July 1st, two weeks ago, was moving day in Montreal. Between 200,000 to 240,000 people moved their residences.The streets were filled up with worn out mattresses, broken furniture, and garbage bags of trash, recyclables, and reusable objects, all thrown together highly piggy because their owners were too rushed or too uninterested to sort out their stuff, or to take the still usable items to the local Salvation Army or Renaissance thrift stores.
It is shocking and saddening to watch these folks, who are clearly not well to do (most of them are moving themselves with the help of friends), being so wasteful with their possessions. It is as if the physical world has no meaning or reality for them. They have taken as a fact of living that it is normal to buy then to trash; to buy then to trash; to buy then to trash; and to repeat this process ad infinitum as if the resources of the earth are unlimited and they will have access to these resources forever!
But there is a secondary assumption at work here, and that is the belief that taking care of one’s stuff is somehow demeaning work! The goal appears to be to grow wealthy so that one can hire another person (less rich or lucky) to clean up and take care of one’s rapidly accumulating stuff.
So the skills of cleaning, tidying, repairing, and ordering are no longer learned nor respected. Once the skill of sewing is forgotten, a rip in a garment sentences the piece of clothing to the garbage unless one has the money and time to take it to a seamstress to be fixed. The ability to fix broken furniture is beyond the knowledge of most people even if all that is needed is wood glue & clamps. And in a disposable culture such as ours, the time needed to learn these skills makes the learning not worth doing. It is cheaper and faster to buy it new.
There also seems to me a final reason that what the care of things demands is beyond our present day understanding or interest. The world of objects, of our stuff, operates in the physical sphere which is bounded by time and energy, unlike the virtual world. It takes discipline and the ability to stay focussed to organize and pack up a household, to take on these mundane tasks in the physical world; and this is qualitatively different than our experience in instantaneous online reality where most of us spend so much of our time.
Is it any surprise then that, as we are unable take care of the simple objects that make up our households, we find the natural world with its complexity, its vastly slower and infinitely longer time; and its profound subtleties beyond our understanding or concern?
Some of the things I do here in Dallas, like walking, are seen as something only a Yankee would do, though I think that taking the bus is a very Southern tradition especially for working people-think of the Montgomery bus strike.
Certainly, my experience of using the bus system here in Dallas has been very different than using the bus and metro system in Montreal. One similarity (and a good one it is!) is that in both places I, as a senior (over sixty-five years old), can buy a monthly pass for $40 U.S. (49$ CAD, which is roughly the same price).
The big difference seems to be that the transit system in Dallas is not the first choice for getting around town. The buses are busy during the morning and evening rush hours, but are almost empty on the weekends. They also run on once an hour schedules during the weekends. Sometimes I have been the only person on the bus or the DART trains in the middle of a Saturday afternoon!
It is a peculiar sensation to wait for a bus or a train in a deserted station or all alone at a bus stop. In Montreal, there are always people in the trains, or getting out at my stop even if it is after midnight on a Friday or Saturday night! But here the preference for the young & hip is Uber.
The mass transit here is also, like the neighbourhoods, de facto segregated by income, race, and ethnicity. Almost all the passengers are people of color, either working folks or indigents. However, I have found the atmosphere on the buses very warm and welcoming, much of which is the result of engaged drivers and a Southern feeling for hospitality even to strangers.
The drivers too are, almost to a person, very considerate of their passengers. The buses have a ramp that can be let down to allow people in wheelchairs to roll up more easily into the bus. Then the drivers must get out of their seats to attach the wheelchairs to the bus. And when the disabled person needs to get off, the drivers have to disconnect the chairs again, and let down (and then take up) the ramps. This is a very important service that the Dallas transit offers their customers, but as there is no one on board to help the drivers with this job, the buses often run behind schedule!
So, once again, a better choice for transportation is in place, but the difficulty is getting people to opt for this choice, and by upping the ridership, create improvements to the service.
This is my lovely bucket of kitchen scraps: lemon rinds, coffee grinds, avocado pits, carrot ends, beet skins, and Chinese cabbage leaves. One half of all the garbage I generate in my kitchen is from my mainly plant-based diet. But I am bereft! I am a compost orphan. I wander the streets of my very well kept, highly manicured neighbourhood looking for a place to dump my compost!
Occasionally a landscaping company comes through the condo compound where I live; and the guys with the loud leaf blowers kindly allow me to add what they call my “organics” to the bags of leaves that they collect and haul off to some distant leaf composting station which I have yet to locate.
But I generate too much compost too fast, and I am on my second bucket by the time they come back two weeks later. I have tried neighbours, but no one here gardens! (It is a lovely community artfully landscaped, but a virtual green desert.) I went and asked at all the local groceries including Whole Foods: no joy! Even the local juicing place doesn’t compost (sigh*).
