If we surrendered to Earth’s intelligence, we could rise up, rooted like trees.
— Rainier Maria Rilke
Look at a map of the United States, locate the big-ass rectangle near the east coast that is Pennsylvania, place your index finger smack dab in the center of that, and you’ll be pointing right at my home.
Central Pennsylvania. Amish country. The nearest city is a 45-minute drive east or west. Small towns— villages, really— polka-dot the bucolic landscape on the commute, marred not infrequently by roadkill, Confederate flags, and Trump signs. Aside from ridiculously marked-up tchotchkes, evidence for your friends that you visited the country, you won’t find many businesses selling anything a full-time city-dweller would find useful.
You can avail yourself of offerings from a scattering of mom & pop-owned ice cream shops, pizza joints, the tchotchke dealers, and an assortment of farm-related businesses, but if you’re after clothing that’s not Carhartt, modern furniture, entertainment of any kind, or at least a three-star dining experience involving legit Thai, Indian, sushi, or a tasty burrito, then a trek to the city is requisite.
When most people fantasize about escaping city life for the country, they likely imagine leaving behind an hour-plus commute stuck in traffic. But a move to the country precipitates even more time logged behind the wheel, although arguably a more pleasant drive. These days, when I get stuck in traffic it looks something like this:
My partner Cory and I, along with our four kids, live in a log cabin in the woods. In addition to the kids, we are responsible for the well-being of 24 animals: two dogs, four cats, one potbellied pig, five ducks, one asshole rooster, five chickens, and six guinea pigs.
Our cabin is surrounded by a cathedral of eastern hemlock and white pine that tickle the sky when the wind blows in from the west. The whispery roar of wind rushing through trees and rustling leaves is not unlike the distant crash of ocean waves undulating into your earholes while you doze on the beach. That precise sound has so enchanted people throughout the ages that a word was invented to describe that very specific sonic blurring of the border between music and noise.
Psithurism. The P is silent. The word is pronounced sith-ur-izm. Say it out loud. You know you want to. I suggest whispering it into an onomatopoeia.
Can you hear the wind inciting leaves into a jitterbug of celebration? Can you feel the retiring evening sun warming your soul?
“When the sense of the earth unites with the sense of one’s body, one becomes earth of the earth, a plant among plants, an animal born from the soil and fertilizing it. In this union, the body is confirmed in its pantheism.”
If you don’t have directions, you’re liable to pass the turn from the main highway onto the road that leads to our place once or twice before clocking it’s what you’re looking for. Even with directions, you’ll second-guess yourself as you veer onto the dusty-in-summer, muddy-in-winter dirt road leading between the harness shop and the quaint, white clapboard Amish house featuring a rainbow of towels, sheets, Amish suits and dresses, and sundry unmentionables flapping gently in the breeze.
We can’t see our nearest neighbor, but we know he’s there. At first, it was reassuring, but nearly four years into this rural living endeavor, the notion of a close neighbor imperceptibly traveled the distance between comfort and too close for comfort. At this rate, I’ll soon be greeting unfamiliar vehicles by stepping onto the porch pumping a shotgun.
State yer business.
I was scared to move here. There is no internet service, a dealbreaker in its own right. Yes, believe it! There are still spots on the Facebooked green Earth the internet has neglected. We have a hotspot that’s so irregular it should be called notspot. Hot-spotty?
Mostly I don’t mind the shit service. It’s something for which I am grateful and annoyed in equal measure. You’d be surprised by what you can acclimate to when the choice is taken away. The panorama of possibility that widens before you when the option to watch TV or crawl into your computer disappears is thrilling once the irritation subsides.
I’ve never lived without neighbors on all sides. Yet as we toured the cabin that July afternoon, the humidity-enhanced stench of the previous tenant’s cat piss hotly assaulting my nostrils, something deep in my bones told me this was where I needed to be. Cory had a similar reaction. We drove away that afternoon with a deep sense of knowing. This was what we were looking for.
