THE WAR THAT WON’T DIE—AND WHY

11 03 2012

On the campaign trail, candidate Barack Obama impressed a lot of people with his honesty for saying things like, “of course I inhaled–that’s the point, isn’t it?” and for promising to leave medical marijuana production and distribution alone in states that had created a legal framework for it.  For a couple of years, he and his government kept their word, but just recently things have taken a turn for the repressive again.

The change started when Obama confirmed Michelle Leonhart as head of the DEA.  Ms. Leonhart became acting DEA director during the Cheney administration, but this isn’t just about her political heritage.  It’s not just that she has never had one good thing to say about medical marijuana.  It’s about the integrity of her conduct.

Ms. Leonhart spent many years as a field agent for the DEA, and for much of that time she worked with a professional informant who was paid four million dollars for his services, even though eventually the DEA quit using him because he had the unfortunate habits of demonstrably lying about the people he was snitching on and neglecting to pay taxes on the money the DEA paid him.  But Michelle Leonhart stood by her man, replying to the question of whether it might be time for the DEA to drop  the stoolie,

“That would be a sad day for DEA, And a sad day for anybody in the law enforcement world. . . . He’s one in a million. ….In my career, I’ll probably never come across another (like him).”

And then there was the time when, in order to do DEA business in Colombia, she chartered a private plane, at a cost of $123,000, instead of using one of the DEA’s fleet of airplanes or even just buying a first-class airline ticket, which surely would have cost only about one-thousandth of what the plane rental cost her….money the U.S. government paid to a company that also happened to own an airplane that had just been seized by the Mexican army  for attempting to fly 5.5 tons of cocaine into the U.S.  That sure puts us in Schrödinger’s cat territory, doesn’t it?  There is a vast amount of unknown and possibly unknowable landscape out there, full of tantalizing tidbits like that seized airplane, the cocaine-Contra connection in the 80’s, and Secretary of State Clinton’s remark last year that we can’t legalize drugs “because there’s too much money in it.”  It’s certainly easier for spy services to finance “black ops” if there are expensive illegal drugs that can be smuggled for big, under the table profits–but that’s not what I’m going to talk about tonight.  The point is that, after all the ringing campaign rhetoric about “change,”  the Obama administration once again, as in the financial, agricultural, pharmaceutical,and military realms, to name just a few, kept our government in the hands of someone who was part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

Since Obama reconfirmed Cheney’s appointee to the DEA, the federal government has undertaken a crackdown on the business aspects of large-scale medical marijuana, involving not just DEA busts of growers and dispensaries, but IRS rulings that make it virtually impossible for a medical marijuana business  to deal with a credit card company or bank, or pay taxes at a non-confiscatory level, to Department of Justice threats against state officials who help implement medical marijuana plans.

What’s going on here?  Why has the Obama administration made a U-turn on medical marijuana?

This is not something the Republicans are somehow making him do.  I find it hard to believe that Obama couldn’t stop this if he really wanted to.  The U.S. attorneys who are tearing up the medical marijuana business say it was their idea, but that they have “Obama’s blessing” to carry it out.   This is why I find the idea of voting for Barack Obama chillingly Orwellian. It’s one thing when a “tough on crime” Republican continues the “war on drugs” just like he said he would. It’s quite another when somebody who said “Of course I inhaled–that’s the point,isn’t it?” and campaigned on putting science ahead of politics in general–and not devoting a lot of federal resources to persecuting medical marijuana in places it was locally legal, in specific–turns his back on his campaign promises and destroys the lives of innocent people. It’s Orwellian to vote for somebody who is willing to do that to you, to “love Big Brother” so much that you vote for somebody who will bust you. Apparently, the Democrats have made a calculated decision that enough people love Big Brother, and find the Republican candidates sufficiently scary, that they will not care if the government is suppressing marijuana, as long as it’s allowing access to abortion and birth control, and not trying to turn the U.S. into a (fundamentalist) Christian nation with even less regulation of big business and environmental pollution than the Democrats’ feeble efforts.  I think it’s the birth control/abortion thing, mostly–get ’em by the short hairs, and their hearts and minds will follow.  From informal research I’ve done among Democrats, they are indeed all too willing to throw medical marijuana users under the bus to get their man re-elected.  “We’re all in this together, except that you potheads are disposable,” eh?

Once again, I digress….

