We live in a world too fast on the move; having ramped up this speeding furnace, we must somehow slow it down.
Bone-dry conditions, high heat and whipping winds are driving wildfires across the Western North America. The Glass Fire last year in California’s wine country grew at about an acre every five seconds. It’s not unusual for wildfires to now burn 15 miles in a single day. The Caldor Fire now approaching Lake Tahoe in Nevada is spreading so quickly that it burned an area roughly half the size of Chicago in a week.
As more moistures is trapped elsewhere in the atmosphere, rain is falling faster. In Tennessee, the small town of Waverly was pummeled by 17 inches of rain from stalled thunderstorms. Runoff from higher elevations outside the town created a wall of water that raced through like a tidal wave, destroying 125 homes and killing 21. The town beat the state’s previous one-day record of 13 inches and did so much faster, in about 8 to 12 hours.
The magnitude of what happened was summed by Humphreys County Sheriff Chris Davis. “The perfect storm happened here,” he said. “Are we going to definitely look at it and learn from it? Absolutely. We’d be crazy not to.” But, he added, “we made the best decisions we could when we had to make them.”
Learning from the incomprehensible is a new problem we face, a labyrinth yet without a discernable pattern. Examining the data from the summer’s first heatwave in the Pacific Northwest, environmental scientist Robert Rhode called the numbers “statistically impossible”: so far beyond the observed experience that it exceeded even statistical models’ outmost potential extremes for the area. According to Rhode, this means that “events … are not just pushing the boundaries a little bit, but are really jumping out at us as something we did not expect based on what we had prepared for in the past.” (Ronald Brownstein, “The Unbearable Summer,” The Atlantic, August 26, 2021).
All this is due to accelerating and cascading effects of climate change. Extreme events are happening now at alarming speed, so much so that one disaster quickly erases memory of the last. Remember the town of Lytton in British Columbia, which burnt down the day after temperatures hit 121 degrees F? Or how about the embered town of Greenville, California? How Talent and Phoenix, Oregon from last year? Or Paradise, California, the year before? What Kangaroo Island or the vast Siberian taiga? Or how about Hurricane Kartrina wheeling its massive saw into the Louisiana and Mississippi coast exactly where Hurricane Ida now barrels in intensifying might, 16 years to the day? Remember Hurricane Harvey (2017, 60 inches of rain, Groves, TX) or Michael (2018), which intensified from tropical wave to Category 5 monster in just 36 hours? How can we, with the extreme weather wire jangling at every next moment?
Hurricane Ida rapidly intensified this weekend and hit the Louisiana coast at near-Cat 5 strength
Scientists said these events were going to start coming at us fast, but how much faster can we accommodate them? When you consider that we’re only at about 1.1 or 1.2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels, and with projections of about 3 degrees C total increase by the end of the century, this party has hardly begun …
BRIGHT BIRD FALLING
so this bird is winged.
Not long ago we boarded up
and soon the sun grew large,
a gold future clear ahead.
Then too huge and hot,
a burning crown of dread—
and us too high for jumping down.
Time for one fast sigh
before we learn
that bird is dropping dead.
—Brendan (August 2018)
Counter to all this, of course, is slowness, this week’s challenge and the brake by which we must somehow absorb what’s happening and find some workable or functional vantage by which to escape the burning labyrinth we’ve created.
I take the name of this challenge from the title of Milan Kundera’s 1996 novel, where three tales intersect one night in one ancient chateau. There the novelist and his wife arrive from Paris to spend the night; an 18th century libertine games to extend a night of pleasure with a noble’s wife; and where the libertine’s modern counterpart races on a motorcycle for a drunken tryst ruined by its haste. “Our period is so obsessed by the desire to forget,” Kundera’s narrator reflects, “and it is to fulfill that desire that it gives over to the demon of speed; it picks up the pace to show us that it no longer wishes to be remembered that it is sick of itself; sick of itself; that it wants to blow out the tiny trembling flame of memory.” (135)
Kundera, a Czech exile who became a French citizen (Slowness was his first novel written in French), weaves this novella’s separate threads like a musical composition, layering and drawing out its single moment into a sustained classical meditation on “the pleasure of slowness” — something our modern world has lost at, what we now discover, is our greatest peril.
Kundera’s novelistic observations came just prior to Internet and its hyperspeed connectivity. Digital events are 24-7 and transpire in nanoseconds; the knowledge it accumulates spirals so fast that it will soon blossom into what futurist Ray Kurzweil calls The Singularity, when machine intelligence becomes omnipotent, saturating the universe with its device. And we thought TV was rushing us out the door!
Our culture’s thirst for meltingly-faster connections shows up in films like Speed, The Fast and the Furious and Mad Max Fury Roads; uperheroes like Superman, The Flash and Shazam; and the warp-drive blue contrails of Star Trek and Star Wars. The speedy pleasures of pornography is what drove the early spread of the Internet, and shiny things are the attentional fiber of social media’s fleeting intelligence.
All of this is in defiance of that fact of climate change and its very real threat to human civilization (and perhaps all life on Earth.). We can’t stop it now, but somehow we must slow it. Doing so requires deep political, social and cultural change: regulating fossil fuel extraction, radically changing consumption habits and somehow braking our racing imaginations. To stop the Minotaur at the center of our future from tearing us apart, we must slow down and consider changing course.
What is slowness, and how do we embrace, nurture and embody it? These questions I am asking you to help answer this week.
Here are a few ideas.
A. There is a slowness in growth, a low deep duration infinitely greater and grander than my fleeting attention. Watering and nurture is a daily process of taking seed to harvest over many months. The year cycles through seasons. Trees grow for decades. Surrounded by digital culture, I’ve grown accustomed to writing poems in a few days; but master poets put poems through dozens, sometimes hundreds of drafts. Jack Gilbert said once in an interview that he often worked on a poem for years. The mastery I find in his poems derives from the nurture of deep time.
