We Are Not a Virus

In the dream, I am walking with a companion through the woods. Up ahead, a golden, glowing orb is blowing through the trees like paper caught in the wind. I understand the orb to be what I most desire in life right now: complete physical, mental, and emotional healing. My companion, an older male, gestures to the orb and says, “If you want it, you must ask the trees, the birds, and the wind for help.”

At this point in our walk, we approach a diminutive ash tree that looks like it’s infested with the emerald ash borer. Despite its sickly appearance, I approach it and do as my companion told me. “Ash tree,” I say. “Please help me heal.”

The moment those words are out of my mouth, a rapid sequence of events ensue. The ash widens and shoots upwards to the sky to the point where it is one of the tallest trees in the forest. Its trunk and foliage is framed by a blazing fire, but not the fire of destruction; in front of me is the fire of creation and vitality. Next, the golden orb is caught in the updraft of the fire until it is held aloft above the ash tree, motionless. Two small birds appear out of thin air, and I understand them to be the spirit of the wind. They catch the golden orb in their talons and start circling towards the ground, right to where I was standing. 

I had that dream in early May of this year, when the Northeastern US was descending the first, destructive surge of COVID-19 in this country. So sickness was on many peoples’ minds. Discussions were also cropping up online and in the news media about how the relative helplessness of human immune systems in the face of the novel coronavirus mirrors the violence being visited upon nature in the form of habitat destruction, overexploitation, and pollution. You’ve probably heard the meme by now: humans are a virus on the planet, and COVID is an antibody. Proponents of such an idea point to the  images of clearer skies and frolicking wildlife in locked down regions as proof: “See? Earth is so much healthier without humans.”

I disagree. The proposition that humans are uniquely suited for annihilation is born of the same anthropocentrism that, in a different spirit, would suggest we are god-anointed masters of the planet. Not only is human erasure from nature philosophically questionable, though. It’s also historically myopic. In many parts of the world, natural ecosystems have coevolved with human land use. Large swaths of North America, for example, were periodically burned by indigenous Americans prior to European settlement. For America’s first people, these fires improved hunting, foraging and horticultural conditions. For the other-than-human environment, periodic burns created mosaics of varied natural community types that incubated a diverse range of specialist plant and animal species. In southeastern Massachusetts, the entire coastal pine barrens ecoregion evolved to be fire dependent; according to early Pilgrim settlers, the indigenous Wampanoag people set fire to alternating portions of the landscape twice per year. In the absence of this human intervention, generalist, overgrown oak forests are replacing the pine barrens at the expense of rare species like the barrens buckmoth and the grasshopper sparrow

My dream seemed to suggest that this hands-off approach to the landscape won’t work. Humans and non-human nature need each other to thrive, and intentional burning is just one way that we have achieved the end of mutual health. Large-scale burning no longer takes place in southeastern Massachusetts. There are, however, a number of ecological restoration projects in the area, and I visited several to see for myself how a cultural presence in the landscape is beneficial.

My first visit was to the Coonamessett River. The Connamessett is fed by coldwater springs and runs less than three miles through the heart of Falmouth on Cape Cod. The river used to be a rich spawning ground for eels, herring, and brook trout. Since the 18th century, dam construction to power mills has blocked many of these native fish from their spawning sites. Impoundments for cranberry farming have also created obstacles for migrating fish, while the obstruction of the river’s flow by both mills and impoundments raised water temperatures beyond what many native fish could tolerate. Since 2015, the Town of Falmouth has been working with conservation organizations to restore the Coonamessett River to its original state. So far, a cranberry bog has been converted to a naturalized wetland, wet meadows have been planted along the Coonamessett’s banks, several of the dams that used to impede the river’s flow have been removed, and improved fish ladders have been installed on dams that cannot be dismantled.

When I walked a portion of the Coonamessett Greenway Heritage Trail in July, I had never seen the Coonamessett River before, so I did not know what it looked like when it was clogged with cranberry bogs and mills. But the Coonamessett I did see resembled an actual river, and that is important. There was the swift-flowing main channel meandering through wet meadows where spotted knapweed was in bloom. I walked above the fish ladders where water descended from so-named Pond 14. I didn’t doubt that, if I were at the same ladder in a different season, I’d see migrating fish. 

Upgraded fish ladder

I’ve pondered before about how the proliferation of ecological restoration projects may indicate an emerging cultural desire to see the landscapes we inhabit be restored to wilder, more organic states – in Falmouth alone there is also the Quashnet River Restoration and the Child’s River Restoration. Whatever their latent cultural origins, these restoration endeavors point to the often-overlooked fact that restoration of natural habitats usually involves human intervention to some degree. Many people think that when we passively let things “go back to nature,” all will be well. Passive ecological restoration sometimes does work. Too often, though, when we abandon disturbed landscapes, they become colonized by invasive plants and noxious weeds at the expense of regionally particular species. Or they may only support generalist wildlife (deer, rabbits) instead of endemic specialists. When human-altered environments include earth modifications like dams or dikes, letting things “go back to nature” can be an excuse for not cleaning up after ourselves.  

Just west of Mass Audubon’s Tidmarsh Wildlife Sanctuary (which itself is a restoration project), the Massachusetts Department of Ecological Restoration has partnered with the Town of Plymouth to restore the wetlands of Foothill Preserve, which have been degraded by cranberry farming. Foothills Preserve also encompasses springs that form the headwaters of West Beaver Dam Brook. When I drove by the Preserve after my visit to the Coonamessett River, I was met by the sight of construction vehicles and earth-moving machines that were temporarily idled in their task of removing dikes and dams formerly used for cranberry farming. If it takes a dozen-odd backhoes and bulldozers to undo the modifications of agriculture, then it’s questionable whether the headwaters of the West Beaver Dam Brook would ever be able to recover on their own. 

Foothills Preserve

Thus, I am forced to circle back to the message of my dream – by “presencing” ourselves in the landscape, we benefit our own health while nonhuman nature is revitalized too. But we don’t need to focus solely on the mechanics of ecosystem regeneration in order to understand the necessity of human presence in the landscape. You can come to similar conclusions on your own, in your individual wanderings outdoors.

