At the Edge of Civilization, Part 2

Here is Part 2 of a three-part series about my recent retreat at Gethsemani Abbey […]

Ben Self / 9.5.18

Here is Part 2 of a three-part series about my recent retreat at Gethsemani Abbey in rural Kentucky.

The moon was beautiful, dimly red, like a globe of almost transparent amber, with a shapeless fetus of darkness curled in the midst of it.

— Thomas Merton, The Other Side of the Mountain: The End of the Journey

One of the things I love most about Kentucky is its trees. I’ve heard that in 1492 when Columbus (and the pox) first sailed the ocean blue, a most resolute and adventurous squirrel could hop along the treetops all the way from the Carolina coast to the Mississippi and never touch down on the forest floor. If you’ve ever walked in deep luxurious Appalachian shade you’ll know how. This is the Eastern Woodlands, a vast expanse of temperate forest—big poofy broad-leafed trees that will cover every inch of ground in their lavish shade if you let them.

Kentucky is thus quite pleasant to drive or hike through, but you do tend to see the same sorts of scenes—rolling hills be-speckled by hay bales and wonky barns and faded trailers but mostly covered in great plumes of oak, maple, ash, beech, elm, gum, cedar, poplar, walnut, hickory, and so on. It’s not a bit hard to get lost on foot in these parts if you stray from the beaten path, and you better be able to find your way back too because there’s not much food close at hand, particularly if you can’t hunt or trap. Sure, at certain times of year there are blackberries, mulberries, walnuts, and the fruit of a few apple, pear, and persimmon trees around, and if you know what to look for, you can turn up a smattering of wild greens, mushrooms, and edible roots, but I doubt a vegetarian could have ever survived here in the wild, at least not without growing a very large garden and doing a lot of canning.

Of course, small game and fresh water are mercifully plentiful. Dead carcasses of raccoons and groundhogs litter the highway. The aforementioned squirrels, most lovable of the varmints, are likewise never far from view. Or earshot. All through the fall you can hear them furiously cutting hickory nuts as they gather weight for winter. Like I said, the Bluegrass State is a lovely place to burn through a few tanks of gas or spend a few nights under the stars.

But here’s the crazy thing, something I was thinking about this morning on my hike through Gethsemani’s woods: a couple hundred years from now these great plumes could be gone. At the very least, this will all look quite different. According to some forecasts, average temperatures in this region are expected to increase 8-12 degrees Fahrenheit. As temperatures and precipitation patterns shift so will climatic zones. Already across the globe, the tropics are expanding poleward at a rate of 35 to 69 miles per decade. In other words, it seems likely these templed hills (with their fabled stills) cloaked in groves of oak and maple and hickory may well be overtaken someday by more southerly trees or subsumed by swamp and vine (think: Louisiana.) I suppose it’s not completely irrelevant to note that West Nile-infected mosquitoes were found in three Louisville zip codes last week. Let’s hope the toxic aerosol I self-applied this morning did its job.

More to the point: there’s a lot of climate apocalypticism in the air these days—apocalypticism in general—and it’s hard not to feel some of its dread sway. The New York Times ran a piece last week entitled “Losing Earth”. Another headline from The Guardian read: “We’re Doomed”. A widely-circulated New York Magazine article last year called “The Uninhabitable Earth” began with the line: “It is, I promise, worse than you think.” This sort of sentiment feels ubiquitous of late. Many a weary scribe seem to be echoing James Hansen’s warning from a few years ago—that without drastic changes, “It’s game over for the climate.”

I find it curious in this context to reflect back on Columbus’s fateful voyage across the Atlantic—his heroic abandon, his lust for spice, the cataclysmic changes it set in motion. I don’t know whether this is true, but I was taught in school that a lot of 15th-century folk still believed that if ships ventured too far from land at some point they’d just fall off a cliff at the edge of the world. I wonder, in our collective quest for “the objective”: have we as a species at last approached that fabled cliff—with forces beyond our control pulling us toward the edge?

I hope not. But at the very least, we have become our own Kraken. Perhaps we always were.

Some do like to point out that climate change won’t be bad for everyone. An amusing Medium post recently highlighted “The 5 Best Places to Live in 2100”. (Quick, hipsters! Buy in while land’s still cheap above the tree line!) But while it may not quite be “game over” for the climate, none of this is good news. It should be painfully clear by now that we’re not remotely ready for the kind of disruptions that climate change is going to inflict on our societies. And notwithstanding the growing human toll, forecasts suggest that half of earth’s species could be driven to extinction by the time we have finished remaking this clement weather in our own inclement image. That alone is going to be gut-wrenching to watch. It already is. Trekking through the woods this morning, I couldn’t escape the feeling of a beautiful ecosystem pregnant with sickness. Will Kentucky still be Kentucky when we’re through?

