Saturday, July 21, 2007

Stop Bitching and Start an Evolution

Recently it came to my attention that students living on campus are being subjected to inhuman living conditions by the College. People like you and I have been placed in single rooms with up to three other individuals, and forced to relegate their personal effects to the area of approximately four floor tiles.
This outrage will not be tolerated! Its time for students to take matters into their own hands, and I’m not talking about a class action lawsuit here. We need to do what other species do when they are introduced to an adverse environment: evolve.
Bats, for instance, have the amazing ability to coexist while 20,000 or so of them are crammed into a space roughly the size of a toilet bowl. There is no logical reason why we as humans should not strive towards making the trans-species, evolutionary jump from human-oid to Bat-oid.
Bats: clearly our evolutionary older brother, have long been the object of scientific theorization. In fact, in the early 30’s Albert Einstein was reported to have had “bats in his belfry.” Evolution experts in the young Einstein’s native Germany, had apparently discovered that his physical features were remarkably similar to those of a bat, especially in his belfry region. (Little known fact: Einstein preferred to communicate through sonar, rather than the more traditional German folk songs of the day)
Today, thanks to modern science, all trans-species candidates need not be born fluent in sonar, nor possess the webbed fingers, and arm flaps of the young Einstein. Today all we need is the will to be transformed into something we are not. (and $10,000 dollars)
It is no secret that plastic surgery has made the most significant contribution to modern life and culture. The impact of the nose-job, the face-lift, the boob-job, the “tummy-tuck”, and “Bo-Tox” is impossible to over-emphasize, especially when taken in the context of today’s political issues such as the war in Iraq, Election Fraud in Mexico, etc. However the way of the future is not found in plastic surgery alone, but rather in a combination of Pilates and plastic surgery or “Pilastic Surgery”.
Pilastic Surgery makes the trans-species jump economic, fun, and no more time consuming than say… learning to walk on a tight rope while juggling burning chainsaws. “Why Pilates?” you might ask. You see, Pilates, was developed by an actual bat. It is a form of exercise/ therapy that consists mostly of hanging upside down, just like a bat. Needless to say that bat is now a multi-billionaire and has had operations to enhance his humanoid features. If you hadn’t figured it out yet, Ill tell you: his name is Michael Jackson.
Pilastic surgery allows for the coupling of a surgical procedure, designed to make the human body resemble an enormous bat, with Pilates style rehabilitation. When the process is completed, patients will enjoy a wide range of bat related activities; namely sleeping in close quarters with other bat-oids, while hanging from metal bars ten feet above the ground.
Guilford’s Office of Campus Life is firmly committed to support its students who decide to make the trans-species switch. Several residence halls have already been scheduled for renovations, and GLBTQA has added another “B” to their’ all-embracing acronym.
Most importantly however, residence halls will now be able to house millions of students. In one conservative estimate Randy Doss guessed that “the College could see its earnings increase two million fold over the next few years.” Doss went on to speculate, that the “proceeds from the sale of amassed bat guano to organic farmers could double or even triple these estimates.”

Corporate Sponsored Group Think as American Consumerism

The Bottom Line:

According to Wendell Berry, American consumerism and individualism revolve around a single tenet: “when faced with abundance, one should consume abundantly” Berry, 45). This belief has been nurtured and allowed to flourish due, in large part, to the American frontier mentality and its closely related idea of manifest destiny. The frontier mentality encourages us to consume our way into oblivion, frantically wiping out the abundance which, only several hundred years ago seemed so boundless; all without a care for sustainability. But as resources dwindle, the privilege of mass consumption becomes consolidated in the few while the many are excluded from the benefits of consumerism. We are left with a world were social Darwinism and trickle down economics are called upon to explain the otherwise unexplainable fact that a tiny percentage of the worlds population consumes and controls the vast majority of its resources.
It seems all too easy to blame today’s societal predicament on our genetic predispositions, our biology, or the mismatch between our relatively slow biological evolution and our recent, rapid social evolution but to do so would be to turn a blind eye to the numerous examples of advanced cultures which practiced widespread sustainability. Moreover, to explain away our cultural shortsightedness as a product of a genetic predisposition towards short-term egoism leads to a fatalistic view of reality that resonates well with Hobbes and his Leviathan. But if Man, in his natural state is constantly pitted against his surroundings, then the Amazonian tribes that lived in cooperation rather than competition with each other, and shaped their environments based on an attunement to the ecological realities of their particular landscapes could not have existed. As the evidence of advanced cooperation based, sustainable civilizations piles up, American consumerism begins to look less and less like human nature, and more like an example of the folly of group think.
Group think occurs when dissention is discouraged. A group without room for dissenting voices can pursue a bad idea simply by ignoring its problematic nature and constantly telling itself that their idea is Right. This is what happens with American consumerism. At the individual and corporate level there is a noticeable lack of sociological imagination. We have apparently lost the ability to question the sanity of consumerism by repeatedly telling ourselves that our way of life is human nature.
Dissention, however, is protected by the constitution which guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of the press. But these freedoms do not take into account the cancerous nature of American consumerism, nor do they factor in the state of today’s corporate economy. Freedom of the press has become an excuse for a laissez-faire attitude by the FCC towards a media monopoly that is driven by marketing and the bottom line rather than any kind of journalistic integrity. That’s not to say that dissenting voices don’t exist, -they do- it’s just that they have been excluded from the mainstream media where critical discourse was once accepted as a necessary part of an effective democracy.
In this essay I argue that American consumerism continues to drive us towards the brink of destruction primarily because of the interplay of a widespread participation in group think with relation to consumerism, and the intentional manipulation of the mass media by corporate interests who see the personal benefits of consumerism as outweighing the ecological and social catastrophes it promises to bring with it.
The Big Three: The Mass Media, the Government & Corporate America
If the early twentieth century was the gilded age, contemporary society must be diamond studded. The economic endeavors of John D. Rockefeller and his contemporaries seem like child’s play in comparison to the big players in today’s global economy. In contemporary American society governmental regulation of corporations is virtually nonexistent and international policy is often dictated by corporate greed rather than authentic Democratic process. The failure of the mainstream media has allowed for this rapid degeneration of American society into a state of corporate anarchy. Through succumbing to corporate control the media has agreed that its primary purpose is not to inform, but rather to make money, and as such it has joined the other corporate entities whose products are far less important than the profits they produce.
In his essay entitled “Stumped Speech,” Paul Taylor of the Alliance for Better Campaigns lays out the way in which the media has both allowed and instigated this state of affairs.
“We the public give the broadcast industry our airwaves for free, in return for their commitment to serve the public interest. At election time the industry turns around and sells airtime to candidates, fueling a money chase that saps public confidence in the political process and restricts the field of candidates to the wealthy and their friends. The money pays for ads that reduce political discourse to synthetic, deceptive, inflammatory, and grating sound bites” (Taylor, 319).