Not long after my trip to Falmouth, I returned to a juniper woodland in Ellisville Habor State Park in Plymouth, which I explored in October of last year and where I first felt at home in Massachusetts. In reality, the area is a savanna of pitch pines, scrub oaks, and red cedars marooned between the salt marshes of Ellisville Harbor and the strand of Cape Cod Bay. My time in Plymouth was coming to a close, and I wanted to wander in the location that first made me feel like I belonged in the Bay State. This time around, the vegetation was more dense; there was more poison ivy and greenbrier between the cedar and pitch pine trees. But I still felt at ease. After a sweaty hike through upland oak forests and a tramp through overheated sand, my heart rate and breathing slowed down when I was back amidst the sandy patch of evergreen trees. And when I sat down beneath a red cedar to catch my breath, I didn’t just relax: I felt welcomed. I sensed that I mattered to this place. By making myself present to a part of the landscape that I loved, I was reciprocating nature’s abundant nourishment, and in that manor I was facilitating a small degree of ecological healing.

This mode of healing only makes sense if one understands that “the environment” is not an inert substrate, absent of its own desires and intentions. When we do jettison the Cartesian concept of nature as unfeeling and nonliving, the truism reveals itself that every organism has its place in the landscape, including humans. At its root, I believe that most of the environmental degradation we see in our world today is the result of us removing ourselves from the landscape and thinking we can transcend material nature. But when we “return to Earth,” we come home and make the ecological picture whole again.

I don’t think we can truly heal the planet unless each one of us does the internal work of interrogating our relationships with place. Similarly, I don’t think that a frenzy of ecological restoration projects on their own will have a lasting effect unless the architects and the citizen beneficiaries of these projects thoroughly transform their mechanistic Industrial Age mindset to one of holism and ecology. And somewhere in there, we have to let ourselves feel welcomed by other-than-human nature: the trees, the birds, and the wind. Only then can we give love back and restore the places we call home just as I restored the ash tree to health in my dream.

Ellisville Harbor State Park

One Landscape, Multiple Stories: Traditional Ecological Knowledge in Southeastern Massachusetts

Driving west on Herring Pond Road in the Cedarville section of Plymouth, Massachusetts, it may seem improbable that the landscape of two-story homes and boat ramps out the window constitutes anything other than suburban America. But this stretch of South Plymouth roadway also sits atop the ancient homeland of the Herring Pond Wampanoag Tribe, which is one of the core tribes of the Wampanoag Nation. In July, Melissa Ferretti, the tribal chairwoman, gave me a tour of this patch of New England Indian Country.

Melissa showed me the tribe’s historic meeting house, built circa 1850, which is partially rented out to a Baptist church. We then went to Elmer Raymond Park, which sits at the heart of the tribe’s historic lands and beyond which is the Dina Path, a burial ground which was only recently returned to the tribe by the Town of Plymouth. 

Meetinghouse on Herring Pond Road
Dina Path beyond Elmer Raymond baseball field.

Finally, we paid a visit to the the tribe’s other burial ground, right next to Herring Pond. In addition to being a cemetery and a place of mourning, however, Melissa explained to me that her community has used the site for social functions and for gathering wild herbs, and that she even looked forward to coming to the burial ground while growing up.

Contrary to centuries of Euro-American romanticization, people of Native ancestry aren’t inherently “closer to nature” by virtue of their blood quantum. However, there is no single story of how human cultures relate to the landscapes they inhabit. The globalized Western perspective of viewing the natural environment through a reductionist Cartesian lens – that is, as an inert substrate that is discrete from humanity – is only one narrative among many. Most indigenous communities in the world today have retained the pre-industrial conception of the human realm as being enmeshed within a planetary ecological whole. It is no surprise, then, that 80% of the world’s biodiversity is found in indigenous territory, or that American Indian tribes are at the vanguard of adopting climate change resiliency and adaptation plans

Globalized society needs narratives in which human culture is bound to a larger and deeper ecological continuum; where cemeteries can also be places of celebration and sustenance, or where sacred lands can lie just beyond a baseball diamond. The maelstrom of environmental crises that define the 21st century is the product of the mechanistic mindset of human separation from nature. Inculcating a sense of identity that is rooted in the organic palimpsest of living things that composes each landscape serves as an antidote to the story of separation. 

In addition to the Herring Pond Tribe, southeastern Massachusetts’s Wampanoag presence is comprised of the Assonet Band of the Wampanoag Nation, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah). All of these communities have persisted despite their traditional lands being ground zero for the colonial American nation-state, and with them they have kept alive their particular stories of how they as people are consanguineous with the other-than-human world.

This regional ferment of indigenous continuity (and renewal) is why I reached out to the Herring Pond Wampanoag Tribe and tried to infuse my former employer’s ecosystem conservation work with the insights of Native people. In addition, I was in dialogue with the  Indigenous Resources Collaborative (IRC) – a group of Wampanoag and non-Native educators. Hopefully, a sustained synergy will emerge where my former employer, the IRC, and the Herring Pond Tribe will assist each other in environmental and educational endeavors. 

It is not my place to force these collaborations into being, though. As a non-Native outsider, I can’t put indigenous groups on a pedestal and demand guidance from them (“Be our saviors!”). Instead, the Wampanoag relationships I pursued unfolded organically as I learned more about my organizational partners, and vice versa. Goals such as shifting the dominant narrative and recognizing indigenous input may be admirable. The more I’ve learned about the persistence of the indigenous worldview amidst the “One Story” of Industrial Age separation, the more I fantasize about the sorts of fruits that partnerships between Western and traditional players can yield. But it’s ultimately up to America’s first people whether they want to engage the rest of us.

In a Heath Hen, Everything

Extinction has been on my mind. Recently at work, I helped construct a list of every known plant and animal species that has been lost from the landscape of Massachusetts in modern times. Some of the species on the list, like the gray wolf (Canis lupus) and Appalachian tiger beetle (Cicindela ancocisconensis)  have only been extirpated, meaning they can still be found elsewhere in the world. Other species, like the passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) and labrador duck (Camptorhynchus labradorius) are fully extinct. All told, 46 known species have been lost from Massachusetts in historical times, most of them in the past two centuries.

