I don’t know about you, but about this time of year (when it seems as if Spring may never come, when it has been too cold to be outside since forever, when my heart is full of worries of frozen pipes and decimated camellias, when the long-predicted Water Wars have begun — you know, in February) I can use some good news.
Here, this will give you hope:
Watching this, I couldn’t help but think of Gerard Manley Hopkins‘ poem, God’s Grandeur. The poet says, “And for all this, nature is never spent. There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” I think he meant “spent” in the sense of worn-out. He’s contrasting the deep freshness of nature with modern civilization: “And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil; And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.”
But what the wolves have done for the rivers gives me hope and reminds me that those of us who work to save the planet do not work alone. Gaia, Herself, is eager to spring to our aid, if we will only let Her. There is, deep down, a dear freshness that we can scarcely imagine. Wolves can change rivers. Mr. Hopkins predicted as much:
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because [Sophia] over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Of course, not everyone is as wild-eyed an optimist as your faithful correspondent.
To understand rewilding, half of the title of this talk, we begin with wolves. Not the last ones in England, extirpated in 1700 about the same time as the last witches were hung, but in Yellowstone National Park in 1994. Here the reintroduction of wolves created a seeming ecological miracle, a trophic cascade which changed the flow of rivers, brought back a diversity of plants and birds and animals. How did this happen? How did an eco-system in crisis undergo such a dramatic volte-face? When wolves were returned to the environment the deer were forced to change their habits as were coyotes, avoiding the blind traps of the river valleys whose plants, trees and shrubs burgeoned and provided further environments for birds, voles, foxes, beavers. The apex predator was shown to be the vital element in biodiversity. Man is the only exception to this rule.
Seven years ago I would have passionately held that this was a model for Witchcraft. I felt that the collapse of industrial civilisation was our most likely outcome due to peak oil, the bell curve of high purity crude proposed by the geologist M. King Hubbert. This showed that the oil production which fuelled the age of plenty which we have lived through had peaked in 1970. The cost of extraction for tar sands, fracking and deepwater drilling are desperation and unable to balance the demands for infinite economic growth.
For those of you new to this idea I recommend John Michael Greer’s The Blood of the Earth as he is both a Druid and a leading thinker in the peak oil movement. But we do not simply have peak oil, we have peak water, peak wood, peak rare earths, peak everything that is drawn into the maw of the inexorable algorithim of industrial culture and the inevitable wars and revolutions that resource scarcity produces.
I once reasoned that, in a long slow decline of living standards, witchcraft as a low tech, local response could perhaps survive the coming storm and that hand in hand with rewilding habitats as re-enchanted sacred spaces it offered the potential for a post-industrial recovery of bio-diversity. Examples such as Yellowstone, and in particular Chernobyl, showed how seemingly impossible recoveries could occur. Rewilding offered the possibility to heal the land and with it ourselves – that is, those of us who made it through the choke point when the oil based economy failed to feed us all. If I want to be mischievous, I would have extended the metaphor, suggesting that by reintroducing the practitioners, the wolves, we would have kept down the population of neo-pagan apologists, the deer, and in doing so gained a thriving diversity.
Now everything has changed. We have a different ordeal that we need to undergo.
Rewilding is alas the final position of an ecological movement facing catastrophic losses. It is a beautiful thing to see a living system revivified in a cascade of life and more life. It has given those in the often harrowing world of the ecological movement a glimpse of what can occur in a system that is enabled to right itself. Nature is beautiful in her abundance, and indeed what many neo-pagans mean when they say Goddess. Yet the essential failure of rewilding is this: we cannot simply introduce new predators, or species such as bison or beavers, into small isolated environments whilst industrial culture is destroying the entire matrix of life on the planet. These sanctuaries will inevitably be deregulated by government, hand in glove with industry, and overrun. I fully endorse the rewilding movement. For those in environmentalism we should give our absolute support; though I believe that their project is doomed it does not mean that we should not commit to these principles. I am not suggesting quitting. Far from it. These small victories will make a difference as we approach the choke point and particularly for those who have or choose, in spite of the facts, to have children. Witchcraft, being animist, is not so selfishly anthropocentric, our personal loyalty lies not with our genetic survival but aligns with the fate of all things to which we are innately bound.
Grey’s final line brings me back to John Muir‘s statement that “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”
It is an act of deep magic to, at the same time, appreciate how grave this crisis truly is and to hope, with full faith in the magic of nature, for deliverance.
The more I understand hope, the more I realize that all along it deserved to be in the box with the plagues, sorrow, and mischief; that it serves the needs of those in power as surely as belief in a distant heaven; that hope is really nothing more than a secular way of keeping us in line.
Hope is, in fact, a curse, a bane. I say this not only because of the lovely Buddhist saying “Hope and fear chase each other’s tails,” not only because hope leads us away from the present, away from who and where we are right now and toward some imaginary future state. I say this because of what hope is.
More or less all of us yammer on more or less endlessly about hope. You wouldn’t believe — or maybe you would — how many magazine editors have asked me to write about the apocalypse, then enjoined me to leave readers with a sense of hope. But what, precisely, is hope? At a talk I gave last spring, someone asked me to define it. I turned the question back on the audience, and here’s the definition we all came up with: hope is a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency; it means you are essentially powerless.
I’m not, for example, going to say I hope I eat something tomorrow. I just will. I don’t hope I take another breath right now, nor that I finish writing this sentence. I just do them. On the other hand, I do hope that the next time I get on a plane, it doesn’t crash. To hope for some result means you have given up any agency concerning it. Many people say they hope the dominant culture stops destroying the world. By saying that, they’ve assumed that the destruction will continue, at least in the short term, and they’ve stepped away from their own ability to participate in stopping it.
I do not hope coho salmon survive. I will do whatever it takes to make sure the dominant culture doesn’t drive them extinct. If coho want to leave us because they don’t like how they’re being treated — and who could blame them? — I will say goodbye, and I will miss them, but if they do not want to leave, I will not allow civilization to kill them off.
When we realize the degree of agency we actually do have, we no longer have to “hope” at all. We simply do the work. We make sure salmon survive. We make sure prairie dogs survive. We make sure grizzlies survive. We do whatever it takes.
And, so, to borrow and then change a line from the Bard, to hope or not to hope; that is the question. I’ll answer it. To borrow and then change a line from the Xians, as for me and my house, we will do both. We will hope for deliverance and unexpected help from Gaia and we will, with Jensen, and Muir, and Grey, make sure salmon, and prairie dogs, and grizzlies, and, most especially, wolves survive.
We won’t be gone long; you come, too.