Two days ago (17 April) it was more than 70 degrees Fahrenheit. The daffodills were in full bloom. As usual on Wednesdays at the courthouse, we were protesting the police shooting of Aura Rosser last November, and the prosecutor who refused to indict the policeman for that crime. Suddenly, such a racket of birdsong poured out from the tree above us, as a robin redbreast sang his heart out and circled hysterically around a female! Spring had arrived at last. It has come so suddenly after an aching long winter.
Looking at the birds and the flowers it might seem that the earth could wake itself up without our help. ’Fraid not.
The first Earth Day was 20 April 1970, the brainchild of Gaylord Nelson, Senator from Wisconsin. It was followed by a series of important environmental laws. It was preceded by the re-publication of perhaps the most important environmental book of the 19th century, apart from Darwin’s Origin of the Species and Marx’s Das Kapital. I refer to Man and Nature; Or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action, written by George Perkins Marsh and published in July 1864. It helped to quicken the Earth Day crusade launched forty-five years ago.
He wrote of the disaster to come. “Another era of equal human crime and human improvidence … would reduce [the earth] to such a condition of impoverished productiveness, of shattered surface, of climatic excess, as to threaten deprivation, barbarism, and perhaps even extinction of the species.” He showed that forest clearance depletes the soil, impairs drainage, deranges nature, and leads to over-grazing. Despite the contemporary appearance of his prophecy, this was fully of its time, a 19th-century book. Here’s an example of the writing which dates it, beautiful as the sentence is: “For fuel to warm our bodies and seethe our pottage we are even now, breaking up the floor and wainscoting and doors and window frames of our dwelling.” We no longer build our own houses, we heat by oil or gas not wood, and we certainly don’t panel our walls with the superior oak known as “wainscot.” As to “seething pottage,” near as I can make out this means to simmer lentil soup.
No, what makes this a deep 19th-century book, and one from which we must learn, is revealed in its date of publication 1864, a year which fell between the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and the surrender at Appomattox in April 1865, concluding the bloody war of emancipation. War necessitates that deep thinkers—and the philosophers and poets of any epoch—take the long view.
Consider this passage. It has both the long view and the requisite seriousness for waking up the earth. It takes us to Roman history and the explanation for the aridity of Mediterranean countries.
… the primitive source, the causa causarum, of the acts and neglects which have blasted with sterility and physical decrepitude the noblest half of the empire of the Caesars, is, first, the brutal and exhausting despotism which Rome herself exercised over her conquered kingdoms, and even over her Italian territory; then, the host of temporal and spiritual tyrannies which she left as her dying curse to all her wide dominion, and which, in some form of violence or of fraud, still brood over almost every soil subdued by the Roman legions.
As it was with Rome so it is with us: exhausting despotism, brooding violence, temporal and spiritual tyranny, and lest you think that George Perkins Marsh omits the exploitation of man by man, he quotes Jean de la Bruyère, the 17th-century French courtier and moralist. Listen as the One Percent gazes upon the Ninety-Nine Percent:
One sees certain dark, livid, naked, sunburnt, wild animals, male and female, scattered over the country and attached to the soil, which they root and turn over with indomitable perseverance. They have, as it were, an articulate voice, and when they rise to their feet, they show a human face. They are, in fact, men; they creep at night into dens, where they live on black bread, water, and roots. They spare other men the labor of ploughing, sowing, and harvesting, and therefore deserve some small share of the bread they have grown.
When “dark, livid, naked, sunburnt, wild animals, male and female” don’t get a share of the bread, they rise in revolt, and lo, voilà!—French Revolution. It was followed by the next great revolution in human history, the freedom of slaves, at first in Haiti (1792–1803) and then in the U.S.A. (1860–1865).
It is an old story but not an eternal one.
Against the human crime and the human improvidence that George Perkins Marsh shows denudes the earth, it is clear that to wake up the earth is to reclaim the commons. I speak now in a parking lot, next to the downtown library. The library lot was to be our commons. The best we could think of was a permanent checker board for chess matches. Perhaps instructional oratory on important but infrequent days like May Day or Memorial Day, Juneteenth or the Fourth. Maybe an ice skating rink. Some flower beds. Perhaps a vegetable garden. That kind of thing. We had just started thinking about it, when suddenly, Bang! Bang! Aura Rosser, the mother and artist, was shot to death by Officer David Ried. Now it’s all I can think about. What is the relationship between the two, the commons and police murders, I wonder?