But quantitive data, such as the number of species that have gone extinct in a given area, is inadequate. Raw numbers obscure the singular gravity of what it really means to lose an entire lineage of organisms. The world is in the midst of the sixth mass extinction in planetary history, with thousands of species disappearing every year. Exact estimates vary widely (one of the larger figures comes from the UN Convention of Biological Diversity, which pegs the annual number of species going extinct as exceeding 50,000). Holding in our minds the singular gravity of a lost bird or flowering plant, rather than a quantitative list, is perhaps the only way we can comprehend the rolling tragedy of shrinking biodiversity.   

In order to understand the ”singular gravity” of a lost species, I trekked to Frances A. Crane Wildlife Management Area in the town of Falmouth on Cape Cod. Frances A. Crane WMA encompasses one of the largest sandplain grasslands that is managed for conservation in New England. Sandplain grasslands are prairie-like assemblages of grasses and bushes that are dependent on periodic brush fires for perpetuation. They used to cover hundreds of thousands of acres of the Northeastern United State’s coastal areas. Now, due to urban development and fire suppression, sandplain grasslands cover less than 10% of their former area. In their heyday, these natural communities supported a population of the greater prairie chicken (Tympanchus cupido), which is now only found in pockets of the Great Plains. Sandplain grasslands were also home to the heath hen (Tympanchus cupido cupido), a related ground nesting bird whose males, like those of the prairie chicken, emitted distinctive boom sounds as part of their mating ritual.

Heath hen illustration

The heath hen was endemic to coastal grasslands from Maine south to the Carolinas. The bird was said to be so plentiful and easy to hunt that early American colonists complained of eating heath hen too often; its meat may even have been served at the first Thanksgiving. 

You can probably guess where this story is heading. Intense hunting pressure (by both humans and feral cats) and destruction of coastal grasslands led to the extirpation of the heath hen from the US mainland by 1870. A population persisted on Martha’s Vineyard (in what is now Manuel F. Correllus State Forest) but was decimated by a wildfire in 1916 that was made worse by fire suppression and the accumulation of dead wood. The island’s last heath hen, a male, was heard booming for a mate in the spring of 1932 and died soon after.

So loss was on my mind when I set out for Falmouth. Even the drive through the Upper Cape was punctuated by a sense of loss; I couldn’t help thinking of how, over the decades, the homogenous stretches of dry oak forests on the roadside have replaced a more ecologically dynamic mix of pine barrens, meadows, heathlands, and cedar swamps. Once I arrived in Falmouth, I could see that Frances A. Crane’s several hundred preserved acres were in fact picturesque and worth conserving; the milkweeds, wild carrot, and dozens of other wildflowers I couldn’t identify were in bloom, and there were probably rare insects buzzing through the grasses. But the boom of a once-abundant galliform was absent.

Frances A. Crane Wildlife Management Area

In his essay, In a Rhino, Everything, Charles Eisenstein writes that the sadness we may feel for an extinct or disappearing species contains in it all of the grief we have suppressed in response to the other injustices of the world: poverty, police brutality, the destruction of nature’s beauty, the list goes on. The sadness I felt due to the absence of the heath hen was in fact grief, and my grief was wide ranging. I was sorrowful that the wide open skies and natural beauty of the grassland surrounding me could now only be found in a few fragmented conservation areas; about the possibility of exponential global warming, which imperils even these conservation efforts; about the thousands of daily deaths due to COVID-19 and the social isolation society is practicing to prevent further fatalities. 

This grief had a purpose, though. Earlier in the summer, I attended a webinar conducted by Native Penobscot educator, writer, and attorney Sherri Mitchell named “Processing Our Grief.” Mitchell reminded us that when we allow ourselves to grieve, we are feeling the pain of all of Mother Earth; when we feel this planetary pain, we can effectively pray to and ask for help from the spirits. So I suppose that my grief first for the heath hen, and then for the rest of the world, was a ceremony of seeking guidance for how to live with integrity in the unravelling years of the early 21st century.

I cannot say that my vigil immediately led to any epiphanies or profound solace. Only now, as I think about guidance and the lessons I can learn from the heath hen’s extinction, I am remembering the words of another Penobscot elder, John Bear Mitchell, which he imparted to Elizabeth Rush in her book Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore

The losses [from climate change and natural resource overexploitation] have been slow and multigenerational. We have narrowed our spiritual palettes and our physical palettes to take what we have. But the stories, the old stories that still contain a lot of these elements, hold on to the traditional. For example, our ceremonies and language still include the caribou, even though they don’t live here anymore. Similarly, we know the petroglyphs still exist, but now they’re underwater. The change is in how we acknowledge them.”

If physically absent animals and cultural artifacts can live on in our stories, as John Bear Mitchell suggests, then how can the heath hen live on in the collective imagination? The effort of conservationists to protect the heath hen, beginning in the late 18th century and going through the 1910s, was one of the first times in the US that a conservation project was directed at preserving an endangered bird. The effort’s failure therefore animated future conservation measures and helped prevent wildlife officials from repeating mistakes. So we could say that the spirit of the heath hen is still extant in the joy of animals that continue to thrive precisely because we learned from the hen’s extinction.

I think that when we acknowledge loss not only as an occasion for grief, but as an opportunity for integration, learning, and growth, we start getting at what it means to heal in these times. If the only stories we tell are ones of linear decline and apocalypse, we create a self-fulfilling prophecy where all the future holds is further darkness. Therefore, I’d like to think that each story that acknowledges loss, but followed by renewed resolve to protect and celebrate life, creates a ripple of light that disempowers the narrative of doom that we are all too familiar with. In this manner of mindful grieving and celebration, we may be relieving – transmuting – the sorrow of the past and all the injustices of the world.

If It Makes Me Happy

For the past few weeks, I’ve been hearing the Sheryl Crow song “If It Makes You Happy” in my head, especially the chorus:

If it makes you happy

It can’t be that bad.

If it makes you happy

Then why the hell are you so sad?

Those lyrics capture how I’ve been feeling about the COVID situation lately. It’s as if my guides are saying “you wanted this, didn’t you?” And it’s true; I’ve been longing for some paradigm rattling global event for years. When it became clear in March that the novel coronavirus would sweep the globe, the impish part of me was undeniably excited: the seismic shaking of the jar had arrived.

But the collective grief and loss of the past 4 months have finally come knocking at my door, and I have to make room for the Dark Mother. All of my daily tasks are accompanied by deadweight, and now that I’m dealing with this profound heaviness that so many other people are carrying, I guess I’m a bit more sober. I don’t get to be an aloof spectator to the Great Unravelling, or even an ascendant beacon of hope and energy amidst the darkness (that can come later).

