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Excerpt from A Language Older Than Words

How the World Works (p. 365)

From chapter "Connection and Cooperation"

It is spring. Deep within a pocket of remaining old growth the seed of a douglas fir germinates. A tiny root reaches its tip toward the fresh fecal pellet of a deer mouse. The night before, the mouse ate truffles, and so the pellet contains a half-million truffle spores that passed intact through the mouse’s digestive system. Because the pellet is fresh, the root tip penetrates easily, and comes in contact with the spores and also a yeast extract that is food for nitrogen-fixing bacteria. The yeast stimulates the spores to germinate, and they grow into and around the tip of the root, and grow also to envelope the nitrogen-fixing bacteria and yeast. The bacteria feeds off both fungus and yeast, and in turn fixes nitrogen crucial to both fungus and tree. The truffle continues to expand, and forms a mantle around the tree’s feeder root: the association is called mycorrhiza, which literally means “fungus-root.” The tree provides simple sugars and metabolites without which the fungus cannot live. The fungus provides minerals, nutrients, nitrogen, and water without which the tree would die. The fungus also grows new truffles to feed new deer mice, and the whole symphony begins again.

A termite uses its powerful jaws to chew wood. But it cannot digest this food. That task is accomplished by a protozoan that lives in its gut. There is, however, another problem: the protozoan requires more nitrogen than decaying wood provides. The solution? Bring another creature into the dance: nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Termites feed wood to the protozoa and bacteria, both of whom reside in its gut. The bacteria feed nitrogen to the protozoa, and the protozoa digest wood and nitrogen to feed acetic acid to the termite. Everyone’s satisfied.

An ancient tree is ready to die. It is a lodgepole pine. After its death its body will be used by birds, squirrels, mice, termites, ants, bees, fungi as their home. It may take centuries to decay and become the soil it used to be. But it is not yet dead. For that it needs help. So it speaks. It emits an audible signal heard by a species of beetle that has been listening for just this sound. Hearing, the beetle comes. It kills the tree.

This is how the world works.


Last month, a handful of environmental activists walked into the office of Frank Riggs, a congressman from Eureka, California, who is deeply beholden to big timber corporations. The activists—young women, including two teenaged girls—dumped sawdust on the floor as a protest against Riggs’ efforts to deforest the last of this continent’s old growth redwoods, then handcuffed themselves in a circle around a stump they had also brought. Riggs’ secretary called the police. When the police arrived, they sprayed pepper into the eyes of the handcuffed and helpless women from a range of less than three inches. Over the women’s screams they then forced open their eyes and daubed a concentrated liquid form of this substance directly onto their eyeballs. Remember that the women were already handcuffed. It would be comforting, as always, to believe these policemen were acting alone, or were somehow rogues. We would, as always, be wrong. The policemen videotaped themselves applying the pepper to show that they were correctly following official policy. A poll taken in Eureka two weeks later revealed that 86 percent of the residents believed it is appropriate for police to use pepper spray on non-violent, non-resisting political and environmental protestors. Two weeks after that a judge refused to grant an injunction against further use of pepper spray or its concentrate by police, saying, the hardship to law enforcement in being deprived of the ability to use pepper spray on recalcitrant demonstrators was greater than the discomfort suffered and the risk incurred by those on whom it is used.” The police defended their use of pepper spray as not only “cost-effective” but in the best interests of the protestors themselves. The activists sued the county, and their case was thrown out of court by a judge who said that this use of pepper spray was appropriate because these activists were, among other things, interfering with the normal course of business. Thus again—as inevitably happens in our culture—is production valued over life.

The use of pepper spray against non-violent political and environmental protestors is routine. More than sixty people have been killed by police through the use of pepper spray. A mere two weeks before the incident in Eureka, the same police force did the same thing to other environmentalists, but failed to videotape it. Shortly before that, police in Eugene, Oregon, dumped six jars of pepper spray onto one environmentalist’s face before spraying pepper into the eyes of citizens who had stopped to see what all the fuss was about. These police also used a cherry-picker to approach two young women locked-down demonstrating in trees, then raised the women’s skirts to spray pepper onto their genitals.

