Sunday, January 17, 2016


U of Chicago Div School

“What’s your method?” was always the first question at U of C Div School.  The idea was to establish a stream of precedents that were already known, so as to impose limits and a sort of spine, a line of thought.  In the best of worlds, that strategy would yield an essay that was coherent and intelligible.  Of course, if you chose a method no one liked or understood, you were doomed.

This morning on I ran into a new question:  “Then what?”  In Div School terms, this is teleology.  It depends on what your goal might be.  

Lewis Dartnell

What happens after the accepted methods of our civilization — like exploiting fossil fuel and centering everything on profit — are exhausted, no longer apply?  What methods will save us?  When one is on territory unknown (terra incognita) the question becomes even sharper but the methods benefit from being fuzzy, wandering, and mixed.  This Aeon piece was derived from a blog based on “The Knowledge”, a book or series of books or nested blogs that seem to have their source in a man named Lewis Dartnell.  He’s handsome, young, and smart enough to star in a BBC series and my only question is “why isn’t he?”  The title, of course, is from the knowledge of London streets a taxi driver must have to pass a certifying test; it’s a “where are we going” question.

But here’s where I’m really hooked.  It’s a subject I met in seminary: the wilderness in the city.  Most of my classmates thought of it in terms of people: savage mental pygmies, I guess.  But like many others I’ve always been easily seduced by what some call “ruin porn.”  That is, abandoned industries and housing that are being reclaimed by the “natural” world.  This link should take you to examples of how transient anthro-construction can be.  We’re used to seeing Aztec pyramids and Asian mega-statues overwhelmed by jungle, but now we’ve added catastrophic evacuations (Chernobyl) and resource-exhausted communities (abandoned mining towns in the West).  It's not hard to imagine the U of C quads as ruins.

In fact, strictly speaking, my own buildings qualify, since two of them were temporary knock-ups used during the rebuild of Swift Dam, one a shop and the other the caretaker’s shack.  Nature and time are dismantling them, as well as this modest house built in the Thirties with an add-on bathroom and garage.  But my earliest and most vivid images are from the trail in Macleay Park in Portland where my family went to hike in the Forties and Fifties.  It was a WPA project with a lot of stonework, including a little bathroom which became a sin center and then was burned and buried, though the stone walls and arched entrances remain.  Our teenaged babysitter hanged himself nearby, in an earlier wave of alienation among young men.  Our movie horizons are full of post-apocalypse landscapes. 

Macleay Park

A periodical related to this complex, called “Ernest Journal” ,( this line of thought with optimism:  how would we rebuild?  Actual practical information.  How to make glass.  How to make breakfast.  How to survive an asteroid strike.  I have a friend who’s a bit of a survivalist — he just survived major cancer surgery and is restored to his health of years earlier — which means being a bit of a pack rat.  The secret here is knowing which rat to pack, and that means a grasp on basic technologies like electricity wiring, water piping, and gardening.  

Here in Montana where the grid is thin and weather gets cold (it’s generally already very windy at any temperature) one learns quite a bit about dust physics, insulation, smoke management, cooking over fires (the coals, not the flames) and other dynamics.  The traces of earlier civilizations — drag marks of travois, bits of metal or glass beads on the hill tops where bodies were left for the sun to take back, pictographs on stone — are either durable or gone.  They are not likely to be smothered by vines but the boulders are embroidered by vivid lichens, plant extremophiles.

In England which is wet and sitting on what once seemed an inexhaustible mountain of coal, the industrial revolution got a good headstart on a lot of forces that have ended now: colonies, factories, railroads. ships — all of which led to a demographic shift, an influx of people not accustomed to industrial life, a demographic apocalypse that will be the irresistible force that changes immovable Britain.

As it happens, I know quite a lot about molten metal and even a bit about ceramic kilns   In Oregon there were always glass-casters nearby.  They liked to build their studios near the beach for the sake of the cool breezes, the same as we used to prefer casting bronze in the winter, during weather just like this: snow on the ground and zero temps.  With the big fans going, the furnace and the protective gear were bearable.  Technology at this primitive level does not depend upon instruments, except maybe a pyrometer until you learn to tell temp by the color of the molten metal.  It’s a matter of human senses and internalized knowledge that comes from experience.  Less dramatic is woodwork or pouring concrete, or maybe animal husbandry which adds the dimensions of empathy and persuasion.  These are “methods.”

Sci-fi loves this sort of thing, and so do the paleoarcheologists who try to imagine the steps between the last hominid and the first modern human.  Of course, there is no “step”, no “break”, but a series of small developments that folded back on each other, became culturally contagious, used the environment instead of just surviving it.  Some of those uses were glass, stone and metal.  These survive even humans and the pre-ag aeons are named for them.  (Aren’t we the Glass Age, if you count silicon and sky scrapers?  I’ve never forgotten photos of an experimental house built only from scavenged car windshields.)  And now we turn to gravity energy in the tides, solar energy on the roof, volcanic energy in Iceland, and microbial energy in our sewage lagoon.  Clearly, energy is where you find it.

The biological energy we have not mastered — maybe I should say supported — is human beings.  What a waste for people to be drowning in the Mediterranean, starving in Syria, dying of exposure in the streets of American metropolises.  Why can’t we figure out how to address this gradual apocalypse?  This erosion of life?  What if our goal was not to restore the world as we know it, but to find a new way to be in the world.  This is not the first time the question has been asked. It’s teleological. 

Darnell embracing a Martian friend

Here’s Dartnell speaking:

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