While walking along the lake I saw a stick poking its head out of the sand. It was incredibly smooth from god knows how many years of water washing over it. I picked it up- because somehow I think I need to touch something to know something- and felt it. Sure enough, it was smooth. I bent down and put the stick back in its place. But not quite. The snug hole where it originally was had caved in. I felt like I committed a crime against nature. Sure, not as horrific as mountain top removal or industrial farming, but a crime against the order of things nevertheless. That stick came to be where it was through a sublime process of time, gravity, and chaos. It was one with the sand. Now it’s just a stick on the ground. Out-of-place.
I take a few more steps and see a bright red plastic straw, like the one you’d get at a gas station to drink a slurpee. It’s smooth, but not like the stick: it was manufactured to be that way. It’s smooth the way a bullet casing is. In fact, it won’t de-compose for hundreds if not thousands of years, long after the stick and I have vanished.
Somehow, standing on the horizon of Lake Michigan, I identify more with that straw than with that stick: out-of-place, artificial, unnatural. I get that feeling a lot. And despite being more grounded and optimistic than I’ve ever been in my adult life (knock on imitation wood), it only takes the thought of how much destruction goes into the perpetuation of my existence qua modern man to throw me into a morass of self-loathing or send me scrambling to justify my existence. Anyone who admits what we’re doing to the planet faces a similar question: being the artificial straw that I am, what am I doing here?
Actually, this problem is a lot older than you and me. And it existed even before the environmental crisis. The ancient greeks, hundreds of years BCE, were boggled by the fact that they existed, and tried to answer why. It was a serious riddle, for them. There’s a myth of this one king going into the woods to seek out the demi-god Silenus and ask his advice on the matter. The king asks, Why do we exist? Silenus responds, You shouldn’t! And the best thing you can do is die early! Such is “Silenic Wisdom“.
OK. That’s the dark side of all this. I don’t mean to imply it’s the only side. But it’s there, like it or not. If the ancient Greeks had a hard time justifying their existence, and that was before when human society was more of a weather-beaten stick than a plastic straw, a part of rather than apart from nature (then again they were already drinking the milk of other creatures just for the fuck of it, which seems an act against nature as any), then it is all-the-harder for us, whose very existence demands the annihilation of Gaia’s finest, to be as we are. At the least, we can’t act innocent.
Right there I have to stop myself. Am I taking this language of transgression too far? So what if I moved a stick? The stick doesn’t care, the sand doesn’t care. If a dog came over and kicked the stick would we hold the dog responsible? No. Then why me? Why the hyper-responsibility? Why the guilt? Even if the plastic straw isn’t really real, it’s made of elements found in this galaxy. It’s not like it’s another substance from another universe. And so what if we humans have set up a global factory that is harvesting the Earth of everything it has? We still are, at root, made of stuff that catapulted from the sun billions of years ago.
We are nature. Humanity’s domination of nature is actually nature’s domination of nature. We shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves. As far as we know, we’re the most intelligent thing the universe has created. Maybe this is the best it can do. Sure, it’s not perfect: we’re destructive and selfish and out of control, but maybe nature is imperfect, destructive, selfish and out of control, too. And without being those things, we wouldn’t have anything to transcend.
OK, I’ve absolved myself of the billions of plastic straws floating throughout the world- that’s out of my control. But I want to return to that feeling I had when I moved the stick. I did feel like I did something wrong. Not because my action would kill some poor animal but because I disturbed the stick’s being. Some might say I’m committing a pathetic fallacy but I think every part of the world (perhaps even man-made straws) is available to being experienced as sacred. Just the other day I observed a puddle of water that was on its way to becoming a sheet of ice- you could see the geometric shapes crystallizing across the expanse of liquid- but then I stepped on it with my boot. That disturbs me more, these days, than not recycling.