The racial disparities in COVID-19 outcomes in the United States are an echo of the genocides of native people that were integral to the founding of the American nation state. I and my co-citizens have also had to contend with shambolic politics, massive (yet inevitable) failures in unadulterated capitalism, and the institutional persistence of racial caste systems. All told, we’re being forced to deal with inherited karma and the historical baggage of our culture. Even though I’ve been anticipating for months that we as a global collective would be forced to deal with our shadows in this time, I too am struggling, to the point where it feels like I’m moving through molasses. But I guess that’s the point; we can’t quantum leap forward until we’ve been dragged through the mud. As Charlotte Du Cann repeatedly tells her readers, we must descend if we are to transform. We must learn to embrace the Dark Mother.

Toward the Edges: Reflections on Nature in the Time of COVID-19

I’ve been living in Plymouth, Massachusetts, for the past 9 months, where I work as an AmeriCorps service member. Almost every weekday between this past September and March, I drove by the general vicinity of Mass Audubon’s Tidmarsh Wildlife Sanctuary on my way to the office. I had an impression of what Tidmarsh is about: a 400+ acre former cranberry farm that now constitutes the largest freshwater ecological restoration project in the Northeastern US. But that was it. I had never actually set foot on the place. So it loomed at the edge of my awareness, an important environmental undertaking that I should probably see for myself at some point.

On a balmy Wednesday in early March, Rob, one of my AmeriCorps colleagues, gave me a tour of the sanctuary, and I was not disappointed. The Entrance Trail, which departs from the visitor parking lot, first follows level terrain through mixed coniferous-deciduous woodland that is typical of southern New England. But even here there are surprises in the details. At one point, Rob pointed out a hummock of brush covered land that is composed of soil that was excavated in the digging of an artificial channel last century, a testament to Tidmarsh’s recent cranberrying past.

Next, we emerged from the forest onto “the meadow,” and I felt like I had been transported to the prairies of the western High Plains. The meadow, which can be traversed by either the Ridge Crest Trail or the Meadow Trail, encompasses what used to be a dumping site for sand. The barren expanse has now been colonized by grasses and, along the edges, young pine trees. If the pines continue to propagate over the years and wildfires are allowed to burn, then the meadow could eventually be home to a proper pitch pine-scrub oak savanna, a habitat type that used to cover hundreds of square miles of southeastern Massachusetts.

The meadow, from the Ridge Trail

Onwards we walked, along the Forest Trail and Red Maple Path, over the recently undammed Beaver Dam Brook, and out to the expanse of open wetland that composes the heart of of the restoration project. Along the way, we passed plantings of white cedars that may eventually restore the regionally rare Atlantic white cedar swamp community.

Beaver Dam Brook
Atlantic white cedar saplings

After Rob showed me around, I returned alone to the Ridge Trail, where a south facing overlook offered a vantage of Beaver Dam Brook flowing through a valley. I sat at the overlook, and the expansive view (who knew there were such vistas in Plymouth?) left the impression that I was regarding a whole contained world. And it was just beyond the edges of an expressway and a state road this whole time! I couldn’t wait to return in a few weeks when everything would be in bloom.

View from the overlook

I haven’t had a chance to return to Tidmarsh. Less than a week after my “tour of the edges,” I retreated to my parents’ house in Connecticut, where I rode out the first wave of COVID-19 until the second week of June. Things change fast. Almost all of us have retreated and battened down the hatches, and here we still are: staring at our computer screens, trying to make sense of a pandemic the likes of which the industrial world hasn’t seen in a century. Mass Audubon’s sanctuaries were closed for a time. But nature never closed. Many of us have seen the videos of dolphins playing in formerly bustling commercial ports, or of coyotes sniffing deserted campgrounds. Maybe you have noticed unusual birds coming to your feeder; a birdwatching aunt of mine in Florida has made such an observation. It seems that the agency and intentionality of other-than-human nature is suddenly demanding our acknowledgement.

The agency of nature is what the world’s indigenous and traditional cultures call the spirits. I am reminded of the message imparted to Bayo Akomolafe by a traditional Yoruba priest: You have chased away the spirits with your roads and development projects. They hide in the thick forests, and it is there we must go in order to understand what is happening.” Later, Akmololafe is told by a different priest that if those of us who live amidst the trappings of modern society want to find our way back to the spirits, “we must first come away from the road and become lost.” Tidmarsh Wildlife Sanctuary, sandwiched between two thoroughfares, is a good place to get lost in. The fact that Tidmarsh is a vast ecological restoration site adds more layers to the art of losing one’s bearings. There, the natural processes of a freshwater ecosystem are being allowed to exert their own intentionality (spirit) after decades of human imposition. True, ecological restoration involves human intervention, but only at first. To walk through Tidmarsh Wildlife Sanctuary, one is offered a glimpse of what it can be like when we decide we no longer want to be the stars of the show. Now, though, as the world locks down, the wildlife sanctuaries are coming to us, and we’re witnessing a possible future where the vanity of economic development for its own sake is not the only show in town.

You are not a defective person if you are taking refuge in displays of emerging nature amidst so much human suffering. You do not have your head in the sand. To quote Jack Gilbert, “We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world. To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.” Moreover, I’d wager that there’s an imperative to pay attention to nature’s exuberant spirits at this moment in time. They can teach us truths we’ve forgotten.

Here’s one such truth: things change rapidly for the better as well. Through most of March and April, as interminable rain and sub-normal temperatures stalled over the Northeastern US, the return of foliage here in southern New England moved at a snail’s pace. It seemed like the trees were holding their breaths as their branches grew heavier with red, yellow, and pale green buds. Meanwhile, the number of worldwide COVID-19 cases and fatalities ascended a mind-numbing exponential curve we’re all now familiar with. Beginning in early May, though, as the sun re-emerged and the mercury started to crest 70 degrees, a different sort of exponential curve came into focus: the buds were bursting open and the leaves were finally unfurling themselves.