My bones knew. My gut knew. My heart knew. My mind was a whirl of anxious what-ifs propelled by malodorous cat pee, but my body was right. Always trust your body, my therapist says. Somatic. Just as a physical body holds on to stress, tension, and trauma, it also knows a good thing. A right thing.
If you think of it, pay more attention to your body throughout the day. When you’re driving, are your shoulders hunched up to your earlobes? On the phone with your mom? Is your chest tight? Stomach hurt? Inversely, what or who causes your body to relax? Your brain thinks it knows everything, but it can learn a lot from your body.
“We do not ‘come into’ this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean ‘waves,’ the universe ‘peoples.’ Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe.”
As the climate crisis became top of mind for many of us, one thing keeps popping into my head. We have forgotten that we humans ARE nature, not separate from it. The insinuation of religion into nearly every aspect of life has caused many of us to believe we transport to the planet from an enchanted elsewhere. Unique gifts courtesy of an omniscient, Santa Clausian God and his army of angels. Special, individual beings elevatored down to Earth from a dreamy preexistence, lazing on cotton ball clouds until our souls are magically injected directly into the clump of cells multiplying in our mother’s womb. Give or take a doctrine, depending on the denomination, and that’s the general gist, yeah? Even if not religious, some kind of otherworldly human origin notion seems to pervade general thought.
I’ve logged hundreds of hours sitting in my yard, surrounded by trees, bushes, grasses, birds, butterflies, all manner of animals and bugs doing their thing. The miracle is not a magic man in the sky zapping life into existence with an authoritative point of his sausage finger, but that any of this exists at all. The way I like to see it, we grow from the Earth, like trees. Or maybe Earth is the tree; we are its leaves, and human life is a season. Sprout, grow, dance in the wind, wither and die. As that rascal Alan Watts said, “We do not ‘come into’ this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree.”
“Interbeing,” a fantastic term coined by Thich Nhat Hanh, holds that all phenomena are interdependent. Whatever is, comes into existence because of factors and conditions created by other phenomena. Existence is a vast nexus of causes and conditions, constantly changing, and everything is interconnected to everything else. All phenomena inter-exist.
He explained this with an incredible simile called Clouds in Each Paper.
If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow: and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are.
Humans have spent so much time frantically building layers between our bodies and nature. At first, it was necessary to protect us from life-threatening elements, but as with most human endeavors, we’ve gone too far. Many of us spend our time boxed away in houses and office buildings, never experiencing true wilderness at all.
In his insistence on reinforcing gender stereotypes, patriarchal structures, and hierarchies, man has firmly positioned himself in an epic battle with a natural world he has feminized. No surprise that men running the show for millennia view themselves as having to conquer or subjugate that which they have labeled woman. The key is subjection, not subjugation, for woman and nature alike.
Man vs. (Mother) Nature.
Battling the elements.
Fucking man. Always looking for a fight or, even better, a war. Everywhere you turn, he is stacking the deck, tipping the balance in his favor, and the natural world suffers as a result. The irony of mankind attempting to conquer nature by constructing phallic skyscrapers anywhere a green patch has the audacity to exist, even as he is slowly, incrementally killing the planet, should not escape anyone. Man has a lengthy resume of fucking himself over, even as congratulatory backslaps are issued in celebration of “progress.” The rest of us interbeings? Collateral damage.
The incessant genderizing of actions, as well as arbitrarily asserting masculinity to the point of toxicity, isn’t just screwing society, but is hurting nature, and something scientists are actually trying to quantify.
Based on statistics that show women litter less and recycle more, a team of researchers wanted to figure out if the average man has an aversion to environmentally-friendly behavior. They asked 2,000 men in the US and China to rate various actions and products as masculine or feminine. They found that men were more likely to rate environmentally friendly actions and products as feminine and choose environmentally harmful activities and products as a way to reassert their masculinity.