By permitting the institution responsible for holding both politicians and corporations accountable to become controlled by corporate interests, we have allowed our government to backslide into a state of affairs that is not all that different from the Tammany Hall days. Today’s Boss Tweeds, however, are corporate executives that would have made Machiavelli proud, and today’s Thomas Nast’s have been forced into the media margins of blogging and other alternative media by a corporate controlled mainstream media.
What has emerged since the downfall of our only means of insuring the accountability of our socio-political hierarchy is a triumvirate of three institutions that work together to insure our collective impotence, to maintain a dangerously stratified social hierarchy, and to guarantee that we continue to consume in the face of clear data that shows our over consumption to be a problem. The mass media, big business, and the government are engaged in a three-way orgy that is driven entirely by lust for money and power, leaving no room in the bed for the public good.
Group Think in the Mass Media
American society is molded by the type of discourse it pursues via the mass media. In his essay “The Stories We Tell” George Gerbner writes that “the stories that animate our cultural environment have three distinct functions. These functions are (1) to reveal the way things work; (2) to describe what things are; and (3) to tell us what to do about them” (Gerbner,10). Through the media we receive messages that tell us not only who we are, but who we ought to be. We are presented, through media messages, with a spectrum of available life choices. According to Gerbner, in an ideal world “the three kinds of stories check and balance each other. But in a commercially driven culture, stories of the third kind pay for most of the first two” (Gerbner, 11). Due to this imbalance, messages that do not fall within the paradigm of things that support increased consumption have been deemed unworthy of airtime and have thus been excluded from public discourse. As a result, even while we perceive that we are faced with unlimited opportunities, the spectrum of life choices has been drastically reduced to fit within a structure of consumerism. Politically, for instance, we have the choice between Republican and Democrat. If we choose not to participate in either of these parties we effectively forfeit our political voice. Alternatives such as communism and socialism have become dirty words precisely because of the fact that they do not encourage the kind of blind consumption that fattens corporate executives, and drives us into debt.
When the bottom line dictates media content, content rapidly becomes pure propaganda. The dissenting voices within the media are limited to debates between republicans and democrats where the fundamental disagreement is over gay marriage, taxes, and big government versus bigger government rather than truly substantive issues. Many issues are simply off limits to reporters because they are deemed dangerous to corporate sponsorship.
Plenty of ambitious reporters and intellectuals have found to their dismay, that the unfair and unethical foreign policies, the unethical business practices, and the widespread political corruption which they uncover through diligent reporting, are no longer newsworthy. By denoting those who dare to question the ethics of mainstream consumerism as “conspiracy theorists,” thereby robbing them of any credibility, the mainstream media has made corporate group think inevitable. Independent thinkers such as Noam Chomsky and Ralph Nader have, through no fault of their own, found themselves excluded from a great deal of the public discourse simply because they question American group think.
Group think is never good, but if group think is occurring among the masses as an intentionally propagated form of brainwashing it becomes truly evil. If the fundamental tenets of American consumerism were in fact that all men are created equal, that everyone has a right to personal freedoms, and that self determination was indeed best for everyone, and we all bought into it lock, stock and barrel we might honestly feel good about our participation in group think. As it turns out, however, the situation is not nearly as simple as the feel good solution of “Democracy for all.”
What seems to be happening with American consumerism is an entirely Machiavellian form of manipulation. At the top of our social structure a few individuals with tremendous power are all too aware of the fact that the spread of democracy, the containment of communism, and the protection of human rights as they form the justification for American imperialism are a crock of shit. These individuals realize that in order for our corrupt power structure to remain in place they must foster the illusion that American imperialism and stratification of wealth is really just American altruism. If you don’t believe it, just compare the facts of our foreign policy with the media messages that we are bombarded with on a daily basis. In his 1948 memo to the President, George Kennan, the Head of the US State Department Policy Planning Staff wrote the following assessment of US foreign policy needs:
“We have about 50% of the world's wealth, but only 6.3% of its population.... In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives.... We should cease to talk about vague and unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better” (Kennan, 524).

