8:39 to Grand Central

Several days ago I took the train to Manhattan for one of my medical treatments, 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 have 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 brake 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 Terminal.

Noroton Heights 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 or twenty 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 indigenous Lenape people 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, and railroad mean 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 its 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.

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 cliché: 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 (My classmates are also working at least. I’m still a student.)

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 bed. 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. But what of it? Should I refuse my medical treatments? Should my high school friends ditch their suits and take up ornithology? Or maybe we in the industrial world 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 acknowledging and rectifying 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 world.

Fans of Irish poetry 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 enacted by centralized palace elites. They employed mass slavery, agricultural levies, harsh penal codes, and militarized physical barriers in order to maintain their spheres of influence (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 (however artificial such campaign promises may be), 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 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, 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 make 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 Eighth 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.

Home, Again

What does it mean to be back in Darien at the age of 23, to have the architecture of my days once more be molded by the place where I grew up? To begin to answer that question I recently reread an essay I wrote at the close of my first semester of college. The essay, which I titled “Commonplace,” verbalizes my then-newly crystallized belief that the places we are most familiar with on a day-to-day basis have the potential to yield the most profound insights and discoveries about the world at large. In “Commonplace,” I recall a bike ride to a local beach one cloudy September Saturday during my senior year of high school:

Long Island Sound was a drab, grey monochrome. The unbroken clouds overhead sapped the trees of any bright hues. A wind blew off the water, just crisp enough to forebode a change in seasons. In short, it was the type of day my suburban neighbors would use as an excuse to stay inside and do chores around the house. But, standing there alone on the sand, looking across to the opposite shore of New York, the thought came to me, “How could I ever turn my back on this?”

Because it is scenes like this, times when the world shows its capacity for the unabashedly mundane, that catch me the most. My earliest vivid memory rooted in the coastal Connecticut landscape where I grew up is of swimming in a neighbor’s pool with my brothers and some family friends one summer evening and insisting that everyone look at a sunset-streaked cloud that happened to be passing directly overhead. I was interested not in the sunset itself, but that one small stratus cloud, brushed with pink and purple. As I got older, no matter what interests took hold of my attention and state of mind, I always found time to stop and contemplate the perfectly commonplace interplay of the naked natural world and the built, suburban environment I called home. And in those mundane scenes and moments, sometimes as unremarkable as a dull orange twilight horizon set against a foreground of dusky houses and maple trees, I have found sources of wonder comparable to looking across the Grand Canyon or out at a panorama of the Rocky Mountains.

Where I grew up is in many ways a mundane place, easily written off as a mere bedroom community where an absence of definable local culture is paralleled by a lack of distinction in the natural or ecological sense. My town’s woods, where they exist parceled between roadways and residential development, do not erupt with orchids and wildflowers in the spring, nor are its horizons animated with the melodrama of snowcapped sierras. Yet it is precisely this mundane landscape that has left an imprint on my psyche. It was amid the suburban spread I called home for the first eighteen years of my life that I learned to appreciate not just the occasional scenes of ostentatious natural beauty, but also the world in its simple, unremarkable manifestations, be they a mellow twilight or a cloudy, colorless day at the shore.

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Weed Beach, November

I typed those paragraphs five years ago. I had no idea then in the fall of 2013 the scintillating path I would take in the next stage of my life: two brain surgeries, hearing loss, a season of peripatetic farm work, two experimental rounds of chemotherapy, and a bout of major depression. And I am still working towards my college diploma. Darien and my parents’ house on Thomasina Lane has remained a constant this whole time, and that constitutes a generous mercy. Any measure of stability is helpful in a time of transition and turbulence.

Yet I am grateful for my anchorage on the north shore of Long Island Sound not just because of the consistency it has provided. In “Commonplace” I conclude:

On that grey September day at the beach, I did eventually turn my back and let my future take me wherever it may. Because these moments of mystery and silence are not exclusive to a pebbly stretch of New England coastline. Rather, they exist everywhere and every day as the inherent beauty of this world.

The knowledge that profound insight – mystery and silence – are present everywhere has sustained me on a spiritual level through my setbacks and disappointments these past five years, and by regularly returning to Darien I have kept that knowledge fresh.

I don’t mind that I never got a chance to study abroad or spend a summer backpacking through the latest haute ecotourist destination; I don’t need mementos from far-flung places to make my life richer. Through the first 18 years of my life, followed by all of my recent convalescences and languid vacation days away from school, the shingled rooftops and hardwood woodlands of Darien have been the stuff of my world, just as cattle paddocks and baobab trees are the stuff of a Herero’s world, or freeway underpasses and chaparral hillsides are the stuff of a southern Californian’s world. Wherever you happen to make your life, there are layers of discovery waiting in the cracks between the most unassuming features of our natural and human landscapes.

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Casement Street, sunset

Several years ago while walking in Darien’s Woodland Park I picked my way through underbrush and encountered an army of shrimp-like arthropods marching across a scummy pond margin. Last summer I kayaked to a cove in neighboring Stamford and explored 1-acre-square Vincent Island, where the mason shell of a house that burned down before I was born is being swallowed by poison ivy and other sun-loving herbaceous plants. I don’t have as much time to explore the woods or go kayaking this summer, but only a few days ago, on a visit to Darien Town Hall, I saw a justice of the peace presiding over an outdoor civil wedding ceremony between a young couple dressed in shorts and t-shirts. These are the sorts of discoveries that lie in wait if one chooses to interrogate the commonplace and see what happenings unfold behind the static of the day-to-day.

While I could sigh with regret or resignation that I am now well into my third decade of life and still bound to the address where I grew up, I don’t really feel regretful or resigned. I will leave Darien for good at some point then end up in a new locale whose commonplace is just as fertile as any other. But in the meantime I can explore the endless crevasses and cul-de-sacs of my immediate environs.