By Ceanothus, Slingshot!, Issue #113
Even within the city, we are made of the land and context. Our bodies are about 60% water by mass, and every drop tells a story. For us in the Bay Area, this water probably evaporated from the Pacific Ocean, near the Gulf of Alaska. It crossed the rocky coast of Northern California, the rolling mountain redwood forests of the Coast Range, and the golden Central Valley. It rose over the chaparral and scrub oak foothills of the Sierra Nevada, and higher over bristling pine forests. Above the tree line, it froze into tiny crystals and softly blanketed high granite peaks and passes. In the spring, it flowed in creeks full of trout across wildflower fields populated by deer and black bears. It entered torrential streams, roaring into whiteness and crushing boulders before settling down into slower, meandering rivers. Our bodies are tiny rivulets in the water’s cycle back to the sea. This story is knitted into us intimately; it is the story of our region and place.
To think of ourselves as separate from this tumult of life around and within us is to amputate ourselves from our own bodies, and our larger body — community, region, and biosphere. This amputation has always been the taproot of institutional power, from the moment a million tiny deities climbed up from the rivers and mountains into heaven to form a human male God, to the moment the common lands of Europe were enclosed and rural populations were herded into the first industrial metropolises, to the reflection of this genesis in their colonies, where indigenous peoples were locked into slave plantations to extract the raw materials those metropolises would process. This uprooting decontextualizes human labor and identity from the fabric of ecology and place and redirects it for the production of surplus value. Likewise, the labor of the land itself is exploited for surplus, as tilled soil struggles to create life and dammed rivers struggle to flow toward the sea, condemned to create profit along the way.
The result has been a more complicated story of our water: After its journey in mountains and meandering rivers, the water inside us was stopped up behind dams that interrupt migrating fish, forming reservoirs that inundate valleys once inhabited by indigenous peoples and grizzly bears and wolves and countless other species. The water within us was then pumped in concrete channels across lands smothered by industrial agriculture and into underground pipes, and filtered and sterilized in massive treatment plants before hissing out of the kitchen sink, without a murmur to inform us of its journey.
Acknowledging this whole story is to acknowledge that our bodies are made not only of ice crystals, alpine meadows, and muddy life, but also of industry, fences, and sterility. We are made of the system that oppresses us, along with the vitality that remains to oppose it. The imagined separation between self and other protects us from acknowledging the presence of this wasteland within us, while keeping us from recognizing the meadows and wildflowers that live there, too.
It is this same dichotomization between self and other that undergirds the insidious invention of the “Environment.” In the Environment, ecology — a web of mutually constitutive relationships between organic and inorganic phenomena, both human and non-human — becomes safely ghettoized. The Environment, by definition, is outside of us, devoid of humanness, an inanimate surrounding object that presupposes the existence of a homogenous human subject that acts on it. This subject is the binary opposite to “Environment” and is called “Humanity.” In Humanity, all human communities are framed as having more in common with an abstract human totality than with the non-humans and land with which they may have lived for countless generations — separate from the plants and animals that grant them food and from the landscapes that structure history, identity, and systems of logic. In this way, the concept of indigeneity is erased from comprehension.
Framed as a static landscape, the Environment can be fragmented without being negated. In this way, certain lands can be defined as legitimately “natural,” while others are deemed violable; parklands are fenced off and made into museums, while just beyond the fence other lands are torn open in search of minerals or plowed under for industrial agriculture. Like Environment, Humanity — framed as a unified subject — can uproot cultures without negating them. Like parklands, a select few human cultures are designated as legitimate, while others are suppressed. Removed from context in living communities and the land, dominant cultures are sterilized and taught in state schools and media, while just outside their borders, a war is constantly raging against organic cultures that are vivified by the land and human communities themselves. These cultures are feared because they are living, because they are ungovernable from outside, because they demand, by their very existence, a certain kind of anarchy and ecology that is incompatible with the state and monoculture. Organic cultures are deemed illegitimate by the architects of manufactured state culture and are violently broken.
