My grandfather tells me stories.
When winters came through the jack pine barrens of northwest Minnesota with such tenacity that the world was washed away. Disappeared in a violent white. -50 wind-chill, 80mph winds. They tied a rope from the door of the house to the barn so that they could find their way through the snow blind to feed the cattle. The creek below the hill, tucked back in a low slough shrouded by white pine, would stay open and running through the winter months. They boiled the frigid waters. Wandered bleary eyed in the morning to fill a basin. A kitchen saturated in the smell of woodsmoke and side pork.
Sometimes he talks about those ancient beasts that were so commonplace to his prior universe. Characters not only roaming the scablands of the post-depression era but of his heart. His eyes impart a depth when he gets to these parts of the tale.
He describes the Prairie Chicken.
A small beast. A mostly ground-dwelling bird, about the size of a small chicken (and similar shape, hence the name). “Well we used to just lean right out the windows of our car at times,” he admits. “They would be feeding in the cornfield, see, and we would just lean right out the window and pop em off. That was the last time I ever saw one around here, actually. I stopped on the way home and popped one and drove up and down the road, because it was illegal to shoot them even at that time. Then I took home. A dark meat. Really good eating. But I think about it now, and that was the last we ever saw of em. Beautiful birds too. You don’t see them now. Not at all.”
But I did see a Prairie Chicken recently. Oddly enough, near the very cornfield my grandfather remembers shooting the last chicken he ever saw. I saw the little bird making its way below the spruce at the rim of the field, its plumage dark and luxurious. It was bent low and scrounging for grub. I did not think about it enough when I saw it: that it may be the place of the last Prairie Chicken I ever see, too.
The Greater Prairie Chicken was a colorful bird once commonplace in Western Minnesota. Although it was first thought to dominate only the American midwest, “blocking out the sun” of the Great Plains and the tall-grass prairie. But forks and fingers of the tallgrass prairie reach throughout North Dakota, western Minnesota, and into the southern tallgrass plains of Manitoba, and one way or another the birds made their way into the furthest reaches of the northern prairie. There is debate as to when and how the birds came to exist there, but all the same, they did.
Today, it is rare to find a Greater Prairie Chicken anywhere, but even rarer in western Minnesota. I have that image of the bird frozen in my mind now, but already it’s melting away. Turning fuzzy. Just like the conifer bog where I laid eyes on it, my memory of the Prairie Chicken will continue to change, to shrink, and to blur, until one day, it will not be a memory at all, but a story, a half-true yarn, kept in a half-true history, shrouded and dust-covered in some corner of my failing mind.
Wild animals and the landscapes they live in have occupied their own wonderful, innate, and sometimes fearful position in the human heart. For thousands of years they were central to understanding of our understanding of the universe. We saw the world as an inherently wild place. The world was Cormac McCarthy’s Mexico: there was no order in it “save that which death has put there.”
Things have changed.
When our new generations view the world, they see it through the lens of an android, not the eyes of an animal. No other shift in perception has changed the world more. Not first wave feminism, neo-liberalism, or even capitalism. It was however the primary shift that engendered these movements: we saw ourselves as awaking from a nasty, brutish chrysalis into some new beautiful meta-human. Spiritually, we witnessed ourselves ascend from the status of half-man, half-animal, into a half-man half-angel. Today we can update that viewpoint one step further to half-man half-machine. We are androidian.
Although this shift from animal to android brought unprecedented wealth to certain parts of civilization, it had cataclysmic effects on our wilderness. The wild inordinate world is no longer our psychological foreground. It is an afterthought. A mythic place set in the past.
Nothing could put our wild environments in a more precarious position. Wilderness still exists, though much of our government sponsored “environmentalists” claim the opposite. But it exists as a kind of waking dream. It is a place that embodies collectively our past but no part of our future: from the very origin of our species to the second Industrial Revolution. Yet it does not, in our new androidian hive-mind, represent anything resembling the world we see as our present and future. What has occurred is that the present-future vectors of our psychology have been cleaved in two. There is present-future on one temporal axis, and past on another. In our hyper-technological world, present-future can be lumped into one category. We remind ourselves of this ontology often in the expression, “the future is now.”
Somehow, however, the past has been shoved into a state of perpetual extinction. It is waning away; we are weaning ourselves off it like a teenager leaving the comfort of their parent’s guidance. As a result, there is very little hope that wilderness will survive into the future; it is effectively gated out of the dominant human world-view. It is set in a temporal landscape that looks like a cemetery. Everything is declared dead there regardless of its taciturn locus in the present. Its purpose in the present-future complex is simply to remind us that a past existed at all.
Think about this. The future has not happened yet, but it can be shaped by what is occurring in the present. That is why they are being seen as interconnected elements. But the past is gone. It is inert. It is a fossil.
Our wild places and our wild societies are being fossilized before they’re even dead.
Although it may seem like a natural psychological progression given humanity’s “progress”, but we must remember that this is progress designed by the colonial industrial ruling class. In fact, we can really begin to see how insidious this mindset is when we admit to ourselves that the whole of the world’s population of indigenous peoples fits into this categorical past-life as well. Along with the wild world they have built their societies around, indigenous people are being sent to the gulags and gas chambers of civilization’s past, right along with the staples of their worldviews: wilderness.
When wilderness and our last standing wild places are placed in a world that, to dominant industrial culture, stands outside of our current and future realm, it stands no chance of survival. The psychological schism we are creating in the new generations will the last damnation it could possibly suffer. They have already forgotten wilderness. Their idea of environmentalism looks more like gardening and shopping splurges at Trader Joe’s than it does the actual environments they pretend to somehow represent. The past is not the past if it is still living today.
Let me be perfect clear here. What I am describing is the psychological finishing touches on a thousand-year old genocide that will finally be finished when our new generations come to fruition in the world. The industrial ruling class has weaponized everything to this end. To finish off and decimate that last annoying splinters of the earth’s natural world so that the new “present-future” view of the earth can take over in totality. We are weaponized. Our industries are weaponized.
“The past is never where you left it.” Katherine Anne Porter