And George Kennan was writing in 1948. Since then the disparity of wealth has only grown greater, and since then the media has continued to use the “vague and unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards, and democratization” as justification for our efforts at economic imperialism. And while the corporate media tells us that our strong-arm methods of economic expansion are really in the best interest of the people we conquer our Political leaders deal in straight power concepts. Using the mass media as a mouthpiece through which to deliver a barrage of propaganda, a bevy of corporate executives, leading Washington along with the promise of large capital donations has paid heed to the advice of George Kennan and created a “pattern of relationships which permits [them] to maintain [the current] position of disparity.”
Our foreign policy displays a selective attention to the plight of the people of the world. We only really feel the need to “spread democracy” when we stand to gain economically by meddling in the affairs of another country. Hence we invade Iraq where we stand to gain its rich oil reserves and we ignore Sudan and North Korea where the human rights violations are just as glaring. Hence we fight the evil communists, not because communists are evil, but because communism threatens to remove an entire country full of potential resources and consumers from the global structure of domination and exploitation that is the market economy.
The Effect of Group Think on Individuals
The spread of American individualism through economic imperialism is on the verge of annihilating the very culture which champions it, as well as the environment upon which it is dependent. The American frontier mentality encourages us to consume our way into oblivion while the world around us falls apart. On the individual level, the most impervious factor which keeps us from effecting any real change and binds us to the destructive cycle of mindless consumption springs directly from a Judeo-Christian conception of the self which fosters the illusion of the possibility of a stable self, independent of others, rather than the more Eastern mystical idea of the self as a part of the world. This illusion of a purely agentic self is achieved largely through the media’s creation of cultural myths which solve the problem of isolation with individualistic solutions.
Early psychoanalytic theory brought us the idea that the self is often dictated by subconscious drives and impulses. Eros and Thanatos –two starved pit bulls, locked together inside of the subconscious. Here lies Freud’s foundation for human existence; Eros –the life drive, consisting of the instincts for self preservation, pleasure, and procreation; and Thanatos –the universal death instinct.
This controversial claim is the basis for significant body of psychoanalytical theory. One of the most insightful interpretations of Freud’s theory of human motivation is laid out by a psychologist named David Bakan. Bakan deems the two conflicting motivational factors “agency” and “communion” rather than Eros and Thanatos. In his book, The Stories We Live By, Dan P. McAdams explains Bakan’s theory: “Agency refers to the individual’s striving to separate from others, to master the environment, to assert, protect, and expand the self” (McAdams, 45). McAdams describes communion as, “an individual’s striving to lose his or her own identity by merging with others, participating in something that is larger than the self, and relating to others in warm, close, loving ways” (McAdams, 45).
Bakan has laid out a way for us to understand the self. We are all the product of some combination of these two subconscious drives. The first, an attempt to master, dominate, achieve, and separate ourselves from others, and from our environment; the second an attempt to join something larger than ourselves, to return to the plentitude from whence we feel we came, to coalesce, to belong.
Yet another theorist, Jacques Lacan provides a theoretical approach to the study of self that accounts for the conflicting drives of agency and communion. Lacan offers a developmental theory that attempts to shed light on the early years of a child’s development. Most importantly, Lacan focuses on the years between birth and the child’s induction into the world of language –the symbolic realm. During this time, Lacan introduces us to the “mirror stage.” During the mirror stage, the child goes through a transformative process, wherein it moves from a realm Lacan calls the Real that is characterized by perfect unity, interconnection and plentitude, and into the realm of the imaginary, where the child experiences lack and loss, as well as the origins of ideas of self and other. To reduce Lacanian theory to its lowest common denominators, one could say that infants start out as something very close to the Buddhist ideal of being one with everything but, upon seeing themselves in a mirror and being encouraged to identify with the visual image in the mirror, they begin to understand themselves in separation from everything. But, as Lacan hypothesizes, life is about striving towards a return to the state of interconnectedness, while simultaneously attempting to understand yourself in terms of what makes you different from everything around you. Lacan indirectly tells us that agency comes from a child’s need to understand itself in terms of others and to be inducted into the symbolic realm, and that communion comes from our desire to erase the distinction between self and other and to return to the plentitude of union with the maternal body, but that we need both drives (Klages, 3).
Needless to say, contemporary American society heavily favors agency over communion. The resulting version of the self becomes characterized by extreme isolation, which may account for the high suicide rates among the most successful Americans. By repressing our need for communion we come to understand ourselves as static, disconnected beings. Communion is, in essence, the recognition of interdependence and interconnectedness. This movement towards Lacan’s “Real” has become all but extinct thanks in large part to our demented version of individualism. We seem to believe that to understand ones self, and to understand the world is to differentiate and separate the self from the other and from the world. We have removed ourselves from the world we live in and from the communities we live in. Only in a society that fails to understand its interconnectedness and interdependence could the possibility of space civilizations be pursued. Likewise only in such a society could nuclear armaments reach a level where their use would result in total annihilation of life as we know it.
But our need for interconnectedness and communion is not just repressed. It is intentionally co-opted and channeled towards the cause of agency. In his book Hollywood Goes to High School Robert Bulman suggests that Hollywood’s portrayals of suburban high schools reflect an implicit desire among the middle class for an “escape from a world of status competition, envy, coldness, exclusion and conformity” (Bulman,123). He tells us that such an escape is ironically depicted in Hollywood movies about suburban high schools as being achieved through rugged individualism, but that “the meaningful relationships and sense of belonging that Americans long for happen to challenge the ideals of individualism and free expression that they also hold dear” Bulman, 123). It seems that Hollywood recognizes this fundamental contradiction but simultaneously recognizes that by presenting individualistic solutions to isolation (in spite of the implicit contradiction) they can reap enormous rewards. The problem, as Bulman points out, is individualism itself. It encourages isolation and competition rather than cooperation and interconnectedness. Our perceived isolation is today’s Gordian knot and individualism with its twin sibling of consumerism makes up our Alexander the Great. Isolation provides the perfect market for a society that values getting more than it values having. We can never solve the problem with a solution which is, in it’s self a contradiction.
Baby You Know I Love You
The most apt metaphor for describing the relationship between individuals within the market economy and the three interlocking systems of domination (the media, the government, and corporations) may be that of the dysfunctional marriage. If we see the big three as a cheating, dominating husband and the public as a submissive, gullible wife we might adequately make sense of our current predicament. The husband went wrong when he started cheating on the wife by choosing the bottom line above the public good. In order for our metaphorical patriarch to cover himself, and still benefit from his wife’s submission and loyalty, he was forced to lie to his wife about his real agenda. He logically chose to do this through the media. But the more he lied about his affair with the bottom line, the more elaborate his lies had to become, and as the lies became more elaborate the husband’s deception was apparent. Meanwhile the wife was in denial, not wanting to admit to herself that she had married the wrong man, and knowing that to challenge the husband would be to forfeit the beautiful mansion he provided, but simultaneously knowing deep down that something was amiss.
But the wife no longer wants to take the husbands word when he says “baby you know I love you” while acting contrary to the accepted rules of a relationship based on trust. The rest of the world is telling her that she’s being had, that her man is a lying, cheating son of a bitch; the evidence to prove it is readily available, and she is starting to question the apparent contradictions between the husband’s words and the husband’s actions. Furthermore, the wife is being pushed further and further towards the back room of the mansion so that the husband can have room to accumulate his wealth. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the relationship is abusive and that the wife would have legal precedent for obtaining a restraining order.
What America really needs now is either a very good relationship counselor or a divorce. Let’s make it a divorce and find a better man before this one puts us in intensive care.

