Greetings, fellow denizens and citizens of earth’s weal!
July 4 is Independence Day in the United States, celebrating the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 which formerly declared the American colonies’ independence from British rule. (The national holiday is celebrated today on Monday.) A historic occasion in my national story, but an inadequate one for humanity and wrong-minded for the weal comprised of non-humans and humans alike.
Drafted at the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia by a committee including Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, the American experiment in democracy is founded upon this passage:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Sounds good, but the flaw here is that only white men were deemed equal; women and enslaved African Americans were denied such status. Jefferson had included a paragraph in the initial draft that condemned the evil of the slave trade, but the Congress couldn’t get South Carolina’s delegation to sign the document on July 4, 1776, without it being struck.
This fault line would result in a dreadful civil war 80 years later, failed attempts to recognize the rights of freed blacks, a 75-year campaign for women’s suffrage, Jim Crow white supremacy, the wanton killings of unarmed black men by police and the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capital by Trump-supporting white nationalists and evangelicals. (This week the New York Times published a definitive visual investigation of the event, “Inside the Capital Riot.” (If you can’t get behind the paywall to view the 40-minute video, I can email you the link). Mission creep has widened the fault in the Declaration into an abyss; many now believe the American experiment in democracy has failed.
All of those flaws are intact and festering in my peaceful small Central Florida town. Like most places in the United States, Independence Day celebrations were staged on Saturday. Incessant rain all but canceled the traditional parade late in the afternoon, but the fireworks display at sundown was a go. Several times in years past, I’ve taken pictures at the parade for local media (a failed effort at citizen journalism), and it’s an all-white happy family event, the sort of thing you’d see at a church outing filled with Republican evangelicals. Nothing wrong with that — the kids love all of the militaristic display of cops on horses, motorcycles and SWAT vehicles — the Mayor and city council are there, Parks and Recreation has a happy float and churches have floats filled with God-fearing, flag-waving patriots.
It’s just that it’s so …. white, scant of black or brown presence and happy with that. If you fall in that narrowing demographic niche, its great; but it’s a fierce little world, and watching those patriots attack my nation’s capital on June 6, appearances are blandly feral. My county is deeply red, supporting every Republican on every ticket.
The other event was the fireworks display down at the lake. In 25 years my wife and I have never walked down for it, content to see the tops of the displays over the oaks on our street. Florida relaxed its laws on fireworks, so the neighborhood displays are fierce and constant for several nights on either side of the holiday, which is dangerous to the tree canopy (believe it or not, Florida is still considered under dry conditions) and wretched for animals. The more the Earth shows its damage, the more such displays underscore the fatal detachment of the human community from the greater global one.
There is a maxim that the more grandly a country fails, the louder its patriotic jingoism, and the more hollow the fanfare sounds. My country has been stuck on that road all the way since Ronald Reagan’s presidency in the 1980s, with increasing privilege for the wealthy and continued scaling back of government programs. Reagan was a flag-waving Hollywood actor who could play President with flair while allowing his stooges to arm Contras, cut social programs, rattle swords against tiny opponents and undermine environmental regulations (Reagan once declared that trees polluted more than automobiles.)
In the 1990s, there was Roland Emmerich’s action movie Independence Day, where aliens invade Earth with the intent of depleting all of our planet’s resources. They are defeated in the end by Yankee ingenuity and some fighter-pilot aerial hotrodding; retreating back into the sky, they left it to homo sapiens to finish the job. The LA riots weren’t that far behind, the World Trade Center had seen its first bombing and just as filming began, a couple of patriots named Terry Nichols and Timothy McVeigh carried out the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, killing 168 (including 19 children and three pregnant mothers) and injuring more than 680 others.
The spreading glory of glittery fireworks fade to cinders pretty fast.
But once you get addicted to the flashes, not much else suffices. It wasn’t all that long before Shock And Awe launched the American invasion of Iraq following the 9/11/01 World Trade Center attack, carried out mostly by Saudi nationals. The campaign was directed by Vice President Dick Cheney and carried out by Donald Rumsfeld, his polished and brutal secretary of defense. It was a horrible conflict, especially for Iraqi citizens, justified by bogus claims of weapons of mass destruction, a bloody insurgency Rumsfeld should have anticipated and the moral genocide of Abu Gharib. With Iraq now in shreds and ruled by Iran, Rumsfeld’s legacy is as ironic as it gets. He died this past week without ever publicly acknowledging his failure.
Note, my father had a weird connection with Rumsfeld. He was the pastor of Donald’s youth group back in Evanston and kept a faint connection down the years, hosting a party at our house for Rumsfeld in one of his Congressional re-election campaigns (’66 or ’68), calling on Rumsfeld when he was first secretary of state under President Ford (and getting involved in some geopolitical nastiness in Portugal as a result) and then visiting him again at the White House when Bush named him to secretary of defense. My dad always wanted to be a player in that big world, but his calling led him into the woods where he raised stones for the otherworld. I think he chose wisely—Rumsfeld was a dick.
