The Hairy Ape

I take for granted my own living body most of the time. Specifically, that it exists, filling up real space in a real world. Most days, it seems easier to stick to “the facts.” I’m “Alex.” I live in “Paonia,” a small town in “Colorado.” I am a “writer.” I am “white.” I am a “man” who “loves” my “husband.” And so I, like most humans, live in a world of layered abstractions.

Take away the distractions of our high-flying egos, elaborate wordplay, and endlessly reproducing screens, however, and we humans are no more or less physical than any other living creature. We are real. We are animals, always. Meeting others. Every day we act and react, want and withdraw, shriek and flail, run and remain.

In my most recent essay for Orion, “8 Meetings Nobody Scheduled,” I’ve curated a short list of moments that have cut through abstraction and left me gasping in shock and surprise at the very real world and my own very physical presence in it.

Despite the tired cliche of the civilized man vs. the wild animal, I declare that to know your wildness is to be more sane. To know your animality is to be more wise. To know you are no more nor less than the other creatures you meet each day is to be more honest, humble, and free.

Write Your Manifesto

A week ago, a friend of mine asked me to speak to her class. Lauren was teaching her juniors and seniors how to write a personal manifesto. After hearing that I had written and published my own manifesto a few years ago, Lauren thought I’d be the perfect guest lecturer.

Here’s the thing: my manifesto is all about how to queer ecology. It challenges assumptions of sexuality and gender and naturalness. Lauren and I live in a rural town in western Colorado. People here ranch and hunt elk and wear cowboy boots.  I try not to stereotype people based on their appearance. I mean, I wear flannel and have a big beard and wear cowboy boots too. But I do know this community. There are very religious, very conservative families here. There’s a spray-painted sign as you enter town that says “Frack Obama.”  I was reasonably concerned that the high schoolers might not be too excited to hear about queering, not to mention ecology.

I wore cowboy boots to class. And good thing, because when I entered I found that the class consisted of six stone-faced teenage boys, some in camouflage, others cross-armed behind hoodies. Lauren handed over the reigns, and I stood at the board, a copy of my essay in hand, and acted as macho and confident as I could.

After a brief introduction, during which I did not mention queering nor ecology, I got them writing by asking them this:

Why are you angry? All the reasons big and small, why are you angry? Make a list or not. Offer explanation or not. Why are you angry?

After five minutes, during which they wrote furiously, I told them this:

If you had total power, god-like super-hero power, choose one of these things that you are mad about and then explain what you would change, and why.

After another five minutes of them writing, I stopped them and said:

This is a super-frustrating task, I know. You and I know that we don’t live in a world where we have total power. We never will. So what’s the point of thinking about the “IF”? It seems pointless to even contemplate.

BUT! Even though we will never be super heroes, I said, we still do have power to change the world. 

You can transform your anger into something that can convince people to make the change you wish to see. Convincing isn’t enough, though. You must also inspire people, too.

That is the manifesto.

We spent the next fifteen minutes talking about two manifestos that have shaped the world, my life, and my writing. The first one, to be fair, wasn’t a single manifesto but instead the collective works of Subcomandante Marcos, the public voice for the Zapatista indigenous rights movement of southern Mexico. For the last 20 years, Marcos has been informing the larger global audience about the struggles of the Zapatistas and the reasons why they continue to declare autonomy from the Mexican federal government. The Zapatistas offer many lessons for largely-peaceful social change movements, but Marcos in particular offers an example of someone writing from the place of immense pain and anger in an elegant and even entertaining way. Marcos convinces and inspires people within the Zapatista movement as well as millions of global citizens outside the movement. He has changed the shape of the world through his words.