Works Cited

Berry, Wendell. "The Possibility of Place." At Home on the Earth. Ed. David L. Barnhill. London, UK: University of California P, 1999. 45-50.

Bulman, Robert. Hollywood Goes to High School: Cinema, Schools, and American Culture. New York: Worth, 2004. 110-123.

Gerbner, George. "The Stories We Tell." Readings in Mass Communications. Ed. Kimberly K. Massey. Boston: McGraw-Hill Co., 2002. 10-11.

Kennan, George. "Memo PPS23 by George Kennan." Wikisource. 28 Feb. 1948. US State Department. 6 Apr. 2007 .

Klages, Mary. "Jacques Lacan." 8 Oct. 2001. Colorado University. 7 Apr. 2007 .
McAdams, Dan P. The Stories We Live By. 1st ed. Vol. 1. New York, NY: William Morrow & Co, 1993. 52-53.
Taylor, Paul. “Stumped Speech.” Readings in Mass Communications. Ed. Kimberly K. Massey. Boston: McGraw-Hill Co., 2002. 318-322

Saturday, July 7, 2007

The Genesis of Lake Daniel Park

Only fifty yards from the townhouse I share with my girlfriend, below a short grassy hill covered in spiny sweet-gum balls, there is a humble park. Every day, weather permitting, I walk down the hill, rolling the sweet gum balls under my feet like stationary roller skates, I cross the meadow that the neighborhood kids use for soccer practice, and I walk beside North Buffalo Creek. If, on that particular day, I choose to turn right, I will end up at the “park” part of Lake Daniel Park.
A long time ago the park was home to lake called (you guessed it) Lake Daniel. The lake must have made a beautiful centerpiece for the park back when lakes were free to be lakes. But those times have passed and the once beautiful lake has been replaced by a covered reservoir that looks like the Super Dome’s vertically challenged kid brother, and a tiny pool full of koi the size of nuclear submarines. In the middle of the pool floats a fountain; in the absence of the natural water circulation of streams, its geyser keeps the water from stagnating and growing algae. A barbed wire fence that doglegs out at the top surrounds the entire complex, to insure that the neighborhood kids and I can’t get in.
To get to the lake I have to navigate four lanes of Benjamin Parkway traffic thanks to some astute city planner who decided it would be a good idea to run a main thoroughfare right through the middle of Lake Daniel Park. The lake is hardly worth the trouble of crossing the traffic. All I get for my efforts is the privilege of wondering if anything still lives under the Super Dome part of the lake, and the pleasure of clinging to the fence, watching the koi cruise around, trailing their transparent fins like a group of well dressed socialites on downers. If there is life in the water beneath that tarred sheet-metal roof I wonder if it remembers what sunlight looks like.
When I get tired of watching the koi in the pond and wondering whether or not transparent cave-koi live in the reservoir, I re-navigate the traffic, cross another grassy meadow, and I’m at the creek again. If I cross the creek on the foot bridge I’ll be in the honest-to-God park, which is really more like a big Fisher-Price toy that someone fastened to the ground with concrete than it is a park.
The park part of Lake Daniel Park contains a baseball diamond, four tennis courts, an enormous plastic Technicolor playground, and about a dozen mid-sized willow oak trees. There is a rock wall surrounding the swing sets and plastic climbing wall/slide combo that doesn’t look quite right. When I walk up to it and kick it, it shudders and makes a hollow plastic sound –these rocks aren’t even rocks at all. What looks like a rock wall is really a long strip of plastic printed and textured so that I can feel like I’m surrounded by something someone made using rocks from right here in Greensboro. It’s kind of a feeble attempt, but at least the Fisher Price company tries to have their products look like something real that might have a story behind them rather than something that was just spit out by a mindless extrusion molder in China. At least the wood chips on the ground are made of real trees.
Stepping over the “rock” wall and re-crossing the foot-bridge I begin walking along the greenway that follows North Buffalo Creek. The concrete exercise trail following the meandering and well-littered creek snakes along, pausing at exercise stations where the sweaty residents of the Lake Daniel area desperately fight old age, gravity, and the effects of a plethora of fine dining restaurants located conveniently nearby in the Friendly Center.
If you walk away from the tennis courts--towards the power lines and high-rise buildings of the Friendly Center--you can almost miss North Buffalo Creek entirely. It winds along the left hand side of the concrete, shielded from view by a narrow swath of woods and brush that has somehow managed to evade the bush-hogs that have tamed the rest of the park. I walk away from the concrete, across the neatly manicured grass, step into the brush next to the creek, and pick my way down the bank avoiding the blackberry stalks. I find a rock next to the water; I sit down.
Sitting by the water allows the natural order of the creek to come to you. The banks of the stream angle down just enough to shut out the joggers and body builders on the greenway. The creek and its sparse natural surroundings are home to an intensely interdependent web of life. The most apparent fauna of this web are the mallards, but if you sit long enough the rest of the threads show themselves. The water is full of bream and minnows that provide food for a pair of king fishers. Itinerant blue herons drop by periodically for a taste of the creek’s fish, and a woodchuck has his burrow in a thick stand of Japanese knotweed. The Lake Daniel Park flora adds still more threads, weaving what at first seemed a scant web of life into an ornate tapestry. Apple, willow oak, and loblolly pines are interspersed with white birches, honey suckle, an Asian pear, maples and sycamore. The undergrowth is mostly blackberry stalks and Japanese knotweed; it grows thick, keeping all but the most determined visitors to the park on the foot path.