Medical marijuana has a very high rate of public acceptance–it’s hardly a political red herring in most places, yet the  federal government continues to oppose it, continues to refuse to reschedule cannabis as a plant with medical uses, and continues to insist that it has no medical value, all the while awarding hundreds of patents for therapeutic components scientists have discovered in the plant. And maybe that’s a clue to why our corporate-friendly government is determined to keep this medicinal plant out of the hands of the people.

The approximately 200 patents that the government has granted are mostly for single ingredients of cannabis, which have been isolated, tested, and discovered to have analgesic, anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective, vasodilative,and various other beneficial effects.  Pretty disingenuous for the government to keep insisting the herb has “no therapeutic value,” when some of these patents date back to the late seventies.  The government’s been lying!  So, what else is new, eh?

There’s two things about this “single ingredient” approach to cannabis that I find of interest.  The first is that our pharmaceutical paradigm looks for single ingredients with demonstrable effects on certain symptoms, so that the single ingredient can be isolated or synthesized, patented, and sold for a good markup to pay for the research that went into developing it (which is, in a certain sense, reasonable), and also, of course, to inflate the exorbitant profits, salaries, bonuses, and dividends of the pharmaceutical companies.  When you look into it, you discover that that’s where most of the money actually goes–R&D accounts for only about one and a quarter percent of drug companies’ expenditures–while they reap twenty-five or even fifty percent profit from what they make and sell.  And you thought coke dealers were greedy?

The next thing about the “single ingredient” approach is that, once such a single ingredient has been patented, it is, under our current legal structure,  illegal to sell the substance either as a generic dietary supplement, or to sell a dietary supplement that contains the patented ingredient.   The first case is exemplified by pyradoxamine, a form of vitamin B6, which was taken off the market as a supplement because a pharmaceutical company patented it and is now selling it at a considerably higher price than the now-banned generic supplement, which can still be obtained, but only from outside the US.   In a similar vein, a nutritional supplement known as “red yeast rice” is the source for the discovery of statin drugs.  Since statins have now been patented, all “red yeast rice” supplements must have their statins chemically removed in order to be legally sold in the US.

The great irony here is that plenty of foods contain the now-patented form of vitamin B6, as well as “red yeast rice,” patented statins and all.  Another irony is that, even without its declared “active” ingredient, the other chemical components of Red Yeast Rice supplements do almost as good a job of reducing inflammation and cholesterol.  Something about the synergies of complex herbal substances–more on that in a little bit.

But…food cannot be advertised for its health benefits, saith the Food and Drug Administration, which has put cherry and walnut growers under court order so that they cannot promote the anti-inflammatory and other health effects of these natural foods, unless they are run through the FDA’s “new drug process,” which “takes an average of twelve years and 350 million dollars” before a drug is approved–and still manages to rubber stamp substances of dubious merit like Prozac as well as outright poison pills like Vioxx.  Oy, I’m digressing again.  Point being, nobody’s going to spend a third of a billion dollars to confirm the health benefits of unpatentable produce like cherries, or walnuts…or cannabis.  They’ll never make their money back.

And cannabis is even less worthwhile, from the financial standpoint, than cherries or walnuts, because it is so complex and has such a broad spectrum of positive effects.  The interaction of so many chemical constituents, in turn, produces, through synergies among these chemicals, an even broader spectrum of generally positive effects.  Thoroughly cataloging and quantifying every positive effect of ingesting cannabis would clearly cost a whole, whole lot more than a third of a billion dollars, and take much longer than twelve years–the research project has been going on, largely abroad, due to considerable government interference in the U.S., for about forty years now, and the end is nowhere in sight, it seems.  Marijuana is the gift that keeps on giving.  But it can’t be patented, any more than walnuts or tart cherries. The lack of research due to the lack of likely financial return means the government can, at least technically, continue to claim that marijuana has “no proven medical utility,” even though the reason that’s the case has more to do with the rules of the game of “proven medical utility” than with cannabis’ actual medical utility.

But, as I said, single elements of the plant can be teased out and patented.  Some fear that this will make growing one’s own marijuana even more illegal than it is already, because growing the plant might be declared a violation of somebody’s patent.  This has not happened, however, with foods containing vitamin B6 or red yeast rice–they are simply forbidden from making health claims about themselves, even though those claims would be valid.  And, with marijuana, the National Institute of Health has declared that THC is “toxic,” so they have a good reason to permit companies like Kannalife Science to market drugs derived from marijuana, and yet keep the plant illegal.  After all, the only “positive,” non-psychoactive effects of THC are antiproliferative–it keeps cancer cells from growing–and antispasmodic, both effects that also arise from the non-psychoactive CBD spectrum of cannabis chemistry.  While spokespeople associated with Kannalife insist they are supportive of full legalization of marijuana, the company is carving a market niche based on the government’s refusal to recognize medical use of the plant per se.