This is how our system works.


If we are to survive, we need to discern the difference between real and false hopes. We must eliminate false hopes, which blind us to real possibilities, and bind us to unlivable situations. Does anyone really believe that Weyerhaeuser or other timber transnationals will stop destroying forests? Does anyone really believe that the same corporate administrators who say they “wish salmon would go extinct so we could just get on with living” will act other than to fulfill their stated desires? Does anyone really believe that a pattern of exploitation old as our civilization can be halted legislatively, judicially, or through any means other than an absolute rejection of the mindset that engineers the exploitation in the first place, followed by actions based on that rejection? This means if we want to stop the destruction, we have to root out the mindset.

To expect police to do other than use pepper spray or worse on those who prefer life over production is to delude ourselves. To expect the institutions created by our culture to do any other than to poison waters, denude hillsides, eliminate alternative ways of living, commit genocide, and so on, is to engage in magical thinking. After bearing witness to the horrors of Hanford, Rocky Flats, the Salvage Rider, dams, governmental inaction in the face of Bhopal, the ozone hole, global warming, the greatest mass extinction in the history of the planet, surely by now there are few who still believe the purpose of government is to protect citizens from the activities of those who would destroy. At last most of us must understand that the opposite is true: that Adam Smith was correct in noting that the primary purpose of government is to protect those who run the economy from the outrage of injured citizens.

Ours is a politics, economics, and religion of occupation, not of inhabitation, and as such the methods by which we are formed and governed ultimately have no legitimacy save that sprouting from the end of a gun, from a can of pepper spray, from the tip of a rapist’s penis, from the travesty of modern education, from the instilled dread of a distant hell and the false promise of a future technotopia, from the chains that bind children to beds and looms and from the everyday fear of starvation—as well as an internalized notion of what constitutes social success or failure—that binds so many to wage slavery. Any political, economic, theological, or philosophical system that in practice rewards production over life is illegitimate because, tautologically enough, it does not value the lives of its citizens over the needs of production. Such is sufficient to define illegitimacy. No other measure is needed. The same is true—for the same reasons, because the results play out the same—for any system that is unsustainable.

The responsibility for holding destructive institutions—more broadly systems, and more broadly yet cultures—accountable falls on each of us. We are the governors as well as the governed; it is only when we daily allow our servants—our so-called “elected representatives”—to act outside our behalf that they can actually do so. This means that all of us who care about life need to force accountability onto those who do not; we must learn to be accountable to ourselves, our consciences, our neighbors, and the nonhuman members of our community—to salmon, for example, and grizzly bears—rather than be loyal to political, economic, religious, penal, educational, and other institutions that do not serve us well. If salmon, to return to a creature who once spawned not two miles from where I live, are to be saved, we must give the corporations and bureaucracies that are driving them extinct, such as Kaiser Aluminum, the Bonneville Power Administration, and the United States government, a reason to save them. We must tell these institutions that if they cause salmon to go extinct, we will cause these institutions to go extinct. And we must mean it. We must then say the same to every other destructive institution, and we must act on our words; we must do whatever is necessary to protect our homes and our landbases from those who are destroying them. Only then will salmon be saved. Only when we as citizens and communities begin to act as though we value life over production will we begin to act as though we value life over production. It really is that simple.

In a speech a few years ago, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich threatened drug smugglers: “When you make the decision that you’ll get rich at the expense of our children, you are signing your own death warrant.” In a larger context this is not a threat at all, but a simple statement of fact. All of us who participate in a system that “makes” money at the

expense of our ecological base—upon which not only our economics but our lives depend— are signing our own death warrants. Allowing our crazy system to destroy our landbase is not merely unethical and unwise but suicidal.