Impermanence, OR how to act when the future isn’t coming

Half-built slate retaining wall with cedar raised bed above and craftsman house in the background

Reading [listening to] Terry Tempest Williams’s essay collection Erosion: Essays of Undoing while building my retaining wall [and maybe doubling down on irony]. It is a transcript of a conversation between herself and Tim deChristopher before his 2011 sentencing after being found guilty of violations of the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act. Williams titles this conversation What Love Looks Like. Look it up for context.

DeChristopher is talking about the grief of normal life after really coming to understand the IPCC’s 2008 report on climate change. He basically says that because he understands that we needed to peak at carbon emissions by 2015 [a time in the past] and then trend downward that for him, a man born in 1981 [15 months before I was born], what this really means is that there is no “normal” life for ourselves and those after us based on a cultural reference of retirement and accumulated wealth and dog and 2.5 kids and white picket fence around a lawn in the suburbs. So that means he is free from those expectations, that he can take another sort of risk in activism because he would lose all that anyway. No expectations…

I am listening to this as an audiobook because I am a very busy person who must do my reading on the go. I look out at my garden and homestead and retaining wall that I have been unable to finish building because rocks are heavy and it has been so hot [because heat dome and climate crisis and endless wildfires]. It is a wall 5 months into the making, the last thing I want to be doing but the most urgent thing to be done. I want to have this retaining wall done before my father’s visit in three weeks. Because I want to be able to show him the thing I have built here in the desert that is on fire. He builds things, so I think he understands.

DeChristopher talks about the grieving for the normal life that he thought he was getting and how it was hard to get through that, to understand that what he was expecting is gone or if not gone now then basically gone in the near future. At the time when I should be cashing out those retirement accounts [when I am 67] and deciding to either sell the homestead, or whatever thing stands in for the homestead, to my kids [who may want it] or to someone else, the ability to engage in subsistence agriculture on this land might already be gone.

Everything that I will have built could be invalidated in my own lifetime.

Eight cedar raised beds overflowing with vegetables. Some rocks in the foreground.
First year garden under water restrictions with some rocks that are not yet in the wall

I feel this overlay of the not-too-distant future where this town is maybe uninhabitable, or not reliably habitable because there isn’t enough water, because there are too many people still trying to water their lawns, because it has all burned down. And I wonder what I am building this retaining wall for. 

I think it is for the idea of how it will look in the alternate universe where we can live here like some unfolding progression of the 1950s adjusted for the 2020s. A universe where there is enough water, where I don’t have to get up at 5am to weed and plant and move rocks to avoid the heat, where we are not under water restrictions in early July, where I don’t have to contemplate getting air conditioning because the air outside is too unsafe to breathe but I don’t want to cook inside my house. Where somehow governments and corporations solve this problem for us and it’s only a little warmer which saves us on our heating bills but miraculously has no other consequences. Not 200 drowned people in Germany, or hundreds of cooked people in British Columbia, or people whose homes are going under the sea in Indonesia.

The future that I am preparing for right now is already not going to happen. Lots of people know this, but they don’t feel it. You can tell by the way we change nothing about our lives and how we act like surely it can’t be as bad as all this. I’m going to step away from my computer and go back out to my retaining wall and keep stacking those stones up. It’s going to look so pretty. I can post it on Instagram and other people can say how beautiful it is, perhaps gazing with envy at something about me that learns how to build retaining walls that impress them on the internet, not quite daring to wonder if they too have that thing inside them [they do]. But I know that this wall is deeply impermanent. That it will get washed out or buried in ash or soil or topple down because I really don’t know enough about how to build a good retaining wall. This is impermanent. My work and my life are impermanent. I can see the horizon where it is all over rolled out in front of me. Where not only all my own vanity about things I thought had meaning has ended, but an entire nation’s, an entire way of life.

This is not that different than how being alive was before we were able to understand that our actions have large-scale consequences. The indigenous people who deforested Easter Island and then died out were as guilty of not understanding the full ramifications of their system of wealth based on lumber, as we are of not understanding what a system built on the value of money [and nothing else] will do to us. 

There is understanding and then there is understanding. 

In some ways, the prescience of knowing that we are killing ourselves doesn’t make it easier to stop, because it is such a large ship to turn around, because not knowing [or pretending that we do not know] means that we can live out our lives in a certain ignorance that we know is blissful for it’s lack of concern with what will come after. We don’t have to grieve the future that is not coming. The future we are still preparing for.