The police must step down. They are there for the No Trespassing. They preserve private property unless it is to be sold and then the police preserve the traffic of the property as it passes from one private owner to another. To enclose the commons you must have police. That’s the way it goes. And that’s why we have to remind everyone with the slogan,
We must abolish police and we must abolish inequality and we must abolish the system which uses the earth to be the means by which one class exploits another. The hog abbatoirs, the genetic corn, the waste dumps, the massive chicken factories. Seeding, ploughing, weeding, harvesting, gleaning—the Neolithic cycle—is over and agri-business triumphs. The termination of the life cycle has a new frightening chemistry. It is no longer ashes to ashes or dust to dust; species now disappear from eating plastic. When the soldiers, settlers, and land speculators seized America by waging war upon the indigenous people, the First Nations, the Indians left the slain white man on the field of battle with earth in his mouth. That is what land hunger led to.
How do you wake up that earth? It is not just a biological phenomenon, the result of the daffs blooming or the robins nesting. “Waking up” requires getting out of bed, wiping the sleepers out of your eyes, and then doing what my father used to call “sitting up exercises.”
Vision and action.
William O. Douglas of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1972 suggested that conservationists who “have an intimate relationship with the inanimate object about to be injured are its legitimate spokesmen.” In light of that proposition we can argue as follows. The first step is to consider the milling of the cane, the draining of the swamps, the felling of the trees, the picking of the cotton, the digging of the harbors, the mining of coal. We ask who did this labor. Our answer leads us to the coffle, the whip, and the chain-gang. No one had a more intimate relationship with these inanimate objects—coal, cane, cotton, swamps, trees, water—than the massive numbers of African American slaves who were soon to be followed by huge waves of immigrants from Europe and Asia, the industrial working class.
Henry David Thoreau wrote about the earth a little before George Perkins Marsh. In Walden; Or, Life in the Woods (1845) he observed not the slave, but the white worker saying “The laboring man has not leisure for a true integrity day by day; he cannot afford to sustain the manliest relations to men; his labor would be depreciated in the market. He has no time to be any thing but a machine.” “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” This is the case now. He addressed him directly: “you are the slave-driver of yourself.”
The earth is no longer home. Consider, on the one hand, the homeless, hounded from place to place, stigmatized by the hypocritical contempt of city councilors, and then on the other hand the massive allocation of resources and propaganda to go up in the sky, to the moon, to Mars. This deep homelessness, this profound separation from earth, is the theme of poets—Seamus Heaney (Ireland), Denis Brutus (South Africa), Marge Piercy (Detroit), John Clare (England), Mary Douglas (Ohio).
It happens all over the world. Ulster in Ireland: thatcher, cart, plough, hare, otter, spade and bucket, going or gone. In Herculaneum in Greece there is a festival this weekend for the commons. In Lincoln Castle of the wetlands of England where the Magna Carta is preserved, protected, and guarded, the people were separated from the soggy earth by terror of hanging. In China and Japan: war for territory, war for coal, war for cars; this is the development of the ruling class. In Chiapas last year I picked coffee beans in the forest glen, thanks to the generosity of commoners of the ejido, but still I heard the chainsaw not far away. And Gaza, Gaza, Gaza, where Zionist aircraft first pulverize the people’s homes and then Zionist policy prohibits the cement needed for re-building. This in former olive groves. O lamentation upon lamentation!
Ida B. Wells studied lynching. It is such lawless terror that runs amok in America now. A youngster walking down the middle of the street; a guy late with his child support payments; a twelve-year-old playing with a toy gun; a big man, an entrepreneur, dealing loosies; a woman with wide eyes and a fish knife. Shot and killed. Shot in the back, the neck choked and throttled, shot in the face, shot in the heart in her own home. Poet Fred Moten and historian Robin D.G. Kelley agree that these murders indicate a “state of war.” They are not talking about the Middle East but the midwest, America.
It is class war. Environmental devastation is class war by other means, says Greg Palast. The economists of Chicago, the neoliberals, speak of these crimes as “externalities.” It is we, not the earth, that needs to wake up. The One Percent, the owners or possessioners, must step aside, and those with the most intimate relationship with inanimate things, to quote Justice Douglas, must step up to perform restorative justice.
The intimate relationship with the inanimate object (i.e., the earth) must now be renewed, not as exploitation of plebeian by patrician, slave by slaver, or drudge by bully, but as the only force capable of waking up the earth. We must entrust the earth to the dispossessed and despairing, the mighty Antaeus. Poseidon was god of the sea and protector of all waters. Antaeus, his son, became stronger whenever he touched the earth, his mother Gaia. He defeated everyone who wrestled with him, except Hercules when lifting him into the sky.
19 April 2015
Ann Arbor, Michigan