The second manifesto I offered as example was Larry Kramer’s “1,112 and Counting.” Kramer was a gay man in New York City during the height of the AIDS epidemic–I told the six high school boys–and he was very angry and very scared. He was watching his friends and family die all around him, and he was watching the city, state, and nation do nothing to stem the deaths. He transformed his anger into a biting critique that he published in the New York Native on March 14, 1983. The manifesto presented Kramer’s anger, but it also offered hope in the form of action. It focused the gay community to fight back against the disease and the institutional injustices that allowed the disease to cut down an entire segment of the US population without so much as an official announcement by the President of the United States. Kramer convinced and inspired.

With a few minutes left of class, I finally told the high school boys why I was mad. As an out gay man, I was very angry that people claimed gay people were unnatural. And so I had written into that anger, and I had tried to transform that anger into a story that could inspire, convince, and entertain.

I stood at the center of the room and read “How to Queer Ecology” to the class. I read about same-sex pair-bonded geese and the fluid sexual behavior of dolphins and how natural it feels for me to be held in the arms of the man I love.

When I finished, I thanked them for letting me join them for the day. That’s when Lauren and the boys began clapping. They clapped! Of all the best possible responses I had imagined that morning, I had not dared to hope that these six rural high school boys would clap for me.

And so, here’s one more thing about a manifesto: if you can muster the courage to look into the face of your own anger and own it, and then if you can transform that anger into a story that can move people, that can empower people, that can convince and inspire and entertain, then you can change the world. Because you will have empowered yourself. You will have found your voice. You will know what you need to do.

Here’s the really crazy thing: others will see how you have empowered yourself, will hear your voice, and they will want to speak up too. After class, as I was signing out at the front desk, the boy in camouflage stopped halfway out the door, turned to me, and said:

“Thank you for sharing what you did today in class.”

My heart shook with gladness and hope, cowboy boots and all.

When the rains don’t come

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA sprightly woman 70-years-young walked into my office a year ago.  I’d grown used to the constant interruptions that came with working at a healthy conservation non-profit in a vibrant Colorado farm town on the edge of the wild Rockies.  People had their opinions, their questions, and above all, their unsolicited suggestions.  As the communications coordinator, my job was to listen to everybody who wanted to talk. To say, yes, you’re right, that is a good idea.  Or, yes, that is a reasonable concern.  Or, sure, I’ll have a cookie.

I had already pegged this particular community member as one of the isn’t-our-town-the-best-town-in-all-the-world contingent–but I hadn’t expected her to also be a part of the even more extreme shit’s-going-down-sometime-soon-so-we-better-prepare-for-it-here-and-now crew.  She’d brought in a flyer for an event she was organizing that week at the art center: an evening of community discussion about how we can prepare.  Just what she was thinking we needed to prepare for, I wasn’t sure.  Systematic collapse, I supposed.  I didn’t go to the event to find out.

I tend to scoff at apocalyptic talk.  It sounds a little too much like Revelations.  Besides the gay thing, that final book of the Bible was probably one of the larger contributing factors to my exodus from Christianity.  Blood and ash, really?  Burning skies?  The living dead?  Horsemen of death?! No thanks.

Last year, though, western Colorado, like much of the country, was being hit by a very severe drought.  Farmers had to harvest their hay early and sell their livestock.  The forests turned into tinder.  Driving the five-hours east to Denver, I felt as though I could have lit any hillside ablaze with a single match.  Anybody could start a maelstrom.  I heard reports of fires, big ones, and saw their smoke drift in from around the state.  Whole neighborhoods burned, whole mountainsides.  Many of the fires began from the most mundane sources: a chain bouncing along the road, a broken muffler, even somebody’s target-practice bullets.  Wildfire gets a lot more real when anything and everything could burn.

The reservoirs, which had been overly full from a big snow winter the year prior, were now running on empty.  Having grown up in the Midwest, going to school up on the Great Lakes, living as an adult in Alaska and Montana, for the first time in my life, I lived somewhere where the water was running out.  Fortunately, my small town has access to a few reliable springs that flow out from the base of the West Elk peaks that rise to an elevation of 12,000 feet just a few miles east of town.  Even if the river ran dry (which it did by August) with the little surface water diverted into the irrigation canals which were slowly forced to shut off one by one, the town still had its municipal supply of water.  And our valley, unlike more populated, lower-lying areas in the southwest United States, only needed one good snow year to top off our reservoirs once again.  Even so, it was a drought.  Not the end of the world.