Each strand of this tapestry has been spun by some exuberant Rumplestiltskin god, from the free and abundant straw of pure sunlight creating the priceless gold of life. Without access to sufficient sunlight, there would be no web, no life at all, no trees, no plants, no kingfishers, and ultimately no me. In The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, Thom Hartmann writes that “every life form on the surface of the planet is here because a plant was able to gather sunlight and store it, and something was able to eat that plant and take that sunlight energy in to power its body”(Hartman, 1) Human society has contrived ways to make use of both current sunlight -sunlight that is captured and stored in plants and animals that are alive now, and ancient sunlight -energy that was captured by plants thousands of years ago (i.e. fossil fuels). Hartmann points out that our ability to use both current sunlight and ancient sunlight has allowed human populations to grow far beyond the limits imposed by current sunlight use. Through grazing, global agribusiness, the use of fossil fuels, and extreme greed, we have succeeded in harnessing almost all of the available current sunlight for the consumption of humans alone, not to mention thoroughly exhausting its supplies of ancient sunlight. But the Lake Daniel Park ecosystem is entirely dependent on current sunlight that has been captured and stored outside of the monolithic parameters of agriculture and society. In Lake Daniel Park the Rumplestiltskin god still spins his pile of straw into gold, but his pile is much smaller than it used to be and as a result the gold strands are fewer and farther between.
The sparse tapestry of Lake Daniel Park can be understood as the result of a human society which refuses to recognize limits to its expansion and domination. The only remaining current sunlight that is available for the ducks, wood chucks and kingfishers of the world grows along the banks of streams that could not be diverted or dug underground, along the sides of highways where herbicides and mowers could not reach, and in places too inconvenient for commerce and consumption. The rest of the world’s supply of energy has been enslaved so that six billion people can live on a world only capable of sustaining around five million.
It can be argued that our apparent inability to live within our means can be traced back to the Genesis creation story, which places man as master of his environment and argues for the naturalness of the man versus nature dichotomy. The danger of this story lurks in its interpretations. The literal reading might lead us to believe that mankind was exiled from the garden of Eden where a delicate balance existed, and thrown into a world where there was no state of equilibrium, and given directions to dominate. This interpretation allows for a return to the garden, but only through the death of the body or the return of the historical Jesus.
John Milton writes that “the mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” If Milton is right, then the Genesis creation myth must be read as the tale of a change in mindset. The juxtaposition of Lake Daniel Park’s diminutive squalor against the grand excesses of Greensboro’s newest symbol of gentrification (The Friendly Shopping Center) invokes such an understanding.
While the story of Adam’s fall might be taken by fundamentalists to be the literal Truth, one might also read it in search of a more applicable message which, instead of setting our sights on other-worldly salvation, ends by teaching us a lesson about living in the present. As I read it, the message is as follows: Adam’s fall was marked by a stark change in lifestyle. Prior to eating from the tree of knowledge, original man lived entirely according to the limits of the natural order. Dependence on current sunlight was recognized as dependence on God’s grace. These first humans lived by hunting and gathering. The fall, the big mistake, was characterized by the choice to move away from hunting and gathering and towards tilling and grazing. In short, man found that he could exploit the limited amount of sunlight that was available to him by harnessing the sunlight from grass and shrubs that he could not eat, by domesticating animals that could eat grass and shrubs and then eating those animals. He could also clear the land and plant an abundance of those crops he could eat, thus replacing the other species that did not serve his purposes with more “useful” plants.
To extend this message into the realm of culture, one might look to the differences between ancient hunter-gatherer cultures and our more modern, market-based economies. A traditional hunter-gatherer culture would not have grown beyond the limits of current, local sunlight; they would have seen themselves as part of the world, not separate from it. We, on the other hand, have become so separated from our dependence on current sunlight that we no longer realize it at all.
Strip aside the polarizing, man versus nature elements of the Christian Creation myth and we are left with a story of a fall from grace –a change in mindset from one of cooperation with, and dependence on a delicately balanced ecological reality, to one of domination, exploitation and forgotten dependence. Most importantly, the fall from grace was marked by an achieved ignorance of the natural state of equilibrium and of man’s place within it.
Lake Daniel Park and its neighbors capture a snapshot of the results of Adam’s fall from grace. Next door to the park looms the ultimate symbol of commerce and consumption. The Friendly Center is clean, almost immaculately artificial, and fueled in entirety by a rapidly dwindling supply of oil –ancient sunlight. It stands as a testament to living beyond our means. The park, on the other hand, is filthy, neglected, and entirely fueled by current sunlight. But current sunlight persists--both bountiful and free--while oil is limited and only to be had at a significant cost. If we were to learn from the creation myth we would invest in the sustainability of Lake Daniel Park and we would turn our backs on the foolish excesses of the Friendly Center.

