by Norris Thomlinson; an earlier draft of this essay appeared here
I cried today. Not once, not twice. Maybe I cried eight times. I’m not even sure how to separate one cry from the next, when my heart carries sadness and anger in waves from peak to ebb, ebb to peak.
The exact number doesn’t matter.
I’m not used to crying. As a male, socialized into masculinity, I learned to suppress grief and most other strong emotions at an early age. I remember the last time I cried in front of my mother, at perhaps 12 or 13 years old. I don’t remember why I cried, but I do remember (and this is why I remember) my guilt and shame around breaking down in such a way, mixed into my sadness and into the comfort I received from her. I haven’t cried much since then.
I can give an easy proximate cause for today’s release: two heart-wrenching movies. But I need to explore some background for it to really make sense.
I lived nine years in Portland, where, after an initial period of frustrating and ineffective involvement in national and local politics, my then-partner and I embarked on a path of “disconnecting from civilization.” We aimed to develop the practical skills necessary to eventually move to land, create a “tribe” of close-knit community members, and establish self-sufficient subsistence via homesteading and hunting & gathering. I learned how to integrate some of my “waste” products of humanure, greywater, and kitchen scraps into my food system. I learned enough basic construction to build simple shelters. I planted food forests and a perennial vegetable garden to learn how to feed myself efficiently while creating wildlife habitat and sequestering carbon. I learned about those other cohabitants of our landbase, and even learned to listen to them in my attempts to understand the non-civilized world. I played with “rewilding” crafts skills. I talked with three successive groups of potential tribe-mates, and learned some of the difficulties of communication, of connection, of finding shared purpose, of resolving conflict.
At the same time, I engaged with the larger community, trying to share what I was learning and inspire others to disconnect, in part or whole, from the destructive systems of industrial civilization. I offered free tours and presentations and classes, blogged more or less frequently to document my experiments and findings, and provided edible and useful plants and seeds at low cost. I was something of a “food activist”, specializing in advocacy of perennial polycultures.
And at the same time, I knew it wasn’t enough: neither my own personal withdrawal, nor sharing my skills and encouraging others to move towards true sustainability. I couldn’t escape the reality and the challenge presented most eloquently by Derrick Jensen: the culture of civilization is insane and intent on destroying everything on this planet, and it will not voluntarily stop. Withdrawal and teaching are both legitimate responses to the threats of social, economic, and environmental instability, but are inadequate without forming a serious resistance movement to halt civilization.
Although I knew at some point I would need to take part in some form of resistance, I tucked that goal away. I rationalized that I needed to focus on getting myself and a tribe into a stable position on land of our own before I could put energy into addressing the big picture, long-term struggle.
After years of preparing to jump from city to rural living, I finally moved to Hawaii last August. But not only had our third hope at pulling together a like-minded community dissolved, but I had broken up with my partner of all those years. I did have a new girlfriend, an acquaintance and then friend of several years, but we were new to each other as romantic partners.
We moved here with the idea of buying land in 6-12 months, developing a homestead, and building a community, which I assumed would keep me busy for several years. I had vague visions of sharing my knowledge and skills as in Portland, but not until I’d learned enough about this new tropical environment to have something worth sharing. I imagined us creating low-tech, truly sustainable lifestyles (or rather, recreating – Hawaiians had all this figured out before western invasion 200 years ago.) We would demonstrate to people the satisfaction, enjoyability, and practicality of living car-free, growing your own food in perennial polycultures, and paring down to perhaps one computer, one cell phone, and a solar panel without toxic batteries.
But something funny happened about five months in. I felt increasingly dissatisfied with my priority of pursuing radical simplicity as quickly as possible. We’d achieved food self sufficiency (more or less) within a month of arriving, learned most of the basics we’d need to design a functional homestead, gone car-free, lived on a fairly small solar electricity budget, done 90% of our cooking over fire for a few weeks, done laundry by hand, taken cold showers, lived without refrigeration, and all in all gotten within spitting distance of sustainability. It turns out to take a lot of time and sometimes gets downright boring!
For a couple of years I’ve had the lesson of Scott Middlekauf’s “A Word of Caution for the Permaculture Enthusiast” in the back of my mind: that after years of developing his homestead he realized that his goal in life is not to develop a homestead; rather, he’d been developing his homestead to support him in whatever he really wants to do with his life. Arriving as close as we did to self sufficiency, as quickly and relatively easily as we did, forced me to confront my own weighting of values: “lifestyle purity” vs using “good enough” as a support base to carry out my actual life goals. I now felt confident enough that we can adopt the necessary lifestyle changes down the line when we have to adapt to changing world circumstances. In the meantime, the use of compromising technologies and conveniences in the present would allow me to move ahead with my higher priority goals.
I started reading the latest projections of climate change, which terrified me; everything is spinning out of control faster than almost anyone expected. I got up to date on the actions those in power are taking to deal with the crisis, which all boil down to finding new ways to profit. I reread Deep Green Resistance by Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith, and Aric McBay, and was struck again by their well thought out and feasible plan – the only realistic response I’ve seen to stopping the destruction. They recognize that begging those in power to change their ways has never succeeded, and that far from being transformed by people “being the change they wish to see”, the dominant culture has brutally crushed every sustainable culture it’s encountered – we’re talking about cultures extant for thousands of years and waaay groovier than even the most spiritual hippie permaculture commune you can imagine.