As these relationships that constitute human beings, human communities, and ecological systems are fragmented, languages and cosmologies are lost, along with species of life and entire ecosystems. This loss of specificity constitutes a loss of memory and cognition. Human and ecological communities process and store information in tendencies and physical forms. These patterns are the result and expression of a playful process of evolution — dabbling in chaos and experimenting with possibilities for life, then keeping what works within a changing context; learning and remembering. When these relationships of cognition and memory are broken, chaos presides and behavior becomes increasingly erratic, entropic, and unpredictable — mega-hurricanes stumble through the Gulf and up the eastern coast of the United States, while lonely youth quietly sneak assault rifles into movie theaters and elementary schools. This psychosis is the final ‘enclosure of the commons.’ As social, ecological, and climactic systems experience breakdown, psycho-pharmaceuticals, virtual reality, GMOs, and geo-engineering begin truly making themselves the only means of further delaying their own catastrophic repercussions. Yet we need new directions. To find them, we must first re-orient ourselves.
Overcoming disorientation and psychosis means rebuilding unmediated relationships between us as humans, and between our human communities and the land, breaking the binary of Environment and Humanity. It means seeing human and non-human struggles for autonomy as parallel and interlinked and working together to assert our collective ambition for self-determination locally. Eventually, it means disabling capital’s urge for simplification and control and allowing the complexity and autonomy of ecology to flourish once again, both in our human communities and in our broader communities of land and place.
A critical step in this direction is the process of sharing local histories told from a diversity of perspectives. Voices of the descendants of this land’s indigenous peoples must be given special heed in this conversation, but the appropriation of indigenous cultures must be understood as counter-productive. The goal, I think, ought to be the creation of something new, beginning here and now. Learning ecological history is necessary, too, and while the phrase “listening to the land” probably seems quaint or metaphorical to most of us, the land does speak its own history. Hiking through the forests of Santa Cruz or Marin, one might notice the ancient redwood stumps that make the tall trees of today look like toothpicks. They are the remnants of the forest that grew there before European conquest, and trees that had been thousands of years old when they were felled. Stories like this are audible everywhere — if we listen for them.
For Bay Area anarchists, this conversation is especially challenging. It seems to me that we have a tendency to locate our movement’s identity in our status as internationally allied cultural outcasts, rather than working to re-constitute our movements as inclusive and situated. When standing against a system of exploitation that is global in scale, opposition ought to be global. However, I believe that only by creating strong local alternatives to capitalism and capitalist culture will we have the strength and resilience to challenge the monoculture of Empire.
As part of this process, I think that radical organization in the Bay needs to expand from its urban focus and build networks with rural communities regionally. Just outside the city, suburbs devour the land, small farmers are foreclosed on, species vanish, and the radical right rises. Counteracting this means posing new visions and praxis in this region that include avenues of participation for people outside our milieu.
Coming together to articulate our own locally situated histories amongst deeply differing experiences and complex relationships with power will be, and already is, a long and difficult road with no distinct endpoint. This conversation also necessarily includes material shifts in structures of power. This means collectively fighting to reclaim space and relationships — physically, cognitively, culturally, discursively, and economically — then inhabiting and defending them. It means cultivating and preserving collective particularities and keeping the capitalist market out. It means seeing the land’s struggle for autonomy as interlinked with and, ultimately, inseparable from the struggles of human communities for self-determination.
Moments of ecological rebellion are everywhere, even in the city. Weeds vivaciously fill Oakland’s vacant lots while bats and swallows roost under freeway overpasses and defiantly raise their children there. By night, raccoons and coyotes wander deep into the city, battling house cats and burglarizing homes. This rebellion flows through our own human experiences: in the spontaneous commons that ignite when we occupy plazas or squat houses, in the way we support our friends and raise children even in grimy and cramped apartments, or on the streets. It is embodied in the nighttime wanderings of graffiti artists and dumpster divers.
Maintaining the order of generality and monoculture is a constant policing effort against the spontaneous anarchic desire of ecology. Yet every breach of the dominant order of the metropolis, every solidarity and organic specificity of place we assert signifies a possibility for some world that evades this matrix of control. The conversation of these moments together begins to articulate a common particularity to our place and lives from which we might write our own stories and create our own praxis together, against monoculture, and for our collective — but particular — socio-ecological and bioregional liberation.