As the supplies of current sunlight dwindle due to human exploitation, so do the populations that cannot deny their dependence on this grace. Ordinarily, a creek such as North Buffalo Creek would support far more than the single woodchuck, ten mallards, and pair of king-fishers that it does today; but in the real world, when the land cannot support a given population, that population is forced to die down to the point where it can be supported. Human society is not immune to this reality. All we need to do is look at the third world in order for us to catch a glimpse of the catastrophic nature of our imminent future. In Haiti alone thousands of children starve every day. When a society outgrows its energy supply, the comfort--even the survival--of the few becomes contingent upon the starvation, death, and enslavement of the many. Conveniently enough for us, we are the few who benefit while so many suffer. Yet even when these inequities slap us in the face we deny their existence.
Lake Daniel Park does not slap you in the face unless you let it. This is because it, like everything else in our culture, is treated as a commodity rather than a piece of the grace upon which we all depend. In spite of our fantasies, we cannot live without the web of life. Just ask the Irish. They tried to do away with their dependence on the natural order. They put all of their eggs in the same basket –potatoes. All it took was the failure of one crop to drive an entire nation to starvation. In the same vein, American society is hell-bent on consolidation. Global agribusiness, with its heavy emphasis on genetic engineering, has dangerously jeopardized our planet’s biodiversity. When an entire population depends on Roundup-resistant corn, one Roundup-resistant microbe, insect, or bacteria has the potential to drive that nation to famine. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you, whispers the creek. But anyone who might hear its message is more concerned with dropping a pant size than they are with their dependence on biodiversity.
Yet, if you take the time to notice you can see each individual thread that makes up the entire tapestry of life. It becomes apparent that one thread is ultimately dependent on the many strands that frame it, for if one is broken the rest will unravel.
Today I watched the thread of a kingfisher for over an hour. He was perched on a branch of a scraggly white birch that extended all the way from the tree on the south bank to the middle of the creek. I was sitting up the bank from him, at the foot of the Asian pear tree, and as far as I know he never saw me. He just sat there waiting, looking intently into the water. After twenty minutes of intense watching he dropped straight down and plunged into the water with his wings folded back like the v-wing of a fighter jet. A moment later he was back on his perch again, empty-beaked and dripping with creek water, but undeterred. Nature seems to favor her finer threads.
Yet while his fishing was less than ideal, this bird had something I had forgotten: patience and knowledge of grace. The kingfishers need the stored sunlight of the bream and the minnows to survive, and the fish need the stored sunlight of the bugs and worms, which in turn depend on the sunlight which the plant captures for the rest of us. The kingfisher does not master his environment; he understands his dependence on it. This must be the lesson of the tower at Babel.
The biblical story I was taught as a child can teach us a powerful lesson through understanding its metaphors. God was not angry that the people built the tower, nor was he even remotely worried that the tower would reach so high as to actualize their dreams; on the contrary, God was angered that the people were blind to their dependence on his grace. The tower of Babel tells the story of our society to a T. By fostering the illusion that human society exists within a vacuum we come to see ourselves as independent, static, and superior to the natural order. Our artificial order, we tell ourselves, is all that matters, and it is to this end that we attempt to dominate and control the natural order. We aspire to be God. In short, we have forgotten our dependence on grace, on sunlight, on the natural order that pre-exists us and will presumably follow our fleeting lives. But a metaphorical reading of Babel goes still deeper. Just as the people of the world spoke one language, the global economy speaks a universal language: greed, power, profits and the superiority of some humans over everything across the globe. This language attempts to consolidate and control grace. But for all of the advances in technology, we will forever be dependent on and accountable to that which we cannot control. In the legend of the tower of Babel, the consequence of a people’s selfish pride was their downfall. The great civilization of Babel was shattered by God sending a host of languages among them, thus preventing further illusions of grandeur. The people learned their lesson and went their separate ways, knowing that there was something far larger and more important than their feeble cultural enterprises. Today we have, through globalization and selfishness, returned to the blind pursuits of Babel. But God is not far behind and God is the natural order. Whether global warming gets us before we run out of oil and self-destruct is of little importance. What matters is that we recognize our dependence on, and our interconnectedness with the world we live in. We must rethink our societal folly before it’s too late.
I find it difficult to adequately learn the lessons of the kingfisher and of Babel. I have become completely removed from my dependence on this grace for which all of nature waits so patiently. I go to the store where I trade money--our universal symbol of greed, power, and profits--for products. If I have money I feel that I can have anything. I need not understand the world in which I live so long as the things I want can be had for money. All I need to do is learn to live within this world abstractions and illusions which we are all buying into out of “necessity.”