To summarize:  it looks to me like the government is suppressing the use of herbal marijuana as a medicine because it would be lower-cost competition for pharmaceutical drugs that could be patented and sold by pharmaceutical companies who have carefully removed the psychoactive, or, as the government prefers, “toxic” elements of the plant.  This is a real 1984-style bending of the word “toxic,” since there have been no reported  human deaths from “marijuana overdose,” ever.

Music break: Peter Tosh, “Legalize It”

That song from Peter Tosh reminds me of his tragic early death.  He was murdered because marijuana did not get legalized.  Reflecting on his death brings up another aspect of drug prohibition that I haven’t got time to do more than mention–how the high price of black-market drugs cuts through impoverished communities like a double-edged sword, offering the tantalizing possibility of escaping a life of grinding poverty on one hand, and snuffing out often innocent lives in bursts of greed-fueled violence on the other.  The deep challenge here is that our corporate capitalist system, with its twin drives to monetize everything and yet employ as few people as possible, creates increasing numbers of “disposable” people, who have no role to serve in our increasingly streamlined economy.   There’s a whole industry built around keeping them repressed, rather than empowering them. Never mind that it’s far more expensive to incarcerate people than it is to educate them! Theoretically, these millions of impoverished Americans–a group whose ranks now increasingly include the former middle class–could be set to taking care of themselves–growing their own food, providing themselves with clothing, education, medical care, tools, and shelter as humans have always done, mostly with only a minimal connection to “money.”  Such a simple, obvious solution, however, falls outside the bounds of the corporate capitalist paradigm, and would require a collapse–or a revolution–to be instituted.

This brings me around to another couple of aspects of the war on drugs, the political ones, and I’d like to thank my frenemies in the Democrat party for bringing them to my attention.  One was the charge that marijuana prohibition is somehow not “a real issue.”  The other is, as my correspondent put it, “those poor folks who choose to break laws and then whine about the consequences.”

I’m going to address the second objection first–that, since cannabis use is against the law, we have no right to complain about the consequences when we are caught breaking the law–or, as they say in jail, “if you can’t take the time, don’t do the crime.”

Humans have been using marijuana for about as far back in our history/prehistory as anthropologists can trace. Everywhere the plant will grow, which is just about everywhere, it has been appreciated for its nutritive, fiber, medicinal, and psychoactive/spiritual qualities.  It has not been problematic for any society that used it. It was not problematic in America in the 1930’s when it was first outlawed, in a campaign soaked in racial discrimination against Mexicans and African-Americans, fueled by frustrated alcohol prohibitionists who had just lost that battle and were looking for something else to campaign against.  So…marijuana prohibition comes from the same social conservatives who are against abortion, birth control, and social programs of about any kind that are not church-sponsored.  It is one of the foundation stones of the Evangelical, conservative Christian drive to turn their moral strictures into our country’s laws–a vital precedent that helps establish their right to tighten the screws. I have a very difficult time understanding how anyone who considers themselves “progressive” could support our country’s reactionary drug laws.

And let’s not forget that the main objection to the imposition of marijuana prohibition in the 30’s came from the AMA, who recommended “tincture of cannabis” for a wide variety of problems, a usefulness that has only been expanded by recent research.

And then there’s the reason cannabis affects us in the first place–our nervous system has receptors for cannabis’ chemical content because we make most of the same substances within our own bodies, and they are essential to normal functioning.  Our ingenious scientists tried making a drug that would block the effects of marijuana, and found that blocking the body’s ability to produce and assimilate cannabinoids had serious consequences, serious enough to prevent approval of the cannabinoid-blocking drug.  We are not happy campers without our cannabinoids, nossir.

So…marijuana use…thousands of years….marijuana prohibition–75 years, more or less, and totally ineffective at its stated goal.  Marijuana use is about as natural a human activity as sex, music, or dancing, all of which have been the subject of laws intended to stop or severely restrict them, none of which have been particularly effective. Except that….