This poem from his collection titled from Refusing Heaven (2005) (a book I am re-reading for perhaps the tenth time) offers some good thought on slowness:
Burning (Andante Non Troppo)*
We are all burning in time, but each is consumed
at his own speed. Each is the product
of his spirit’s refraction, or the inflection
of that mind. It is the pace of our living
that makes the world available. Regardless of
the body’s lion-wrath or forest waiting, despite
the mind’s splendid appetite or the sad power
in our soul’s separation from God and women,
it is always our gait of being that decides
how much is seen, what the mystery of us knows,
and what the heart will smell of the landscape
as the Mexican train continues at a dog-trot each
day going north. The grand Italian churches are
covered with detail which is visible at the pace
people walk by. the great modern buildings are
blank because there is no time to see from the car.
A thousand years ago when they build the gardens
at Kyoto, the stones were set in the streams askew.
Whoever went quickly would fall in. When we slow,
the garden can choose what we notice. Can change
our heart. On the wall of a toilet in Rock Springs
years ago there was a dispenser that sold tubes of
cream to numb a man’s genitals. Called Linger.
* In orchestral music, andante non troppo means “at a moderately slow tempo” or “walking pace.”
B. In archetypal psychology, the puer aeternus is the archetype of speedy spirituality – the flying young man whose feet can’t touch the ground. (Ever date or raise one of ‘em?) Figures ranging from Eros to Hermes and Icarus, the Trickster and Messiah all fold into this archetype. James Hillman wrote a definitive essay on the puer and its opposite, the senex, in his 1967 essay “Senex and Puer” (collected in Puer Papers, Spring Publications, 1979).
Six decades later, Hillman’s characterization of this figure is chillingly accurate for the problematic spirt of our age:
In him we see a mercurial range of (mythical) ‘personalities’ A mercurial figure, the puer is a bundle of contradictions – narcissistic, inspired, effeminate, phallic, inquisitive, inventive, pensive, passive, fiery and capricious. (22) … The eternal spirit is sufficient unto itself and contains all possibilities. As the senex is perfected through time, the puer is primordially perfect. Therefore there is no development; development needs devolution, a loss and fall of restriction of possibilities. (23) … The horizontal world, the space-time continuum which we call ‘reality,’ is not its world … Because of this vertical direct access to the spirit, this immediacy where vision of goal and goal are one, winged speed, haste —even the short cut — are imperative. The puer cannot do with direction, with timing and patience. It knows little of the seasons and of waiting. And when it must rest or withdraw from the scene, then it seems to be stuck in a timeless state, innocent of the passing years, out of tune with time. (24)
For Hillman, the only way to slow this figure is merge him with his opposite, the senex. (That figure has his own bucket of problems, but the wise old man figures into him along with the goaty old lecher). The path to such a two-faced archetype is found in the paradoxical Renaissance maxim of festina lente: “make haste slowly.” Such is maturity, where the puer finally enters time. Festina lente “is an ideal that may be achieved however only by remaining consequently true to the puer aspect. To be true to one’s puer nature means to admit one’s puer past — all it gambols and gestures and sun-struck aspirations. From this history we draw consequences. By standing for these consequences, we let history catch up with us and thus our haste slowed. Through our individual histories, puer merges with senex, the eternal comes back into time, the falcon returns to the falconer’s arm.” (35)
Festina lente is a great maxim for this moment we currently find ourselves in. We are caught in a speeding time, though we don’t have to pour gas on the fire by indulging its worst obsessions. Gilbert’s poem above is a great example of festina lente.
C. It is said that in the Anthropocene, fleeting human activities are irrupting into deep time. In just a few centuries we have vastly changed the face of the planet in ways that normally take hundreds of millions of years. Instead of speeding up geological scales, how can we adapt to their slowness? If my life is but a nanosecond in the grand sweep that accumulated sediment from the eroding Appalachian mountains and formed the Florida platform—one grain of that sediment—then all my loves are one summer morning in that state, all my work an afternoon rainstorm in which formed and darkened and thundered and poured and was gone by dusk. No more; so any sense of accomplishment is the world’s, not mine.
D. One can witness slowness in old growth forests, those cathedrals of sustenance where all participate in an ecosystem of shared wealth and nurture. Robin Wall Kimmerer describes them in Braiding Sweetgrass:
… The ancient rainforests spread from Northern California to southeastern Alaska in a band between the mountains and the sea. Here is where the moisture-laden air from the Pacific rises against the mountains to produce upward of one hundred inches of rain a year, watering an ecosystem rivaled nowhere else on earth. The biggest trees in the world. Trees that were born before Columbus sailed.
And the trees were just the beginning. The numbers of species of mammals, birds, amphibians, wildflowers, ferns, mosses, lichens, fungi and insects are staggering. It’s hard to write without running out of superlatives, for these were the greatest forests on earth, forests peopled with centuries of past lives, enormous logs and snags that foster more life after their death than before. The canopy is a multilayered sculpture of vertical complexity from the lowest moss on the forest floor to the wisps of lichen hanging high in the treetops, raggedy and uneven from the gaps produced by centuries of windthow, disease and storms. This seeming chaos belies the tight web of interconnections between them all, stitched with filaments of fungi, silk of spiders, and silver threads of water. Alone is a word without meaning in this forest. (277-8)
We have cut down most of those old growth forests in our haste to raise cities which have been torn down and rebuilt many times: But can we be like old growth forests in our embrace of our communities, in the resources we share for the good of all? The forests may be gone but our songs can be part of their timbered choir.
For this challenge, write of SLOWNESS