If, after walking down the hill with the sweet gum balls and across the field with the neighborhood kids I choose to turn left, and walk upstream, towards the Friendly Center, I will end up at a bench, next to the intersection of Friendly Avenue and Green Valley Road upon which sits a homeless man. The wooded corridor widens and then ends abruptly, running headlong into pavement.
A few weeks ago I was walking along the greenway and I happened to notice a trail leading away from the concrete and into the woods by the creek. I walked down the trail and discovered a tent, some dirty clothes and a pile of trash in a little clearing next to the creek. I had found the “homeless” man’s home. I turned back towards the greenway, not wanting to disturb him if he was still inside the tent, and stumbled on something else. He had set up, using the supporting structure of the power lines, a bathroom comprised of a mirror, a shallow wash basin, several shaving razors, and a bar of soap, a comb, and a towel. His mirror was lodged between two struts towards the base of the scaffold at about head height. The remarkable thing about this makeshift bath house was the way in which the few necessities which the homeless man had accumulated were framed by a structure that upheld the lifeblood of a hoarding society. God had set a caveman’s knife beside an ATM and asked me to choose between the two. I chose the ATM, but only because I have forgotten how to use the knife.
In his essay entitled “Economy” Thoreau accuses his contemporaries of “making [them]selves sick, that [they] may lay up something against a sick day.” Thoreau’s words imply two oppositional economies; the first--the economy of life-- values the grace of sunlight as its primary currency and acknowledges the fleeting nature of life; the second--the economy of money--values an abstract currency and perpetually attempts to insure a more comfortable future at the cost of the present. To live by the first economic model means to live day by day; to live by the second involves “making yourself sick that you might lay up something against a sick day.” The homeless man lives by the first model. He may worry where his next meal comes from but he does not worry about retirement –he is already retired.
The money economy encourages us to hoard because money can be easily compiled as abstract numbers. However, by doing so, it also encourages us to lose sight of the present by continually stressing that the future is where we might find hope, happiness and health.
Encounters with the homeless man in Lake Daniel Park inevitably lead me to want to sit down next to him on the bench and ask him about his life. The only thing keeping me from doing so is a deep seated fear of strangers, especially homeless ones, that has somehow been conditioned into me. This fear is of course ridiculous but it illustrates just how dangerous our culture views those who reject its abstractions to be.
The homeless man doesn’t play the game of abstractions. As a result he has more free time than anyone could ever use. Whenever I see him he seems happy -at least his smile says so. But his smiling countenance also has an air of insanity about it. I often wonder if their really are bats in his belfry, or if we only see them because they differ from our own bats in our own respective belfries. In another culture he might be a guru, a shaman, or some other respected figure, but in ours where the only value a person has is derivative of how well they play this game of abstractions, people like me fear and avoid him.
The money economy which most of us buy into every time we pay our taxes or bills artificially interprets Real Life. Money takes the place of sunlight as the basis for our web of “Life.” Instead of plants gathering and storing this money we (the consumers) operate as the primary storage and collection units. Like sunlight, money is somewhat of an uncertain enterprise. Few, if any of us, can say with certainty that it will always be available to us, and as a result we try to get what we can while we can. At the basic level then, we are no better than the jar full of baby mantises which Annie Dillard describes in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Where the mantises eat each other in order to survive, we view, and ultimately treat each other according to what kind of monetary profit or loss we see in our fellow human beings thus obscuring the actual person altogether. Our bills are our buy in to the game of Life. Without a permanent address, a bank account, a drivers license, a car, a cell phone, and internet access we find it excruciatingly difficult if not impossible to participate in a money economy. Hence we make our mortgage payments, pay our phone bills, taxes and car insurance, all in the hope that we might be happier in the future and not have the life sucked out of us by our fellow humans. But whether or not we succeed, we all die, and we reach the after life (if there is one) realizing that we lived our entire lives chasing abstractions and ignoring the real world in which we lived.

