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Praying the Psalms in the Anthropocene
Greetings Dear Readers,
Earlier this year I released a record of songs and readings called The Book of Bare Life & Returns: Praying the Psalms in the Anthropocene. It comes with the essay below printed in a booklet. Since I’m rather caught up in August behaviour, I’m putting it here. It was written last summer, and there are already things I would like to qualify or say more about, but I’ll refrain for now.
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Praying Psalms in the Anthropocene
Religious sorts have always been among the most industrious and madly possessed makers of home spun publications, zines, pamphlets and radical tracts. From the politically explosive to the wildly strange, I find myself always fascinated by these small stapled-together portals into the deeply held stories and ideas of eccentric micro-communities, each with their own bent on the tale to be told. Each written with the earnest conviction that it speaks with the weight of apocalyptic consequence.
With some embarrassment and a wink, I suppose this is another one of those: a religious pamphlet. A tract! There could surely be no finer time to write one. We're all pamphleteers now anyway. Just try mashing together your last ten social media posts. The old meanings of everything are being shed like old skin these days.
Late July this year, 2022, scores of homes were burned down in London and Lincolnshire by spreading grass fires. It was over 40 degrees: the hottest temperature on record. I met a man from east Africa outside the dentist and he said it was just normal weather for him. My son asked if the heat was because of climate change. I found myself saying that it was hard to say if an individual event is the result of climate change, but an increase in such events certainly were. It sounded dull and removed. How do you talk about an apocalypse happening at the strange speed of the earth's climate systems? We're being thrown by an emergency into geological time.
Sometimes a thing is not really understood until it is gone. I keep hearing people these days calling the Holocene the "garden of eden." They're mostly scientists.
The Holocene was the geological epoch that began about 12,000 years ago after the last ice-age. It was what they call an interglacial; a period of temperate climate between one ice age and another. It came with the paradise-like conditions in which the living planet became what we know it can be.
And then an amazing thing happened which has never happened before. The activities of one creature became so pronounced that the holocene epoch was interrupted and ended prematurely.
The Anthropocene, like any geological epoch, can be seen in a layer of the earth's crust. The layer will be distinguished, to future observers, by its disrupted carbon and nitrogen cycles, evidence of the mass movement, or displacement, of humans, animals and plant species, manipulated landscapes, architecture, bomb tests, a fossil record dominated by chicken bones and plastics, and all the marks of a changing climate pushing beyond the Eden-like stability of the holocene.
The Anthropocene - the human epoch - is yet to be enshrined in the official geological record, because that order has its own tradition of councils and synods and moots that must be observed, especially in such rude circumstances as we find today. That we have entered, or triggered rather, a new geological epoch, is generally accepted according to Prof Mark Maslin. The question is, from when to date the beginning of the Anthropocene?
Three of the four dates suggested by Maslin and Lewis fall in the very recent time span of modernity: the European colonisation of the Americas, the industrial revolution and the Great Acceleration from 1945 into a global order of consumer capitalism. The fourth option they suggest falls a long time before these; thousands of years ago in fact, with the dawn of agricultural humanity.
The Book of Exits
See the aged siblings, Abram and Sarai, wandering together away from the place that had been their home; away from Ur of the Chaldees. See them wandering off from some ancient civilisation that had grown out of the fertile valleys of Mesopotamia and the ingenuity of the new agricultural age.
It is said that the diet of the new agricultural humanity was much worse than that of the foraging hominids that preceded them. They had moved into nutritional monocultures. What they'd lost in food diversity, they gained in environmental control. They opted for the domesticated and predictable food source. This stability, made possible by the temperate climate of the holocene, gave rise to the need to keep and protect their harvested goods. There were storehouses and walls and small cities, kings and hierarchies, currencies and methods of notation, domesticated horses and armies to ride them to war. Here was civilisation.
Abram and Sarai were called to leave it all and become nomadic. They were to birth a new generation into the counter-intuitive precarity of their nomadic way of life (they were only half-siblings and ancient tales should be allowed a little strangeness).
This is one of a series of mythic exodus tales that come in succession. The tower of Babel was before it, and after is the story of Moses liberating the slaves from hard-hearted Pharaoh, a journey from pyramids to wilderness. In these stories, the dreamlike call of the Maker always draws people away from the vertical monocultures of agricultural civilisation, out into the horizontal complexity of All Things; out into wilder-spaces; away from those pioneering engines of the Anthropocene.
