluding the perspective of those who eagerly look forward to a future ever more dominated (and ruined) by technology. Those who advocate a technologically controlled future are not only not taking a long-term perspective (peak oil, anyone? How about overshoot and crash?) but they’re simply insane. They are not in touch with physical reality (that’s what “high technology” does—it separates us from physical reality). They aren’t even truly anthropocentric, but rather technocentric (or maybe power centric, or control centric).

A truly anthropocentric perspective especially in the long term, is biocentric. It must be, since the anthro relies on the bio. No bio, no anthro. Any anthro who isn’t bio must be really stupid. Or made stupid by a stupid culture.

I don’t believe many farmers (consciously) want to denude the topsoil and poison the land where they live. Yet that’s what they do. Their enacted preference is for production over the health of the land. If they were to shift their preferences, if they were to act as though their descendants would still be on the land in a thousand years, they would act dramatically differently than they do now. Indeed, they would not—could not—practice industrial farming. There are questions as to whether they could farm at all. The same is true for other “professions.”

Living on the land in a way that doesn’t harm the land is not, I believe, generally at wide variance with what the land itself wants. Further, the only way to live on the land in the long run is, obviously, to live on the land in a way that the land does want. Over time, if you want something different than what the land wants, you may harm some of it, but it will destroy all of you.

Although it’s obvious that we are living in a way that the land does not want, discerning what it does want is not always simple, at least for those of us who have been made mad and stupid by civilization. Yesterday afternoon I stood on a bluff overlooking the ocean with my friend Karen Rath. She’s a longtime environmentalist, another person who knows that this whole rotten system of civilization will soon collapse. Indeed, like so many others, she longs for it.

We were talking about some species of native plants who live in the dunes north of where we stood. The plants are endangered, being choked out by an exotic invasive, European beachgrass. She asked if I knew how the grass got there.

I shook my head.

“It was planted maybe a hundred years ago by some of the farmers.”


“They wanted to stop the dunes from wandering.”


“They’re alive, you know.”

“Dunes? Yes, I know.”

“They move all over. They didn’t want them to move. They planted European beachgrass. It took over.”

The dunes to the north look yellow, even in the distance.
“All this?” I asked.

“There are still some native beach grasses, but they’re getting crowded out.”

“This creates a problem,” I said.

“No shit.”

“No,” I responded. “Another problem.” I told her about what I was writing, about how if you plan on living someplace forever, then your decisions will generally be in line with what the land wants.

She nodded.

“But these farmers,” I said, “mess up my whole theory. Couldn’t you say that even if they were planning on their families living here a thousand years that they might still have planted the beach grass? Or what about the guy who released starlings in Central Park? You’ve heard about that, right? The guy wanted to bring over to the U.S. every creature mentioned by Shakespeare. So he brought a few starlings. And some woman missed dandelions, so she brought over a couple for her backyard. Might not all of those people have still introduced these exotics? Maybe she wants dandelions in a thousand years, he wants starlings, and the farmers want frozen dunes.”

“First,” Karen said, “if the farmers were interested in living here for a thousand years, they wouldn’t use so many pesticides, or any at all, really. The farmers use everything from metam sodium to methyl bromide to all sorts of other nasty carcinogenic chemicals. Second, dunes are not the only things the farmers wants frozen in place. You know the Westbrooks, right?

“Yes, I do.” The Westbrooks are one of the wealthiest families in Del Norte County. They own or harm thousands of acres here. As is true for essentially all fortunes within this culture, this family fortune was founded on, and continues to rely on, the exploitation and despoliation of the land and the impoverishment or elimination of native human and nonhuman cultures.

“They’ve already frozen the Smith River,” she said.

“What?” I exclaimed again.

She said, “You know just by Yontocket, where the Smith River approaches the ocean, then heads straight north to parallel the beach for a few miles before finally turning back west right near Westbrook’s resort? In the big flood of 1964, the Smith cut through those dunes and made a new mouth near Yontocket. Westbrook went down with a bulldozer and closed it off. Do you know why?”

