Every day, from midafternoon to the fading sunset, we watch flights of crows heading southwest overhead, seeking their favorite coastal roosts, there to admire the glowing sunset, calling to each other, tumbling through the sky, laughing and getting into mischief like a shock of teenage boys on their way to a Saturday matinee.
Most birds fly the straight and narrow, not as the crow flies, wheeling together in uniform formation, flashing their belly whites in a unified display that no doubt functions to confuse pursuing raptors. They rely on sheer numbers for their safety and have evolved patterns of activity that multiply their presence in flocks.
Not so the crow, (Corvis brachyrhynchos). Crows enjoy their social activities, in moderation, never to extreme, always room for personal adornment. Not as the solitary red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) peering down with telescope eyes from a considerable height, nor the flashing, darting swallows, gathering insects on the wing. Crows seem to take joy in the process of getting from here to there, rarely in a hurry, always stopping off for a noisy swoop through the tops of a eucalyptus, or an invigorating bump on the updraft at cliff edge. I can’t watch crows fly by without smiling, and, at least a tiny bit, admiring their aerial versatility.
Crows, swallows and other social critters organize their activities without resort to committees, assemblies, smoke-filled rooms or envelopes full of warm cash. They decide, amongst themselves, where to go of an evening for the very best view of the sunset. They know where their favorite foods are and figure out how to drop walnuts from overhead wires so that passing cars below crush the shells for them. Yes, much of their behavior is hard-wired, and still it’s hard to watch a storytelling of crows without concluding they’re just having fun, enjoying life, free in ways humans can only dream of.
Perhaps, as Ed Abbey told us so many times, it’s our propensity to form governments that suck the Corvid joy from our lives. While we do need some form of social organization to regulate our interactions and keep from bumping each other in flight, why not allow such organization to grow of itself, to arise from the grass roots and below, adjusting itself to local conditions as it grows? Why all this rule from above, these decisions made for us by rulers so far away, rulers who don’t have to live with the consequences of their rules? It’s as if the clouds dictated where the crows should or should not fly and in what formation.
Ed called it anarchy, a society of human beings living in place, self-rule, self-reliannce, looking to no central authority to tell us how to live, interconnected in multilayered webs of mutual aid. The idea harkens back to the long forgotten past, when humans lived without markets, without regulations, without rulers to coerce the people into treetops where they would rather not fly.
Unfortunately, the word anarchy is much abused, on both sides of the aisle. To some anarchy means unbridled commerce and profit, free of social regulation. To others anarchy means the ultimate individual freedom, with no rules to limit individual desires. To many today, anarchy means an excuse to break the rules and act out anti-social fantasies.
None of these has anything to do with living in place, Ed’s vision of an agrarian society bonded by mutual aid. In fact, the distopian visions to which anarchy has been stretched are the magnified extensions of the present centralized, market capitalist, authoritarian society, which is rapidly laying waste to the natural world.
To build an alternative to this trend away from an understanding of anarchy, we can revive and defend an understanding of the practice of the commons, of living in place within natural biological and geophysical limits.
Humans once lived in place, with their brothers crow and raven, even those who constantly moved about, seeking new sources of animals and plants for food. Place was where you lived, among all other things living and non-living, a participatory society where mutual aid extended to and from all things. The world of living in place was suffused with meaning. Every action by humans was intimately connected to every other thing and being. Each human bore the consequences of right and wrong action, and the “rules” for living in place were preserved and passed on in oral histories, in story and song.
The point at which humans turned away from living in place is most often attributed to the rise of agriculture. When humans developed the ability to cultivate and domesticate plants and animals, so goes the story, it was necessary to create and protect the concept of private property in order to maintain crop and grazing fields and protect them from others, human and non, so, at least, to have seeds to plant in the next growing season. The concept of private property led to the concept of ownership of land, to interest (increase in domesticated animals), property lines, shires (administrative areas), kings and assorted petty tyrants, taxes, tax collectors, shire reeves (sheriffs), armed constabularies, standing armies and total warfare to end all war. Local “spiritual practices,” that is, those stories that told people how to live in place, were co-opted, twisted and distorted to fit the desires of the rulers of the land, interposing their self-serving stories of how to live over the old. Unfortunately for the locals, the new stories no longer told the people how to live in place.