I began composing this essay in my head, while lying on a hammock beneath mature maple and oak trees during that initial warm spell. With each breeze, bud casings showered down, and it became abundantly clear to me that “coming away from the road” and apprehending the spirits need not involve setting off into deep wilderness with a machete. We don’t even need suburban nature preserves for this work. We can become lost in our own backyards, in the margin of woods at the edge of the road. And it turns out, once we leave the road, we won’t find any monsters. Apocalypse isn’t lying in wait for us. There will be blue sky, fresh foliage, and ourselves. We will discover we’re about as discrete from the landscape as dolphins and coyotes.

We may also find that we’re encased too, waiting for a catalyst so that we can unfurl in our own phase shifts of renewal. As the systemic global crises of the 21st century bear down, the spirits, the guardians, the ancestors – they are all waiting for us to ask for their help. They will have our backs. Our story does not have to end in chaos.

Hardwood trees at dawn, Connecticut.

The Fecundity of the Edges

When I began this writing project, I had the vague idea in mind that I wanted to explore the margins. In ecological science, ecotones – the transitional zones between biological communities – are known for nourishing novel, adaptive biotic regimes, and I wanted to see if marginal human communities were similarly resilient. After all, from the sixteenth century up until the 1800s, escaped slaves in the Americas established self-sufficient societies in swamplands that were considered to be “economically negligible” by the commerce-minded powers that be. And right now, the slums of the Global South’s urban centers are humming with an informal economy of trading, recycling, and repurposing global neoliberalism’s material waste. I wondered if similar processes of subversion and inventiveness were taking place out of sight in my own home territory in the Northeastern United States. Such ponderings led me to incorporate a study of northern New York’s indigenous Mohawk community and Shelter Island’s historical slave community into my honors thesis/essay collection while also lending this website its name “Towards the Edges.” I completed my thesis in the spring, and soon I will have in my hands a print and bound copy of my writing. But before I can begin unpacking my findings here, I need to expand upon my consideration of the margins and from where they derive their fertility.

IMG_0524

Transitional zone between woodland and saltwater marsh in midcoast Maine.

In These Wilds Beyond Our Fences: Letters to My Daughter on Humanity’s Search For Home, the author, Bayo Akmololafe, is told by a traditional Yoruba priest that “You have chased away the spirits with your roads and development projects. They hide in the thick forests, and it is there we must go in order to understand what is happening” (130). Another priest expands upon this injunction when he tells Akomolafe that if those of us who live amidst the trappings of modern consumerism want to find our way back to the spirits, “we must first come away from the road and become lost” (xxxiv). As a whole, the message is both literal and metaphorical. If we want to apprehend the wisdom of nonhuman nature, then we must venture to those redoubts where nature is still allowed to flourish according to a logic that defies anthropocentrism. I had the same idea in mind when I dedicated one of my thesis essays to my suburban hometown and what insights I could glean when I focused on those pockets of land in Darien, Connecticut, that have not been given over to McMansions and manicured lawns – the  woodlots, marshes, and parcels where weeds are still allowed to bloom in wild profusion. Yet we can become lost without physically going anywhere at all. The priests are intoning Akomolafe (and, by extension, the rest of us who live amidst roads and development projects) to abandon our certitude about what constitutes correct and proper human conduct. On a metaphorical level, then, to go towards the edges also means to consider alternative modes of being human on this planet.

To Akomolafe, nothing embodies the spirit of the edges better than dust. He writes, “As the world…grates upon us, we shed our cutaneous cells and hair and pieces of ourselves, contributing these into a commonwealth of dust that includes their beings and their shedding. Edges bleed in traces of becoming, melding dying and living, beginning and ending, into an always pregnant middle (19). Furthermore, “dust unsettles foundations and eats borders, and yet gives birth to the world” (21). According to Akmolafe, the components of the material world and human society cannot be reduced to stable essences. The physical processes of reality simply do no allow for absolute stasis. With that understanding in mind, the edges take center stage as the place of creation. Left to its own devices, dust eventually accumulates into   humus, and the entire province of terrestrial life depends upon topsoil for nourishment. Were it not for the constant disintegration that takes place on the edges of things, that topsoil and the abundance of nature it supports would be nonexistent.

So, can the fertilizing properties of the material edges be applied to human society? Can the persistence of swampland communities of runaway slaves in antebellum America be attributed to their consolidation of the most useful teachings of European, African, and indigenous American society? I am inclined to say yes. I would even venture that many marginal human communities point the way towards a more sustainable way of conducting our affairs in an age of converging global crises.

Consumerist culture and neoliberal capitalism aspire to the shining metropolis – the utopian city on a hill, free of effort or want, that will surely come about if stocks keep rising, or if we give free rein to the wizards of Silicon Valley, or if we finally elect the right politicians. Ambitions and promises of these sorts have their origins in the early days of Sumer and Shang Dynasty China, when palace elites established the world’s first state granaries and standing armies, thus ushering in the age of empire. But here we are, five thousand years later, and we are less than sixty growing seasons away from completely degrading our topsoil; the exponential growth paradigm is pushing industrial society into collapse mode; and our drive for microbial purity both in ourselves and in our livestock is breeding frightening new strains of antibiotic-resistant infections. Like the Israelites told of in Genesis who tried to construct a tower to heaven, our aspirations towards dominion over the planet are unreachable. This time around, however, our strivings for transcendence are threatening our very survival as a species.

But edge-dwelling communities, which by their very nature embrace the promiscuity of the margins, rebuke the myopia of transcendence. Bayo Akomolafe comes to this realization when he befriends Kutti, a rickshaw driver in Chennai, and spends a night in the slum home of Kutti and his family. One of the first things he notices about Kutti’s cramped home is that, “Space is performed differently here…Everything bleeds into everything else, and in this scandalous perversion of boundaries, politeness is often fatuous” (42). Nevertheless, Akomolafe takes note of the the neighborhood’s intricate abundance of human cooperation, a collective attention to hygiene and hospitality, and concludes that, compared to Chennai proper, the slum feels like a sanctuary: “This Indian slum, hidden behind a phallic Samsung glass building, cordoned off by asphalt, shushed by the traffic of cyborg saints seeking glittery heavens to go marching into, and forgotten in the headlines that tout India as a fast-developing nation with abilities to launch satellites into space, tells a revisionist story…where humans and nonhumans, in chaotic and oftentimes risky configurations, are learning to press closer and closer to each other and live with each other” (49). By embracing the base materiality of existence and that materiality’s ever-disintegrating borders, Kutti and his neighbors have crafted a convivial antidote to the isolation and anonymity that are endemic to most modern cities. In so doing, they have also proved that monetary wealth, consumption, sterile environs, and blind individualism are not the only paths towards self-realization.