Here in America, somebody is arrested for a marijuana-related “offense” every 19 seconds–on average, of course. In large part because of this,  “the land of the free” has the highest incarceration rate in the world. 1.6 million people were arrested for various drug offences last year, nearly half of them for simple marijuana possession, a “crime” that stays on their records and spoils the rest of their lives for doing something that is no more harmful, and probably less so, than drinking beer. More American males of color are in jail, mostly on drug-related charges, than were enslaved at the height of slavery in this country in 1850.

Marijuana is all very well, you might say, but what about cocaine, crack, meth, ice?  They’ve increasingly taken the place of marijuana, haven’t they?

It is my opinion that if marijuana were cheap and legal, nobody would be much interested in ingesting toxic substances for thrills–with all due respect to the traditional role of coca in South American culture.

The “War on (some) Drugs” preceded “terrorism” as an excuse for erosion of civil liberties and the expansion of the snooper state, and has continued and escalated in spite of the fact that every blue-ribbon panel and Presidential commission that has investigated the situation has recommended legalizing marijuana. It has cost us, the taxpayers, nearly a trillion dollars since the “War on Some Drugs” was declared  30 years ago, and, as I said, accomplished nothing for that trillion but given the US the dubious distinction of having the highest incarceration rate in the world. ( I know, next to 1.5 trillion for the bank bailout over four years  or 4.4 trillion for our wars in the Middle East in ten years, one lousy trillion over thirty years is small change!).

Does all that make it real enough for you? I could go on…..

What I have just said is largely a quote from the Democrat-dominated e-list where I had criticised the Obama administration for its drug policy reversal, and “I could go on”  got the following response, as referred to previously:

respondent: Yes, please go on about those poor folks who choose to break laws and then whine about the consequences. Let’s also hear about pay disparity, jobs, health care, child abuse, climate change, living wages, senior care, the economy, war…

And I replied:

Does the fact that our government chooses to spend a trillion on something as “trivial” as the War on Some Drugs while substantially ignoring all the issues you mention (and that are important to me, too) mean anything to you? Does the fact that people of color are far more likely to be arrested and incarcerated for drugs than white folks, even though use rates are about the same, mean anything to you? Does the fact that every rational scientific judicial, and economic inquiry into this situation has said there is no good reason for these laws, and yet they continue, mean anything to you?

Would you say, “please go on about those poor folks who choose to break laws and then whine about the consequences” about those who are arrested protesting other unjust laws, like the Jim Crow laws that used to prevail in this state? (later addition:  What about people who put their bodies on the line to stop mountaintop removal, coal-burning power plants, or predatory logging?  Or predatory lending?  Do you sneer at the Occupy movement when they are arrested and raise a fuss about it?)  Or the folks who chose to ignore the anti-undocumented immigrant laws that make it a crime to be a good Samaritan if you see another human being in distress? Or do you think that it’s your duty to obey the law, whether it’s just or unjust?

….Obama has had little to say, let alone do, about the assault on Planned Parenthood, etc. or the anti-union measures that caused the massive demonstrations in Wisconsin and elsewhere. His program for distressed bankers has been far more effective than his program for distressed mortgage holders, he hasn’t done anything serious about the financial pressure on our school system (although for me, the purpose and results of our school system are a subject in themselves). It looks to me like he’s declared war on the 1st amendment with all the prosecutions of whistle blowers and peace/anti-corporate activists his administration has pursued, not to mention his assault on the 4th Amendment and his continued countenancing of war crimes around the world, plus his refusal to prosecute anybody in the Cheney administration for initiating the war crime policies he has continued. What kind of “hope” do you have for “change” from this guy? Chump change?

The questioner exercised her option not to respond to those admittedly somewhat rhetorical questions.  Elsewhere in the discussion, I added…

If three women were denied access to health care services every minute of every day, or three people per minute were being arrested for admitting their sexual orientation, if three kids were being abused by an adult or seriously bullied by their peers every minute, if three people were being evicted from their homes every minute or violently assaulted on the street and kidnapped by thugs, it would be considered a big problem–so why isn’t three people a minute being assaulted and essentially kidnapped by the police for the crime-that-every-study-says-shouldn’t-be-a-crime, marijuana use, why isn’t that considered a serious social problem in this country?  And why should we give the Democrats a pass for making this situation worse instead of better, especially when they promised to make it better, thus garnering the vote of pretty nearly every marijuana user in the country who is not a confirmed Green or Libertarian?