Apocalyptic PlanetToward the end of the summer, I volunteered for a local writer’s book reading.  Craig Child’s book, titled Apocalyptic Planet, is “a field guide to the everending earth.”  In the book, as well as at the reading, Craig shared a series of natural history stories from around the world, places where Craig dug into the past of each respective place and gave the audience a deep and often disturbingly violent story of upheaval and change.  It turns out that the planet is dynamic.  It is constantly turning over, reshaping itself.  In the book, he points out that according to our current understanding of the globe, humans arose as a species, and our civilizations with us, during a particularly pleasant time to be on Earth.  Sure, there is still cataclysm, but there have been greater floods, bigger impacts, drier droughts than what humans have known in our short time on the planet. Instead of using these stories as justifications to continue our course of global change, however, Craig carefully constructs the feeling that the balance we’ve got right now is something we probably shouldn’t choose to throw to the wind.  We are living in a world finely balanced, but this particular global climate state is more of a rarity than we might have imagined, and more easily lost than we might guess.

Since reading his book and hearing Craig speak, I’ve heard other people talking about the long-time perspective as well–and not in the most cheery ways.  Particularly out west, there’s reason to be concerned about water.   My friend and fellow small-town resident, radio producer Julia Kumari-Drapkin, recently produced a piece for This American Lifes global warming episode.  The whole episode is spot-on, more about the dialogue of climate change than the current science of it.  Julia’s piece in particular is both captivating and a little bit heart-breaking.  The story delves into last year’s drought in Colorado and the struggle scientists have to give news they don’t think people want to hear.

The news, in our particular case, was about the droughts of the future, the droughts that the climate models are predicting, the droughts exacerbated by anthropogenic (human-made) climate change.  What the climatologists are beginning to tell the public is that the drought of 2012 could look like an average year within a decade or two.  These future droughts look eerily similar to the  sort of droughts that Craig chronicles in his book, the ones that have been marked in the recent geologic record across the western United States.  We’re not talking about the dust bowl.  We’re talking about droughts that last centuries.  Droughts when there are no good snow years–for three hundred years.  Reach even farther back in the geologic record, and we are talking about droughts that are very difficult to imagine: thousand-year-droughts, that then, aren’t really droughts, but instead a complete shift in climate regimes.  Think large dune complexes in Nebraska, dry grasslands in Minnesota, think a whole lot of desert everywhere west.

This NASA climate model video of projected rainfall changes particularly struck close-to-home.  I recently moved from Colorado to the central Sierras in California to work on a restoration crew in Yosemite National Park.  The long-term precipitation outlook for California and the southwest looks grim.  I get to spend my time out in the high alpine of the Sierras, restoring habitat for rare species like the Yosemite Toad and other sovereign creatures.  And yet, what will happen to them when the big drought hits?  What will happen to these entire ecosystems?  Then there are the people: what will happen to the cities of the Southwest?  To the agriculture of western Colorado?  To the springs at the base of the West Elks?

No one knows what will happen, but one thing for certain is that change is inevitable.  What sort of change, well, I suppose we still have some say in the matter.  I’m going to keep restoring habitat.  And I’m going to keep demanding my government to curb greenhouse gases.  As Bill McKibben is warning in his current Do The Math campaign, climate change is beyond each of our own individual control.  If we are going to curb carbon, it’s going to be a global effort.

We cannot stop change.  In fact, no “balance” on this planet will ever be permanent.  This dynamic world is constantly shifting from one form to another.  Rather than accelerating global change, toward any number of possible future conditions while preparing for collapse, but I’d rather fight hard to hold onto what we’ve got for as long as we can keep it.