I began writing this essay on the morning of the 4th of July, 2007. It was a beneficent morning on the coast of Maine where I live. Cloudless sky, soft breeze, temperature in the seventies, a few warblers --- black-throated greens & chestnut-sided --- calling. Which is a pleasure. There are not many left. A few minutes ago, when I was outside, a young deer jumped out from browsing under the apple trees and loped down the dirt driveway. A beautiful sight. But it seems I see all the beauty of nature through a scrim of nostalgia, as though it's an anachronism, its heyday disappearing like the young deer's white flag of a tail into the shadows of the woods.
I've been struggling for some time now to properly identify just how I feel at this moment in our history. It's complicated. And I have been unable to find the right words or metaphor. But then I remembered a time when I was young, back in the 1950s, when my family used to drive from Cincinnati to Nantucket Island to spend the month of August. Just saying that tells you that I was a privileged kid. My father worked for Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati. But the story I want to tell has, in most important ways, no particular bearing on that privilege.
My older brother Jay --- the summer I am remembering, we were 12 and 10 years old --- was obsessed with animals and insects. For several years I had been his Sancho Panza (a plump little guy, I fit the part), tagging along after him through brush and woods, fields and marshes snatching up beetles and frogs, snakes and butterflies for his collections. Mornings on Nantucket, mornings exactly like this morning in Maine, we would get on our bikes and pedal down the main road, turn onto a dirt track into the moors, until we came to a spot he had discovered. Nantucket, then, was not so obviously the claustrophobic, pink-slacked, trophy-homed bastion it has become today. Much less populated, time seemed slow then, traffic minimal, the salt air quiet except for occasional gulls crying as they drifted by like shreds of a brilliant white wedding gown. How Jay knew where we were going I never knew. The rolling moors, bristling with scrub oak and beach plum nearly as dense as Brillo pads, and bathed in the fragrance of sweet fern, like comfortably familiar body odor, looked all the same to me. And our destination, the Goop Pond, was invisible from where we flopped our bikes on the sandy edge of the jeep trail.
Dressed in bathing suits, sneakers and tee shirts and carrying long-handled nets, we pushed through the scratchy low growth, over a slight rise, until we came upon a large round, sunken pond. We called it the Goop Pond because it wore a wide collar of black muck that reeked of sulfurous decay. If our sneakers weren't tight, it sucked them off. As though we were tracking large game, we snuck up on the pond. Stealth was mandatory because we were stalking turtles. If we moved slowly and quietly enough, the dark pond surface would appear studded with the silhouetted heads of painted and snapping turtles, like hundreds of thumbs sticking up from the tannic water to breathe. Others would be basking on the shore or on half-submerged clumps of pond weed. But slopping through the sucking mud always alerted them. We would ease ourselves into the water, and then stand carefully on the woven mat of sphagnum moss that was suspended about eighteen inches below the surface. If we were very still, the turtles would surface again, and if they were close enough, we could swipe at them with our nets.
And here is where my recollection of this time provides the metaphor for today's world. Although Jay was fearless, I was as terrified as I was excited. Some of the snappers in the Goop Pond were enormous, bigger around than hubcaps. And, as they were survivors of the age of dinosaurs, I imagined distilled in them sixty-five million years of reptilian ferocity. Not really an exaggeration. One crunching snap could remove a boy's toe or finger. As we stood stock still, our pale shins looked like narrow sticks of drift wood, and turtles swimming under water would frequently bump into them. The crucial element, though, was the sphagnum mat we were standing on. It was not unlike how I envisaged walking on clouds. At any moment it would give way. One leg plunged through, dangling suddenly in the seemingly bottomless and much colder water underneath, where, I was sure, the mammoth snappers were lurking, waiting, salivating, for a 10 year old boy's tender leg. I had heard stories of swimming, buoyant ducks yanked into the depths by the big snappers. Withdrawing the dangling appendage was tricky. It was like being caught in a Chinese puzzle. One had to lie down in the water, supported by the moss, and ease the leg out. Too much panicked thrashing and your whole body would break through. Being the heavy kid that I was, this happened to me often --- although I don't remember ever thinking that losing weight might be a remedy. It was sheer, unmitigated terror of the false bottom and the monster beneath.
And there it is. The false bottom. The thinly woven layer of myths and lies and fantasies, advertising jingles and arrogance and unreality that we are walking on. As though it will support our overweight appetites. The more we repress our terror, the more fanatical our belief in the false bottom. The only reality that our government and media foster is the reality of the "reality show," the reality that is totally managed, totally false. The reality of the silicone breast, the imbedded reporter, the development of resources ( as in, clear cutting the rain forests), economic expansion, necessary collateral damage, security based on militarism rather than justice, environmental solution by dilution, credit card debt, the official lie. Hal Crowther says, "It's a cruel irony that just as reality itself is banished from America's forebrain, the word 'reality' has become a relentless, unavoidable part of popular culture."
We are obsessed with unreality so that we might dream on in Foreverland. But nature's reality lurks below. The giant snapping turtle of resource depletion, climate change, species extinction, habitat destruction, poverty, overpopulation, materialism, cellular toxicity and imperialism is stretching its jaws. Nature has been distilling its ferocity for 65 million years. Our legs are dangling through. We are starring in our own horror movie, pretending though, as we stuff our faces with popcorn and M & Ms, we are watching someone else's movie. Getting vicarious thrills from our own precarious situation. Having separated ourselves from our responsibilities to the Earth and each other, will we drift like disembodied ghosts, watching the inexorable destruction of our own bodies, children, and futures?
Will we enjoy it?
I don't think so. In fact, I think we are waking up. We are re-embodying ourselves and our spirits. We are fed up with false bottoms and the people who promote them. If, for no other reason, we owe it to the turtles.
Robert Shetterly lives in Brooksville, Maine www.americanswhotellthetruth.org