Sunday, January 22, 2012

I was asked to contribute an essay as one of 52 global Resident Thinkers of the new nation, Nowhere Island, a public art project of London's Cultural Olympiad 2012 which imagines how a new nation should begin. An expedition team set sail to the Arctic in September 2011 and will travel until the final weekend of the Cultural Olympiad in September 2012.

According to project organizers, "Over 4000 people have already signed up to become citizens of Nowhereisland and will begin colelctively writing the island's constitution from January 2012... This is a real place on the move. But it belongs to nowhere. It is an island nation that has come from a place that is deeply implicated by global decisions."
I live there too is dedicated to the memory of Gerry Ortega, ecologist and friend, who was killed on January 24, 2011 because of his anti-mining advocacy. Please sign the petition "Justice for Gerry Ortega" here.

January 22, 2012

Dear resident of Nowhereisland,

The question posed by Citizen Hartley, which launched your enterprise -- it is not easy to answer. He asked, if we were to create a new nation, how might we begin?[i] But what if we asked where the starting point should be instead?

I am thinking now of the Tunisian fruit vendor, Mohammed Bouazzizi, who in 2010 demanded dignity before bread, before igniting the fuel that would produce the Thermopylae of his generation.

I recall an entry the poet Vera Inber made in her diary in 1941, while Leningrad reeled from the monstrosities of war.

"I am moved," Inber wrote, "by the thought that while the bombs rain down on this besieged city Shostakovich is writing a symphony... And so, in all this horror, art is still alive. It shines and warms the heart."[ii]

A year later, on December 21, 1942, Harro Schulze-Boysen would calmly write his farewell letter to his parents from Plötzensee where he was conveyed for execution. "This death suits me," said Schulze-Boysen, a Luftwaffe lieutenant who had penetrated the fascist stronghold of Germany's Air Ministry "with the express intent of undermining it."[iii]

To follow the meridian of our time; I wonder if we are up to it.

We dwell too much on the thunderclaps of history that we sometimes miss the minutiae of human agency, our oxygen, the things that define who we are and who we ought to be.

We are not so different, you and I, not as distant from one another as the water that separates us.

You are anchored on the beliefs of a better world, yet, displaced, you bob South in search of your people. The people here -- we're attached to a storied archipelago and yet we drift West and East, seeking tethers and our selves and our North Star.

We are both searching for continuities and the elusive reboot.

I wonder what I can tell you that you don't already know.

I am aware that we are bound by common truths. The ecumenical joy of open windows or a pinch of salt. The grace of Gandhi, The Force and Jimi Hendrix.

We know the great sky as the heavens or a short stretch of atmosphere, and that it is blue or dark depending on the time of day. We know the sun nourishes living and that stars are immortal, because life is long until it ends.

Meantime, seas rise and reclaim entire coastlines, fields wither or drown, and mountains fall in heaps on whole villages as monstrous things burn and dig and burn.

I wonder how we got here, this point where we can imagine the end of the world but not the end of the dictatorship of consumption and accumulation?

The eminent scientist Stephen Jay Gould wrote in 1994 that the word dinosaur should actually be "a term of praise, not of opprobrium. They reigned for 100 million years and died through no fault of their own. [But] Homo sapiens is nowhere near a million years old and has limited prospects, entirely self-imposed, for extended geological longevity.”[iv]

We know Gould is right. We are aware of the great danger we face together but we seem intent on courting it.

Through the magic of technology, we simultaneously revel in pageants of wilderness and the punctual drama of human-induced calamities. "We point to our wildest lands," said the novelist Barbara Kingsolver, "to inspire humans with the mighty grace of what we haven't yet wrecked."[v] And still our drive to acquire, destroy and consume remains unfettered,

Our war is with ourselves - with the amber of our indifference and the obstinate refusal to recognize the annexation of who we are and who we ought to be.

Think about it: thousands of different living things share the space of a cubic foot of earth, governed by the laws of nature. And think about human law, which may be nine-tenths about possession and governed by the metabolism of commerce.[vi]

The writer James Carroll reminds us that it was never enough for our ancestors to merely know. "What made them our actual human forebears was that they came to know that they knew. Conscious of their consciousness, they made a leap on behalf of the entire cosmos, for in them the cosmos became aware of itself. And from then on, humans have been defined by the urge to surpass themselves."[vii]

A transcendence, then. A self-surpassing. An awareness of our place in what Kingsolver called "the sovereignty of the animate land that feeds us and shelters us."[viii] A confrontation with the choice of whether we shall abide by life's ruins and live the sanctioned life - or face the moral reckoning of our age.

There is really only one investigation all along, wrote the novelist Michael Chabon, "one search with a sole objective: a home, a world to call my own." [ix]

I can imagine an Arctic island travelling South - a landscape on the move, where compassion is the currency, where solidarity is the only debt people owe one another, a house of memory built with hope.[x] I live there, too. #

[i] More information about the project here. Though fruits begin as flowers, I extend my thanks to the sharp eyes of reader Neth Daño for reminding me after the essay was published -- Bouazzizi was a fruit vendor, not a flower vendor, as I had originally written.
[ii] The War Diaries: An Anthology of Daily Wartime Diary Entries Throughout History, ed. Irene Taylor and Alan Taylor (Canongate Books Ltd., 2004)
[iii] Anne Nelson, Red Orchestra: The Story of the Berlin Underground and the Circle of Friends Who Resisted Hitler (Random House, 2009)
[iv] Stephen Jay Gould, "The Persistently Flat Earth: Irrationality and Dogmatism are Foes of Both Science and Religion," Natural History 103, no. 3 (1994)
[v] Barbara Kingsolver, High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never (HarperCollins, 1996)
[vi] Ibid. 5. The concept of competing metabolisms is from John Bellamy Foster, Marx's Ecology: Materialism and Nature (Monthly Review Press, 2000)
[vii] James Carroll, A time for self-surpassing," Boston Globe, June 7, 2010
[viii] Ibid. 5 The phrases "abide by life's ruins" and "the sanctioned life" in the latter part of this paragraph are from Mikal Gilmore's review, "Bruce Springsteen: The Ghost of Tom Joad," Rolling Stone, July 31, 2002. I was listening to the album while finishing the essay and Gilmore's piece came to mind, particularly his description of what to me is the most haunting piece in the set, "Straight time".
[ix] Michael Chabon, Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing along the Borderlands (HarperCollins, 2009)
[x] See "The road from Collevecchio," Renato Redentor Constantino, Paras Indonesia, July 4, 2006 and "Compassion is our new currency," Rebecca Solnit,, December 22, 2011.

1 comment:

Padma said...

I like this. Imagine, a nation where no one and everyone can be indigenous.