And the United States is not much of a country to be proud of anymore. Donald Trump’s horrible recent presidency took my nation’s stature down many notches in the world’s eye. Now Florida’s governor Ron DeSantis is trying to launch a presidential run as Trump’s spiritual successor. He all but announced his candidacy the other by declaring, “Make America Florida.” Gods help us. The recent collapse of the condo building in South Florida is a metaphor for the grand state of affairs in this Republican-ruled state.
Maybe we were wrong to celebrate our misbegotten independence in the first place—not from British rule, but the earth community. This is a fault which most countries are guilty of and should not be trusted. Canada, Australia, Great Britain, South Africa — their ineptitude in the pandemic reveals greater structural weakness in dealing with climate change. The only country that has the internal clout and rigor these challenges might be China, but it has its own devilish contradictions ticking away.
Let’s go back to the Declaration. The first paragraph makes this declaration:
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
So “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God” are the prime movers here, blessing all good political bonds and ensuring fruitfulness and harmony through Reason. A pretty Enlightenment saying; today, those gilt baroque strands are threadbare. Humanity does not live much in harmony with Nature’s God. In Columbo, Sri Lanka, hundreds of dead sea creatures, including whales and dolphins, have washed ashore, poisoned by chemicals from a cargo ship that caught fire and sank close offshore. There was a spike in human deaths in the Northwest US and Canada during the recent blazing heatwave, but the toll is far, far greater on animal populations, from terns jumping to their death in Seattle to horses and livestock in British Columbia dying of heat stroke to salmon populations dying out due to high water temperatures. (Back in 2015, and estimated 250,000 sockeye salmon died in the Columbia and Snake Rivers.) Hard to see “Nature’s God” in that tiny hamlet of Lytton in British Columbia that had the misfortune of registering 116 degrees recently, the hottest place in Canada ever. If that wasn’t enough, wildfires have started up across British Columbia, and Lytton itself burned down a few nights ago.
If humanity is at war with Nature’s God, then our declaration must be not of independence from Her but of interdependence, renouncing the separatist human weal to embrace the global one in which homo sapiens is just one tiny, misbegotten and troublesome part.
Let us remember that the source of the false sense of independence (and its privilege) starts in our brains. David Abram in The Spell of the Sensuous:
The human mind is not some otherworldly essence that comes to house itself inside our physiology. Rather, it is instilled and provoked by the sensorial field itself, induced by the tensions and participations between the human body and animate earth. The invisible shapes of smells, rhythms of cricketsong, and the movement of shadows all, in a sense, provide the subtle body of our thoughts. Our own reflections, we might say, are part of the play of light and its reflections …
By acknowledging such links between the inner, psychological world, and the perceptual terrain that surrounds us, we begin to turn inside-out, freeing sentience to return to the sensible world that contains it. Intelligence is no longer ours alone but is a property of the earth: We are in it, of it, immersed in its depths. And indeed each terrain, each ecology, seems to have its own particular intelligence, its unique vernacular of soil and leaf and sky. (262)
As those guardians of Iona once told my father: our work is your work and your work is ours. My writing this is a product of a rainy Saturday in Central Florida somewhere between air- conditioned fictions and wild, slowly overheating subtropical ecosystem. A tropical storm slowly approaching from the south amid occasional cracks and whistles of neighborhood fireworks. (Florida’s legislature recently made all fireworks legal on three days of the year — New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day and July 4).
Independence itself is a failed state.
And my voice is far less important than nature’s here. Interdependence is about buzzards and crabgrass, frogs in stormdrains, crickets soaring with the slowly rising furnace of Florida’s summer and coyotes circling the town’s fringes after dark. The fleas have as much say as the scratching stray cat on our back porch.
Inclusive mind has so far to go, but a declaration of interdependence isn’t a bad place to start.
We need to find a way to write interdependence into our law and politics. Christopher Stone makes an excellent case for establishing legal rights for the environment—oceans, trees, rivers and other “natural objects” — in Should Trees Have Standing? Law, Morality and the Environment (1972, released again in 2010). According to his his argument, over time legal rights have been extended to children, women and minority groups; corporations and nation-states have gained legal status. Now it’s time for the environment. “Until the rightless thing receives its rights, we cannot see it as anything but a thing for the use of ‘us’ — those who are holding rights at the time,” he wrote. Tribal groups have sought to protect local resources by granting them legal status. The idea has been slow to catch on in the United States, but in New Zealand the government has relinquished ownership of a natural park, conferring all the rights, powers, duties and powers of a legal person,” and declared a river “an indivisible and living whole.”