Lake Daniel Park is moving into my neighborhood. Last week an enormous pile of wood shavings showed up at the base of the sugar maple that stands a few feet from my bedroom window. Some industrious carpenter had bored a hole squarely in the middle of the severed limb which the real estate company had removed when it threatened to fall on the house. The tree forks at about head height, with one arm ending abruptly in a stump that might one day save the house and the other continuing skyward and shading my window. Upon inspecting the opening, I found that what looked from the house like the two inch bore of a spade bit widened inside into a rounded, nest-like bowl the size of a basketball. The pair of yellow shafted flickers I later saw in the hole must have pounded their heads against the tree for hours in order to excavate this grotto
The clean white shavings piled at the base of the tree attest to the perseverance of these, nature’s carpenters. I have worked with maple, and I know it to be harder than many of the other woods these birds could have chosen for a home. Furthermore, there is a soft, rotten knothole on the opposite side of the tree that flickers might have chosen to excavate, rather than undertaking the task in the hard, live wood of this particular stump. I read once, that in front and back of a woodpecker’s brain, a soft, spongy substance acts as a shock absorber for its brain so that all the head pounding doesn’t cause brain damage or death. If these birds really did evolve from lizards, there must have been a great deal of death by head pounding somewhere along the evolutionary line due to the fact that most lizards lack brain shock absorbers. I like to think that inside of the birds head the brain is bouncing around like a ball in an intense game of squash. It must be hard to stay focused on drilling holes when you treat your grey matter like you would the contents of a can of paint in a paint shaker.
All things considered, though, a warm, dry hole in a tree, while harder to achieve than a simple nest, seems much more appealing. Looking inside of the flicker’s new home had me wishing that I could live in a home as simple and aptly suited to my real needs as theirs. Woodpeckers stay focused on life; simply by living close to the land, in a home that does not allow space for much more than raising several offspring, they live a fulfilled life. Their life does not focus on filling the nest with stockpiles of the bugs they eat; they live by a simple dependence on grace. Their entire existence -a tenuous strand of life strung precariously between birth and death.
In the gospel of Matthew Jesus says: “do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.” I’d like to write this passage across the inside of the compassionate conservative psyche where it could go about its work of fostering as much cognitive dissonance as possible. Thoreau writes of how we spend our days of health “laying up [treasure] against a sick day” but that in doing so we lose sight of the now. The yellow shafted flicker does not wager his illusions against the realities of life and death, but it lives in a world dominated by those who do.
Those who hoard have gained the upper hand in nature due, in large part, to the fact that human society has hoarded so much of nature’s abundance. Yesterday I witnessed a tragic battle between the hoarders and the flickers. Squirrels, nature’s bankers, decided that they liked the looks of the flicker’s new home and took it by force. The squirrels were simply bigger and stronger than the flickers were. Squirrels like current American society, live by an ethos of domination while yellow shafted flickers still cling to an ethos of cooperation and interdependence.
In human history dominator cultures have consistently wiped out cooperator cultures when the two collide. But dominator cultures are short lived while cooperator cultures offer sustainability. The sustainability movement in America provides a powerful argument for a return to the practices of cooperation, interdependence, and interconnection. Lake Daniel Park and its inhabitants provide a model by which we might observe some of these practices. The kingfisher shows us that to live in cooperation with the natural order requires patience and dependence on grace. The Yellow Shafted Flickers teach us that to live in the present, fully and completely, we must also learn how to fail; and the homeless man teaches that the economy of sunlight can provide a viable and sustainable alternative to our money economy.