In my last article I told the story of how Laurie and I had simultaneously “discovered” the right building site for our new home. From the time we acquired our land and for nearly six years we had blithely gone along assuming that our first superficial impressions of the land had lasting validity, or at least that the weight of constant repetition gave them some king of cogency. And to some extent that was true. The decision to change the house site, though it was made quickly and without a backward glance, was not an easy one. I emphasize the fact that Laurie and I shared the epiphany regarding the siting of the house because I feel strongly that it marked the moment when we established a real connection with the land.
Post-modernist philosophies make much of the rootlessness of contemporary society and clearly this stems at least in part from a lack of connection to the land. I think people lose the ability to respond to the natural environment when our only surround is made-environment. Quintessentially the urban environment is presented completely as the instrumentality of others. Sidewalks and roads (built by someone else) facilitate travel from one place to another. Buildings, while they represent habitation, also often represent a means of livelihood for landlords and the burden of rent without equity for the tenants. Even the trees that line the urban streets are intentional objects, designed to soften the harshness and mitigate the artificiality of the environment. In contrast, outside of the city accidents abound. The world is both unintentional and unpredictable. If we wander into the forest, underbrush and fallen trees may block our path. The texture of the terrain exhibits boundless variation. The land undulates and tilts underfoot. It is soft and then hard in a capricious fashion. In the best of circumstances it invites our creative participation as we find a way to fit into and participate in a space ruled by accident and caprice. The urban environment does not invite this kind of participation and modification. Graffiti, on the positive side, and destructive vandalism, on the negative, may both be a kind of perverted reaction to the species memory of the interaction with (or, better said, the interweaving of) the individual and the natural or found environment which was our primal state and which, though changes in both individual and environment, enhanced survival value or life possibilities. Their existential status aside, both graffiti and vandalism are powerful sociological metaphors for the disconnect that now exists between the character of the surround as built environment and survival, or put another way, between the individual and the soil.
The Adirondack mountains, where Laurie and I are making our home, are an ancient mountain range. Their roots which now rise above the surrounding landscape are like the worn down stubs of teeth in the jaw of some ancient ruminant. Geologists tell us these are among the oldest mountains in the world; that in their youth they were the rival of today’s Himalayas in height and majesty. They are still majestic in a venerable way and their solidity and sense of permanence give us great opportunity to develop that lost sense of place. It is still possible to see directly evidence of the awesome age of these hills. As we walk around the homestead we can find areas of exposed ledge polished smooth by glacial action over 10,000 years ago. We first uncovered this evidence of what is called “glacial scouring” when we were gathering stones for the foundation of the house. Most of the stone we were using at the time was so-called “field stone” gathered from streambeds, old stone walls and from the earth we excavated for the foundation. (That “field stone” is itself a product of the glaciers which deposited their loads of gathered debris as they receded.) In contrast to the fieldstone whose character is as varied as the contents of Fibber McGee’s closet, the surrounding bedrock is exclusively a kind of pink foliated granite called gneiss. The foliation gives it well-defined fracture planes making it easy to split and shape (easy for stone that is!). We wanted to incorporate some of this native bedrock into our home and we chose a spot at the western end of the homestead where, beneath the duff, the steep slope of land seemed heavily littered with talus (broken shards of the underlying bedrock). We found we could easily “mine” the slope for the flat, sharply angular pieces of gneiss we were seeking. Now as I’ve mentioned in other articles, each stone has to be washed before it can be used in the foundation of the house and it was in this washing process that we discovered our first glacially polished granite. The stone emerged from its bath smooth as glass, the smoothness visually enhanced by the wetting. We were amazed and mystified. As we looked closer, resorting finally to a magnifying glass we discovered tiny near-invisible lines, perfectly parallel, scratched into the surface. These we found out later indicated the direction of travel of the glacier as it rode over the stone. It was astounding to us. Here was “worked” stone; stone worked to a high degree of polish, but not by any human hand or fancy high-tech machine but by a natural, indeed cataclysmic, process. An accident, devoid of intentionality and even more beautiful for that.
