Bugs

The fleas are tenacious this year. The youngest cat in the household has an allergy to flea bites and he has been miserable with them, but no one’s having an easy time of it. Standard treatments become ineffective as generation after generation of ever-hardier bugs develop resistance to drops, collars, and oral treatments. We’re all scrubbing our floors and upholstery with Dawn dish-washing liquid and hoping for the best.

In her book Deep Creek author Pam Houston writes about the decimation of the western forests by the pine beetle in the 90’s and the spruce bark beetle in the ’00’s, leaving entire mountainsides covered with standing kindling just waiting for a bolt of lightning or an untended campfire. And just this morning I saw this article in the NY Times about antibiotic-resistant bacteria that are transforming what was once a vexing but easily treated infection into something life-threatening.

Here’s my takeaway: it won’t be fire or ice that does us in. It won’t be nukes, it won’t be an asteroid. It’s going to be the bugs.

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Where Creativity Might Live

It may be the case that expensive cities are killing creativity, but I suspect the real culprit is the belief that you have to live in a certain sort of place in order to create.

If you want to have time to make your art, it helps to live somewhere that offers low overhead. Cheap rent, or — imagine it! — an affordable mortgage, in a place that’s reasonably well-tended and feels safe. Because chances are it isn’t the city that’s killing your creativity, it’s the amount of money it costs to live there and the amount of time you have to spend acquiring that money. Scarcity — insufficient time, inadequate funds — is the real creativity-killer.

Maybe going home to your “dying” hometown — or some reasonable facsimile thereof — will serve your creativity in ways you can’t imagine from where you are right now.

Unspectacular

“To know the pleasures of an unspectacular landscape, such as that of Indiana, requires an uncommon degree of attentiveness and insight.”

~Scott Russell Sanders, “Landscape & Imagination”

There’s something to be said for learning to value the less-than-spectacular: that which is merely here, in front of us, right now.

An Old School Influencer

A long, long time ago, when the current century had yet to be born and we were all wearing plaid flannel shirts tied around our waists and urging one another to think globally and act locally, a co-worker handed me a copy of Wendell Berry’s essay, “Out of Your Car, Off Your Horse,” which had just been published in the Atlantic Monthly.

“You’ll like this,” he said.

It was my first encounter with Berry, this essay containing twenty-seven propositions about global thinking, culture and community. It was contrarian and pointed and a little bit snarky. And it was written by a farmer.

“Properly speaking,” it began, “global thinking is not possible” in any way that would warrant calling it “thought.” Nor is it beneficial to actual communities of living creatures.

Look at one of those photographs of half the earth taken from outer space, and see if you recognize your neighborhood. If you want to see where you are, you will have to get out of your space vehicle, out of your car, off your horse, and walk over the ground.

What followed was an indictment of abstraction, industrial production, the fossil fuel industry, unsustainable cities, and the creation of a forced dependence within rural communities on the money economy. Global thinking, Berry argued, drives the extractive economics that have decimated so much of eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, and the whole of Appalachia, not to mention the rest of the planet. As a guiding ethos it is inherently destructive precisely because it “can’t distinguish one place or person or creature from another.”

I was working in corporate communications at the time. The firm’s biggest clients were in the fossil fuel industry. Oil companies, utility companies. And I knew he was right. I was seeing it daily. I was living it.

Those 27 propositions took root in my soul. I scoured libraries and bookstores to find more of Berry’s work — no Amazon then, it was all traipsing and browsing. I found poetry and essay collections and his pivotal work, The Unsettling of America. And I found myself caring about farming. About how food was grown, and by whom.

Wendell Berry kicked my ass into another way of living. Out of my car, off my horse.

Nearly three decades later, I live within 100 miles of the Berry homestead in Kentucky, and that first essay I read continues to shape my thinking on the subject of work and place and local affection. You can find it in its entirety here.