“Because he hates wild nature?”

“Good guess. But the more immediate answer is that he has a fishing derby every year up by his resort, and you can’t have a fishing derby without a river right there.”

“He moved the river for a fishing derby?”

“The third thing is that what he and the other farmers are doing is wrong. You need to add that to your discussion of what you do with the land where you live. They were trying to immobilize sand dunes, just like he did the river. It’s all about control and enslavement. That’s wrong. What you do has to be right.”

I nodded.

She said, “Something else is missing. You talk about the importance of thinking and feeling forward a thousand years to help you make decisions now, and that’s a great thing, but you haven’t mentioned going back a thousand years, too.”

“I thought I did. I mentioned that we need to think about what the land was like before it was trashed by civilization.”

“That’s true, but there’s something more even than that. The Tolowa, whose land this is, would have known to not introduce that beachgrass because they’ve lived here long enough to learn what’s appropriate. It’s just like any relationship: it takes time to get to know the other. In the case of the land it can take many generations. And I don’t mean many generations of exploiting it. I mean many generations of paying attention. How can you know the patterns of the river’s movements unless you and your people have lived here long enough to watch it move? How can you know anything unless the stories and songs you heard as a child, passed down from generation to generation, taught you the subtleties of the land’s long and short cycles?”

I immediately thought about the conflicts I have over removing Himalayan blackberries from the land where I live. I know they’re exotics, and I know they’re invasive, and I know they crowd out native plants. But I also know that when I’ve started hacking at them some Lincoln’s sparrows have yelled at me (this concern is mitigated by the sad knowledge that at this point there are more Himalayan blackberries than there are songbirds to live in them).

Of course I also know that a big part of my conflictedness about this is the phobia toward responsibility that is the hallmark of this culture. The planet is being killed, yet no one is responsible. Loggers wouldn’t cut down trees, they say, if their jobs didn’t depend on it. Cops wouldn’t protect illegal logging, they say, if that wasn’t the word from on high. CEOs wouldn’t deforest, they say, except that shareholders demand it. And shareholders don’t make any decisions at all. I want the blackberries gone; I just don’t want to take responsibility for killing them. I want the dams gone; I just don’t want to take responsibility for demolishing them. I want civilization brought down; I just want peak oil or some other means to do it for me.

Larger issues of irresponsibility notwithstanding, I’ve noticed in my four years on this land that where the forest has come back, it has begun to shade out the blackberries, meaning that if I wait long enough, so long as the blackberries don’t halt the return of the forest by killing little trees, that whether or not I kill the blackberries won’t matter. If the land wants forest, forest it shall have.

Further, I’ve long known that blackberries—as is true for most invasive plants—most readily move in to areas that have already been disturbed. When I walk in old growth forests, I don’t see Himalayan blackberries. I am not denying that Himalayan blackberries cause damage, because they do, but it’s almost always secondary. With every swing of my machete and every closing of my clippers, I can almost hear the blackberries cry out, “Scapegoats. We’re scapegoats, and you’re a hypocrite. If you really want to remove destructive exotics, we should be low on your list. What about bulldozers? Backhoes? Cars? Pavement? Number one would be homo domesticus (called by some homo stupidus)—civilized humans.Take your machete elsewhere, and go after real sources of destruction.”

You don’t even want to hear what invasive pampas grass says about this shifting or responsibility. It would burn your ears.

If I had lived here long enough, I would have more information to better act. Perhaps Himalayan blackberries prepare the soil for the next stage of succession, and I should butt out. Maybe in fifty, one hundred, or five hundred years it won’t matter: the forest will have returned in either case. And maybe these blackberries will provide much needed food for bears, birds, bumblebees, humans, and others (and homes for songbirds) through the crash. Or maybe not. Maybe the forest will succeed the Himalayan blackberries, but in the meantime the blackberries will crowd out rare native plants who under normal circumstances thrive in temporary forest openings. I don’t know. And that’s the point.