Living in place denies the basic concept of private property ownership. In a bioregion, there can be no private ownership of the land and all natural things in and on it. The bioregion is the legacy of all living things that depend on its biological and geophysical makeup. No individual being can claim exclusive possession and use of any part of the bioregion without denying it to others. No species that denies access to the biological and geophysical attributes of a bioregion can long survive, as it will perish with all other species when the physical requirements for life are depleted.
Humans must live within the biological and geophysical limitations of bioregion, as do all other living things. This is one of the hard and fast rules of life and no manner of whining, logical debate, or governmental apologetics can change it. It’s hard and it’s fair. The rapid climate change our only planet is experiencing these days, as a result of on-going violations of this rule, is beginning to convince even the most hardened skeptics that something is amiss with the whole idea of private property rights and unbridled economic expansion.
Recent experiments and theory-building in the science of physics have brought us to the unavoidable conclusion that human individualism is a mistaken affectation of the human mind. We see that the physical body is merely a pattern of cells that replace themselves frequently, such that we literally are not the same person we once were. The material and the energy of the body pass through and beyond; all that remains constant is the pattern of arrangement of the cells and organs of our bodies. In fact, the only part of our bodies that is retained from birth to death is our memory, inscribed in patterns of dendritic connections in our brains. At death, even our memories dissipate as our bodies become one with the earth. Ironically, memory, human consciousness and self-identity are the only parts of the individual that do not carry on after death. The physical body breaks down into its components, to be taken up and incorporated into other living things. Consciousness, cognition and identity disappear.
Several hundred years ago, rationalism began to pull back the curtains of superstition obscuring the nature of the universe and the lessons it has to teach about how to be human beings in a living world. Rather than relying on faith, we began to seek answers to the eternal unanswerable questions based on evidence and verifying our answers through experimentation.
Unfortunately, this scientific rationalism was co-opted by commercialism and industrialism over the past century or so, replacing the previous system of morality based in a living world with an economic morality that separated humans from other living things. After all, how can one hold dominion over life and commodify all things living and non-living exclusively for human use if we’re all equal? The concept of the commons, so central in a life based on mutual aid, was discarded and discouraged in the modern world, and the concept of private property rights was made central to all moral considerations. Today the commons, and all communal activity, is vilified and propagandized against in all parts of almost all human societies. The individual has become the center of a society based on inequality, greed, avarice and economic profit. The hierarchical corporate model is the ideal for all forms of human organization. Even democracy, the ideal on which the United States was allegedly founded, has been reduced to a sham exercise dominated by economic influence.
What to do, what to do?
We can’t change society and do away with such abstractions as private property rights and individualism, even if they are an illusion of the mind. These things rise from society and are not subject to individual control.
We can, however change the world in which we live by changing ourselves and the way we interact with others. We can practice self-reliance in our own lives, eschewing the government handout, the corporate career ladder, hierarchical rule. We can work to build decentralized organizations, such as neighborhood assemblies and federations of neighborhood assembly, and help to empower ourselves and our neighbors to deal with local problems with local resources rather than giving up our power to central authorities. We can grow much of our own food, and buy the rest from local growers, clothing from local seamsters, furniture and housing from local craftsmen made from local materials. We can turn our backs on the constant hammer of commercialism, exhorting us to buy ever more products from an ever more irrelevant and counterproductive economy.
In so doing, we grow meaningful local economies, meaningful relationships with the natural world in our bioregions, meaningful relationships with our neighbors and fellow community members. We participate in the complex diversity of life, rather than walling ourselves off from life with dead and dying commodities. The resulting human society flows naturally from these interrelationships, rather than being imposed from above.
We can take a lesson from the crows and find joy and fulfillment in our local bioregions, flying toward the daily sunset, laughing and bouncing on waves of air, enjoying the company of our fellow playmates.
In this, there is satisfaction enough.