Chewing More Than the Fat
To be sane in a mad time is bad for the brain, worse for the heart. The world is a holy vision, had we clarity to see it --- a clarity that men depend on men to make.
-Wendell Berry, The Mad Farmer Manifesto: The First Amendment
It's well known that a coyote, when caught in a steel, leg hold trap, will sometimes chew through its own flesh and bones to free itself. The quality of determination and desperation necessary for such an escape is hard to imagine --- not to speak of the strength of the coyote's teeth and jaw. And I wonder if this act is always carried out in isolation, or the coyote's mate --- its kits? --- sometimes observes, encourages, commiserates. The animal faces a choice between two fates: remain trapped and die --- by starvation or trapper's bullet, or gnaw through the leg and perhaps survive the wound and make do with three legs. Presumably, the determining factors are fear and pain and instinct. The will to be free of the anchored steel trap with its crunching teeth is paramount. Humans have been known to do the same, amputate an appendage with a knife when any other form of escape is unlikely. Such a single minded act can seem at once foolhardy and heroic, insane and eminently sane.
For a trapped being, all abstract and philosophical notions of freedom evaporate. Gone is the luxury of reflection, the counting of blessings, the range of memory. The coyote's stealthy errand to feed its young, the soldier's relationship to duty, the traveler's anticipation for the unseen, the student's musings on the meaning of life, the worker's calculation for the parceling out of the paycheck ---- all gone, puff, as quickly and surely as a sailor's admiration for the wind filled belly of the jib when a black squall suddenly bears down. The only thought, if fear can be controlled enough to think, is the one thrumming in the taught wire strung between spine and heart and brain. The fact, the blaring reality of this moment's fact, is all that exists. Act now, or accept death.
Moments of entrapment also exist with the victim being unaware, the peril insidious or purposely obscured. No snap of steel jaws, no immediate pain. For instance, we bite into a juicy tomato and swallow cancer causing pesticides, or quench our thirst with cool water and, simultaneously, with not so cool PCBs, dioxin, and mercury. That's not the time for preemptive surgery by tooth or knife. Rather, it's the time for political and moral action. One asks, "Who has the right to pollute the necessities of life, endanger my life and the lives of my neighbors and children, to enhance their profit? Why is that allowed? When we talk about a system of, by and for the people, who replaced the word 'people' with 'corporations'? How can we change it? What is government for?" We know today that an adequate response is not just to eat organic and drink bottled water. Our country, having made pernicious practice for many years of solution by dilution, has designated every person, plant and animal, no matter how protected or far flung, as a chemical waste storage facility, each one of us a superfund site. Still, most folks prefer resignation and denial to action, accept complicity with corporate profit. Even though that profit is not theirs, and, in fact, harms them, they reject confrontation. Most folks have been so brainwashed --- why call it anything else --- to celebrate the gross national product as the apotheosis of democracy that they have willingly made collateral damage of themselves, laid themselves out on the alter of the corporate church, said, "Yes, cut my heart out, just give me five minutes more to shop." Isn't it curious that the worship of the golden calf is now called Christianity as well as democracy? Foremost among the many entitlements of being God's chosen is the comfort of self-deception.
But think for a moment about climate change. That trap has sprung. Our leg is in it, and the water is rising. Even Exxon, Peabody Coal and Fox News couldn't disseminate enough bogus "science" to suppress real science and cover up what anyone can see. Our cherished, consumer lifestyle, in opposition to which "jealous", hate filled terrorists are willing to blow themselves up, has turned out to be a steel-jawed trap. We need to hate it with the same vehemence. Mother Nature forgives much, but she's more than a little prissy about the blanket of CO2 being plumped up around her. Like the trapped coyote, we don't have a lot of time to cogitate on our course of action. The trap is not going to open. We have to chew off the leg --- that leg being the one that allowed us to prowl around the world gorging on resources and defecating on anyone who resisted. During this crude self-surgery, with gnashing of canines and grinding of molars, much blood with be lost. Recovery will be painful and slow, or not at all. Infections may set in. Transformation will be required.
I assume a three legged coyote ranges a reduced hunting ground, can support only a diminished family, and, in respect to its trickster ways, is mightily humbled. In terms of this metaphor, that's necessary and good. But, it would be a mistake to allow ourselves the luxury of the us-versus-them mentality. Capitalism is the predatory beast. Just as surely, though, each of us living in the industrial, resource-driven economies, which have loved nature for its profitable bounty but not its sanctity, needs to chew off a leg. Bush & Cheney, Inc. is the bald truth of lying with impunity, imperialism's for democracy, and resource wars. They hold up an unpleasant mirror, though. To despise them, I must despise my own lifestyle. To eradicate the corporate, insatiable predator, I'll have to eradicate the insatiable, corporate customer. In spite of my hybrid car, solar panels, compact-fluorescents, and vegetable garden, I'm still part of the system, part of the problem. Spiritual alienation from nature has precipitated the crisis; alienation from personal responsibility will precipitate catastrophe and chaos.
So, it's time to initiate some community leg gnawing parties. We've already organized some here in my town in Maine. And the strange thing is, when a community sets out to chew its trapped legs off together, endorphins are released in great, bathing, thankful quantity. Love and concern for each other and the earth, the fact that we are determined to help each other with local solutions for food, energy, and transportation conquers much of the fear and pain. So far, a lot of it is merely talk. But I know my neighbors now, and I love them more for their leg gnawing abilities than I might have been appalled by their gasoline-powered leaf blowers. Nature's reality, instead of an angry trap, can embrace us like prodigal children. Contentment with making do on three legs may restore us --- restoration to our local community and the community of life, to a wholeness we haven't experienced for a long time.
What Martin Luther King, Jr. said in 1967 --- "We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late." --- is perhaps even more applicable today. Dr. King could see that our country was risking "spiritual death" because we were embracing racism, materialism, and militarism in the service of profit while we were willfully increasing poverty, insecurity and injustice to enhance that profit. What King could not yet see was that that same dynamic was also causing climate change. The trap was already springing. King said, "We are at the moment when our lives must be placed on the line if our nation is to survive its own folly." To me, that sounds like a signal to start chewing.
Robert Shetterly lives in Brooksville, Maine and is the artist of the series of portraits Americans Who Tell the Truth: www.americanswhotellthetruth.org