Knowing that our current preoccupations with consumption, neurotic cleanliness, and individualism are choking the planet and destroying our own communities, should we then revert to slum dwelling, open sewage ditches and all? No. Adopting all aspects of Kutti’s and his neighbors’ lifestyle is not the point. What we should focus on instead is finding ways to let the edges back into our daily affairs by living in close proximity to the inescapable materiality of the world. Rather than aspiring towards 5,000 square-foot palaces with spacious lawns that are clearly delineated from the clutter of “nature” (consumerist modernity’s translation of Eden), it’s time for us citizens of the Global North to downsize to a way of life that recognizes the wonder of the full spectrum of human to nonhuman nature.

I’m reminded now of Birdsfoot Farm, an intentional community in St. Lawrence County, New York, that I visited about five years ago. Birdsfoot Farm, with its miniature cottages backed up against gardens that bled into the surrounding woodlands, was where I first encountered the beauty of alternative modes of human organization. I’m also thinking of the Ramapough Lenape Indias of northern New Jersey, who have kept their cosmology alive by erecting traditional handmade artwork and performing tobacco ceremonies in the midst of a suburban housing tract. I’ve also seen how the subversive sense of place developed by enslaved Africans and indentured Indians on Sylvester Manor has now been honored by the Manor’s recent transformation from private property into a not-for-profit cultural museum and CSA farm. All of these endeavors are carrying into the present a spiritual mythos that our modern world of striving has forgotten. Salvation and wisdom lie not in some pure realm “up there,” but in the dense materiality of the nature that surrounds us as denizens of Earth. The wisdom and teachings of earthly existence are the spirits of the thick forests that Bayo Akomolafe is told of, and as many current edge-dwelling communities demonstrate, those spirits and their powers of generativity  can still be accessed even in this era of spiritual deprivation.

 

Stephen Mather of Darien

In July I paid a visit to Darien’s historic Mather Homestead on Brookside Road. Built in 1778, the history of the Mather Homestead resembles that of Sylvester Manor; it was privately held in the same family over the span of several centuries before being incorporated as a historical nonprofit and opened to the public in recent years (2017, to be precise).

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Front of the original 1778 structure.

The stories of many New England towns are animated by a narrative arc that stretches to the origins of the American republic, and Deacon Joseph Mather, the original proprietor of the homestead, features prominently in Darien’s own foundational mythos. Joseph’s father, the Reverend Moses Mather, is related to Increase Mather (of Salem Witch Trial infamy) by way of Increase’s brother, Timothy. The Yale-educated Moses arrived in Darien, then known as Middlesex Parish, in 1740 at the age of twenty-five in order to take up his post as the town’s first Congregational minister. Moses was staunchly anti-Anglican, and during the Revolutionary War he cultivated a reputation as one the most fiery Patriots in the Stamford-Middlesex area. On two occasions, he and his sons were captured by Loyalists from Long Island and imprisoned in New York City. In a separate raid that took place in March of 1781, Tories stormed Joseph Mather’s home while only his  wife, Sarah, was present, and confiscated valuables that were hidden by friends in the family’s well.

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The well where Patriot friends of the Mathers hid valuables like silver and clothing, hoping that the homestead’s relative distance from Long Island Sound would keep the items safe from raids.

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This Depression-era WPA mural in Darien Town Hall depicts the July 1781 Tory raid on the Middlesex church and meetinghouse during an afternoon service presided over by Moses Mather.

Joseph Mather’s property on Brookside Road was occupied by his unmarried daughters until the death of Rana Mather in 1880 at the age of 96. Thereafter, the homestead functioned primarily as a summer residence for the family of Joseph Wakeman Mather (grandson of the elder Joseph), a San Francisco businessman who eventually relocated to Brooklyn. Joseph’s son, Stephen Tyng, became the first director of the National Park Service in 1917. Despite Stephen’s early years and college studies in California, plus a career path that took him to Chicago and Washington, D.C., he considered the house on Brookside Road to be his permanent home. In fact, Stephen was the sole inheritor of the Mather Homestead in 1906, and continued to use it as a summer retreat until his death in 1930.

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Stephen Tyng Mather

I wonder about what impact the setting of southwestern Connecticut had on Stephen Mather. In The Last Undiscovered Place, David K. Leff reflects that Connecticut’s lack of open horizons or sweeping mountain vistas allows for a more nuanced appreciation of the beauty and underlying processes that animate the other-than-human realm, and Stephen seems to have cultivated this appreciation. Mather was instrumental in persuading Congress to expand the park system beyond the dramatic scenery of the West, and by the end of his tenure at the the Department of the Interior, Mount Desert Island, the Shenandoah Valley, and the Great Smoky Mountains were encompassed by national parks.

Stephen Mather would not be the first influential figure in American conservation/environmental thought to carry into adulthood the imprint of a youth rooted in the Constitution State. Frederick Law Olmsted, the famed designer of New York’s Central Park, grew up in Hartford County, and he attributed his vision as a landscape architect to the complementary patterning of the built human world and natural scenery that characterized his birth state. Henry Chandler Cowles, a botanist who pioneered the study of ecological succession, grew up exploring the countryside around the town of Berlin, where he first appreciated the reality that the landscaped is an ever-changing mosaic.

I’ve written repeatedly in previous essays about unearthing sights of natural wonder and  gems of discovery hidden in the overlooked corners of Darien. Using his position of power in Washington, Stephen Mather seems to have instilled that expanded definition of natural wonder in the broader American consciousness via the National Park Service, while Olmsted achieved similar ends by offering a green respite in the middle of Manhattan. Our foundational mythos does not have to rest solely on the pomp and patriotism of exploration across oceans or a war for independence. When we tell ourselves stories of origin and identity, I think all cultures operating in the industrial, hyper-connected world would do well to acknowledge the quiet, humble workings of the land we inhabit.

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Waterfall in Ledge Park, Darien

8:39 to Grand Central

Several days ago I took the train to Manhattan for one of my Avastin infusions at NYU-Langone, and thus joined the roughly 300,000 commuters who rely on Metro North Railroad on a daily basis.

