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
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
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
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
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."
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
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: firstname.lastname@example.org