The Recent Unpleasantness

This fall the mythography of our country suffered a significant loss. A place went missing. A pastoral room has vanished. Lake Wobegon is no more. After forty years of more or less continuous weekly radio reports Garrison Keillor has hung up his microphone and the landscape and community he made has fallen silent. He created a place that represented the way we were, or at least imagine we might have been, in some rural outpost in Central Minnesota where the seasons were often the protagonist and where the human population was deeply embedded in some version of the natural world – their personal foibles or crises mere arabesques on the immutable presence that is the Prairie.

Across the continent, another voice fell silent that also represented a mythic place – a pastoral village green where simple games of stick and ball are played. Vin Scully retired from calling Dodger games. Never mind that the L.A. stadium represents the hyper-commercial aggrandizement of that simple game, nor that the development of the stadium in the early 1960’s destroyed an established community in Chavez Ravine with little regard for its resident’s welfare: this was the demise of another (white male) voice that enshrined a pastoral, conservative, and not entirely coincidentally, a Christian world view – but which ultimately celebrated the mythic power of a place to which it provided an aural anchor in times of profound transience.

I owe both men a debt of gratitude: they have voiced an important part of the sonic background to the three and a half decades of my acculturation to this remarkable feat of the imagination: the United States of America. 

Now, a great transgressive act has occurred within this heady construct. Swept away in the yearlong Opéra bouffe culminating in the second Tuesday of November, were two dynasties containing three Presidents, a Secretary of State, a Governor and a CIA director along with their Washington courtiers, and retinues from Florida, Texas, Kennebunkport and Chappaqua via Little Rock, Arkansas: all having faithfully served mammon and Empire while outwardly maintaining the appearance of divisive partisanship. Both families successfully fulfilled their role in what amounts to electoral authoritarianism (the technique much favored by third-world countries whereby multi-party elections are held, but in circumstances so prescribed that they become instruments of authoritarianism rather than democracy). The genius of the American system, as has often been noted, is that it consists of two major parties both dedicated to the needs of the deep state and both determined to effectively silence alternative, so-called third, parties. These two familial bastions of this exclusionary system have now been vanquished.

In this we can rejoice. Yet they exit the stage still trailing the clouds of havoc they wreaked upon the world. We wait to see how dark is the instrument of their comeuppance. One thing is certain: the old religion is dead, the new is upon us. 

The World Value Survey (conducted by a consortium of social scientists from around the world) locates national values along two axes: vertically (y) from Traditional values to Secular-rational values and horizontally (x) from Survival values to Self-expression values. Sweden resides in splendid isolation at the top right hand corner of the chart and a cluster of Pakistan, Zimbabwe, Jordan and Morocco at the bottom left. The USA lurks in the bottom third of the ‘y’ axis, favoring traditional values, but is to the far right of the ‘x’ axis, favoring the values of self-expression. Despite the keening of liberals, we have just experienced a beautiful expression of this metadata. We have, indeed, demonstrated the vitality of our democracy, for the demos, or the villages, have spoken and their standard bearer is about to be installed in the White House. While many fear that we are about to suffer under an ochlocracy, or mob rule, (one of the three systems of government that classical Greek thinkers derided as evil, along with oligarchy and tyranny) the recent unpleasantness demonstrated that the system is, after all, not irretrievably rigged.

Despite the dastardly deeds of the Democratic National Committee in defeating what it perceived as an inappropriate choice as their candidate and an equally nefarious campaign waged to ensure the selection by the opposition of a candidate it believed was so flawed as to be unelectable, our democracy prevailed – and our imaginations are now newly challenged to remake our Union.

I accept that as a white male pontificating on such matters from on high, or at least reasonably high in the Topatopa foothills of Ojai, in Southern California, I inhabit a position of great privilege. I am unlikely to be amongst the first cohort to be shadowed by the darkness many perceive to have befallen our nation. What I can authentically do is to continue what I have been doing for the last seven years, but with a renewed energy; that is, to write of a particular place, the Urbanwildland, in the spirit of those writers (from Jefferson and Thoreau, to Edward Abbey, Ursula le Guin and Leslie Marmon Silko and beyond) who have, in the life of this nation, clearly seen that our relationship to the land is crucial to the way in which we arrange our society.

Any creative writing practice is unlikely to exert direct influence on scientific or technological developments, even less on public policy and little or none on the political process. Yet if, as Lawrence Buell suggests in The Environmental Imagination, Harvard, 1995, “there is an emerging culture of environmental concern” some part of that culture is likely open to the persuasive power of the literary process. Many of us who labor (however sporadically) in this vineyard seek an end to the ideologies of neoliberalism and more broadly of the rhetoric and mythos of ‘progress’ and seek to foster an embrace of green thinking which might value cooperation rather than competition, the community rather than the individual and diversity rather than conformity. Our political crisis (if such it is) is ultimately transcended by our environmental crisis: reimagining the natural world and our relationship to it is a necessary first step in the resolution of the secular affairs of state.

Early November, early morning, preternaturally warm; the sun barely over the Santa Paula ridge, my shadow long, flaring towards the ocean; skin riffled by the Santa Ana winds – fire winds. The pasture I am moving across is flushed with green after the first rains of the season; part of my attention is caught by the mounding turkey mullein along the track, but the particularities of place are swamped by that long promised transcendence which arises from an engagement with the natural world –for this moment, the minutiae of our social arrangements fall away, lost in the eternity of the empyrean.

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John Davis is an architect living in southern California. He blogs at Urban Wildland

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