I will admit to being very spoiled. When I lived in the country in Vermont, I had composting piles out back by the garden beds. Even in Providence, Rhode Island, a good sized city, I was able to build a small compost heap behind my apartment building. And then, of course, there is Montreal, which just instituted curb-side compost pickup (be still my heart!) last year in my neighbourhood (Verdun).
I have even considered starting a worm farm in my apartment. But though it would take care of the kitchen scraps by turning them into fabulous worm castings, perfect for fertilizing a garden, I would then be reduced to trying to find a place to donate the worm fertilizer. Also, this is a temporary stay for me, and my daughter is adamant that she will not adopt the worms when I return North.
It is times like this that I have the unsettling feeling that I have moved to an alternative reality!
In a recent blog post, I wrote briefly about a family that became disconnected from their past: their connection to the land, their cooking traditions, and their own bodies. This happened over three generations as the family members made radical changes to fit into the rapid revolution of the society around them. Like most Americans, they believed that what everyone else was doing must be right, and progress can never be wrong.
Except in our present dilemma, the mainstays of our progress “cheap, fast, & easy” are wrong; and they are sickening us and will eventually lead to our destruction. But why can’t most of us understand this, and why are we not focussed on saving ourselves and our planet (which are clearly the same thing)?!
Many people I know who are concerned about the destruction of our ecosphere are asking the same question, but many more are avoiding the whole subject. This is very troubling and makes me wonder if our species is suicidal or just hopelessly narcissistic. Happily, much smarter people than I have written books answering this question, the best of which are George Marshall’s Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, and Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. (Margaret Heffernan’s Willful Blindness is also a good read on this topic.)
The bad news is that the ecodestruction we are experiencing is part of what is termed a “wicked problem” in opposition to a “tame problem.” A wicked problem is multivalent, incomplete, contradictory, constantly changing, and complex. It is also, in case you haven’t noticed, very anxiety-producing! And we humans have many strategies to cope with extreme anxiety, from denial to avoidance to willful blindness. The silence we see in main stream media is a reflection of the lack of discussion of environmental destruction and extreme climate change within families.
The good news is that many societies far less wealthy or technologically advanced than ours managed to create a healthy lifestyle over a very long period of time while maintaining and even improving their environment, and we can use them as templates for our own problems. The connections that can be found between a Highland New Guinean community that has been living well on the same ground for close on 46,000 years (!) and early 21st century Americans seems to reside in a localization of information about the environment and how to best use it. The first necessity seems to me to pay a patient and profound attention to both the great and small expressions of the natural world.
And this brings me back to my typical American family: urbanized, insulated from Nature by technology (did I fail to mention that this family has a television in every room and runs the TV from the moment they awake to the minute they go to sleep?), and unaware of the changes in the natural world around them. But they are not alone in this. Most people in my neighborhood have their properties sprayed with pesticides and have the leaves that are falling at this time of year collected and carted off the grounds. My own daughter views a spider or a roach that has found its way into our apartment to be a terrifying apparition!
So what I am suggesting is not a radical “naturalization” (for want of a better word) of our lives, but, to begin with, a small more localized awareness of our environment. Pay attention to the trees, the birds, the insects, the small mammals that are your neighbors. One of the interesting things about going to live for a couple of months in a very different environment is how amazing the flora and fauna are here compared to where I come from! https://www.facebook.com/dfwurbanwildlife.page/?hc_ref=ARTxkOeVeA9-Xmx2bf4jx0RRVuRJbD-q2E-2XeQTY7QaaBnlviR5Qv7NtvzAqnen_UM
One of the reasons that I moved to Montreal, Canada eight years ago (beside it being the best place to dance tango in North America!) was the amount of wild nature that can be seen even in the heart of the city. I have raccoons, skunks, foxes, raptors, ground hogs (what the French call marmots) near my apartment in Verdun (though I would prefer a bit more distance from the skunks and raccoons!). There is an ethical value to letting a bit of wildness into your neighbourhood (and that includes not manicuring your garden into a green desert): it will give you a more realistic idea of our place in the natural order, and will work against the human folly of arrogance.
So take a break once in a while from the man-made world (I don’t call this the “unnatural” world: we, each and every one of us, are creatures of nature): turn off the machines, close down the screens, shut out the mechanical noise. Even at her most domestic and everyday level, Nature is far more engrossing, complex, and subtle than anything invented by humans. And for a wake up call on what is the real bedrock of our world and our health, check out The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health by David Montgomery & Anne Bilké!
Because if we are not even aware of the natural world around us today, if we don’t even pay attention to it in our everyday lives, how can we be expected to care about its future planetwide demise?!