I had children. My friends are still doing this. They will be born into this world and they will die in their biome’s version of Mad Max and from a certain perspective it is their children who are as fortunate as our parents: they will have no other perspective. It is those of us on the cusp of prosperity and disintegration who have the hardest time. Those of us living in the juxtaposition of a visible disconnect between what we expect and what we will get. There is no issue with one’s lot in live should one get one what one thinks is right and proper. My great-grandkids are going to think that doing things like spraying water out into the sky in the middle of the day to joyfully run through it [the sprinkler] are fairy tales, in the same way that my great-grandmother who lived through the Bolshevik revolution thought we never really landed on the moon couldn’t believe in or understand the internet. The problem I think, is maybe only for those like me standing here at the crossroads.

I’m sad [such a tiny word] that my grandkids and great-grand kids are not going to have any sense of what the world is now, but somehow it doesn’t really go backwards. I am not sad that my grandparents and great grandparents didn’t grow up in a world without the internet or vaccines or reliable indoor plumbing. They tell us that progress is a passage of stages that improve in time, but progress isn’t really a thing, there is only evolution. And evolution is only change with no value judgments [certainly not only the judgments of hairless apes who invented the stock market]. It is a neutral process from the perspective of time even if it represents an undoing of our sense of right and our way of life.

Maybe it doesn’t matter how we all die because we were all going to die anyway? Sure, dying of dysentery in a ditch is not how I want to go, but there was nothing evil or sinister about the lives of millions of people who have died that way or similar. It is just a way to die. I also do not want to die hooked up to ventilators in a morphine induced coma, but I probably will just based on statistics. It is how we die now, slowly, expensively and without dignity. It is mostly how we have always died. It is less about my actual death than what my life is like in the intervening years. Nearly everyone has this time and everyone who does not doesn’t know what they have missed.

I’m going back out to build my wall knowing that it is going to fall down. I was deeply dismayed to learn the story of Sisyphus because I remember clearly thinking to myself what a horrible eternity it would be to engage in a fundamentally non-productive task only to see all your work slip back to where it started. That is the way I think we all feel about it, thinking that it somehow does not apply to us. But it does. We think of this as some sort of sin, progress not being productive. But this is really because we have been lying to ourselves about what progress is, what meaning is, what life is.

In the smoke filled air, as the mercury nears 80 [it is not yet lunchtime on a day that will reach 100] I lug heavy slate from the spot where we have been collecting it, under the Engleman Fir trees, 45 feet to where the retaining wall slowly takes shape. Some of the boulders weigh at least 90 pounds, but I have been admonished not to lift those because though I know my legs can lift 310 pounds, my pelvic floor cannot allow more than 70. Bodies are fragile. 

I trudge and bend with my knees and set stones. I keep listening. This is why I love the palimpsest of experience while walking through daily life listening to audiobooks [it is not really because I am a very busy person]. I enjoy the overlay of a book that fits with a series of activities. Because every book can fit with daily activities. You get a small peak into the hidden worlds all around you while you do the shopping, while you water the garden, while you sit in traffic. A window into another dimension of the mind.

I had wanted to walk away from my musings about the impermanence of my life and feel non-attachment, to know that because I am going to die and nothing I do has meaning that I can build my wall or not build my wall, or water my garden and not water my garden. And the only real difference is how I feel about each state. But that is not the case. It matters what I do, it matters how I talk to myself about what I do, because my actions and choices are not really just about me.

It is not so much that I know what I am doing. I do not really know how to build a stone retaining wall. I do not know how to live my life as a good human. But the only way out is through. Sometimes we are presented with fulcrum events in our lives where we need to adapt or die. Sometimes you are Tim DeChristopher sitting in a BLM land auction. Sometimes you are on the reservation and they want to put a pipeline next to your water [again]. Sometimes you want to live a quiet life of dignity and simplicity but all your possible choices lack integrity and are destructive to all life. I have to keep making the choice that is centered in what I support and what I believe. What I am for instead of what I am against.

It is all going to be gone at some point no matter what we do, as my son often reminds me, “but mom: the heat death of the universe.” He’s right. I’m not about to allow the heat death of the universe to cause myself to collapse into nihilistic despair, just like I am not about to allow the strength of the status quo grind me down into cowardice. This doesn’t mean that I am about to go to jail for bidding on BLM land with no intent to pay for it either. But I am going to keep wrestling and struggling until I find the place where I can stand. Then I will plant my feet and push from there. And when it’s all over I will have done the only thing that I could do.

Large dugout area with some stones stacked between a fence and some garden beds
The conventional wisdom is to build the retaining wall first and then put the beds on top of it, but that was not the timeline we were working on

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