So, to summarize…the question of why marijuana continues to be illegal boils down, it seems to me, to two things:

At a theoretical level, it boils down to a reductionist medical paradigm that values profits and the small picture, as in the suppression of  symptoms in a fee-for-service model,  much more than it values keeping people healthy so they don’t need to pay fees for services, and that is not cognitively equipped to appreciate broad-spectrum practices, such as a sane lifestyle and diet, which might include the use of marijuana, that provide a variety of benefits that are difficult to catalogue in a “this causes that” kind of way.

The second theoretical problem is that our societal paradigm is repressive.  The presumption is that if you don’t discipline people from without, they won’t discipline themselves from within, and all hell will break loose.   Since this is, in fact, likely to happen among people who have always been subject to external, repressive discipline, our repressors (or oppressors, if you will) interpret any wild behavior that occurs when discipline is relaxed as a reason to clamp back down, rather than a reason to teach people to take responsibility for themselves.  Besides, they like being the dominators in a dominator culture.  You don’t like that?  Too bad!  Go find your own planet!

The way these theoretical considerations play out in our culture is that our corporate-oriented government, obviously aware of the many beneficial effects of marijuana, prefers to see cannabis exploited by pharmaceutical companies rather than grown directly by those who need it, especially because of:

Reason two, the government feels it has a vested interest in making sure that people don’t get high.  It leads to creative, independent thinking and questioning of authority.  To quote that notoriously under-achieving marijuana user, Carl Sagan, marijuana can provide “…the serenity and insight, sensitivity and fellowship so desperately needed in this increasingly mad and dangerous world.”  Just for the record, Dr. Sagan, who began using marijuana in his mid-twenties and continued to find value in it for the rest of his life, said that in 1969, calling for the swift legalization of marijuana use.  Over forty years later, we’re still waiting to inhale legally.

“Serenity, insight, sensitivity and fellowship” are just the feelings and emotions our corporatocracy doesn’t want us to have. That’s why hippies are the most persecuted ethnic group in America.

Hippies are an ethnic group?  The Democrats had a hard time with that claim.  Hey, what part of “counterculture” don’t you understand?  A “culture” is an “ethnic group”!  But, since we are not formally recognized as an ethnic group, it’s OK to profile and arrest us, test our body chemistry to see if we’re members of this ethnic group, and then discriminate against us if we are.  It’s OK to encourage our children to report our ethnic behavior to the authorities so we can be arrested for it….the government is doing everything it can to marginalize us. We have our customs and traditions, although they have been severely disrupted by decades of persecution, but in a way the government is right to do what it does, because we are, in our own gentle way, a major threat to the dominator culture.

Disclaimer:  not all Green Party members are hippies, and not all hippies are involved with the Green Party!

And yes, my Democrat frenemies, you’re right– my fellow Greens, my fellow hippies, and I have picked a tough row to hoe. But we could no more be “good Americans” than we could have been “good Germans.”

The corporate, dominator culture wants us to be good sheep, who will go where they drive us and not complain if we are shorn or slaughtered for our corporate shepherds’ benefit.  That’s why the Democrats continually promise, and continually fail to deliver, more liberal drug laws. That’s why I’m a Green–to create a real choice in the country and a real choice on the ballot. Massive, sudden changes in the political landscape happen as the result of many individual decisions. The Republicans came out of nowhere in the summer of 1860 and left the Whig Party high, dry, and discarded in the dustbin of history.  Millions of Russians and Eastern Europeans individually quit believing in the apparently monolithic power of their governments, and the governments and the whole paradigm of their economic system crumbled. IT CAN HAPPEN HERE. In fact, it looks to me like we’re gonna be way up poop creek without a paddle if it doesn’t.

music:  Richard and Mimi Farina, “Age of Confusion





GATHERING OF THE TRIBES

13 01 2008

In the heady days of the 1960’s and 70’s, when it seemed like our time was coming any day, we began to re-imagine the world. It was, and is, easy enough to point out how crazy things are–but what would “better,” radically better, look like?

By “we,” I mean those of us who were hippies not for the sex, drugs, and rock n’roll, (although, to be sure, we appreciated them!) but because we were (and in many cases still are) visionaries who could not sit down, shut up, and work like normal ants–I mean, people. We saw the artificiality of political boundaries, and the reality of natural ones, like watersheds and biological communities. We saw the futility of trying to make ignorant people change their ways through legislation, and found the satisfaction that comes from walking our talk and teaching by example. We founded magazines and movements like Co-evolution Quarterly, The New Alchemy Institute, Esalen Institute, and the Farm, and, for a while, seemed poised to turn the entire state of Vermont into a countercultural domain.