The mythical narratives of the Book of Exits are painted in stark colours, set in times when the cities were young. The further the books run into history, the greyer everything becomes. Civilisation is, of course, not all bad. Or perhaps it's because the only way out is through? Or perhaps it's because the fall itself is somehow beautiful and must also be gathered up into the redemption? Whatever the case, the distant children of the wandering siblings cannot escape becoming part of the systems of kings and walls and chariots and horses that hold together agricultural civilisation, even if these were the very things the nomadic god had forbade them in the desert. The days of the tent dwellers, who recognised no kings, were a mythic memory. It is from this embedded and complex space that the psalms come to us; from deep amidst the forming plates of the anthropocene. They carry a kind of longing that runs like a river beneath awareness. A longing for a way out to the quieter complexity of the wild things of Edenic memory, and the lost epoch of the holocene.
The Book of Bare Life
I’ve grown up with the Bible. I love it. I always have done. My favourite parts have been the myths and histories, the apocalyptic visions, and the poetic burn of the Prophets. These parts were less often bastardised in sermons and worship songs. They were too strange to make use of, so they were more or less left alone.
Not so the Psalms. I would see selected snippets of them on posters of waterfalls. I would hear bits of them in sentimental praise songs. In these, the psalms were vehicles of introspective, individualistic and spiritualised self-soothing, but they read very differently on the page. On the page, it was all ancient politics and tribal warfare, ecological poesis, unabashed schadenfreude, moral perplexities and pining discontent. It took a while to undomesticate the tradition and let its earthier colours and shades emerge.
One thing that recurs with striking regularity is the quietly widening abyss between nature and culture. The religious world of my youth had not the frame to even notice this constantly reappearing trope, let alone take any interest in it. In that world, nature was more or less understood as a metaphor for the spiritual peace that an individual might find in religious belonging. It had little or no intrinsic importance.
The songs on this record are, of course, my own readings of a handful of these poems. Here, the psalms are sung and prayed in the context in which I find myself: in the Anthropocene, newly unmasked, which by some reckonings, had already begun long before the psalms were written. Tangled amidst the political intrigues of the ancient Jewish kingdoms, the psalms too are, I think, reaching for a way out of the violent, hierarchical, unjust and de-natured world that had emerged with the human fall into the agricultural age. Reading the poems on this common ground, it seems to me that we meet a character, over and over again: the god of wildness, who is juxtaposed as entirely other to the grasping political powers of states and kingdoms.
Kings and rulers would often, rather anxiously and presumptuously, associate themselves with this god, but the feeling is not returned in kind. While kings wished, and still wish, to be found with the god of the psalms, the god of the psalms is ever to be found elsewhere: with the storm, the raging oceans, the thrashing of sea monsters and the trees in the wind; with hungry lions, with the sparrows, with the sun and the stars and the changing skies; with the quietly restoring stream and with the tree upon its banks. The Creator is found amidst the undomesticated complexity of wildness; of bare life. In the psalms, the ecological life of the living planet is not a metaphor. It is a generative mystery and a non-negotiable reality. It has an outer ring which cannot be passed. It is an economy of returns that can't be meddled with. Creaturely life is the awe-philic truth that crushes all human fantasies of pride, hubris and exceptionalism. Creaturely life is filled with the Maker's love and is the unsurpassable boundary of experience.
What of kings and rulers? They are the stuff of divine laughter. They are a fool's hope of safety, security and stability. They're not to be trusted. Their armies make nothing better and make no one safer. They are the practitioners of wickedness. Their domesticated horses can't save anyone or guarantee anything. Their chariots and swords and spears will all rust and rot and burn eventually. The wild god brings an end to the wearying and constantly warlike standoff of agricultural man. The wild god will silence the supremacist's noise. The wild god will finally say, "Be still," and those places will become a desolation. The Anthropocene will give way, to something else.
It is worth contemplating the fact that, in a time when human beings had thrown their survival in with the fortunes of agricultural civilisation, the hebrews worshipped a god who revelled in halting and scattering such designs; a god who preferred tents to Stone temples.
It must be said that there are many psalms written in many voices with varying and even contrary perspectives, but, to be sure, the god of the psalms as represented in this collection is something an anarchist, a fervent disbeliever in the powers and laws which emerged as an organised approach to transgressing the outer ring of natural limits as well as the inner ring of injustice.
The Book of Returns
Visual depictions of our recent civilised life have, in certain spheres, taken the form of a single line striking an angular path across and upward. How would we explain these diagonal markings to the future? This is an iconography of triumph. It is what it is because in western cultures time goes in the direction we read, from left to right, and growth climbs upward toward the god of the skies. Always growing, always linear, and always a single story. This is how capitalist economics have been drawn. It's a story about abstract wealth, increasingly untethered from material reality. Money as raw power and shared fiction.
