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April 1998
Us and Stuff

By Tim Keating


When I was a boy, I had a deep and nagging sense that all things had inherent value. Every piece of stuff I came across was, in its own right, important. My eyes constantly scanning my surroundings, I'd spy things in the gutter or in the woods--rocks, feathers, bits of bone, toy parts. I drove my mother crazy with my need to adopt every orphaned thing: "Mommy, here. Save this for me." This sense eventually set me apart from the rest of this culture. That's not to say that Society hasn't tried to beat it out of me. I grew up in New Jersey, in the heart of consumer culture: sprawling suburbia claiming land and river and forest, industry spewing soot and smell, cars flatulating filth, the TV almost always on.

But, even though I participated in this, I was always seen as a bit "different" by my peers and family. I never seemed to be able to let go of things, never seemed able to think of anything as "garbage." What people didn't know--and what I never let on--was that all these things, this "stuff," spoke to me. It had voice and intellect. I look back now and of course realize that it was a translation I heard. But I also realize, again, that it was not my voice--at least, not in the conventional sense. What I was experiencing was an interchange that has been taking place since the big bang--an internal and eternal dialogue between all matter. Between "us" and "stuff."

Alterations and Abominations

Thankfully, that sense has not left me. Now, after more than 35 years of social training, I have come full circle to experience again this dialogue. Let me tell you what I "hear."

When I see a newspaper, I "hear" forest. It says to me, "tree." Strong, tall, old--older than you--undergrowth, insects crawling, birds among me, stretching into the sky, reaching for the sun, plunging for the water, sheltering, feeling wind, rustling. And slicing, falling, crashing, roaring, grinding, burning, rolling, binding, suffocating. Call me nuts, I can't help it. That's what I hear and feel. When I touch paper I touch living tree. It's the same with all things. My mind hears the inner language of the substance: wood, stone, metal, plastic. All are Earth, life manifest as physical; cavalierly transformed--oppressed--by humans into alterations and abominations. Yet, for me, they retain their original spirit. I still hear their voices and the voice of the Earth through them.

Somewhere along the way, our culture has lost the reverence for materials. We chose to shut out the voices. This was a necessary expedience, as we rose to claim possession of all we saw. We now wage war on matter. To worship our civilization's god of economic growth, we necessarily enslave substances seen as less valuable than us. There's an interesting cartoon from the late 1980s' battle for the Northwest forests. Two loggers are sitting on a horizontal log; behind them stretching into the distance is an unbroken field of stumps. One logger is saying to the other, "I love the outdoors. Nature really speaks to me." Apparently, his translation is different than mine.

In his book, How Much Is Enough, Alan Durning says that "consumer societies are commonly labeled materialistic, but in a deeper sense they are the opposite.... Wendell Berry argues, materialistic people would care about--and care for--material things, not just consume them."


This I know: matter--and stuff of the Earth--is not meant to be ignored. We are meant to converse with the Earth and the substance of the Earth. There is no separation between us and this stuff. We are the same: you and I, tree and me, rock and river and air and breath and lung and heart and heartwood. You are not meant to be in that trash can, ignored, oppressed, silenced. You are not meant to be enslaved as part of that machine, used to oppress still more of you.

Crazy? Now it is I who see others as strange, as not quite all there. I know the voice to be wholeness, completeness, connecting me to all that is. I hear it. I can touch it, feel it, feel the beat of the heart of the Earth pulsing in it. Can you?

Tim Keating is Executive Director of Rainforest Relief and coordinator of Cooperative Ecological Communities. For more information about both, contact: P.O. Box 150566, Brooklyn, NY 11215. Tel.: 718-832-6775. Fax: 212-338-0049. E-mail:


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