Two visionaries in particular found their tongues and began to frame a movement with a name. The name was “Bioregionalism,” and the visionaries were Peter Berg and Raymond Dasmann; and true to the bioregional ideal, they were very different, but very complimentary.

Dasmann was the older of the two by a generation, and perhaps not ever technically a “hippie,” but certainly a visionary. He did study at UC Berkley as an undergraduate, but that was before World War II, which turned him into a soldier and sent him to New Guinea. By 1970, he was travelling the world for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, and thus became one of the first scientists to get a global view of the ecological situation. His globetrotting brought him to the first UN environmental conference, in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1972, which is where he met Peter Berg, who, while also a Californian, had been treading a very different path.

Peter Berg had been a member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe in the mid-sixties. The Mime Troupe, which still exists, specializes in radical street theater. Berg, in 1966, had the inspiration to take it one step further. That further step has come down to us as “The Diggers,” a group that tried to radically alter human relationships by making everything a free work of art–food, clothing, shelter, medical care. They were in effect the backbone of the seminal Haight-Ashbury counterculture community, and when it was ultimately overwhelmed, Berg found his way to a small commune way, way up in the Sierras. It was from there, as a self-appointed representative of the North American counterculture, that he went to the UN conference in Stockholm.

Berg’s meeting with Dasmann resulted in the creation of Planet Drum Foundation, an organization which to this day promotes a wholistic view of this world we live in. Berg used Planet Drum as a platform from which to convoke a “North American Bioregional Congress,” which he saw as parallel to the convocation of the first Continental Congress. His hopes that it would result in a radical reorganization of North American politics have not yet been realized, but the first North American Bioregional Congress is the point at which this story starts to become locally relevant.

Milo Guthrie, an herbalist and activist from the Nashville area, wanted to go to the bioregional congress–but only delegates from bioregional councils were entitled to attend. So he formed one–the Cumberland and Green River Basin Bioregional Council, named for the two major river systems (besides the vast Tennessee River basin itself) that define our area. The group’s name has conventionally been shortened to “The Cumberland Greens” and confused with the Green Party, which is inaccurate, although there is a relationship–the “Comittees of Correspondence” (another borrowing from the first American Revolution) that were formed out of the NABC did in fact form the nucleus of the Green Party of the United States.

“The Cumberland Greens” are not a political party, but a bioregional council—a group of people from around the bioregion who do our best to fully inhabit the places we live, to eat locally and dream globally. We meet to share our strengths and visions and take what action we can, and yes we know we are carrying a banner that was passed down to us from the hippies of San Francisco. We will be meeting January 19th at Brookmeade Congregational Church here in Nashville, and you and your visions are welcome to come. Contact Eric at islandspring@cafes.net for further details.

music: Incredible String Band, “Douglas Traherne Harding”

 





REVISITING TURTLE ISLAND

10 11 2007

I recently reread Turtle IslandGary Snyder’s 1975 Pulitzer-prize winning  book of poems and essays. Many of the poems are simple, short (but reflective) nature snap-shots, like this one, entitled, ”Pine Tree Tops”

 

in the blue night

frost haze, the sky glows

with the moon

pine tree tops

bend snow-blue, fade

into sky, frost, starlight,

the creak of boots.

rabbit tracks, deer tracks,

what do we know.

But Snyder also turns his Zen-trained eye to the wider world situation, as in this poem,”The Call of the Wild:”

The heavy old man in his bed at night

Hears the Coyote singing

in the back meadow.

All the years he ranched and mined and logged.

A Catholic,

A native Californian.

and the Coyotes howl in his

Eightieth year.

He will call the Government

Trapper

Who uses iron leg-traps on Coyotes,

Tomorrow.

My sons will lose this

Music they have just started

To love.

***

The ex acid-heads from the cities

Converted to Guru or Swami,

Do penance with shiny

Dopey eyes, and quit eating meat.

In the forests of North America,

The land of Coyote and Eagle,

They dream of India, of

forever blissful sexless highs.

And sleep in oil-heated

Geodesic domes, that

Were stuck like warts

in the woods.