Jedidiah Purdy teaches at Columbia Law School and is the author of two great books on writing nature into law: After Nature: A Politics of the Anthropocene (2015) and This Land is Our Land: The Struggle for a New Commonwealth (2019). He writes in the former that our politics must evolve in pace with a nature now being radically transformed:
Everyone living today is involved, intentionally or inadvertently, in deciding what to do with a complicated legacy of environmental imagination and practice, now that all simple ideas of nature are irretrievably gone. Losing nature need not mean losing the value of the living world, but it will mean engaging it differently. It may man learning to find beauty in ordinary places, not just wonder in wild ones. It may mean treasuring places that are irremediably damaged, learning to prize what is neither pure nor natural, but just is—the always imperfect joint product of human powers and the natural world. All of this will require a vocabulary, an ethics, an aesthetics, and a politics, for a time when the meaning of nature is ultimately of human question. And since it is a question we must answer together, it should—but not necessarily will—receive a democratic answer. (9-10)
Furthermore, those politics must widen out to fundamentally address our interdependence:
Undue privilege is not intrinsic in environmental imagination; it is just the product of broader inequalities that have marked all the politics of the modern world, including the politics of nature. This is a legacy to be overcome. Saying that the Anthropocene should take its standard from democracy means that everyone must have a voice in shaping the world. Bringing the question of the nonhuman world fully into politics is as inclusive or exclusionary as the politics itself (282).
Hopefully humanity will find the courage and largesse to write these laws. I hope trees get better protection — or we find a building substitute for timber — before they’re all cut down. Sadly, the legal advantage tilts toward the extractor, in Brazil and California, British Columbia and Queensland. The protections may not make it into law until the protected are gone.
But we can help change hearts and minds of the electorate. We can start by honoring those who bore the Declaration of Independence on their very backs. Thomas Jefferson, who drafted the document, wrote it with a goose quill. (A prolific writer, Jefferson bred geese specially at Monticello to supply his need for quills.) All those signatures (we remember John Hancock’s flourish most) were winged by geese. Quill pens were also made from feathers of the swan, eagle, crow, owl, hawk, and turkey.
And the parchment the Declaration was writ upon was made from the skin of an animal — calf or goat or sheep. Quill and skin: certainly our declaration of interdependence must include those have been sacrificed for our life, liberty and pursuits and happiness. (My favorite dinner blessing by Wendell Berry: May I be worthy of my meat.)
Long ago such effects were seen as contributions from a weal understood as a joint heritage. The sacred reindeer of the Evenks, a Siberian tribe, represented the supreme deity and ancestor spirits of the tribe, especially those of the shaman. A larch tree centered the shaman’s tent, representing the world tree which grew through the lower world of the dead, the middle world of the living and the upper world of the eternals. The clan river was believed to flow through the east and west openings of the tent, and symbols of other animal familiars — bear and salmon and eagle — guarded the structure from evil spirits. (From what I’ve learned of crannogs, who Gaelic translation is “young tree,” they performed the same function back in the Mesolithic and Neolithic as the shaman’s tent.)
For me, such elaborations are both declaration and celebration of interdependence, a parade through the Anthropocene which is not lost to us, just envisioned radically different. It takes a radical hope, as Jonathan Lear tells us, “directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is. Radical hope anticipates a good for which those who have the hope as yet lack the appropriate concepts with which to understand it.” (Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, 2008)
Thus we sing in the rising tide, half to ghosts and half to a teeming majesty which will cover our graves. It would be wise to lift our sight to the flight-ways of our winged cousins, the gulls and ospreys, kingfishers and kites who take sustenance from the sea. They have much to teach us about how to live with and among, because and into; as Thom van Dooren writes,
It is inside these multispecies entanglements that learning and development take place, that social practices and cultures are formed. In short, these relationships produce the possibility of both life and any given way of life. And so these relationships matter. This is true at the best of times, but in times like these when so many species are slipping out of the world, these entanglements take on a new significance. (Flight Ways ((Critical Perspectives on Animals: Theory, Culture, Science, and Law)), Columbia University Press.
Might as well pay attention, because our time is short ….
For this challenge, let’s celebrate Interdependence Day.
- What does it mean to be a citizen of the world’s weal?
- How is your congress composed? What human and nonhuman orders participate?
- What place is there for dead and lost
- What new orders are there to celebrate?
- What songline describes the interdependent weal?
- What origin story might be told of our transitional time in the centuries to come?
- What does it mean to hope without even understanding what there is to hope for anymore? How is that radical?
These are just a few ideas. Have at your way — you always do …
Links for the challenge will be accepted until 4 PM EST Friday, July 9. Let’s find out what this earth weal is all about.
To pray you open your whole self
To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon
To one whole voice that is you.
And know there is more
That you can’t see, can’t hear;
Can’t know except in moments
Steadily growing, and in languages
That aren’t always sound but other
Circles of motion.
Like eagle that Sunday morning
Over Salt River. Circled in blue sky
In wind, swept our hearts clean
With sacred wings.
We see you see ourselves and know
That we must take the utmost care
And kindness in all things.
Breathe in, knowing we are made of
All this, and breathe, knowing
We are truly blessed because we
Were born, and die soon within a
True circle of motion,
Like eagle rounding out the morning
We pray that it will be done
from Mad Love and War (1990)
anthologized in The Ecopoetry Anthology