This reminds me of a passage from Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow. In the novel’s final scene, Jayber visits Mattie who is dying in the hospital. Unimpeded, Mattie’s husband Troy has started to clear-cut old growth timber that her father had kept as a “nest egg”, leaving her heartbroken:

Maybe, as a person sometimes does, she felt me watching. She opened her eyes.
When she saw me, she said, “Jayber. Oh, he’s cutting the woods.”
And so she knew.
Her eyes filled with tears, but she said quietly, “I could die in peace, I think, if the world was beautiful. To know it’s being ruined is hard.”

That’s how I feel sometimes—the dull aching pain of loving a world that’s being ruined or slipping away. Come to think of it, I feel that about lots of things. (Civil discourse? Print journalism? Mainline Christianity? Johnny Depp? My own life?) The rewards of love are of course worth the pain, but it seems to me that some of that soul-sickness is always going to be love’s price in this world-ever-slipping-away, one in which our doom has always been in some sense impending. At least since we blew passed the Tree of Life on the hunt for knowledge, we’ve wielded destruction over the earth and each other. But so has earth over us. Most times in history were far more haunted and tenuous than ours. Can you imagine living through the Bubonic Plague?

Perhaps, given such cutthroat conditions, we humans have always been most inclined to heroic feats of abandon—better hunters and raiders than farmers, than husbands. Perhaps we’ve always embodied more of the exuberant recklessness of adolescence than the cautious intention of geriatric monks. Perhaps we’ve always been inclined to cut our butter with a chainsaw.

Merton felt keenly the burden of the world’s sin. He would have said that if a person came to the monastery to escape the world, they’d come to the wrong place. Long before climate change was on the public’s radar, he sensed the tragic trajectory of our relationship to the earth: “Perhaps the most crucial aspect of Christian obedience to God today,” he wrote, “concerns the responsibility of the Christian, in a technological society, toward creation.” Merton viewed his own role in society as that of a kind of poet-hermit-priest; he felt that it was “necessary [for the poet] to be alone, to be not part of this [destruction], to be in the exile of silence, to be in a manner of speaking a political prisoner.” This distance, he felt, gave him the freedom he needed to speak the truth.

But he also understood the deeper source of freedom. Here he is again in Dancing in the Water of Life: Seeking Peace in the Hermitage:

The poet has to be free from everyone else, and first of all from himself, because it is through this “self” that he is captured by others. Freedom is found under the dark tree that springs up in the center of the night and of silence, the paradise tree, the axis mundi, which is also the Cross.

Thank God, indeed, that there is Someone who has vanquished sin and death on our behalf. That alone provides the ultimate relief we all desire. And yet if the crucifixion is the “crux” of history—its axis mundi, its supreme encounter with divine love—then Christ’s own dark night of the soul in the Garden of Gethsemane, at the edge of His own civilization, was the solitary encounter that helped steel Him to face the world, that enabled Him to pray, “not My will, but Thine, be done.” It was there in the Garden that His ego was crucified, half a day before His body.

For this reason, something feels symbolically pertinent to me right now about this Abbey, as its own Gethsemane. At a time when it feels like our own civilization is on the edge of something dangerous, I wonder if this dark vale of silence in the Kentucky woods might be the best sort of garden to cultivate a band of poet-prophet-healers, of nameless Desmond Tutus, say. On the monks’ own website, they describe the Abbey as “a school of the Lord’s service, a training ground for brotherly love.” And yet, let me clear: this place and all it represents could only ever be a “training ground” in the sense of all that must be unlearned here. As Merton put it: “in contemplation, we know by ‘unknowing.’” And it’s in the “unknowing” that God turns our despair to hope, for in quieting the ego we are unlearning to trust in ourselves, to lean on our own understanding, to cling to control.

“The rain,” Merton writes, “fills the woods with an immense and confused sound… And I listen, because it reminds me again and again that the whole world turns by rhythms I have not yet learned to recognize.”

Of course, I should probably have gotten up hours ago from my desk in this cell, given up the vain pretense that I’m some latter-day St. Jerome, and gone off to enjoy the last vestiges of silence I have here. Like I said, I’m not much good at practicing silence myself. For now though, I’m content to tap my thoughts dutifully away at my keyboard, in the clarity of this place, as I await the muddy water of my sick soul to slowly come clean.