And the Coyote singing

is shut away

for they fear

the call

of the wild.

And they sold their virgin cedar trees,

the tallest trees in miles,

To a logger

Who told them

”Trees are full of bugs.”

 

The Government finally decided

To wage the war all-out. Defeat

is Un-American.

And they took to the air,

Their women beside them

in bouffant hairdos

putting nail polish on the

gunship cannon-buttons.

And they never came down,

for they found,

the ground

is pro-Communist. And dirty.

And the insects side with the Viet Cong.

So they bomb and they bomb

Day after day, across the planet

blinding sparrows

breaking the ear-drums of owls

splintering trunks of cherries

twining and looping

deer intestines

in the shaken, dusty, rocks.

All these Americans up in special cities in the sky

Dumping poisons and explosives

Across Asia first,

And next North America,

A war against earth.

When it’s done there’ll be

no place

A Coyote could hide

envoy

I would like to say

Coyote is forever

Inside you.

But it’s not true.

Snyder wrote these poems in the early seventies, when I was in my early twenties and he was in his early forties. It was a heady time. We in the counterculture were all elated with the optimism of youth; we equated starting our revolution with winning it. Snyder, at what now seems like a tender age, was one of our elders and mentors. With his twelve years in a Zen monastery, his love of wilderness and high country, and his prescient sense of the importance of deeply inhabiting a place, he pointed me and many of my co-conspirators to important practices and doctrines, to the importance of the long haul. One of his most prophetic poems in Turtle Island is the title poem from the section called, ”For the Children:”

The rising hills, the slopes,

of statistics

lie before us.

the steep climb

of everything, going up,

up, as we all

go down.

In the next century

or the one beyond that,

they say,

are valleys, pastures,

we can meet there in peace

if we make it.

To climb these coming crests

one word to you, to

you and your children:

stay together

learn the flowers

go light

I cry every time I read that. It brings together so much, and takes such a long perspective. It’s just the kind of grounding we need as the madness of a world gone wrong rises to a fever pitch all around us. ”We can meet there in peace/if we make it.”

But for me, the most impressive, most prophetic part of Turtle Island is a twelve-page prose section at the back of the book, written in 1969 and entitled ”Four Changes.” Like Martin Luther’s theses nailed to a church door, this slim manifesto is the foundation of a vast spectrum of political, social, and spiritual action that has come into being since. Very little of what Snyder proposes and predicts misses the mark, although he himself calls it “far from perfect and in some parts already outdated” in his 1974 introduction to it. His warning about the danger of ”a plutonium economy” is truer than ever now, as the Bush junta seeks to slip billions of dollars of subsidies for new nuclear power plants into alternate energy legislation.

The four changes he calls for are in the realms of population, pollution, consumption, and transformation, and each is divided into sections addressing large-scale political action, local community action, and ”our own heads,” which addresses the ways in which we as individuals help create obstacles to the better world we can envision in our clearest moments.

”Population” states that, although humanity is only a part of the web of life, we are now an inordinately large part of it—and this was in 1969, when the world population was nearly half of what it is now. Due to the intransigence of many governments and religious institutions, and despite the Chinese government’s strenuous efforts to limit the Chinese birth rate (one of the few qualifiedly good things it has done, in my opinion), there has effectively been no progress on this issue. I think this is in large part because the only option third world people have to insure that they will be cared for in their old age is to have as many children as they can, in hopes that at least one of them will be in a position to help them when the time comes. Governments, by and large, have shown no interest in ameliorating this situation, because it would involve taking money away from those who have it and giving it to those who don’t, and that is, as the Democrats are quick to say, a political impossibility. So, at this point, it’s starting to look like the human population of the planet will be limited by war, starvation, and pandemic, which will do little to slow what many biologists are now calling a planetary extinction event on the order of the disappearance of the dinosaurs. Will we humans ultimately be consumed by the wave of extinction we have unleashed? To the extent that they are capable of considering the question, I think the other species with which we share this rare spot in the universe wouldn’t mind if we did. We have ignored Snyder’s prescription at our own peril. We are going to have to work hard to re-establish ourselves as worthwhile neighbors on this small blue planet.