Let me begin by saying that I like riding Metro North. Whether it be Amtrak or commuter rail, I enjoy the rhythm, the feel – the atmosphere – of trains, and believe railroad travel offers the most logical means of transporting large numbers of people between population centers. Yes, passenger railroads in this country has become more than antiquated, especially in the Northeast, and trains are occasionally delayed or cancelled altogether. But nearly two decades of never-ending military campaigns in the Middle East plus a distinctly American aversion to reasonable tax policy and infrastructure spending means that our roads aren’t in much better shape. And whereas one can read a book, pull out a laptop, or take a nap before the local service arrives, there’s not much you can do when stuck in rush hour traffic except wait for the cars ahead of you to ease up on the break pedal. If you happen to ride Metro North into Manhattan, there’s also the added bonus of rounding out your morning commute at the unequivocally grand Grand Central Station.

On this most recent trip into the city, however, I found myself thinking about the unquestioned modes of living that undergird our modern commutes in all their forms, and how radically novel the idea of the commute is. The rhythms of our days are shaped according to necessity, and for the vast majority of human history the biological imperatives of energy conservation have bound our days within an overland radius that rarely exceeded ten miles. Yet this physical limitation of a day’s or week’s tasks cultivated an exceptional depth of knowledge of one’s immediate surroundings. The Tri-State area’s Lenape and Quinnipiac inhabitants knew just which springs yielded the sweetest water, which valley’s soils were best suited for maize and tobacco planting, and which coves were populated by reliable shellfish beds. They had to possess this knowledge in order to make a living with what was available.

Life today in the New York greater metropolitan area are governed by an entirely different suite of imperatives. Will traffic be heavier on the Merritt Parkway or I-95? Tomorrow will be rainy; should we take the kids to the aquarium instead of the zoo? Many people, my parents included, end up in Darien because they’ve pondered the long term. Which suburb has the best schools? Will my home be worth more after I’ve paid off the mortgage? These are the sorts of questions that the Industrial Revolution and the combustion engine have made possible. The automobile, expressway, railroad, and airport means we can work and live wherever we choose, regardless of the logic of the landscape, and count on civil engineers to smooth out any wrinkles. Destructive storm surges? Higher sea walls should do the trick. Chronic drought? Start digging those aqueducts.

Being a relatively old city that predates interstate highways and mass landscape modification, New York and its periphery aren’t saddled with quite as many design follies as America’s newer megalopolises. It isn’t sinking like Miami and Houston, or desiccated like Phoenix and LA. Instead, New York owes it’s status as a global financial capital to it’s natural deep water harbor, a fact of the terrain that immediately caught the attention of the commercially-minded Henry Hudson, who sailed through the Verrazano Narrows under the flag of the Dutch Republic in 1609. But, of course, Europe’s Age of Exploration was a commercial endeavor. The Dutch and English, followed by the American Republic, transformed New York Harbor into a nerve center of Atlantic shipping, and the rest is history. So the reality remains that New York sits at the helm of corporate globalization, and the increasingly financialized nature of the world economy means that the five boroughs and their outlying suburbs have become even more untethered from biophysical reality since the Great Recession.

When I’m waiting at Noroton Heights Station, the closer of Darien’s two Metro North stations to my home, it’s not uncommon for me to cross paths with a smartly dressed former high school classmate of mine. We’ll catch up on what we’re up to, and my classmate will invariably tell me he or she has an internship/job at a financial firm, or a marketing firm, or consulting firm. I never remember the specifics names, and I sometimes perform a mental eye-roll at the cliche (“You grew up in Darien and work in finance? How unique”). But I know my snark isn’t justified. My classmates are only making a living with what is available, and in 2018 in Fairfield County there is no shortage of jobs related to servicing the corporate world’s finances.

So it is that on this most recent commute in and out of the city, I found myself looking out the window and wondering how many of Westchester and Fairfield County’s 1.9 million residents really know this place when we see most of it while in transit, when the necessities of our days orbit around Manhattan instead of the nearest springs and shellfish beds. Sure, I fancy myself a pedestrian naturalist, and I can point out the sugar maples and shagbark hickories leaning over the railroad tracks. But can I tell you off the top of my head how all of those trees are pollinated? Er, no. What about the sexual habits of the eels who used to surge up Connecticut’s tidal rivers every spring? Ditto. I don’t have much on my fellow commuters in terms of deep ecological knowledge.

Readers of Thoreau, that Yankee contrarian who insisted that “the swiftest traveller is he that goes afoot,” and that “We do not ride on the railroad, it rides upon us,” will be more than familiar with my musings. Almost every American environmental thinker since the Transcendentalists has decried an estrangement from the landscape wrought by our fixation on profit in the industrial age. But what of it? Should I refuse my Avastin treatments and instead wade through the salt marshes of Long Island Sound while schwann cells multiply unchecked throughout my body? Should my high school friends ditch their suits and take up ornithology? Or maybe we in the West should cut to the chase and flagellate ourselves for the original sin of the steam engine? Human life, like ecology, is complex, and the responsibilities that give shape to personal habits and decisions span our families, our communities, our culture, and even history itself. Such a web of connections cannot be dismantled in a day.

So the question remains: if we are committed to reversing our dislocation from the land, what to do when faced with the rigid scaffolding of the status quo? In “Homebound, Once More,” I recount the richness that has been added to my life by exploring the cracks and interrogating the commonplace of Darien, and here I’d like to suggest that such a practice of probing the contours of one’s own locale is a first step towards bridging the divide between our lives and the physical places where we live. Anyone can do this. You don’t need to claim Native American ancestry or live sixty miles from the nearest post office to forge a deep connection with stone and water. Learn to identify the shrubs growing in the abandoned lot down the road. Spread out a blanket at the nearest park and observe the birds, insects, and people coming to life on a sunny day. Or marvel at the way the roots of a mature oak will chew up and mangle a neglected stretch of sidewalk. If Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island teaches us about righting the injustices of history, and the Mohawk people of St. Lawrence Valley offer a model for commitment to a single landscape through centuries of dispossession, then a study of Darien suggests that a re-enchantment with the wider world is possible in the most unassuming of places. Thoreau famously found spiritual correspondence in the thawing sand of a railroad embankment, and we can do the same if we look hard enough.

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Tilly Pond Park with the Darien train station in the background.

