(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2012)
“More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.” Woody Allen
The stock market was way up yesterday on news that Bank of America announced that he (being a gigantic person according to the Supreme Court) plans to cut sixteen thousand jobs by Christmas. How nice. What a fine and humane time to fire sixteen thousand people in order to increase quarterly profits for a quarter or two.
“Everything in life matters and ultimately has a place, an impact and a meaning.” Laurens Van Der Post
So I was in the hardware store buying screws and varnish and masking tape and grout and glue, and having a laugh with the fellow helping me find things (about the trials and tribulations and triumphs and compromises of fixing things), when a couple entered the store and my Super Wealthy People alarm went off. That is to say, having grown up in Atherton, a town that is not really a town but an enclave for super wealthy people and those who serve them, a shiver passes through me when one or more of these folks comes near, and then I try to get away as fast as I can.
The woman was elegant and beautiful and perfectly coiffed and wearing a gray silk dress and a strand of fat white pearls and these amazingly svelte red leather boots, an ensemble that probably cost as much as most people’s cars, and the man was wearing a shirt and trousers I would more likely frame and put on the wall than wear. As is the habit of many super wealthy people, the woman walked up to the fellow helping me find things and began speaking to him as if I did not exist and he and I were not already having a conversation, because as far as this beautiful wealthy woman was concerned I was invisible.
“I know you probably don’t carry the kind of thing we’re looking for,” she said to the fellow who had previously been helping me find things. Then she laughed in a sophisticated sort of way and added, “This being Mendocino and all, but…we’re looking for poison. To kill weeds.”
“Oh, we’ve got poison for killing weeds,” said the fellow who had previously been helping me find things. “What kind of weeds are you wanting to kill?”
“They have it,” she said, turning to her husband who was peering into his phone and frowning gravely. “Tell him what we want it for.”
“We have a place here,” said her husband, flourishing his phone like a baton. “About a mile south of here. We only get up here a few times a year and there are these weeds that grow in the gravel driveway. We have them pulled, but then they come back. We want to kill them for good. Do you have a poison that will do that?”
Another fellow who helps me find things in the hardware store beckoned to me and I moved away from the Super Wealthy people to pay for my purchases and make my escape, but not until I heard the fellow who had previously been helping me say to the super wealthy people, “Well, I don’t know that anything will kill weeds forever. Even the strongest poison eventually dissipates.”
“Oh,” said the woman, pouting in a sophisticated sort of way, “but it’s so annoying to turn into our driveway and find those weeds there again.”
“Well,” said the fellow who had previously been helping me, “you could always pave the driveway. Weeds don’t grow through asphalt.”
“But we like the gravel,” said the woman. “The rustic feeling of the tires crunching on the gravel.”
“How about something that would last five years?” said the man, nodding authoritatively. “Or three? We could have someone apply it every three years.”
“There’s only two things that money can’t buy—that’s true love and home-grown tomatoes.” Guy Clark
I was thinking about those super wealthy people and the poison they wanted to buy as I was reading about the suddenly vanishing Greenland ice sheet, a shocking turn of events that even the most savvy of ice sheet scientists hadn’t expected to happen for some decades, if ever. And now the ice is gone. The ramifications of this astonishing disappearance can hardly be imagined, but oceans rising and catastrophic weather events are certainly to be expected; and there is nothing to be done about this unfolding disaster in the short term except to fasten our seatbelts, so to speak. In the long term, we can stop burning fossil fuels and, it seems to me, stop using poison to kill weeds in gravel driveways.
Oh, I don’t know. Maybe I’m being unfair. Maybe I’m no more environmentally responsible than those weed killing wealthy people. After all, I drive a little truck that runs on gasoline and I turn on myriad electric lights to banish the darkness, and I use a computer and buy clothes made in China. And, in truth, people of all economic classes in America use poison to kill weeds. We all contribute to the sum total synergy wreaking havoc on the natural world, and we all have the opportunity to lessen our contributions, if only we will.
In related news, the net worth of the four hundred richest Americans grew by thirteen percent in the past year to 1.7 trillion dollars, while twenty-eight states report large increases in unemployment. Hmm. The stock market goes up when corporations fire lots of people, and the four hundred richest Americans, philanthropists all, I’m sure, keep getting richer and richer, and at an accelerating pace, just as the ice sheets are melting at an accelerating pace.