This bears out in my own experience. Cory is a carpenter who is regularly surrounded by a crew of men. On the receiving end of random masculine aggression, he has been mocked for ordering a vegetarian sandwich, using an electric chainsaw instead of its gas-guzzling counterpart, and for not driving a big enough pick-up truck. No lie.
Those confederate flags I mentioned earlier? They’re not just flapping from houses— they’re on those big enough pick-up trucks. The kind of truck driver who’s rollin’ coal, as they call it.
Rolling coal is when a fella of a certain type tricks out his truck to send targeted plumes of thick black smoke billowing from his rig into the air and often directly into the faces of unsuspecting pedestrians and cyclists. These roaring smoke machines are often used to spite environmentalists, according to the New York Times.
Rolling coal notwithstanding, I don’t miss the city. I regularly travel to New York City to visit friends, and for that hit of citified energy only NYC gives me. Even though I feel the same electricity tingling my chest and buzzing my bones as I did when I lived in Brooklyn in my twenties, I don’t want to live there now.
Living close to the dirt, surrounded by free-roaming animals and trees vibrating with birds and critters hasn’t just changed me, but deeply altered the way I perceive the world, the universe, and our place within. Crawling in pungent spring mud, hunting for morel mushrooms, or experiencing the dizzying vastness of space when contemplating a night sky has connected me to humanity in ways I never dreamed possible from the obsessively manicured suburban uniformity of my youth, or even the intoxicating pandemonium of New York City.
There is a kind of exhaustive, doorbell-ready attitude required for suburban living. Anyone at any time can pull into your driveway and knock on your door. If you’re filled with social anxiety like me, you live in constant, low-grade fear of a pop-in. Doorbells are alarm bells.
City living is a similarly performative existence. When you aren’t in your box, you’re on display. Whether consciously acknowledging it or not, you’ve got to hit all the marks society requires of a functioning human. I am a human. See me human-ing. Features arranged in your version of impassive normalcy as you wait for the subway, stroll sidewalks or stand in an elevator. City life requires your limbic system to be on constant alert for the kind of bizarre city fuckery, with which citified folk are well acquainted.
There is no human performance within nature. Nature is the star. You can just be. Over time, without knowing it, the compulsive performance drains from your system like infected pus from a wound, resulting in a bone-deep relaxation, difficult to articulate to a socially conditioned, full-time city dweller.
Look deep into nature and you will understand everything better.
One minute, you’re a nighthawk who can’t imagine a Netflix-less evening and in a flash, you’re waking up to rooster crows at five in the morning, sliding your feet into boots, filling up a pitcher of water at the kitchen sink because the goddamn hose is frozen again, and tromping out in seven below zero air as two or three cats weave around your feet, delightedly racing you through the snow.
Amid the gentle animal chatter, I breathe deeply, inhaling the brisk winter air, then watch my breath leave my body in spectral puffs. I look up at stars so sparkly and brilliant it makes my chest ache in wonder. Shadowy pines swaying in the soft breeze form a protective circle around me as they stretch arms into the inky sky, reaching for the universe.
Night and stars and trees and animals and me. All swirled up in a cosmic explosion of pulsing energy. How many people before me stood in the purply morning contemplating such things? I feel incredibly awake. Aware. Alive. Simultaneously supergalactic and deeply rooted to the Earth, and whatever magnificent energy unites us all: humans, trees, animals, birds, dirt humming with worms and bugs.
I break up the ice that forms on water bowls, slip the sleepy, hay-covered pig an apple, and let him huff his warm thanks into my palm. I open the gates to release the chickens and ducks into their day and toss some grain while keeping a vigilant eye out for the asshole rooster who gets off on sneak-attacking, even though I’m the one who feeds him every single morning and night.
And I fucking love it.
Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead
On Writing by Stephen King
Molly Minta on Mississippi’s only class on critical race theory for Mississippi Today.
Roxane Gay on Joe Rogan and the difference between curation and censorship for the NY Times.
Jennifer Miller on what college students really think of cancel culture for The Atlantic.