Recently, the economist Kate Raworth redrew the economic imagination as a circle. She noted that circular imagery is more common among indigenous cultures. These are somehow intuitively descriptive of the whole, the gestalt, unlike the linear markings of abstract progress. She envisioned two rings, an inner and an outer. The outer ring represents the material limits of the living planet. The outer ring is the cry of the earth, says my friend Sam Ewell, quoting the pope, I believe. The inner ring is the limit of human poverty; the cry of the poor, says Sam once again. Every transgression of the outer ring has a return, as we're now learning. The multitudes unceremoniously tipped into the inner ring also have a return, according to the god of the psalms. The wild god is also the poor god - the god of the poor who, it is said, will inherit the earth in the end.
In learning about the Anthropocene, I sometimes find myself party to discussions about solutions of one kind or another, and I mostly find myself rather ill at ease. The whole story quickly becomes another problem to be solved, and nothing stirs the anthropocenic demons like problem solving. We can make this more efficient in this way. We can develop technologies to do that better in that way. It's natural, to us at least, to think that we can get ourselves out of what we got ourselves into. While I really am suspicious of my own luddite tendencies, I'm at least equally suspicious of our quickness to try and solve our problems, as a way to escape having to solve what we have become. Is our exceptionalism our salvation, or the root of our troubles?
In considering those four thresholds - those four potential beginning points for the Anthropocene - we may observe a common thread. These were all sins of maximisation, each of them still in full swing today: maximised control over our food sources in the agricultural revolution; maximised access to natural resources, labour and markets in the colonial age; maximised manufacturing efficiency in the industrial revolution; maximised the stability of the consumer capitalist system in the Great Acceleration. And, since Maslin gives honourable mention to it, early humans also maximised protein intake and warmth when they learned to work in teams and hunted the large land mammals to extinction. These sins of maximisation have things in common; they have all benefited some, outsourced suffering to others, and ultimately led to a depleted life for all. But it's worth remembering that, in their time, these were solutions to problems. Some people believed they were making things better.
It's difficult to envisage how we might break our strange pattern. Are we not wired by our long natural history to always make the choices that maximise our immediate scope for survival? How could we ever become a creature that leaves some of what we find unpicked, that chooses to live in the straw house, when it's the brick one that keeps the wolf out?
I doubt we can solve our way ahead. I have a fancy that we need to become, almost, a new creature, characterised by a sort of gestalt awareness, an almost total empathy, an immersive identification of ourselves with All Things. This, I think, can only come through suffering. It comes slowly through generations identifying with the whole at a time when the whole is in protracted pain. It comes by looking upon what is pierced and pillaged and foolishly wasted, as though it were a part of ourselves. The ancestors of possibility are the bearers of stripes, the suffering servant of other possible futures. One day, the myth tells, the new Creature will be reconciled to the all in all; will feel whenever it takes that it has also been taken from; will know that whenever it gives it has also received, via whatever it has given to. To the new Creature, maximisation would make no sense. It would be like speaking to the ocean of wetness.
The book of Psalms is a book of returns. It does not understand the anthropocene - "the foolishness of the nations" - as a problem to solve. It is, rather, a bad story walking toward its own inevitable end; a scheme that takes and takes until it has hollowed itself out. There is no plan or fix. There is only to be still and know, to become creaturely again; to become the kind of creature that grows by the river and becomes a home for the birds; to embody the exit of the nomadic siblings, even in the fraught cities, until the cities themselves become nomadic. There is only the breaking of vows to power, vocal empathy with suffering, and revolutionary patience.
When communism fell in eastern Europe, Francis Fukuyama declared the triumph of capitalism "the end of history." I read another idea in a Giorgio Agamben essay, The Open. Here it was noted that history began when homo-sapiens distinguished themselves as non-animal creatures, with tools and learning and art and language. He referred to a visual depiction of the messianic age, found in a hebrew bible from the thirteenth century, in which humans were drawn with animal heads. Perhaps it followed that the disquiet of history would find peace when the human creature becomes reconciled to their animal nature. When they are able to enjoy whatsoever is peculiar to their kind, having relinquished their exceptionalism and the spiralling imbalances that follow from it. Perhaps the end of history stands before us at the back door of the anthropocene; there where the all-in-allness, the gestalt awareness awaits; there where the wild god makes merry.
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