“There are two ways of seeing objects, one being simply to see them, and the other to consider them attentively.” Nicolas Poussin
I learned about the phenomenon of ephemeralization from reading Buckminster Fuller’s Critical Path, which Bucky defines in his stream-of-consciousness way as “the invisible chemical, metallurgical, and electronic production of ever-more-efficient and satisfyingly effective performance with the investment of ever-less weight and volume of materials per unit function formed or performed.” An illustration of this would be that the first moderately successful computer was the size of a huge office building and nowadays our little personal computers are thousands of times faster and more efficient and sophisticated than that original behemoth.
Bucky believed that ephemeralization would ultimately provide humanity with everything we needed to live successfully on spaceship earth without our needing to keep burning fossil fuels and destroying the environment. He also believed that computers and the worldwide interweb could provide the means for a shift in global awareness that would bring an end to war and overpopulation and the mistreatment of women and children and the needless destruction of the environment. Alas, computers and the worldwide interweb have not saved us, nor have they slowed our ravenous gobbling of the forests and oceans and mountains. Indeed, as our computers have gotten smaller and faster, the poor have gotten more plentiful and the richest four hundred people…
“There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” Edith Wharton
Many years ago I ran the Creative Writing program at the California State Summer School for the Arts, my students talented teens, one of whom, a sassy eighteen-year-old vixen, presented me with the book of poems Rain by William Carpenter, and said, “I want to have this man’s child.”
I read the book that night and found his poems as exciting as great short stories. I then wrote to Bill Carpenter and he and I eventually became pen pals. I told him that I was using his poems to inspire my young charges, and that certain of his poems seemed to help unlock their creative flow. Here is one of those poems that came to mind as I was writing this essay.
THE ECUADORIAN SAILORS
The Ecuadorian sailors arrive in Bucksport.
They stare at the American girls who stand
on the oil wharf in shorts and halters, eating
pistachio ice cream in the long Maine afternoons
as the sun drops behind the refinery. Evenings,
the Ecuadorians gather on deck. From the town hall
you can hear their slow, passionate music
as one of the officers, immaculately dressed,
sings something about love, about a man murdered,
a woman stolen in the night. The Bucksport girls
throw daisies to the Ecuadorians, who place them
behind their ears, and the officer sings about
a flower blooming in a forgotten place. The next
morning, the girls wear yellow flowers between
their breasts, but the sailors do not see them.
They want to shop in the American stores. They move
through Bucksport talking rapidly. Soon they find
Laverdiere’s Discount Drug Store, where you can buy
anything. A line of Ecuadorian sailors streams
from the ship down Main Street to Laverdiere’s.
Another line returns, carrying brown paper bags.
Where the two meet, they talk and touch fingers
like ants describing the source of food and pleasure.
Some have small bags with radios and calculators,
others have large mysterious bags. Two of them
carry a color television while a third holds the
rabbit-ear antenna and tells them where not to step.
One solitary man carries a red snow shovel, as if,
when he brings the shovel home to Ecuador, it
will snow in his village for the first time since
the Pleistocene. When Laverdiere’s closes, girls
come to the ship with long dresses and daisies
plaited in their hair. The air fills with music
from guitars, with emotions like red and blue rain-
forest parrots that no one in Bucksport has ever seen.
Each Ecuadorian sailor invites a girl to dance
and speaks to her in Spanish, which she understands
fluently, like a lost native language, like words
uttered by eloquent red parrots in a country where
it is always afternoon. At night, among the oil tanks,
the girls all become women. They go to their houses
before dawn, but they are not the same, they have
new languages, new bodies, they have grown darker
and will wear flowers forever between their breasts,
even when the sailors have returned to Ecuador, even
when they marry and take their clothes off for the
first time in a lighted room, the flowers will be there
like indelible tattoos. Their husbands will grow silent
as winter, but it will not matter, they will teach
their children three or four words of Spanish, a song
about red parrots crying in a place of sunlight where
it never snows, and where the heart is everything.