RW Emerson wrote in the strangely psychedelic essay Circles that "conversation is a game of circles". Last night I had the opportunity to attend a circular discussion, both in the actual words used and also in the employment of a seating arrangement that was a bit like an artist's rendering of Dante's Inferno I remember from childhood, though with fewer levels of horror and demonic unction. In the middle (or inner, as it was called by the moderator) circle sat the elders; a Ute woman from San Juan County, Utah who had been instrumental in the formation of Bears Ears National Monument, two or three eminent writers who live in Salt Lake City but whose "hearts" are in the red desert, several university students, a state senator, a two women who, like the senator, opposed the nascent monument. This was an opportunity for everyone to speak 'in a safe space', by which was meant without fear of reprisal. There were several rules by which the participants had to abide such as not speaking for anyone else, not interrupting anyone else, and not making anyone feel stupid. Good start, generally. What I found fascinating as I sat just behind the writer Steven Trimble in the second circle, was how, even in this space, people's words betrayed them. Presumably, of course, this was not inevitable in the eyes of those involved but, as Wittgenstein noted a long time ago, we are mostly not understood by those whom we most wish would. The monument supporters, I think, in general, love to hear themselves speak of their love for such places. They weave in imagery of their own experiences in the desert as if the desert were the perfect reflection of their ideas of themselves as sandy Narcissists. Their voices bray up an octave while simultaneously growing softer, a kind of miraculous and tenebrous timbre that tends to drive blue collared people nuts (and for good reason). Opponents, generally, also wax lovingly though a bit more bluntly (this is no great matter though) about their own experiences in pre-Bears Ears lands. The difference however is that they do not see the desert as worthwhile for its own sake. Yes, the 'beautiful' places must be kept secure, but the 'beautiful' places are relatively small and furthermore are not contiguous. Everything in between is 'resourceful', in other words, places that must be used by the civilization for the advancement of its interests which are generally extra-conservation.
We speak of President Obama as the great protector of lands, and he certainly was. He wielded the power of the Antiquities Act more than any predecessor. However, he also green lit the original Keystone XL project, he opened the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to fossil fuel exploration, and stood by while North Dakota was torn asunder in search of hard-to-reach crude oil. This list is far from comprehensive. So while the outgoing President is responsible for the new Bears Ears National Monument, he was by no means some kind of proxy environmentalist. And now of course we have an unpredictable djinn occupying the White House which means that everything the liberals held dear is suddenly up for the taking away.
But we must not think Trump is some kind of aberration. He is merely the first harbinger of many, many more of the nascent destruction and decline of our way of life. How is this so?
Back to the conversation above in which the desert writers saw themselves in the now-protected lands of Southern Utah. This is projection. This is the luxury of prurient projection of modern liberalism. That we should save lands because of their inherent emotional value, their 'worth' as places to go visit, as places where New Age Wankers can go have vibration sit ins while 'shamans' tell their fortune for $300 a night under the sandstone bluffs, is a consequence of an excessive libidinal drive of the privileged classes. Tell me, how many wage workers across the country do you think have the time and resources to sign up for a wilderness immersion experience replete with morning yoga, afternoon meditations, and evening vibrations? There is a real divide in this country between people who have the means to focus on these activities and those who do not. By means though, I wish to go slightly beyond the economic definition. I wish to introduce the psychological element. Both those people who have the means and those who do not in this country project themselves into the world. This is an unassailable fact. The privileged classes in this country project a curious kind of eminent domain on these places, in fact on most places on the planet, because they see themselves as owning or having unfettered access to the entire planet. The result becomes an excruciating and vacuous case for conservation - a diversion for the excess resources of the few so. It has nothing to do with the fact that our way of life is fast coming to an end, that fossil fuels and minerals should be kept in the ground, that our only home is this earth and, that's it's too late do do anything about it without stopping everything. Everything. Stop driving, stop flying, stop buying groceries at the store, stop eating out, stop buying in general. Even then, we are probably in for a massive plunge into a hell that even Dante would find abominable. People who wish to encircle huge tracts of land in federal protection are not wishing it for some kind of largesse, they are doing it for their own obscure and deviant psychological reasons. Bears Ears must be protected for its beauty, its spiritual verve, and because its the ancestral home of at least four indigenous tribal bands. Great. But this utterly discounts the classes that do not have the means to access these lands in the same way psychologically because they have been raised to view themselves as a resource and thus project onto the land the same sentiment. How we are raised, and much has been said about this by Paul Shepard in his wonderful but mostly forgotten book Nature and Madness, sends us on our psychic paths with preciously few exceptions.
Does this mean that Bears Ears should not have been designated or that it should be repealed? I don't think so. I support the designation and I do not think it should be repealed. However, by shoving it down the throats of a vast and hitherto now under-represented citizenry we have created the psychological conditions for a fierce reprisal, the shadow coming to tear down these edifices of liberal boredom with diabolical resentment.
What conservationists must do, I think, and I am one, is recognize our culpability in this. We must approach the end of our world with an equanimity and grace. We must dance, not for anyone else, but in the privacy of our lives the dance that brings about the end. There is nothing we can do. In powerlessness is dignity and in dignity there is peace. These lands that have been protected will eventually not be and will be destroyed by us. But this is the natural course existence takes and we know not whither this goes. We will all die and so will our progeny and much of our lives and theirs, will surely be awful. I'm glad we have these few places to go and find solitude for that is one of the last gifts not yet to be taken from us in the West, yet it is fast disappearing. Do we fight vigorously and, if needed, to the death for the earth? Yes. It is our task to hold two simultaneous notions in mind. It is, in fact, our duty if we wish to stay sane. We must accept that there is no hope and we must simultaneously fight for the preservation of the non-human. In this we become whole and transverse our rational notions of life and death - we become the Kosmos once and for all.
So, let's go then. It's getting dark. I know of a place where we can camp for a few hours before they find out which direction we've gone.