They lay out a strategy of simultaneously dismantling industrial civilization (primarily through underground activists sabotaging and disrupting critical industrial infrastructure), while networking aboveground activists to rebuild local alternative systems to take over as the global systems collapse (which will occur, sooner or later, whether or not an underground accelerates that collapse.) I began checking the Deep Green Resistance News Service page almost daily, reading all the linked stories and absorbing the ongoing expansion of global domination and the courageous pockets of resistance fighting back here and there.
Finally, in April, I joined Deep Green Resistance to actively engage in this struggle as a member of the aboveground, and am feeling simultaneously excited, proud, in love, scared, and uncertain. Excited and proud because I’m directing my energy to something so important. In love because even though I barely know them, I feel so much love for my fellow members in DGR, and for its allies, putting their time and energy and passion and money into this shared struggle for Beautiful Justice and thousands of new, sustainable cultures emerging from thousands of landbases (or just being left alone where they already exist). Scared because of the consequences if we fail. (Time Is Short.) And uncertain because I’m new to resistance and don’t know how best to apply myself.
In part to address that uncertainty, I’ve been educating myself – about radical feminism, about racism, about indigenous struggle, about historical and contemporary resistance. Which brings me back to my crying.
So much of what I’m reading and hearing and watching is heartbreaking. I remember crying many years ago as I read Dee Brown’s classic Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, one of the only such memories until I go all the way back to that childhood moment with my mother. I cried several times in more recent years reading Derrick Jensen’s books. I cried three months ago when I read about the Russian prisoner of war “Sasha” who helped lead a successful mass escape from the German death camp at Sobibor, only to be thrown later into a gulag by Stalin. I cried two months ago watching Escape From Sobibor, the dramatization of that breakout. I cried three weeks ago listening to a Feminist Current podcast of Jackie Lynn’s account of abusive grooming for eventual prostitution. I cried two weeks ago reading Patrizia Romito’s A Deafening Silence and its analytic yet human exposure of the denial around male violence against women. I cried yesterday hearing about the extinctions of Hawaii birds that have occurred within my short lifetime, and the likely forced death march of several more before my own life is through.
And of course, I cried today. I watched two movies: Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, and If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front. I didn’t expect either one to affect me as it did. Perhaps I primed myself to be ripped apart by Kanehsatake by reading Vine Deloria Jr’s Custer Died for Your Sins and watching American Holocaust over the past week. More likely it would have happened anyway. The film, comprised almost entirely of on-the-ground footage in the thick of the action, shows the 1990 resistance of the Mohawk people of the Kanehsatake village to a planned seizure of their traditional land, disturbance of their cemetary, and the destruction of ancient pines to build new luxury housing and expand a golf course.
With amazing clarity and starkness, the film depicts the brute application of force against an already oppressed people; outright disregard for human rights; the repression of journalistic freedom; and soldiers and commanders and mayors “only following orders” and displacing responsibility for their roles in the violent violations. But it also depicts the strong spirit of the Mohawks and their allies, a resistance culture formed from longtime bonds of family and tribe, an integration of women and warriors and chiefs and children and spiritual leaders, unbridled expressions of anger and grief and love, a sense of humor, and an ironclad will to stand up to and fight back against injustice that I’ve never experienced in my white middle class life.
If a Tree Falls felt less intense. It’s a more distanced documentary of interviews and vignettes centered around former Earth Liberation Front member Daniel McGowan as he awaits trial in 2007 for his role in multiple arsons of the property of environmentally destructive corporations (the original ecoterrorists.) I’d heard bits and pieces about his case, and those of the other defendants in the Operation Backfire roundup, but this filled in a lot of important detail, and made it all very human and real. The film drew me in and had me anxiously awaiting, with Daniel, the results of his trial. I’d already idealogically supported him and other ELFers, but I gained specific respect for this man who not only put his life on the front line, desperately trying to stop the ongoing horrors of industrial civilization after the approved political routes had failed, but stuck to his commitment not to turn state evidence against his comrades (even as most of them turned on each other and on him.) I broke down a couple more times watching his vilification and harsh sentencing.
I don’t know what’s happening to me, exactly. I’ve never reacted much to traditional tear-jerker emotion-manipulating films (usually about when I notice that I’m feeling something, I also notice the new musical score deliberately orchestrated to make me feel that something.) But the films I saw today are real. I guess I’ve opened myself up more and more to reality, to looking directly at the ongoing atrocities committed by the dominant culture. It’s not as bad as one might expect; the grief hasn’t led to despair, the anger hasn’t led to some all-consuming directionless and distracting rage. To effectively resist, I need to operate from a realistic assessment of the situation – how others have resisted and succeeded or failed and why, how those in power have struck back against resistance and how they have succeeded or failed and why. I can handle the grief and anger; they’re releasing and healing and authentic.
To misquote Steve Forbert: it feels good to feel again. I plan to continue.
Norris Thomlinson lived a standard oblivious American life until deciding to read and learn more about the “real world.” He quickly discovered enough disturbing information about environmental destruction, politics, the economy, peak oil, and the (anti) nature of civilization to jolt him onto a series of different life paths. Norris has spent the last 9 years immersing himself in permaculture, rewilding, and now resistance. You can read more about his journey and about his permaculture experiments at Farmer Scrub’s blog.
McPherson was interviewed by Diane G 12 July 2013. The result is embedded below.