Not far from our talus quarry there is a ledge where quartz crystals the size of a man’s thumb jut from the surface of the stone. “Dragon’s teeth!” I cried the first time I saw them. They were probably formed more than a billion years ago in the igneous depths of the Adirondacks’ youth. These kinds of unimaginably ancient clues to the permanence of the land dwarf our sense of our own impermanence. Our awareness of them is as fleeting as is the stone impervious to the forces that would change it. Even cataclysmic events such as the glaciers barely “scratch the surface.”
It is instructive to realize that the land exists in a timeframe quite different from the human. As such, the land neither welcomes us nor does it spurn us. It is indifferent to us and exists independently of us. When we enter into a relationship with the land, when we connect with it spiritually that connection arises in us as an intuition of qualities in the land the temporal existence of which encompasses time several orders of magnitude greater than one individual’s sojourn on the earth. Although we may not be continuously conscious of it, we are not indifferent to our relationship with the land. If we are it is at our peril both as individuals and as a species. Our relationship is one of strict dependency and it is asymmetrical. We need the earth. It doesn’t need us. Even the biosphere, the thin film of living matter that surrounds the mineral bulk of the planet exists in a time frame different from the human. Our anthropocentric sense of time often misleads us in our perceptions of the nature of things. Thus the moth that emerges from its cocoon to fly a single night and mate and die (emerging perhaps even without the mouth parts that would make it possible for it to eat and thus sustain itself a longer time). This we might find pitiable. Its life is pathetically short. On the other extreme the western bristle cone pine, clinging to its arid rocky outcrop for a thousand years or more, we find awesome. (Such a long life and in the face of such adversity!) Each of these is held to a standard that centers on our human perception of time. Each of them undergoes a subtle anthropomorphism to become an object of pity or awe. Yet each of them has its own rhythm, its own inviolable cycle of growth and decay and the real fascination arises in understanding that it is in this that we are all alike, in the multitudinous expression of our relationships to each other and to the earth.
Humans drift further from understanding this as our society is overtaken by a technocentric sense of time. This happens when the clock goes from being a handy tool for artificially dividing the course of the day to the standard against which the day is measured. In this new technocentric time-space whole societies can be made to change their habits instantly by a decree (e.g. daylight savings time) which arbitrarily changes what the clock says at a given moment. We are led to say things like “It gets dark early in the winter” because we measure the changing seasons against the arbitrary standard of hours that are immutably “early “ or “late”. Many of us pride ourselves in conforming our lives to clock time. “I get up at 5:30 everyday!” seems regular until we realize that by the standard of solar time that amounts to getting up at a different time everyday. Technocentric time leads us to accept as important time-frames that have no real relationship to human lives. Races are “won” by hundredths of a second. Processes are measured in nanoseconds. Digital watches provide empty precision at a glance. As seductive as anthropocentric time can be, it at least centers us in our own humanness. Technocentric time robs us even of that centering. It makes us subject to the arbitrary standard of the machine (the latest wonder of new technology, touted in a recent Discover magazine: the palm sized atomic clock accurate to within, you guessed it, one nanosecond per year!) If we do not meet the time-standard we fail. Every deviation becomes a failure in the individual rather than a shortcoming of the standard of measure.
I was never really a willing slave to the clock. I participated grudgingly in the ceremonial 9 to 5 and was fortunate for most of my time to be employed in a sector that defined punctuality somewhat more loosely than society at large. (Not that I was chronically tardy. I showed up on time dependably out of respect for my fellow workers). As such when I got to the homestead I was ready to find more meaningful connections to the unfolding of the world around me. Norma Goodrich wrote in her afterword to Jean Giono’s story, The Man Who Planted Trees, “People have suffered so long inside walls that they have forgotten to be free…. Human beings were not created to live forever in subways and tenements, for their feet long to stride thought tall grass, or slide through running water.” In just this way my contacts with the land, my perambulations around the homestead were (and are) also spiritual journeys. They are both journeys of discovery and connection and through no consciously directed process there arises in me a sense of my own inclusion, my own “place” in the evolution of the land.
In future articles I hope to explore further the ways that humans have historically understood their connection to the soil and the way we can continue to relate positively and sustainably to the land.
Jim and his partner, Laurie Freeman, pursue the elusive goal of living consciously and sustainably with the land on their homestead in Meco NY.