Much of Snyder’s section on pollution deals with DDT, use of which has largely been eliminated, although plenty of other chemicals have taken its place in the rush to foul our only nest. What Snyder says in the subheading ”our own heads” is worth repeating, because it looks at the attitude behind widespread pesticide use, not one specific chemical: ”there is something in Western culture that wants to totally wipe out creepy-crawlies, and feels repugnance for toadstools and snakes. This is fear of one’s own deepest natural inner-self wilderness areas, and the answer is: relax. Relax around bugs, snakes, and your own hairy dreams….” Truly, there can be no revolution in the world without a revolution in our own minds and hearts.

In the consumption section, he keys in on our overdependence on oil and overuse of water, decades before peak oil and drying continents became large-scale causes of concern. ”(M)ankind has become a locust-like blight on the planet,” he says, ”that will leave a bare cupboard for its own children—all the while in a kind of Addict’s Dream of affluence, comfort, eternal progress—using the great achievements of science to produce software and swill.” (Wow—I hadn’t even heard of ”software” in 1969!)

To combat this, he proposes, at the macro-level, that economics needs to be seen as a minor branch of ecology, that the criminal waste of war must be shown for what it is and ended. At the community level, he calls for sharing and creating, whether it’s skills or garden produce or clothing, for breaking the habit of unnecessary possessions, which leads to the internal work: ”To live lightly on the earth, to be aware and alive, to be free of egotism, to be in contact with plants and animals, starts with simple concrete acts. The inner principle is the insight that we are inter-dependent energy fields of great wisdom and compassion—expressed in each person as a superb mind, a handsome and complex body, and the almost magical capacity of language. To these potentials and capacities, ‘owning things’ can add nothing of authenticity. ‘Clad in the sky, with the earth for a pillow.”’

The fourth change is ”transformation,” regarding which Snyder says, ”We have it within our deepest powers not only to change our ‘selves’ but to change our culture. If man is to remain on earth he must transform the five-millenia-long urbanizing civilization tradition into a new ecologically-sensitive harmony-oriented wild-minded scientific-spiritual culture….What we envision is….a basic cultural outlook and social organization that inhibits power and property seeking while encouraging exploration and challenge in things like music, meditation, mathematics, mountaineering, magic, and all other authentic ways of being-in-the-world. Women totally free and equal. A new kind of family—responsible, but more festive and relaxed—is implicit.”

In the midst of this soaring vision, he inserted a 1974 footnote: ”More concretely, no transformation without our feet on the ground. Stewardship means, for most of us, find your place on the planet, dig in, and take responsibility from there—the tiresome but tangible work of school boards, county supervisors, local foresters—local politics. Even while holding in mind the largest scale of potential change. Get a sense of workable territory, learn about it, and start acting point by point. On all levels from national to local the need to move toward steady state economy—equilibrium, dynamic balance, inner-growth stressed—must be taught. Maturity/diversity/climax/creativity.”

There it is, Green Party politics in a nutshell. It’s not just about light bulbs, folks!! It’s amazing to reread a book I loved in my youth and realize that I have been living its directives ever since, along with many others, albeit, alas, not quite enough eco-lovers to actually change the direction of the country, yet. Hey, we have been saying this stuff for forty years now, constantly getting blown off and derided by the corporatists, while they dig all of us, including themselves, deeper into a mass grave. Can you hear me now?

Snyder finishes by addressing the possibility that the human experiment will come to naught with some classic Zen: ”Our own heads is where it starts. Knowing that we are the first human beings in history to have so much of man’s culture and previous experience available to our study, and being free enough of the weight of traditional cultures to seek out a larger identity; the first members of a civilized society since the Neolithic to wish to look clearly into the eyes of the wild and see our own self-hood, our family, there. We have these advantages to set off the obvious disadvantages of being as screwed up as we are—which gives us a fair chance to penetrate some of the riddles of ourselves and the universe, and to go beyond the idea of ‘man’s survival’ or ‘survival of the biosphere’ and to draw our strength from the realization that at the heart of things is some kind of serene and ecstatic process which is beyond qualities and beyond birth and death. ‘No need to survive!’ ‘In the fires that destroy the universe at the end of the kalpa, what survives?’–‘The iron tree blooms in the void!’

”Knowing that nothing need be done, is where we begin to move from.”

It’s all here in these twelve pages, fractally unfoldable into whole worlds of endeavor, garnished with the reminder that ”nothing needs to be done.” So, from that place of detachment, friends, let us draw inspiration from our elegant elder Gary Snyder and do all that we can, in a spirit of love, joy, and compassion. It’s the Green way.

music: Indigo Girls, “Wood Song








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