 

 

 

 

 

The Crisis of Now: What is it?

The human mind needs clear concepts to make sense of the world. When a chronic problem has not been properly named, we are unable to think clearly about it and figure out how to solve it.

-Joe Brewer, “Solving a Problem that Has Not Been Named”

I feel that I need to clarify what exactly I mean when I bring up The Crisis of Now in these essays; this clarification is for myself as much as it is for anyone who has been following my posts. The name “Crisis of Now” is an imprecise label, a phrase I concocted on my own so that I could easily refer to the interlocking emergencies of global warming, late stage capitalism, ecological collapse, hydrocarbon depletion, and the erosion of democratic norms and values (especially in the West). Yet even that slightly more nuanced explanation only feels at the hem of the converging trends whose consequences will remake life as we know it in the more affluent parts of the post-1945 world.

Fans of William Butler Yeats will recognize that I am essentially trying to sketch the outlines of that rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem after twenty centuries of sleep. The language of the Crisis of Now, however, need not be biblical, esoteric, or apocalyptic. Joe Brewer, a Seattle-based complexity researcher, has grappled with this same question of how to properly identify the bottleneck we as a global civilization are approaching. His preferred term, The Great Transition Beyond Empires, is more adequate than the Crisis of Now on a number of fronts. First, a name like “The Great Transition Beyond Empires” recognizes that we are indeed living through the disintegration of a truly global empire – the enterprise of corporate globalization – and that its zenith and demise rounds out a six millenia-long era of ever more ambitious empire building.

In Beyond the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, James C. Scott enumerates the evidence arrayed against the “social contract” theory of early state-building. The earliest states of the Near East and China were not the products of reasoned, ingenious communal cooperation; they were brought into being only by the typically violent coercion of centralized palace elites, who employed mass slavery, agricultural levies, harsh penal codes, and militarized physical barriers in order to maintain their spheres of influence (i.e., the reach of taxation). Now in 2018, in the wake of the Great Recession and the one-two punch of Brexit and the ascension of Donald Trump, the coercive underpinnings of corporate globalization and their shortcomings are in plain view. Fifteen years ago the most ardent opponents of the WTO-IMF-World Bank triumvirate were small farmers and public sector employees in developing countries hit hardest by structural adjustment schemes. But when voters in the nerve centers of the neoliberal consensus can be convinced to reject the status quo, you know the days of our paradigm are numbered.

So is corporate globalization the empire to end all empires? After all of the planet’s climatological positive feedback loops have scrambled Earth’s biosphere, after we’ve chewed through the low- to mid- hanging fruit of the hydrocarbon tree, it’s hard to imagine any financial or political entity (or an alliance of entities) wielding power the way corporatocracy does now. But whatever follows corporate globalization depends on what decisions we make in the decades to come, how we choose to fill the vacuum where consumption, wealth hoarding, and unbridled monetization once held sway. That brings me to the second reason why I like the name, “The Great Transition Beyond Empire.” The shocks and tremors that are currently destabilizing our ideas of how we see ourselves in the world are also opportunities. Disorientation can allow us to rethink our priorities, how we organize ourselves in the landscape and relate to our co-denizens, both human and non-human. In the interim, there will be profound pain and suffering as political turmoil and dueling elements of the social body rush to fill the vacuum. Just ask the people of Syria and Venezuela, or the thousands of families separated these past months at the US border; they are already in the crucible. The dangers being unleashed by global warming, ecosystem collapse, and the sputtering of capitalism are real, but recognizing the potential of disruption and chaos gets to the heart of what crisis can mean. “Emergency” comes from the Latin emergens; to rise up or outward. We as a people – the human tribe, if you like – have the potential to emerge from the rubble of our dying way of life.

Okay, enough of the abstract theorizing, it’s time to talk specifics. Where will this transformation take place? Who will power it? Change will come from people like you and me, anyone weary of centralized bureaucracies and decision making, who  circumvent rigid federal and supranational power structure and try to effect change on the small, local level. I recently cut out a New York Times op-ed piece by David Brooks titled “The Localist Revolution,” which posits that the real change makers going forward will be locally oriented: neighborhood associations, state and municipal officials, farmers’ cooperatives. All 7.6 billion of us alive today face the same global emergencies, but only individuals with an intimate sensitivity to their immediate surroundings will be able to respond to how those crises manifest on the ground. After all, do you really think Congressional committees will know how to best allocate the water supplies of Oregon’s Klamath River, or that Brussels technocrats possess the regionally particular knowledge that is vital to stalling the die-back of ancient olive groves in Calabria?

The New York Times is hardly a den of fringe intellectualism, and David Brooks is only picking up on what legions of thinkers and activists have been saying for decades. In her essay collection, The Algebra of Infinite Justice, Arundhati Roy shares her hope that the 21st century will be the century of the dismantling of the big, and that the god of small things will finally be shown the deference she deserves. Already, small farms in Puerto Rico are demonstrating a newfound robustness in the wake of Hurricane Maria, and town civic associations throughout Spain are working to provide support and integration services to an influx of asylum seekers arriving from North Africa. In the digital realm, groups like Tamera and Bayo Akomolafe’s Emergence Network are working to connect and build a dialogue between local change makers across the globe. Taken together, I like to think that all of these initiatives and trends hint at a germinating reverence for the beauty and diversity of the particular .

The photograph featured at the beginning of this post was taken in the final days of the Standing Rock protests in North Dakota (credit: Stephen Yang), when the Water Protectors vacated the main camp, Oceti Sakowin, in anticipation of Governor Doug Burgum’s eviction order.  A lot is captured in that photo. The colorless sky, stagnant water, burning structure, and backhoe waiting to clear the detritus of a once-jubilant resistance movement makes for a dystopian tableau. But those who closely followed the Lakota Sioux’s standoff with Energy Transfer Partners, LP, especially after the Dakota Access Pipeline was lain under the Missouri River, have taken heart in the invocation that we the living are the Eight Generation, and that our decisions, not just the single action of a government agency or corporation, will shape the world of the seven generations that follow. As our global crises converge, will we muster the fortitude needed to assemble our own resistance camps and triage centers, to halt and reverse the depredations of corporate globalization? The answer lies in whether each of us is willing to engage with and assume a deeply embedded citizenship of the places we call home.